In laying out this tour, I planned to ride to Jackson, OH (Navy friend) from Pittsburgh PA, then north to Flushing MI (cousin). A nice flat run across southern Ontario would put me on the Eire Canal Trail. After visiting another cousin in Rochester NY, I hoped to ride down the Hudson River to see my brother near the New York/New Jersey border. The clockwise route would give me more descents than climbs and put me conveniently in a position to take the train home, or ride down the Eastern Shore.
While I slept in Hoboken on Saturday night, a car ploughed into a power pylon near Trenton on the northeast passenger train corridor. This event was not worthy of new alerts in the crowded metropolis that stretches from the Hudson River to the Delaware Bay.
On May Day (Sunday, 1 May) after the Tour, I booked my bike and myself on the Amtrak Pennsylvanian from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh the next day.
On Monday morning, I rode to the NJ Transit station in Hoboken and boarded the train to Philadelphia, which involved switching in Secaucus. When I arrived in the main lobby to look for my train south, the schedule boards were rapidly flying to the “cancelled” position.
The customer service representative explained the collision Saturday night, and how the power would not be restored to the tracks for several days. ALL trains between Newark and Trenton were cancelled.
Time to create Plan B. After looking at the map, I went back to Customer Service. The representative told me that I had a ticket all the way to Trenton, so I could go anywhere with it. I called my brother, cancelled my Amtrak reservation, and got back on the same train from Hoboken that I had boarded earlier. I got off in Harriman NY, which was only 14 km from the Bellvale Bruderhof, where my brother and some of his family lived (Bruderhof means “brothers’ house” in German).
The morning turned into a pleasant, sunny day, with cool air to offset the sweat induced by the hills. I rode into “downtown” Harriman, which features a stop sign at either end of the one block. Lunch at the only open retailer: a deli/convenience store. Fueled and ready, I rode the empty roads past woods and farms, climbing ever-steeper hills until I arrived at Bellvale.
There followed three wonderful days with my brother David, his wife Sally, nephew Matt, niece Joëlle, and various great-nephews and great-nieces. David and Sally have been members of the Bruderhof for more than fifty years, raising ten children and countless grandchildren in the UK and US. The group tries to live the Sermon of the Mount, holding all material things in community, devoting themselves to work and prayer in the best monastic tradition, and to raising their children. Think of a convent or monastery that one may join as an individual or as a family. They are avowed pacifists, which forced them to flee Germany and other countries as World War II approached.
Today they have hofs all over the world. Some have hundreds of members living on farms; the smallest might be in a three-story home in an inner city. The larger hofs school their own children until high school. Teenagers within an hour of Esopus NY bus to an academy on the Hudson.
Outside their hofs, the group are best known as the makers of Community Playthings, rugged, high-quality hardwood nursery furniture and classroom accessories, and for Plough Publishing, which publishes spiritual and wellness literature by a wide range of authors. They also consult with other communities in different faith traditions, especially on conflict resolution. One niece has travelled to kibbutzim and others to intentional religious communities in Italy and Asia to do this work. I think of it as constructive, active pacifism, because even pacifists can piss off one another. Conflict is part of our shared humanity.
A visit to my relatives in the Bruderhof is always a relaxing and happy affair. When I can stay more than overnight, they invite me to work alongside the others. My task this time was to assemble boxes for shipping high chairs, bookcases and other things. David was in charge of the section of the factory floor where we worked. Like other manufacturers, the Bruderhof was working with accordion-like supply and transportation issues, even though they make most of their own components. David kept the list of tasks up to date, so that we could concentrate on backlogged items when a last missing piece came in. I never felt so valuable as we cleared backlogs of days in a matter of an hour or two, or avoided a potential bottleneck by taking in a delivery of whatevers and finishing up the completed items just in time to ship.
I chuckled to myself when David assigned me to my first task: making up boxes and filling them. Just before leaving for this tour, I had spent ten days doing just that as my son Daniel and I packed and moved his belongings to his new flat.
The skies darkened as we worked. On the second day, it turned cold and rainy. My next stop was Kingston NY, halfway up the Hudson to Albany.
David suggested that I stop at Maple Ridge, the Bruderhof where our mother had spent her last years.
“Pull some dandelions for me and visit her grave,” he said.
We did not have relatives at Maple Ridge anymore, though I was very familiar with the place from the years that nephews and nieces had grown up there. The idea of stopping appealed to me. One phone call to the “guest brother” at Maple Ridge set it up.
On Thursday, the 5th of May, dark clouds and headwinds obviated the need for sunscreen as I pushed my way north-northeast through the rolling hills west of the Hudson River. The bicycle touring literature (New York Parks and Trails, Rail-Trail Conservancy, etc.) made much of the “wonderful” Wallkill Rail Trail.
On the map it did look ideal, but it proved worse than simply being unpaved. Most of it was not graded or groomed. In the rain of the recent days, it had turned into an impassable channel of deep mud.
Fortunately, the roads were not crowded, and boasted smooth pavement and good sight lines where there were no shoulders or bike lanes. Even after it began raining lightly, I enjoyed my eighty-kilometre ride to Ulster Park. Reuben met me, and got me settled. I took wildflowers (dandelions) from David, Daniel, and me to Mom’s grave.
Another thing that distinguishes the Bruderhof is the way that the generations grow and live together. Elders are treated with respect. Infirmities are accommodated, not by isolation, but by adjusting the workload, so that everyone continues to do what they still can. Single adults are detailed to live with families, so no one is alone with a crowd of kids or a needy grandmother.
The cemetery is a work of art. Our mother’s grave was one of the recent ones, but all the sites showed signs of regular visits. I’m not one to care about my physical leftovers, but the sight of those graves struck me as monuments to so many lives well lived. I left the flowers, kneeled for some prayer, and carried Mom and my other ancestors with me back into the world.
The next day promised to be another washout, and it would take me two days to ride to Albany. I had done this last summer, when the remnants of Hurricane Henri had pushed the rivers and the canal over their banks and soaked Cheryl and me to the bone.
Amtrak train 281 passed through Poughkeepsie at a convenient 11:43 in the morning, so I told Ben I would ride to the station and try to get aboard before the skies opened up. He aced that plan by driving me to the station and leaving me there well before the train. I enjoyed breakfast in town and coasted to the station just as the first drops fell.
As I hoped, the train pushed through the front, so that I alit in Rochester NY under clear skies, with plenty of daylight left.
Cousin Erik was working, but he had given me the codes for his building. I had just settled into the guest room when he came home from work.
Rochester is one of my favourite cities in North America. It has wealth from the Industrial Revolution. The names of many of its major players adorn our homes today, like Kodak, Eastman, and Bausch & Lomb. On either side of the Genesee River (which the Erie Canal crosses), one can visit Eastman School of Music, the Susan B. Anthony House, the Eastman Museum, or ride up to Lake Ontario through the suburb of Irondequoit. Supper at a waterside restaurant in the Finger Lakes District is always a hit.
Even the poorer sections of Rochester seem prosperous compared to like neighbourhoods in other towns. The buildings are older, there is more broken asphalt on the streets, but the vibe is not as depressing as I found in other cities.
I would move there but for one thing: the winters are brutal, with lake-effect snows, and weeks on end of freezing rain. I was born and raised in gentler climes, and most of my travels have been in the Mediterranean, Hawaii and the desert. Thank you, Rochester, I’ll be back in the summer!
Of course, such weather extremes feel balmy to Erik from Nova Scotia, so he will be there when I ride by.
Last year, we visited the big sights, so this year, I enjoyed trying new places. I sampled the restaurants downtown and worked on Desert Crossing, the third book in the Emily & Hilda trilogy, which I hoped to finish while on tour.
I stayed through the weekend. On Monday, I packed up the bicycle, took the lift to the street level, and rolled west into the major bicycling segment of this adventure.
Come back in a couple of weeks to see how that worked out. 😉
Smooth roads and tailwinds,
Jonathan I love this adventure of yours, especially the history of your family. It made me feel at peace even with all this craziness going on in this world. Thank You!
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Thank you, Shirley.
Interesting to read your impressions of Rochester, NY. Just recently I came across this article (published a year ago) about Rochester and the Eastman Kodak company.
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Thanks for that link. Very interesting article.
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