land of the free, home of the brave
Cycling in America: biking through New York, New
Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland
19 June 2009
Total kilometers cycled: 55,730Specific country info available here.
I had always thought of my fellow Americans as pretty laid-back people. Not at all like the uptight Germans who schedule meetings six months in advance and send out at least four drafts of an agenda before finally deciding on the Tagesordnung for the weekly staff meeting. I should have had an inkling that things had changed when I was refused entry to the American Consulate in Frankfurt. Yes, MY consulate--which I wrongly assumed was there to help its citizens-- refused to even let me through the security check because I hadn't made an on-line appointment three months back.
"I'll have to ask you to step back from the window ma'am," growled a voice from behind the bullet-proof glass.
I was left loitering around the front gate while Eric went in for an interview to get his US visa. It was a humiliating experience made worse by the fact that I was in urgent need of a restroom after my two cups of morning coffee. Luckily there was a McDonald's not far away.
In the end, Eric got the visa. Thanks in part, I suppose, to glowing letters from my parents and sister assuring the authorities that he was a harmless cyclist unlikely to commit terrorist activities or become a burden on the US welfare system.
and we're off
Three weeks in Europe should have been enough time to catch up with family and friends, get the bikes back into shape and indulge in some unabashed laziness. But we're not so unlike most of the rest of the earth's inhabitants and found ourselves rushing around at the last minute tying up loose ends. Finally the big day arrived and, in a driving rain, we loaded up the saddle bags and began pedaling towards Frankfurt International Airport. Eric was crushed to learn that in-flight meals were no longer gratis and did his best to convince me that no one would be bothered if I whipped up a hot meal on the MSR stove as we were flying over the Atlantic. Fortunately, combustible fuels are one of the many prohibited substances on board and I was saved the humiliation of squatting over a fire in the center aisle like some Congolese villager.
the big apple
I was expecting a big welcome after five years out of the country, but all I got was a cursory glance at my passport as a burly immigration officer waved me through customs. No one even questioned what I'd been doing in rogue states like Sudan and Syria. The only thing that got us any attention was when we flipped out a sharp razor and start slitting open the plastic wrap protecting our panniers. Two security guards immediately pounced on us like hungry cyclists on a tray of free samples in the supermarket.
"Hey, hey, whadda ya think yer doin? This is a secure area."
"Is it? So sorry, just getting unpacked," and I slid the razor innocently back into my bag.
We were politely directed to the arrival hall and an officer was assigned to keep an eye on us as we finished unpacking and loaded up the bikes. A thick fog and fading light greeted us as we rolled out of JFK airport and on to one of New York's busy expressways. Taking a train or perhaps spending the night in the airport and waiting for daybreak would have been safer options, but my courageous (or perhaps foolish) French husband insisted that braving New York's streets would be a walk in the park for two trans-Africa cyclists. I spewed forth a fair amount of profanity ( Are you'****** crazy? This is no place to be riding bike) but my legs kept spinning as Hummers, SUVs and other odd super-sized American cars sped past.
Finally we turned off the expressway and found ourselves passing a succession of fried chicken joints, evangelical churches, bail bondsmen and 24-hour check-cashing bureaus. The ethnic make-up was similar to that of Nairobi and quite a few heads turned as we rode past. There were lots of police cars cruising past, but their presence was rather more worrying that reassuring. Then things started to change and fried chicken was replaced by Chinese take-away, taco joints and discount dollar shops--shop signs were mostly in Spanish. It was getting later and later and still we hadn't made it to the safety of our couch-surfing refuge near Brooklyn's Prospect Park. When I started seeing more Hasidic Jews sporting sidelocks and black hats and fewer groups of young guys in baggy jeans hanging out on street corners, I breathed a sigh of relief and dashed into an all-night kosher supermarket. I was in luck and for $1.49 I came away with a family-sized pack of red twizzler licorice- guaranteed 100% artificially flavored--nothing natural added. Simply delicious. On a sugar high, we biked on to Zvi's place and met up with our first host in the USA.
a melting pot with many rules
We loved New York. Really. It wasn't just that we had a cool couchsurfing host with an awesome apartment in a trendy neighborhood. Touring New York for two days was like an abridged version of a tour de monde. We checked out Little Italy (not very authentic), treated ourselves to Brooklyn's best bagels in the Jewish quarter, went shopping in Little Russia by the Sea (Brighton Beach), had lunch at a street fair in Greek Town, watched a procession of Indians celebrating Divali, danced with Puerto Ricans in Spanish Harlem who were going wild on their national day and dined on dumplings in NYC's vast China Town. What shocked us about New York was the need for so many rules. A $1,000 fine for not cleaning up after your pet. No bikes on the Coney Island boardwalk. 'No standing' zones. Drug-free and gun-free school zones. Playgrounds where shoes are required and rummaging through garbage cans is strictly prohibited. No smoking within a hundred feet of public buildings.
In front of one discount supermarket where we stopped to shop a large sign proclaimed 'No Loitering'. Two black guys (or African Americans if you like) were busy hustling work by helping customers load their groceries. They were polite and helpful and never insisted that anyone use their services. They were curious about our bikes (Hey, where you goin' sister with all that stuff?) and we got to chatting. They were father and son, both out of work with the economic downturn, and just trying to get by.
he younger man had been hauled into jail twice for violating the 'no loitering' rule and fined $150 each time. "If I had $150 what would I be doin' in this damn parkin' lot helpin' people with their groceries?"
He had a point.
the interstate at rush hour
The eastern seaboard from New York City to Washington, DC is one of the most densely populated parts of the US, a country not known for a plethora of bike paths. We were headed south towards the nation's capital, passing through the Philadelphia metropolitan area and had a river to cross. We'd already spent hours making our way through the city, passing through some of its roughest neighborhoods and getting a bird's eye view of the ghettos. Eric had had a run-in with a tough-looking guy in a low riding cadillac as we passed through a particularly depressing stretch of road. The only businesses in sight were discount liquor stores and a few mom and pop groceries with bars on the windows. The tough guy obviously didn't like sharing the road with guys in lycra shorts and shouted out above the thumping music, "Get the f*** off the road." Eric, in typical French fashion, started splaying his arms and shrugging his shoulders in outrage. "Are you crazy?" I hissed, motioning for him to pull off the road. "Haven't you ever heard of drive-by shootings?"
But back to the bridge. In all honesty, we weren't very well organized. Maps with a 1:400000 scale may be okay in Africa where roads are as plentiful as Republicans in Seattle, but not in America where navigation is complicated. We were like two bumbling idiots asking people to point out the way to a bridge with a bike lane. The general consensus was that bikes were definitely not allowed on the bridges. Too narrow. Too dangerous. Too much traffic.
It was getting late and our next couchsurfing host was over the river in neighboring Delaware, so we took the brave decision to 'go for it' and get on the interstate (America's system of superhighways). For the momentous occasion I actually unstrapped my helmet from its safe storage spot on the back rack, and strapped it on to my head. An added precaution. In truth, riding the interstate isn't too bad. The semi's roaring by add a little excitement. I was contemplating getting out the MP3 player to muffle some of the noise when sirens started wailing. We rolled to a stop in back of the flashing lights of a Philadelphia state police patrol car.
The officer swaggered over to us and planted himself in front of our bikes. "Are you aware that the interstate is for motorized vehicles only?"
"Oh, no, officer. We didn't realize. So sorry. We only saw a 'no pedestrian' sign. We thought bicycles were fine." Followed by the usual ingratiating smile and look of sincere contrition.
After an ID check he let us proceed, insisting that we leave the interstate at the next off ramp.
the friendly cop
Delaware cops, on the other hand, couldn't be friendlier. With the bridge debacle behind us we were rushing to find the way to our host's home and ended up getting lost yet again. Growing up in Montana I'd learned to go to the nearest gas station to ask for directions. So there we were pestering everybody at the pump for help and another squad car pulled up.
"You folks need some help?"called out a friendly voice.
We explained our predicament (no decent map, too many roads, not enough brains) and our friendly cop took the address we were looking for, did a google map search on his lap top and then sent us on our way with detailed directions.
"And here's the direct line to the Delaware police. You guys just give us a call if we can be of service." We waved goodbye and set off smiling into the sunset.
more friendly folks and a family reunion
It was after 10 PM when we finally knocked on the door at our host's home. Luckily, Tommy and Diane are understanding people who didn't mind our late arrival and welcomed us warmly into their home. We spent the next day recovering, gorging ourselves on homemade pizza and lasagna and generally being lazy. The next morning Tommy personally escorted us to the Maryland state line, obviously not having much confidence in our map-reading skills.
We spent a rainy day riding through the beautiful rolling hills of rural Maryland and eventually found our way to my sister's home tucked away on the backroads of Baltimore county. It's a beautiful place set on 9 wooded acres with a swimming pool to plunge into when the heat and humidity get to be too much. At night we can relax in the jacuzzi and gaze up at the stars. It's nice having successful relatives. We last met up with Lynn and her husband Manuel five years ago, so there's a lot of catching up to do. Manuel makes a mean dish of refried beans, Lynn's stocked up the fridge and pantry to over-flowing (including a four-pound bag of chocolate chips so I can bake cookies till my buttons start to burst) and they're both spoiling us like mad. It will be hard to leave, but Eric, the official keeper of the schedule, insists that if we don't keep moving we'll be caught in a snow storm going over the Rockies.
what's up next?
The plan is to criss-cross America passing through:Maryland » Virginia » West Virginia » Kentucky » Missouri » Kansas » Colorado » Utah » Idaho » Montana » Washington » Oregon » California » Nevada » Arizona »
New Mexico » Texas
Then we'll turn into snowbirds and head south for the winter. The long-term goal is to make it all the way to Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of South America. Crossing continents by bicycle has become more than just an adventure, it's turned into a lifestyle. And given the current economic climate, we've decided that, for the moment, biking around the world is the best way to live.
We're excited to be biking across a continent with reliable running water, infrequent power cuts and loads of friendly couch-surfers. Africa was tough and we're finding it quite easy to adjust to the luxuries of life in the Western world. From a natural point of view, America has got it all: Vast wide-open spaces, high deserts and soaring peaks. Rugged hills, rolling farmlands and raging rivers. And I'm sure we'll have no problem sniffing out adventure as we bike across the USA.
- Our fundraising for World Bicycle Relief is off to a reasonably good start. Many thanks to those who have supported us in our fundraising efforts. If you would like to make a concrete difference in someone's life by giving them the gift of a bicycle, please consider making a secure donation online to our Firstgiving fundraising page. Your money will enable a child to get to school, a woman to get to market to sell farm products or health care worker to get to those who are sick.
Stay tuned as our around-the-world cycling adventure continues into its third year and let us know what you're thinking in the comments section below. Any tips for our USA tour? Places not to be missed? Scenic roads that are worth a detour? Please share information, inspiration or just say 'hello' in the space below.
check out more photos from our trip
contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org