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

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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

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“Roadside Attractions” at the U.S. Botanic Garden

For the second year in a row, the “Season’s Greenings” holiday display at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C., has a travel theme. Last year it was “National Parks and Historic Places.” This year it is “Roadside Attractions.”

The display contains more than 40 individual structures made of plant materials, ranging from a Route 66 diner to the Corn Palace, Cadillac Ranch, Mount Rushmore, Lucy the Margate Elephant, Niagara Falls and the Maid of the Mist, and many more roadside attractions you may or may not know about.

Applied Imagination, a Kentucky-based firm, has worked with the Botanic Garden to create a new display every year since 2004. On display each year as well are a dozen models of iconic Washington monuments, memorials, museums, and other buildings also crafted from plant materials.

The creativity and detail work evident in these creations is spectacular. So are the conservatory’s poinsettia displays. Visiting the U.S. Botanic Garden on Christmas morning has become a tradition Sue and I look forward to every year.

“Roadside Attractions” opened on Thanksgiving and is on display until New Year’s Day. For more information, visit the U.S. Botanic Garden website.

David Romanowski, 2017

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Washington, D.C., 1969

My First Trip to Washington

When I was a kid, most of my family’s overnight travels involved visiting relatives or attending my father’s annual army reunion, trips within a day’s drive or so from our Western New York home. But my parents believed that introducing their children to our nation’s capital was important enough to merit a special trip.

When my older sister and brother reached their early teens, my father packed up our car and drove them and a cousin of ours to Washington for a visit of several days. A few years later, when I was in ninth grade, it was my turn.

This time, Dad and I flew, a momentous event in itself. I had never flown before. Dad’s first and only flight had been on a troop transport in the Philippines during World War II. Another first: it would just be the two of us on this trip, the predecessor of my travels with Dad decades later.

So one day in April 1969 during Easter break, we packed our suitcases, donned our suits, and headed for the Greater Buffalo International Airport. After kissing Mom goodbye at the gate, we walked down the jetway and boarded our plane for the hour-long flight to Washington, D.C.

I took pictures with this type of camera. Sadly, I lost mine on a trip a few years later. [Photo: Deviant Art]

I took photos below with a Kodak Brownie Camera my mother had handed down to me a couple of years earlier. It had only two controls: a shutter release button and a film advance nob. It took 24- or 36-exposure rolls of film I had to thread onto a take-up spool. It had a detachable flash unit that used disposable flashbulbs. Given these limitations, I took relatively few photos, mostly of buildings and monuments. I no longer have prints of some, although I still have all the negatives. The images below I scanned from some of the remaining prints.

We probably flew on a Boeing 727, with its rear-mounted engines. We sat in the last row, so our view was limited by both the wing and an engine.

As we flew down the Potomac River on our approach to Washington National Airport, we passed over what I now recognize as the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. We were on the wrong side of the plane to see the city. But as our jet turned around on the tarmac after landing, I got my first stirring view: the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument lined up in the distance.

We visited several Smithsonian buildings, including the Museum of Natural History. One notable change on the National Mall since then: the streets running down its center are now graveled pedestrian paths. I took the photo on the right 40 years later at the same time of year.

The Smithsonian Castle, across the Mall from the Natural History Museum, was the institution’s original home. The building was completed in 1855. To the right: the Castle 40 years later. It now houses Smithsonian offices and a visitor center.

I took my only interior photo in what is now called the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. This Apollo capsule was launched into space two years earlier on the first test flight of the giant Saturn V rocket. Four months after my visit to Washington, a similar rocket and spacecraft would carry Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon.

Our most sweeping views were from the top of the Washington Monument. We took the elevator to the observation level. Later we walked down its 898 stairs, something the National Park Service no longer allows.

The monuments on the National Mall were my favorite photographic subjects.

This is me later in 1969 with my younger sisters at Niagara Falls.

I moved to the Washington area almost 15 years later. Although I never planned to stay, after 34 years I’m still here. Sometimes when I’m looking down the National Mall at the Washington Monument or across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial framed in cherry blossoms, some deep memory resurfaces, and for a fleeting moment I can imagine seeing these scenes as I did for the first time. Sometimes I can even recall a scent that I associate with the room at the Hotel Harrington where my father and I stayed.

The prints of the photos I took with my old Brownie Camera have faded, but I still treasure them as my first images of the place I now call home.

David Romanowski, 2017

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Washington, D.C., 1953

A Road Map of the Past

Spread before me is a “Road Map and Visitor’s Guide” to Washington, D.C., and vicinity, published by Esso Standard Oil Company in 1953. Esso and its competitors provided such maps free of charge to travelers who stopped at their gas stations throughout the United States. I bought the map at an antique shop.

In 1953 World War II was only eight years in the past. The Korean War had just ended in a truce. The official launch of the interstate highway system was still three years away. Over the preceding few decades, the city of Washington had grown dramatically as the federal government expanded in response to two world wars and the Great Depression. This map captures that moment in time.

One side of the map shows the entire District of Columbia and surrounding Maryland and Virginia:

The tangle of roads and routes in and around Washington looks quite familiar to me. It took me a moment to realize the key thing missing: the Capital Beltway circling the city. Nor is there an I-95, the main north-south interstate on the East Coast. The Baltimore-Washington Parkway linking those two cities is a double dashed line, a future intention.

No I-66 bisects the neighborhoods of Arlington and Falls Church, Virginia. The future I-395, which angles toward the southeast, is labeled Route 350, Shirley Memorial Highway. The parkway that now extends along the Potomac River north from Mount Vernon and past Washington to the Beltway ends, in 1953, just beyond the Key Bridge near Georgetown.

While there are many other subtle differences between 1953 and now, enough has stayed the same that you could still manage to navigate around the region’s secondary roads today using this map.

The opposite side shows a close-up of the central part of Washington and nearby Virginia:

I immediately notice that the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge, one of the major links between Virginia and D.C., is absent. (So too is the footbridge that allows you to walk out to nearby Theodore Roosevelt Island.) Constitution Avenue dead-ends at the Potomac River, where today it leads onto the Roosevelt Bridge. The Arlington Memorial Bridge, designed as a drawbridge, is graphically shown with its center draw span lifted. The draw span was closed for good in 1961.

Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac in Virginia, was much smaller, and the nearby Marine Corps Memorial, featuring its iconic sculpture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, was yet to be built. Washington National Airport is represented by its original terminal, about which the map text notes, “Visitors observe operations at huge air terminal from glass-enclosed lounge.” Nearby, angling toward the airport for a landing, is a graphic image of a Lockheed Constellation, an iconic passenger airplane from the 1950s.

The focus of the Washington map is the National Mall, the long rectangle of parkland extending from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol. Here the differences between then and now are many.

Immediately obvious is the dual set of buildings—the largest buildings aside from the Pentagon depicted on the map—just north of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, an area now occupied by Constitution Gardens. Built during World War I for use by the Navy and the War Department, these “temporary” buildings remained in use until they were demolished in 1970. The only war memorial on this section of the Mall is the small one commemorating the citizens of the District of Columbia who served in the First World War. The World War II, Korean, and (obviously) Vietnam war memorials have yet to be built.

There are indications of many more “temporary government buildings” dating as far back as World War I shown on the map. They are denoted only by letters—and then numbers when the mapmakers ran out of letters. They dot the Mall from one end to the other.

In 1953 you could still drive on roads circling the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and Washington Monument. Today these roads are closed to traffic.

Today, between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol, resides the greatest single concentration of museums in the world, most of them part of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1953 the institution’s presence here consisted only of four buildings: the original Smithsonian Castle; the “Old National Museum,” now the Arts and Industries Building; the “New National Museum,” now the National Museum of Natural History; and the Freer Gallery of Art. Also here is the original National Gallery of Art building, completed in 1941. Eight more museums would be built on this section of the National Mall in the coming decades.

Today, only two streets run the length of the Mall here, Madison and Jefferson drives. Between them lies a broad swath of greenery and a grid of walkways. In 1953 those walkways were streets, including Washington and Adams drives. When these streets were turned into walkways decades later, the pavement was graveled over rather than removed, which is why many of the Mall walkways have such poor drainage and are pocked with puddles after it rains.

Way up 6th Street, NW, near Howard University, is Griffith Stadium, where the American Baseball League’s Washington Senators played. Up Massachusetts Avenue is the Naval Observatory, still open to the public during regular hours in 1953, not yet the residence of the vice president. Farther up Mass Ave at the highest point in the city is Washington Cathedral. Now known as Washington National Cathedral, its cornerstone-laying ceremony was presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907. President George H. W. Bush presided over the mounting of its final stone in 1990, an event I attended.

By then, I had lived in the Washington area for seven years. I first visited Washington with my father in 1969, but that’s another story, one I’ll tell next.

David Romanowski, 2017

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