This entry first appeared on the Search and State blog as Search Brigade Journal Entry 002. Thanks, as always, to Devin and Daniel at SAS.
Kaleidoscopic Times Square: enormous video screens, blinking lights, queued Broadway show ticket buyers, swirling traffic, hucksters dressed like Spider Man or Elmo, tour buses and hot dog carts. It’s perfect and we pedal away under blue skies in sticky heat, six of us giddy onto a recreation path to the bottom of Manhattan and then a ferry across the Hudson. We ride in two’s, small talk, introductions, ambitions, nervous wonder. These first hours are the merest fragmental sliver of a ride across the USA to San Francisco to Los Angeles and then a New York return, what Daniel has declared the ultimate out and back. But they’re the hours that set the emotions and put us on a road together where we’ll laugh and see and ride an idea, namely the idea that on a bicycle trip we’re in a place up close with our best vulnerabilities and openness, that we’re supporting each other not by insulating ourselves from the landscape but by enabling each other to breathe better in it.
It’s an accredited shit show riding through Newark and then south to Trenton and beyond. Not because those places aren’t beautiful—they certainly are in their pendulum from towering industrial smoke and semi trailers and pipes and stink to tidy suburbs where people who don’t normally see touring cyclists wave. But it’s a maze of navigation and keeping moods up at red traffic lights, we crave the open road so. We’ll find it later in long green tunnel stretches of canal paths and linear parks, our first day ends at Washington’s Crossing where Sue hosts us in the back yard of her historic 1600’s house with champagne and three old dogs.
We’re a motley lot, Brian on his ‘cross bike, Sam on his lovely steel rig, itching forward. Alex with mustache bars, a basket and front panniers, sitting regally upright. Devin pedaling easy, Jen a collision of pro cyclist and stylee bikepacker, before our eyes making the transition from three hour VOmax efforts to eleven hour sightseeing. Me looking like a circus bear on a folding bike, even if it’s more capable than one might think and will enable me to ride Amtrak back to NYC from Pittsburgh. Daniel joins us for a day, enviably light and free on his Colnago.
This first week is primarily the span of Pennsylvania and it satisfies with its character and timbre. Endless steep rolling hills, buggies and bonnets and hand drive farm tools of Lancaster County, the history of coal mining, and every restaurant is an Italian one with lamentable pizza and stromboli. There are small towns with orange brick buildings lining center mainstreet where at one end there’s a house with a Make America Great Again picket sign and at the other a pickup truck with three Bernie stickers. In the blocky heat we wish for clouds and then they come and when we’re soaked through we wonder about the sun.
On day three we ride along the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike, which includes two pitch black mile long tunnels. As we arrive at the first one, there’s a mass of recreational riders kitting up in preparation for their plunge into the darkness. By appearances, they’ve come out here specifically and possibly solely for this purpose. We surge forward and someone yells out to me and to my tiny headlamp, “That’s not enough light!” She’s on some shit mountain bike with a silver two D battery general store flashlight duct taped to the handlebar. I lose my cool and bark something snarky. The Peewee’s Playhouse peloton enters the tunnel behind us and I keep urging Alex to ride faster so that we can ditch them. That night we have a big climb up to the campsite at Cowan’s Gap State Park, plastic bags with our takeout dinners are haphazardly tied to our bars.
We find rhythms here and there, changing flats, trading pulls, rolling into camp just as the light is going pink and sleeping a little later than many touring cyclists might. Sam and Brian eventually have to turn back to return to work. Devin has already flown home to Minnesota, but he’ll join again for a segment later in the trip. It’s a bold kooky proposal to have made an all internet call for cyclists who want to do this cross country ride. Join for a day or for the whole thing. Maybe it’s something that you’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t quite find the inspiration to plan the logistics and recruit companions. Well, search brigade is for you. Alex and Jen are going to ride to the west coast, Jen so as to get home to LA, Alex because it’s an exhilarating thing to do. Except for them, it’s fluid and changing, so the ride exists as a narrative of the people who have been on it, like a ship that is rebuilt plank by plank over the years but that retains its identity because of the stories it’s in.
In Lancaster we’re camping at the County Central Park, a couple of miles from the heart of town. There are just three tidy sites, we’re the only occupants, and so we have the adjacent new looking Environmental Center to ourselves. There are a few outside lamps and the doors are left unlocked until late to give us access to running water and toilets. It’s well past nine by the time we collect ourselves, and our dinner options are limited. I propose plan one, which has us riding in our street clothes 18 minutes to a highway interchange with a 24 hour McDonalds and a gas station convenience store or plan two which involves me trying to persuade someone to deliver food to us. Alex and Jen are enthusiastic about two so I get on the phone with Lucky Restaurant, and after some explaining and spelling out the address—”no, really, the address is 1 Nature’s Way”—our food selections have been conveyed. A half hour later two guys show up in a coughing sputtering lowrider and call out into the darkness, somebody order Chinese? Sitting at the picnic table with chopsticks and fortunes, the surreal scene lit by headlamp, I bask in the victory.
Any one of these places, say, any fifty mile span, would be a joy to ride through. But it’s the constant continuity of the trip that makes the difference, where we meet the changes to the landscape and the habits of the people as one rising and falling wave of experience rather than discrete windows that are revealed in isolation. That’s the deeper truth of the fascination of the road trip, not the American obsession with the car or the paucity of plausible cultural rites of passage for us in the last century. It’s those, too, but, as we pedal the road is connection between moment and moment in analog form, there are no gaps and the infinite density and fidelity of the motion yields a kind of knowledge of a place we couldn’t otherwise have.
Those last days into Pittsburgh include a grey blowing sodden trek in a storm. Jen has gone up ahead, Alex and I roll along nervously enjoying the crackling lightning and clinging mist. We’re collecting calories at a filling station, Alex asks what to eat and I deadpan advise a Little Debbie Pie as if its the most obvious thing in the world. He goes for it. The Duran Duran playing on the loudspeaker is interrupted by that scraping whine that precedes an emergency announcement. Evidently tornado activity has been spotted near the town of Berlin and there’s an advisory. Berlin, of course, is the very town that we’re in, everyone in the shop snaps their heads at the brightening realization that a topic that had seemed abstract was actually about them and us. We press our faces against the plate window, the bulging black grey piled clouds seem fine so we keep going. The wind is at our backs and it’s predominantly downhill to the river ten miles away so we’re birds and rockets to our destination. Jen has bought a bottle of terrible wonderful local wine, we toast tornados and bicycles.
And then that day on the Great Allegheny Passage, a remarkable crushed gravel path along a watercourse and through canyons on the old railroad grade, deservedly beloved by cyclists. There are groups of twenty riders pulling trailers with flags with their flapping bright ponchos and wobbly cadence. There are singletons, aimless purpose on their faces. There are families and couples and the sounds of cassettes and grit under tires. We don’t get passed. We shake our heads at the thought that someone could basically ride from Washington D.C. to Pittsburgh without ever seeing cars, we’re only doing a seventy mile stretch before we reach the built up urban angular jagged complexity of coming into a city. That night beer and merriment and a hotel bed. Tomorrow I’ll leave these new friends, Alex and Jen, and they are joined by Nick who will ride with them to Minneapolis. The hugs are too short as the Brigade moves on.