Cycling the Connecticut River Valley, June 5-11, 2022

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.


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.

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.

3 responses to “Cycling the Connecticut River Valley, June 5-11, 2022”

  1. I love reading these journals, Paco, read the whole thing. What a lovely trip. My sister-in-law is from Farmington, so I know the area just a little bit. You give a very good tour, young man! Thanks! Susan

  2. Nice work. BTW, those houses you couldn’t identify are “raised ranches” – very popular design in the NE in the 70’s & 80’s. Once inside the door, it is 3 or 4 steps up to the main level or down to the basement, usually finished as a rec. room on one side and a garage on the other. It’s a very compact style home.

  3. The Yale campus building is the Rare Book Library. I’ve not been to New Haven but it seems an impressive building to visit.

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