Sunday, November 6, 2016

Bicycle memories, Part II

I don't know what got into me.

The year was 1974. I was 23 years old, a year out of college and working in the shipping department of American Olean Tile, where I loaded 18 wheelers and railroad cars with boxes of ceramic tile. I drove a forklift, feeling somewhat like a stranger in a strange land with my Bachelor's Degree in Liberal Arts English.

The year before, my friend George and I celebrated our graduation from college by going on a cross-country road trip in my 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. We were gone six weeks and traveled about 10,000 miles. Along the way we swam with barracuda in the Florida Keys, camped in the desert, hiked the Grand Canyon, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, waited patiently for Old Faithful and then crossed the Mississippi River for the second time as we headed home.

So maybe I just had some wanderlust residue,  I don't know.

But I thought it would be neat to hop on my 10-speed bicycle and ride to the New Jersey coast from where I lived in Perkasie, PA (about 60 miles north of Philadelphia). Alone. Without a helmet or mirror, but invincible with my college education.

The plan was to pedal about 50-60 miles per day, camp in state parks or stay in motels, follow the Jersey coast from Perth Amboy to Cape May, then return home, all within a week.

My folks were horrified. I couldn't wait.

At the last minute, I was joined by a fellow named Joe, an acquaintance (and nothing more) who invited himself to ride with me. He was several years younger, but he'd just bought his own 10-speed, and he thought he was ready for the ride.

I packed my lightweight L.L. Bean saddlebags with several changes of clothes, toiletries and sleeping bag, and we were off. In August.

I have to tell you, 42 years later, I don't remember that much about the ride. I know we used mostly less traveled country roads. I know the terrain was mercifully flat. I know we pedaled into Princeton and saw the campus where Albert Einstein committed theory. And shortly thereafter, we reached Perth Amboy and the coast. The New York City skyline seemed so close that I could smell the delis.

I was amazed.

The following days we easily pedaled down the coast: Long Branch, Asbury Park, Toms River, and finally, Atlantic City by the third day. We hit the Boardwalk.

Mostly, the weather was good, although we had one day of rain that slowed us down and forced us to find a motel.

But the trip resumed, taking us eventually to Wildwood, and then to Cape May.

By this point, we'd pedaled nearly 300 miles.

Soon it was time to head home. We made a beeline for Pennsylvania, and when we finally got to the Delaware River opposite Philadelphia, we ran into a serious problem. The bridge crossing — I think it was the Walt Whitman Bridge — was a toll road, and no bicycles were allowed.


We pleaded our case to the bridge manager, who promptly loaded our bikes into a pickup truck and ferried us across the river, scolding us the whole time to plan our next trip with a little more forethought and care.

Yessir. Thank you, sir. May I have some more, sir?

Our next problem is that when we crossed the river, we were in downtown Philadelphia. But at least I knew where I was. We pedaled up Broad Street, a week's worth of salt air in my lungs being replaced by SEPTA exhaust fumes. But we eventually hit Route 309 and made our way home. Without helmets. Without mirrors.

In all, the trip took six days and covered nearly 450 miles. Joe, unused to all the exercise, complained nearly every mile of the way. I don't think I ever saw him again.

For me, it was one of those great adventures that I'm always glad that I took. It's a story I can tell, a memory that will last.

But I still can't tell you what got into me.

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