On Winter Cycling through Pennsylvania

Feb 19th, 2017 in Adventure

My preferred method of commuting through NYC is via my bicycle. I love our robust public transit system, but the autonomy and adrenaline rush cycling offers me is unparalleled. Winter weather doesn’t deter me either until it’s well below freezing or the roads are icy, which lately have been a minority of days. As my quest for adventure probes new directions, the idea of taking my bicycle out long distance has emerged several times and returned again this Winter with a renewed sense of direction, which culminated in a 400 mile loop ride through central Pennsylvania, Philadelphia and back.

This trip’s genesis came about as a way for me to see some of my family from the Appalachian Trail. “Cookie”, who summited Katahdin with me, visited me in Autumn and lives in Nanticoke near Wilkes-Barre. “Lucky”, “Lolly” and their dog, Cal, were frequent traveling buddies in New England and live in Port Matilda near State College. If I could hit up both of their households, each about a hundred miles apart on my bicycle, I’m sure I could fill in the rest of the trip to and from there with others to visit. I also wanted to face any remaining fears I had of sharing the road with high speed motor vehicles.

In total there were 8 days of cycling over my 16 day tour, each of which I’ll summarize:

2/1: Queens, NY to Woodcliff Lake, NJ; 34 miles.

I started from my apartment in Queens to visit my good friend Ryan and his family out in New Jersey, who helped me with managing my gear storage on the AT and let me stay with them after I finished my thru-hike. I stopped at my juggling club at Bryant Park for a fun diversion en route, before cycling up the Hudson River Greenway and over the George Washington Bridge into densely populated Bergen County. I have actually done this trip on bicycle once before, so the day functioned akin to a prologue.

2/5: Woodcliff Lake, NJ to ~Southfields, NY; 21 miles.

On a lightly snowy Superbowl Sunday, I departed to see the family of “Time Warp” in Warwick, NY. Early along the Appalachian Trail, I befriended him and wound up meeting both his parents at different points on the trail. In the Summer, his mother kept up a trail magic cooler stocked with sodas and I wound up meeting her again at that point just prior to the NJ/NY border. She opened their home to me and some of my fellow hikers on that chance crossing, for one of my favorite nights on the trail. Remembering that fondly, I sought them out again on this trip and they graciously allowed me a second stay!

This leg of the trip suffered from some break downs. While cycling north along Rt 17, glass along the highway’s shoulder punctured my rear tire and forced me off the road. As a novice mechanic, I changed my first flat tube, which took me an hour to figure out. To my chagrin, I missed the shard in the tire itself, which subsequently caused a second flat, leaving me with no recourse but to be rescued ?. Thankfully, Timewarp’s Mom was able to get me and also drop me off in the morning at a local bike shop to start the really big days of the journey.

2/6: Goshen, NY to Promised Land State Park, PA: 60 miles

I departed Joe Fix Its bike shop in Goshen, NY unfortunately late in the morning which stymied my first attempt at a centennial ride on this trip. This day is when I learned the pain of cycling hills, as I hit Penn’s Pocono region head on once I made the crossing across the Delaware in Port Jervis. I thought regularly biking the Williamsburg Bridge would have conditioned me, but winding mountain roads with no shoulder swiftly wore me down. The few flatter parts of the day were treasured commodities. Thankfully, “Cookie” came and picked me up at a gas station along I-84.

2/8: Nanticoke, PA to Millheim, PA: 90 miles

On the eve of a massive snowstorm about to blanket New England, I set out at first light from Cookie’s pad with the intent of trying for a 130 mile day to Port Matilda. This was the unseasonably warm day that breached 60 degrees and led me to ride with none of my winter gear on and my backpack stuffed to bursting. I didn’t have to think too hard about navigating here. I rode RT 11 bordering and then across the Susquehanna, which I watched a beautiful sunrise over. I then hopped on RT 45 as far west as I could ride, through rolling hills of farmland, Amish country complete with horse and buggy, and the Bald Eagle State Forest.

“Lucky” & “Lolly” are both science teachers and picked me up at Millheim, PA on their return commute home. I got to celebrate the snow day with them the following day and enjoy a long weekend of merriment in their rural retreat.

2/13: Lewistown, PA to Lebanon, PA: 95 miles

I took advantage of a free ride to school to start the return leg of the trip. This day was at the freezing point with blustery winds. They turned out to be to my advantage; as they blew from the northwest, I wound up with a tailwind bolstering me for most of the day. The most surreal moment on the trip happened with my bicycle winding up on the RT 322 freeway’s shoulder for a few miles as I retreaded the Susquehanna downriver. This was a legal route as part of Pennsylvania’s distance cycling initiative, BicyclePA.

Having no contacts in this area I opted to try Couchsurfing for the first time, a web app which connects travelers & hosts. I connected with Pamela of Lebanon, who was a gracious host. I was fortunate to join her and her adult family for a pizza and trivia night, and got to clean out her leftovers before she embarked on her own vacation to Croatia. I have a new friend now for my next visit to Dutch Country. I look forward to returning the favor of hospitality one day soon.

2/14: Lebanon, PA to Philadelphia, PA: 91 miles

Back to back centennials took their toll on me as I made for the urban center of Philadelphia. Despite my fatigue, the ride was one of the safer and easier ones, with the final 20 miles being a protected bike path, the Schuylkill River Trail. I got on at Valley Forge, which was my tourist moment of the trail, as I explored the various monuments to our Revolutionary War history. In Philadelphia, I stayed with Alka, a friend of a friend, living in the city and was able to savor some vegan fare with her and take in the urban environs. Coming from NYC, being in Philly felt like a strong sense of relief. I always wind up missing city life on extended trips through the country.

2/15: Philadelphia, PA to Lindenwold, NJ: 16 miles

I took a short jaunt over the Ben Franklin Bridge and through Camden County to my friends Nicole and Sean in South Jersey, who also let me stay with them while I was figuring my living situation out post-trail. Nicole has been my influencer for a dedicated yoga practice and now in climbing, so I always anticipate a good workout on a visit between us.

2/16: Lindenwold, NJ to Bordentown, NJ: 31 miles

My final day on the bicycle, I intended to make it all the way to Newark for a final go at a centennial level distance but balked with a wombo combo of strong headwinds, subfreezing day temperatures and a culminating physical exhaustion. I called it at Bordentown and trained back to NYC direct from nearby Trenton; the public transit eject button is a big perk of endurance traveling in densely populated areas.

Total: ~438 miles

One disheartening aspect of my journey was just how often I still saw Trump campaign slogans emblazoning the roadside. It’s obvious that prosperity has generally lagged in these areas, but fixing that won’t circle around such a divisive, misleading figure. Leaving those signs up just signals which places are likely to be unwelcoming to a city slicker like me. I refuse to condemn these areas as “flyover country”, but November’s winners need to heal too, even if they don’t realize it. Part of that involves tearing down walls like these, even if they’re metaphorical ones.

A common question I get on a trip like this is what goes through my mind cycling all day. Really, I don’t think much about anything; any kind of critical thought goes dormant and I focus solely on the now. Am I safe and going in the right direction? Can I get up that hill? My senses kick in fully: I observe the ever-slowly shifting sights around me, the sounds of traffic, and the smells, most notably within farmland ?. I am attuned to my body, which is often in some manageable degree of pain, and what, if anything, I can do to alleviate that (often just gritting my teeth).

This journey’s goal was to test my endurance, and I conclude it feeling like it was a victory. If I can manage a full day’s ride on an entry-level road bike with minimal endurance optimizations, that means that a lot of my changes on a future trip only need to be gear-based. A sleeker frame (aluminum instead of steel), drop handlebars and some sort of bicycle “saddlebags” all would be obvious optimizations there. I have some research and shopping to do!

For navigation, I used Google Maps for cycling. GPS was the original killer app of smartphones a decade back. On a bicycle, it’s my pocket enabler for getting around. I discovered on this trip that the algorithm will throw me on trails even in an effort to find the “safest” route, which dead-ended me once when I wound up on an iced-over dirt road and had to retreat. So some common sense is needed when evaluating its guidance, but in general and especially for free, it’s an indispensable tool in my arsenal.

An intoxicating thought that hit me while I was westbound was what if I just kept going for a true cross-country trip. I put that on ice then as I deemed it reckless, but really that’s where I go from here. With a full gear upgrade, more daylight in warmer months, and a mission for good such as tethering myself to a charitable or journalistic bend, this idea will bear fruit.