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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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. urbanpriestess permalink
    June 3, 2010 3:33 am

    Casey!!! I LOVE the sugar packet! We were ships passing in the night because when I texted to see if you were upstate, and you were back in NYC, I was heading from Northampton to Ghent, NY, which borders Chatham. I can’t believe it, but of course, I can. Somehow it’s making me smile even though I’m so sad to have missed you. I can’t wait to read the book of all of this. Each entry I’m so excited to see where you’ve found yourself this time. Looking forward to hearing about the Sufis…


  2. June 3, 2010 7:39 am

    Hey Casey,

    you’re welcome (thanks for the shout out!), and also, omg, what is up with all the crazy pronunciations of the names of the places you visit? EF-ruhta, and Shahz!!?!? I am freaking out. That aside, the places sound very cool. I agree with Elena about the awesomeness of the sugar packet, and might I just add that “Moonraker” was one of the best-worst and worst-best Bond movie in the Roger Moore years.

    Ride on like a thunderous jester of yore!


  3. Aaron permalink
    June 3, 2010 8:39 am

    Hey Casey!

    So great that you mentioned us in your blog. And what’s even cooler is that you were inspired to drop some weight! Congrats on that. Keep on shedding the pounds! My hope for me is to be inspired by your extensive blogging. To write more than just a caption above my posted pics would be a success, I think. So from one inspired tourist to another, safe riding and strong tailwinds.


  4. April 13, 2011 8:26 am

    Hey! I’ve got that Moonraker sugar packet by the printer for my computer right now! And it’s being packed up again. April 15th is move-in day for the next move and I’ve got about 10 boxes packed so far! Not much!!! Are you anywhere near Jersey City? Those cool shoes Lisa’s holding up in the photograph are my daughter’s shoes and she’s in Paris. I’ll be packing up those shoes again!!
    But no, for real, I’m not actually moving everything April 15th (it’s April 13th today) — that’s just when the lease starts. And this time I’m only moving 8 blocks away and not 108 miles like I was when you were passing through!
    Thanks for all your help and the reminiscence is precious to me!!
    Happy trails!

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