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New Jersey, Part I

May 11, 2010

Besides going to the Newark airport or traveling to Philadelphia from New York, the only time I’d spent in New Jersey before this past week involved a last-minute trip to Atlantic City with my friend Becca, during which we got on the wrong parkway and ended up driving across the whole state and back in the middle of the night singing along to the Chorus Line soundtrack. But New Jersey, surprisingly, has a tremendous number of former utopian colonies within its borders, and therefore had more sites to see in such a small space than anywhere else I’ll go on this trip. I visited nine sites (including a couple of museums) in nine days covering a back-and-forth 300 miles from NYC to Philly, when a straight shot between the two is only about 100. I never expected I’d spend this much time in New Jersey, but while in Oregon, I came across a book called Utopia, New Jersey by Perdita Buchan, which describes many of the state’s former utopian colonies. After reading it, I knew I had to go check some of them out.

Gusav, fully loaded

As Buchan explains, the reason for Jersey’s proliferation of utopian colonies is one of geographical proximity to the cities. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as thinkers and dreamers in the urban areas of New York City and Philadelphia were concocting their schemes and devising their ideal communities, the close, available acreage on which to try out their ideas lay right in between them in New Jersey, with its rolling farmlands and its forests. Land was found and purchased, and communities were established. New Jersey became a flury of utopian activity in which some of the colonies were affiliated with each other or had overlaps. Invariably most of them met their end, for any number of different reasons. For example, the Helicon Home Community, begun by the author Upton Sinclair on the Palisades above Englewood in 1906, burned to the ground after less than six months, and that was the end of that.

I expected New Jersey to be a challenging place to begin my trip.  There hadn’t been bike maps of the state available, and I had concerns about the roads and the drivers. I also didn’t trust that I’d always be able to find a place to camp, which is why I relied so heavily on finding couches to sleep on in advance. This ultimately meant having to stick with a schedule rather than letting events unfold as they may, which I prefer to do more of as I get used to traveling in this manner. Adhering to a plan also meant taking my first rest day after nine days of riding instead of five or six. As the days went on and I made some mistakes and tried out some tactics I’d read about, New Jersey came to seem like my training ground for the rest of the trip. For that, I now have a certain thankful fondness for Jersey.

Vagabondia

The Self Master Colony, around 1913 (per Wikipedia)

It seems ridiculous to say, but I found my way around New Jersey with the use of Google Maps, which offers bike directions. It has its weaknesses, such as the time I was directed into a gated community and got stuck at a fence until someone came by to activate it, but I got from point to point without too much trouble. It’s how I made my way from Brooklyn to Parsippany on the first day of my ride, and how I got from Parsippany to Craftsman Farms and then on into Morristown on the second day. There were a couple museums I wanted to visit in or near Morristown besides Craftsman Farms, but part of my New Jersey training involved getting a better sense of the time/energy relationship and what’s possible on any given day, especially when the weather is as hot as it was those first couple of days. I never made it to the museums in Morristown. The third day, Monday, would take me to the remnants of the first place I learned about in Buchan’s book: the Self Master Colony in Union, New Jersey.

In 1908, Andress Floyd, a former lawyer and reformed Wall Street banker, purchased 50 acres of land on a rise above Morris Avenue in Union, a small town at the time, but which is now a tidy suburb of about 54,000 people about 20 miles from NYC. Floyd intended, along with his wife, Lillian, to establish a place where destitute men could come and rehabilitate themselves through craft and meaningful work. The land, part of a former estate, already had a large white Greek revival house on it, as well as a number of other outbuildings, and over the years, other buildings were added as needed, such as dormitories for the men, who could choose what type of work to do from those offered by the colony. These included farming, working in the kitchens that fed the men, weaving rugs, making concrete blocks, or working in the print shop that published the colony’s magazine, Self Master. Floyd attempted to rehabilitate these men and get them on a path to self mastery not just through the work he offered them, but through his own example of clean, honest living. Over the years, hundreds of men came to live and work on the property. During the boom years of the Coolidge administration, Floyd became a developer in the Union real estate market, which went bust in 1929 during the stock market crash. Floyd went bankrupt. Most of the land of the Self Master Colony was sold off and most of the buildings torn down, including the large main house. Floyd died in 1933, but at least one man held on at the Self Master Colony till the end, weaving silk and cotton rugs on the property until he too died in 1938, at which point the remaining land was sold to the city.

The Union library, on the land that was once the Self Master Colony

I approached Union from the northwest on an overcast afternoon and headed straight for the town library, a handsome brick two-story structure that stands on the same rise above Morris Avenue that had been Floyd’s property a century earlier. I assumed the library would also have some good historical information about the Self Master Colony, but I was incorrect about that. The first librarian I asked had never heard of it, and the second one was able to scrounge up a few scant resources, including the Buchan book that I already had on me. The third librarian chastised me for asking for change for the copy machine when it clearly took dollar bills. But I’m glad my first colony stop brought me straight into a library, which I suddenly realized is a bike tourist’s dream. They have bathrooms and water and air conditioning and local maps and history books and scratch paper and Internet and people whose job it is to answer your pesky questions. Weirdly, none of the reading I did before the trip about bike touring ever mentioned libraries, which I consider a major oversight.

The Girl Scout Field Center

I knew from the Buchan book that the only remaining building from the Self Master Colony sits right behind the library. A small shingled green building with yellow trim, the building was once most likely a men’s dormitory but is now a “Girl Scout Field Center,” as the sign above the door states. This isn’t a recent development; I found a document in the library from the 1950s that mentioned the building’s use by the Girl Scouts even back then. No one was there to let me in to see the inside, but I walked around the outside noticing the cut-out squirrel profiles on the yellow shutters, the concrete foundation, and the single-slat stairs leading up to the white front door. I wondered if it had such a chipper look to it during the days of the Self Master Colony, or if the woes of the troubled men imbued the building with a different air than that created by little girls making crafts and organizing cookie sales.

There was one more remnant of Andress Floyd’s life in Union to look at: the streets in his former 1920s development named for himself, his wife and his daughter. I found Andress Terrace, Lillian Terrace, and Olive Terrace on a map in the library and steered Gustav toward them, out of Friberger Park behind the library, turning left at the firehouse. But when I approached the road that would take me there, I saw that it dipped significantly before rounding a corner, and I had no desire to go down a hill to look at a few old streets just to have to climb back up the hill. I have my limits, it turns out. And so I pedaled back toward Morris Avenue and west out of Union, having seen very little, but it was a start. And “very little” is its own discovery.

It’s Fun to Stay at the…Swamp

A short ways out of Union, I looked into the little rearview mirror attached to my glasses and saw a darkening sky. I had a pretty good sense it would begin to rain any minute, so I paused under an overpass where, within three minutes, the rain began to fall. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes later that I felt it was safe to keep going and got back on the road. About 15 miles later, I reached my next destination, Berkeley Heights. I’d been unable to arrange in advance for a place to stay that night in the area, but I saw this as a good thing. I needed to learn how to deal with this eventuality and not be so dependent on strangers’ couches. Unfortunately, riding into Berkeley Heights along Springfield Avenue gave me the sense of an affluent community that might not welcome a random camper. I rode as far down the street as there were businesses, past the largest American flag I’ve ever seen, which was flapping above a hardware store. I found the local police station to ask about places to camp, but the officer on duty said there weren’t any official ones, but there was a spot in a local nearby park, the Passaic River Park, that might work. “Not that I’m giving you permission,” he added.  “You just shouldn’t be bothered out there.”

After I returned to Springfield Avenue, I spotted the local YMCA, where I went in and convinced them to let me take a shower (which was perhaps my proudest moment of the entire week) and then picked up some provisions at the store, I followed the cop’s directions out toward Passaic River Park and found the dirt path he’d mentioned. I’d been excited to get out to a quiet woodsy area to set up my tent and eat my dinner and fall asleep, but it became clear that the afternoon’s rains had also hit Berkeley Heights and that it might be a challenge to find a dry spot to camp. I pushed Gustav along a muddy track, getting my feet wet in the process as I sunk into some sludge, but after about a quarter mile, I found a small rise that was exposed to the sun and had dried enough to allow for a tent. I knew the mosquitoes would soon be out in droves, so once I had the tent set up, I crawled inside, ate my dinner, and stayed for the night.  And the cop was right: I wasn’t bothered out there. (I wish I’d remembered to take a picture of my first camping spot of the whole trip, but I’m going to have to train myself to do these things. I didn’t even think of it till several hours later.)

The Dreamers

The red farmhouse, now a community meeting center

Berkeley Heights was on my list of places to visit because of a small community called Free Acres just a couple miles outside of town. It was founded in 1910 as a single-tax colony by a man named Bolton Hall. I have to admit that I don’t yet understand exactly how a single-tax colony works, but there are a number of them in the U.S., and they’re based on the principles of Henry George, a nineteenth-century economist and writer. In essence, George believed that because land is finite, owning it allowed a few people to become unfairly wealthy at the expense of everyone else when property values increased. Instead, land should have a “tax rent” imposed on it. To him, this was the only fair tax, as opposed to taxes on goods and services, which can limit those goods and services. Land, on the other hand, cannot be limited by its taxation as there will always be the same amount of it (give or take a natural disaster here and some landfill there, I suppose).

Influenced by the ideas of Henry George, as well as those of William Morris (the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, with its emphasis on community and craft), Hall converted a 75-acre farm he already owned near Berkeley Heights into Free Acres, where he hoped people could develop personal relationships with one another and practice a fairer form of economics. He wanted people to be happy. Free Acres began primarily as a summer colony. It attracted artists and free thinkers who built makeshift homes in the woodlands and meadows of the property despite the travails, including a good reliable water source and sanitation difficulties. A corporate charter set up the community as a nonprofit organization, and a constitution spelled out how it was to be structured, including restrictions on buildings (no more than one story) and how community matters were to be discussed and voted on. Unlike in America at large, at Free Acres, women could vote.

Where I should've spent the night

Bolton Hall set aside for himself the original red farmhouse at the entrance to Free Acres, where Appletree Row dips down off of Emerson Lane, which Hall himself named. That morning, after packing up my things (and having to change my wet socks once I got back out to the road), I pedaled out to Appletree Row, where I found the red farmhouse. It stands beside a large perfectly green meadow dotted with dandelions under a sweep of trees, and as soon as I saw it, I thought, That’s where I should’ve spent the night. I hadn’t even thought to ride out the night before, which I considered a lesson learned the hard way. I wondered, though, who I might have actually asked for permission to camp in this meadow. I’d found an inviting bench right in front of the farmhouse with the words “Rialto Bench 1963” carved into the top slat, and as I sat there enjoying the sunshine, I noticed that no one ever walked by. Granted it was a Tuesday morning, but although a number of cars came up Appletree Row from within Free Acres to ride out toward Berkeley Heights, no one ever wandered past me.

Over the years, Free Acres morphed from just a summer community to a year-round place for people to live.  Clubs and guilds were established, a swimming pool built, which is still one of the centers of the community. (While I was there it was empty and undergoing repairs.) Plays were performed and festivals held. People made things, kept bees, planted gardens, walked in the woods, lived a different life than most of those outside the community. Free Acres eventually hooked up to the city water system. Rules changed allowing for more than one story, and new houses were built. Bolton Hall himself left the community in 1936 in disgust over an approved tax-structure change.  Over the years, the community opened up to more traditional home buyers and Route 78 was built nearby. Still, today Free Acres maintains its unique land tax structure and remains a nonprofit organization.

The entrance to Free Acres

But this is where my limitations begin. I didn’t get to spend more than an hour or two there, and there was no one to talk to. I rode around for a while, and although there was a feeling of woodsiness, and there were a number of nice older houses, as well as the usual overly stylized modern structures, and I imagine that everyone who lives there is very friendly, I don’t really know what it’s like to live there.  I do know I was constantly distracted by the din of Route 78 just beyond the southern border.  The houses along Cedar Lane must hear a constant swoosh of car noise from their property, which so concretely diminishes the effect of stillness and isolation the founders wished to create. It’s a shame, because it could feel like a place apart, but instead it feels like a place within. As I’d sat on the bench and read about its history, I imagined that it was a place I would enjoy living in, but once I rode out, I felt like there would be more secluded properties on which to find one’s own idyll. But what do I know? Free Acres has quite a fascinating story and a particular legacy—of intellectual and social freedoms and a certain civic mindedness and joy of life—and maybe if you spend enough time there, it creeps into your soul.

To be continued…

Explaining That I’m Just Visiting

May 9, 2010

My inability to write anything here this past week is a testament to how much there was to see in the newest of Jerseys and how busy I was zigzagging around to see it, as well as how much time I spent with the amazing people I met along the way. (Clicking on the “Route” link above will show you where I’ve been.) It’s been a fantastic week unlike any other I’ve ever experienced, and now that I have a day or so to rest here in Philly at the home of my friend Mirabai’s friend, Rory, I’ll be able to catch up and write. New Jersey was it’s own funny little ball of wax. I don’t think anywhere else on the rest of the trip will I be trying to see so much in so little time. It’s been a whirlwind, albeit an awesome one.

Als Ik Kan

May 2, 2010
43 Willow Place, Brooklyn Heights

43 Willow Place, Brooklyn Heights

For the first day of my trip, yesterday, I had a number of goals: to not get hit, to not hit anyone else, to not tip over, to not break anything, and to not get lost. I’m glad to say I succeeded in all of these areas as I rode 54 miles on what turned out to be a record-breaking day of heat—90 degrees in some places. My friend Paul joined me for the first part of the journey. We rode from Park Slope to Brooklyn Heights to visit what I considered the “official” start of the ride: 43 Willow Place, once the home of the Oneida Colony’s Brooklyn branch (more about them later on). From there we rode over the Brooklyn Bridge (with that marvelous view of the crisscrossing cables), and up the Westside Highway to the Little Red Lighthouse. He left me there, and I continued on over the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. There was too much to pay attention to—the traffic, my directions, managing the weight, getting up the hills, making sure I was staying hydrated, making sure I was eating enough—to have more than a passing emotion about my undertaking or be aware of more than what was directly in front of me. At one stoplight on the Jersey side, a man waiting to cross the road asked me where I was going, and I automatically said, “Parsippany.” After I rode off, I realized that he didn’t mean today.  A few miles later, at another stoplight, a burly man on a motorcycle asked me the same question. For lack of a better answer, I said, “Cross country.” He told me he once took his motorcycle on a ride through all the lower 48 states.  There was enough time for me to yell “Awesome!” before the light changed and he rode off.

Today involved a lot less riding and a lot more museuming, which was nice because the heat didn’t abate. A few miles just west of Parsippany, Gustav Stickley, one of the major American proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement, bought up 650 acres of land near the turn of the last century with the goal of starting a trade school for boys. He built what he thought would become a large clubhouse, but it became his home when the school never came to be. (Why it

Stickley's home at Craftsman Farms

never came to be is not entirely known; Stickley was a private man who didn’t keep journals or write about himself.) The property did become a working vegetable and dairy farm for a number of years, and now 25 of the remaining original acres have been preserved by the city and are open to the public as Craftsman Farms. I wanted to visit it because I consider the Arts and Crafts movement to be its own sort of utopian vision, and I wanted to see how it might fit into the larger picture.

I can’t yet say why, but I like Gustav Stickley. I need to find out more about him, but his skill as a woodworker, his interest in craft, his business acumen, and his lasting legacy are all admirable. I’d like to find out eventually why he was attracted to the Arts and Crafts movement and why he eventually visited England in the early 1900s to check out the guild system that William Morris had established. One surprise for me about Stickley was that unlike, say, Frank Lloyd Wright, he was as much a businessman as a designer, perhaps even more so.  Although his name is associated with home design, he wasn’t an architect but employed architects to design for him. He also employed furniture designers and textile artists and potters to design goods that he sold through his showrooms and catalogs. But he overextended himself financially and had to sell his home at Craftsman Farm in 1917.  A family of Russian immigrants bought it.

The property on which the house stands almost became a residential development in the ’80s, but through civic and municipal intervention the project was halted and the property became a museum and a national historic site. There are other buildings on the land (a couple small houses originally meant for the boys, a barn, old chicken coops now converted to homes, and so on), but the main house is the only one regularly open to the public. After a sweat-inducing ride up Route 10, I reached the property. Before going on the tour of the house with a docent, I cooled down in the gift shop (the house’s former kitchen, with the huge stove still intact and now a display area for books), which gave me a chance to chat with both a board member and a museum employee about my trip. The bike itself, I’m discovering, starts conversations.

Puddingstone entryway to where the cows used to graze

Before bringing us inside the house, the docent took us around the grounds to see where the farm and cows (Holsteins) and rose garden had once been. I liked her because she gladly answered all my questions, and one day I’ll convert all my scribbled notes into something more substantial than this. (I’ll hopefully at some point learn to better balance out the things I want to write about with the energy left over to write about them.) The interior of the house was gorgeous in its heavy, medieval way. I don’t think I could ever live in a place that gets so little natural light. Still, I could appreciate the aesthetic and the consistency with which it was applied throughout the house. One fascinating detail was the copper fireplace hoods on both floors. All of them had inscribed quotes in a Germanic-looking script. My favorite read: “A world of strife shut out and a world of love shut in.” And on several of his pieces, Stickley’s shopmark was clearly visible: a joiner’s compass with the words “Als ik kan” inside its curve. The docent said it meant “As best I can.” I don’t know the roots of this phrase or why Stickley chose it, but I’d like to find out. They are words that, in one form or another, have been in my mind the past couple of days. Point A to Point B, as best as I can.

Don’t Stop

April 27, 2010

The pilot on my plane to New York has just announced that we’re flying over Iowa. Below me extends a perfect arrangement of hazy brown squares within squares, interrupted here and there by the lattice of a small town or the bumpy curve of a river’s edge. It’s funny to think that in a few months I could be riding along the same roads that appear to me now as thin beige lines dividing plots of land. I’ve been asked many times now if I’m excited about this trip, but my answer so far has been a noncommittal “I guess.” This isn’t to say I’m unaware of how many amazing things there are to see or how eager I’ve become to get out on the road (I shipped Gustav out about a week ago and have totally missed him), but so much of the trip is an unknown, especially the part about how it feels to be on a bike for weeks at a time and where it is I’ll be sleeping every night. I push the concerns aside and make self-deprecating jokes; I look at my maps and reread the books about touring I bought two years ago and have underlined and scribbled in with abandon.

My tent, Gustav, and me in Stub State Park

Luckily, I did manage to complete a small practice tour and figure out a few things about the process before Gustav got packed up. Weekend before last, I rode 45 miles northwest from Portland to L.L. Stub Stewart State Park loaded with all of my gear, which currently weighs in at around 70 pounds. This is far more than I ought to have. I know this, but I can’t tell yet what things are unnecessary. For the last ten miles, I rode along the Banks-Vernonia State Trail (a “linear state park”) on a slight incline directly into Stub, where I camped for the night in the woods—my first campout in over a decade. The whole trip was full of little surprises and lessons, from how wet the inside of my tent’s rainfly got to how much I could’ve used a little scrubber for my cookstove. That night, I had the same anxiety dream four times in a row about Gustav getting stolen, each with slight variations. In one, Gustav was gone, but a small blue bike had been left for me in his place.

My sister, Katie, and my brother-in-law, Mark

On my return the next day, I felt quite pleased with myself. I’d managed the weight, dealt with a few decent hills, avoided pain, and learned the hard way to remember to put sunscreen on my knees. I then spent most of my last week in Portland organizing my gear and packing up, getting some last minute errands taken care of, and spending time with my sister and her husband, Mark. This travelogue will no doubt become rife with thank-you’s along the way, but the very first one goes to Katie and Mark, who went way beyond the call of family duty by letting me stay with them these past several months. I really can’t think how else all of this was going to come together the way it has.

And right now, inside this tube, we’re flying over Lake Erie, not far from Cleveland, headed straight for Pennsylvania. Several small, low clouds leave shadows on the lake. I’ve been listening to the in-flight music selection, and it’s a funny trick a brain can play on a person when it’s confronted with uplifting or catchy tunes. Or both, as in the case of “Don’t Stop Believin’” from the Glee soundtrack, all earnestness and Broadway warble. It may just be a moment of pop culture-induced euphoria that’s come from having listened to the song nine times in a row now (or maybe it’s sixteen), or perhaps it’s that weird vulnerability one gets on an airplane that leads to unexpected weeping during stupid in-flight movies, but for the first time, I’m getting a little amped about the coming months. It’s a welling born of power chords. There’s a world to see, and right now a bike feels like the perfect way to see it.

I just hope Gustav gets to NYC in one piece. I do tend to worry about him, poor little boxed-up guy.

State Bike Maps

April 16, 2010

A large part of the preparation for this trip has been to plan out my path and get an idea of the roads and bike routes in the states I’ll be visiting. I poked around online and found a list of state bike coordinators and began calling them one by one to ask for a state bike map or whatever other resources they might have. I enjoyed these brief interactions with officials from the places I’m about to ride, and everyone was extremely friendly and eager to help, even if they didn’t have what I needed. And many of them didn’t. By the time I was through, I felt as if I’d encountered a good variety of ways that different states approach bicycling and how much of a priority they make it to accommodate cyclists or encourage cycling, from “not much” to “very.” I’m curious to see if this is reflected in the experiences I have on each state’s roads.  I also wonder if I’ll discover a reason for the disparity. This is what transpired.

New Jersey: Although I’m technically starting the trip in New York, I’ll be there for all of five minutes before I cross into New Jersey, which means that New Jersey will be the first place I’ll ever do any serious bike touring. This could be tricky as New Jersey falls into the category of Bike Not So Friendly. The woman I spoke with was very nice and somewhat apologetic, and she pointed me toward an independent website with a slew of detailed PDFs of squiggly-lined bike maps, but online maps don’t really help much when you’re on a bike or sitting at a campsite planning out your next day’s ride. Paper is gold. She did send me this nice little laminated flip book of the East Coast Greenway that runs from NYC to Trenton, but I won’t ever be able to use it as it doesn’t go near my destinations.

Pennsylvania: The state of PA has a few online resources for cyclists, such as a bike directory and a thorough bike driver’s manual, and there are online maps of several specific cross-state routes, but like New Jersey, Pennsylvania has no paper maps of its own and nothing that covers the entire state. An invaluable resource for bike tourists in general are the maps produced by the Adventure Cycling Association. The stretch from southeastern PA heading up toward NY that’s part of the ACA’s Atlantic Coast route is pretty close to the route I’d planned to take anyway, so I bought a couple of those maps instead of having to rely on the state of Pennsylvania.

Delaware: I called Delaware twice and left a message and then twice more to see if I could catch a person, with no luck. No one from Delaware has ever returned my call. Sniff you, Delaware! [Update: I eventually found a different number to call, at which a very terse and inconvenienced-sounding lady took my name and address to send me a county bike map, which turned out to be colorful and thorough.  This is good, but I’m still not a fan of Delaware.]

New York maps

New York: I left a message at the NY number and received a return call about a week later. They were very happy to send me what they had, which was a little treasure trove of city and district maps (the Hudson Valley, the Capital District, NYC, Rochester, and Buffalo) as well as two maps for State Bike Routes 5 and 9, which are both well laid out and easy to read. It’s too bad there’s no full state coverage, but I’ll most likely be using all of these maps at some point. Score one for New York for having anything at all after NJ and PA.

Massachusetts: Massachusetts surprised me. I think of them as progressive and together, but they didn’t have much to offer me besides the Official Transportation Map, which is mostly for drivers but does highlight a few multi-use paths. The bicycle coordinator I spoke with did mention there were MA bike maps printed by a private company that I could buy from a website, which directed me to a map store in Cambridge. There are, in theory, three of these maps that I could use: Western, Central, and Eastern Massachusetts. (There’s also a Cape Cod map, which I don’t need at all.) Western and Central are the ones I need most, but Central is out of print and Western is on backorder.  I ordered the Eastern one just to have something.

Maine: The woman in the Maine office was very sweet. She told me that they were finishing up a new state bike map but that it wasn’t available for another few weeks. She took down my address and said she’d send one to me when it was available and to check back if it never shows up.

New Hampshire maps

New Hampshire maps

New Hampshire: If bicycle coordinators are any indication of how awesome a state is, I’m looking forward to New Hampshire. The man I spoke to there was amazingly nice, and when I mentioned I was in Portland, he told me about a video clip he’d just watched about the Hawthorne Bridge, one of Portland’s big bike commuting bridges. He said he had maps he could send me, and then followed up with a nice personalized email that included the link to the video. A few days later, the maps arrived: seven perfect little folded squares covering the entire state. Each map has topographical details, city insets, and a list of state parks and natural areas and whether they have campsites. So far, New Hampshire has been my favorite bike coordinator interaction, and the maps are pretty great.

Vermont: Vermont on the other hand doesn’t have any paper maps. Boo, Vermont! But the man I spoke with emailed me some links, including one of various rides throughout Vermont. But knowing about rides that pass through cute towns and state parks for weekend outings is very different from having the ability to plan a route to get from point to point.

Ohio: It took a couple weeks for Ohio to return my call, and like Massachusetts, they don’t have their own maps but referred me to a website where I could order some made by a private company. I find this the most irritating position of all. If there’s enough demand for there to be privately published maps, shouldn’t a state try to build on this interest and encourage bike use by publishing its own maps?  Or am I being naive?

Indiana: I almost didn’t call Indiana since I’ll barely be there. The ACA also publishes a series of maps for an Underground Railroad route, part of which runs from Cincinnati along the Kentucky-Indiana border to Owensboro, KY. It seemed as good a way to get from A to B as any, and although I’ll pass through just a tiny corner of Indiana en route to Illinois, I called up the state’s bike coordinator. They don’t have a state map, but he really wanted to help me and gave me some numbers. What ensued was a funny series of calls to a couple county visitor’s bureaus and emails to the treasurer of the Evansville (Indiana) Bike Club to figure out the best way to do this one small stretch. I wound up spending the most amount of time interacting with the state I’ll be riding in the least.

Illinois maps

Illinois maps

Illinois: Illinois has state bike maps. Not just that: Illinois has the best bike maps I’ve ever seen. Ever. And they know it. The man I talked to admitted just how proud they are of them. There are nine separate maps covering the entire state. Each map has extensive easy-to-read street plans that are color coded by bike suitability and include places of interest (Ronald Reagan’s birthplace, anyone?); blow-ups of bike trails and paths and metropolitan areas; listings of useful numbers (including bike clubs, historical societies, and police stations); written descriptions of the terrain, the bodies of water, and the local wildlife; temperature graphs; and listings of recreation areas and camping opportunities including phone numbers. These maps make me want to cry a little they’re so amazing. If every state had maps like these, this country would be a cinch to navigate by bike and would (in my fantasies) convert mobs of drivers into cyclists. Take that, all the other states! Illinois just kicked your asses.

Iowa: Iowa has a decent statewide bike map I that requested straight off their Department of Transportation website. Nothing fancy, but useful.

Nebraska: I requested a map from a nice woman named Linda, but it never showed up, for which I’m blaming the postal service. I called Linda again, who was upset I’d never gotten my map and promised to send out another one right away.  It arrived a few days later along with a personalized letter” “Well, here is the second mailing of the NE State Bike Guide…”  It’s a plain, sparse map, but I imagine Nebraska itself is kind of plain and sparse.  I expect it will serve me well.

Wyoming: Wyoming surprised me in the opposite way that Massachusetts surprised me. I wasn’t expecting them to have much, but the man I spoke to was so extremely nice and helpful (and his name was Talbot, so you kind of have to love him already), and right away he sent me a package with a tourism brochure; two different scenic byways booklets; a highway map; a fairly plain but very usable state bike map full of elevations and grade graphs for specific stretches of highway (very important in Wyoming!); and (the best part) a lapel pin of a silhouette of a man on a bucking bronco. Wyoming was the only state to court me with trinkets.

I stopped my calls there since I’m no longer expecting to get even that far. I have my bundles of maps now, some of which I’m taking with me from the start, some of which I’ll have my sister mail along to me later. Those plus a road atlas and some help from the World Wide Web should get me where I need to go. But before I’ve even left home, I’ve gained an idea of which states clearly want to have people like me in them and which don’t—or at least which ones aren’t putting out the welcome mat. As a result, I’m looking forward to some places now more than before.  Who knew I’d be so excited to bike through New Hampshire and Illinois? Really, you should see the Illinois maps. They’re pretty dreamy.

Artisanal

March 28, 2010

Scootie

Last autumn, I sold Scootie, the bike I’d had for thirteen years. I posted an ad for him online, and one evening a nice law student who lived near Columbus Circle came out to Brooklyn with her boyfriend to look him over. She needed something for getting to school and running errands, and she liked that Scootie already had a rear rack with two collapsible metal baskets. I watched her take Scootie for a spin around the block in the chilly dark while her boyfriend handed me his business card and tried to sell me something. She liked Scootie and I liked her because she asked if my bike had a name, which, of course, he did.

Scootie had been a great bike, but I was taking a trip to India and didn’t want to have to store him or ship him to my mom’s in California. Plus I’d lately been fantasizing about a cross-country bike tour, and Scootie, although still in good shape, was a hybrid­—good­ for dirt roads or commuting to work but not for graceful long-distance travel. I knew that if I ever wanted to attempt such an outing, I’d need a more efficient machine underneath me. When I watched the law student and her boyfriend walk off that night with the bike I’d ridden for countless thousands of miles, I was slightly wistful but mostly relieved that I’d been able to find him a new home.

The view from my camel, Thar Desert, India

My trip to India began in Delhi, and a couple weeks later, after a trip north and then to Agra to see the Taj Mahal (of course), I made it to the state of Rajasthan. In Bikaner, on the edge of the Thar Desert, I booked a two-day, one-night camel safari that only one other person had signed up for. Wayne was a retired economics professor from Seattle who, oddly enough, had spent most of his career teaching at my father’s alma mater. Of greater interest to me was how many cycle tours he’d gone on. For two days, he and I rode our respective camels side by side through the bright Indian desert talking mostly about bikes and routes and gear and budgets. That this meeting was providential is certainly up for debate; less debatable is the fact that after those talks, I couldn’t stop thinking about bicycles and panniers and how much of America I’d never seen. Within a few weeks, I was back in the States and staying with my sister in Portland, Oregon, with the sole purpose of planning a six-month cross-country cycle tour.

First on my list, of course, was finding my new post-Scootie touring bike. I worried a lot about my back and my knees and knew I had to find a bike that fit me properly. And given where I planned to travel and what I planned to look at along the way (more on that later), I felt it important to find an American-made bicycle. This restriction eliminated most of the few mass-produced touring bikes on the market, which are primarily made in Asia. And because of price and timeframe, I decided against getting a bike made in Portland by one its many local frame builders. (One of them had a five-year waiting list, not that I could’ve afforded it even without the waiting list.) After poking around online for a couple of days, I found something that excited me: a touring bicycle from a shop that not only constructed their own frames and wheels on the premises to order (American made!) for a decent price (it fit my budget!), but they would also custom design a frame if none of their standard sizings fit properly. Best of all, the shop was in Seattle, not too far away.

The house in Portland. Notice the gray skies.

One of my goals eventually with this trip is to write about it. I have to admit that I began constructing the narrative of getting a custom-made bike (or, as one of my friends called it, an artisanal bike) before I ever went up to Seattle. I imagined how I would describe the process of getting measured and picking out a color and the agony of waiting four weeks for them to build it and the excitement of seeing and trying out My New Bike Made Just For Me for the first time and how that whole process related to the things I was planning to explore on my ride. What a perfect way to begin my story. It would be a modern-day craftsman tale to make William Morris proud. But it didn’t quite work out that way.

I called ahead to make an appointment to get measured and took the train up to Seattle the first week of February. I arrived at the shop in the early afternoon, and a man named Smiley spent the next two hours with me, measuring me, finding out what I wanted and needed in a bike, and answering my questions about gear shifts and spokes and tire sizes. He was in about his mid thirties, an instantly likable man in a bike cap, full black apron, and flip-flops who lived up to his name. At one point, he asked if I wanted to see something, and like a kid revealing a plum secret, he took me down to the basement to show off all the machines that the frames and wheels were constructed on.

Before we could get into the issue of size and whether or not one of their standard designs was suitable for my body shape, Smiley walked me over to an all black touring bike and explained that it had it been made there in the shop about five years earlier for a man who’d recently moved to Amsterdam and couldn’t take it with him. Smiley said he wanted to see if it fit me since it pretty closely followed the list of things I was looking for. He put it on the bike stand, made some adjustments to the seat and the handlebars and watched as I pedaled on it. With some amazement, he said it fit me perfectly. It was a little more than half of what it would cost new, and he said I ought to seriously consider getting it, but that if I wanted to go with a new bike, we could definitely do that.

Sitting on the bike and putting my faith in Smiley, I had no reason to say no, except that it didn’t fulfill my fantasy of getting an artisanal bike. I wouldn’t be able to tell the story the way I’d imagined I would. A used bike is certainly much less interesting than a custom-built one, but I wasn’t anticipating sitting on a story for thousands of miles. And although I’d need to make some alterations to the bike (most especially the gearing, which didn’t go as low as I wanted), I had a good feeling about it. And so I said yes.

Gustav

They needed a week to tune up the bike and make the changes I wanted. (Luckily, I’d already planned to go back up to Seattle the next weekend to visit a friend.) In the interim, I had a chance to decide on a name. I wanted something that would reflect the trip but also suited the bike. I decided on Gustav, after Gustav Stickley. It’s a solid name, dark and somewhat brooding. I can’t say the bike is brooding, but he’s definitely dark and solid. When I picked him up the next week, Smiley showed me how to clip in an out of my new pedals and how to use the unfamiliar shifting system. He also gave me tips on good bike posture, where and how to hold my hands on the drop handlebars (which I’d never used before), and how to pedal more efficiently. I’ve had Gustav for a few weeks now and put several hundred miles on him during training rides. I’ve tipped over twice now when I couldn’t clip out of the pedals fast enough, which is always fun, but not once have my knees or my back hurt, and not once have I wished I’d gotten a bike made just for me, whatever story that would’ve allow me to tell.