On May 30th, 2013, I loaded Shermy once again and rode over the George Washington bridge and away from New York City. At my back was three months in a city I had quickly grown to enjoy. In my heart emotions knotted tightly with excitement. And ahead was the first stage of what would eventually prove to be the best summer I can remember. I was headed for Michigan on a route I’d been passively considering ever since taking the bus backwards and forwards from Michigan to New York the year before. Having cobbled together a plan based loosely around recognized bike routes, I arranged to meet Liz in Michigan, got on my bike and rode it.
Touring in the US is really easy and incredible fun. Every amenity a cyclist should need is usually close at hand, there is plenty of space for camping and most people speak a language similar to my own. In view of this it’s pretty easy to travel light. I didn’t travel light. Liz and I had tickets booked from Michigan to London. I was going to go home for the first time since May 2010 and I was going to take all my stuff with me. The cheapest and easiest (seeing as I’ve carried it over 15,000 miles already) way to get my belongings from NYC to the flight home was by bike. So I rode fully loaded up until meeting Liz at her Dad’s house near Traverse City, Michigan. There I shed some gear and gained a riding companion. Liz and her bike, Juniper (aka Junebug) joined me for the final 350 miles up to her Mum’s place in Marquette, on the majestic shores of Lake Superior.
The route involved 1,500 miles of riding through the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Over its entirety I put in 24 days of riding. Although I had a time limit I never considered the riding to be challenging and in general took a pretty casual approach. All the time I was cycling solo I either wild camped or accepted hospitality from kind and helpful strangers. It continues to astound me how good and very kind the people of the US generally are. A quality perfectly complimenting the beauty of their landscapes.
Before setting off I had some work to do on Shermy. On my ride through Costa Rica and Panama progress had been blighted by breaking rear spokes. By the end of my time in Central America I was losing a couple a day. This was at least an annoying little problem. In New York I endeavored to get the back wheel rebuilt with new spokes and nipples and set about finding someone with the experience and track record that I trusted to do the job. It is something I have done myself in the past but this time I was determined to get the best wheel possible. Rohloff hubs have unusual spoke length requirements and specific elbow diameter stipulations, so I had a new batch of spokes and nipples sent over from the UK. These I handed to Dave Perry, expert mechanic and bicycle historian at Bike Works NYC on the Lower East Side. I did a lot of research to find the right man for the job and it paid off. Dave built me a great wheel. Bike Works is a fantastic little shop run by a fun and infinitely knowledgeable crew. It has the kind of atmosphere I look for around bicycles and I only wish I’d found these guys earlier. If you’re in New York, go to Bike Works NYC.
With a newly built back wheel and chunky new Old Man Mountain Pioneer front rack we set off across the Hudson River. A beautiful hot and clear morning, New York and New Jersey looked great when I left them.
I set off north out of New York City, cycling 30 miles on the west banks of the Hudson before cutting west into Harriman State Park. This stunning collection of lakes, woodland and hills is the second largest state park in New York. I pitched camp in the trees on the western edge of the park.
On my second morning I passed by an Ice Cream parlor sporting a slogan I support.
I found the New York back roads to be in excellent condition, quiet and subtly picturesque.
Just after lunch on Day 2 I left New York and entered New Jersey. Within a few hundred yards progress was stopped by a puncture. The going was hot and tough for it. Soon I found myself taking shelter in an air-conditioned dentists office. They packed me off with complimentary tooth pasts, brushes, mouth wash, chewing gum and strangely for a dentists, chocolate and biscuits.
A slog uphill into High Point State Park and my path crossed that of the Appalachian hiking trail. A mile down the road I retreated into the woods and set camp.
The scorching weather continued into Day 3. My morning started with a cooling down hill cruise out of High Point State Park down to the Delaware River.
The Delaware River marks the border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
My first port of call in Pennsylvania was the town of Milford. My first task in Pennsylvania was to find a grocery store and treat myself to a second breakfast. It is both one of the best and worst aspects of cycle touring that a greasy onion ring sandwich and Pepsi can be enjoyed for breakfast.
Just through Milford I was confronted by this giant billboard, a gun store advertising with the slogan ‘Look good while you’re killing shit’. Some people say that the US has an unhealthy cultural attachment to firearms. I have to admit that this billboard shocked and saddened me for its size, language and sentiment.
The majority of my time in Pennsylvania was spent on PA State Bicycle Route Y. This basically follows Route 6 across state. The road was big and busy in places and small and winding in others. Taking logical detours onto smaller roads whenever possible I found the route to be pleasant enough. It was quick although a bit boring at times. This particular hill came just after a detour from the main road that ran close to Waymart correctional facility. I stood on the hill watching inmates circle the recreation yard and pondering my freedom.
For about 40 miles my route bordered the Susquehanna River. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of it as Route 6 was particularly busy for this section so I escaped onto smaller roads.
On Day 5 I stopped for lunch in the town of Troy and found myself seduced by the local ice-cream parlor. When asked what size cone I wanted I forgot what country I was in and ordered a large. This was the biggest ice-cream cone I have ever seen. Needless to say it kept me riding at speed until camp.
The scenery was what I had always expected of Pennsylvania. Everything was green and rolling, whether farmland or forest. Temperatures had cooled slightly but the blue skies remained. Perfect riding conditions.
Day 5 ended camped behind the middle of three storage units just outside Whitneyville. I thought it was a good find until a steady flow of people started visiting their units. I learnt that rural Pennsylvanian folk are quite uncomfortable about the presence of crazy eyed hairy cyclists around their units. I also learnt that rural Pennsylvanians have a penchant for visiting their storage units late at night on loud motorcycles.
My sixth day on the route was one of the finest. I detoured south taking the Pine Creek Rail Trail through the Grand Canyon of PA from Darling Run to Cedar Run Bridge. The scenery from the trail was simply glorious. A clear blue sky, wild flowers, beautiful trees, shallow flowing clear waters, fly fishermen and other recreational cyclists. I was so incredibly happy to be a cycle tourist.
Stopping for lunch by the Creek at Blackwell, I washed myself and my clothes. I was away from vehicle traffic, riding through a stunning valley and now a little cleaner. Surly things could get any better. They did… I came face to face with a little Black Bear. They’re cute when small and running away from you!
I left the Pine Creek Trail and headed north on Leetonia Road through Tioga State Forest. With no traffic I really enjoyed this small unpaved road through tiny isolated settlements and picturesque forest. I couldn’t believe how good a condition the road was in until I caught up with the two guys who were busy grading it.
Much of Leetonia road runs alongside the tranquil Cedar Run.
It was a genuine thrill to be camped up in the Tioga State Forest. Things felt wild and isolated.
Progressing along Route 6 was a bit dull after the unadulterated joys of the Grand Canyon of PA and Tioga Forest. Here I reached the highest point of my route, Denton Hill.
My 9th day on the road turned out to be quite an exciting one. I awoke to pouring rain and it continued to come down hard all day. I was riding through Allegheny National Forest which should have been pretty but I couldn’t see anything. The only slight break came upon reaching Allegheny Reservoir.
Having passed through Youngsville I took the 426 hoping for a better chance of a camp spot away from the road. But the rain got heavier and heavier until I was literally struggling to see the road. I escaped the road and took shelter under the porch of the only house I could see. Keen to let the occupants know I was harmlessly trespassing I knocked on both house doors to no avail. Ten minutes later a lady pulled into the driveway. Shortly after that I was inside enjoying a hot cup of tea and the welcome company of Patty and Dave Bush. A couple of music teachers, I delighted in their generous and uncalled for hospitality. It’s great to talk through the lives of people from different cultures and countries and even better when they have impressive musical talents and a recording studio in their basement!
Of all the porches I could have sheltered under I managed to pick the one the houses a cyclist! As the bikes hanging in his garage are testament to, Dave has been on a few tours himself. We had plenty to talk about and consequently what started as a vain attempt to escape a deluge ended up in pizza, a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning. I think that’s what you call hitting the jackpot!
Refreshed, dry and buoyed by kindness, I headed through Edinboro and Albion into Ohio on the 226 (becomes 84 in Ohio). Pennsylvania had served me well.
I’d been in Amish country for a while. Their populations are densest in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
After a night camped in someones yard in Kingsville it was a rather uninspiring slog along the shores of Lake Erie into Cleveland. Arriving on a weekend the place felt pretty deserted and maybe unsurprisingly reminded me of Detroit.
At short notice I had arranged to stay with Alex Nosse in Cleveland. Again I lucked out. Alex is from Cleveland and proud of it. A couple of years ago he set up a bike shop and seems to spend most of his waking hours working there to ensure its continued success. Here he is outside of his shop Joy Machines. I enjoyed a day off at Alex’s taking advantage of more kind hospitality. I really liked Alex, loved his shop and was more than a little jealous of the community he is a part of. If I were to ever open a bike shop I’d want it to be like Joy Machines in look, stock and attitude.
After my day off I was once again treated to a rainy day. About 35 miles into the day I caught up with a couple of other cycle tourists, the first I’d seen. Strangely but not unsurprisingly, they were good friends with Alex.
Having managed to get 85 miles out of Cleveland the day before I decided to put in a shift and gun for Liz’s old university town, Ann Arbor. There I knew I could stay with her friend Tom. So I stopped for a large breakfast in Freemont, Ohio and headed to Toledo.
It seemed to take an age to get through Toledo and into Michigan. I always knew it would be sunny in Michigan and sure enough, as I crossed the state line the sun came out. The theme remained rural and flat.
Upon reaching Ann Arbor I was buzzing off my first ever 100 mile day and celebrated with a photo outside the University of Michigan football stadium. It had been an exhilarating days riding that finished with some more incredible hospitality from Tom and his housemates.
Having ridden my first century the day before I found myself riding the crest of a wave and completed my second century the next day. Covering 300 miles in 3 days is not my usual style but the land was flat, I was feeling good and really enjoying my riding. My second 100 mile day took me up to Mayville where I planned to surprise the Bach family at Nature’s Pace Organics, the farm I helped out at last year. And surprise them I did. Arriving under cover of darkness at 11 pm and in the middle of a thunder-storm, I quietly pitched up in a barn. Next morning I emerged in my boxer shorts to give farmer Jacob one hell of a surprise.
A few things had changed on the farm since I left at the end of November. Most notable was the change in little Freeda here. She’d grown into a strong little walker. But she was still incredibly cute.
By bizarre coincidence Forrest’s Grandfather had bought him his first two-wheeled bike the day before I arrived unannounced. I took a couple of days off on the farm that I’d expected to use helping out Jacob in the fields. Instead I spent them teaching Forrest how to ride his bike. This little lads perseverance left me astounded. By the time I left his legs were black and blue with scrapes and bruises from his efforts. But I shall never forget the feeling I had when I let go and he kept on moving on his own. This may be my cycling legacy!
The contrasts between life in New York City and that on the farm are beyond enormous.
Jacob continues to work harder than any man I’ve met before. They have a hard but rewarding lifestyle.
After a couple of days it’s time to get back on the road. That evening I find yet more kindness as Joe lets me camp behind his barn. He comes out with two chairs and a couple of beers and we chat as the sun sets.
Joe and Katie were disappointed that I had already eaten by the time they got up in the morning. Inviting me in for a cup of tea I started the morning in fantastic fashion learning about more people’s lives and beliefs.
Although still ostensibly flat, some slight hills were starting to creep in.
Again I found myself in Amish country. I don’t think they see many cycle tourists as most of them stared at me completely dumbfounded. Some of the kids reactions were priceless.
I joined the White Pine Trail which runs from Grand Rapids up to Cadillac. This was an enjoyable stretch, one that I shared up until Big Rapids with two other tourists, Steve and Leo.
As the trail got closer to Cadillac the surrounds become increasingly serene.
Out of Cadillac I headed west to check out the Manistee National Forest. At times things felt remarkably Alaskan and as the topography grew in character my smile broadened.
20 days after setting off from New York City I arrive at Liz’s Dad’s house in Fife Lake.
After a few days it’s time to get back on the road. And this time I have company.
I have met and know of many couples who bike tour together. As a committed soloist I often wondered how that would be. Turns out it’s pretty darn fun. Everything takes on a new angle when with the one you love.
We made fantastic progress, doing over 50 miles a day. Thankfully the weather held and we stayed dry. Surprising as things looked particularly ominous on our way into Petoskey.
On our third day riding we enjoyed an enchanting stretch of quiet winding road along the shore of Lake Michigan and Little Traverse Bay.
The road was Michigan Highway 119, also known as the Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route. It’s a beautiful 27 mile stretch of pavement with lake views and some amazing looking houses.
Having made it as far as we could in the mit of Michigan we took a well-earned day off in Wilderness State Park. Here we were introduced to the dubious delights of Campfire Ken. Did you know that he once kept his campfire going all summer? Good for Ken. We need more folks like him in the world.
To reach the Upper Peninsula of Michigan it is necessary to get a ride over the Mackinac Bridge. The Port Authority were pretty efficient at getting a truck out to take us over. It cost us $5 each though.
We made it to the UP! This sign is literally in the middle of a busy highway. Even so, someone still managed to park his car so he could come and talk to us. Michiganders are a curious bunch!
Our first task in the UP was to endure too many miles of busy Route 2. It was busy, honest.
Eventually we cut north off 2 onto H33 and took a charming route through Curtis and Germfask up to Seney. At that point time constraints made it necessary to hitch a 25 mile ride up 77 to Grand Marais on the shores of Lake Superior. We were fortunate to get a ride so quickly, something we definitely felt worth celebrating with a local brew.
Full of beer and popcorn we rode on into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The name derives from 15 miles of colorful sandstone cliffs that have been artfully sculpted by the elements.
I’d heard great things about this stretch of coast and had been really keen to check it out. We took a detour through Grand Sable Dunes up to Log Slide overlook. Loggers used to slide logs down this banks and into lake Superior.
After a tiring 65 mile day we reached Hurricane River Campground only to find it full. To rub salt into the wound I suffered a puncture about one hundred yards before the site. This happened to work in our favor as while I fixed it a couple approached and kindly offered us space on their pitch. I think Liz was pretty relieved when she returned from an unfruitful search to discover our luck. They even threw in a few beers!
As we closed in on Munising I decided to take the detour up to Miners Castle. Here I was met by more incredibly blue waters and terrific rock formations.
Riding through Munising we stopped at Bay Furnace campground to meet Liz’s Mum, Marilyn and her fella Bill. Marilyn was going to ride the final 40 miles with us into Marquette. So the next morning we set off at staggered intervals to ensure arrival in town together.
The plan worked perfectly and got to ride the last miles in convoy.
As the Ore Dock came into view we knew we’d reached Marquette, Marilyn’s home and our ultimate destination.
New York City and Marquette are so completely different in character it’s hard to believe they’re in the same country, let alone only 1,500 cycling miles apart. I had a relaxing and enjoyable ride between the two and I know Liz had a lot of fun on the 350 miles stretch she cycled. Although I can’t see her crossing continents with me, I think cycle touring may have a new convert.
After a relaxing month on the bike a cycle tourist needs three things; sleep, food and to even out those tan lines! Now all I had to do was pack up Shermy and hit Europe.