Saturday, July 15, 2006
Columbiana, Ohio to Franklin, PA
70 miles – 9 hours 7 minutes
(Three years ago I came up with this idea that it would be fun to ride my bike from my home to my parent’s home in Skaneateles, New York. Later I wrote a story about that adventure which I hoped to have published. I haven’t been able to find a publisher for the story so I decided to share it with the world through my blog. This is the fourth of nine installments.)
The alarm wakes me at 5:15 A.M. I don’t even think about turning it off. I shower and pack my gear. I try to re-create the bungee-wrapping configuration, but can’t seem to get it right. Finally I secure the pack and head for the lobby.
The morning is cloudy and cool. There was a wild thunderstorm in the night and the road is wet and the air smells like it has been freshly scrubbed. My destination today is Clarion, Pennsylvania, eighty miles east. This will be my longest ride of the trip. I study the Mapquest directions. The first twenty miles are all back country roads, fifteen different legs. For the first half hour I’m all alone. Then I turn on to Lipply Road, which is barely paved and there is a black man fishing with his grandson in a small pond. I can hear the birds now and the world seems to be waking up. I am hopeful that the truckers who roar by with lumber and milk and gasoline will be resting for the weekend.
I am cruising along at fifteen miles per hour. I should be in Clarion before one. The sun burns off the clouds, but the temperature rises slowly. I hit the forty mile mark and just as expected highway 168 ends. But there’s something wrong. I’m supposed to be in Elliot Mills, turning on to William Flynn Highway. But I have run into US 19 and I can see Interstate 80, which bisects Pennsylvania east to west, three hundred yards north of me. It’s not supposed to be there.
I cross US 19 and continue riding on an unmarked road hoping I run into the William Flynn Highway. The road narrows and starts winding up and around a dense forest. A family has parked by the side of the road to enjoy the view. They’re tourists from Ohio. They show me on their map that I’m about three miles south of Mercer, which means for the last twenty miles I have been going due north instead of east. I ask them how to get to Clarion, but they don’t know.
“Can you tell me where we are now?” I ask her as I start to open my map, hoping she might be able to pinpoint our location.
Before I can get it open, she says “Mercer. That’ll be five dollars for the map.”
I give up and go outside. I take a seat next to the ice machine and study the map. A man wearing a John Deere hat is filling his pickup.
“Where ya headed?” he asks. I explain my situation. He looks at my map. I tell him my ultimate destination is upstate New York.
“Then you ought to take US 62. That goes all the way to Buffalo. You should be able to make it to Franklin, that’s only about thirty miles.” He shows it to me on the map. “Of course, you’ll run into some mountains up here,” he says pointing to the red highway line that is running into Franklin, “but not much way to avoid them.”
He said mountains. And thirty miles. I don’t want to hear that. I don’t know if I can make it thirty miles through these hills. I thank him for his help.
As he starts to drive off he says, “Watch out for those trucks. They don’t pay much mind to bikes.”
One P.M. I head north on US 19 which will intersect with US 62 in downtown Mercer. Mercer’s built on the side of a hill. A steep hill. There’s some kind of summer sidewalk sale going on and the main street is crowded with people. Traffic is heavy. I’m pedaling uphill with a panel truck in front of me and a big pickup right behind me. We move up the hill slowly. I’m trying to maintain my speed and time the lights so I won’t have to keep stopping and starting. The light ahead of me has been red a long time. Finally it changes, but the panel truck does not move. I have to stop. I squeeze the brakes and disengage my right foot from the pedal. I kick out my left heel to release my foot, but the bike shoe doesn’t release. The bike falls to the left, and with my shoe stuck, I can’t break my fall.
My left elbow smashes into the pavement. I’m on the ground staring at the wheels of the pickup behind me. I still have thirty miles to travel, I don’t know where I’m going, it’s ninety degrees and insufferably humid, my elbow’s bleeding and my bike has been messed up. I hope this is the low point of my trip.
I wheel my bike on to the sidewalk, among all the shoppers. No one asks me if I’m hurt or offers any assistance. I guess it’s a really good sidewalk sale, or maybe I look scarier than I realize.
US 62 is, as promised, a well-paved, busy highway that seems to be going up a whole lot more than down. I resume my five-miles-and-rest strategy. I’m drinking a bottle of Gatorade every thirty minutes. Every town I enter I’m on the lookout for a convenience store where I can restock.
Five miles out of Mercer, and twenty-five miles from Franklin, I take out my cellphone to see if I can find a hotel. I look again at the map and I see there’s a town called Sandy Lake ten miles closer than Franklin. I imagine myself sitting in a lounge chair enjoying a cold beer, or maybe a margarita this time, on the pristine sandy beach that must certainly border Sandy Lake. I dial 411 and ask for information on hotels in Sandy Lake. There are none. I try the next town over, Polk. Same story. So I ask about Franklin. They have a Quality Inn. They connect me and Lucy tells me they have one room left, due to the Franklin High Class of 1981 twenty-fifth high school reunion taking place that evening. It’s a smoking room. I grab it.
I take a long shower and then spread my roadmaps out on the bed. As long as I am willing to stick to the major highways, my new route is simple. I can take US 62 through the rest of Pennsylvania right into western New York, practically all the way to US 20, which runs right through Skaneateles.
I call home and Suzanne answers. She’s been talking with her brother about their mother who is in a nursing home in Indianapolis. Her mom has been taken to the hospital. She has osteoporosis and her brother, who’s a cardiologist, thinks she might have pneumonia. She’s having trouble breathing and can barely speak.
Suzanne and her mother have always had a wonderful relationship. Suzanne has been a great daughter. They talk every week, sometimes several times a week. They both have a gift for conversation. (Who says I can’t be diplomatic?). For the thirty-five years I’ve known Suzanne, she’s been her Mom’s biggest fan and I know her mom is justifiably proud of her daughter.
Suzanne’s a third-generation Japanese-American. Her parents were disciplined about school and the importance of getting good grades and putting forth maximum effort. Suzanne was an excellent student, made the law review at the University of Chicago and became a successful corporate attorney for a large law firm. Now she’s a senior attorney for BP.
She’s a problem solver and she wants to solve her mom’s problem. I want to tell her there is no solution, but I don’t. I think she knows at some level of her sub-conscious that her Mom is dying. That she’s not going to get better. That there really is nothing she can do.
We talk for awhile and I tell her about getting lost in Pennsylvania. I skip the part about crashing. She tells me her bible group is praying for me. Then she says, “They were surprised that I let you go.”
“They were?” I ask. I don’t say “You let me go?”, but I’m thinking it.
“Yes. They thought it was maybe a little reckless of you to go off by yourself. But I told them you had made meticulous plans and were an experienced rider.” Then she laughs, “I didn’t tell them you can’t read a map.”
She hands the phone to Nicole who is still on the couch. “Cubs won today. 9 to 2. Zambrano pitched.”
I ask her to go online and find a list of hotels in Warren, Pennsylvania, and Springville and Avon, New York. She thinks it’s funny I got lost. She finds a couple of options in each town. I make the new reservations and cancel the old ones. I can still make it home in seven days.
The bartender’s name is Raquel. I can tell from all of the instruction she is getting from the waitresses that this is her first day bartending. She has to take care of all of the drink orders for the tables. I watch as she tries to make a margarita. I decide this is not a good day to switch from beer. I order a Stella Artois because this is an Italian restaurant. Raquel does a very good job of pouring the beer. The beer is cold, and it tastes like a beer that I have waited twenty-four hours for. I savor it.
I watch as the waitresses hustle by with the food orders. The entrees are artistically presented and the portions are huge. The heat and the exercise have killed my appetite so instead of an entrée, I order an appetizer, lobster quesadillas. Raquel brings me four large quesadillas made with red and blue corn tortillas. The lobster goes well with the Mexican seasonings and the fresh tortillas. I can only finish two.
The restaurant has filled up with all of those Class of ‘81 folks. A crew-cut husky guy in khakis and a white golf shirt comes in with his trim, blonde wife. They take the two seats to my left. They’re in their thirties, too young to be part of the reunion class. They introduce themselves as Dan and Marge.
Dan orders a beer and asks Marge what she wants.
“I don’t know. I was thinking a beer, but then I was thinking maybe a whiskey sour.”
“I’d go with a beer,” I tell him. “New bartender.”
“Ah,” he nods. “Thanks.” Then he looks over at the woman who has sat down to my right. “Hi Verna. When’d you get back?”
She’s about my age, long grey hair, pinned back, no make-up. She has an artistic look about her.
“A few months ago. Couldn’t take all the rain in Seattle. How you guys doing? Hi Marge.”
Marge looks over surprised and then jumps up like woman do and gives Verna a hug. “Where ya living, now?” she asks.
Verna turns to her friend, who is built sort of like Dan and has short-cropped hair. She doesn’t look so artistic, but she has a nice, shy smile. “You know Jane, don’t you.”
After Marge settles down, Verna starts talking to Jane about a party she is preparing for her mother. I’m normally a keep-my-mouth-shut-at-the-bar kind of guy, but I think these eight hour days on the bike with no one to share my profound thoughts have made me more talkative than normal.
“We gave my mom a 90th birthday party this spring,” I tell her.
She’s interested and we talk about the gift of having our parents still with us.
“I am so grateful. My mom has lived long enough for us to both appreciate each other,” she says.
She asks where I’m from and I tell her about the bike trip. Her friend Jane is a serious cyclist.
“Take the bike path to Oil City. It’s a great ride and it’ll keep you off 62 for the first five miles,” she says.
It’s more of a command than a suggestion, but it sounds good to me. Dan borrows a paper placemat from Raquel and sketches a perfect-to-scale map of how to get to the bike path.
I decide to skip the desserts, even though they look great, especially the crème brulee’. I say goodbye to my new friends and return to the hotel.
Tomorrow will be the most mountainous part of my trip. As I drift off to sleep I worry about those hills and pray that the big trucks take the weekend off.