On this six day jaunt myself and two friends managed to visit Richmond, Baltimore, Lancaster and Philadelphia all in a six day bicycle trip. This trip put our relationship with our work life in focus. Careerwise the three of us have completely different work situations. Lyman, an architect, is proud to say he is retired. Myself, I work, but as little as possible. I do not use that that R word, so I prefer to say I am head a of a small shipping company, working with my son Jack. The Don is semi-retired, and Jack is in charge of the family business now. I do take multiple phone calls from Jack every day.
My friend Connie is a lawyer working in Florida. He has a big job, a partner in a law firm. Connie would have the biggest work-related struggles on this trip. Could he do a bike trip and still keep up with his important corporate clients?
Air fares to Richmond VA were quite low and Richmond is just less than three hours north on my drive up from North Carolina. With two bicycles on the back of my Honda I picked up my two friends at the Richmond airport. Lyman had flown in from Austin TX with his folding Bike Friday in a suitcase. Connie had met Lyman connecting in Atlanta and they both arrived Richmond early afternoon on the same Southwest Airlines flight. They had clearly started partying on the plane. For a late lunch I drove them over to En Su Boca on the fringes of the Fan District in Richmond.
Following the plans I had made, after lunch we drove three hours up to Baltimore and stayed in a downtown Baltimore Embassy Suites. We would leave my car in Baltimore for five days. I love Baltimore. Red brick houses with white stone steps.
We set out by bicycle the next morning. Putting our bicycles together and strapping all our gear on the back, we biked a few blocks west to a stop of the Baltimore Lightrail, for a fifteen mile train ride north. We could just wheel the bicycles on the train.
We had considerable issues making the ticket machines work properly.
On the train on this Sunday morning we met interesting people. This woman was traveling to a crab festival where she was doing volunteer work.
We got off at the end of the line in the north Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley. From there we would only need to bicycle about a mile or two to the start of the North Central / York County rail trail, which runs forty-one miles straight north, all the way to York, PA.
The weather was overcast, chilly and damp.
It was only predicted ten percent chance of rain but it rained anyway for at least two hours. We had raincoats but still got wet and the bicycles were filthy.
We stopped for lunch at a pizza place. The countryside was beautiful. There were lots of hills but our path plowed right though them.
The trail passes through Howard Tunnel, in use since 1838, the second oldest rail tunnel in the U.S.
The trail deposited us right into the middle of York PA.
We had booked a downtown Airbnb; the downtown hotel I had stayed at in previous trips to York was closed for renovations. York is a fading factory town. Does it have any pizzazz left?
Small breweries now seem a key part in the revitalization of American downtowns. York’s Gift Horse Brewing Company was in a small storefront but with a big selection, including some really creative ales. We all three had a vanilla pumpkin porter. The owner and brewer was staffing the bar.
Across the street is Rockfish Public House. I did not have big expectations about the food but it was about the only restaurant choice in downtown York on a Sunday night. But it was quite good, some of the best seafood I have had in a while. We split an order of mussels then got a fish entree each.
Walking back to the Airbnb, I noticed that York continues a trend I have seen all over America. The newest looking and and probably largest building in downtown York is a combination jail and courthouse. Depressing.
It was cold walking in the dark. Our Airbnb was the rear of the ground floor on the row house in the center.
I know Connie likes to wake up early. At about 6:15 AM he was hard at work on legal documents.
At about 8:30 AM he was still hard at work. His ability to focus is impressive.
We prepared to push off. Our destination this day would be Lancaster PA. In the backyard of our Airbnb in York Connie was doing some warmup exercises.
We biked through York. I like coming here because it looks so different from North Carolina.
Once out of town it was pleasant cycling over rolling hills, on a lightly trafficked highway with a wide shoulder.
Connie commented that he did not realize how big the Susquehanna River is.
Soon after crossing the river Connie ran over a large screw which not only gave him a flat, but pretty much destroyed the tire. You could see a flathead screw sticking out! We always carry spare tubes and a pump but were not prepared for the failure of the tire itself.
Connie has done a lot of bicycle touring, he knew what he was doing.
Luckily we were able to triage the tire enough that we could bicycle four miles to a bike shop. The staff at Trek Bicycle Lancaster were quite gregarious and we ended up buying all sorts of stuff!
John Dunkle has been my friend for thirty years. Our children grew up together in Carrboro/Chapel Hill. We have always played music together. In the last five years he has returned to his hometown of Lancaster PA. His profession is home renovation, and he and wife Suzanne purchased a large house just outside of town. They have fixed it up and run part of it as an Airbnb. We arrived in the afternoon just in time to avoid the rain, and circled around to the back entrance.
John and I played some music, he showed me some of the new songs he has written. In his early sixties he is at the top of his musical game. He use to be just a harmonica player. The singing and the guitar and the songwriting have all come in the last ten years.
That evening after dinner John walked us around the older inner city part of Lancaster. He plays in several music groups and has connected with the arts community in Lancaster. Lancaster Marionette Theater had no show that evening when we walked by. John told us he had gone to high school with the puppeteer. John explained that the theater is on the ground floor, the puppeteer’s mother (and the ticket taker) lives on the second floor, and the puppeteer lives on the third floor. John called the puppeteer on his cell phone. The guy sheepishly waved at the four of us down at street level.
I had not seen it when the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote a long article back in July 2018 about Lancaster, how it is an example of a fading factory town coming together and bipartisanly picking itself up by its bootstraps, much more than have nearby and similar sized York, Harrisburg, or Reading. Lancaster encourages things like the Marionette Theater. Energetic people like John Dunkle are moving here. Things do seem to be happening. I would add that one key advantage is that Lancaster is on a main Amtrak line; it has about ten direct trains daily to Philadelphia and New York City.
We now had two days to bicycle the eighty miles from Lancaster to Philadelphia. Connie was up early doing legal work on his computer. John and Suzanne fixed us a nice breakfast before we pushed off. Pretty much this whole day was through Amish and Mennonite country, lovely farm vistas.
We passed by an apparent Amish school. There were no cars parked here but school was in session. Everybody including the teachers apparently got there on foot or by bicycle.
We passed through various small towns.
Biking into Coatesville we first biked past a huge steel works which looks mostly abandoned. We all separately came to the same conclusion: “Deer Hunter.”
It was lunchtime, we had been bicycling all morning and we really needed to sit down and eat. The population of Coatesville looks poor, mostly African-American and Hispanic. Restaurants all seemed take-out only. We finally found a place that let us set up camp in the back. We had extremely low expectations but the chicken and/or ham sandwiches were quite good, sort of one’s ideal Subway sandwich, in a store that looked vaguely Hispanic.
Connie had several important sounding work phone calls, he walked around on the sidewalk in front of our take-out joint, talking legalese.
After a few more miles of cycling, we spent that night at a Holiday Inn Express in the center of a complex of huge parking lots and strip malls in Exton PA. Walmart was nearby. Luckily there was a chain tap room and restaurant next door, within walking distance. I took Lyman’s picture as we left to go eat.
The cycling the next day was almost entirely on flat paved rail trails. Coming from several different points, the last thirty or forty miles into Philadelphia from the west is one of my favorite urban bicycling situations in America. From Exton we first cycled on the Chester Valley Trail for about twelve miles.
We then cut through some neighborhoods.
We cycled across Valley Forge National Historical Park, on narrow bike paths.
I now realize why General Washington camped out in Valley Forge: it does not look like a valley at all, rather it is the highest point in the area, one that would be militarily advantageous. About the time the three of us biked to the top of the hill, Connie received an important work phone call from, I kid you not, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Lyman and I stood around and enjoyed the view while Connie took his call.
The Valley Forge park overlooks the Schuylkill River. There is a beautiful new bicycle / rail trail bridge across that river.
From this point the Schuylkill River Trail goes nineteen miles along the Schuylkill River, all the way to Center City Philadelphia. There is no car traffic and it is a near-perfect paved path.
Philadelphia has great restaurants. As we got into the city we pulled off the trail and found a noodle place, run almost entirely by one Japanese-looking guy.
The bike path delivered us right into the city. To get to our Airbnb in the Spring Garden neighborhood we got off the bike path where it runs by the big art museum.
That evening we walked from our Airbnb to our friends Colleen and Dev’s home, carrying bottles of wine as gifts for our hosts. Philadelphia is a sea of row houses.
Colleen and Dev have moved to one of these Philadelphia row houses from Durham NC just in the past year after Dev got a really good job in the New Jersey suburbs. They cooked us an amazing meal.
The neighborhood has all sorts of walkable places, including an Irish bar called The Black Taxi about fifty feet away. After dinner we walked over for a nightcap.
The next morning we bicycled the mile or two from our Airbnb to 30th Street Station, for the Amtrak back to Baltimore. Out of about fifteen trains a day in the Northeast Corridor, only two or three allow a standard bicycle loose and unboxed. The art deco station is beautiful.
The train to Baltimore took a little more than an hour.
We bicycled the two or three miles from Baltimore Penn Station to my parked car.
We put all the bicycles on and in my car and drove three hours south to Richmond VA, getting to Richmond about lunchtime. Connie was flying home that afternoon; his job needed attention.
Lyman and I spent the night at an Airbnb in the Fan District of Richmond. We bicycled around the next morning before both heading home.
Monument Avenue in Richmond is a beautiful street, late nineteenth century design, major monuments every few blocks. Some monuments are more offensive than others. This is General Lee.
The Jefferson Davis monument is positively unforgivable in the modern era. I find it offensive.
Richmond has miles of row houses.
It has a state capital building designed by Thomas Jefferson.
Lyman had been told to look for this in Richmond, a unique inner city overpass in Shockoe Bottom, where four modes of transportation cross at the same place, a canal, two railroads, two highways, and a pedestrian path.
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