The last few days have been fairly easy riding through Virginia. The weather is cooler and the terrain is relatively flat, so we’ve been adding on some extra miles.
Between DC and Richmond it’s fairly populated and suburban. I miss the more abandoned farm roads. The upside is that instead of roughing it in the wilderness, we’ve gotten to stay in RV campgrounds. They feel more like staying in a hotel than camping: complete with private showers, camp stores and cheap firewood. This morning our RV resort actually fed us free waffles.
We planned a short ride today so we could spent a little time in Richmond. Originally we intended to see the Civil War museum, but we decided we were a little sick of Civil War history. Our route has gone past battlegrounds and memorials, and we spent a day in Fredericksburg, where the antique shops were filled with Civil War artifacts and the souvenirs were Civil War-themed.
As an interesting aside: I’ve seen two confederate flags outside: the first one in southern New Jersey (yeah, really), and then one yesterday in Virginia. But inside, it seems like souvenir shops have a wide array of confederate-flag themed tat. I’m sure there’s a deeper cultural message here; I’ve been thinking a lot about Rahawa Haile’s article “Going it Alone” in Outside.
Regardless, we ended up spending the day wandering around Richmond a bit. We went out for some soul food and have enjoyed relaxing in our peaceful downtown hotel.
Since our last long blog post we’ve left the southern reaches of Pennsylvania, traversed Maryland and Washington DC, and arrived in the northern reaches of Virginia. The terrain and the culture are getting much more southern.
With regards to the terrain, there are far fewer pine trees and more incredibly verdant deciduous forests. Some parts of Maryland almost seemed tropical, with ferns growing out of gaps in stone walls, and strange giant fruit littering the ground alongside fallen black walnut fruit and copious quantities of acorns. The insects are also getting a lot larger. Amy just noticed a very imposing spider with a body the size of a nickel (total size about the size of a poker chip) in the laundry room at the campground where I’m writing this blog post.
The temperature is also rising, although this may be due to a temporary heat wave more than the latitude. When we finish the day Amy and I are usually caked with sweat and salt. This makes us very exciting to our friends’ dogs. Our bikes carry about 1.80 liters of water each, so we haven’t yet run out of water. Usually if the day is hot we’ll run into a 7-11 or gas station periodically to get a cold soda. On one particularly warm day we purchased an entire bag of ice and filled up all our water bottles with it, using the remainder in the bag as a giant cold compress.
The culture is a bit more difficult to describe; there are more sweetened drinks, especially tea, on sale in convenience stores; we’ve eaten some barbecue. There are different accents, and people seem more polite, and at the same time, a bit more difficult to parse than the people we’re used to interacting with. Earlier today we were loitering outside a convenience store and a shopper told us that the clerk had asked us to move our bikes. No explanation as to why was given. Were were breaking some sort of moral code? Being an eyesore? Did we look suspicious? Why didn’t the clerk come out and tell us himself? I get the feeling that different cultural mechanics may be at work here.
The past week or so we’ve been mostly staying with friends, and our camping has been to a minimum.
Our first meeting with a familiar face was with Al, my father’s mentor and thesis advisor.
The last time that I saw Al was when he was visiting my family circa 2003, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he hasn’t aged a day since then! After a delicious lunch he took us back to his house and we saw his beautiful collection of birds. One of his oldest parrots, Zoltan, used to perch on my mother’s shoulder while she held me as an infant. Zoltan is still alive and well – I’ve always been impressed by the longevity of parrots.
Our friends Steve and Tatiana were next on our route. Tatiana went to university with Amy and I in 2006, and we both remember her very well from that time. Since then we’ve seen her and her husband a few times, most recently at our wedding a month ago (it’s hard to believe it’s been a month – it feels at the same time like more and less time than that has passed). They purchased a row house in the Canton district of Baltimore, and have a real plan for retrofitting it.
I was really impressed how they seemed to have a *plan* for their long term life together. I only wish we had as much of a sense of certainty as they seem to. Steve and Tati are excited about craft beer and we sampled a few at a local bar. The most memorable one for me was a grapefruit radler (the German equivalent of a shandy), from Austria. I was reminded of our bike trip along the Danube in 2015, which was in many was the genesis of this trip. Tati, Amy and I also visited the AVAM, a museum of outsider and other experimental art. Both evenings were spent playing board games together.
Our next stop after Baltimore was to visit Mary and Doug. They used to live in Egypt in the 2000s and were very close to my parents. My brother and their youngest were inseparable rascals as five year-olds. They live in a house on the very northern edge of suburban DC, yet still within ready reach of the metro. I felt very much at home staying with them; we spent two great evenings drinking wine on their porch reminiscing about old times. In the interim day we commuted with Doug into Washington DC and took care of a few shopping errands (replacing a worn apple power cord and trying on sunglasses).
While we were in the city we also saw the new Smithsonian museum; the Museum of African American History and Culture. Like all Smithsonian it would have taken a few days to explore all the exhibits. After visiting the cafeteria for lunch (cornbread-stuffed trout is delicious!) we walked through the history section of the museum. Seeing the artifacts of slavery, particularly an actual auction block where human beings were separated from their families and sold, had a very profound emotional effect on me; which I haven’t felt since seeing the shattered bullet-ridden bones of civil war soldiers at the Mutter museum in Philadelphia. There is something about seeing the artifacts for me that makes history real. Most of the museum visitors were African American, and I kept thinking how they must remember this history, especially the more recent chapters: the civil rights movement and ongoing racism and prejudice. This is still very recent history; their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents likely were touched by this historical struggle making it not just national history, but family history for them. As for me.. well I’m somewhat of a new American – my parents are Canadian (as am I), and I was raised in Egypt, immigrating (if you will) to this country as an adult. How much of this history is mine? Can history every be owned or pinned on anyone anyway?
Our next stop was to visit our college friend John. He lives in a up-and-coming neighborhood on the far eastern side of the DC, sharing a house with two roommates. There was still lots of street culture in the area around where he was living, with raucous block parties and someone cutting up some giant salvaged container in the middle of the night. We passed by the site of a drive-by-shooting, which was being marked similarly to cyclist memorials in Brooklyn, with a shrine. There were quite a few mourners and we stopped for a moment to reflect with them on the life of the person who had died (she was a bystander with three young children). This was right outside a giant new REI. John and his friends were very hospitable. We watched Casablanca, along with an episode of the new Star Wars rebels cartoon, and spoke at length about the military. The military was a big part of the lives of all three members of the household. Two of them work at the pentagon (apparently there are no stairs in the pentagon, only ramps, and there is a cafe in the central courtyard). John himself finished a four-year tour of duty with the Marines recently and is currently working towards a degree in Russian studies.
After two nights with John, we continued onwards on the mount Vernon bike path, which heads into Virginia out of the city. Biking down that path was some of the most pleasant cycling I’ve ever experienced. For those readers who live in the Boston area and have driven down route 2A through Concord, etc during a beautiful time of the year, this was like that, only sized for a bicycle, with excellently spaced curves, stone walls and bridges over streams and swamps, and small trees providing shade.
The path itself extended for 20 miles. I think I understand now why road cyclists enjoy moving through the French countryside at 30 miles per hour.
After a night of camping we made a small detour out to Haymarket, Virginia, to visit our friends Suzanne and Chris. The last time we saw them was at their wedding last year. They recently purchased a beautiful house in a suburban area. Both of their families are from Fairfax county VA (counties are like towns in Massachusetts). We went to a local pumpkin market with an immense variety of pumpkins (warty, smooth, apple-colored-and-shaped, large, small, cannonball, pale blue, and perfectly white), and had a very enjoyable dinner and evening discussing their lives and future plans. We were both impressed with how well decorated their house was; with matching rooms, real furniture, a finished basement! It was amazing!
During the past week it’s been overwhelmingly strange and wonderful to be able to peer into so many lives in such a short time. The next month we should be mostly on our own again, just us and the road, motels, campgrounds, and the occasional Warmshowers host. I’m going to miss the feeling of knocking on a unfamiliar door somewhere and seeing an old friend answer it.
We’ve spent the last few days working our way west across Pennsylvania. We left the Delaware, skirted the suburbs, crossed the Schuykill river and today dropped down to the banks of the Susquehanna.
We enjoyed a night in a hotel in the ‘burbs – after a few days of eating lentils and pasta on the camp stove, we were particularly excited to raid the buffet at Whole Foods. We resupplied our larders, picked up more gear at REI, and pigged out at Five Guys before departing the suburbs for Valley Forge National Park.
Since then, we’ve mostly traveled through farmland. The last two days have been in Lancaster County, which is apparently Amish country. It’s been bucolic (in the manner of a high-concept GE television ad): corn fields; a farmhouse with cotton dresses out to dry; even the occasional horse-drawn buggy. Coming from Brooklyn, of course, I wonder why we turn one visible religious minority into a tourist attraction, while another we don’t? But cultural weirdness aside, it’s been very charming, and the riding has been moderately challenging but beautiful. Highlights from the countryside have included: some fantastic farmstand tomatoes and corn, a llama farm, and a cop asking us if we had seen a buggy missing a horse.
We’ve had a few firsts over the last couple days – our first time getting drenched, our first lame day of riding, and our first (and second) flat tire. Each time, it’s felt good to step back and acknowledge that even those these things suck, we’re still learning, and they’ll get easier to deal with. It’s nice that we’re traveling for long enough to actually build those skills. We both already feel stronger on the bike and savvier while camping, and I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to learn.
We spent the last few days riding along the Delaware, crossing back and forth between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We’ve gone from the woods, to farmland, and now we’re dipping into the suburbs to Philadelphia. The weather’s turned sticky and humid, and everything’s a little bit more lush. It’s starting to feel like we’re somewhere really new and not just on a regular weekend jaunt outside of Brooklyn.
I’m so used to the idea of bike touring that it’s easy for me to forget how odd we look to most people. Bike travel is funny that way – you’re a public spectacle, but that visibility (and vulnerability) also makes other people open up. I’ve had more conversations with strangers in the last week than I think I’ve had in my life, and the vast majority of people have been very kind.
To catalogue some random acts of kindness so far:
A store owner gave us a very fancy can of salmon
A couple in a car invited us to glean apples off of their tree
We ran into a big community BBQ fundraiser for a charity and were invited to stay for free BBQ and music
A family welcomed us to camp in their yard, as well as to relax, share a beer with them, and socialize
I feel lucky that this trip has given us the opportunity to have experiences like that.
Today we biked the distance down the Delaware water gap recreational area. It is a beautiful extent on the Delaware river, filled with former farmland, evacuated via eminent domain in order to build a massive dam. When the impact of the dam became known, however, during the height of the environmental protest movement, the dam was cancelled. The farmers had already been removed, so the land was left to nature.
We biked down from our previous campsite, ‘High point state park’ AKA the highest point in New Jersey, (on the Appalachian trail), and down the land that was to have been flooded by the dam, passing a few ghost towns and preserved farmhouses along the way.
The water gap is also where my love of camping had been rediscovered – on a 3-day Kayak trip with our friend Nic in 2015. Before that my last camping experiences had been in 2008, and calling that camping would be somewhat generous.
There are many things that I have come to love about camping. First is the peacefulness of solitude with nature. I feel like I’m a part of the landscape, and I enjoy passing through various biomes and attempting to recognize plants and geological features as I come across them. I love looking at a map of an area I’ve never seen before, and then actually seeing the land unfold before me later that day. Being on a bicycle makes this easy, due to the increased speed at which one moves over the land, and the extent to which one is made aware of the changes of elevation; if you’re pushing your bike up a 20% grade it’s very very obvious.
Camping is a lot of work, but is enjoyable for the pleasure of living inside a piece of gear origami. I love camping gear – setting it up, tearing it down, sorting it.
The bicycle can carry just enough weight to make it possible to haul, via human power, a fully equipped camp setup, with camp chairs, laptop, a tiny guitar, two person tent, sleeping bags, mats, etc. One is slightly more tethered to roads than a backpacker, but I haven’t found it to be much of a problem. Usually there are roads where you want to go.