by Steven K. Roberts
September 3, 1987
Somewhere in the Delaware River Valley of northern New Jersey, in the back yard of a hostel that’s supposed to be open, I drown in a sea of white noise. The tent around me roars with rain — the sound pouring into my head, saturating my senses, washing away the stress of a day’s traffic and hills. The rainsound invites writing… perhaps because it resembles some madman’s attempt to empirically prove that an infinite number of typing monkeys can produce a masterpiece. I’m just part of the experiment, tapping out tiny rivulets of thought in the hope of stumbling into a ravine of greatness.
The days have melted together, and it’s been awhile, I know. All of New York has rolled under these wheels since last I wrote of anything besides the Other Woman, and the problem I face now is more subtle than simple catch-up. The problem is this: extremes are homogenized by time. It’s like throwing three jalapeno peppers, a handful of Godiva mocha truffles, six ounces of Glenfiddich scotch, and a dollop of Ben & Jerry’s “Cherry Garcia” ice cream into a blender: four separate inspirations fuse into a single uninspired goop.
A travel writer dealing in retrospect has a problem. Look at it this way: the pain of your last injury and the bliss of your last orgasm have both become vague symbolic reflections stashed away somewhere in your brain without benefit of sensual playback. “Ah, that was wonderful,” you recall with a sly smile, but the memory is a vaporous one, a construct of words and impressions rather than the powerful senses that spawned them. (Imagine the society we’d have if memories could make us sweat, scream, bleed, or cry out in wild exultation…)
The art of writing about past experience is simply a process of closing your eyes, projecting the archival film of memory onto the viscera of sensation, then poetically documenting the simulated experiences before they fade. It’s a sort of schizophrenic madness, this conjuring of false realities: at this very keyboard I have wept, giggled, throbbed, and sighed… moved by the unexpected potency of pseudosensory recall while sculpting ASCII with Microsoft WORD commands.
It’s kind of perverse, now that I think about it.
So. Here we are along the Delaware River, fighting a succession of long hills on what should, according to the map, be a lazy riverside cruise. It’s been difficult travel here in the mideast: the roads are rough, the hills are steep, and the locals are not, in general, very friendly (making the exceptions, when they occur, delightful indeed). It’s a land of drivers who have never had to put up with others of their ilk, and cold looks that slowly melt into reluctant smiles if I grin aggressively enough. One National Park Service employee in the Delaware Water Gap area shouted from his truck, “ride over there, idiot!” — pointing to a ragged shoulder of gravel, glass, and deep ruts.
Odd culture out here, a blend of brash and backward. We met the people who make futile stabs at immortality by painting their names on cliffs — four young bucks from The City out on one last blowout before school. Along the stunning Hawk’s Nest stretch of route 97 in southern New York, they stood with their backs to the vista and one-upped each other with theories about how to deface where no man has defaced before. “Hey, it’d be worth gettin’ killed, man — as long as you got your name up there befoah fallin’ off…”
This mentality has been reflected in other encounters as well. If Big Sur is one pole of the camping spectrum, then the “Upper Delaware Campground” is its opposite. For $12 a night (contrasted with a dollar per cyclist out west), we found clutter, confusion, pay showers, no toilet paper, broken bottles, and the competing whoops of buzzed rednecks-in-training on a drunken Pennsylvania Saturday night. Groups clustered around campfires and Coleman lanterns sang raggedly to boom-boxes, with as many as four different rock ‘n roll hits converging on our quiet tent at any given time. The placid river reflecting a poetic peach-lavender sunset was ignored. The sliver of lunar silver peeking over the hills didn’t stand a chance. Somewhere outside the ragged sphere of campground racket was a calm misty evening in the mountains — but there on the south side of Callicoon nature cringed, muddied by spinning tires and pissed upon by the beer-sodden children of a myopic culture that sees the wilderness as a place where you can get away with anything.
Speaking of culture, I’ve noticed a higher incidence of derisive laughter from kids on the street. They see us and either look away in studied coolness or crack up — not in true mirth but in that grating laughter reserved for schoolyard torment of those more than one standard deviation away from meanness. “Who taught you to make fun of things you don’t understand?” I asked one group, and, thus chastened, one of them had the presence to say, “cool bike, man.” But they’re different here in the hills… less friendly than the kids of midwest small towns and less aware than those of that distant fantasy coast.
Of course, there are delights as well. Our present host in Easton, PA (I’ve been moving while writing this, so don’t try to keep track of where I am… other than somewhere in Dataspace) is a long-distance recumbent cyclist we met in Utah. His home is a blend of flawlessly maintained machine shop and a spare, almost fiftyish, bachelor apartment. He sculpts aluminum with a sort of passionate precision, and herein lies the answer to our trailer problems — which have stranded us four times in the last week with broken axles and hitches. (Lousy roads, you know.) We’ve become adept at rebuilding hubs from scrounged small-town kids’ bikes, and made friends with a welder in Port Jervis who fixed Maggie’s fractured hitch (an aluminum casting). But this layover should fix those problems: Ray-the-machining-wizard can make metal things as easily as I can make paragraphs… and his work can be lightened by drilling holes, a process that usually destroys mine.
A few days back we stayed with the police chief of Windsor, New York. Everybody between Binghamton and Hancock knows Johnny, and when we rode in his squad car to arrest a pet-rabbit-eating adolescent German Shepherd we saw more smiles and waves than we do on our loony excursion modules. We waited out the rain in his homemade home, falling in love with the naughty dog, fantasizing about letting him run around America with us, and listening to Johnny’s engaging tales of small-town copdom and his basic evaluation of our lifestyle: “well now, you get involved with that, that’s somethin’ different. Real unusual…”
Well, there are amazing people everywhere, and they’re something different. The day before Johnny, before the first of our broken axles, we glided into the Golden Door Restaurant south of Binghamton for caffeine and something eggy. Jeanette was there, with the good-natured infectious guffaw and smiling eyes that instantly told us the place was named after her heart. Chemotherapy doesn’t faze her, nor does the grueling schedule of running a restaurant seven days a week. Here is a robust woman who loves people, loves life, and welcomes “something different” with an enthusiasm rare in this part of the world — and her daughter, 12 years old and beautiful, reflects the same spirit. If Sartre was right when he said, “we are what our parents leave of us,” then young Judy will rise far above the culture that surrounds her.
See, we live for the exceptions — we cling to them with love and thirst the way migrating birds find the nature preserves in megalopolis. The blandness is rampant out there, propagated by TV, low expectations, pitiful schooling, and the shallowness of the average dream. But you can bet your sweet asymptote that even the most pathetic of backwater towns will nourish odd blossoms of brilliance, strange orchids blazing bright in a compost of mediocrity. I can no longer write off places of faded clapboard and discarded chewing-tobacco tins, no more than I can expect widespread intelligence in college towns or a kindred spirit on every bicycle. One of the great lessons of this journey, I suppose…
Human treats. The more I look back, the more I realize that the adventure is measured in people, not places. My map line meanders along Lake Erie, cuts inland at Buffalo and dodges Rochester, then winds south through the Finger Lakes and along the Susquehanna River, over the hills, and down the Delaware. Yet my tales are less of the countryside than of the inhabitants, for lovely as this land is, it lacks the stark drama of Utah or the humbling grandeur of Colorado. There are pleasant surprises, of course: northeast Pennsylvania’s international orange LIZARDS (Lacking Intelligence, Zipping Across Road’s Deadly Surface). Sunset on Seneca Lake, a ribbon of gold between drumlins. Warily circling a pack-stealing skunk, trying to distract him without making the tail twitch. A new speed record of 50.5 on a perfect hill in perfect light, flying down 97 toward the sun- sparkled river valley in mad glee. 14% grades up to our host’s home in Vestal, topping an already long day with the kind of exhaustion that made their swimming pool seem as decadent as a night at Plato’s. There are hundreds of things like that, the daily surprises of the road. But it’s people that make the lingering memories, not the subtle differences between campgrounds or the latest twists in hillside highway engineering.
Take Joan Smith, for example. We arrived on the south side of Buffalo, hot and sweaty, seeking a place to relax. We found her in the League of American Wheelmen hospitality home directory for touring cyclists (a great resource, if you’re on the road), and called with the tentative self-introduction that marks a request for help. Three days later we pedaled away from her downtown home… with the lingering hugs of sad farewell to a new friend. It happens that fast. Joan is a bicycle maven, an activist, mom to the amazing Megan Smith, and an energetic lady of “middle age” who makes most 30-year-olds seem static. Her house is a museum of bicycle memorabilia, and she is the hub of a social swirl of active people. She’s blonde, fast, funny, and lithe… yet I know someone else the same exact age who’s gray, slow, and resigned to a long slide into life’s ultimate dormancy. The difference lies in the question: Does gray matter?
While at Joan’s house, by the way, we took a side trip by car to Niagara Falls. Everyone advised us to avoid doing this under our own power — not only is the tourist traffic potentially fatal, but the customs goons are paranoid about computers and bicycles. Local cyclists in Buffalo have been hassled in both directions, suspected of bike smuggling, and one fellow we met was detained for over an hour because of his laptop computer. Another lost his car for carrying back a bottle of 222’s — the only useful headache remedy I’ve ever found (codeine, aspirin, and caffeine). Extrapolating linearly, we figured we’d be jailed for “crossing imaginary lines with unconventional tools, sensible medicines, and strange-looking vehicles.”
So we drove up the Canadian side one night, eager to see what all the fuss was about. We found it all right: a natural wonder overshadowed by the lights and noise of big-time tourism. There were shops, hotels, restaurants, discos, and a general feeling of Las Vegas madness. Cars choked the road; a slow flood of pedestrians strolled the walks. Cops directed traffic and shouted at balky gawkers. And underneath it all, suffused in the glow of giant floodlights which change color every few minutes to keep the video-conditioned visitors stimulated, roared Niagara Falls.
It’s hard to get excited about something wild and beautiful when it’s tamed, contained, and cloaked in hard-sell hooplah.
I’ll take an animated rivulet in the woods any day, a dancing thread sparkling over sunlit rocks unnamed by man and embellished only by nature. The goddamn tourism industry would charge admission to the starry night itself, if they could just figure out how to control access to it…
And then there’s technology (my other “Other Woman”). She’s been a bit sluggish lately — shaken by potholes, out of radio range, and torpid in the sun.
Long-distance telephone calls, for so long something taken for granted, suddenly seem to require strategic planning and technical skills. How do old folks, set in their ways, put up with the hodge-podge of confusing access codes and options that has become the phone system? Hell, even a confirmed techie like me has trouble making calls these days, and I’m supposed to be some kind of expert at doing business on the road. In Broome County, New York, you have to dial 119 before every long-distance call (not 911, which, like a good lover, makes a cop come). But hey: with my handy new Sprint travelcode, I simply hit 11 digits, wait for tone A, hit 11 more digits, wait for tone B, then key in 14 more digits to give the system my account number, the acceptance of which is indicated by tone C. 36 keystrokes to tell mom and dad I’m fine: 0-000-000-0000 / 0- 000-000-0000 / 00000000000000. And it rarely works the first time — except in cities, where I can leave off four of the digits unless an intercept tells me otherwise.
Speaking of communications, my interest in amateur radio is undergoing one of its periodic surges, leading to the next addition to my already-overloaded bikeasaurus: a full-spectrum HF ham radio station. The rig is a Ten-Tec Argonaut, running on bike power and driving a clever antenna called the “Slinky Dipole,” donated by the Elba, New York ham couple KA2VTX and Y. (We had a day’s layover there, before the Finger Lakes and after Buffalo, installing a cooling fan on the bike and eating sweet corn with new friends.) The Slinky antenna adapts to any pair of trees, rendering setup something other than the usual pain in the tuner. Dahdidahdit dahdahdidah…
You know, it’s funny. Everyone predicted, back in 1983 when I first trundled away from Columbus at 135 pounds, that I would get to the first hill, scream with knee pain, and start jettisoning superfluous gizmology. But within three months, the system was up to 160 pounds, then 185, then 200. By the Pacific Coast, it was 220. Now it’s 255 and still growing, with 275 the likely total by the time the new ham gear is fully installed in its waterproof custom pannier. There are cyclists out there who tear the tags off their teabags to cut weight, as obsessed with small numbers as are golfers. My machine, on the other hand, is now officially too heavy to be an ultralight aircraft. I suppose I’m insane.
But then, I’m happy as hell. With new friends and adventures every week, low overhead, a delightful mate, and plenty of fresh air and exercise, how can I complain about the weight of my life-support system? We’re off to DC now for the International Human Powered Vehicle Championships, where we oughta pedal away with top honors in the load-carrying competition…
In the meantime: cheers from the Pennsylvania-Jersey line!
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