A weeklong bicycle tour through the middle of nowhere in Upstate NewYork and Pennsylvania? Why not!!!
The focus of this tour was the sixty-two mile long north / south Pine Creek Rail Trail in north central Pennsylvania. On the map below it is the line between Wellsboro PA and Jersey Shore PA. My friend Lyman Labry and I bicycled total about two hundred sixty miles over seven days.
Getting to a starting point was complicated! Lyman lives in Texas but was visiting in nearby Durham NC. I picked him and his bicycle up in Durham at 8:00 AM and we drove my Ford Escape Hybrid about seven or eight hours north to the Harrisburg PA airport, where we picked up another car, a Hertz rental. We drove both cars seventy miles north before parking my Ford across from a bike shop in the town of Lewisburg PA. The guys at a bike shop said they would keep an eye on my car for week. We then drove the rental car four hours north to Rochester NY, where we planned to turn in the rental car the next morning.
By car we arrived into Rochester NY at 8:30 at night, just before closing time at a restaurant called the Owl House. We luckily got an outdoor table; drinks and each a sesame noodle bowl. Gourmet health food! While both Lyman and I fully vaccinated, I am a worrier about COVID. I wanted to stay out of crowded indoor spaces and to eat al fresco. During the next week we would be bicycling through an area where vaccine rates are low and Trump support high. After leaving Rochester we saw almost no one wearing a mask.
It was a Saturday night and hotels in Rochester were either full or very expensive. I had found an unusual Airbnb in what I now know is the poorer northwest side of Rochester, the Maplewood neighborhood. The hostess did not seem to mind meeting at eleven at night to a large early twentieth century house, on a street of similar houses. It had seemed to be an especially good deal because Lyman and I each had our own room.
As we walked in we were requested to leave our shoes at the entrance. We added to the pile and walked up the stairs.
Both rooms opened directly onto a kitchen whose refrigerator was stuffed with other people’s food. There was a Jamaican flag on the mantlepiece in the other room. Another guy, who seemed perfectly nice but whom we did not know walked into the kitchen, he was staying here as well. Across the kitchen was the shared bathroom for the three of us.
In the morning I walked around the neighborhood, waiting for Lyman to wake up. The neighborhood looked generally well maintained. Most houses were cut up into apartments. I learned later that houses in this north side neighborhood sell for less than half the price of houses on the other side of Rochester a few miles away.
A very old looking man was sitting on his porch Frisbee-ing pieces of bread out onto the sidewalk. I guess he wanted to watch the birds.
Our bicycles were still in the car as left the Airbnb and drove first to downtown Rochester;
then to Cafe Sasso on the wealthier southeast side of town for breakfast with a bicycle touring hero of mine who lives in Rochester. I had met him on Amtrak a few years ago. Harvey Botzman has circumnavigated all of the Great Lakes by bicycle, some more than once, and he has written books about it.
Before leaving Lyman and I drove and Harvey bicycled a few blocks away to see local architecture.
We could finally start bicycling! We drove the rental car a few miles to the Rochester airport, pulled our folding Bike Fridays out of the back, and returned the car to Hertz. Getting away from the airport by bicycle was easy, as the three hundred mile long Erie Canal Heritage Trail runs right next to the Rochester airport.
The next major town with places to stay was Geneva NY, fifty-five miles to the southeast.
After about fifteen miles on the trail we turned south on conventional highways. Harvey had bragged to us that all significant New York State highways have paved shoulders, and he claimed to know the guy who in the 1960’s implemented this policy. It is absolutely true that almost all two lane highways in my home region of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia lack these wide paved shoulders.
In the afternoon we returned to cycling on a path, this time for a few miles on a roughly shod rail trail called Ontario Pathways. The ride was bumpy but lovely.
We arrived into Geneva NY, population 13,000. I attended Maryland’s tiny Washington College for four years in the 1970’s. The college that cruelly prevented mine from winning the Division III lacrosse national championship was a college that we had never heard of: Hobart College in Geneva NY. Now I could see it for real, at the top of one of the the Finger Lakes: Seneca Lake.
Where should we stay? Hotels were over two hundred dollars and we would have to share a room. Harvey wisely had encouraged us to look at Airbnb. Lyman and I got separate Airbnb’s located about a mile apart for about total seventy dollars each. Each was run by quite different eccentric fifty something guys. Lyman’s Airbnb was messy and artsy and the host had a 919 area code on his cell phone, (he said he used to live in Clayton NC.) My Airbnb guy was a photographer and neat freak, obsessed with order and cleanliness to an almost OCD level. Those are great attributes in an Airbnb host. He was married with children but I did not see or meet them.
We went looking downtown for a nice meal where we could eat outside. The temperature was in the low sixties but we had hats. Many of the restaurants in town were closed on this Sunday night. At Bella’s Sicilian Ristorante and everywhere else in Geneva NY no one else seemed to care about COVID and the other patrons were jammed indoors unmasked. At Bella’s one table on the sidewalk Lyman and I split an eggplant parmesan (pasta and side salad included) and a bottle of wine. The service was prompt and friendly. Like most mainstream Italian restaurants in America, a portion for one is really a portion for two, especially if you get an extra salad. This was my favorite kind of food and a very good deal. I could do nothing but leave them a big tip.
We biked back to our respective Airbnbs.
The next morning we went to the local Monaco’s Coffee. I had an almond milk latte with one pack sugar, and some kind of breakfast thing, a cheese scone? It was unusually fresh and delicious.
It was forty miles south along the western shore of the Finger Lake Seneca Lake to our day’s destination Watkins Glenn.
We had brought along peanut butter and jelly for lunch and at about the halfway point the otherwise vacant looking town of Dresden NY had a nice picnic table in its park.
It must be a Northeastern thing. On the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, with lots of chickens and ducks running around the yard, was an absolutely gourmet ice cream parlor. I had seen word of the Spotted Duck on Google Maps and we had to cycle off our route for more than a mile, almost all uphill. The ice cream was clearly homemade with high cream content. There were exotic flavors.
It was still quite a few miles into a headwind before we finally arrive into Watkins Glenn.
I grew up devouring my father’s subscription to Road & Track magazine, so I knew all about what Watkins Glenn once was. From 1961 to 1980 Watkins Glenn NY was the home of the Formula One car race U.S. Grand Prix. The car track is a couple miles out of town and continues to host other racing events, especially NASCAR. The track complex also has had rock concerts, including the 1973 billing of the Allman Brothers, The Band, and the Grateful Dead that drew six hundred thousand. Although there was no apparent event this day, hotel space in the faded tourist town was tight and we got one of the last rooms at the Watkins Motel on the south side, two double beds. For an older motel it was unusually clean and pleasant, with a welcoming proprietress.
A lot of restaurants are closed on Mondays and restaurants in tourist towns are already suspect. I really did not want to eat a bad dinner indoors. It was a lovely evening and much more pleasant to sit outside our motel room in the blue chairs in the fading light and drink a bottle of local Finger Lakes wine, accompanied by Whoppers and fries from the Burger King across the street.
Early the next morning I walked around the town of Watkins Glenn.
The town of Watkins Glenn was originally built and promoted in the late 1800’s not because of car racing but because of the gorge on Glen Creek. I had visited Watkins Glenn State Park with my parents in the 1960’s when I was about eleven years old and I remember thinking: this gorge is the coolest place I have ever been. The park is adjacent to downtown; we could walk there from our motel.
I have seen nowhere else where water cuts so intimately through rock. It is like a miniature Grand Canyon, squeezed together. Lyman and I spent about an hour walking up and back on the walkway through the waterfalls.
Back at the hotel room we pumped our tires getting ready to leave. Lyman’s front tire and tube essentially failed. While we had brought spares it would be better just to buy new ones but there was no bike shop in Watkins Glenn. Luckily, I bicycled two miles over to the Walmart in Watkins Glenn. A BMX tire and tube from Walmart fit Lyman’s bicycle perfectly.
Our next destination was Corning NY to the south. Heading out of Watkins Glenn we cycled the first fifteen miles off-road on the Catherine Valley Trail.
The trail ended near Horseheads NY, part of suburban Elmira / Corning. We got back on regular roads to ride the remaining fifteen miles to downtown Corning NY while dodging highly trafficked areas of dying shopping malls and Walmarts.
Corning NY (population 11,000) feels like a much bigger place. It is home to the famous glass museum and the glass technology company of the same name. Lyman and I looked for a coffee spot.
Market Street Coffee and Tea sadly does not make lattes, it just sells brewed coffee by the cup. We made do and sat out front, looking at hotels on our phones.
We decided to take a cheaper hotel, the Quality Inn, on the clearly less hip north side of the Chemung River that divides the town, but splurge on separate rooms. We bicycled over there in a light rain. We would still be able to bicycle back across to downtown that night for dinner.
A little later it was a short bike ride to a brewery called The Iron Flamingo. Breweries have popped up everywhere in America; Corning has at least three. Inside the Iron Flamingo brew pub there were a few people, unmasked, sitting socially around inside at the bar. I nervously insisted that we take our beers out to a picnic table in the yard. The beer was delicious.
It was about dark when we starting cycling back across the river to downtown, looking for a place to eat. We went to Nickel’s Pit BBQ because we could sit outside and almost everywhere else was closed. Lyman (originally from Louisiana) swears the sandwich we split called The Cajun was the best thing we had eaten on this trip, even though the sandwich had little to do with Louisiana. New York State barbecue joints do not feel constrained the “rules” of barbecue of more famous barbecue states. This place also charges fifteen dollars for a sandwich. Ouch.
We headed out the next morning, stopping first in a coffee place on the fringes of Corning.
There was expected light rain or drizzle as we cycled into the woods near the New York/Pennsylvania state line.
Shortly after crossing into Pennsylvania we unexpectedly came upon this barrier. I fault Google Maps for not indicating this.
Touring cyclists takes these warning signs with a grain for salt, in most situations a cyclist can get around these barriers. This was an exception, we would have had to swim across.
We declined the temptation to steal a boat and had to turn around and cycle the long way around. Our original route was following a creek with small mountains rising from each side, so the detour involved some steep hills.
For lunch we looked for some kind of restaurant in the town of Tioga PA (population 650).
We watched a woman make us submarine sandwiches (with too much mayonnaise!) at a Citgo station mini-mart. Repeating a pattern seen all across central Pennsylvania and southern New York State, this tiny town has made a huge effort to honor military veterans. We ate our sandwiches sitting around a tiny veteran’s memorial park, hoping the rain would not start again.
It was still seventeen miles to our night’s destination of Wellsboro PA, the only town in the region that has motels. Right after we started cycling after lunch the skies opened up and we both got quite wet. We pulled into Wellsboro looking to dry out.
Wellsboro PA (population 3,200) is isolated; by car it s two to three hours drive to either Buffalo NY, Rochester NY or Harrisburg PA, four hours to either Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or New York City. The town is cheerfully well maintained and has an obvious tourist industry.
We had made a reservation at the Penn-Wells Hotel, right on Wellsboro’s Main Street. Its building goes all the way back to 1869 and was heavily renovated in 1928. As with most older hotels the rooms are small so we got two adjacent rooms. The floors were creaky and slanted but everything was clean and the mattresses firm.
Despite the rain and the small choice of restaurants that evening I kept my insistence that we eat outdoors. Lyman cheerfully went along. The Wellsboro House Bar & Restaurant served us beer and dinner outside under the overhang. It worked out quite happily.
The next morning we did not started cycling until almost noon because of rain. As we were heading out of town my rear brake cable repeatedly jammed. I theoretically could have fixed it myself but luckily we were a few blocks from a bike shop called C S Sports and we waited an hour while they re-cabled my brake.
The Pine Creek Rail Trail is sixty-two miles long with its northern terminus just three miles from Wellsboro. It follows the Pine Creek Gorge for almost its entire distance. For most of the area there is no cell phone coverage at all. As we started cycling down the trail we were surprised as to how well it is maintained with smooth fine gravel or pavement the entire distance. We planned to cycle the trail in two days and had a reservation at an inn at about the halfway point.
Steep slopes rose from the left side of the trail, and impromptu waterfalls cascaded down. There had been a lot of rain but the sun was now coming out.
It was so peaceful that I had to stop and play a song! (the image will correct its alignment)
In the late afternoon we arrived at about the halfway point of the trail. Cedar Run Inn is next to the trail and is essentially the only lodging around here. This welcoming place is the rare American small hotel that offers quality food and lodging for one low all-inclusive price. We paid $ 95.00 per person, including dinner and breakfast, cash only! I had made reservations almost three weeks in advance for a weeknight and they said I was taking the last available rooms. In talking to other guests, many had been coming here for years, most were from other parts of central Pennsylvania, and none were touring bicyclists.
There is a full bar in the inn. We settled for beers, which we took out onto the porch.
We were given separate small rooms upstairs with a bathroom down the hall, passing a bear skin on the way up the stairs.
Myself, the COVID nervous ninny, I was facing the first restaurant of the trip where we had no choice other than eat indoors. Sure, both Lyman and I had been double vaccinated, but no one here, employee or guest, wore masks. It did help that the food was delicious!
In the morning we ate again at the restaurant, a full blown American breakfast.
We packed up and set out by bicycle.
Once again, the scenery was lovely, the trail smooth, car traffic non-existent.
The trail crossed and re-crossed Pine Creek, It was all so peaceful that I had to again break out the music, this time a song by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.
Pine Creek empties into the Susquehanna River at the incongruously named town of Jersey Shore PA and our Pine Creek Rail Trail ended there. We had not passed anywhere to eat all morning but near the end of the trail we arrived at what turned out to be a biker bar. (Motorcyles!) We got two cheeseburgers. Yes, several guys looked vaguely threatening but I passed this off as a style issue. Lyman was more concerned, we took our sandwiches and beers to a table out by the trail.
We bicycled onward though the streets of Jersey Shore PA. At a stoplight I saw a pickup truck whose tailgate had been painted (not just stickers) to indicate NO VACCINES, NO MASKS, TRUMP.
It was still seventeen miles to the larger town of Williamsport PA, where we had reserved an Airbnb. Part of the distance we unfortunately had to cycle on the four lane highway US220.
We headed onwards until we arrived in Williamsport PA; population 28,000, about the same population as it was in the year 1900 when it was a lumber boomtown. Its claim to fame since the 1930’s is being the home of Little League baseball. Our Airbnb was run by a reliably eccentric couple (she a graphic designer, him a political filmmaker) who live in a large turn-of-the-twentieth-century brick house.
A little later we bicycled the mile or so to downtown Williamsport, once again looking for somewhere to eat, but also to eat outside. It was Friday night and the restaurants were really crowded. Drinking beer and having dinner on the sidewalk outside the Bullfrog Brewery was a great time although the food was only just OK.
We watched across the street as people were arriving at the Community Arts Center; a 7:30 PM show by the Machine, a Pink Floyd tribute band. (The following night would be oldies standbys Tommy James & the Shondells!). I now know that inside the Center it is a gilded 1920’s former movie palace. We watched as the patrons were asked to put on masks, about the only time in Williamsport we saw anyone wear a mask.
Our Airbnb was quirky with a narrow dark back entrance and an elaborate kishy decor. Our hosts had no obligation to feed us the next day, but they cooked us eggs just to be nice. They certainly had no obligation to offer to drive us the first twenty miles of our bike ride the next day, so that we would not have to cross over a mountain on a freeway in the cold fog. We folded our bicycles and put them in her car. Melinda’s Jeep was colorful. One of her dogs came along for the ride.
Melinda dropped us off. I gave her a twenty dollar bill which she did not ask for. We had only fifteen miles to cycle back to my car that had been parked for a week in Lewisburg PA. While Lewisburg seems a prosperous town with the vibrancy of having Bucknell University, just north of Lewisburg the town of Milton has seen hard times. Milton must have once been an important place because in the 1930’s the U.S. Postal Service chose to build a certainly expensive and lovely Art Deco post office with likely original artwork. Lyman insisted that we go inside. As a retired historic preservation architect he was impressed that the Postal Service has kept the building mostly original and intact. (photos by Lyman)
Back on the bicycles, we headed on to Lewisburg. The guy at the bike shop had succeeded, our car was still there!
We drove back to Chapel Hill NC which took almost ten hours, arriving about 9:00 PM. Lyman’s partner Gillian was waiting with my wife Tootie at our friend Maxine’s house. We had their dinner leftovers which were really delicious.