October at the Shore

Wild ponies have the right of way on Assateague Island.

Taking advantage of a week of favorable weather, Sue and I rendezvoused with New York friends Tad and Lea in mid-October to introduce them to some of our favorite cycling spots along the Delmarva Shore. Over five days, we biked in Ocean City and Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia, and Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware.

We started out at Ocean City on a glorious day that reached 78°. The 2¼-mile-long boardwalk and the beach, jammed shoulder to shoulder in season, were almost empty. We stayed at the Dunes Manor Hotel in ocean-front rooms with balconies for an almost sinfully low price. The first and only other time Sue and I stayed here was 31 years ago, when the hotel was brand new. They still gave us a return-guest discount!

Since Sue and I had visited Assateague, Chincoteague, and Cape Henlopen several times before, I took few photos there. The one below is from the spectacular Gordons Pond Trail in Cape Henlopen State Park. The two towers in the distance on the beach are observation towers from World War II.

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As usual, we greatly enjoyed spending time with Tad and Lea and showing them around the Mid-Atlantic shore. A great way to roll into fall.

David Romanowski, 2018

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Posted in Bicycling, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Summer Sojourns, 2018

As summer nears its end, I am somewhat surprised to find that I have spent a total of 47 days—almost 7 weeks—traveling this year so far. I’ve already written about three of these trips. Here are just a few images from some of the others.

My most recent trip was a 10-day, 1,750-mile drive to explore some coastal areas of New England I wanted to get to know better. I passed through Williamstown in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts; spent a couple days visiting Bristol and Providence, Rhode Island; and went on to visit several towns along the south coast of Massachusetts, Sandwich on Cape Cod, Rockport north of Boston, and various towns on the South Shore below Boston. I also took side trips to eastern New York and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

Along the way I reconnected with quite a few people: my oldest friend (from orientation in college) and his wife (a friend from my Michigan days), two of my newest friends (whom I met through my bicycling trips), two good friends I’ve known since my early working years at the Boston Museum of Science, another friend from the Science Museum I hadn’t seen in 35 years, and a friend from the National Air and Space Museum and his wife, who have retired to New Hampshire. These people span almost every period of my adult life.

The weather cooperated beautifully, Siri’s wayfinding proved invaluable, SiriusXM satellite radio relaxed me on the long interstate drives, and I had a great time.

David Romanowski, 2018

Posted in Driving, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island | Leave a comment

Planely Overwhelmed at the U.S. Air Force Museum

When I worked at the National Air and Space Museum, I liked to take guests into the Early Flight gallery to show them a certain historic airplane. Often overlooked by visitors, it hung overhead, dimly lit, its wooden frame painted silver to look like metal, its muslin wings stained with oil. The unrestored biplane looked every bit of its century-plus age.

A19120001000cp04 smThe Wright brothers built the airplane and flew it at nearby Fort Myer, Virginia, to demonstrate its capabilities to the U.S. Army. Purchased by the Army, the 1909 Wright Military Flyer became the world’s first military airplane.

Aviation technology soon advanced in leaps and bounds. Within just a few years, armies across the world were using airplanes for observation and reconnaissance, to shoot down other planes, and to drop hand-held bombs. Aircraft would play decisive roles in World War II, and today air power is a preeminent part of our national defense.

Merely 80 years separate the 1909 Wright Military Flyer from the B-2 Stealth Bomber, a matte-black flying wing that is nearly invisible to radar and can deliver up to 20 tons of precision weaponry on a single globe-spanning mission.

That full range of aviation history is on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, it is the oldest and largest military aviation museum in the world. It houses some 400 aerospace vehicles and missiles, along with thousands of other aviation artifacts, and draws over a million visitors a year. I visited recently with my brother and sister-in-law, who (lucky for them) live not far away.

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The museum consists mainly of a row of four huge interconnected hangars. Each is nearly the size of the aircraft hangar at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia. If you visit the Air Force Museum, be sure to wear comfortable shoes; it has over 22 acres of indoor exhibit space to explore.

The main exhibition areas are arranged chronologically. The exhibits in Building 1 cover the early years of military aviation through World War II. Building 2 displays aircraft from the Korean and Vietnam wars. Building 3 covers the Cold War era. Beyond that you enter a round gallery displaying a ring of tall missiles. Finally you enter Building 4, the newest hangar, which opened in 2016. It features sections on space, research and development (including stealth aircraft), airlift and other missions, and the museum’s historic collection of presidential aircraft.

The Presidential Gallery in particular is worth the long trek through the first three hangars. It features 10 aircraft used by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. You can walk through four of the aircraft.

The oldest of the four, a Douglas Skymaster named Sacred Cow, was the first aircraft designed for presidential use. It transported Roosevelt (the first president to fly while in office) and Harry Truman. It has an elevator in the rear that allowed Roosevelt to board easily using his wheelchair. Truman also flew on The Independence, a modified version of a Douglas DC-6 airliner. Dwight Eisenhower traveled on the Columbine III, a modified Lockheed Super Constellation. You can walk through both of these airplanes as well.

The fourth airplane you can board, a modified Boeing 707 airliner, was the first jet aircraft built for presidential use. When the president was on board, it was designated Air Force One. This aircraft carried all eight presidents from John Kennedy to Bill Clinton and is the most poignant to visit. You can stand in the aisle at the exact spot where Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the oath of office to become president while flying back to Washington, D.C., from Dallas, Texas, after Kennedy was assassinated. A few rows back is where seats were removed to accommodate the casket containing Kennedy’s body.

My favorite section of the museum was the World War II Gallery. Here, the history of this museum and the Smithsonian intersect. After the war, the Army Air Forces set aside a huge collection of Allied and captured Axis aircraft for preservation and exhibition. Much of the cream of that collection was transferred to the Smithsonian to be displayed in a future National Air Museum. President Truman signed the law creating that museum in 1946, and it finally opened as the National Air and Space Museum in 1976.

Meanwhile, the Air Force added the remaining World War II aircraft to its own collection, which dates back to 1923. That collection became the core of the Air Force Museum, which opened at its current location with a single large hangar in 1971. Since then, the museum has more than quadrupled in size.

World War II was my parents’ war, and the war I know most about. It involved the aircraft I’m most familiar with. Here I found examples of airplanes I remember assembling from plastic model kits when I was a kid—a B-24 Liberator, a B-17 Flying Fortress, a B-29 Superfortress—and many more I recognized. Also here is the museum’s newest major exhibition, which opened this past May. It features the famous B-17F Memphis Belle, the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions and return stateside. I could have spent hours in this gallery alone.

But there was so much more: cool airplanes to see, cargo planes to board, a B-29 fuselage to duck through. We didn’t even bother with the inevitable flight simulators and IMAX theater, or enter the full-size mockup of a space shuttle. We only glanced at many exhibits over which I did not have the time and mental energy to linger.

I can now empathize with all those visitors to Washington, D.C., who want to take in the entire Smithsonian in a day. It can’t be done. Nor can you experience in one visit all that the National Museum of the United States Air Force has to offer. But if one visit is all you have, it’s worth a gallant try.

David Romanowski, 2018

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Mucked in Pennsylvania

Rails to Trails Conservancy’s 2018 Pennsylvania Sojourn

I’m having a beer and a burger at a bar and grill in Easton, Pennsylvania, and checking tomorrow’s weather forecast on my cell phone again. The chance of rain keeps increasing; it could rain most of the day. Not good, but at least the forecast improves in the following days.

My cycling friend Bob from Michigan will arrive soon. Tomorrow morning we will drive from our motel to nearby Hugh Moore Park to join the Pennsylvania Sojourn, a five-day bicycle tour organized by the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines.

We will travel on the Delaware and Lehigh Trail on rail trails and canal towpaths through the Lehigh Gorge and to the towns of Jim Thorpe, Easton, and New Hope. Our route will follow a system of railroads and canals developed in the 1800s to transport vital anthracite coal from the mines near Wilkes-Barre to Philadelphia. We will also cross the Delaware River and ride along New Jersey’s Delaware and Raritan Canal, part of a similar system built to transport freight between Philadelphia and New York City.

Rails to Trails has been running Sojourns since 2002, mostly in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Meant to celebrate existing rail trails and draw attention to gaps in trail systems, the multiday rides have been very popular. This year’s Sojourn has drawn some 300 cyclists from 30 states.

This is my first Sojourn, and Bob’s too. It will also be our last. Rails to Trails just announced that, despite the popularity of the tours, the organization is shifting its priorities and will no longer run Sojourns. I am bummed to hear this.

Day One: Rain, Grit, and Grief

We arrive at Hugh Moore Park on Sunday morning before 7:00 a.m., park our cars, unload our bikes, and register for the event. We load our luggage onto one truck and our bikes onto another. We load ourselves into one of the waiting school buses, which transports us an hour and a half north to the starting point of the ride in Lehigh Gorge State Park, somewhere in the remote hills of northeastern Pennsylvania.

It is raining lightly but steadily when we arrive at Black Diamond Trailhead and retrieve our bikes. It feels chilly for mid-June, and we are eager to start pedaling to warm up. We head off down the trail through the rain toward Jim Thorpe.

Today’s ride is only 35 miles, all gently downhill or flat. It should be easy, but the trail is saturated and messy. It varies from a single track to a double-track path, and the surface ranges from packed dirt to fine loose gravel. We veer from one side of the trail to the other, trying to find the best way through the puddles and muck.

We stop for a welcome lunch break in White Haven, 10 miles down the trail. Lots of wet, grimy, and cold cyclists pile into Antonio’s Pizza, where we order slices and sandwiches. I warm up with coffee and a hot slice of pepperoni pizza. Before Bob and I head out into the rain again, I add a long-sleeved shirt beneath my rain jacket, which has already soaked through.

The trail widens a bit, and the rain eases for a while. By now I’ve gotten used to being wet and dirty, but our bikes are taking a beating. Bob and I stop twice to squirt water from our bottles onto our derailleurs and chains to wash off the accumulating gunk. Our bikes make an awful grinding sound when we brake. My chain skips now and then, but otherwise my Trek 520 touring bike, which I’ve ridden some 30,000 miles over 15 years, is doing okay. It has weathered drenching rain and mucky paths before.

But about 10 miles from Jim Thorpe, my rear wheel suddenly locks up and I skid to a stop. I get off the bike to see if maybe the chain has fallen off. Instead I find that the lower part of the derailleur has somehow pulled sideways and jammed into the spokes. I have no idea how this could even happen. I tug and pull and finally wrench the derailleur free. I discover that the lower of its two rotating cogs is completely locked up with grit.

I squirt the rest of my water onto the cog and manage to wash off enough grit to get it rotating again. I’m finally able to continue pedaling. But when I shift gears a while later, the derailleur slides sideways and jams into the spokes again. This time it’s even harder to extricate. I pedal on again, but now I avoid shifting at all. I count down the miles to Jim Thorpe.

Farther down the trail, I and some other riders stop to try to help a woman who is also having bike problems. The bearings in the bottom bracket—the “axle” that the pedal arms attach to—have ground to a halt. She can no longer pedal. We can’t fix her bike, so she calls the tour’s rider support number to summon one of the roving mechanics riding somewhere along the trail. As we head off, she begins to walk her bike toward town.

Screw It—Let’s Get a Room

We finally straggle into Jim Thorpe, with Bob’s disc brakes grinding badly and my 27-speed bike reduced to a single speed. We join the crowd of fellow cyclists milling around in front of Pocono Biking, which is providing mechanical support for the tour. Many have lined up to hose off their bikes and themselves, creating a beach of gray grit on the sidewalk. The shop’s mechanics are performing triage on dozens of crippled bicycles.

As we wait for them to assess ours, I start shivering again. Our campground is a half-mile walk from here up a steep hill. Dinner is not provided on the tour tonight, so after setting up our tents in the soggy campground we are supposed to head down the hill into town to find a restaurant, and then trek back up the hill again. As we mull over that thought, the mechanics’ verdicts come in: both our bikes are unrepairable with the parts and tools at hand. Bob’s brake pads have been ground away, and my derailleur mishap has bent part of my bike frame.

We overhear another cyclist asking about nearby hotels. One is right behind the bike shop, just steps away. Cold, wet, and demoralized, Bob and I agree we should look into it—and quickly, before the place fills up. As he waits to hose off, I dash around the corner. Tiny Hotel Switzerland has just a few rooms left. I reserve our best option: a room with a queen bed and private bath. It will beat setting up camp in the rain at the top of that hill. Lots other cyclists who had planned to camp opt for hotel rooms too. We will be the most comfortable campers on the trip that night.

Bob and I lock up our bikes and arrange for a tour staff member with a minivan to shuttle us up to the campsite, where our luggage awaits, and back. We lug our duffle bags upstairs to our tiny hotel room—just large enough to walk around the bed, but with a roomy, private bathroom. Bob offers to sleep on the floor. We shower and change into dry, clean clothes; hang our dirty, soppy ones wherever we can; and go to the restaurant downstairs to eat dinner and consider our options.

By now I am in full emotional response mode. I’m ready to quit the tour. I want to find a way to get me and my damaged bike back to Easton, load up the car, and go home. But the weather forecast for the next couple of days is good, and Bob, in a more calm and rational mode, wants to try to find a way to continue the trip. After dinner we drop by Pocono Biking and ask about rentals. We also arrange to have our own bikes transported with our luggage back to Easton, tomorrow’s campsite and where our cars are parked. With the logistics figured out, I calm down. We decide to continue the tour, at least for now.

Days Two and Three: Back in the Saddle Again

The next two days are everything the first day wasn’t: sunny, warm, and dry. The riding is mostly carefree and easy. The rental bikes are adequate. I enjoy examining the canal structures we pass, visiting the National Canal Museum in Easton, and comparing these canals to those I’m more familiar with, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Erie Canal.

At our second night’s campsite in Hugh Moore Park, I retrieve my bike and lock it onto the rack on my car. Bob calls around and finds the brake pads he needs at a bike shop in Easton. The mechanics in camp are able to get his bike repaired, and he turns in his rental bike to them.

 

The campground for the next two nights is at the upper unit of Washington Crossing State Park, a couple of miles beyond New Hope. I am not happy to discover that our camping area is rife with poison ivy, to which I am extremely sensitive. I step carefully and manage to avoid contact.

Day four will be a layover day. Some riders had preregistered for a kayaking trip or a tour of the state park, which preserves the area where General George Washington and his troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776 to surprise and defeat the Hessian forces at Trenton. I plan to explore the park and New Hope on my own. But once again, weather comes into play.

Day Four: Let’s Call It a Tour

Rain is forecast for later today, the last thing we want to deal with again. And neither of us is looking forward to largely retracing our route back to Easton tomorrow. Now it is Bob who favors cutting the tour short. He has made up his mind; he’s ready to leave. I am conflicted. But I’m also looking forward to driving up to Albany, New York, to visit friends after the tour. I call and they tell me I’m welcome to show up a day early. I make up my mind.

With the sky overcast but the rain holding off for now, we pack up our tents and gear. We learn from some tech-savvier campmates how to use Uber, our best option for getting ourselves back to Easton. I turn in my rental bike to the mechanics. After some difficulty due to our remote location, we finally book an Uber to Easton. We load up and depart. Bob heads back to Michigan. I head for New York State. Our Pennsylvania Sojourn is over.

Afterward

A few days after I returned home, I took my bike to REI for service and repair. Its mechanics managed to straighten the bent and twisted derailleur hanger on the frame. The frame could have broken during that process; if it had, the bike would have been a total loss. They will replace the derailleur, cassette, chain, crankset, and possibly the bottom bracket, which was full of grit when they took it apart—basically the entire drive train. It will be expensive, but I’ll have my bike back soon, ready to roll again with brand new components.

I’m not inclined to provide a detailed critique of a tour that won’t happen again, especially one so different in nature from others I’ve taken. Touring on trails and towpaths presents unique challenges, including lack of access to roving sag vehicles for aiding riders who need assistance. And anyone who has gone on enough bicycle tours knows that stuff happens. You get caught in the rain. It gets colder than you expected. The shower truck breaks down. There are not enough sinks and restrooms. The caterer runs late or runs out of coffee or food. Information is inadequate, inaccurate, untimely, or poorly relayed. Every tour has its snafus. Some are unavoidable; others reflect shortcomings in planning or preparation. This tour, in my opinion, had more than its share of these issues.

But I also have to say that much went very well, that all the Rails to Trails staff and volunteers I dealt with were unfailingly genial and tried to be helpful, and that the Pocono Biking staff did a commendable job dealing with the effects of that disastrous first day.

Even so, I am no longer so disappointed about the decision by Rails to Trails to end the Sojourn series. Many participants will likely disagree, but my sense is that bicycle tours are not the organization’s forte. I’m glad they offered these unique tours, and I’m glad I got to experience one. And I wish them well as they redirect their efforts and continue their noble mission of creating and promoting the use of trails across the nation.

David Romanowski, 2018

Posted in Bicycling, New Jersey, Pennsylvania | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Alligator Alley: Florida’s Van Fleet Trail

A rather large alligator along the Van Fleet Trail.

Alligators are about as common in Florida as white-tailed deer in Maryland. But no matter how many times I visit, I’m always thrilled to see one. On my trip to Florida this past March, I saw more—many more—than I ever had before.

I spotted one while bicycling on Jekyll Island in Georgia with Sue. In Florida we saw two more from a lakeside boardwalk in Inverness, one swimming by just below us. I counted five as I bicycled around Chain of Lakes Park in Titusville; three I could have walked up to and touched, had I been so foolish. I saw several—a couple quite large—while cycling through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. But I lost count of how many I saw while cycling with friends Tad and Lea along the General James A. Van Fleet State Trail in central Florida.

Tad and Lea relaxing in the shade along the trail.

The Van Fleet Trail extends about 29 miles, from Mabel south to Polk City, through a large blank spot in the map west to southwest of Orlando. Smoothly paved and well maintained, it is one of the longest and most secluded rail trails in the state. Only two rural roads cross it, dividing the trail neatly into thirds.

If you could roll a bowling ball straight and far enough from the northern trailhead, it wouldn’t veer off into the grass until it reached the trail’s one and only bend almost two dozen miles away. We joked that we could see oncoming cyclists rising up from the horizon, helmet-first, like the masts of tall ships at sea.

Unlike many rail trails, straight here doesn’t mean boring. After heading south from the parking area at Mabel, we immediately entered a cypress swamp. This northern third of the trail is nicely shaded. To the left you can see fields and farms; to the right, trees with knees poking above dark waters. We passed the relics of an old settlement: two rusted vehicles and the remains of a house. We saw lots of gopher tortoises, large burrowing critters who quickly ducked back into their holes beside the trail or lumbered off into the brush when we drew close. They moved pretty quickly for turtles.

The middle third of the trail, which runs through the Green Swamp, was more open and less shaded. It looked surprisingly less like a swamp than the northern section. Alerted by other cyclists, we soon began spotting alligators resting in the waters and wooded areas beside the trail, and especially below the three bridges the trail crosses over.

At one place, we came across a large alligator and, close by, nine baby alligators, no more than 18 inches long. I had only seen one baby alligator in the wild, years ago, swimming in the Everglades. So to see nine in one spot was quite a thrill.

Unlike their mother, basking nearby in the sun, they crawled around, snapped at tempting snacks hidden in the grasses, and provoked a nearby turtle into sudden escape. They were fun to watch. I even saw one or two seize something and twist into what looked to me like the start of an “alligator roll”—the deadly maneuver by which alligators drown their prey.

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Can you spot all nine baby alligators? One is less than a foot long.

Farther along, below one of the bridges, we came across another gator gathering, a mother and babies, a couple of juveniles (3 feet or so long) and a couple of other larger ones nearby. I repeatedly (they kept moving around) counted 13 babies spread through the water and grasses, ranging in size from perhaps 18 inches to less than a foot. There may have been even more hidden from my view.

There are at least a dozen alligators here. How many can you count?

We turned around at the second road crossing, after cycling 19 miles. We didn’t bike down the southern-most third of the trail, the one with that single bend. We had ridden that section a few years ago, and I don’t recall it as being especially interesting.

Other than restrooms at the parking areas, shaded benches, and some bicycle repair stations, there are no other amenities along the trail. Bring plenty of water and some snacks. On many stretches, there is no shelter from the sun. Park rangers do patrol the trail in cars, and cyclists watch out for each other, but it is always a good idea to be prepared with a basic tire repair kit and a pump.

A final word of caution: Some of the parking areas are quite remote, and vehicles have been broken into there. So avoid leaving anything valuable or tempting in your car.

See the TrailLink entry on the Van Fleet Trail for more information and interesting comments from visitors.

Bonus Feature! More Florida Wildlife Photos

David Romanowski, 2018

Posted in Bicycling, Florida | Tagged | Leave a comment