An East Coast Ending

Oct 15th, 2018 in Adventure

HFM Wandering returns for a final chapter in the bleak hours of the morning after Labor Day in Fort Wayne, Indiana before embarking for Detroit on bicycle.

Insomnia is something that’s been a recurring affliction for me in recent years. Usually what happens to me is that I sleep for two hours and then am suddenly wide awake. Is it my anxiety or something physical in me? I’m unsure, but it’s rarely happened to me since I embarked on this journey, which is part of why I consider endurance traveling as good for my health and well-being. The night this last entry of HFM Wandering begins on has me waking up with bloodshot eyes staring at the ceiling.

After laying awake in bed for over an hour, and knowing I had a hot and humid ride in front of me when the sun rose, I decided to just leave for Toledo at 4 AM. Sam, my host in Indiana, is a night owl, so he was up to see me off. This wound up being a very weird ride. As the streetlights of the city faded behind me, I rode into complete darkness. Of course, I have lights, but I was soon shrouded by mist. It’s a really eerie feeling losing almost all of your peripheral vision and only being able to see in a spotlight. It was never too dense to navigate, but that didn’t stop me from being in complete peril once I merged onto a road with much more traffic and no shoulder. I couldn’t believe how busy these roads were before even first light. In hindsight, I may call this the stupidest risk I took of the entire journey.

I crossed into Ohio unharmed, and even made it before dawn! I stopped to enjoy the sunrise in a cemetery and catch my breath after that ordeal. It wound up being a beautiful morning as the mist hovered and diffused the rays of the blossoming sun. I logged about 60 miles that morning, reaching a deserted church park in the tiny town of Ridgeville Corners where I found a nice shaded bench and I let sleep finally catch me. Is sleeping on benches something I’ve been reduced to or have I instead grown into it?

When I awoke the sun above was hot and hostile. I lazily rode another 12 miles to the village of Liberty Center, ate at the local dairy (deep fried everything plus a milkshake) and hung out in its library with the after school crowd for a couple hours. It’s interesting how many kids go to the library to play video games these days. I follow the rhythm of the sun while on my bike, and waited for its strength to wane before setting back out. I was ahead of schedule after this morning’s antics, so I only needed to go a little bit further to reach Toledo and be comfortably set for tomorrow’s ride.

I found the Wabash Cannonball trail from Liberty Center, an overgrown stretch of double track that I would have avoided had it not been on a direct course for Toledo. It felt like I was biking on people’s lawns for points of it. It did eventually transform into an excellent paved path before I hit my wit’s end. I stopped in the town of Whitehouse along it and sheltered in a park bathroom during a passing sunshower. I was astonished to see a panoramic rainbow streaking across the sky. I camped that night in a park on the Toledo outskirts, after a dinner of greasy pizza.

The next day was another 70 miles up into Detroit. I passed through some unattractive industrial sprawl in Toledo’s north before breaking out into that familiar pastoral emptiness upon the Michigan border. This stretch of Michigan, known as Downriver, was a weird one. It felt like I was back in the South for a moment. French names were everywhere, the weather was oppressive, and I even spent a good couple hours along the Dixie Highway. I took a dunk in the teal waters of the Detroit River near Grosse Ile and then made the final push to Mexicantown, where I would be staying within Detroit.

I was hosted by Aaron, a musician associate of my Queens roommate who had stayed with us back in March. I’ve had an interest in Detroit for a long time as a city of twin tales of ruin and rejuvenation; when I learned that he lived there I asked about staying and he encouraged me to visit; five months later, I hit him up and there I was! This would be my second time in the Detroit area, my first being a consulting web dev gig in the hyper-affluent suburbs that made a feel good pitch for the city for Amazon. I lamented not being in the city’s confines proper for that gig and hoped that this visit would be my opportunity to better see the soul of the city.

I didn’t meet him until my second day in town, where Aaron and his band hosted a community square dance at a local pizzeria. They had just come back from tour and immediately put the event on; that’s dedication to an art. I documented the event, but didn’t actually dance. Officially, I’ll cite nausea as the cause; to be honest, I overdid it on the salsa a la diablo for my dinner and for the second time this trip, I poisoned myself from eating too much fire. I’m a glutton for punishment.

After leaving the event early and returning home for the night, I soon met Koby, Aaron’s roommate who had set a key out for me and stayed in communique about when I would arrive (remember, I postponed my visit almost a week because of that rideshare that ditched me in Chicago). He was amused and happy to finally meet me, and promptly challenged me to a game of chess. He would win all our games while I was staying there, but I gave him a good run for them. As a journalist, he had a lot of keen insight for me about local politics and the pulse of the city.

Koby invited me for a dinner party the next night, something I accepted after doing a tour of the city on my bike. I didn’t realize until it was about to start that it was for the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana, and included the local Chabad chapter. As an atheist wanderer, it was a funny thing to stumble upon, but we all broke bread (challah back, y’all!) together and made merry. All were quite curious to hear my story when Koby gave me a crazy intro.

Aaron’s father made a visit the day earlier with a bundle of pawpaws for his son and friends. He had so many in his yard he didn’t know what to do with them all. I was shocked to see this fruit in person after reading about it online as a sort of mythical fruit. Ever had a pawpaw? It grows indigenously in the Eastern US in marshy areas. It’s my new favorite fruit, with a taste like a banana and a texture like a mango, but with large smooth seeds that are easy to gum around your mouth and spit. It’s fickle on where it grows, has a short season, and travels poorly, so it makes sense why a New Yorker would never have seen them.

I made a few bike trips throughout the city, taking in a lot of folks suggestions to visit various landmarks and happenings. First, I went to the Heidelberg Project, which is a street art exhibit in three dimensions. The fellow behind it, Tyree Guyton, basically turned his entire block, along with all the ruined houses and detritus, into an artistic statement. Strolling through it felt at times like navigating one of Dali’s paintings. Later on that trip, I also visited the Hamtramck neighborhood and the Detroit Public Library.

A second bike trip brought me to Belle Isle, an island park on the Detroit River. It’s devoted solely to recreation, with nature trails, an aquarium and conservatory, all of which I visited. And, it’s all free! On the way there, I stopped at the Eastern Market, a supercharged farmer’s market with endless produce options. They even had Carolina Reaper peppers, which I had been seeking forever, but after the salsa a la diabla incident, steered away from this time. Despite the size of the market, I noted that not a single vendor had pawpaws.

What’s apparent traveling between all these places are the sheer amount of ruins throughout the city. Detroit’s notorious for them. The city suffered perhaps the worst hollowing out of any urban area in America in the late 20th century. But, I didn’t really feel like the residents were despairing. I’d like to believe that, if the apocalypse happened here, many people have moved on and continued living their lives. The city has problems, as do most places, but I feel like Detroit’s a livable, functioning place having wandered around it. I’d try living there out.

I meant to stay longer in Detroit, but I only wound up in town for four nights as an Argentinian band had dibs on Aaron’s spot. I had considered Couchsurfing in a couple different spots, but then setup a rideshare to Pittsburgh that failed. I decided just to ride the 60 miles back to Toledo and take a midnight Amtrak to Pittsburgh. Not only do I hate taking these night trains, but having to backtrack a whole day on bike just to board was particularly vexing.

By the whims of fate, I happened to have a wonderful time on the return trip. I left late in the afternoon pending rain that never materialized and took an easy half day meandering back south. I stopped in a small town called Rockwood, where I killed time at a pizzeria before dusk so I could camp safely. It was already a pleasant discovery to have wi-fi from the adjacent laundromat, but I also got into a really great conversation with the delivery guy, Chris, who had an interesting life story and a noble character amidst some real hardship. I enjoy serendipitous meetings, which is a part of why I choose to be an adventurer, and this wouldn’t even be the only instance of it before getting to Pittsburgh.

The next day, I got to Toledo early, but had to kill a full day. After putzing around on my own at a hybrid coffee shop / co-working spot, and dining once again on pizza, I would meet Ryne and Arden while on my way to a local park to pass the evening reading in solitude. They saw my loaded bike, and immediately chatted me up. They treated me to a couple drinks, and give a cycle tour of the city while we swapped stories. We met up with their friend, PK (Priest King the III). it was just a wonderful time, where we had some real talk about life and the story of Toledo. There’s much work to be done, but they’re optimistic. I’m pulling for my new friends in Ohio. 

In Pittsburgh, I arranged my final WWOOF, working on a farm in the Sewickley area in the city’s suburbs. I sort of got bait and switched on this one, as it was advertised as two farms that I’d split time between, one of which would be urban so I could familiarize myself with the city. The hosts were nice, and did help me get there, but I otherwise was left alone on a farm out in the middle of nowhere with only a couple of cats for company. If I had just stayed out there, the two hours a day the hosts visited to work with me (chicken coop maintenance) would have been my only human interaction. Some folks would dig that, but not me on my bicycle. My other WWOOF experiences in Texas and Utah allowed me to forge some real connections which to me is a big part of the draw.

Despite my hindrances, I still was able to get into the city and suss out a little bit of its vibe. Goddamn though, riding a bicycle around Pittsburgh is brutality. Steep hills undulate everywhere across the city except for a respite along the rivers, and bike lanes felt non-existent. Pittsburgh feels to me like a micro Manhattan if the Blue Ridge Mountains popped up everywhere around it. I did at least have a navigator for touring the city’s core, “Kodak”, a peer from my Appalachian days.

Kodak’s an interesting dude. Though I met him hiking, he’s actually a crazier bicyclist than myself, with a few more trips under his belt. This year, he bicycled up the Arizona Trail into the Utah wilds, which included the madness of carrying a bike through the Grand Canyon. That just sounds like misery after how arduous it was simply to hike through it. His photography is great, and his bike tour restored my faith that Pittsburgh might be navigable. We parted ways after a lunch at Primanti Bros, which is known for its artery-clogging sandwiches topped with fries. Thankfully, this culinary institution realizes it’s 2018, and I was able to get a veggie patty.

The next stop would be Lucky and Amy’s home near State College, that I last bicycled to on my first tour two winters ago. I thought, if I’m gonna be marooned in the Pennsylvania countryside, it might as well be with some of my best friends. So, I left my WWOOF and rode my bike east. I planned on doing this trip’s 150 miles (to Altoona) in 2 days, but the aftereffects of Hurricane Florence brought heavy rain through the area. After getting drenched a couple times early in the day, I pleaded with Lucky for an early pick up from underneath a church awning so I at least wouldn’t be camping in it.

Once he agreed, I quit the pretense of taking circuitous country roads and busted out a fevered 40 miles on the freeway’s shoulder to get as close as possible. I’m no stranger to this kind of biking, even if I felt a bit fevered merging onto it. Google Maps was saying, “no, no no!” I ignored it and rode like hell to beat the rain, and with dark clouds thick on the horizon, Lucky got me on an exit past Blairsville. Though I was dry, minus the day’s grime, he had just driven through a downpour to get me where I had stopped.

My penultimate week on the road would be spent near State College in good company. Besides the main characters, Lucky, Amy, their son Everest, and their dog, Cal, I also met up with Pamela who was my first host on Couchsurfing last year in Lebanon for a hike. “Cookie” from the AT came and joined us for my last few days. She and I finished the trail together and crossed paths many times before then, getting to be good friends by the end. She was one of the reasons I did that first bike tour as well. She’s an example of living well after the AT, with her own tiny cabin in the woods, a garden and daily hikes on social media with her dog, Bella.

After her departure, I hitched a ride south a bit in the early morning to Lewistown where my hosts teach. It’s a funny echo of my last stay on bicycle with these two, as I departed the same way except this time I was riding to DC versus Philadelphia. This would be a three day ride, south to Maryland and then east along the C&O canal which runs adjacent to the Potomac River. In DC was Megan, who offered to host me. She’s the sister of CJ who visited me in Colorado and someone who has been in the periphery of my life for years. This was one of the fortuitous developments in the trip I kept myself intentionally flexible for. I originally planned just to bicycle home through PA & NJ, and this was a much more appealing ending.

I was feeling pretty depressed setting out. It was gloomy and drizzly in the early morning, and the promise of persistent rains pretty much everywhere between me and DC made me feel doomed. Anyone who knows me in adventurer mode knows I prioritize staying dry. It also weighed heavily on me leaving my really intimate trail friends behind, not knowing when I’d see them again. It was also weighing on me that this trip was nearing its end, and I’d be having to figure out everything in the real world again, the financial doldrums of paying rent again and facing my debts looming heavier than any rain.

Anyway, I made great time that first day on bicycle, getting 90 miles south to Williamsport, Maryland. Only the last couple hours of the day were moist, and I was spared a true deluge. I got myself a whole pizza (is it all I eat on the road?), then sniffed out a press box at the local baseball field for my shelter that night. This felt brazen, but the place was overgrown and the allure of sleeping indoors instead of tenting in the rain was too much. There was even an oscillating fan left behind to dry my stuff. I slept on a floor strewn with sawdust and called it sanctuary.

The next day was a short ride to Harpers Ferry, only about 30 miles in distance. It felt like twice that distance chewing through the mud-soaked C&O. The canal is a curious place, a massive project concocted two hundred years ago to transport goods from the Chesapeake Bay into the interior. It fell into disrepair and was obsoleted not long after its partial completion by advances in the railroad. It stretched to Cumberland, MD, and nowadays a rail trail extends to Pittsburgh via the Great Allegheny Passage which allows cyclists to travel between the two cities, albeit all on dirt and gravel.

The conditions were muddy and frustrating that day in the rain. With a load and road tires, every puddle was a ritual of consternation as I calculated how to push through without toppling. I swiftly surrendered the calculus of keeping myself or my bike clean. I bailed swiftly on it that day and went back to the familiar scene of far out roads, passing by the battlefield at Antietam. I gotta say, every time I’m near the Maryland-Virginia borders, I’m always struck by how much venerated history there is from wartime America.

That history would continue as I arrived in Harpers Ferry. This town has historical significance for the civil war, especially around the figure of John Brown, an abolitionist who led a revolt there against the armory. In this peacetime era, it’s preserved mostly for tourists, but hikers also happen to visit. The headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is there and the place serves as a halfway point for hikers eager to have finished walking through Virginia. I had a blast reminiscing there about my hike, purchasing some swag and bantering with the people around. They’ve also got a nice wifi hookup and hangout spot. As I was feeling pretty beat down, I opted for a night at the Teahorse Hostel. A huge batch of waffles in the morning fortified me for my last day’s ride.

Storms were forecast in the afternoon, so I hustled on my way east. I thought that maybe 8 hours of time to dry would be enough to have a more pleasant ride, but conditions didn’t feel improved any. I just forced my way, stopping only to harvest pawpaws from the trail’s edge. I was pretty overjoyed to stumble upon them again after sampling them in Detroit. I collected as many as I could fit in my panniers as a gift for Megan later.

On arriving in DC, my bike and legs were covered in a thick layer of mud, but thankfully the deluge hadn’t started yet. As someone who typically covers large distances on paved roads, I was surprised at how exhausted I was from this less favorable terrain. I’m not sure which I’d pick for a long ride, as my threshold for personal safety from cars has a limit versus how fast and efficiently I can get somewhere. I may be back on the C&O some day, but it better be dry if I do!

Megan lives near the Capital Hill neighborhood, so coming from Georgetown where the C&O ends, I got to ride down the National Mall and push past all the tourists milling around. I’m sure, filthy as I was, that I was a curious spectacle for all. I got into Meg’s apartment, meeting her and her boyfriend Michael, before we went out for a meal and to gather provisions. While Michael is studying for a PHD with a focus on the mind, mental health, and suicide awareness, Megan teaches science in the public school systems and has a fierce bend for social justice seeing the inequities on display there.

DC is a fantastic city for a museum wanderer with the myriad Smithsonian institutions. I decided to lapse into just enjoying myself with a last little bit of vacationing before I came back to real life in NYC. All those Smithsonians are free, and great to stop in. The premier one Megan & I stopped in was the Museum of African American History and Culture, which had a setup that funneled guests through a one way exhibit chronicling the history of slavery, civil war and the ongoing fight for civil rights, which feels relevant today. Other museums I stopped at included highlights on American portraiture, Asian art, and African art.

The goal of this trip was always to travel for about six months, and once I had settled on visiting Megan, I bought a ticket on Amtrak a couple weeks in advance to end the trip back in NY. After that long weekend, it was time to head back in rapid fashion. It was two weeks ago when I finished, and I’ve spent this time re-acclimating to New York life. It wasn’t as hard as my more wilderness bound trips since I’ve still been a functioning member of society, but it’s good to be home again. A trip synopsis will be coming in about a month, and as for what’s next for me, I’m simply seeking stability.