Southwestern New York State during a pandemic; July 22-26, 2020

I follow the weather obsessively on my I-phone.  I had just bicycled in the mountains of North Carolina.  Where else could I bicycle tour during a pandemic with cooler weather?  It seemed just plain hot everywhere.  How far north would I have to drive to find weather not so oppressive?   What type of 2 -3 night bicycle tour could I take in cooler weather during a pandemic that would entail minimal risk either to myself or to others?

I picked a spot on the map ten miles south of the New York State line, a Walmart parking lot on the north side of the town of Warren PA, on the northern edge of the huge mountainous forests that cover northwestern Pennsylvania.  Here is the bike ride I did over 3-4 days.

It had been a ten hour drive from Chapel Hill NC.  At four in the afternoon I pulled the Bike Friday from the back of the Prius in the parking lot of a Walmart in Warren PA.   Other people there did not seem to notice.  I was making a big assumption that Walmart would not care if I left our car here for 3-4 days.


After the long drive I needed to do some bike riding to clear my head and loosen my body after sitting for so long.   It was eighteen miles north on US-62 to the small city of Jamestown NY.   The temperature was eighty degrees, about ten degrees cooler than North Carolina.


In ten miles I bicycled across the New York state line.   Once in New York the two lane road had a shoulder even wider than Pennsylvania’s, making for less stressful bicycling.   Geography fans take note:  this area is nowhere near New York City.  It is 400 miles from New York City, almost as far as the 560 miles back to Chapel Hill NC.


Jamestown NY is the birthplace of not only Lucille Ball but also the band 10,000 Maniacs and their lead singer Natalie Merchant.  I have always found far upstate New York fetching;  to me it just seems exotic, so unlike my native South.   A factory town, Jamestown was the birthplace of the Crescent wrench.   Jamestown used to claim itself Furniture Capital of the World but the city was more run down than I had expected.   It has been losing population for years.  (Its population in 1910: 31,000; in 1950: 43,000; in 2019: 29,000.)



Entering Jamestown I saw an attractive small house for sale:  $64,000.00

Other houses were not as well kept up.   In a region where many buildings do not have air conditioning there were lots of people hanging outside in the early evening.


I was a little worried that my Airbnb might be also in a sketchy neighborhood but the vibe improved just a block or two before I biked up to the house listed as my Airbnb address.

It was about six thirty in the evening.   During this pandemic where and how to enjoy food safely while on a bicycle tour becomes a major hurdle.   I was not interested in a crowded restaurant even if there had been one to go to.  Having found the specific location of my sleeping accommodations, before checking in I bicycled a mile downhill to downtown to look for some kind of dinner.  Many restaurants downtown were closed but a few were open for takeout including an Italian place called Sauce.   I phoned in an order for eggplant Parmesan, to go.   They said it would be ready in twenty minutes.   While waiting I noodled by bicycle around downtown Jamestown.   Sights included the Lucille Ball Museum and their new hopeful attraction, the National Comedy Center.   Jamestown also joins my list of cities where the tallest building even now was built during the 1920’s building boom.










My to go dinner was ready.



Balancing a styrofoam container of eggplant-with-cheese-and-penne-pasta-and-tomato-sauce on the handlebars of a bicycle is challenging but I managed to cycle the one mile uphill back to the house where a couple slightly older than me Airbnbs their spare bedroom.   I met the man in his driveway at a distance.

The house has an attractive front porch on which I laid the styrofoam container of  eggplant.


This Airbnb turned out to be quite nice, but after leaving the next day I resolved to do better next time, to be even more vigilant at keeping physical distance.

On arriving I told the man I wanted to take a shower and then could I eat on their porch?    I put on my mask before we got close and entered his house.  He told me not to bother with the mask but I kept it on anyway.   I made sure not to get close to him and his wife, especially indoors.    I had wanted to eat alone on their porch.  When I finished my shower and came outside he or his wife had picked up my eggplant in styrofoam (without asking me) and put it on their porch dining table, inviting me to eat and talk with them outside while he and his wife played a board game similar to Scrabble.    Because of the pandemic it made me uncomfortable but as they were nearly six feet away, across the table, and it was all outdoors, I decided to stop being uptight and enjoy the evening.   I talked to them for about an hour; they were very friendly. She was born in Sicily.  He has worked mostly in construction.  They have three grown sons who all still live in Jamestown; the oldest is fifty.  For thirty years they lived just outside of Jamestown in a house with a large yard but they moved into this city house three years ago.  Our conversation danced around the political situation.  I think he is a Trumper but he never said so explicitly.

Keeping an Italian-American tradition, my fried eggplant and pasta portion from the restaurant was huge;  enough for about three people.   My hostess encouraged me to put it in their refrigerator and “save it for lunch tomorrow.”    During a pandemic that is not such a bad idea.

My room upstairs was fine.  With a window unit it was the only room in the house with A/C.


In contrast to the other decor in the room, maybe because Jamestown used to be Furniture Capital of the World, the dresser in my bedroom was mid-century modern, probably an original from the 1950’s-60’s.    I really like it.

My hosts had both departed the next morning at 7:30 AM leaving their house to me, telling me to just to lock the door on the way out.   At about 8:30 AM I packed up my stuff.   After putting my trunk bag on the back of my bicycle, on the way out I went to the refrigerator, got the container of leftover eggplant parmesan, and strapped it on top.  Lunch!

For breakfast I cycled downtown and found coffee (almond milk latte) and oatmeal at the locally owned Crown Street Roasting Company.   I could sit on the sidewalk and be socially distant.  It was very pleasant, totally relaxing.  It made me want to sit there all day.


I got back on the bicycle and started cycling westward along the southern shore of Chautauqua Lake, which is seventeen miles long and up to two miles wide.  I realized pretty quickly that the residential money and energy of Jamestown had been transferred to the lakeshore, starting with Celoron NY, adjacent to Jamestown,  which claims to be the REAL birthplace of Lucille Ball,.


As I biked along the shore I could see Chautauqua Lake between the houses or on a dead end street.


I had first heard of the Chautauqua Institution from my late mother, maybe ten or fifteen years ago, when she was in her late seventies or early eighties.  She was going with a friend to some kind of two to three day event at this place, quite a long distance from her home in Virginia Beach.  Chautauqua Institution was started by Methodists as an adult education movement over a hundred years ago.   It is a now a tony summer resort that has “serious” events such as lectures and concerts.   I had assumed I could just noodle through on a bicycle.   I had not expected an almost military level of security which appears to pre-date this pandemic.


I did not want to get involved in any personal contact, even if they might let me in.   I just biked on, occasionally looking through the fence.

In the next town Mayville NY I found a park with nice empty picnic tables under a shelter.   I pulled out the eggplant parmesan.   I assumed since there was no meat it was fine even though it had been out for several hours without refrigeration.

water skiing

It would be another twenty something miles to my day’s destination of Dunkirk NY where I had booked a hotel room.   Mayville NY has a nice paved bike path along the north shore of Chautauqua Lake.


I then bicycled through the New York State countryside.



I saw quite a few horse drawn vehicles used by what I assume are Amish.


As I neared the Lake Erie coastline there were enormous fields of grapevines.   I saw them both this day and the next.   I wondered, what kind of wine is made here?   This sign answered the question; Welch’s Grape Juice.




I had never heard or thought of Fredonia NY before, but it seems a nice town, home of State Univ of NY at Fredonia.   Following a trend I have seen all over America, where “normal” towns usually look worse for wear “college” towns almost always appear prosperous.    Fredonia looks much more put together than the Jamestown I had left that morning.

Fredonia and neighboring Dunkirk NY are pretty much one continuous town in the four miles from downtown Fredonia to the Lake Erie waterfront in Dunkirk.   The previous evening I had booked this hotel which fronts Lake Erie.


Where to have dinner without getting near anyone?   There was a quite good Mexican takeout across the highway from the hotel.   I got two tacos plus beans and rice, all to go.   I had bought a bottle of wine earlier in the day.


The hotel’s restaurant was closed because of the pandemic and the outdoor seating clearly had not been used since the previous summer. I found a spot among the empty chairs and tables and had waterfront al-fresco dining by myself from styrofoam containers.   It was nicer than it looks, very relaxing.

After dinner I strolled around the Lake Erie waterfront at sunset.



I was paranoid about germs on the remote control so I used a tissue when watching TV.    The room was nice; unlike most mainstream hotel rooms in the South, up here they have windows that open, with screens.     I could listen to the lake at night.    At first I thought clucking sounds were of birds, it turned out the repeated noise was the boats knocking into the piers with the gentle waves of the lake.

It would be about fifty miles the next day along the Erie lakefront north to the big city of Buffalo NY.    I booked an Airbnb in South Buffalo and headed out from Dunkirk .   Because of the pandemic the hotel did not have their normal breakfast buffet; instead they had to-go paper bags each with an apple and a packaged granola bar.   And coffee.   It would have to do.

I rode through various towns along the lake.

A Great Lake is amazing, it seems like the ocean.    Along Route 5 one could occasionally see Lake Erie through someone’s yard.




There was one point where the highway came right along the lake and this old guy had stopped for a swim.   He was talking on the phone.

I passed this place; statues for sale.

Highway 5 runs through the Seneca Nation for several miles.


This was at an American Indian-run gas station.  I had thought these caricatures were considered offensive.


Twenty-three miles south of Buffalo is the small lakeside working class community of Angola NY.   I remember from 1988-92 watching Duke basketball on TV and a figure that many UNC supporting friends consider sent by the devil himself.   At the start of each Duke game at the announcing of the lineups “from Angola New York Christian Laettner.”    Angola is mostly residential but has a couple of beach-town looking bars opening onto the lake.

Also in Angola was the kind of grocery store we hardly have in North Carolina;  a locally owned grocery store that has an Italian deli selling submarine sandwiches.

In the South we have all sorts of ways of excluding people but uniquely Yankee is the practice of using stickers and badges to denying access to public parks to those who does not live in that specific town or county.  I ignored the sign and set up an outdoor lunch of the delicious sandwich from the grocery store.  People usually do not bother people on bicycles.  (on the sign “No Bikes”)  It was peaceful, no one else was around.



I chilled for a while in the park but eventually got back on the bicycle for the final stretch into Buffalo.   After a few miles I rumbled to a stop with a flat tire.    There was a bench on the edge of someone’s yard next to the highway where I could sit in the shade while I pulled off the wheel and patched the tube.


Starting in the late 1800’s Buffalo’s elite started building big summer houses fronting Lake Erie on Lake Shore Road.



I bicycled by the entrance to a large house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that is usually open to the public but was closed due to the pandemic.   A fence and hedges blocked the view.   Here is a photo taken from the internet.

At a park called Woodlawn looking in one direction you could see downtown Buffalo in the distance.

In another direction it just looked like the ocean.


Slightly further on was this interesting public library building.


I am not sure what to say about this house.  It was trashier looking than the photo indicates.


I was getting close to my Airbnb in South Buffalo.    It is startling how many Catholic facilities one passes in the Buffalo area.

In an otherwise nondescript suburban area surrounded by gas stations I stumbled onto this impressive place of worship, Our Lady of Victory Basilica.    Completed in 1928, it was built mostly due to the lobbying and fundraising by one man, Father Baker.   I think the architecture looks a little Mussoliniesque but it is more likely that Fascists copied church architecture than the other way around.

This is the neighborhood of my Airbnb.

My Airbnb took up the entire first floor of this house.


It was larger and more expensive than I needed but it was the only Airbnb I could find that was totally accessible by key code.   In this pandemic I did not have to interact with any human and I had the whole space to myself, a lovely and very clean early 20th century two bedroom apartment decorated with all sorts of posters promoting Buffalo.


What to do about dinner?   There were several restaurants within walking distance but most were Irish pubs or similar types of bar food, mostly for takeout only.   I had been eating out greasy meat for three days and craved vegetables.  I had just bicycled fifty miles and was really hungry.    A nice grocery store was within easy bicycling distance.   The apartment had a fully equipped kitchen including a few staples, like olive oil.   I could cook for myself!

Biking to the store I enjoyed looking around this Buffalo neighborhood by bicycle.









After going to the grocery store here is what I came “home” with, total cost $ 8.32.   A roll, a small head of broccoli, one ear of corn, a package of sliced portobello mushrooms, a package of three uncooked hot Italian sausages, and one head of garlic.


These ingredients were available in the kitchen.  (Someone must live here when not Airbnbing!)


I made this up as I went along.    I first cut the stem off the broccoli and cut each floret into bite sized pieces.


I boiled a saucepan of water and boiled the broccoli for about three minutes, then drained it and rinsed it with cold water.

The store did not sell less than three sausages so I conceded that I would have to leave two sausages unused here at the Airbnb.   I took out one sausage and cut it in half.


I took the half of a sausage out of the casing and squeezed it into a frying pan.

After a few minutes I took the sausage out to a plate and then added the sliced mushrooms and garlic with a little olive oil.

After the mushrooms had reduced by half I cut the corn off the cob and added this to the mushrooms.


I put the cooked broccoli and cooked sausage pieces back in the frying pan, keeping it all cooking for a few more minutes.

For a moment I panicked because I realized this kitchen had no SALT.    Luckily they had this steak seasoning which added a lot of zap.

I cut the bun in half and put it in the toaster.



I cooked the other half of the piece of sausage in another frying pan.


I still had the wine from the previous day.





The next morning I had a plan.  It would start with a fifteen mile bike ride, from my Airbnb to downtown Buffalo, then through Buffalo’s trendier districts in the north of the city, before turning east and cycling to the Buffalo/Niagara airport, where I had reserved an Enterprise Rentacar.   I would drive the car two hours back to an Enterprise office in Warren PA, drop the car off and then cycle the two miles back to my Prius that I had left at the Warren Walmart.    I would then put the bicycle in the car and drive home ten hours to North Carolina.    It was a lot to do.  I had to start early.  (I always wake up early anyway!)   I bicycled out onto the street in South Buffalo at 6:15 AM.   It was a lovely cool morning.


The city of Buffalo has lost half its population in the last sixty years.    Obviously there are going to be empty buildings somewhere.   Once out of the Cazenovia Park neighborhood where I had spent the night and got closer to downtown Buffalo, I started to see more empty buildings.


I had no idea Buffalo has a huge Tesla factory, it makes solar panels and cells at the site of a former steel mill.  I just stumbled onto this by bicycle at 6:45 AM.

Even closer to downtown Buffalo, which to an alien-from-another-planet should be the most valuable real estate in the city, I watched the sun rise over streets that must have formerly had houses and were now sitting empty.  The collective racism of our real estate market?

Here is a Trump flag in the window in a nearby desolate neighborhood.

When I lived in New Orleans with Tootie in the 1980’s we were taught the racist idea that a white person should never go anywhere near public housing.   Those ideas are dated and wrong.  In 2020 I biked passed a Buffalo project at 7:00 AM.


I know how to solve the urban problem!  Let’s build a casino!   Buffalo must have bought the same consultant’s  report as many other cites.  I biked past their casino just immediately south of downtown.


In the casino parking lot was a Covid-19 test site.


Downtown Buffalo has some lovely tall buildings.


North of downtown are some attractive residential neighborhoods.

I turned right and started cycling eastward towards the airport.   The neighborhoods got poorer.



These were definitely sketchy neighborhoods but I never felt threatened bicycling through them, certainly not at 7:45 AM.   I really did not see many people.   I eventually arrived at the Buffalo airport, which feels like it is right in the urban fabric.   In this pandemic the airport parking lot was nearly empty.

It really was not difficult to bicycle right up to the airport terminal.    I got a car (Mini Clubman!) with no problems.   It was only 8:10 AM when I started driving.   Chapel Hill NC was more than six hundred miles to the south.    I first had to drop the rental car off two hours south in Warren PA.  The Enterprise Rentacar office was near downtown Warren.    I had to bicycle two miles out to the Walmart where I had left my car.  I was surprised how attractive Warren PA was, a place I had never heard of prior to this trip.

I got home to Chapel Hill at 9:00 PM, in time to eat dinner at home.

4 responses to “Southwestern New York State during a pandemic; July 22-26, 2020”

  1. What an enjoyable trip! Reading about it is a bright spot in my otherwise pandemic-restricted life.

  2. What an ambitious trip. Both Gary and I went to school in Buffalo. We were there when the steel mills of Lackawanna closed and all the great times from 1966/1967 to 1971.

  3. i love your honest vision of America and it’s long forgotten places- wonderful stuff.

  4. You’ve hit the high points of a wonderful southwestern to western New York State tour.

    A few years ago I rode Greyhound to Buffalo and then the local Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus to Evangola State Park on Lake Erie. After camping at Evangola I bicycled through Dunkirk to Lake Erie State Park. Southwards I traveled to Jamestown. I was richly rewarded going through the National Comedy Center which is housed in the former Erie Rail Road Station.

    Instead of following Chautauqua Lake, as you did, I boarded a Coach bus that took me to downtown Buffalo’s Transportation. I then biked to Buffalo’s Exchange St. Amtrak station and rode the train back to Rochester, NY.

    Your Chautauqua County tour was a more insightful view of western NY.

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