The upcoming weather looked perfect. Why not drive the car six or seven hours to south central Pennsylvania and do a bicycle tour up there? My sister Betsy lives with her family in Princeton NJ and for years I had thought about riding the bicycle paths along old canals that lead to the Princeton area from northeast Pennsylvania. Elizabethtown PA is near Harrisburg PA and has a station on the Amtrak main line. It made for a logical place to start biking and to park the car as I would be able return to Elizabethtown from Princeton by train.
At home in Chapel Hill NC, Tootie had several events planned that week and really wanted to use our almost new Ford Escape. Couldn’t I drive in our other car, the 2004 Honda with 195,000 miles? I thought, what could go wrong?
The Honda had been sitting for about two weeks parked on the street in front of our Chapel Hill condo. I put my folding Bike Friday in the trunk and prepared to leave at 7:00 AM. I turned the key and absolutely nothing happened. Dead battery? I called AAA and they came out within the hour, sold me a new battery and I was on the road driving by 8:15 AM.
Two hours by car north of Chapel Hill and half an hour before Richmond VA is one of my favorite Virginia cities in need of more love: Petersburg VA. I like to visit independent coffee houses which are really easy to find on Google Maps. Petersburg’s Demolition Coffee is within a five minute drive off of I-95. I stopped for an oat milk latte (one pack sugar) and a roll, taken to eat on the road.
I continued driving north, first through Richmond, then the traffic hell of Northern Virginia and the Maryland DC suburbs. Luckily there were only a few slowdowns. North of DC near Frederick MD my Honda with 195,000 miles, after having driven more than five hours, suddenly cut off completely. The power brakes did not even work. I luckily coasted to a stop along the freeway. After stopping for ten seconds the car immediately restarted. What to do? I had almost two more hours left to drive to Elizabethtown PA. I decided to press on, figuring out that I was already so far from home, what did it matter? The car malfunctioned in this way twice more, but each time immediately restarted.
On the north side of Elizabethtown PA I found a public park, the Old Trolly Line Park. Would anyone care if I parked here for five days?
I was at the start of a rail trail that stretched twenty-five miles northeast to the city of Lebanon PA. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. I was stressed from the driving and the uncertainty of the car. I decided I would figure out the car issue later and I just unfolded the bicycle, strapped on my luggage, and started riding. It felt great. There was no traffic. Weee!
This is a map of the bicycle ride I would take over the next five days.
Heading towards Lebanon on that first day the rail trail was delightful.
The trail took me right to downtown Lebanon PA (population 26,000). As is typical in America now, the most modern hotels and motels of Lebanon were all two or three miles from downtown at the freeway interchange. Since I wanted to stay closer in, the best to be said about the 1970’s vintage Days Inn was that it was low cost. The lobby and public areas were dirty and vacant. The hallways were creepy and under construction, with lots of room doors mysteriously sitting propped open. Once I entered my room and closed and locked the door things seemed OK.
Lebanon looks so Pennsylvania, so different from a similar sized town in North Carolina.
COVID has made me realize that eating outdoors is really pleasant, even if one is not as worried about some disease. In downtown Lebanon PA I had an outdoor dinner of grilled salmon with vegetables at the Snitz Creek Brewery.
I wanted some kind of coffee and dessert. Why not a sweet coffee drink? I had noticed the Sydney Roasting Company in a strip mall across the street from my hotel. There was only one patron and one employee there at 7:55 PM but the employee, a cordial young man wearing woman’s clothes and pearls made me a decaf oat milk latte to go, with one pack sugar. I took the drink back to the hotel room to watch TV.
The next morning I made my lunch to eat later in the day, a peanut butter and honey (Carrboro NC honey from my friend Maxine’s backyard!) sandwich. I carried these ingredients this whole trip. I typically use a hotel towel as a food prep platform.
The hotel had given me a brisk “no” when I asked if breakfast was included, or even available. I packed up the bicycle to leave, then rode across the street to Sydney Roasting Company for a freshly grilled egg and cheese on rye, served in a fake newspaper wrapping. I read The New Yorker on my Kindle.
My ride destination this day was to be Reading PA, but circuitously routed through Morgantown PA so I could see Classic Auto Mall, somewhere I had been itching to visit. The towns along the way all seemed picturesque.
The town of Ephrata was having some kind of carnival right downtown. Main Street was closed to cars but not bicycles. As I cycled through at about 11:30 AM people were out on their porches seemingly waiting in anticipation of the carnival’s 12:00 noon opening.
In rural areas beyond Ephrata much of the land and housing seemed dominated by those I would call Amish, although I am not certain if that is the exact name of their religion. I saw multiple horse drawn buggies. These people apparently permit themselves to ride bicycles as well. Laundry blowing in the wind hung outside the houses.
The countryside was lovely.
On a country road there was a small elementary school with no cars, a pile of bicycles, and students and teachers in “Amish” dress playing baseball in the schoolyard.
I bicycled onward to Morgantown PA. I did lunch, eating my peanut butter and honey sandwich in the picnic shelter of a public park. Afterwards I cycled a mile or so to Classic Auto Mall, a former shopping mall that has been converted into a giant indoor lot for SEVEN HUNDRED classic cars, almost all pre-1980 and for sale by private owners. I had no intention of buying anything but it was fun to walk around.
Even before I walked inside, cycling around the vast empty shopping mall parking lot I saw two junk-level 1950 Ford convertibles and a 1960-63 Corvair. These must be rejects or parts cars; all the cars inside were nicely fixed up.
There was no entrance fee. Every car was marked with a price. The models and makes and years and price levels were all mixed together.
The inventory was heavy on American 1960’s muscle cars and light on imports. Yes, there were a few British cars; maybe a total of ten Triumphs, MGs, and Jaguars. There were a few German cars, Porches and VWs. A 1972 Datsun 240Z. I saw not one French car, sad for me.
The auto mall is at a PA Turnpike interchange. A gambling casino is across the highway. That appears to be a growth industry. It also looks like a mall. Back on the bicycle it was about seventeen miles through rollings hills to Reading PA.
Reading PA’s population has been declining, it is now 95,000, about the same as it was in the year 1910. It is a city that had built its wealth on railroads and heavy industry.
One of its former train stations is now a brewery. I stopped by for a beer and to have a place to sit and ponder where I was going to stay that night.
There was really only one “decent” downtown hotel in downtown Reading so I booked a room there. It later turned out that there was practically only one “decent” downtown restaurant as well: Judy’s on Cherry, which describes its food as Mediterranean. Judy’s on Cherry is a great place and was packed on a Wednesday night. Sitting at one of its bars, my first course was a ceviche appetizer. It was the best ceviche I remember ever eating. It included well placed chunks of avocado, perfectly ripened, with a garnish of tortilla chips and cilantro.
My second course was multi-mushroom pizza, also delicious. I ate the whole thing.
Walking back three or four blocks to the hotel at 8:00 PM the streets of Reading PA were startlingly vacant.
My plan the next day was to cycle northeast to the next large Pennsylvania city, Allentown. I first cycled through what seemed miles of decaying Reading PA neighborhoods.
Further on but still in Reading PA I saw these two pieces of mid-century commercial modernism.
In an off and on light rain I cycled the thirty-five to forty miles from Reading to Allentown.
As I approached Allentown and the rain stopped, I was surprised to find miles and miles of new suburban sprawl housing being built, after seeing so much housing being abandoned in Reading. I presume it is because Allentown is “only” ninety miles to New York City, and even closer to jobs in New Jersey. They say Pennsylvania has lower taxes.
Remembering the depressing Billy Joel song about Allentown I had expected more urban squalor but central Allentown, while not hip or prosperous seemed fine. Allentown (population 125,000) has at least one nice hotel downtown, the not too expensive but historic Americus.
That night I had pizza at a brewpub near the hotel. Sitting next to me at the bar I met a bicycle enthusiast and bicycle businessperson from Hickory NC, of all places. Y’all should buy his jerseys http://www.breitzwear.com
The next two days of cycling were almost entirely on the D & L Trail, comprised of the Lehigh Canal Towpath and the Delaware Canal Trail. I realize now how Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton PA all grew rapidly in the nineteenth century when their heavy industry gained water access to the rest of the world.
There was a canal trail right from downtown Allentown, heading towards the nearby cities of Bethlehem PA and Easton PA. It was a lovely morning.
The trail surface was crushed gravel. In my sixty-something miles on the D&L trails the surface varied considerably; it was sometimes smooth, sometimes not. I do not think full mountain bike tires are required but very narrow road racing bike tires could be problematic. As you will hear, there were unannounced breaks in the trail as well.
Both the Lehigh and Delaware Rivers form near-canyons as they cut through the hilly landscape. Here near Bethlehem PA the canyon included a main-line railroad, disused canal, bike path, and flowing river; all winding next to each other.
After ten miles I got off the trail to go to breakfast (latte and croissant) at The Joint Coffee Company in downtown Bethlehem PA., a friendly spot in the courtyard of an office building.
Bethlehem PA (population 75,000) has several colleges including Lehigh University and seems more prosperous and yuppified than neighboring Allentown where I had spent the night.
I cycled back to the trail which now headed along the Lehigh River the eleven miles towards Easton PA before turning south on the Delaware River trail. Mixed with the lovely trees were all sorts of railroad and industrial infrastructure.
South of Easton PA, the Delaware River Trail was lovely but occasionally had a very rough surface to bicycle.
The Delaware River Trail is in Pennsylvania, but the river forms the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, so the other state is always always only a few hundred yards away.
While this trail and river are close to East Coast cities the area feels quite remote. There was virtually nowhere to spend the night halfway down the trail and I felt lucky to have booked three days in advance on Airbnb a room above a bar and restaurant. It seemed so European. Spending the night in a rural area I looked forward to relaxing and not having to bike around in the dark looking for somewhere to eat and drink.
The room upstairs was fine. Unfortunately I found out that the “restaurant and bar” just downstairs was closed for a “private party.”
I was disappointed, as there seemed nowhere else to eat. My solution was to bicycle three miles back up the trail for an early dinner at a bar called Bowman’s North, then bicycle back by about 7:00 PM so not as to cycle on that woodsy trail in the dark.
The next day I started cycling again. My sister Betsy’s house in Princeton NJ was fifty or sixty miles further. For about half the distance I would continue cycling on the Delaware River Trail. There were historic locks along the old canal.
The trail was fine until is wasn’t; on at least two occasions the trail had been washed out and in the middle of nowhere the trail just stopped for a few hundred yards. There had been no warning signs and no clues as to what a traveling bicyclist should do. On one occasion I followed a path that others had cleary taken, climbing down a steep embankment carrying the bicycle, then back up the other side. On another occasion I had to go out to the highway for about half a mile, then cut back onto the trail by cycling through someone’s back yard.
After crossing obstacles the trail continued on this lovely day.
I was getting closer to the major cities of Philadelphia and New York so it is logical that the historic town New Hope PA along riverfront seemed to be a tourist magnet on this sunny Saturday at noontime. What’s for lunch? All the restaurants looked full but I got a seat at the bar of the Triumph Brewing Company. Beer and fried calamari hit the spot.
After lunch the bike path continued
About ten miles north of Trenton NJ I left the trail, crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey on I-295 and I headed northeast the ten or fifteen miles toward Princeton NJ.
I had a nice overnight stay with Betsy, her husband George, and their daughter Lynn. I should have taken more pictures. We had a nice dinner. I saw George and Lynn’s garden.
The next morning Betsy rode with me most of the way to the Amtrak station in downtown Trenton NJ. About half of that ride was on canal trails.
Trenton NJ and Princeton NJ are only ten to fifteen miles apart. In the twenty years Betsy has lived in Princeton I have watched it become even more exclusive. People in all walks of life seem to want to pay anything so they can live in Princeton. Meanwhile just twelve miles away at the New Jersey state capital city of Trenton no one seems to want to live there at any price. Much of Trenton looks like a place that used to be prosperous.
I caught Amtrak for the two and a half hour ride back to Elizabethtown PA, where my car awaited so I could drive back home to North Carolina.
POSTCRIPT: THE STORY OF THE CAR
At two thirty in the afternoon I arrived at the small Amtrak station in Elizabethtown PA, put the folding bicycle back together, and cycled the three miles to the public park where I had left my Honda. The car was still there. I put the key in the ignition and turned it. For one split second all the dashboard lights came on, then immediately all went blank. After that there was no power, nothing. This car with 195,000 miles seemed dead.
Even if I could have somehow started the car I did not think it safe to drive this sketchy car in the dark on a Sunday through the insanity of DC freeways. I decided to spend the night in Elizabethtown and work the problem.
The only place to eat in downtown Elizabethtown on a Sunday night was Lucky Ducks Bar & Grill. I had a seat at the bar, watched football, and enjoyed a delicious dinner of their speciality sandwich.
I met a guy at the bar who seemed to be an important guy in this small town, and he recommended Dawgz Customs as the best place to have a car fixed in Elizabethtown. He invited me to tell Dawgz that he had recommended them to me.
Waking up in the hotel room the next morning, in a span of ten minutes I called Dawgz, arranged for them to look at my car and called AAA and arranged for them to tow the car the three miles to Dawgz. Dawgz said they were busy and could not look at the car for at least a few days. In a span of another five minutes I found a low cost one-way rental car from the Harrisburg airport to Raleigh/Durham airport and learned that you could take an Uber to the Harrisburg airport from Elizabethtown for twenty-two dollars.
The Honda got towed to Dawgz and I drove home in the rental car. It was a nice drive.
POST POSTSCRIPT: WHAT I DID WITH THE CAR
Dawgz called me a few days later. They were really nice. They confessed that all that was wrong with the car was that the AAA back in North Carolina had not screwed on the terminals to the new battery tightly enough. The Honda with 195,000 miles was likely still in good shape. Dawgz only charged me fifty-one dollars, to be paid in cash only. I felt like an idiot for not discovering this problem myself. Two weeks after I had initially come home, I got an almost free airplane ticket to PHL with credit card miles, took first the SEPTA commuter train from the airport to Philadelphia 30th Street Station, then Amtrak to Elizabethtown. It was a cold, stormy, rainy day. I was going to walk from the Elizabethtown station to Dawgz but did not have an umbrella. The mile and a half Uber only cost eight dollars.
I drove the Honda home with no problems. I guess it is still a great car. I used to be Tootie’s mother’s car before she died in 2014.
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