There is a guy, Tom Goode, who like me, is from Virginia Beach. He is a retired teacher and a ZZ Top fan. He has been my friend for sixty-three of our sixty-seven years. We have seen each other only intermittently in recent years but have stayed in touch. Tom has lived in the western part of Germany for over thirty years, near where he taught high school at the American military base Ramstein. I had never been to see him in Germany and wanted to see where he lived. He and his wife wanted to cycle with us for part of any bicycle trip. I booked tickets to fly to Frankfurt in late July 2022 and to stay for two weeks.

There is another guy: Lyman Labry, of Austin, TX. He has cycled with me many times. He agreed to go on this expedition.

Tom helped Lyman and me to discover that the Moselle River valley is a superb bike ride. Lyman and I cycled most of a riverside route that stretches over three hundred kilometers from Koblenz, Germany to Nancy, France and beyond. We were blessed with great weather for biking, almost no rain and low humidity, only on the edge of being too hot. Sadly this is a part of a drought that is withering this region.

I had been hesitant to visit Germany because I knew nothing about speaking German. I had learned reasonably good Spanish and had parlayed that into semi-facility with French, Italian, and Portuguese. In Germany I would have to find people who spoke English.

Flying from different cities, Lyman and I landed Frankfurt Airport about the same time on the morning of Thursday July 21. Both of us had Bike Fridays that fit in a suitcase. We had to store the suitcases somewhere during our trip. I resolved this by booking a hotel near the airport for one night two weeks hence and asking the hotel to store the cases for us. We had all sorts of problems finding the hotel after we took a taxi to a Frankfurt suburb, the near-airport town of Kelsterbach. We put the bicycles together on a sidewalk in front of the Kelsterbach train station.

After a Middle Eastern lunch we commenced cycling in the early afternoon. It felt good to be outside and moving around, despite not really having slept much on an overnight flight. We were starting about fifteen kilometers from downtown Frankfurt but heading west, the opposite direction. There is a delightful bike path along the Main River. It would be an easy twenty-six kilometers to the city of Mainz. This is a map of the first three days of cycling, before Tom drove over and picked us up in his car.

cycling along the Main River

The Germans seemed to spare no expense in building this lovely bike path bridge over a canal.

We continued cycling up to the city of Mainz which sits at the junction of the Main and the Rhine Rivers. We had to segue through various bridges and roads to get downtown.

downtown Mainz

Maybe I should have booked a hotel in advance. Downtown rooms in Mainz seemed scarce. Google Maps referred to something called Erbacher Hof, which turned out to be a hotel owned by the Catholic church. We stopped by and asked if they had rooms. They did, sixty-something Euro each per night for single rooms, including breakfast, a very good deal. (Note: during this trip the Euro and the Dollar were essentially equal.). Some Catholic guy on the wall seemed to watch as Lyman checked in.

The rooms were small and spartan and spotlessly clean, with TV’s and balconies. It was part of a modernist church complex that overlooks other churches. In the morning there was a lot of ringing of bells.

hotel courtyard

view from hotel balcony

I had recently stayed in various American hotels in Connecticut, most that included a free breakfast where everything was prepackaged and, in my mind, generally disgusting. The free breakfast here in Mainz made me ashamed to be an American. Here in Germany everything was inviting, fresh bread, real food. Not pictured: excellent muesli and yogurt, even bacon and eggs.

As I was to discover, Germans are quite into Italian food; olive oil and balsamic vinegar, German brands, Italian names

After breakfast we got on the bikes and started cycling south along the Rhine River. Our day’s destination was to be the city of Worms. There was a paved bike path most of the way.

bike path along the Rhine

Lyman cycling through vineyards

We stopped for lunch at a trailer-like snack stand along the highway. What could be more German than bratwurst mit brochen? It was too much meat for me, we split this and then went to another place across the street for ice cream.

Cycling further on, mid-afternoon we stopped at a beer garden along the bike trail. How German.

the author and beer

Next to the beer garden was a house was flying the Confederate flag, from the American Civil War 165 years ago. Hmmm. What does that have to do with Germany? The internet suggests several possibilities, including the fact that Nazi flags are illegal in Germany.

On pulling out by bicycle something disconnected my rear derailleur cable, possibly from contact with the metal bike rack at the beer garden. I could not figure out the problem on my own and had to pedal the final thirteen kilometers to Worms in the largest gear. We stopped at a small bike shop on the outskirts of Worms but the helpful guy did not have the parts to replace the SRAM brand derailleur cable screw. (Why not Shimano, he asked.) He adjusted it so at least I was riding in a more neutral gear. I would have to fix it later.

We found two low cost hotel rooms in central Worms. There was no air conditioning in these attic-like rooms but they seem to air out when we opened the windows. We established a precedent for this trip where every night each of us got his own room, two low cost separate rooms rather than one nicer room. It was hot outside but only one hotel on this entire trip had air conditioning.

Dinner at a Greek restaurant was delightful. There was moussaka. During these still COVID times on this two week trip we ate essentially every restaurant meal outdoors. The weather was almost universally perfect for this.

Greek restaurant in Worms

We had breakfast the next morning at chain-like restaurant.

breakfast on the streets of Worms, Germany

Lyman’s career was as an architect in historic preservation. He always insisted we look inside churches, including this cathedral at Worms.

Outside the Worms cathedral. I do not know who this guy is.

Our biking destination for the day was the smaller city of Speyer, fifty kilometers further south along the Rhine. My friend Tom Goode had said it was a picturesque town and he would drive over and pick us up there. Cycling down the Rhine, the river spreads into marshlands. Quite a lot of the ride was on bike paths through wooded areas.

Some of the ride was through neighborhoods on public roads. Even then the bicycle route was well marked. The Germans have a fascinatingly efficient means of slowing traffic without the need for speed bumps.

This is a two way street. The car in the center is moving. The silver car on the left and the yellow van on the right are parked, as they are apparently encouraged to be. The arrangement forces cars to drive really, really slowly.

The town of Speyer is on the Rhine twenty something kilometers south and west of the larger cities Mannheim and Heidelberg. It was midday Saturday and the streets were full of people, although everyone wanted to sit in the shade of outdoor umbrellas, since it was about ninety degrees (F) outside.

Germans and their focus on Italy, “eis-cafe” becomes “Gelateria Italiana”

Lyman wanted to see inside the Speyer Cathedral. We could bike right up to it.

Lyman and I then biked the half mile downhill to the Rhine to wait for Tom Goode and his wife Jana to arrive in their car. It was great to see them. They live about a hundred kilometers to the west, in a rural area near the village of Horingen and somewhat near the larger city of Kaiserslautern. We would go visit to their house before starting to cycle with them the next day.

On the drive to their house they stopped at a wine store they knew, in a small town, and found out it was having a Saturday afternoon outdoor five Euro unlimited wine tasting. Tom says the Germans are always having “events.” We all had a good time. In addition to all the wine they eventually ordered two flammkuchen, which I learned is NOT pizza, it is a German dish, a local flatbread with cheese or other toppings.

Jana (left) and Tom. She is originally from Slovakia.

Tom and Jana’s home is an impressive abode; a former water mill surrounded by pastures where they can keep their three horses. They posed as American Gothic in front of the house.

Tom Goode
they thoughtfully put the these over the horse’s heads to keep the flies out of their eyes

Tom built this catwalk so his cats could walk into the kitchen window!

The next morning we had a peaceful breakfast on Tom and Jana’s patio. Afterwards, Tom and Jana drove the four of us and our four bicycles about a hundred kilometers further west to the town of Traben-Trarbach, on the Moselle River. They had cycled in this area before and spoke highly of the route. We parked the cars and prepared to cycle. First we had to go out for ice cream. Germans like a big selection of fancy ice cream concoctions.

We started cycling north (downstream) along the Moselle. We had all made reservations to stay that night in the village of Beilstein, sixty kilometers to the north.

Lyman

three old guys

Jana and Tom

German village just before we arrived at another village Beilstein.

In this part of Germany and nearby France, finding villages that were not burned down in one of the two World Wars is difficult. Tom was instrumental in telling us about Beilstein (population 130), we might have missed it even on a bicycle, a historic enclave wedged between mountains and the Moselle River. The town is now a tourist magnet. I only got decent photos of Beilstein at night.

The tiny town is filled with hotels. We all had dinner together at Tom and Jana’s hotel, our best meal in Germany. We sat outside on the terrace overlooking the Moselle River and drank local rieslings. We shared a ceviche appetizer. I had a seafood entree.

The next morning my hotel had an excellent breakfast but at the breakfast bar I found portraits of the hotel owners creepy.

Tom looking out his hotel window

After breakfast the four of us cycled further north to the town of Cochem. We stopped at a bike shop and Tom helpfully convinced them to look at my bicycle that was stuck in one gear. The shop had creative older mechanics and spliced Shimano parts onto the SRAM derailleur. Problem fixed!

Cochem is the home of the Reichsburg Cochem, a thousand year old castle that was colorfully redone in the late nineteenth century. We dragged our bikes up a steep hill.

Jana and Tom in front of Reichsburg Cochem

Tom and Jana could only be out for one night because they had to take care of their animals back home, and we went with them back toward their cars. We started cycling back south, then took a train for much of the way. At a riverside town we had a nice German lunch of schnitzel. A salad was included as first course.

my schnitzel. How German.

the obligatory side of potatoes

After lunch we cycled further south and arrived back at Tom and Jana’s cars. They loaded their bikes and headed home. It had been great to see them. Lyman and I continued south upriver by bicycle. This map shows our ride with Tom and Jana plus the next two days of cycling the Moselle, showing the route as the Moselle sharply winds through hilly countryside.

Lyman and I continued on a lovely bike path.

along the Moselle

We stayed that night in the picturesque town of Bernkastel-Kues. On arriving into town we immediately stopped and ordered beers at a cafe on the sidewalk. We had to decide our next move, including where to sleep that night.

While pondering what to do next, singing sounds came from one block away but we could not see what the singing was about. I walked over to look. (I love public unison singing.) There was a group people with letters that spell out FREIHEIT which I learned (because of Google on my phone) spells FREEDOM. (there were other words being spelled as well, I missed those!) I took it as some kind of right-wing demonstration but I am not sure. Everyone seemed happy and peaceful. I still kick myself for not asking someone what it was about. I guess I will never know.

Around the corner we found low cost hotel rooms at a place owned by and next to a South Asian restaurant. We wanted to eat there but they had only indoor seating. No place looked to be serving German food. The busiest restaurant was Italian. This being Germany, we were worried that they were about to close, as many restaurants in Germany stop taking orders at 8:00 PM. We finally got a table indoors but next to an open window. We each got a soup (cream of tomato and Minestrone) and then split a pizza. With a bottle of wine and coffees, it was only EUR 49.50 for two and delicious; a meal we enjoyed lingering over. Eating out here is definitely lower cost than the USA, even after having been hustled to buy a bottle of overpriced Italian water.

The next morning I walked around town waiting for Lyman to wake up.

in the window of a store that sells German hunting clothing

That day we headed again up the Moselle River as it cut through the otherwise hilly landscape. There was a bike path that threads through river views and vineyards.

Lunch that day was in the town of Trittenheim. Once again the best looking restaurant in this German town advertised itself as Italian; the Ristorante Pinocchio. We had delicious salads accompanied by a bottle of local (German) riesling wine.

We cycled further on to the much larger town of Trier where we spent the night. While being nowhere near Rome this German town has several impressive structures left by the Roman Empire almost two thousand years ago.

Porta Nigra city gate, built by the Romans about 200 AD, Trier, Germany

Aula Palatina, built about 300 AD

part of Roman baths built in 300-400 AD

Highway bridge still in use, built by the Romans in 170 AD, renovated in the 1700’s with new brickwork

Trier also has an impressive cathedral, the oldest one Germany, parts of which date to 300-400 AD but renovated and rebuilt several times. We walked around inside.

I read online that even though German Catholics are going to church less and less, and very few agree with the Church’s social stances, because Germans keep checking a box on their tax returns, the German Catholic Church gets government funding and is consequently among the wealthiest in the world.

We had decided to keep cycling upriver south on the Moselle, at least as far as Nancy, France, which would be two more days cycling. Starting just south of Trier the river forms the border between Germany and Luxembourg, before crossing into France.

our route along the Moselle from Trier, Germany to Nancy, France

Our destination this day would be the town of Perl, Germany. The nice bike path along the Moselle continued. Part of the way we bicycled on the Luxembourg side of the river.

For at least an hour or two we were in Luxembourg. We had salmon tartare at a somewhat snooty Luxembourg restaurant. Europeans seem to include fries with everything.

We cycled further upriver.

That evening the tiny town of Perl, Germany was the opposite of snooty. Less than a mile from the French border our German hotel was low cost and welcoming.

The only real place to eat that night in Perl was a friendly pizza joint around the corner. We enjoyed talking with a young German couple who were also cycling this route. The guy was a big fan of American Football. He said there was an upcoming NFL game to be played in Munich but he could not get tickets. He said the eighty thousand seats sold out in minutes.

pizza with arugula, Perl, Germany

The next morning after the hotel breakfast we cycled downhill into France. There was really no marker at the border, not even a Welcome To France sign.

Germany had been great but it was even better to be in France, I confess. I could communicate better, although still clumsily, and there was a je ne sais quoi feeling, maybe it was a little more relaxed.

The signs on the riverside bike path were less clear than in Germany, the path surface slightly bumpier.

It was past lunchtime when we started seeing the suburbs of Metz (city population 120,000.) We hungrily went into a suburban “outlet mall” (almost just like those America!) looking for a sandwich shop. The sandwiches had better bread than what you would find in America, of course, and we could eat outside on a picnic table.

French Outlet Mall

Back on the bikes, even closer to central Metz, where the bike trail meandered through an agricultural flood plain, we stumbled upon a fascinating outdoor venue, super low tech (the place barely had a bathroom) but with a nice vibe. We had to stop and drink a beer. Most patrons looked to have arrived by bicycle. There were plastic chairs and umbrellas. The guys who were likely the proprietors were two nattily dressed older men in Lacoste shirts.

More than anywhere we had been on this trip, Metz felt like a real city, a special urban place. I looked on TripAdvisor for restaurants in Metz and called for a reservation that night at somewhere called Au Petit Louis. I tried to talk in French but failed. They passed the phone over to somebody who spoke English. Lyman and I walked almost a mile from our downtown hotel to a leafy mid-town neighborhood and took a table outside on the sidewalk.

The meal started with a freebie, an amuse bouche of fresh tomato compote and bite sized terrine tarts, with a slice of strawberry on each.

We shared an appetizer of terrine, which I have learned is a cross between pate and meat loaf. Our main courses were rib eye steak for Lyman; fish for me. Not pictured: a separate cast iron pan of fried potatoes plus lots of French bread.

Coffee and dessert. Why not? We split this plate of fresh fruit covered with what I think was creme fraiche, maybe just whipped cream. Delicious.

The next morning we had breakfast at a bar on the street of central Metz; their breakfast special; coffee (any kind), croissant, and a large orange juice all for three Euro, delivered with a smile, on real plates to your table on the street. Normally I am not a huge fan of orange juice but that rush of sugar this day seemed to hit the spot.

The Metz cathedral is stunning. It has extensive stained glass windows made in various styles over seven hundred years, including twentieth century stylings from artists like Marc Chagall, with cubist and abstract windows complimenting the older styles.

twentieth century abstract windows

Metz is only thirty or forty miles north of the similar size city of Nancy. We again cycled following the Moselle River and canals that parallel it.

All was not perfect. We were in France not Germany. In a swampy region it was not clear which bicycle route was the best. We followed a fine gravel path along a canal until it degenerated into a rough gravel path, then, at a lock on the canal, a fence and a sign stating (in French) to go no further. What to do? A hiker about our age walked up. He sign-languaged us that everybody just walked around this fence. We waited for him to go first, then pushed our bicycles through a tiny opening in the fence.

breaking through the fence

Once through the fence the path degenerated into a rough narrow trail along the canal, lovely but bumpy.

Persistence paid off, and a few miles later the path grew wider, and then devolved into an actual paved road. The bike path along the Moselle somehow had continued!

At a town along the way we found a boulangerie that carried pre-made chicken sandwiches. We had lunch at a random picnic table along the trail.

The bike ride from Metz to Nancy should have been easy but it was more challenging than expected. It was mid afternoon on the hottest day of our entire trip. The bike “path” along the Moselle that we had taken since Germany for hundreds of kilometers was petering out. Signs for the bike route were no longer clear, the path was stopping and starting. We “needed” an ice cream but could not find even a country store. In the working class town of Custines we came upon a bar. Did they maybe have ice cream bars for sale? I opened the door and the place was filled with twenty or thirty middled aged men drinking beer; there were those semi-legal video gambling machines, just like one finds in out of the way places back in North Carolina. I felt uncomfortable. I smiled and left without saying anything.

Farther on we found a gas station that did have ice cream bars. I struggled to find a piece of shade. The only place to sit was the curb.

We refreshed ourselves enough that we got back on the bicycles and finally made it into the city of Nancy. I texted this photo to back home to my friend Nancy Karukas.

Our hotel in Nancy was in the old part of town, had low cost attic level rooms, and an amazing staircase. I had been thinking about the subject of stairways for years; why do commercial and apartment buildings back in the USA not have inviting staircases like those in Europe? The answer, I think, is that in USA fire codes require two exits for buildings, in most of Europe it is only one. I don’t think Europeans are massively burning up in buildings. Many Americans are overweight but we have to go out of our way to walk up stairs in our buildings. In Nancy I did not even consider the elevator.

The next day we stopped cycling along the Moselle and found another route. We had four days left to cycle on our trip, and we chose to stay in France, We would cycle along the Meurthe River, heading southeast of Nancy to Baccarat, then loop back towards Germany. This is the route of the finals days of our trip from Nancy to Saarbrucken, which sits on the German/French border.

We cycled the next morning through Nancy.

Heading out of town we followed a canal for as long as possible.

For the first time on this trip we cycled much of this day on regular highways, which usually were free of significant traffic and generally quite nice.

Halfway to Baccarat we stopped for lunch in the town of Luneville, which was a resort town in the 1700’s. The Chateau of Luneville, completed about 1720, resembles Versaille. There was no fence; you could bicycle right up to the building and its grounds.

Mostly at my insistence, we had tried to only eat at French restaurants in France. We had a nice French lunch in Luneville. Quiche Lorraine is named after this region.

Later that same day, in another smaller town, I noticed the only place to eat on a Saturday afternoon in rural France looked to be a pizza vending machine.

We cycled another twenty-five kilometers to the factory town of Baccarat, famous for being the home of Baccarat crystal. According the Wikipedia the company is owned by an Asian luxury goods consortium.

Baccarat, France

Baccarat crystal factory

In the window of their gift shop; decanter and six glasses, twenty-eight hundred Euro

Baccarat is a small town with only two real restaurants, a French one attached to our hotel and a nice looking Italian one two doors down.

Our hotel was not fancy but had the pretentious name Hotel de la Renaissance. We chose to eat dinner at its restaurant.

Like about every French restaurant we ate at on this trip, we were glad we made reservations, even if only an hour in advance. As in other places, when we sat down at eight o’clock the restaurant was not full but by nine o’clock every table was taken. French restaurants usually have only one seating per meal. None of the restaurants we ate at on this trip were expensive by American standards. Usually a fancy dinner for two cost about a hundred Euro including wine, dessert, and coffee.

One of us got the French version of prime rib, the other steak au poivre. We sat out back outdoors on their terrace as did just about everybody else.

We packed up to leave the next morning. We had both been noticing an odd steeple rising a few blocks distant.

It turned out to be a modernist Catholic Church built in 1954, to replace one destroyed in the War. On our way out of town Lyman quietly ignored the fact that a service was going on and snuck inside to take pictures.

photo by Lyman Labry

photo by Lyman Labry

It was Sunday. We cycled through country roads with little traffic.

There were almost no towns with hotels on this stretch of highway. That morning online I had reserved two motel-like rooms at a marina for boats traveling the canals, on the periphery of a town called Niderviller. In the late afternoon no one was in the office so we had to wait around.

Our hotel rooms were on the second floor of this building

Within walking distance of the marina was one restaurant, the Auberge du Tannenheim. Nothing else was around and almost everything was closed on Sunday. We had to wait until it opened at 6:30 PM so we could get beers. We were lucky we arrived early as we were told that almost all the outdoor tables had been reserved!

We delayed eating for a while as we wanted to just enjoy our beers. Eventually we did order, both of us got big salads followed by pizza. His was salade nicoise, mine advertised as being a salad of this Lorraine region.

Coffee and dessert? Bien sur! Lyman got a banana split.

We stayed until it had gotten dark. A few others lingered as well.

The next morning we cycled a few kilometers into the nearby larger town of Sarrebourg and got breakfast at a cafe.

Sarrebourg, France (population 12,000)

Most of the day was spent cycling on a paved path that for over sixty kilometers follows the Canal des Houllieres de la Sarre. In this remote part of northeastern France we saw other cyclists only occasionally.

We did often see boats on the canal. Almost all looked like pleasure boats, not commercial traffic.

Both of us had tired of eating the rich food offered at restaurants for every meal. I would be nice to do a picnic lunch. The small town of Lorquin had a small locally owned looking supermarket. Both fresh bread and the “deli” section were at the the checkout counter. An older man seemed peeved to have to slice the “prosciutto” for a couple of non-French speaking customers. There was a stinky looking cheese there as well, appropriately covered with a moldy rind. I asked for a big slice. We carried everything for several miles along the canal until we found this picnic table. Really fresh bread, quality cheese, and salty thin sliced ham made a delicious lunch. We had two apples for dessert.

We stayed that night in the town of Sarreguemines (population 21,000.), which sits on the Saar River and is only a few kilometers south of the German border.

Across the river from downtown we ate outdoors at the one restaurant we could find open on a Monday: Le Casino.

I had lamb shank

Dessert looks like ice cream but it is actually chocolate mousse and whipped cream

The scene at an adjoining table. This phrase is from the Ramones song Blitzkrieg Bop, released forty-six years ago. Despite the fact that they did not sell many records, or rarely played in venues larger than clubs, the Ramones influence lives on. Dee Dee!

The next morning we cycled twenty kilometers north along the Saar River, then over the border to the German city of Saarbrucken.

along the Saar canal between Sarreguemines, France and Saarbrucken, Germany

We had flights back to the USA from Frankfurt Airport the following day. We biked to the Saarbrucken train station and took the Deutsche Bahn two hours east to Mainz. We then bicycled the twenty-five kilometers further east to the Frankfurt airport town of Kelsterbach, where we had stored our bicycle suitcases.

Bicycles are permitted on MOST European trains. Generally, the short distance regional trains freely allow bicycles and the high speed TGV trains make it difficult. Beyond that, it gets complicated and you have to ask or look it up. Our regional train made dozens of stops but otherwise was fine; we wheeled the bicycles right onto the train with us.

After arriving in Mainz we got German ice cream sundaes.

We then cycled along the Main River the twenty six kilometers back to Kelsterbach.

at a German stoplight, as we got off the river trail to go into the town of Kelsterbach.

We retrieved our suitcases and folded the Bike Fridays into them, having to unscrew all the attachments. The next morning both of us took the subway-type train five minutes and one stop to the Frankfurt Airport. The train was fine, but the airport was a shit-show of hours long lines but we both made our flights. I had managed to stay COVID free this whole trip but I am convinced the COVID I woke up with back home two days later was acquired in those airport lines. Two weeks later I am still getting over the vestiges of it. Still, no regrets. We had a great trip.

There’s a new airline called Avelo with hubs in Burbank CA and New Haven CT. They now fly nonstop from Raleigh/Durham to New Haven. It would be an easy way start bicycling in the cooler weather and interesting scenery of New England, a region I have always found exotic. I had a general idea to bicycle north along the Connecticut River up into Massachusetts, before cycling back towards my brother Alex’s apartment in Brooklyn NY. Flying with the folding Bike Friday on the airplane, for this trip I eschewed my usual suitcase and used a cardboard box that I could throw away after landing. I planned to return home on Amtrak, on which the folding bike needs no packing. I stood in line at RDU on a Sunday morning.

the bicycle is in this box

The flight was painless and the weather clear, taking off from Raleigh/Durham airport on time at 8:30 AM and arriving New Haven just before 10:00 AM. A flight attendant made it obvious it was a new airline as he had not even memorized the usual spiel about how to fasten your seat belt and verbally stumbled as he read from an I-Pad. The 737 aircraft surely had been bought used as it looked really worn inside.

The New Haven airport terminal is tiny, almost as small as the Carrboro NC train station. After landing you walk from the plane across the tarmac.

I retrieved my “luggage”, i.e. bicycle-in-a-box and picked a spot outside in front of the terminal where I could put the bicycle together. Other passengers were milling around complaining that there were no taxis. It took me about half a hour to get ready.

Downtown New Haven is about six miles north of the airport. Bicycling from the airport was safe and pleasant as a normal suburban neighborhood comes practically up to the runway.

leaving the New Haven airport

Compared to highways in North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina, arterial roads up north, including Connecticut, MOST of the time have wide shoulders. Maybe they need room for the plowed snow. It makes bicycling seem safer.

a main road that headed towards central New Haven, with a wide shoulder

Six days later, looking back on my trip through central Connecticut and western Massachusetts, and only as an amateur sociologist, the Connecticut River Valley seems like a microcosm of the social divisions in America, but on steroids, maybe because these divisions are magnified by the tight geography. I started in New Haven. Yale University is dripping in wealth and prestige and world class research but unlike most college towns I have visited, the city of New Haven that surrounds Yale on all sides looks poor. On my bike trips college towns in America almost always seem prosperous, like Northampton MA was on this trip. When one crosses the political line into a city like New Haven or Hartford the population suddenly looks poor and mostly Hispanic and Black, as if tripping a switch. Outside of the principal cities people in Connecticut look almost all White. There are vast areas of not-all-that-prosperous middle class to working class strip mall suburbia in central Connecticut and western Massachusetts but these areas seem like another world from the older central cities of New Haven, Hartford, and Danbury. On my final day I cycled through still another vibe; miles and miles of wealthy country-clubbish suburbia that dominates the “rural” areas of Connecticut that are within commuting distance of New York City.

This is the bicycling route I took over these six days.

This first day I noodled through poor neighborhoods of the New Haven area with empty storefronts, until arriving at central central New Haven, near Yale, where there are suddenly upscale restaurants. I stopped for lunch. For someone coming from North Carolina, where traditionally there are fewer Italian-Americans, it was fun to sample the good Italian restaurants that are all over Connecticut. I ate Italian-American all week.

After lunch I cycled towards the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, a paved bike and hiking trail which runs eighty-one miles north along the Connecticut River; all the way to near Northampton MA except for a few incomplete gaps where you have to bicycle on highways. The trail started just the other side of the Yale campus.

Yale has a famous architecture school. I am not sure what this building is for, but I find it attractive.

Much of the bike path is on the former New Haven – Northampton Railroad, the Canal Line

I bicycled twenty something miles northward on the rail trail before looking to take a break. I stopped at a brewery along the trail in suburban Plantsville CT. I am a credit-card bicycle tourist, I do not camp. I can only stay where there are motels or Airbnbs. There was a nice strip of restaurants in downtown Southington CT but the motels were all two miles away out next to the freeway. This repeats a pattern I find all over America. It would be so much nicer to stay in a downtown and be able to walk to restaurants.

Still being COVID paranoid, I wanted to sit outside and had to wait for an outdoor table at the crowded Anthony Jack’s Wood Fired Grill in downtown Southington. Their special of barbecue salmon was quite good, so good that I came back to this restaurant four days later on my return. On both occasions it seemed like there were a lot of policemen and firefighters eating here.

After dinner I bicycled to the Holiday Inn Express out on the big highway. The room was fine. The next morning the free breakfast was NOT fine. Hotel breakfasts have become more and more pre-fab. I cannot believe I ate this stuff, I swore this was the last time I would eat a “sausage” and “ready made omelette” on a plastic plate with a plastic fork. I had Raisin Bran and milk for breakfast dessert, at least that is good for you, I think.

Disgusted by food and even before I checked out of the motel, I biked across the highway in the suburban landscape to the Price Chopper supermarket and bought a loaf of Dave’s whole grain bread and jars of non-homogenized peanut butter and strawberry jam. I could now make sandwiches whenever necessary. It took me six days but I ate the whole loaf, lugging it all in a plastic bag strapped to the back my the bicycle.

The cycling this day northward through rural Connecticut and into Massachusetts was lovely. Most but not all was on the Canal Heritage Trail.

rural highway with essentially no traffic

bike trail through the woods

Close to noontime it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere. The trail briefly ended and I cycled along suburban roads. In an obviously new development I stumbled onto a Whole Foods Market. I realized this was the exurbs of Hartford. In a state where most urbanity looks historic or at least old, here among these woody suburban office parks (I assume mostly for the insurance industry) the roads and the buildings both look brand new. Why not get a coffee from Whole Foods? I sat outside with an oat milk latte, one pack sugar, watching fancy SUVs circle through the parking lot.

After coffee I found my way back on the trail, where I soon crossed into Massachusetts. After many miles and late and in the afternoon I found my way into a much different form of urbanism, the faded manufacturing town of Westfield MA (population 41,000). Signs said its biggest claim to fame is being the original home of Columbia brand bicycles, manufactured here starting in about 1910 but of course no longer.

In downtown Westfield, among a few empty storefronts there was the almost hip feeling Circuit Coffee. I sat with my coffee for a spell, pondering the world and the issues of western Massachusetts.

I was tired and wanted to stay somewhere, why not here? There might be even a decent restaurant, but the only hotel was two miles away, up a steep hill, at the Mass Turnpike interchange. Airbnb likewise showed nothing in-town. My only solution was to bicycle up that steep hill to the otherwise nice Hampton Inn Westfield. I passed a liquor store on the way and impulsively stopped to buy a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Many two-go restaurants do not have liquor licenses.

At the hotel, noticing a trend I have seen all over America, many of those staying in motels are blue collar workers, possibly some kind of road or pipe repair crews, still in their work outfits.

waiting in line at the Hampton Inn Westfield

The region of western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut is the original center of gun manufacturing in America. Smith & Wesson and Colt come from this area. Two blocks from my hotel and next to the Turnpike, a factory for Savage Arms had a jammed parking lot. The sign said Help Wanted.

What to do for dinner? There was no real restaurant within walking or even short bicycling distance of the Hampton Inn. One mile away on a dicey bike ride on a highway was Alessio’s Pizza & Pasta. I ordered the kind of sandwich that chains like Subway and Jersey Mike’s have tried to imitate. Alessio’s tasted like the real deal. I bicycled with it back to the motel room and enjoyed it with some of my to-go bottle of wine.

My idea for the next day was to bicycle a loop heading north through the Massachusetts college towns of Holyoke, Hadley, Northampton, and Amherst before turning back south and staying in downtown Springfield MA.

My first ten miles were on a highway but it at least had a wide shoulder.

I cycled in quick succession through the western Massachusetts towns of Southampton, Easthampton, Northampton, Hadley, and then Amherst. Most of the ride was on the final portion of the Canal Heritage Trail, although the trail has various local names.

This portion is called the Manhan Rail Trail

Wikipedia describes Northampton MA as “an academic, artistic, musical, and countercultural hub”. Countercultural hub? Sure, why not. I cycled through town and took pictures but really did not stop.

downtown Northampton MA

It is only eight miles by a lovely bike path from Northampton MA to Amherst MA. The trail crosses the Connecticut River on a former rail bridge.

Amherst is home of the University of Massachusetts. In downtown Amherst I got an oat mile latte, one pack sugar, plus a pastry whose details I do not remember other than it being delicious. Cycling again, I doubled back to Northampton but then turned south along the Connecticut River heading towards Springfield MA. On a bleak highway that in most parts is surrounded by trash and beat up buildings I picked the nicest spot available to sit on a guard rail and eat my peanut butter sandwich.

I had to pass through Holyoke MA. I assumed it was another tony college town but I could not have been more wrong. The famous women’s college Mount Holyoke is on, well, a mountain; five miles and across the river from the city of Holyoke.

Holyoke (population 38,000; about the same population as the year 1890) is a faded factory town seemingly full of poor people. I looks like another world from Northampton MA only eleven miles away. I have learned that in about 1890 Holyoke was the largest producer of paper stationary in the world. Huge brick factory buildings stretch along the canal that empties into the Connecticut River. Some of these brick mill buildings are repurposed, some not.

Eight miles further south along the river is Springfield MA (population 156,000) which looks a little more put-together than Holyoke, but Springfield still looks faded. I stayed in the Holiday Inn Express downtown.

Springfield’s most recent effort to re-find itself is a casino downtown, housed in a renovated older building. Good luck on that. At least it’s downtown.

Later on I sought out dinner. My gut reaction would not to do German food but Springfield’s longtime most famous restaurant is the German restaurant Student Prince Cafe (since 1935!). I had a nice time sitting at the bar. Unlike many big old-school places, Student Prince seemed really well run and the food was fine, the bar staff friendly and professional. Cross cultural note: since 2014 until very recently this German restaurant has been run by a local Asian-American restauranteur named “Andy” Sua Sun Yee, who had just died of cancer. I know this because there were notes of his passing at the entrance. The interior is dark but full of fascinating old stuff.

The next days’s mission was to cycle to Hartford CT, which sits thirty miles south on the same Connecticut River. That morning I had booked a promising sounding Airbnb in Hartford. I was able to cycle much of the way on bike trails along the Connecticut River, but these bike paths are disconnected from each other. At least half of the way I cycled on normal roads.

Breakfast in Springfield MA was the opposite of a machine-made hotel breakfast because I went to a coffee house a few doors down from the hotel, in the glassed-in ground floor of an office building. The ham and egg on bagel was delicious and custom made from a kitchen surrounded by Italian-American kitsch. The one indoor table was full of six older Italian-American looking guys. I ate outside.

Leaving the hotel by bicycle I headed downriver. Springfield has a lovely riverfront bike path to nowhere that dead ends. You have to turn around and come back to where you started! I got back on a regular street that crossed over the Connecticut River, and looked back at Springfield MA.

downtown Springfield MA

The “only” thirty miles to Hartford were by bicycle complicated ones. For a while there was a bike path along a riverfront road on the west bank. There were few signs and one had to construct one’s own bicycle route.

For a portion there was a lovely but bumpy bike path along the river.

Coming into Hartford from the north on the highway CT-159 that parallels the river it seemed I would have to bicycle through most of Hartford to get to my Airbnb on the southwestern side of town. I knew that Hartford has significant poor neighborhoods and urban problems. I had no way of knowing the proper route to avoid poorer “dangerous” neighborhoods. I pressed on, knowing that the risk of getting run over by a car was a much greater risk than getting mugged, and seemingly-safer suburban areas are usually more dangerous to bicycle than a grid of city streets. As the neighborhoods began to look poorer I could start to see the high-rises of downtown Hartford in the distance.

I was not staying downtown, which I still think was the correct decision, even though downtown Hartford has a few luxury hotels. I instead would be staying in residential neighborhood in western Hartford, an area where there were restaurants within walking distance. I first had to cross a huge section of Hartford. I took very few photos because I was bicycling as fast as possible!

It was a hot summer day and in a region where many buildings do not have air conditioning, people were out on the streets. In a poor neighborhood past downtown a Jeep Grand Cherokee came racing down a narrow urban street at an insane speed. It was not within a block of me so I was in no danger of being run over, but the car was driven in a manner that suggested he was being chased by either the police or fellow criminals. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

Breweries and local coffee houses are always good destinations when you do not know a city. It was a relief when I bicycled across a major set of railroad tracks and arrived at New Park Brewing, which I now know is at the beginning of the more prosperous neighborhoods of west Hartford. I stopped for a beer. They had outdoor seating.

While I sat by myself and read my book on the Kindle a group of women were about the only other people on the patio.

My Airbnb was less than a mile away. This part of western Hartford has block after block of what look like tract mansions from the year 1900.

This is not the first time with an Airbnb that I stayed in a part of someone’s house, never saw that person, but was given full access to his or her’s house. The guy had texted me a code to open the front door. I walked through his lovely but busily decorated home (there is a suit of armor on the stairway landing) to get the the third floor apartment. “Make yourself at home!”

my Airbnb house

view the rainy next morning from that third floor window

My stay in Hartford worked out well. The apartment was nice, much better and lower cost than a hotel room. There were multiple rooms and everything was studiously clean. The TV and A/C worked. The neighborhood was comforting and I could walk to a decent restaurant. At the Tisane Euro-Asian Cafe I studied the crowded bar scene but COVID paranoidly chose to sit outside.

Thai noodles with salmon

My plan for the next day was to ride back south to New Haven CT, forty miles to the south. My first few miles from Hartford were on the bike path that parallels the CT Fastrak Busway, an eleven mile long highway built exclusively for buses between Hartford and New Britain CT. There used to be proposals to build this kind of transit back home between Chapel Hill NC and Durham NC.

bike path is on the right

transit station on the busway

Much of the city of New Britain CT looked poor and decaying.

On the far side of New Britain CT I discovered a lovely route over a small mountain towards the next town Southington CT. The route necessitated biking one or two miles up a very steep hill and I found myself alongside the local water source. There was almost no car traffic; it made the climb worthwhile.

Coming down the mountain I got back on the trail I had been on three days earlier, the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail which I took the twenty something miles back south to New Haven. On the way I cycled a quarter mile off the trail for ice cream at a place called Wentworth’s.

I planned to stay that night in New Haven. The few hotels available in downtown New Haven this night were over three hundred dollars. I looked elsewhere. I found an Airbnb in the eastern fringe of New Haven, a bedroom in a split-level suburban house. It had good Airbnb reviews but was remote from any restaurants.

Before going to the neighborhood with the Airbnb I bought a to-go Italian style sandwich at a place on the highway called Michaelangelo Pizza & Subs. The Airbnb person texted me a code to get into their home, even though they were not there, giving me full access to their house. The home looked spotless inside. After I had been there a while I met one of the two people living there, a slim thirty-something woman with long blond hair wearing a YALE PEDIATRICS t-shirt. She said she and her boyfriend were both Yale MD interns and worked long hours. The two doctors rented out one of their main floor bedrooms to Airbnb. The woman told me to “make myself at home.” She was welcoming but soon went into her room and closed the door. In my whole stay there I never physically saw anyone again.

I sat on their deck overlooking the backyard and ate my delicious Italian-style sandwich; once again so much better than Subway. I read my Kindle. In a strange way it way quite peaceful.

I had two days left on my trip. I decided to cycle northwest towards Danbury CT, a part of the state I had never visited. I first cycled two or three miles through eastern New Haven to a coffee house called Manjares.

I got an oat mile latte, one pack sugar, plus a croissant. The croissant was not fresh but I enjoyed the outdoor seating.

Across the patio three old guys looked and talked like what I imagine Yale professors would be like.

The forty mile ride towards Danbury was lovely, through the kind of scenery and cooler summer weather which New England is famous for.

no shoulder but very little traffic

New England stone wall

Never pass up a rural ice cream spot.

I came upon Sandy Hook just before the city of Danbury CT.

It is a place that has had its name stained by gun violence, really a tiny town that has grown into prosperous suburbia in past decades.

downtown Sandy Hook CT

Cycling into Danbury CT (population 86,000) I saw little else to photography other than the Sycamore Drive-In. Danbury is another less-prosperous Connecticut city surrounded by more prosperous suburbs. Danbury used to be called “Hat City” for the number of hat factories that used to be here, including Stetson, but no more. Men’s hats died as a business about the time of JFK. I did read that the hat factories left significant environmental damage by pouring cancer causing chemicals on the ground and into waterways.

Danbury CT

Danbury is not prosperous enough to have any downtown hotels but a group of newer motels are all clustered five miles from downtown, overlooking “scenic” I-84. This repeats the mantra from my brother Alex Marshall’s year 2000 book How Cities Work. Development is always going to cluster around transportation. It was a downer fighting traffic while riding my bicycle the last few miles.

It was uphill to Hotel Zero Degrees beside the freeway. The hotel was expensive but had a fancy restaurant attached so I would not have to go out again that night. Depressingly a group of tour buses pulled up the same time as me.

There is a Yankee gaudiness that I usually associate with Long Island, but in southwestern Connecticut it was here at the Hotel Zero Degrees in spades on this Friday night, but all in fun. The room was clean and comfortable, good to nestle in after a long day cycling. There was at least one wedding going on at the hotel. The bar and Italian restaurant were partly left open to the outdoor air, making me a much smaller COVID worrier. I rarely get cocktails but when I do I almost always order a gimlet; gin and lime juice. Delicious.

Having clams and linguine in an Italian restaurant up North in Connecticut, even here in a Interstate highway hotel, it was bound to be good.

The free breakfast the next morning at the expensive hotel was lame. I made my own peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead.

I was near the end of my trip. I had decided that instead of trying to bicycle the final stretch into New York City I would cycle this morning twenty-something miles south to the Norwalk CT station and take the Metro North commuter train into Manhattan. Even on a Saturday there are trains almost every hour, costing only about fifteen dollars.

From my interstate highway hotel I cycled south into wealthy rural areas, the start of the southwestern Connecticut commuter region. I wanted to arrive Norwalk in time for the 1:00 PM train.

s

Not all houses out here are huge. Connecticut seems to have more 1950’s split levels per capita than anywhere, where the front door enters between first and second floors. I saw these constantly, all over the state.

Norwalk CT, as a city on the coast, suddenly seemed economically diverse.

I was only a mile from the train station and I still had an hour before the 1:00 PM train. Time for lunch, more Italian food! I ate almost this whole pizza.

I biked over to the train station. The bike went on the train with me, no need to fold it.

The trip to Grand Central Terminal took and hour and fifteen minutes. This magnificent train station that opened in 1913 services the Metro North commuter trains. Amtrak trains go from Penn Station across town.

my Bike Friday in Grand Central

Alex lives with his family in Park Slope, Brooklyn, although this day he was there alone. From Grand Central his apartment is an eight mile bike ride, mostly down Manhattan then across the Manhattan Bridge or Brooklyn Bridge.

Waiting at the 14th St stoplight when cycling down 2nd Avenue bike path in Manhattan

The ride to Alex’s place is not that tough if you know where you are going, but I had to stop constantly and look at the map on my phone, especially within Brooklyn. This afternoon the entire ride took about an hour and a half.

We went out to eat that night near his apartment at, what else, an Italian restaurant called Piccoli Trattoria. It was delicious.

My Amtrak train to North Carolina the next morning was scheduled for 7:20 AM from Penn Station. I left his apartment by bicycle at 5:30 AM.

roo
Brooklyn in the gathering light.

Having taken the time to plan my route, the bike ride to Manhattan was painless in the mostly traffic free early Sunday morning. It took less than an hour.

There is the new Moynihan Train Hall that opened in 2021 which I had not seen before. It is part of the Penn Station complex, to take the place of the original Penn Station that was torn down in 1962. I am always one to applaud new public buildings. This is actually a renovation of a former post office.

Moynihan Train Hall, Penn Station in New York

Unlike some other times in New York, Amtrak let me wheel the bicycle all the way up to the train door before folding it, which made traveling with a folding bicycle on Amtrak a true breeze, as was the train ride, although it was full pretty much the whole way. I did a lot of reading and I find Amtrak relaxing.

I made plans to bicycle through an area of mountainous central Pennsylvania I knew nothing about, an area that seemed remote. Say what you will, but Pennsylvania looks exotic for a guy from the South. The bizarre name Altoona beckoned me. It was only about a seven hour car ride from my home in Chapel Hill NC to a place called Bedford PA. I started packing my stuff.

I have realized on recent trips that making my own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is a healthier lunch than what I could buy on the road. My friend David taught me way back in high school that the only peanut butter worth eating is the kind that separates. I packed peanut butter into a Tupperware-like container to carry with me on the bicycle. May is strawberry season. I thought it ridiculous to bring canned strawberry jam when we had delicious local strawberries lying around our kitchen in Chapel Hill. I sliced up strawberries into a Tupperware box, sprinkled them with sugar, and mixed it around. I would carry this concoction with me the entire trip, to spread with peanut butter between two slices of bread each day.

Here is a map of my cycling trip. I cycled one day from Bedford PA up to Altoona PA. I took one day to cycle around Altoona and cycle up to the Horseshoe Curve, then one day back to Bedford PA. Note how the mountains from northern Virginia up into Pennsylvania are a series of parallel ridges. If you stay between the ridges you can minimize cycling up mountains.

I drove our Ford Escape up to Bedford PA but left late, and did not arrive until five or six in the evening. It was raining. I decided to skip cycling that day and instead looked for a place to stay.

1950’s motels can be nice if they are lovingly maintained, but they usually are not. Judy’s Motel on the outskirts of Bedford PA looked to be one of the good ones. Its online reviews were excellent. The edges of the parking lot were neatly lined with colorful flower beds. Someone cared about details. There were no unsavory characters hanging about.

The genial owner even dressed the part with a Judy’s logo shirt.

In our inflationary environment hotel prices are skyrocketing. In remote Bedford PA sixty dollars plus tax for a clean, quiet, and comfortable room with a TV that works was a very good deal.

It was a Monday night and dining options in Bedford were limited, especially downtown. I found The Bedford Tavern. The front entrance was locked. No one seemed to be around but signs directed me down some stairs on the side of the building.

It felt creepy to open the door down there. I discovered a few people inside. Some of them were actually eating and I was greeted with smiles. I ordered a beer and eventually dinner: barbecue salmon with choice of two sides (I chose fries and broccoli.) This low ceilinged basement had a pleasant vibe.

I woke up the next morning excited to start biking north towards Altoona PA. The motel graciously allowed me to park my Ford Escape there for three days.

My destination of Altoona PA is about forty miles north of Bedford. I first had to cycle one mile back to downtown Bedford so I could get some breakfast. The town (population 2,800) looks exquisite, the buildings of its nineteenth century downtown so much more elaborate than a similar sized town in North Carolina. There clearly was money here, back in the day.

HeBrews is a friendly local spot. I got an oat milk latte with one pack sugar, plus some kind of pastry or bagel.

my bicycle in front of HeBrews

After breakfast I headed north by bicycle. I rode much of the way on the two-lane-with-a-shoulder-and-not-much-traffic US220.

Where possible I deviated off onto smaller parallel roads, which frequently ran through various settlements. In Pennsylvania they built their houses close to the road.

I like looking at small commercial mid-century modern buildings but they are slowly all being torn down; wonderful bank branches, dry cleaners, and car dealers are one by one biting the dust. Buildings that house non-profits are more likely to still hang around, especially Elks Clubs and VFW halls. I passed one of these north of Bedford PA.

I suppose A-frames seemed like a good idea at the time.

Guns must sell well around here, I guess it takes a rifle to sell real estate.

Two thirds of the way to Altoona I stopped for my peanut butter and strawberry sandwich. I couldn’t find a picnic table so I just sat on a guardrail and did a little reading.

Further on and just south of Altoona is the town of Duncansville PA. I had just eaten but I could not resist Inlow’s Drive-In, specialists in foot long hot dogs. They had inviting outdoor tables. I realize COVID is now less of a risk but I am much more comfortable sitting outside.

foot long with ketchup and sauerkraut

Altoona PA, population 44,000, is a railroad town. Its population has been declining for years, there were 82,000 here in the year 1930. Like Roanoke VA, Altoona was founded in the nineteenth century by a railroad. Roanoke was founded by the Norfolk & Western, Altoona was founded in 1849 by the Pennsylvania Railroad. By the turn of the twentieth century tens of thousands worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in Altoona. Altoona sits at the base of the hundred mile or more long north/south Allegheny Ridge. Trains from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh must get over this ridge. In 1854 the Pennsylvania Railroad built the famous Horseshoe Curve as a way for trains to climb this mountain, and Altoona served as the perfect location for steam engine switching and maintenance before the steep grade. I would bicycle out to the Curve the next day.

This day I cycled through the streets of Altoona. In some places the city is quite hilly.

There is one chain hotel in downtown Altoona, a Wyndham. I booked a room. It was great other than the windows do not open. I could still see and hear the main line of the railroad out my window, trains passing by almost constantly. That evening I bicycled over a hill about a mile away to a neighborhood for what TripAdvisor deemed the best restaurant in Altoona. There was no outdoor seating so I took my COVID chances and ate inside. There were white tablecloths.

Salad first course, house dressing. Out here in real America salads are usually included with the entree.

my entree; eggplant parmesan. Delicious. Even though it was enough for three I ate almost all of it!

Cycling back to the hotel in the twilight I passed by Altoona’s Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, built in 1923. I do not know what that parking garage looking thing is next door.

The next morning I noodled around the town of Altoona by bicycle. For a such a small city it looked quite urban.

Mid morning I cycled to the Horseshoe Curve, about five miles uphill from town. The road ran along some lovely reservoirs, with almost no traffic.

I like trains but I am NOT a true train fanatic. Actual train enthusiasts take vacations just to come to places like Horseshoe Curve. The couple of guys seen on this video sat at a picnic table here at the center of the curve, going over handwritten notes of what I assumed to be railroad minutia. It was a lovely day in a mountain setting. I did not know if a train would come by during my visit or not. After standing around for about half an hour I got ready to leave, and just then a huge long train came up the horseshoe curve. The Pennsylvania Railroad that built these tracks in the 1850’s has gone through a series of mergers and reorganizations over the past sixty years. Most of it is now part of the Norfolk Southern conglomerate. The long train had what seemed like hundreds of double stacked containers and took about half an hour to pass. On this steep grade there were three locomotives pulling and two pushing. This video is only seven seconds long.

I waited until the train circled around the horseshoe.

end of the train

I got back on the bicycle and headed back downhill towards the southern Altoona suburbs and looked for somewhere to do a late lunch on a Wednesday. In the town of Hollidaysburg, eight miles south of Altoona, I found the Allegheny Creamery & Crepes. Not only was the vegetarian hamburger and a lemonade delicious, but the shaded outdoor seating was relaxing. Everyone in town seemed to be eating there. I read The New Yorker on my Kindle.

The courthouse was across the street. About a hundred miles north of the Mason/Dixon Line I guess monuments like this one are NOT coming down. It looks so much like the Confederate monument that was recently taken down in Chapel Hill, except these are Yankees!

That night I stayed in another cheap motel, the Wye Motor Lodge a few miles from Hollidaysburg depressingly out on a highway. I could find no other place to stay. At least the windows opened and one could get fresh air. Nights in late May are still refreshingly cool up here. Like Judy’s Motel back in Bedford, I took it as a good sign that they carefully maintained their shrubs.

The only place to eat dinner out here on the highway was a chain Italian place called Marzoni’s. I had low expectations but they cheerfully served me outdoors, even though no one else was doing that. Wine by the glass was something like four or five dollars. Pizza on the patio was all quite pleasant and the waitress conversational. I left her a big tip.

The next day was Thursday. I have a group of friends that meet each week near my Chapel Hill home at the outdoor patio of Weaver Street Market at 5:15 PM on Thursdays for social interaction. I really wanted to make that meeting. I would have to cycle thirty something miles back to my car in Bedford PA and then drive at about seven hours. To arrive at my meeting on time I started cycling very early the next day, peanut butter and strawberry sandwich in hand. It was light outside a few minutes before actual sunrise at 5:50 AM.

Gun store, 6:00 AM

A few miles down the highway, not really in any town, I was surprised to pass a bakery that opens at 6:00 AM. I stopped and bought a cherry danish.

It was a lovely day to be bicycling.

A couple of hours later I sat on a guardrail and ate my peanut butter and strawberry sandwich.

Late morning I arrived back at my car at Judy’s Motel in Bedford PA, and drove home to Chapel Hill NC. I arrived in time for my 5:15 appointment with twenty minutes to spare.

My plan, thought up a couple days before departure, was to bicycle from my house in Chapel Hill NC to Lynchburg VA. Why not? It has never been done, at least by me.

Chapel Hill is part of the booming Raleigh/Durham area. People are constantly moving here, new businesses are starting up, construction and growth, both good and bad, are constant. I knew that heading straight north from Chapel Hill I would be leaving this boomtown behind, heading into an area where life moves slower. This was the bike ride I eventually took.

The ride started in my kitchen on the seventh floor of the Greenbridge building in Chapel Hill. It has been only about a month since I received my Bike Friday back from a complete overhaul by the factory in Oregon, including a new blue paint job. I made two sandwiches for lunch (one tuna salad, one almond butter and strawberry jam) and strapped them on the back in a “reusable” HEB bag.

Down the elevator and onto the street! The heaviest car traffic of the entire day was a two or three mile stretch of new NC-86 just north of Chapel Hill, and even this was not much of a problem.

I turned right on New Hope Church Road.

Soon it was a left on NC-10, then a right on Lawrence Road. Weaving through back roads like this I headed further north, bypassing the trendy Hillsborough NC. A huge amount of tech-related wealth has been created in the RDU area in the past thirty years, and that money has to go somewhere. The countryside north of Hillsborough has become ground zero for monster “farms.”

As if tripping a switch, eight or ten miles north of Hillsborough the wealthy looking countryside suddenly ended, and “real America” begins. Houses still lined the country roads, but they were no longer for rich people. The countryside was lovely, car traffic almost nonexistent.

I stopped and ate lunch sitting on a guardrail

The factory town of Roxboro was my next intermediate destination.

Roxboro NC
Roxboro NC
downtown Roxboro NC

Roxboro NC does not have a Starbucks but it does have the locally owned Tricia’s Expresso, downtown facing the courthouse. I got an oat milk latte (one pack sugar!), and sat outside on the sidewalk.

Rested, I headed north towards the Virginia line. It was quiet and peaceful as I cycled on a state highway that parallels the US15-501.

I crossed the state line into Virginia and the landscape changed into just woods.

South Boston VA (population 8,000) as a town is not particularly old by Virginia standards but somewhere that grew rapidly in the late 1800’s around the tobacco industry. Population growth has leveled off or even declined in recent decades. Even though South Boston culturally is much more Southern than the Raleigh/Durham area to the south, South Boston to me looks physically more northern, in that houses in the older part of town are closer together than those in North Carolina towns.

There are several motels around South Boston but they are all out on the highway. A cyclist without a car does better staying in town. I found a room as the only guest of the Charles Bass House B&B.

The accommodations were delightful; great TV (where I watched the PBS Newshour), great bathroom, even white Terry robes I didn’t even put on.

Where to eat dinner after cycling over seventy miles? The Four Oaks Restaurant & Lounge seemed the only decent place open in-town. It was less than a mile away, up a down a few hills by bicycle. I would have to cycle back in the dark.

The Four Oaks is very old school. Restaurants in Chapel Hill no longer have salad bars. Because of COVID I still am not truly relaxed in an indoor setting but here I had no choice, so I sat by myself a couple of tables away from a woman sitting next to a man in cammo.

There was salad, then potato soup from the salad bar, then the $21.95 eight ounce ribeye including one side and salad bar. I chose garlic mashed potatoes. I have high cholesterol and usually do not get large pieces of red meat but I was really hungry today.

Everything was delicious, especially when accompanied by two or three glasses of wine. The restaurant staff were very nice. I skipped dessert and climbed onto the bicycle to get back to my room for some sleep.

The proprietor of my B&B is named John and is about my age. He is divorced and his kids have moved away. He is retired from his engineering job . The next morning he made me a lovely breakfast which included real maple syrup. He says he does everything in his B&B, not only the room cleaning and cooking the breakfast, but ironing the breakfast placemats and napkins!

After breakfast I cycled away, heading north. I passed some larger old homes north of downtown.

Not keeping up appearances: note the missing window on the third floor

Crossing the big highway I realized where most of the commercial activity of South Boston VA really happens. There is a Walmart, of course; and a McDonalds.

The development stops quickly on leaving South Boston and for most of the day I hardly saw car traffic as I meandered through Virginia country roads. The region is sparsely populated. My destination this day would be Altavista VA; forty something miles to the northwest.

Growing tobacco clearly used to be a major deal here, both north and south of the Virginia/North Carolina line. What I assume are tobacco barns were ubiquitous. Frequently I cycled by them every quarter mile or so, sometimes in clusters. There seems to be very little agriculture going on now, tobacco or otherwise.

cow
abandoned farmhouse

Both this day and the day before I saw several pre-WWII gas stations.

Altavista VA (population 3,500) seems a working class town with several prominent factories.

factory and a Dollar General

There are a couple of motels on the fringes of Altavista but also an Airbnb that looked promising, at least online. The guy messaged me a code to get in the basement door. Staying there was a mistake. I had to share a bathroom with some guy and I could hear people walking around on the floor above from my low-ceilinged basement room.

The Airbnb building
My entrance was through the lower left basement door

Altavista is not an upscale town. I was very lucky that there was an engaging local place to eat dinner; the Two Sisters Tap Room & Deli. It still also functions as a gas station and convenience store. I could choose from a big selection of local beers and my turkey sandwich on homemade bread was quite good. I got a hot dog for dessert. The restaurant is popular. Indoors was crowded, with a bar and lots of indoor seating but In these COVID times I could sit outside, although no one else seemed too concerned about the disease.

A political note: We are always looking for cultural and political cues. To my Chapel Hill eyes the Two Sisters looked hippy-dippy, with the stickers and slogans “BUY LOCAL.” “Never sit at a table when you can stand at the bar – Ernest Hemingway”. As a deliberately messy gas station/restaurant/bar with an attitude the Two Sisters looks exactly like the Saxapahaw General Store back home near Chapel Hill NC, which I have always considered hippy-dippy and left wing. But the Two Sisters also proclaimed “Don’t Tread on Me” above the entrance and even more egregious, instead of sports, Newsmax TV News was playing at the bar, Fox News apparently not radical enough.

checkout counter; bar to the right
above the entrance of the Two Sisters

The next morning I wanted to get out of that nasty Airbnb as soon as possible. I cycled down the hill to downtown Altavista for the Main Street Cafe & Coffee (isn’t that repetitive?). There were bible verses on the wall.

A friendly attitude served up an oat milk latte with one pack sugar, plus a ham and cheese croissant, flattened and warmed on the grill. I could sit safely outside and watch the world go by, while also reading The New Yorker on my Kindle.

As the crow flies downtown Lynchburg is only twenty-something miles from Altavista but bicycling from there I faced numerous obstacles including huge hills and traffic laden major highways. I had plenty of time so I wanted to make the bike ride safe and pleasant by taking a longer route if necessary.

For the first fifteen to twenty miles from Altavista the country roads were delightful cycling.

uphill through Altavista VA
Proud To Be American, Altavista VA
north of Altavista VA

The final miles into Lynchburg were terrible cycling. You really do not want more detail. The city and its immediate suburbs funnel all traffic into major four or six lane highways. Minor residential streets that would be good cycling are almost all dead-ends, usually including steep hills.

That aside, I love Lynchburg, at least the physical appearance of its older city. Lynchburg (population 79,000) is part of my designated Three Historic and Crumbling Southern Virginia Urban Spaces That Need To Be More Loved. (The other two are Danville VA and Petersburg VA.)

Approaching Lynchburg from the northwest I could see Lynchburg’s current big growth industry Liberty University. Leaving aside any socio-political discussion, my hunch was confirmed by talking to a couple of locals, that Liberty’s explosive growth is confined mostly to its suburban location and it has not done much to help revitalize Lynchburg’s historic core city. These social conservatives apparently are not urbanists.

LU on the hill above Liberty University

In that difficult to cycle area between Liberty University and the downtown I stumbled onto a fetching outdoor taco stand. Time for lunch!

I finally cycled into downtown. One of Lynchburg’s nicknames is Hill City. Both the commercial downtown and historic nineteenth century neighborhoods seem ready to slide down a precipice.

After my sleazy and low cost Airbnb the night before I threw caution to the wind and booked the nicest and most expensive hotel in downtown Lynchburg, the recently renovated Virginian.

Late in the afternoon I walked around downtown. Like most American cities now there are several locally owned breweries. One of them was open to the street. I stopped in for a dark porter.

I ate that night at the Skyline, on the roof of the Virginian hotel. Sure, it’s just Lynchburg but it felt very cosmopolitan. Everything was open to the springtime evening.

I think this guy was a waiter.
poke appetizer with a side of fries

The next morning I was to cycle about eight miles to a Hertz office to pick up a rental car to drive back to Raleigh/Durham. Cycling in the city of Lynchburg is terrible except where it is great. Some of that bicycle ride to Hertz was on a converted rail line called the James River Heritage Trail. It is one of the most scenic of such paths that I have seen.

start of the trail, bottom of the hill along the James River, downtown Lynchburg

The trail ended and the final couple of miles cycling on busy roads was scary but I got my rental car. I drove it and the bicycle home to Chapel Hill, arriving by mid afternoon.