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No Good Reason

February 3, 2011

I’ve signed into this today for the first time since my ride ended last summer, even going so far as to finally change my location from “Los Angeles” to “New York” (where I’ve been since August). This is progress! It’s also an exercise in reintegrating into the world and into my writing now that I’ve made some pretty important (and good! I think) decisions. And maybe I’ll even choose to write about it all as I move forward.

Looking back at this blog, I see that I never really did write about the last days of my trip, which were just as good as any of the others, if not better. I got blue, lost my momentum. Last weekend I went to a museum exhibit about diaries at the Morgan Library (which I quite enjoyed) with a friend of mine . He was done in about a third of the time it took me, and as he wandered off to other rooms, I apologized and told him I was a bit of a “completist.” And yet I’ve been so incomplete here. Perhaps in the coming weeks I’ll finish up and indeed write about “the Sufis, the Shakers, Northampton, and the Gropius House.” (Which would be appropriate, since I’m having major fantasies about the Sufis and going back to visit them this summer for a longer stay.) I have to say: The ride may have been only six weeks of last year, but they were the best and most important. And in hindsight, they’ve helped booster me as I’ve decided to fairly drastically change course. I look back at what I sought out while on the road and what I was drawn to and think, “Duh, of course!”

But it’s never that clear when you’re in the middle of it all.

It’s Official

July 24, 2010

The ride is over, not that I expect anyone to still be reading this blog at this point. I kept trying to feel like I could keep going, but I stalled and stalled and then eventually lost faith in my body’s ability to cooperate (not to mention a whole heap of momentum). Yesterday, I left NYC and flew to L.A., where I’ll see what sort of life I can make for myself. I have some ideas. Thanks for reading this. I had a simply amazing six weeks on the road and am sad I couldn’t go as far as I wanted. But here I am, and I’m excited to get to know a whole new city.

The Shoulder

June 29, 2010

Over two weeks since the shoulder pain began in earnest, and I continue to linger in NYC. I got in to see a sports med doctor last Tuesday, and he opined that I have rotator cuff tendonitis. As it goes with doctors, a lot of information was hurled at me, and it’s still not clear if the tendonitis is related to the bone spur, or if they’re independent phenomena. Either way, he said that if I continue to take the ibuprofen for another couple of weeks and do some shoulder-strengthening exercises, I should be able to continue the ride right away. I let myself heal for a couple more days and then took a succession of test rides this weekend (around Prospect Park, into Manhattan and around Central Park, and then out to Coney Island), and so far I’m feeling okay. The plan then, now, is to get back to the ride, which will mean carting my things back up to Boston where I left off and go from there. This will happen soon, but not right away, since the city has a way of entrapping me in its sticky little tentacles. In the meantime, I’d like to catch up on my postings. In a more perfect universe, I’d have used my free time here to do more of that, but emotions are slippery things, and I’ve been more happily distracted by museum outings, visits with friends, and general pensive meanderings in the park. (I’ve also been reading Moby Dick, which is one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read, in a good way. I expected this serious, weighty tome, but it’s surprisingly strange and funny and full of flouncy, fruity prose. Digging it.) My apologies for the lapses.

A Real Pause

June 16, 2010

Several days ago, while in Littleton, MA, I began feeling a slight twinge of pain in my left shoulder. I imagined it was a sore muscle and put it out of my mind. I rode to Cambridge last Friday to spend the weekend with my friend Melissa, and the pain, although not acute, didn’t abate. By Monday morning, I suddenly couldn’t move my arm without upsetting something and  sending sharp stabs of pain through my shoulder and down my arm. Getting on the bike wasn’t even possible, so I decided to take the bus to NYC to see my trusted GP. One appointment and one X-ray later, I found out today I have a bone spur on my shoulder. I’m not sure why it started to become a problem just this last week, but I’m now on muscle relaxants to try to stop the inflammation/irritation cycle and hopefully eventually the pain (which hasn’t subsided). I’ve been advised to halt the trip, which I would’ve had to do anyway since (as before) I can’t even move my arm into position to get on a bike. (Typing, on the other hand, isn’t a problem since I can do it with my upper arm parallel to my torso, which is my least painful position.) I’m not sure what happens next, but I’ll be basing myself in NYC over the next several days while I figure it out. During that time, I’ll try to write about the last couple of traveling weeks, including the Sufis, the Shakers, Northampton, and the Gropius House.

Moonraker

June 2, 2010

Where I am writing this (daytime version)

Last Saturday, I decided to take a small break from my trip. I packed up what I needed for the next couple days into two of my panniers, rode Gustav from Amenia to the Wassaic train station a few miles away, and took us both down to NYC until Memorial Day. I’d been nervous about the roads and finding a place to stay or camp during the holiday weekend, and going back to the city and crashing at Paul’s (thanks, Paul!) seemed like it would be fun. And it was. I gave myself a day to run some needed errands (like getting a couple of Gustav’s quirks checked out at a bike shop I know and trust), and I got to see my friend Sonny’s awesome documentary about Coney Island (check out the website here, and if you know anyone who wants to help fund independent documentaries, pass along the link!). On Monday afternoon, I took the train back to Wassaic. To get there, you switch trains in a place called Southeast, and as I waited with Gustav on the platform, a tall man in his late thirties with long red hair and a Spongebob T-shirt came over and asked me about my trip. His name was Loren, and he introduced me to his wife, Lisa. We chatted on the platform as well as on the train the whole way back to Wassaic, where I steered them toward some local sites I’d only just recently learned about. They gave me their information and told me to call them if I came up to where they lived in Chatham (in New York near the Massachusetts border). I said that I indeed planned to be in that area in a few days, but my itinerary wound up changing somewhat, which brought me to Chatham the very next day (yesterday). Lisa and Loren were happy to accommodate me at the last minute, and I arrived at their place yesterday after a ride through my very first thunderstorm, during which I hid out under my tarp for a half hour while the rain drenched the fields around me. That evening, they drove me around the area, showed me some old Shaker buildings, and took me to get sheep’s milk yogurt, which is delicious. We wound up in Hudson for dinner, where we talked and talked and then looked into the windows of some of the many antique shops on Warren Street. I could’ve moved on today, but their little home in the hills seemed like a perfect place to catch up on my writing and on this blog, and they invited me to stay longer, so I made today a writing day.

Lisa and some random shoes to be packed

But here’s what happened: after some bike maintenance and some eating and some emails and planning out the next few days and getting some laundry done, I sat down to write, but Lisa came home from work and asked if I wanted to help her help a friend pack to move. “Of course,” I said. How could I refuse? Plus, Lisa is English and funny and asks really good questions and is getting her Master’s of Social Work, which is a very common theme in my life, and I was happy to hang out with her. So off we went to her friend’s house, and here I am imagining there’s a few last minute items or books or whatnot to be packed away before the movers come tomorrow. Instead, it’s as if she (the friend) hadn’t done a thing to get ready till today. There was stuff everywhere: books, stacks of old newspapers and magazines, closets full of clothes and shoes, stuffed animals, maps, cassette tapes, rocks, shells, ancient art supplies, food in the kitchen, stuff, stuff and more stuff. I found random puzzle pieces, an egg-dye kit that must’ve been 20 years old, and a sugar packet (with the sugar still in it) advertising the opening of Moonraker in 1979. When we entered, Lisa and I both looked at each other and mouthed “Oh my god!” And then we spent three hours laughing and loading up box after box of all these things. I told her I’m filing this experience under “Places I Didn’t Expect to Be on This Trip.” She said that last night after dinner, she’d gone to bed feeling like she’d known me forever. And I have a feeling I’ll know Loren and Lisa for a long time. And that’s why I didn’t catch up on the blog today, and I know I won’t tomorrow because I’m having lunch with the Sufis and staying on their property in an old Shaker building, which came about because of the woman I met in Wassaic who’s descended from Russian aristocracy and who wrote an article about me for the local paper, which I’ll link to when it goes online. Needless to say, every day has been an adventure, and because I fear I will never get around to writing here about the past three or so weeks, I’m just going to give some highlights quickly and post photos when I have the time and move on from there. So here goes.

May, Reduced

The Cave of Kelpius

After New Jersey (this is back on May 9th), I rode into Philadelphia and stayed with my new friends Rory and Amy. The highlight of Philly was taking a ride with Rory up to Wissahickon Valley Park to find what’s purported to be the former cave of a man named Johannes Kelpius, who founded and led a group of German Pietistic mystics from 1694 until he died of tuberculosis in 1708 at the age of 35. This group, which came to be known as the Woman in the Wilderness (it’s a biblical reference), meditated in the woods, looked at the stars, played music and waited for the world to end. Kelpius is said to have meditated and prayed in a cave that might’ve actually been just a springhouse, but I wanted to see it anyway. Rory and I rode into the park along the Wissahickon Creek at the bottom of a gorge before turning up a steep hill. I didn’t know exactly where to find this cave, but there was a small footpath off to the left, and I left Rory to watch the bikes while I went down to explore. The path twisted through the trees for several hundred meters, and I was about gave up and turn back, but then, suddenly, there it was: a opening in the hillside with a large marble tablet propped in the dirt nearby. The cave had a slanted stone entryway among the overgrowth and a step down into an arched-ceiling, rectangular stone room about eight by sixteen by eight feet with a dirt floor. At the back of it, a chalk cross decorated the wall, and a small stone altar sat in the dirt with a piece of pine branch and a pebble. Of equal fascination to me was the tablet near the entrance and the Rosicrucian interest in Kelpius.

“AMORC,” I learned, stands for the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (or, in Latin, Antiquus Mysticusque Ordo Rosæ Crucis). “CRO MAAT,” from what I’ve been able to find, is an ancient Egyptian phrase meaning “The Truth Shall Be,” and is also a backwards anagram of The Ancient And Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, much like a reversed AMORC. There’s the rose on the cross and the scarabs, symbolic of ancient Egypt. I’m not sure what the triangles mean. The legend and history of Kelpius is tied up in Rosicrucianism, mysticism, and the occult; more than one source called the Woman in the Wilderness the first presence of an occult group in America. Perhaps so. What does seem to be agreed upon is that in the end, Christ did not reappear, and after Kelpius died, his group of men lasted awhile longer, but disbanded within a few years and left the Wissahickon Valley.

The Gild Hall in Arden

Riding out of Philadelphia the next day, I got the sliced tire I wrote about previously. I still find it funny that I rode my bike in NYC for ten years and never had a problem, whereas three days in Philly necessitated a new tire. This was also the day that I found total kindness in the form of the bike shop owner who drove me to another shop to get the new tire I needed. I’ve continued to find the graciousness and giving spirit in so many people I’ve encountered, not the least of which were the people I met in my next stop, Arden, Delaware. There’s no way I can do Arden justice here. It was like a little slice of magic in the Delaware woods. I was interested in Arden because it had been cofounded (in 1900) by Will Price, an architect and proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement. And it had been founded on the single-tax principles of a late 19th-century economist named Henry George, who believed that no one should be able to own the land, and that a tax paid on land should be the only tax collected. (It’s so much more complicated than this, and even after speaking with a man named Mike Curtis, who’s an expert on these things, I still have only a very vague idea of George’s principles.) Will Price and a sculptor named Frank

My fantastic hosts in Arden, Cecelia and Carl

Stephens found some farmland, and now on this land is an amazing hodge-podge of homes amid the trees, beautiful walking paths through the woods, a building called the Gild Hall that had been the properties original barn that’s now used for concerts and community meals, a separate community center housed in the old elementary school, a swimming pool, and an outdoor theater where a Shakespearean play is put on every summer (this summer it’s As You Like It). Two other communities have been founded adjacent to the original Arden, Ardentown (1922) and Ardencroft (1950)—similar in spirit but slightly different in organization. I rode up to the Gild Hall on the afternoon of the 13th, and it was just my luck that the first person I encountered, Cecilia Vore, had once been a bike tourist and was widely involved in the community life of Arden. She helped make the next couple of days a whirlwind of activity: she found a place for me to have dinner that night (thanks, Amy and Bob!), helped me get into the museum the next day on a day it’s normally shut, introduced me to people and put me up at her and her husband Carl’s lovely craftsman home. The motto of Arden is “You Are Welcome Hither,” and I felt beyond welcomed. It’s a beautiful place with a community of beautiful people.

The awesome Rob and Anne in Lancaster

I’ve already written a bit about the next couple of days—visiting Kennett Square, PA, and not being able to get into the Demuth Museum in Lancaster—but not so much more about Lancaster. I stayed with a great young couple, Amy and Rob, and on my full day there, I visited Wheatland, the former home of President James Buchanan, long regarded as one of the least substantial presidents. I wanted to go there because I’d come across a portion of James W. Loewen’s book Lies Across America about how Wheatland doesn’t mention the fact that Buchanan (the only U.S. president to have never married) had a long-term male partner named William Rufus King. While waiting for my tour to start, I even found a book in their little gift shop called Love, Lust, and Longing in the White House by Webb B. Garrison that said as much. But, as expected, when I went on the tour of the house, the tour guide never mentioned King. A lot of emphasis is put on this one woman that Buchanan had been engaged to, and after the engagement was called off she died mysteriously, perhaps of a laudanum overdose. But the man who was invited to Washington parties as Buchanan’s other in lieu of a wife for 15 years was never mentioned. There were only two of us on the tour, and at the end, I asked the tour guide about King. I’ll write her full quote up at some other point, but let’s say it was evasive and homophobic, and it completely substantiated what Loewen wrote about in Lies Across America.

Self-portrait of Charles Demuth

Leaving Lancaster the next day, I went back to the Demuth House, and although it was closed (again) when it was supposed to be open, the very kind woman there that morning let me walk through anyhow and see his upstairs studio. They have a collection of forty or so of his works, only five of which were on display that day, including a peevish-faced self-portrait in which he looks less cross-eyed than he does in photographs. He had a fascinating life and knew many figures of his day, such as Eugene O’Neill, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O’Keefe, who was in charge of distributing his works to major museums upon his death.

The former women's quarters of the Ephrata Cloister

Riding that day from Lancaster to Ephrata (pronounced EF-ruh-tuh, and not ef-RAH-tuh, like I’d thought) placed me in the wind and the rain for the first time on the trip. The purpose of my visit to Ephrata was the visit the Cloister, the very first of the “big” stops on this trip. Any major work on American utopian colonies includes the Ephrata Cloister, founded in 1732 by another German Pietist ascetic named Conrad Beissel. (He’d come to America to join the aforementioned Woman in the Wilderness group, only to find that it had recently disbanded.) His followers, both men and women, believed in a female counterpart to Christ named Sophia, lived in large wooden homes (one for each sex), wore white robes, got up in the middle of the night to pray lest they miss Jesus’ return, slept on narrow wooden benches with wooden blocks for pillows, and ate as little as possible since nowhere in the Bible did it ever mention that God eats. They sang, prayed, baked bread, worked in the fields, wove cloth, practiced a form of decorative writing called Frakturschrift, opened a school for local children, published books, and contributed much to their community. On the grounds now is a museum comprising nine of the original buildings, well restored. The men’s living quarter is gone, but the women’s still stands, looking like something out of a Germanic fairytale with its steep roof and its higgledy-piggledy arrangement of windows. I was consistently impressed by the museum’s presentation of the old buildings and the artifacts within: spare and elegantly simple, like it would’ve been at the time, and easy to walk through and explore on one’s own (although some areas were accessible by guided tour, which I found was well worth taking).

Walter in Ephrata

One of the highlights of my time in Ephrata was staying with a very kind elderly gentleman named Walter, who’d been on a number of bike tours in the past and was happy to put me up for a night. That evening, he took me and his two grown children into a town called Blue Ball to a place called the Shady Maple Smorgasbord (take a look here!), an immense Mennonite-owned buffet, where I had salad and steak and salmon and sausage with sauerkraut and a local dish called dried corn, which tasted like creamed corn, and buttered noodles and oyster filling and something called Harvard beets that I’d never had before and shoefly pie and egg custard and carrot cake, and by the end of it I truly thought I was going to be ill. In a good way.

Because I hadn’t had enough time at the Cloister the day before, I went back the next morning for a few of hours and didn’t leave Ephrata till the later afternoon, headed toward Doylestown about 75 mile away. I knew I knew I’d have to stop en route, and by about 6:30, in a hamlet called Gibraltar, I asked a woman sitting on her porch where to find the local police station, which she said was just down the road. The cop there was nice—mustachioed and portly and happy to help me out. He knew of an empty Christian Youth Camp about a mile away, and gave Pastor Wolfgang there a call to see if they could put me up in one of the cabins, which they could. (I heard him on the phone saying I seemed like “a nice kid,” which cracks me up given my age.) I spent the night out there on the top bunk of a musty Christian youth camp cabin, and marveled at my good fortune.

The exterior of Henry Chapman Mercer's home, Fonthill, in Doylestown

Doylestown, PA, is the home of Henry Chapman Mercer and his three immense beige-gray reinforced concrete buildings: the Moravian Tile Works of 1912, whose artisans made decorative tiles designed by Chapman by hand (and still creates tiles); Mercer’s home, Fonthill (built in 1908), a showplace for his tiles; and the Mercer Museum (1904), built to house his collection of pre-Industrial tools and machines. He’d collected them because he felt that the technology that had helped build this country was disappearing in the industrial age, and he wanted to preserve it. He was an early proponent of what we’d now call material culture, before it was ever valued and way before it became an area of academic study. I spent a great day touring all three of these buildings, and I have much more to say about them than I could possibly say here, except to say that I appreciate Mercer’s eccentricity and drive.

After Doylestown, I rode up to Phillipsburg, New Jersey, since I’d recently learned that my father’s mother’s side of the family emigrated there from Germany back in the 1870s, and I wondered if there were graves or any of the old homes to discover. Again, I’m sorry there’s no time to write more, but I had a bizarre little afternoon trying to find the graves of my ancestors, which I did (sort of). Phillipsburg was odd. I have to say it’s the one place where I’ve felt the most hostile stares from people, which is ironic because it’s the one place on the trip to which I actually do have a real family connection.

My campsite in Portland, PA, on the banks of the Delaware River

The next few days were just a matter of riding and camping and riding and camping to get to Amenia. I stopped en route in New Paltz, NY, where I’d planned to stay at their youth hostel, and mere yards from my destination, I was flagged down by this guy in his late twenties who was excited to ask me about my trip. His name was Aaron, and he too had been on a long-distance bike tour—a cross-country tour he’d done with his sister, Saz (pronounded “Shahz”). He’d also hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, and was days away from another bike tour through Canada up to Alaska. He invited me to stay with him, and I had a great time meeting his family and learning about his adventures. He packs only two panniers on his bike for everything (I have four panniers plus another bag for all of my sleeping stuff), and I was truly inspired to reduce my weight, and within a couple of days I’d shipped about ten pounds of stuff back to my sister’s in Oregon. (He and his sister kept a blog on their trip, which you can find here.) The next day, I rode a series of grueling hills into Amenia, from where I took my break to go to NYC, which brings us full circle (although I will have to write about Amenia later, because I really truly have to get to bed). I am now somewhat caught up, however meager this portion may be.

New Jersey, part III

May 23, 2010

Clean and Healthy

On Thursday the sixth, the day after I visited Perth Amboy and the remains of the Raritan Bay Union, I attempted to visit two sites in succession but didn’t quite make it. I’d spent the night in East Brunswick and rode about six miles that morning past Helmetta and its large nineteenth-century snuff and tobacco factory to my first stop: the town of Outcalt, once the site of Physical Culture City.

Bernarr Macfadden

Over a hundred years ago, in 1899, a short, muscular health nut named Bernarr Macfadden began publishing Physical Culture magazine, which sought to improve society by improving its fitness, hygiene, and diet. Macfadden, never one to follow the mainstream, rallied against the medical establishment and its alcohol-heavy medicines; tobacco and drinking; vaccinations; overeating; prudery; and the physical constraints imposed by corsets. But the magazine was just the beginning of Macfadden’s crusade. From here, he branched out into penny restaurants that sold inexpensive, healthy foods. He gave lectures, opened a sanatorium in Highland, New York (not far from Poughkeepsie), and then set his sights on creating his own community based on his principles of clean living, a place where everyone would be healthy and fit.

In 1905, Macfadden found and bought 1,900 acres among the pines in Outcalt, New Jersey, right next door to Spotswood. With an eye to a grand future, he named his woodsy, undeveloped plot of ground Physical Culture City. Here, there would be no doctors or bars or smoking allowed; medicines, high-heeled shoes, and meat couldn’t be sold. Most of the buildings he dreamed of (stores, businesses, and camps and schools) never got built, but there would eventually be a restaurant, a gym, a health house, and a printing presses for Physical Culture powered by a nearby water mill. For himself and his family, he built a house made of glass. (There was also a man-made lake on the property named for Marguerite, Macfadden’s wife; it has since disappeared.) Of the 30,000 residents he envisioned, no more than about 200 ever settled there, many of them eccentrics in their own way who had found a place where they might be accepted. A lot of people went naked. Outsiders showed up to gawk.

Corner of 12th and A. Not sure how old it is, but I liked the look of it.

The town was laid out in a grid of numbered streets and lettered avenues, which is about all that I saw of Macfadden’s enterprise when I rode through the area that morning. In 1906, Macfadden was brought to trial for sending lewd materials to a minor through the mail and found guilty. (Apparently, a cautionary tale printed in Physical Culture had overstepped an early twentieth-century moral code by mentioning too many of the bad activities that could do you in if you participated in them.) He fought against the charge for several years, to the neglect of his new town. By 1908, he had sold his stock in Physical Culture City and returned Physical Culture the magazine to New York City. And without him, Physical Culture City couldn’t survive.

10th Street

None of the buildings survived either. I came in on Daniel Road, past the VFW building and onto Tenth Street, which was shockingly wide, as if it had been planned to be a grand boulevard and not a residential street. As I rode around that morning, I found a mixture of different homes on the property, some small and modest, others large and recently constructed. Some backed up to a wooded area of tall pines, while others had removed their trees for a more manicured suburban look. Physical Culture City had been wiped clean, and I wondered if the people that lived there had any idea of the history of the area, or if the memory, too, had been eradicated. There was certainly no historical marker or mention of Macfadden. As with other places I’d visited, I found the lack of history or legacy to be telling. Not everyone who tries to make the world a better place (or their idea of a better place) necessarily succeeds, or is even remembered for it.

Just after riding around there, I had an unsettling moment when I arrived beyond the grid into a housing development of nearly identical large brick homes with a few variations on the two-story-arched-entryway idea, with identical colors and detailing and identical lawns. I grew up in suburban California among tract housing, and then later in a condo complex in Idaho, so developments aren’t foreign to me. But those dwellings were more modest, and I found something disturbing about such uniform grandiosity repeated ad infinitum along the streets and cul-de-sacs of this New Jersey neighborhood. It was numbing just to be inside of it. What suppressed faculties of discernment and individual taste would it require in order to live there, I wondered.

The Phalanx

The Monmouth County Historical Association

From Spotswood, I rode southeast into Monmouth County and Revolutionary War country, stopping for lunch at a place called the Battleground Deli, where I discovered that a cheesesteak and chocolate milk on a sunny New Jersey afternoon can be a certain form of bliss. (I also passed through a place called Englishtown and still wonder how it managed to keep that name once the English lost the war.) From there toward Freehold I entered the most pastoral landscape of my time in New Jersey, where trees or sidewalks or strip malls made way for waving grasses and Revolutionary-retro wooden fences. (I also discovered that the battle fought in the area was the Battle of Monmouth, in 1778.) I came into Monmouth County to see what I could find of the former North American Phalanx, another Fourierist colony, one of the most successful of all the American phalanxes. It lasted about 12 years, from 1844 to 1856 outside the town of Colts Neck Township and not far from Red Bank. (The Raritan Bay Union was an offshoot of the North American Phalanx; its founders disagreed with some of the NAP’s practices and wanted to start their own colony.)  I began my hunt at the handsome brick Monmouth County Historical Association, where, after a brief tour of the museum’s colonial furniture and stoneware and silverware, I visited their small library and rifled through their box of NAP artifacts. When I asked for it, the librarian rolled her eyes a little. I assume it’s an often-asked-for box.

Inside the box were old New York Tribune articles, an old bound book of editions of the NAP’s publication, the Harbinger, photos of the large wooden house that had been built on the property for the residents, old maps, an original application for membership into the phalanx, and various reprints of old letters. Most important, I found out exactly where the property had been and how to get there from the library.

On the way to the former phalanx

The only problem was that I’d spent most of the day in Spotswood or on the bike or in the library, and I still didn’t know where I’d be sleeping that night. I still needed to see the former phalanx property and have some time there, but I couldn’t get caught in the dark without a place to stay. I headed toward Phalanx Road, the name it’s had since it led to the phalanx over a century and a half ago, and along the way passed the Colts Neck police station. I stopped to ask about places to set up a tent, and the policemen I talked to (all very nice) didn’t have anywhere to recommend locally, but steered me toward a couple state parks several miles out. If I went up to the phalanx property, I’d never get to one of the parks before dark, but if I went to one of the parks right away, I’d either miss the phalanx property or have to do an incredible amount of doubling back the next day. I couldn’t come this far and not see the property, so I pushed on east along Phalanx Road, past posh homes, beautiful farms, and apple trees lining the road, and found the western and eastern borders of the colony as well as the historical marker I knew was around there somewhere. I turned off of Phalanx Road, and at the top of a low hill saw ahead of me a man calling for his dog in front of his house.

My view from the kayak

When you set out on a trip such as this one, you hope for at least a little bit of magic along the way and that when you need it, someone will appear to lend you a hand. I stopped to ask this man if he knew where I might be able to pitch my tent for the night, and it took him a moment to suss me out, but eventually he said I could use the ground next to an old barn on his property, right across the street from the old phalanx lot. Not only was he a nice man who was letting me stay in his yard, but both he and his wife had done some bike touring before and understood what I was doing. They turned out to be amazingly kind people. We chatted for a while in their backyard, which abutted a long, narrow lake, and they offered me a shower and to have breakfast with them in the morning. This was the first moment of magic on my trip, where things worked themselves out when they very easily could’ve gone so wrong. I awoke the next day to the sounds of honking geese and wild turkeys—possibly the same sounds the residents of the phalanx had heard on their mornings. I joined the family for breakfast, and afterward they told me that if I wanted, I could try out the kayak they kept down by the lake. And I wanted, which is how on the seventh day of my trip I somehow found myself not on a bike but paddling out and spending a gorgeous May morning separated from the world by a little bit of water.

The phalanstery circa 1890

Afterward, I finally got to look at the old phalanx property, a rectangle of sorts whose longer side runs about a quarter mile along the main road, but trees and thick foliage shroud the property from passersby. The land slopes up gradually and clears out to become more of an open field with occasional trees, which is where the original house of the phalanx once stood—a large wooden two- and three-story affair that housed all of the members. I’ll write more about the North American Phalanx when I can devote more energies to it, but like the Raritan Bay Union, it was founded to enact the theories of cooperative living and congenial work put forth by the Frenchman Charles Fourier, who himself never came to America and had been dead for several years by the time most American phalanxes were being founded. This one was heavily supported by Horace Greeley of The New York Tribune, and it had about 150 members at its height. While most Fourierist colonies barely made it through their first couple of years, this one lasted more than a decade until a fire destroyed several of its nonresidential buildings. It was too great a financial loss from which to recover. The entire original house stood on the property for many years, and at least a portion of it lasted until 1972, when it eventually burned down. All that’s left now of the original community is a house that was moved from the phalanx property and placed a short ways up the road, where it still stands—a simple farmhouse-style home with a steeply sloped roof and forest green shutters. Several new, modern homes with manicured lawns and stately driveways have been built on the phalanx property, and there’s nothing besides the historical maker to give a person any idea of the attempts to live in accordance with a nutty, brilliant Frenchman that had transpired there.

Homesteaders

The community post office and the closed-down deli

But the day was only beginning, and I had another site to see that I’d learned about from the Buchan book. A 20 mile ride, mostly along County Roads 537 and 571, brought me to Roosevelt, tucked away in the woods near the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area (really, that’s the name). In her narrative of Roosevelt, Buchan had mentioned a deli on the main street, Rochdale, and how it was the only place in town to find food. I spent the last ten miles of the ride obsessing about how hungry I was and how I couldn’t wait to get to this deli. But when I pulled up, there were no cars in the parking lot and an “Out of Business” sign posted on the door. I had some food on me, so all was not lost, but I grumpily sat against the wall of the deli (which is right next to the post office and is where all the residents have to go, as Roosevelt has no home delivery), ate my lunch, and reread the Buchan chapter about Roosevelt.

The flat-roofed Bauhaus style of the homes of Jersey Homesteads

Roosevelt began its life as Jersey Homesteads, the brainchild of a man named Benjamin Brown, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine who had the idea to develop a “mixed agricultural industrial cooperative community for Jews” (in Buchan’s words) and who had the chance to do so under Roosevelt’s New Deal and its Division of Subsistence Homesteads. Jewish agricultural colonies in New Jersey were not a new thing, but Brown envisioned more than that: he also wanted to provide factory employment for skilled out-of-work Jewish garment workers and a store where the goods produced on the farm and in the factories could be sold. The political and financial machinations needed to get Jersey Homesteads off the ground took a number of years, and things never went smoothly. People running the project were hired and fired; the first houses built on the land collapsed; the factory was built and orders taken for the garments it intended to make, but not enough houses were built to house the workers needed to fill the orders; the farmers and factory workers had disagreements; there were long delays all around; there was mud. The price tag of the whole venture, as they say, skyrocketed. By August of 1936, the factory opened and by January of 1937 almost all of the 200 planned homes had been built and the residents moved in. After the initial house debacle, a new principal architect, Alfred Kastner, had been appointed, and as his assistant he brought on a young Louis Kahn, who would later design the Yale University Art Gallery and the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, among others. They designed in the modernist Bauhaus style, developed in Germany in the 1920s. In Jersey Homesteads, it would mean low, flat-roofed homes with long windows.

The factory then, the trees removed

Eventually, the farm would become more self-sustaining than the factory, which constantly needed outside capital to stay afloat, and that too would have to end. The factory closed in April of 1939. By 1940, Jersey Homesteads was considered through, but in the interim something had happened: a community had formed, a place where people knew each other and cared about each other; a place that had begun to develop its own culture. It had its own schools, a shop, a teahouse, and a community center, where the artist Ben Shahn had come to paint a mural depicting the history of Jersey Homesteads beginning with the Russian pogroms. Some of the families left, but many stayed, finding work outside of town and waiting to see if the factory might reopen (which it did, but as a millinery, which required different skills than they had as garment workers). Shahn himself stuck around, and Jersey Homesteads slowly became a town that attracted artists.

In 1945, Jersey Homesteads changed its name to Roosevelt in honor of the recently deceased Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal allowed it to be born, however shakily it may have happened.

The original community center had since become the elementary school, and as I was right across the main road from it, my first stop had to be to see Ben Shahn’s murals. It was 3 p.m. on a Friday when I rode Gustav up to the school. There was an informal-looking baseball game in progress in the field with some kids in yarmulkes playing and some parents on the grass watching. I hadn’t expected school to be out yet, but the main door was already locked.  I rang a bell, but no one came out, but I could see reflected in the window a woman walking up the grass toward me.

A detail of Ben Shahn's mural showing the layout of Jersey Homesteads' streets

“Were you looking for water or a bathroom?” she asked helpfully. She’d seen me earlier sitting by the deli and figured I was desperate for one of the two. I told her that I’d actually come to see the murals, and she cheerily said she could show them to me. She unlocked the door and brought me into the lobby area where Ben Shahn had painted his version of recent Jewish labor history, beginning with the Russian pogroms and ending with Roosevelt itself. In between are Ellis Island, a march of immigrants headed by Albert Einstein (an early proponent of Jersey Homesteads), garment factories, and labor unions. Along another wall were beautiful hand-hammered aluminum doors by someone named Otto Wester  with town scenes pounded out of the metal. The woman apologized that she couldn’t tell me more about them. If I’d shown up an hour sooner, I could’ve had a sixth grader give me a tour, and they knew much more than she did. As we were leaving the school building, she asked if I’d seen “the head,” by which she meant the large bust of FDR just south of the school that had been dedicated in 1961 at a ceremony that Eleanor Roosevelt herself had attended.

My favorite home in Roosevelt: unmodified, renovated Bauhaus

From there, I rode around on Roosevelt’s curving roads to see what was left of the original Bauhaus architecture. My first feeling was one of slight disappoint that the buildings weren’t more blatantly Bauhaus, as if they needed to be looming and forceful while yet still small and domestic. If by Bauhaus they meant flat-roofed and boxy, I thought, well, then they had completely succeeded. All of the original houses had been one story, but over the years many of them had been modified: second stories had been added, peaked roofs put atop the flat ones; different frontings had been affixed to the houses. I saw one of fake stone and another of real stone. Some homes were still Bauhaus-esque, and others had shed the look completely. One I saw had accentuated the style with paint and decor. The contrast of the unmodified and the modified allowed me to appreciate the original homes more than I might have otherwise. I normally don’t like flat roofs, which seem both impractical and overly blunt. But here in Roosevelt, I liked the boxiness. In such a small package, the design felt tidy and spare and efficient; it let the trees have more room. Someone later told me their nickname for the houses in Roosevelt was “midget houses,” and perhaps they’d be cramped and small on the inside, but I couldn’t tell that from the outside.

Also of note is Roosevelt’s layout, based on the Garden City plan of Ebenezer Howard, with its curving streets and its integration with the woods and streams around it. Each house stands on an acre of land, and there are numerous footpaths through the trees to connect the different streets and cul-de-sacs. According to Dr. Rodham Tullos, as quoted by Buchan, Roosevelt is the “first example of lower income housing built on a wetland that is ecologically sound.” I didn’t have a chance to dismount and walk along any of the paths, but there is definitely a feeling of woodsiness and an escape from the grid, such as I saw in Physical Culture City the day before.

The factory now; the trees are back

While in Roosevelt, I also wanted to see the original factory, which was out on Oscar Lane, past two other more modern factories. Buchan mentioned there were artist spaces and a gallery out there right now, but in the long, low multi-windowed building (in which many of the windows have unfortunately now been painted over) I found only a company that made packaging equipment. I wound up chatting with the office manager, who took me into a storeroom that had a pushpin board with some of the building’s history on it. I learned that after the garment factory closed, it became the millinery factory for 7 years and then a button factory for 14 years. The office manager said that sometimes you could still find buttons under boards or in crevices. After the buttons, the next business to move in constructed cabinets, and then in 1974 to 1976 (this is my favorite one), there was a company that made geodesic domes.

The former synagogue

The office manager told me that the town’s legacy as an arts town lives on. About 20 percent of the town’s thousand or so residents make their living as artists, and the Roosevelt Arts Project brings many of those artists from different media together to share ideas and collaborate.  She also told me that Roosevelt had one of the highest tax structures in the state and that the water bill is $155 dollars a month, whether you turn on your water or not. But if you live in Roosevelt for 20 years, you can be buried up in the cemetery for free. Still, there’s no place to buy food or get a meal. You have to go to Hightstown for that. But with its woodsy locale, unique history, and uncommon architecture, I could definitely see the appeal of living in Roosevelt. And maybe someone will reopen that damn deli so the next bike tourist doesn’t have to eat all of his peanut butter out of desperation.

Departure

I rode from Roosevelt to spend the night in Hightstown, where I finished up my first week of riding by getting ice cream at a roadside stand called Cree-Mee Freeze with my new friend Lindsay. On Saturday, I rode 54 miles to Collingswood, just outside of Camden, for my last night in New Jersey. I’m sure this will become a common refrain in the next months, but it was a grueling ride for no other reason than the wind—my most difficult riding day to date. Moi et le vent, toute la journée. It was sometimes a struggle to just get downhill, and for several miles at a stretch I had to click into a low gear, drop down as low as I could, stare at the pavement, sing to myself for distraction, and peddle. I’d be lying if I said some of those songs weren’t from A Chorus Line. I guess it and Jersey just go together.

Walt Whitman's wee home

Speaking of things that are gay and brilliant, my very last stop in New Jersey (this time) was the Walt Whitman House in Camden, on the other side of the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Of course, I wrote a paper about Whitman in college, and his name pops up every so often in these utopian journeys, what with his admiration for the common worker and his Transcendental roots. He’s a figure I’d like to know more about, and at his home I saw his boots and his deathbed, and I wish I had more at this moment to say about my visit, but I need to trudge forward into Philadelphia lest I never leave New Jersey.

Pause

May 22, 2010

It’s an overcast day in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, as I begin the fourth week of my trip. I’ve been in Doylestown for two nights already, and yesterday I had a fantastic museum day that included all three of Henry Chapman Mercer’s concrete marvels. My host, Laura, lives a few miles outside of town in a large brick house that predates the Revolutionary War and was reportedly a brothel at one point. She has two chickens, Parm and Marsala, and this morning, for the first time, I ate my very first fresh straight-from-the-chicken egg. Then I went out and picked up Parm. Is it weird that I’ve lived this long without ever having held a live chicken?

Me and Parm

I’d intended to ride north today, but Laura invited me to stay for another night, which made sense given my itinerary. My next stop is Phillipsburg, New Jersey (about 40 miles away), where I’m hoping to learn a bit more about my father’s side of the family. According to old census and immigration records, I have great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents who emigrated there in the 1870s from Germany and eventually died there. I’d like to see if I can find some old homes or graves, and since I won’t be able to visit the Phillipsburg library or city records office till Monday, I decided to hunker down here for the day and get some writing done. I’ve fallen far, far behind in chronicling this ride, due to a combination of a lack of time and energy; a generous amount of socializing with my wonderful hosts; and an excess of places visited that I want to write more than four words about. But from now on, the destinations become fewer and farther between, which will hopefully mean I won’t get as logjammed as I’ve gotten. My apologies for the jumble. Let’s see if I can finally finish up New Jersey and move on to Pennsylvania and Delaware (and then back to Pennsylvania).

A Cutting

May 16, 2010

Avocado and corn

Today began in the town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, where I stayed over for only one night and then left early this morning. I’d put Kennett Square on my list because it had been the home of Bayard Taylor, who’s credited with having written the first queer American novel, Joseph and His Friends, in 1870. I’d also come across the town on a list of great American small towns. Unfortunately, my late arrival yesterday kept me from doing any research about Taylor or discovering what makes the place so great, but my hosts in Arden (where I’d begun the day, and about which I’ll write when I’ve fully processed the experience, which was pretty incredible) had told me about a Mexican ice cream shop on the main street. Unbeknownst to me, Kennett Square is the Mushroom Capital of the World, and there’s a large Mexican population who work on the farms. My goal then became to find a burrito (which I did) and to eat Mexican ice cream. I had a scoop of avocado ice cream and a scoop of corn ice cream. So good.

On a back road on the way to Lancaster. I would love to know how this happened.

From Kennett Square I rode about 40 miles northwest to Lancaster, in Lancaster County, famed for its Amish population, but because it’s Sunday, I didn’t see a single cart on the roads, and all the roadside shops and stands were closed. It also meant the quilt museum I wanted to see in Intercourse—yes, Intercourse—was closed. I figure this is just the nature of the beast: The loose structure of this whole trip means I’ll miss out on some things. The ride, though, was mostly lovely. There were rolling farmlands, horses, a plethora of quaint churches (many of them Mennonite), and a couple grammatically incorrect religious signs telling me, for example, to Believe on Jesus. I encountered a couple guys out for a serious Sunday ride even though they’d competed in a Christian bike race just the day before. One of them offered me a place to stay, but I already had something arranged with a young couple in the town of Lancaster in their old brick house, once located on a farm but now located next to a hotdog factory. (The unlovely part of the day’s ride was the hills, but they’re just a fact of biking life and aren’t worth whining about too much.)

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

One of the reasons I came to Lancaster was to see the home of artist Charles Demuth, another queer artistic figure and one whose paintings I’ve always loved. (For the record, his name is pronounced duh-MYOOTH, and not DEE-mith, as I’d always thought.) His well-known painting I Saw the Figure Five in Gold (from 1928) hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I’ve stood in front of it numerous times taking in its dizzying curves and sharp lines and the expression of affection it holds for his friend William Carlos Williams. Demuth grew up in Lancaster and died here, in 1935, and his home is open to the public as a museum. It’s closed on Mondays, so I made sure to get here early enough to drop off my things at my hosts’ home and get to it before it closed at four o’clock.

The Demuth home

My hosts fed me a fantastic meal and then shoved me off toward the museum, found on one of Lancaster’s main streets. It’s a small, nondescript whitish two-story house next to the tobacco shop that’s been continuously owned by the Demuths since the 1770s (and whose income allowed Charles to live the life of a dilettante). I pushed Gustav into the rear courtyard, where I found a sign on the entrance door telling me the museum was closed. For what reason I still don’t know.

This isn’t a tragedy, since I’ll be here until Tuesday morning, when it opens again (if it actually opens). But as I’m learning on this trip, sometimes the little snafus lead to greater things. Today, this greater thing took the form of Margaret, the elderly volunteer gardener attending to the roses in their beds in the rear courtyard of the Demuth House in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She had on a bright pink T-shirt, lavender fleece gardening gloves, a straw hat, and sunglasses, which I later saw hid large blue eyes with a touch of mascara. A dirt smudge spread across the bridge of her nose. After I asked her why the museum was closed (she wasn’t sure), she expressed sympathy that I’d come so far just to be thwarted and, to make up for it, took me across the street to a stone house from 1768 to show me something called an eavesdropper—a smiling face built into the underneath of the overhang, an uncommon adornment in this area. Back in the courtyard, she told me the story of the Demuth garden.

Part of the courtyard garden, with the old Demuth tobacco factory behind it.

Charles, the artist, died at age 51 from complications from diabetes, predeceasing his mother, Augusta, by several years.  When she passed away, the house was sold and became offices, and the little back courtyard with its brickwork and raised brick flowerbeds was paved over for a tiny parking lot. In the 1980s, the house came into the hands of those who wanted to preserve it and turn it into a public museum. They wanted to re-create the rear courtyard and hired a company to come in and remove the asphalt, which Margaret says they did by rolling it up, like a carpet. She also says there’s a picture in the archives that shows the new proprietors with a look of complete shock on their faces when they saw, upon the rolling back of the asphalt, that the original brick courtyard and the original flowerbeds had never been removed. They were still there underneath and wouldn’t at all have to be replaced.

The rugosa rose

Margaret also told me that when Charles returned from one of his trips to Paris, he brought with him a rose cutting for his mother—a white rugosa rose that she planted in the rose bed off to the side, across from the side courtyard door. When the building was sold after her death, a friend of Charles uprooted the plant (or perhaps just took a cutting; Margaret wasn’t sure) and planted it in his own garden. When the Demuth flowerbeds were restored in the ’80s, that plant was returned to the original spot that Augusta had chosen. I like this story—of renewal and return, of family affection. I also liked Margaret, and had the museum been open, I might not have even noticed (much less spoken to) the kind chatty lady digging in the dirt in her lavender gloves.

New Jersey, part II

May 15, 2010

Modern

Francisco Ferrer

From Free Acres, I headed south toward Edison, about 20 miles away. The day had started and remained sunny, and I landed in Edison at the public library, where I had a small picnic on their front lawn before heading in to see what information I could find about my next destination, the remnants of the Modern School and the supporting community at Stelton, two separate but affiliated early- to midcentury institutions in what is now Edison. The librarian didn’t have a great deal of information to offer, but she was kind and there were maps that could direct me where I wanted to go.

The Modern School and the colony in Stelton were products of the Francisco Ferrer Association, founded in New York City in 1910 and named after the executed Spanish anarchist and education reformer Francisco Ferrer y Guardia. Bolton Hall, founder of Free Acres, was its treasurer. In late 1911, the society opened a school for children in Manhattan called the Modern School where students made decisions for themselves about their own schooling, even to the point of skipping class if that’s how they felt.

A school named after Fellowship Farm

After a bomb exploded in NYC in 1914 that was made by regular anarchic visitors to the Ferrer Center, the mood changed considerably, especially as police presence increased. One of the founders of the Ferrer Center visited a friend that summer at a community called Fellowship Farm in Piscataway, NJ, (right next door to Edison) and decided that the school should be moved there in order to get the children away from such a tense atmosphere in the city. A colony of residents would also be established to support the school, located not within the colony but nearby, just outside of it.

In the former Stelton colony

From the library, I rode out to where the community itself had been situated, among an incomplete grid of streets with names like Brotherhood, Fellowship, Justice, and Freedom—a reflection of its first residents’ beliefs and priorities. These names are about all that’s left of the original colony, but what great, weird street names they are. It was close to three o’clock, and kids were being dropped off from school by the school bus, and, since there were no sidewalks, several moms stood around talking with each other on the grass by the side of the road,. Some of the homes were large, if a little old and not quite beautiful, with expansive lawns. It must’ve been a day of major trash collection because I passed by two homes with TVs out near the street. Heading west toward where the school itself was located, I passed a park and a baseball diamond and had the impression of a decent, friendly place to have a home and a family.

It took many years to get the colony to the point of any livability since the original colonists were city dwellers and didn’t know how to turn the farmland they’d purchased into a town. There was hardship and poverty at first, and the place remained fairly hardscrabble for a while. Residents commuted to New York or Philadelphia. They included not just anarchists, but representatives of a number of different movements, such as single taxers and communists, although the colony itself was not communistic. At the center of the colony, metaphorically, was the school, located across Stelton Road on School Street. It opened in 1915 and lasted until 1953, much longer than any of the other Modern Schools established in other cities. It had an eclectic curriculum with a number of artistic disciplines on the roster, including music, weaving, pottery, carpentry, and metal work. But in accordance with the school’s theories of student inclusion in their own learning, if a child preferred to play in the creek instead of sitting in class, he or she could do that.

House with historical plaque

I rode out onto School Road to find the one thing I knew was still there: the old library, named after the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The original school itself had burned down, but the library survived, and I expected to see it still used as a smaller local library or to be standing empty. Instead, I found a small gray home with a large historical plaque on the front lawn. I couldn’t remember ever having seen such a thing. Perhaps a sign on the road, or off to the side, but not right in the middle of the grass like that. Not that I imagine many people come through there the way I did.

I’d arranged a place to stay for the night in Highland Park, not far from Rutgers. As soon as I left Edison, the dark clouds amassed, and I sped as swiftly as I could toward my destination, past a number of open fields, including one used by Rutgers for a gathering of large solar panels. I was no more than a block from where I would be staying when the rains began and I hid on someone’s porch until it died down. I stayed that evening with two Rutgers grad students, who took me to a grad dinner where I very happily stuffed my face with free Middle Eastern food.

I Am a Boy

I can’t say why exactly, but the name Perth Amboy conjures up for me nautical images of blue waves and oars and life preservers. The town of Perth Amboy is on the water, but there’s nothing in the name that would indicate that. On my fifth day of riding, I rode to Perth Amboy, only about ten miles from Highland Park, heading west, but a world away from the academic bubble of Rutgers and into a wholly working class environment. Going there brought me less than 30 miles away from where I’d begun my trip four days prior, and I could’ve ridden home in just a couple of hours had I wanted to. But I didn’t.

Back from 1853 to 1858, Perth Amboy—or, rather, the village of Eagleswood, which is now part of Perth Amboy—was home to a Fourierist phalanx called the Raritan Bay Union. At this point, I would need to explain who Charles Fourier was, how he influenced a great number of Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century, how a number of colonies called phalanxes were established to put his theories into practice (however haphazardly), and how most of them never lasted beyond a year or two. But I’m finding that this is a bigger story than I want to tackle here, so I’m making the executive decision to return to this at a later date. But I will say this: the librarians in Perth Amboy get the award for Nicest Librarians on the Face of the Earth. They found materials for me, talked to me about my project, took my email address should they be able to find anything else, and without my even asking, they offered to let me keep my bike behind their locked fence.

Former site of the Raritan Bay Union, now a concrete footprint of a demolished factory

My time in Perth Amboy involved not just the library, but a trip out to where the Raritan Bay Union once stood and a trip out to a local cemetery, where a nice man named Harry in a brown groundskeeper uniform tried to help me find the grave of the Union founder, Marcus Spring, in plot E-67, but we couldn’t find it. I went for a slice of pizza when I was done, and the man making the pizza, Frank, talked with me about bicycles and how back in Italy as a teenager, in Calabria, he’d raced bikes.  He told me all about the races he’d won and the races he’d lost and the injuries he’d gotten and the awards he was cheated out of and how he came to America and had to give it all up. He also told me a joke about how the town got its name. I couldn’t really understand the joke, but the punchline was “I am a boy, I am a boy.” After the pizza came out of the oven and he’d cut me a slice, he came over to sit near me and lit up a cigarette and smoked in the pizzeria while I ate.

Killed With Kindness

May 14, 2010

Rory reminded me as I was leaving his house in Philadelphia a couple days ago to watch for broken glass on the roads. I’d ridden out to his place in northeast Philly with no problems, and he and I had ridden around the day before with no problems. But as I was riding back toward the city center on Delaware Avenue on my way out of town, I took my eyes off the road in front of me for just a second to look at the big blue Ben Franklin Bridge I’d crossed a few days earlier from New Jersey. I felt a slight jostle and heard a twangy metallic sound, as if I’d run over a loose bundle of wire, followed by a loud “shhhhhhhhh.” My first flat tire of the trip. I pulled off into the parking lot of a closed nightclub with the unsavory name of Flow, took all my panniers off and changed my tube before loading everything back on. I inspected the tire for any major damage, but aside from a small piece of yellow glass embedded in the rubber, I didn’t see anything. I was concerned about the little gash in the tire made by the glass, although no hole went all the way through.

Where I fixed my first flat of the trip.

About a mile later, while waiting at a stoplight, I peered down at the tire to see if it was doing okay, and it was positioned perfectly for me to see a small bubble of rubber erupting through a hole in the sidewall—a completely different issue than the glass. Less than two weeks into the trip and I would need to replace a tire. I stopped where I was, in front of the Franklin Institute in downtown Philly, and went through the whole process again: take off all the bags, change the tire, put all the bags back on.

The only bike shop I passed on my way out of town didn’t have the size tire I needed, but I knew I’d be riding near Swarthmore and figured that a college town would have some bike services. I was right. As soon as I got near the campus, I found a little bike shop but was surprised when I walked in to find that it had very little stock on its shelves. It was either just getting going or going out of business. I thought of turning around and walking out when a heavyset woman in her forties working on a bike in the back of the shop alongside a teenage boy asked if she could help me. When I told her about my tire problem, she said she didn’t have what I needed but that she could call another shop a few miles down the road for me. That would be great, I said. It had taken me about five hours to travel just 20 miles, and it was starting to drizzle. I knew my riding was done for the day, and if I could get a new tire then I could at least feel as if I’d gotten something accomplished. She called the other shop, which had the right size tire. “Great,” I said. “Just point me in the right direction and tell me where to go.” But she didn’t like that idea. With the wet pavement and the bad roads between here and there at rush hour, and me with my wide load, she didn’t want me to ride out that way. “If you give me twenty minutes,” she said plainly, “I’ll drive you there.”

My new tire

Now, it’s one thing to make a call for a customer, but it’s another thing to leave your own shop to drive him somewhere. And maybe it wouldn’t have affected me so much if I hadn’t been on the receiving end of so much kindness since my trip started, mostly from the people who’d put me up and fed me and encouraged me—such as Rory and his wife, Amy, who let me stay with them in Philly for three nights and fed me several meals. (I haven’t even had the chance to tell the story yet of the family in the mansion I stumbled upon and the lake and the kayak, but that’ll have to wait.) The generosity of this woman astounded me. She drove me out to the other store a few miles away and told me her story en route—about leaving New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina but returning there to work as a civil engineer and then moving to Swarthmore when her partner landed a job at a hospital nearby. She opened the bike shop when she couldn’t find work in her field. I told her that she’d gone way above and beyond the call of duty, and she said quite bluntly that, no, she hadn’t. This is how it should be, she said. I needed some help, and that’s what you do: you help people who need it.

The next day, I rode into Arden, Delaware. I pulled up to their little Gild Hall, the center of a lot of the town’s activity. A woman—fifties, curly hair—was putting a few things into her car and was about to get in when I asked her if she knew where I might be able to find the library. We chatted for a second, but it was clear she was in a hurry. I needed a place to camp that night, I told her, and I asked where in town I might be able to set up a tent. She wasn’t sure, but she gave me her phone number and told me to call her in an hour. When I did, she offered me a bed in her home and told me to call her friend, who could feed me dinner that night. I’ll write more about Arden later, but I was planning on staying only one night and have wound up staying two. I’ve been invited to stay longer if I want, but I know I ought to keep going. I feel so grateful and yet somewhat strange and awkward when faced with these moments of such generosity; I can offer only a feeble thank you in return. But perhaps the woman with the bike shop is right. Maybe this is how people ought to be, and to be surprised by it is to be looking at things the wrong way. And if I don’t learn to accept these acts of kindness, I might be doing all the kind people I meet along the way a disservice. What’s the point of feeling bad about allowing someone to do some good?