Joe Scarborough says that, politically, the state of Pennsylvania is “Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with Alabama in the middle.” I set out to find what I could find in central Pennsylvania. We have a new car, a Ford Escape Hybrid, but Tootie was using the new car this week. I drove up north in the 2004 Honda that we inherited from her late mother; my Bike Friday folded in the Honda trunk. Because the car is so old I did not want to push my luck by driving too far. I chose Harrisburg PA as a spot far just north enough that I had left The South, both to see something different culturally and to escape summer heat.

In the 1960’s my father had an ultimately unsuccessful business as the AMC Rambler dealer in Virginia Beach. Amazingly, somewhere on I-95 I passed an AMC Ambassador station wagon, similar to the one my parents used to haul us on family adventures in the late sixties/early seventies. We had two parents, four not-small kids bickering at each other, and a well behaved miniature poodle named Inkie. Our car sometimes hauled a travel trailer, the Zipper.

On I-95 in 2021, an about 1970 AMC Ambassador. Note that their A/C is not working. I doubt ours worked either, back in the day .

I like to drink coffee while driving and am a big supporter of small independent competitors to Starbucks. These coffee houses have opened all over America, frequently in otherwise neglected downtowns. They are easy to find by searching “coffee” on Google maps. I knew of a place in Petersburg VA really close to I-95. I wanted a latte-to-go, but Demolition was not open.

Petersburg VA
Covid staffing problems, Petersburg VA

By car, Harrisburg PA is a little over two hours north of Washington DC and six to seven hours from my home in Chapel Hill NC. On my trips I frequently park in Walmarts for extended periods but on this one I got all cautious and paid to park in a commercial lot in downtown Harrisburg. I pulled my bicycle out.

This is the 200+ mile loop I would bicycle over six days, making up my route as I went along. In North Carolina the geography is pretty simple; there are mountains in the west, rolling hills Piedmont in the middle and flat coastal plain in the east. Pennsylvania geography is much more complicated. Mountains are strewn all across the state, most of them running in ridges from the southwest to the northeast. My first three days in Pennsylvania I cycled north from Harrisburg to Lewisburg to Berwick along the Susquehanna River and the bike ride was mostly flat, but with hills or mountains rising steeply from both sides of the river. Coming back through Hazleton and Pottsville I had to bicycle over real mountains.

It was already after 3:00 PM by the time I got underway. My cycling destination this afternoon was a motel called the Halifax Inn that I had located on my phone and made a reservation at, twenty-six miles upriver.

Harrisburg is the state capital of Pennsylvania and its downtown fronts the Susquehanna River. There is a bike path along the river and I could see the historic houses that line the riverfront.

Riverfront, Harrisburg PA

North of Harrisburg the landscape is squeezed where the mountains fall down to the river. After the bike path ended the first five miles of cycling were challenging as I was forced to deal with heavy car traffic on the four lane highway. Eventually the traffic thinned out and the countryside and the cycling along the east shore of the Susquehanna River became quite delightful. Highways in Pennsylvania generally have wide shoulders.

I was in the mountains but the Susquehanna River cut through them.

The Appalachian Trail crossed my highway at a right angle

I bicycled through several small towns, houses built close to the sidewalk, very different from North Carolina.

North Carolina towns do not look like this

The Halifax Inn sat by itself on a rural two lane road.

I met no actual person while staying at this motel. After paying over the phone the motel texted me a room number and numeric lock combination; a Covid procedure that I can see becoming permanent, both here and elsewhere. The room was quite nice. I made my own dinner that night in the room with the mini-rice cooker that I had brought, polenta and ham.

The next morning I cycled through the cool morning. Sitting in an empty parking lot, clearly for sale, this early 1970’s Lincoln is the same model that was used to smuggle white bags of hard drugs in the 1971 movie The French Connection.

Just a few miles down the road was Millersburg, population 2,500. I had an almond milk latte and a roll at the local coffee house Peace of Mind Cafe.

At the Peace of Mind I sat outside on the stoop. During Covid I do not like to sit indoors in restaurants unless necessary.
Millersburg PA

Some of the best preserved commercial mid-century architecture in America is at VFW Halls, Elks Lodges, and the like.

Moose Lodge, Millersburg PA
another view, Moose Lodge, Millersburg PA

Heading out of Millersburg it was a pleasant morning cycle north through countryside interspersed with small towns, buildings right up to the street.

Lunch was at the larger town of Sunbury PA (population 10,000.). Because the taco place had no outdoor seating I took my tacos to a park downtown.

SunburyPA
tacos on the square, Sunbury PA
honors to veterans are ubiquitous in Central Pennsylvania, this is Sunbury PA

After lunch I cycled the additional twelve miles along the river to where I planned to stay the night, Lewisburg PA, (population 6,000) home of Bucknell University and a town with a lovely historic center.

Lewisburg PA

I got a spot at the historic Lewisburg Hotel downtown, somewhere that should have been nice but the room was dumpy and musty, with beat up old furniture, and a noisy window air conditioner. At least the room had cost less than $ 100.00.

Hallway of Lewisburg Hotel

Dinner down the street was nicer, a somewhat fancy restaurant called Elizabeth’s. There is so much Red America out her that Blue America stares you right in the face. During this pandemic the lower cost places mostly had only crowded indoor seating but restaurants catering to a Blue America clientele had outdoor seating that was usually full. I only got a table here only because I had called a couple hours earlier to reserve.

I somehow imagined that all these people were University faculty
First course, soup of the day, squash
Main course, frittata

The next morning I cycled away from my depressing hotel room into the comforting soft morning light. I would get breakfast in the next big town, Danville PA, fifteen miles to the east.

leaving Lewisburg PA
Heading east the scenery was lovely

At 7:30 AM, for the first time in my life, I cycled across a covered bridge. This one was built in 1830.

The beautiful landscape continued.

Danville PA (population 1860: 6,500; population 2020: 4,500) had an attractive but decaying inner city. I could not find specifically a coffee house but Old City Bagel Company worked fine.

Old City Bagel Co., Danville PA
Egg and cheese on an everything bagel, with coffee, sitting on the sidewalk

It was twenty something miles further to Berwick PA, passing through a series of decaying towns that line the Susquehanna River.

Ford Falcon, 1962?
Adult World, now hiring

Mid afternoon I cycled into Berwick PA. Berwick. (population 1920: 12,000; population 2020 10,000) is a town built around heavy industry, much of which is no longer viable. Berwick is the birthplace and home of Wise Foods, maker of Wise potato chips. I cycled up to Berwick Brewing Company. The seats at their indoor bar were all taken at 3:00 PM on a weekday but I was able to take my porter out to their delightful rear terrace, which overlooks both the rail line and the Susquehanna River.

my beer on a log, outdoor patio, Berwick Brewing Company
guys at Berwick Brewing Company, I listened to them talk

While chilling at the Berwick Brewing Company I assessed my situation. There was almost nowhere to stay except a bed and breakfast here in Berwick, and nothing if I continued cycling. I booked a room at the White Birch Inn.

I was able to check into the White Birch Inn totally by cell phone and I was given a numeric key code by text.

That evening there were two or three restaurants within walking distance. Everyone in town seemed to be eating at the Forge Pub & Eatery.

Inside it was jam packed with unmasked and I assume some unvaccinated people. There were two or three tables outside, they were also taken. Next to the outdoor tables was a wooden counter overlooking the parking lot. I took a seat and the host graciously agreed to serve me there. I realized after a while that this spot was frequented by those stepping out of the bar so they could smoke.

I did quite a bit of talking with this friendly smoker who had questions about my camera.

The Forge Pub & Eatery has good food and service.

salad with blue cheese dressing; house red wine
Main course, broiled fish with two sides, green beans and fries

I walked back to the B&B through the streets of Berwick in the fading light.

I saw a lot of right wing paraphernalia on this trip but this sign bothered me even more than the Trump signs.

The next morning I discovered that the White Birch Inn had been full the night before, and the included breakfast service was crowded. I shared a table with a woman about my age (sixties) who lived in suburban DC and was in town for a relative’s funeral. She told her mother grew up Ukranian-American in Berwick with a life centered on the Ukranian Orthodox Church here.

We have all seen those wooden boxes in neighborhoods where people invite strangers to share books. In front of the B&B was a similar box, but it was to share food.

While I was in my room upstairs packing up I saw out the window a man come up and take food from the box.

The White Birch Inn proudly gives two bags on local Wise snacks with their room, I packed them for the road.

To cycle back to my car in Harrisburg without retracing I was going to have to cycle over mountains, three days with only a limited number of towns with hotels. I did see a bunch of chain hotels at the Interstate interchange just before Hazleton, only fifteen miles away but the ride would be entirely uphill, gaining about twelve hundred feet in elevation.

I cycled through downtown Berwick and over the Susquehanna River.

looking back at Berwick from across the river

I cycled along the floodplain for a short time before the road turned sharply uphill.

I assume this is a nuclear power plant but I actually have no idea

The road became very steep, for miles at a time. I stopped and rested in the shade and sat on the guardrail.

I continued my lowest gear, chugging slowly up the mountain. I was still carrying my mini rice cooker and I had planned to cook my own dinner in a hotel room that evening. I had seen signs for fresh local corn all during this trip and halfway up the mountainI finally stopped for corn. They were shocked that I only wanted one ear of corn for fifty cents.

strapping one ear of corn to the back of the bicycle

I stopped for lunch (my peanut butter & jelly sandwich) at a public park in West Hazleton. In Central Pennsylvania reminders of our veteran’s sacrifice are constant.

Afterward I cycled over to Walmart to get groceries + a bottle of wine.

I stayed that night in a chain hotel that overlooked the freeway.

My hotel, a Candelwood Suites up on suburban hill

Candlelight suites had an actual kitchen included. I made dinner there that night.

Fried rice with egg and corn

I had breakfast included with my hotel and set off the next morning. The hotel had been in suburban West Hazleton; I set off for Hazleton proper.

On the highway, near Hazleton PA

I have learned that anthracite is the cleanest burning and most valuable type of coal, with a value of two to three times that of regular coal. Underground anthracite was discovered in what is now Hazleton in the 1830’s. The Lattimer Massacre of 1897, when a sheriff’s posse shot and killed nineteen striking miners, helped inspire the United Mine Worker union. By 1940 the mining boomtown of Hazleton had a population of 38,000, comprised mostly of immigrants from places like Italy, Poland, and Lithuania. The town’s current population is down to about 24,000.

I cycled on this Sunday morning up and down a hill on a wide highway before turning to cycle through the street grid of Hazleton.

Empty buildings, downtown Hazleton PA
statue of Christopher Columbus, downtown Hazleton PA

In a city that has had a falling population for decades one strategy might be to welcome immigrants. Or maybe not. It seems that the arrival of Hispanics freaked Hazleton out. According to Wikipedia, Hazleton PA made national news in 2006 when the city passed the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, making it illegal for landlords to rent to illegal immigrants. A law passed at the same time made English the official language of Hazleton. Many newcomers to Hazleton have come from the Dominican Republic, most first through the New York City area. In a short period of time Hispanics have come to comprise about half of the population of Hazleton. While cycling through Hazleton neighborhoods I saw multiple Hispanic looking grocery stores, seeming to be the only viable businesses in town. WEST Hazleton is now listed as having a population 97% white.

JC Grocery: Sandwich * Jugos * Sodas y Mucho Mas

I cycled back onto the highway for the mostly downhill twenty-eight mile ride to Pottsville PA, another city built with the riches from anthracite coal. First I passed through miles of coal landscape and several smaller towns.

Huge pile of something coal related, just outside of Hazleton PA

I was reminded how many Eastern Europeans had moved here about a hundred years ago.

In McAdoo PA, Ukrainian culture
I think Eastern European: Halushki, Halupkis, and Bleenies

Twelve miles down the road on this Sunday morning, it was a respite to sit outdoors in Tamaqua PA with an almond milk latte at a nice place called the Hope & Coffee. Hope & Coffee clearly has a mission to help the recovering.

Outside Hope & Coffee, Tamaqua PA

bulletin board: re-entry from prison programs, approaches to sobriety

Biking out of Tamaqua towards Pottsville I passed through miles of what I assume is strip mined land. It was not as apocalyptic looking as I had thought, maybe because trees have had time to grow.

While the wide two lane highway had little traffic there was an older road with virtually no traffic paralleling the main highway. It passed through a series of tiny older coal towns two to three miles apart.

the flag says “Fauci Lied People Died”

I was startled when I read that the population of Pottsville PA was only 13,500; it feels like a more substantial city, a bigger and formerly wealthier place than the towns I had previously stayed in; Berwick PA and Hazleton PA. Pottsville was also built with mostly coal money.

Schuykill Trust Company building
Miners National Bank 1928
off the main drag Pottsville has steep hills

Pottsville is famous for being home of the Yuengling brewery. I never actually saw it but knew I had read it was closed on Sundays. Pottsville has a local microbrewery open on Sundays, the Black Rock Brewing Company and I could sit outdoors. I stopped for a pint.

I saw only one place to stay in-town Pottsville, The Maid’s Quarters Bed Breakfast and Tearoom, owned and operated by an energetic thirty-something woman who told me she does all the cooking by herself. The front room was filled this Sunday afternoon with matronly looking women doing tea: tea and pastries.

Maids Quarters is the stone building in the center

Small privately owned museums of any topic are my sure thing. Down the street from the hotel I spend eleven dollars on visiting Jerry’s Classic Cars & Collectibles. He has a lot of stuff. I found the car collection only meh.

I walked around town

Pottsville had an NFL team!

Later on downtown: small town amateur theater projected a sense of community. Outside before the show actors in makeup mingled with the audience; everyone seemed to know each other.

My hostess specifically asked if I wanted breakfast earlier than the normal 8:00 AM the next day. What could I say but yes! It was going to be a hot day I had to get an early start. I was by myself in the dining room at 7:30 AM. Fresh fruit + eggs with spinach and smoked salmon, all cooked solo by the proprietor.

I cycled off into the morning light. It was sixty miles back to my car in Harrisburg.

Across the street from the hotel; Pick A Deli & Beer
Sweet Arrow Lake, Washington Township PA

I had not planned what to do about lunch as I neared the military base Fort Indiantown Gap. The temperature was already climbing up to near ninety. On the highway just outside the base was inviting outdoor seating at Moose’s LZ Bar and Grill. Many of the patrons were in uniform. One should not pass up such an opportunity.

Beer and veggie burger at the outdoor bar = perfection

I eventually got back on the road, now in even more intense heat.

Hercules aircraft on display, Fort Indiantown Gap

It was too hot to bicycle all the way to Harrisburg. I stayed in the very nice hotel Mainstay Suites at the freeway interchange. The one restaurant near there said they were short staffed and could only do indoor seating. My hotel had a real kitchen, I cooked myself supper that night and watched sports on TV.

I got up the next morning and cycled the seventeen miles to Harrisburg. Just before I arrived at my car in downtown Harrisburg I stumbled upon this Brutalist monolith, the Pennsylvania State Archives building.

It looks like something out of science fiction movie

Our car was still there. I was home in Chapel Hill NC in time for dinner.

Does anyone else want to do bicycle touring? If you read all the way to the end I will conclude with a trip suggestion for novices.

Bicycle touring is done all sorts of ways. My friend and mega-hiker Whit Rummel says: “we all do our own journey.” I have been doing overnight bike trips since about 1972. The two Consolvo brothers and I rode from San Francisco to Virginia Beach in 1974, the summer after I graduated from high school. We slept in ditches and underpasses. Way before 2021 I grew out of that. Bicycle touring with camping gear has a huge following but that is not what I currently do. I practice what others call “credit card touring”; i.e,. I stay in hotels and eat at restaurants, sometimes expensive ones.

I firmly believe that my journey must be unsupported (no chase car) and point to point, with an origin and a destination. It is NOT a meandering series of day rides. I dig the edgy feeling that I have no idea where I am going to sleep tonight, fantasizing that I am somehow Outlaw Josey Wales. I do my trips either alone or with just a couple of other friends, especially my buddy Lyman. I have posted reports of 240 trips on my blog since 2011.

Where do I bicycle? My ideal trip is small towns and urban areas connected by gentle residential streets and country roads. I also use rail trails and other bike paths when they are available. Especially when cycling alone, I think miles and miles of a rail-trail through the woods can get boring. I love looking at interesting buildings without having to fight car traffic. Such a compromise is sometimes possible. A list of shorter rides that I really treasure:

Downtown Chicago to Milwaukee (95 miles, 2 -3 days); there is a paved bike path fronting Lake Michigan, then miles and miles of a residential street for the wealthy suburbs north of the city, then a combination of bike trails and country roads. See and experience Kenosha WI and Racine WI. Return to Chicago by Amtrak from Milwaukee.

Key Largo to Key West FL (100 miles, 2 -3 days), there is a bike path or large shoulder along US1 as it connects islands crossing the Caribbean-like blue water. Be sure to check which way the wind is blowing before setting out. Rent a car one way to return.

Fernandina Beach FL to Jacksonville Beach FL to Ponte Vedra FL to Daytona Beach FL (116 miles; 3 days); The state of Florida has done a wonderful job of accommodating bicycles along Route A1A.

Palm Beach FL to Fort Lauderdale FL along A1A(47 miles, one day); do this as part of a South Florida trip.

Santa Monica (near Los Angeles) CA to San Diego, along the beach.

Many areas of northern France, bike trails along the canals.

Lyon to Nimes, France along the river Loire (158 miles, 3 -5 days). Cuisine Provencal

Rural England, although I still have lots to see there. There are country roads the size and scale of driveways. Great pubs with frequently less great food.

Anywhere in the country of The Netherlands. Their bicycle route system is unsurpassed, cycling there is totally stress free.

Puglia, Italy.,

I can be really A.D.D. and I would do better if I planned more. I often drive to some distant place, leave the car somewhere, and ride off. I have to often find a way back to my car or to my stored bicycle suitcase. Enterprise rent-a-car has offices in many small towns and I have used this many times in recent years.

I like Amtrak. Taking a full size non-folding bicycle on Amtrak is sometimes easy, sometimes not, depending on the route. A folding Bike Friday is doable on any Amtrak train. When taking Amtrak northbound from the Raleigh/Durham area it is faster to drive 2 – 1/2 hours and leave your car in either Richmond VA Staples Mill or nearby Ashland VA.

Many bicycle fanatics own a massive stable of bicycles; buying a new bicycle whenever something hits their fancy. I put my energy into bicycle touring, not the bicycle itself. I pretty much do most of my riding on just one bicycle, currently a Bike Friday model New World Tourist.

There is a lot of personal preference involved here. I like skinny hard tires, not soft knobby ones. I like downturn handlebars. The small twenty inch wheels perform quite similarly to conventional size wheels. This bicycle has an eleven speed rear cog and no front derailleur. Its folding feature is not my primary concern. I cycle on this bicycle for months without folding it. The bicycle does come apart to fit it in a plastic Samsonite suitcase that allows me to check it as luggage on an airliner.

My buddy Lyman and TWO Bike Fridays in suitcases, on the streets of Chicago

The Bike Friday will also fold quickly without a suitcase so as to fit in a car trunk, or to carry onto Amtrak or other types of public transportation

I currently use pedals with a Shimano SPD clip-in on one side, and spikes on the other side. Lyman thinks clip-ins are unnecessary and potentially dangerous. I partly agree but I just like being clipped in, it make me feel faster. I try to not clip in when I am in traffic or populated areas.

Shimano pedal with clip-in on only one side.

I love, LOVE my Keen brand bicycle sandals with screw-in type Shimano SPD clips. No socks required. These shoes are no longer being manufactured and my current pair will obviously be my last. In cold weather I use Keen mountain bike shoes, also with SPD clips. Each of these type of shoes allow for conventional walking so I only take one pair of shoes on any of my bicycle tours.

Who wants to look at an older grown man dressed in a tight bicycle “racing” outfit (MAMIL, Middle Aged Men in Lycra)? I have adopted the contrary loose look. In warm weather I frequently cycle in a polyester Club Ride brand bicycle shirt. From REI I buy Bontrager brand bike shorts that come with a second pair of loose covering outer shorts which have lots of convenient pockets.

This is what I cycle in; Keen sandals, Bontrager shorts, Club Ride shirt

Since I stay in hotels I take very little luggage on my trips. Even on tours of a week or more I take a total of two sets of clothes. Each night in the hotel room I wash the sweaty bike shorts and shirt in the shower and dry them tightly with a towel and hang dry, so that I have fresh clean cycling clothes at the start of each day. For walking around after cycling I carry one set of nice looking clothing that is light and folds into a small space; one pair of nylon Patagonia street long khaki pants and one street shirt, one pair of boxer shorts and a light t-shirt to sleep in. Even in the summer I take a Patagonia nylon jacket that collapses smaller than a fist. With toilet articles and a few spare parts that’s it! The total of my luggage weighs less than five pounds.

Because I carry so little I do not use bicycle saddlebags “panniers.” I like trunk bags; I have had several brands.

trunk bag of the brand Axiom Laurentian; I used this for seven years

I switched to a slightly larger trunk bag of the brand Vaude; it has side pockets that hang down.

I also have a small front bag that hangs from the handlebars.

My most important advice is NOT to carry anything of any weight on one’s body. Do not use a backpack. Everything should be strapped to the bicycle.

I love my seat, made by the company ISM. I never have a problem down there.

There are other types of bicycles would be suitable for the kind of touring that I do. Particularly suitable are “hybrid” bicycles, those with fatter tires and a more upright position than a road racing bicycle, but with skinnier tires than a mountain bike.

Bicycles like the Surly Long Haul Trucker are billed as touring bicycles, in that they are built to carry heavy loads of camping gear. I find many “touring” bicycles so heavy that the bicycle is not as much fun to ride.

Cheap bicycles and expensive bicycles look pretty much alike to the untrained eye. With bicycles you generally get what you pay for, at least for the first two to three thousand dollars. Bicycles with expensive components just ride and feel nicer than bicycles with identical looking cheap components. Any bicycle that sells new for less than four or five hundred dollars is likely junk.

I would try hard to buy from a local bike shop. Having the bicycle put together professionally and adjusted to the buyer’s needs is a huge part of the purchase. (Yes, Bike Fridays are an exception to this, and that is a negative of Bike Fridays, they are shipped to the buyer disassembled in a box from Oregon.)

I hardly ever cycle intentionally in the rain. Whenever a shower appears imminent I seek shelter. Nevertheless I sometimes I get caught in the rain and get wet. At temperatures over sixty-eight degrees I do not attempt to put on a raincoat. I would rather get my clothes wet than sweat inside a supposedly waterproof jacket. On colder trips I carry a raincoat but I am not satisfied with my rain protection; that is something I am still working on. I have plastic fenders on the bicycle to keep my body and bicycle from the mud and rain that stay on the road long after the rain has stopped falling. Since I carry separate sets of “street” and sleeping clothes in my trunk bag, I spend a lot of effort to insure that my spare clothes stay absolutely dry.

Since it is currently summer I have trouble thinking about the winter, but I do have a whole list of practices about cycling in the cold. Simplified: gloves for your hands and a stretchy balaclava for your head under your helmet, are key. You should bring several layers of light nylon and take off clothing as you warm up.

My bicycle trip for newbies, especially those in my part of the country: Get up very early one morning and put two bicycles in the back of your car; drive to BWI airport, Baltimore MD. Park somewhere near the airport, the BWI Airport Rail Station parking garage might work well. There is a paved bicycle path that goes around the BWI airport property in both directions. You can follow this on Google Maps, be sure to turn on the “bicycling” function. After the bike path loops around the airport this connects to the short John Overstreet Connector which connects to the seventeen mile long Baltimore and Annapolis Trail. This former rail line heads in a straight line through residential suburbs and brings you to the bridge that connects to downtown Annapolis MD. The bike ride is twenty something miles each way.

Annapolis MD is a lovely eighteenth century city with nice bars and restaurants. Stay in central old town Annapolis in a hotel and have a nice dinner somewhere. Bicycle back to your car at BWI the next day. You will have a wonderful one night getaway.

It was time to get back on the road. I had been thinking of bicycling from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Michigan for several years. I knew almost nothing of the area, other than there is an easy direct Amtrak train the two hundred miles from Grand Rapids MI to Chicago. Why not fly to Chicago, bicycle to Grand Rapids over several days, then return to Chicago by Amtrak?

My friend Lyman was also chomping at the bit to bicycle somewhere. He lives in Austin TX; I live in Chapel Hill NC. Whatever the weather was like in Chicago and Michigan it certainly had to be cooler than the summer furnace climates both of us live in. We both were drowning in unused American Airlines frequent flier miles and there are nonstops to Chicago from both cities. This would be my first airplane ride since Covid began a year and a half ago.

Both flights were scheduled to land about the same time on a Saturday morning. We planned to meet at O’Hare airport at 10:45 AM, each of us having checked a Bike Friday in a suitcase. On arrival I exited my airplane, walking toward baggage claim. It had been weird to be wearing a mask for such an extended period.

All was fine until I received a text from Lyman, saying that his flight was still on the ground back in Austin TX. There was a mechanical problem with his airplane, and he would be at least two hours late.

What to do? Our plan had been to take the CTA subway to downtown Chicago with the bicycles still in the suitcases, then put the bicycles together downtown. Lyman had found a downtown luggage storage deal on the internet, to hold the empty suitcases for five days. By the time I learned of his delay I had already passed through security and I was lugging around a suitcase-with-a-bicycle-in-it. I learned (later to be confirmed by a Yelp search) that there is almost nowhere to eat or drink at O’Hare airport except on the airplane side of security. The difficult exception was the on-airport O’Hare Hilton Hotel. Getting there was a bit of a hike with a heavy suitcase but once in the basement of the Hilton a huge chicken sandwich washed down with a beer really hit the spot.

Finally Lyman did indeed show up. I had saved half of my Hilton chicken sandwich for him, and he made short work of that. We found our way to the on-airport CTA subway to the city. The CTA turnstiles now accept a credit card just by waving the card above the turnstile checker. It took about twenty stops and forty-five minutes but we walked above ground into central Chicago, looking for a sidewalk spot where we could put the bicycles together.

There is a bicycle in each of the large suitcases.
the Bike Friday emerges, piece by piece, photo by Lyman Labry

It took about half an hour for us to put the bicycles together and be ready to go. We dropped off the empty suitcases at the storage spot, a Seven-Eleven (!). We took off by bicycle, first eastward towards the lake, then south along the lakefront. We each were carrying a small trunk bag as our luggage for five days. Lakefront Trail is a godsend for bicyclists. On other trails in other cities I have noticed constant near collisions between pedestrians and cyclists on these paths. Along the lakefront Chicago has constructed separate trails for walking and bicycling. They prohibit pedestrians on the bicycle trail.

We headed south. We soon stopped near the Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park, just south of downtown, and checked in with our friend Bob. Bob and his wife Helena normally live in Tampa FL; his wife Helena grew up in Hyde Park. Bob and Helena were in town to fix up the apartment she had inherited from her late parents and Bob met us at the lakefront. He showed us the spot where Helena has done long distance swims in the lake. We chatted for half an hour, but Lyman and I had to get pedaling. It was about 5:00 PM and we still had a long way to go.

Bob
Lyman and Bob

Downtown Chicago is often called The Loop, and the Indiana state line is about seventeen miles south of it. We had booked an Airbnb in central Hammond IN, about ten miles further south of the state line. The Lakefront Trail allowed us to bypass sketchy south side Chicago neighborhoods, before we had to turn inland to cycle around various small bodies of water that protrude from Lake Michigan. This South Side lakefront landscape had miles and miles of former industrial sites, many now totally empty.

This is the ride we were to take over the next five days.

After the Lakefront Trail ended we jostled through southern suburbs. In both Illinois and Indiana we bicycled past bungalows and worker cottages, most built in the distinctive Chicago style.

We cycled up to our Airbnb at about 6:30 PM. It was nicer than it looks from the outside; a basement apartment of this house in a conventional neighborhood in Hammond IN. There were two double beds and essentially two bedrooms in the basement. We had been cycling in light drizzle with the temperature was in the low seventies. We felt relieved to be at our day’s destination.

Lyman and I enjoyed meeting the Airbnb proprietors, a couple and their young daughter. After we had showered and gotten our stuff together, we got back on the bicycles to cycle one mile to go out to eat. The proprietors were hanging out on their porch.

Dinner at the very old school Freddy’s Steak House in central Hammond IN was only just OK. In hindsight we were too creative with our orders (grilled lake perch was fresh tasting but not filling enough; Lyman’s steak sandwich was leathery.) We should have split a large steak instead. The universal first course of bean soup was likely out of a can but still satisfied on this chilly evening.

The shelves of our Airbnb basement were filled with books I would not otherwise have known about.

The proprietors had strongly recommended we visit Les Cafe Pancake House for breakfast the next day. It was filled with families and what looked like church groups on this Sunday morning. Inspirational bible verses were on the walls. Breakfast was pleasantly filling. Banners of military veterans labelled as Hometown Heroes lined the streets of town.

I had spent half an hour in my bed that morning plotting a route to bicycle across the infamously decrepit Gary IN, a town famous to me because of the song in The Music Man, as well as the birthplace of Michael Jackson. Further mapwork revealed a surprisingly thorough network of paved rail trails across northern Indiana, a network that was too nice to pass up. We would have to miss Gary and pass just south of it. Cycling on rail trails without car traffic is indeed relaxing as we ambled across northern Indiana.

We had come north from North Carolina and Texas to get away from the summer heat and we certainly had succeeded. Skies this day were overcast and drizzly with a temperature that leveled off at about sixty-five all day.

wet but otherwise delightful rail-trail in northern Indiana

It was over forty miles to Michigan City, Indiana where we knew there were hotels. The map showed rail trails almost the whole way. Unknowingly we were succumbing to the frog-in-boiling-water trap. We cycled through an hour or more of drizzle so light as to be barely noticeable. That transitioned to light rain, we pretended not to care. By the time we had cycled into more remote wooded areas the light rain transitioned to heavy rain. Lyman had on a nice Showers Pass brand jacket of Gore-Tex like fabric and I had just a cycling shirt, but both rainwear strategies were failures. We both got very wet and were overcome with shivering if we stopped exercising. I could no longer take photos because I had to keep my phone and camera dry.

In the rain we transitioned into Indiana Dunes National Park, expecting sand dunes and the continuation of the smooth paved trail, as the map showed Calumet Trail just inland from Lake Michigan. Calumet Trail turned out to be a rutty dirt road next to some woods and under a power line, surfaced with two or three inch bumpy gravel, almost impassible with our narrow high pressure bicycle tires. Every few hundred feet there were giant rain-filled potholes. Soaking wet and shivering, we struggled along for about five miles before finding an off-ramp where we could cycle in the rain on a conventional highway. We were at our wit’s end as we limped into the town of Michigan City, Indiana at about four or five in the afternoon.

We thought we would have to subject ourselves to further danger and humiliation by having to cycle two miles on a major highway in the rain out to the Interstate Highway interchange, where the only motels on the Hotels Dot Com app were clustered. Michigan City, Indiana is a faded lakefront industrial town about five miles from the Michigan state line. Its claim to fame is that it is the home of Indiana State Prison. Standing under a restaurant overhang to stay out of the rain, at the last minute I located one possibility on Google Maps in downtown Michigan City, the Bridge Inn. I phoned from a few blocks away. Yes they had one apartment suite left, two single beds. They had no office but the guy would meet us in the parking lot. The room suite and the hotel turned out to be quite nice. I took this photo the next morning after it had stopped raining.

Our luck improved further when we learned that the hotel owners, three sisters, also owned the Bridges Waterside Grille across the parking lot. After cleaning up and drying out, we found seats at the Caribbeanesque outdoor bar. It was still drizzling, with temperatures in the sixties. People in this part of the country know to always bring a jacket, even in the summer. Everyone was drinking hard liquor.

I sat next to the couple on the far left in the above photograph. They live in Crawfordsville IN, a hundred miles to the south. The two had been travelling whenever possible the past couple years, looking for a place to retire. Their list of places to retire included the entire state of Florida, coastal South Carolina, and Michigan City, Indiana. (!)

We also met people who had come to Michigan City just to vacation.

Lyman got a cheeseburger, as I recollect.

I took the recommendation of the bartender and got the fried lake perch dinner, served drunken, which meant the addition of a spicy heavy coating. It ranks among the best fried fish I remember eating.

We cycled out of post-industrial Michigan City the next morning.

Looking out of our hotel room window at the Michigan City “yacht harbor” an Amtrak train passes every day over this incredibly rusty swing bridge.
Brutalism, downtown Michigan City IN

This video by Lyman Labry is only seven seconds long.

Cycling northward we discovered that there is a whole world of vacation towns along this shore of Lake Michigan, stretching northward. For the next three days, in the post-pandemic summer pandemic rush, everything, especially hotels and restaurants, were extremely crowded.

From Michigan City north to the Michigan line and beyond we cycled along the road accessing miles of lakefront vacation homes that front Lake Michigan and the sand dunes.

Lyman always wants a protein filled breakfast but on this day we had delayed it by ten miles; waiting to eat until we arrived in New Buffalo, Michigan, which we discovered is very much a tourist town, with yacht harbors and t-shirt shops.

At 10:00 AM on a Monday there was a wait for a table at Rosie’s, named after my dog back in Chapel Hill NC. I worried a little about Covid even though both Lyman and I are fully vaccinated. On hears about parts of America being vaccine hesitant and inside Rosie’s all the people were maskless and jammed together. I forced myself to ignore this and enjoy the breakfast.

I got the chorizo and eggs

Back on the bicycles we headed northward. When possible we stayed on the residential street directly along the Lake Michigan shoreline, looking at rich people’s houses facing the lake.

Owing to the rain the previous day we had not seen much of a Lake Michigan sand dune in Indiana Dunes National Park, but we certainly did this day in Michigan’s Warren Dunes State Park, which also had a public beach.

Those tiny specks in the above photo are people walking up the dune
Lyman and Lake Michigan

About twenty miles further was the double city of St. Joseph / Benton Harbor MI where we had decided to spend the night. St. Joseph had a busy downtown with souvenir shops; the Lake Michigan beach nearby down a steep hill.

We had a beer on the sidewalk of St. Joseph MI and looked at the tourists (were we one of them?). We searched on my phone for a place to spend the night. There were two hotels in St. Joseph that had rooms, but each cost over three hundred dollars for a two double bed hotel room. Furthermore, we decided the vibe in St. Joseph was just a little too cutesy for us. Only a couple miles away, on the other side of the St. Joseph River, was the city of Benton Harbor. I had heard the name Benton Harbor because I knew from somewhere that it was and is the headquarters of appliance maker Whirlpool. Airbnb offered a what turned out to be a really nice full apartment in downtown Benton Harbor. We accepted online and biked over there.

We had codes to get into the apartment but we ran into the proprietors and enjoyed chatting with them. Downtown Benton Harbor looks essentially abandoned but these guys told us of several restaurants. I have since learned from Wikipedia that Benton Harbor’s population is 89% African-American, although I saw no African-Americans in my brief stay in its downtown.

our Airbnb proprietors
The Airbnb was on the third floor of this nineteenth century building
Interior of our apartment. I slept on the sofa in the living room.
I told Lyman he could have the bedroom

The apartment had a great television and was really spacious. It even had a fully stocked kitchen for us to make our own breakfast the next day. It turned out that the two restaurants those guys had told us about were really the only places to eat dinner in Benton Harbor. This must say something about America. The one restaurant that was open was Houndstooth, a fancy place with entree prices over thirty dollars. It sounded good but we were just not in the mood for Big Food, at least not this day. The other place The Livery which features pizza, sounded great but was closed on Mondays. We had to carry the bicycles down the stairs to the street and cycle a couple of miles to the restaurant of a hotel in St. Joseph. It looked out over the harbor. It was crowded, with a long line to get a table. We discovered almost no one was at the bar around the hotel swimming pool, where we learned we could order food. A shared charcuterie plate really hit the spot.

From our pool bar vantage point we enjoyed watching a huge Great Lakes freighter departing from the harbor. We did not know but wondered what specific cargo this Canadian flag vessel had discharged here. We imagined the ship must look a lot like the Edmund Fitzgerald, in Gordon Lightfoot’s song, also a huge single purpose vessel built to carry one bulk commodity on normally flat seas.

The next morning we took the opportunity from the Airbnb and cooked our own breakfast but we had to use the ingredients we were given; Oatmeal, then Eggo waffles, bacon, and eggs.

The cycling this day went through a landscape that was more wooded and less populated, interspersed with a couple of the resort towns that line the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Our day’s halfway point would be the town of South Haven. The last five miles into town were on this excellent bike trail.

Van Buren State Park Trail

South Haven MI was the most touristy spot we had seen on this trip; people were all over the streets of town, apparently just wanting to walk around the streets.

There was a coffee place downtown and we got lattes. We also found a bike shop for some chain lubricant. We wanted some kind of light lunch. What to look for? Tacos, especially since Lyman came here from Texas, seemed destined for failure. Why not that Midwest standout, the hot dog? A walkup hot dog place in Saugatuck had all sorts of styles, each with the same price of five dollars. Lyman got the Detroit style (chili and onions), I got Chicago.

Chicago style hot dog, but in Michigan

Back on the road heading north we were in lovely wooded terrain.

We rolled into Saugatuck MI at about four in the afternoon. We still were not sure if we were going to continue on to the the larger town of Holland MI; twelve miles further north. Saugatuck MI was at least as crowded as any of the coastal resort towns we had visited but had a more upscale feel. Cape Cod or Nantucket on Lake Michigan.

Although we had no idea where were going to sleep that night and we already knew that all the hotels and restaurants were pretty full, Lyman and I responded by looking for a place to get a beer. We found The Mitten, a brew pub in an old house, named after the shape of Michigan on a map. We were able to get a seat because we were standing there when they opened at 5:00 PM. They had excellent pizza and beer. We could watch the scene walk by on the street.

View from the front porch of The Mitten

I had wanted to keep cycling the twelve miles to Holland MI but it became clear that it made much more sense to go to the one motel that we had found on my phone; their last room, out on the highway about two miles back in the direction we had come from. I hate going backwards, but whatever.

It was actually a pretty good motel. Standing and looking out the window of our room in the twilight we could see rabbits running around on the grass underneath all the fireflies.

photo by Lyman Labry

My original idea of this trip was to cycle to Grand Rapids MI in the allotted five days. To keep this plan and our airplane and Amtrak reservations we would need to cycle more than fifty miles the next day.

Our motel just south of Saugatuck had free pre-packaged bad breakfast, and after packing up we cycled back through Saugatuck and then the twelve miles to Holland MI, arriving there mid-morning.

Holland MI is aptly named, as it was settled by Dutch religious fundamentalists (also described as Dutch Calvinist separatists) starting in the 1840’s. A significant percentage of the population of the Holland / Grand Rapids area still claims Dutch heritage and religious tradition, including Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I had heard that Holland MI has such a vibrant downtown that many people come to visit just for the urbanism. We cycled into downtown Holland and found this pleasant looking local coffee place. We stopped and got a latte, sitting outside in those wonderful plastic Adirondack chairs.

We started cycling again.

Modernist bank branch, Holland MI

It was still almost forty miles cycling to Grand Rapids MI. Some of that Dutch cycling aura must have rubbed off on planners around here. In grids of farm roads through the Michigan countryside, in an area where bicycle paths are not even really necessary, there were enough bicycle paths that we were able to bicycle most of the way from Holland to Grand Rapids on separated paths.

bike path in rural Michigan

Grand Rapid’s city population is only 200,000 but it felt like a much bigger city. I have learned that for a Midwestern city its economy has been doing quite well, home of several major industries, including furniture manufacturers like Herman Miller, and Amway, seller of questionable dreams. Over twenty years ago, we had friends in Carrboro/Chapel Hill NC who had to move to Grand Rapids for family reasons. They described Grand Rapids as having “the charm of Charlotte with the weather of Buffalo.” I found it nicer than that.

Our accommodations showed the strengths and weaknesses of Airbnb. Each Airbnb has its own story; read the descriptions and reviews carefully. Here in Grand Rapids for the price of a nice hotel we could get an eighth floor two bedroom, two bath apartment in a new-looking building with an outdoor balcony in a good location. Once inside we found the apartment practically perfect.

Downsides: I had to sign all sorts of non-Airbnb legal release forms my cellphone. I had several tense texts with a non-Airbnb “customer representative” who had a San Antonio, Texas area code, and she gave us special verbiage to use if anyone asked why we were in this building. When finally approved for occupancy I was given the combination to a lockbox to pick up a key, which turned out to be almost two miles away, and I had to bicycle there in the heat of the day through traffic up a steep hill, after I had already bicycled more than fifty miles that day! The entire process did not involve any person to person contact.

bizarre “boxes” in a hipster looking part of Grand Rapids, where I chose “my box” and entered a combination, in order to retrieve a key to an apartment two miles away in a high rise.

Dinner that night was delicious, although I was suspicious of any restaurant with that names itself the French / Italian bastardization “Bistro Bella Vita.”

The restaurant had a huge open interior space, full of people eating, which is a good sign, and it had outdoor seating available, which made us more comfortable in these Covid times. Lyman really wanted the steak frites, even though the price of $52.00 was, in my mind, insane. We told the restaurant we wanted to split the steak frites and it was actually perfect, both portions plenty to eat and nicely presently as if ordered separately. With a split fried calamari appetizer and a split $ 36.00 bottle of pinot noir, the whole meal was not ridiculously expensive.

For dessert we got Asian ice cream takeout and sat on our balcony, listening to the roar of the nearby freeway (a real downside to this apartment if you lived here full time) and looking at the city.

Looking the other direction, the city’s Van Andel Arena, named after the Dutch surnamed man who co-founded Amway, a company characterized by many as a pyramid scheme.

The Grand Rapids Amtrak station was only about a quarter mile from our Airbnb. We cycled there at 5:30 AM for a 6:00 AM departure. Other than having to wear a mask the whole time, the four hour train ride was great. This particular train took full size bicycles, no need to fold, for a $10.00 fee.

We got to Chicago early enough that we could cycle around Chicago for a few hours, including cycling the six miles from The Loop north to Wrigley Field, then back along the Lakefront.

We had a healthy $ 7.00 Middle Eastern lunch downtown at a place called Oasis Cafe, in the back of jewelry store, of all places. My eggplant sandwich was delicious. We retrieved our suitcases and put the bicycles in them before taking the CTA subway back to O’Hare for the flights home late that afternoon.

Many of you know that my son Sam Marshall died on April 24, 2021. He had been living in Vietnam, teaching English. It has been a difficult time for me, my wife Tootie and our son Jack.

Sam and I did not take many bike trips together but we had done other stuff instead. I did take a bicycle trip with him in South Florida in 2013, riding from Fort Lauderdale to Key West.

I do not think that I grieve in a way that one walks around being sad or overwhelmed. I really need to keep my mind moving. Bicycling is the best way I know to do the exercise that absolves my soul. Yes, I am seeing a grief therapist, but the bicycling is fundamental to my sanity.

I have been cycling around pretty much every day the two months since April, Most days I take one of the loops around my town. Except for very short rides around the Carrboro/Chapel Hill downtown, Chapel Hill is not a very good urban bicycling destination. There are steep hills. Except for a few streets, most paved roads are either huge arterial highways or dead end residential areas. One has to look to find local rides. I have constructed a few loops around town that are both safe and interesting, connecting residential streets. My biggest complaint is that I get bored with taking the same rides over and over. The shorter loop of about an hour and a half I have dubbed The Meadowmont Loop, named after the faux-ville (New Urbanist development) that that the ride intersects. My most common longer ride of 3 – 4 hours I have dubbed The Paco Loop, from Chapel Hill to Durham and back, in one direction first to Southpoint Mall, then to Durham on American Tobacco Trail. I like coffee houses away from home, I can get a coffee in Durham, read a little, then bicycle home, mostly on Old Chapel Hill Road.

Immediately west of Chapel Hill and Carrboro there is world class cycling on lovely rural smoothly paved country roads, usually with sparse traffic. I have cycled out there many times in the past two months including a route that for years has been dubbed The Tootie Loop. Cyclists often refer to the area as “Dairyland”, named after Dairyland Road. I enjoy cycling out there but I admit that I have a preference for cycling through more interesting urban feeling neighborhoods.

At least once during this time I rode to Mebane, which is essentially a ride west to Dairyland, but ones keeps going, a little over twenty miles each way. There is a nice coffee place in downtown Mebane. Side story: A friend of a friend has lived his whole life in California. Retiring, he and his wife looked and studied all over the USA where to buy a second home, somewhere on the East Coast. Before even visiting there they had determined that Mebane NC was the place, somewhere most people in North Carolina have hardly noticed.

Sometimes I put the bicycle in the car and drive somewhere, to mix things up. One day recently I parked our car half an hour’s car drive from home, near the Whole Foods off Wade Avenue in Raleigh, then bicycled the twenty miles each way to Clayton and back.

Garner Road, also called Old U.S. Highway 70 is a pleasant cycle as it meanders the sixteen miles from downtown Raleigh to Clayton. Perhaps because it passes through the least trendy side of Raleigh it remains a road stuck in the past, a rarity in the fast growing Raleigh diaspora. One can see several historic gas stations.

Mid century modern!
This is the only likely pre-WWII gas station I have seen that still sells gas.
VFW hall
used appliances

In its small downtown Clayton NC has a great local coffee house, the Boulevard West. I drank an almond milk latte, two sugars, then headed back to Raleigh.

The southeast side of Raleigh is traditionally the African American side of town. Gentrifiers, presumably young and white, are moving into these neighborhoods, building boxy contemporary houses.

Almost within walking distance of downtown Raleigh

On May 20-21 our friends Lyman and Gillian were in town from Texas to close on the house they have bought in Durham. Lyman and I stole away for twenty-eight hours to take an overnight tour. We drove the now-fixed Prius an hour and a half north to the obscure Virginia hamlet of Sussex Courthouse. We would cycle from there the thirty miles to Petersburg VA then cycle back the next day. We parked in the municipal lot and pulled our two Bike Fridays out.

Lyman loves historic courthouses; he checked this one out. It was built about 1830.

Sussex Courthouse VA

The land in the entire sixty or seventy miles from the North Carolina state line along I-85 north to Petersburg VA is very sparsely populated. Nothing seems to have changed out here for generations. It is lovely cycling as we passed through miles of timber, hardly any car traffic.

Petersburg VA is an underappreciated small city 25 miles south of Richmond VA. There are historic neighborhoods full of eighteenth and nineteenth century houses.

Petersburg VA
1830’s row houses, Petersburg VA

We arrived in Petersburg and found a bar and got beers at an outdoor space. We had both been vaccinated but still felt more comfortable in the open air. We sat near two women from the U.K.; one of them protesting loudly when she heard me talking about some now-forgotten subject, interrupting when she heard me describe the Scottish as “gentle and forgiving.”

That night we stayed in an Airbnb, Lyman sleeping on the bed and I racking out on the sofa in the front room. For only about a hundred dollars total I would recommend this Airbnb to anyone, it has all the details right. It is described on Airbnb as “Historic Home C.1869 English Basement Apt.” Its owner living above is a Dutch guy who says he had been living in nearby Richmond for thirty years before moving recently to Petersburg. There are Dutch language books on the shelves.

Halfway back cycling the next day I felt an urgent need to play music. It was the middle of nowhere. I have a cheap ukulele that I sometimes bring on these trips. I had been singing this song in my head all morning, from an obscure 1973 album by the band Wilderness Road. I had not played the song ever, or at least in the past forty years. I was a little off key and I could not remember all the words. Video by Lyman.

Lyman and got back to the car with no problem and we drove home to Durham and Chapel Hill. The next day I was up early again, cycling around Chapel Hill, trying to keep my sanity.