Ohio

← Niagara Falls

I leave Niagara Falls energized after my stay with Dave, eager to continue the adventure. On the suggestion of the Adventure Cycling map through this area, I duck into Canada, following the Niagara south to Buffalo. The Canada side of the falls is lovely, full of green space, parks, bike paths and a well-maintained, quiet road along the river. There is just one eyesore: across the river, the American side, big highways and industrial parks.

I am in high spirits walking over the Peace bridge back into the country. Buffalo tempers my mood only slightly. Bike routes turn into fast-moving highways without shoulders. The neighborhoods look as run-down as the old factories nearby. The drivers are as mean as the roads. I stop at a bike shop to ask for advice, but the salesperson, although trying to be helpful, has no maps nor ideas about biking in this area. Finally I make it to Route 20 and sail out of the city on wide shoulders.

Before long I merge with a bike route and keep steady pace along flat roads, tracing the shore of Lake Erie, which is just out of sight, usually below dramatic cliffs right at the water’s edge. I have no route picked out, and my only plan (if I can call it that) is to follow the sun as it sets and pitch a tent where I can. I stop and buy a couple of oranges at a gas station and rip into one with relish.

Day to day, week to week, there are two kinds of riding, I discover, as different from each other as if I were taking two separate trips, or perhaps two separate I’s were taking one trip. I promised myself not to dwell on identity or existential topics here (generally a waste of time, I think), but I will observe that on the road, hours on end under my own cardiovascular power, disparate strains of self tend to materialize by the way, unexpectedly. It is not unlike how a hawk perched in a tree, or sandhill cranes moving through tall grass, might allow me, in quiet transport, a close look. A car is too loud and fast to see such things.

The first kind of riding is to be pulled along by a restless mind. If I have spotted a storm on the horizon, or the wind has picked up and clouds begun to darken, there is nothing but to avoid the bad weather. Whatever current train of thought occupies me is derailed and I become occupied with estimating the point of collision between the rain and myself. I push my legs to their limit and begin to despair if I move too slowly. My thoughts have raced ahead of me down the road, anxious of the future. (By the way, riding in the rain is almost never as bad as I think, though I have not been caught in a truly bad storm yet.) Or if I am hungry, or thirsty on a hot day with bottled water running low, in the middle of farmland with no gas stations nor little general stores in sight, I restlessly search for clues — which road should I take? When is the next town? On these occasions my favorite sign to find is “Speed Zone Ahead,” which nearly always means a town is coming.

When I am caught up guessing the future, anxious of the present, I am a slave to the immediate conditions (get past this bad highway; get over this hill into town; get into camp for shelter; get to where I’m going before dark). I am overwhelmed by a goal, moving from point A to B. This is the most unpleasant way to ride a bicycle.

 
 

The second kind of riding is not really riding at all, because I forget that’s what I’m doing. The bicycle is no longer a tool to get from A to B. It is more a lookout tower. Everything runs smoothly and my mind is free to wander. I like to imagine that the bicycle hangs motionless in space, wheels spinning, connected to a slowly rotating Earth which slides under the wheels like a giant treadmill, revealing itself hill by hill, turn by turn. I hardly notice the action of my legs, they may as well be tiny motors hooked in to the crankset. Time and space slide by, no effort on my part. Often it is here that good things happen.

That night, passing a farm, someone yells out, “Need any water?” It starts a conversation that leads this kind and considerate man, Chuck, to offer his backyard for me to tent. His family and a few friends are just about to start the grill, chicken and corn. His wife, Angel, takes one look at me and insists I use their shower and that I hand over all my dirty laundry to wash. I try to refuse politely, in vain. After the shower, refreshed, I am handed a beer and told to sit down: I need a haircut. Angel cuts my hair as the sun sets over the grape orchard. It takes a while. Their daughter declares with amazement: “He’s got a lot of hair!” I tent out next to the vines. This is where Welch’s juice comes from.

Morning sun over Welch’s grapes
Morning sun over Welch’s grapes

Ohio feels like a treadmill. Ohio — northwest Ohio, anyway — is astoundingly level terrain. Flat as a pancake (or, the pancake’s tastier cousin, because the lines of trees delimiting square lots of farmland might suggest waffle iron). I am not used to this. The roads, uninfluenced by the topography, arrange themselves in the cardinal directions, a giant grid. Intersections are spaced regularly, every mile. “Take a left exactly 6 miles down the road” is equivalent to “Take your 6th left.”

I am told this land used to be an enormous swamp. It was drained by the pioneers and converted into productive farmland. In the swamp, travelers coming through the area would fight to move at all. They would stay at hotels set up a day’s travel from each other. The hotels were a mile apart. For me, with level pavement, the range of comfortable mileage per day moves up to between 60 and 80.

Clouds over Ohio
Clouds over Ohio
A river cuts through flat sedimentary layers
A river cuts through flat sedimentary layers
Bike tune-up at the Ohio City Bike Coop
Bike tune-up at the Ohio City Bike Coop

I am ashamed to say I had initially planned to cut across Ontario to Michigan specifically to avoid Ohio. But my fears are unfounded: I have a good time. The Ohioans I meet are good-natured, convivial, and there are plenty of bicyclists here. It should be noted: people who bike are generally interesting, thoughtful, intelligent people worth getting to meet. If I have been confronted with a bland personality on this trip, it is inevitably not that of a bicyclist.

I would write more of Ohio, and my short time in Pennsylvania, but this post is already long overdue, and some lacunae are preferable to nothing at all.