San Francisco to New York to San Diego

May - July 1990

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Week 1

16 May - Wednesday - 83.7 miles/84 total
NYC to Lambertville NJ

Sometime in January, 1990, I decided that it was time for something different in my life.  A few months earlier, my friend Chris had decided to bicycle cross country, from New York to Vancouver, so as to arrive at the Gay Games as they started in August.  He would then move permanently to California.  A couple of times in late 1989 he asked me, probably not expecting me to say yes, if I wanted to join him in the cross country trip.  I turned him down; I wasn't willing to consider seriously leaving my niche in the working world.  But as my work life got less and less pleasant, I felt less and less like staying as things went downhill.  So sometime in February, I called Chris to let him know I wanted to go with him. 

Within a few weeks, Chris called to talk about an alternate route to Los Angeles.  As he had already decided to leave his job and move west, he was getting impatient to get away, and proposed leaving earlier and taking a southern route to California.  There he would spend a month in Los Angeles with his boyfriend of the previous summer, John, and then go on to Vancouver for the games.  I was very much in favor of this; I too was getting impatient and wanted to leave early, and it looked to me that a southern route could avoid some of the long flat distances through the central plains.  The northern route would have crossed flat farmland, prairie, or plains through upstate New York, Ontario, Michigan, Minnesota, and the Dakotas.  By going south, we could stay in hills or mountains through the Appalachians, the Ozarks, and the Rockies.  The longest stretch of flat terrain would be Oklahoma. 

By early March, we had tentatively decided on the southern route, which I mapped out in a general way as crossing New Jersey, cutting through southeastern Pennsylvania, then across Maryland and northern Virginia to Skyline Drive, down the Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway and through the Cumberland Gap.  We would then ride the length of Kentucky, across Missouri through the Ozarks, and follow the northern border of Oklahoma westward to New Mexico.  Next, we would head westward across the Rockies to Arizona, possibly through some of southern Colorado, into Utah, where we would loop through Bryce and Zion national parks, turning back toward the Grand Canyon's southern rim.  From there we would ride to Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert, either through Needles, or up through Las Vegas and through or near Death Valley.  Chris added New Hope, Washington, DC, and Tulsa as intermediate points; he had friends we could stay with in Washington and Tulsa. 

Meanwhile, Chris had the opportunity to spend some time in Haiti to do some work on a study of birth control clinics.  This meant he would take a leave of absence from his job in mid-April and be out of the country for two weeks.  Returning, he would work two more weeks at his Bronx city planning job, and then leave. When, in fact, Chris did get back from Haiti, he had acquired an intestinal parasite, though this did not turn out to be a major problem. 

I left my job the last Friday in April, and spent my time partly getting ready and partly enjoying not working.  I had nearly everything I needed except a touring bicycle.  After first deciding to rebuild my Fuji with new wheels and components, I came to the conclusion that buying a real touring bike would not cost much more and would be much safer, so I invested $600 in a 1989 Trek 520.  I already had a rear rack and a lowrider front rack, as well as Tailwind front panniers, so after a lot of shopping around, I bought a pair of Cannondale rear panniers.  Camping equipment and clothing I had already; after mounting two heavy-duty water bottle cages and a cycle computer on the Trek I was pretty much ready to go. 

Chris' last day at work was to be May 11, and he was committed to go to his father's retirement dinner the following day, Saturday the twelfth.  After that, he was nominally free to start the trip.  As it turned out, though, his report on the Haiti trip had to be re-written; he spent some of Sunday and Monday doing that on my computer, and some of Tuesday at Columbia printing and revising.  So although we had planned to leave as early as Sunday, we could not get away until Wednesday the sixteenth.  

I had spent some of Tuesday looking for a camera to bring along on the trip; after looking over back issues of Consumer Reports I knew what I wanted.  But I spent my time trying to get the best possible price by going to the shady discount houses in the thirties around Sixth Avenue, and I was so annoyed with salesmen trying to sell me something more expensive, or telling me that I could get the camera at a good price but would have to spend thirty dollars on the battery for it, that I gave up in frustration.  Wednesday morning, I had to meet my landlord in midtown to straighten out our lease arrangement, and afterwards I went to one or two more camera stores, but gave up on getting a camera after going through the same process once again.  So having packed my panniers and readied my bike the day before, I rode slowly up to Chris' on Fort Washington Avenue, trying to get used to the load and the gearing.  Chris was not ready, he had had some last minute revising to do; I watched him finish up his packing and clean out his apartment.  In a rush, he ran off to the post office to mail some last few belongings off to California.  Coming back, he found that his cash machine card, on which he was depending for money during the trip (he had no credit cards) had fallen out of his jersey pocket.  That made him temporarily dependent on me for cash, which in itself did not turn out to be a practical problem on the trip. 

We finally left around 12:10.  It was a dreary day, and drizzling.  I started my brand-new odometer by moving the sensor into place, and we rode the five blocks uptown to the George Washington bridge.  Once over the bridge, and southbound on River Road, we got a view of things we had never seen from this perspective.  Chris discovered a coffee plant whose smell, origin previously unsuspected, was familiar from across the river.  The view of Manhattan was, of course, at least as scenic as my view of New Jersey from Riverside Drive.  

The drizzle continued off and on; by the time we entered Newark across a steel grate bridge, it had been raining enough to make the bridge nearly deadly.  We stopped for a toasted buttered muffin somewhere around Linden.  By New Brunswick, we were out of the industrial sprawl and into somewhat more comfortable suburbia; a bit past New Brunswick on NJ 518 it was almost rural.  Lunch was late afternoon near Blawenburg; there we ate the first of a lot of pizza and talked to the first of many partly-unbelieving strangers. This one was an ex-marine, the proprietor of the pizza parlor. 

Our plan was to continue on toward the Delaware River and stay the night at the Washington's Crossing state campground, but when we got there, the campground was isolated and closed, so we headed up the river, along the canal towpath, toward Lambertville, the town across the river from New Hope. We bought some sandwiches along the way at a roadhouse, and looked for a likely campsite as we pedaled northward in the twilight.  We investigated a couple of possibilities, rejecting them as too uninviting or too likely to be lovers' lanes, and wound up after dark in Lambertville itself.  After looking around a little, we decided the only reasonable place to camp was in a gravel and dirt parking lot next to a municipal services building on the river.  We pitched tents near the water, ate our sandwiches at last, and went to sleep. 

Sometime around three in the morning, we were awakened by what sounded like civil defense sirens.  Chris wanted to know if I thought this meant the river was going to flood - the rain had continued into the night and been very heavy for long periods - but I mumbled something about fire sirens, and rolled over.  But the noise continued, and the sound of the river rushing past the bank was clearly louder.  After a while, Chris got out of his tent and discovered that the water was inches from flooding us.  We scrambled to move ten yards or so out of the way, I dragging my tent, which was full and had been leaking all night. 

17 May - Thursday - 81.0 miles/165 total
Lambertville NJ to West Grove, PA

When we awoke, everything was wet, but the morning was sunny. I learned from the radio that rivers in central New Jersey were due to crest later that day, and when we looked at the Delaware, it had really continued to rise overnight.  We stuffed our wet sleeping bags into stuff sacks, rolled up wet tents, and I shaved (this was one of the few days during the trip when we would not be able to shower).  As we finished packing to leave, we saw a man in his sixties walking along the canal towpath into Lambertville, carrying a fairly primitive backpack, with a slogan, something like "LA or bust," stitched on the back.  It turned out that he was walking from New York to California, had left a few days earlier, and planned to finish his trip by the end of the summer.  Walking the distance we were going to ride seemed kind of dull to me , but probably most of the people we came across as we rode west thought our trip as strange as this hiker's appeared to me. 

So we crossed into New Hope and stopped for breakfast at a place recommended to Chris - Mother's, I think it was. The french toast took us some time to get through, so it wasn't until 10:30 that we got out of New Hope, following a winding route into Pennsylvania that I had devised back in New York.  The roads were nicely rural and scenic, but not flat or straight, and I wasn't in shape yet so I was feeling the hills.  South of Doylestown, I had my first flat, and after my first attempt at a patch failed, I decided to save time and replace the tube.  This was where I discovered that my spare tubes, bought in a hurry in New York, had Schraeder and not Presta valves.  So I wound up patching the tube after all.  All of this took some time, especially as this was my first experience at having to remove panniers and stuff sacks just to get at the wheel.  And here I discovered the minor design flaw that was to be a problem for a large part of the trip - the springs that mounted the rear panniers had a habit of disappearing up the tubes that held them, so that it was difficult to hook their ends onto the mounting tabs on the rack.  All this wasted a lot of time. 

We continued on to Conshohocken, where we found a bike shop where I bought some Schwinn tubes for spares.  A thousand miles later, when I needed them, these tubes turned out to have problems.  Crossing the Schuykill, we hit our first tough hill on the other side, on PA 23.  Of course this hill was nothing compared to what we would find farther along, and I had been up it a few times before as a kid, but it was hard going for me with a loaded bike.  In Villanova, we stopped for lunch at a Bob's Big Boy - it was close to the intersection of PA 320 and PA 30 - and it was four o'clock by the time we got going again.   

Heading out Goshen Road, I decided not to stop by my parents', as we had determined to get to Washington the next day, and really had no time to stop.  But a little way past PA 252, a major thunderstorm struck, with torrential rains that turned the road into a running stream; we slogged on.  We heard later that tornadoes had struck in the area.  As we shifted over to PA 926, following a route that I had taken twice before as part of a century ride, I began to realize how much harder the going would be on a loaded bike.  926 is straight as an arrow across hilly terrain, which means that it goes up steep slopes rather than around them.  As dusk approached, I was really feeling this.   

We decided to stop in West Grove for dinner, where I had a hoagie, and Chris something meatless, in a pizza joint.  Chris asked another customer about camping nearby; the man invited us to stay in his backyard if we couldn't find a better place.  That's what we wound up doing, not pitching tents, but sleeping under the open sky on a clear and very starry night.

18 May - Friday - 110.1 miles/275 total
West Grove, PA to Washington DC

Getting up early in the morning, feeling badly the lack of a shower, we found our host bringing us coffee, which we drank hurriedly on his picnic table while packing.  It was a short ride into Maryland, where we were soon pedaling west into a stiff headwind, although not nearly so stiff as winds we would find farther west.  We stopped at a convenience store where I found a microwaved biscuit and ham and egg combination, and some junk food, including a Tastykake peach pie (I hadn't had one of those for years, and it was just as good and as bad as I remembered!).  We then headed across Conowingo Dam on US 1, then south toward Baltimore through some old towns and beautiful rolling countryside.  Along the way we stopped at a little store for lunch, and I ate a crabcake sandwich and a slice of pie on a shady lawn.   

In Baltimore, we tried to avoid the worst of the city center by following a peripheral road that headed counter-clockwise over some hilly terrain, finally petering out in the western part of the city.  We found our way out of the city, in spite of local advice, and into Ellicott City, an old mill town whose main street climbs up a ravine and which resembles (a little) Harper's Ferry.  Our original plan was to follow back roads into Washington, well to the west of the main Baltimore-Washington corridor, but we soon discovered that the route was going to be very hilly.  So we worked our way southeast toward US 1, after calling Chris' friend Patrick in Washington for directions, and followed 1 into suburban Washington, zig-zagging from there to where Patrick lived.  By this time, my achilles tendon hurting, and I was pedaling mostly with one leg.   

We arrived around 9:30 (we had yet to end a day's ride before nightfall) and after eating a lot of spaghetti, fell into bed.

19 May - Saturday - 0 miles/275 total
Washington DC

Patrick was gone until noon; he was off doing a fast century with a group, so we had an excuse to lie around all morning doing nothing.  I was too tired for anything else. When Patrick got back, he and Chris played around with Chris' bottom bracket, which had been making funny noises the previous day.  They seemed to manage to cure them.  We ordered a pizza from across the street; then Chris and Patrick both went off to get haircuts.  My hair wasn't long enough for me to join them, so I stayed around and read for a while.

Dinner was at an Ethiopian restaurant - I'd never had Ethiopian food before - and we stopped for ice cream on the way home, then collected our laundry and headed over to the neighborhood laundromat.  We had agreed that we would be doing our laundry every three riding days as we had each brought three pairs of riding shorts.  This was the first test of that plan; as it turned out we stuck to that interval fairly closely, although we would occasionally wash out shorts by hand to allow us an extra day to find a laundromat.

20 May - Sunday - 85.7 miles/361 total
Washington DC to Front Royal VA

We got a fairly early start, but without breakfast.  After a quick stop at a cash machine, Patrick led us out through city streets to the start of a bicycle path that took us miles out into the suburbs.  At one point we left the path to find a convenience store for some Gatorade and muffins.  Patrick led on, pretty fast since he was unloaded, dropping us off some thirty miles out.  We continued on, skirting the northern edge of Manasses battlefield, over terrain that was finally beginning to look a little foreign to me.  After all, everything that we had covered so far had been territory near places where I had lived.  Now we were in rural Virginia, where I'd never really been.

We bought lunch at a grocery, not far from the battlefield, that had a nicely stocked deli, and ate on a grassy bank half a mile down the road.  The countryside around us was very well-kept farmland - everything looked prosperous.  Farther along, things changed in a strange way.  The terrain became very hilly and very rural.  It was not so much forested as overgrown.  Every once in a while there would be a large estate, well kept up, but in among these, there were run-down shanties and poorer-looking houses.

After a while, there was a definite feeling that we were approaching mountains.  We rode up a valley with a river and a parallel railroad line.  We were in Front Royal, the town at the north end of Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive, sometime around seven, and riding through town, we found the entrance to the Drive.  After making sure we knew where it was, we rode back to a supermarket in town, and taking turns watching each other's bikes, we bought food for a couple of days in the park.  

Meanwhile, I had bumped into a pair on a tandem, a man and a woman apparently in their forties, looking very serious about their riding as they pulled into the shopping center where we were about to buy dinner.  It turned out that they were going to try to enter RAAM as a mixed tandem pair (the category of tandem pair had just been created that year, and they weren't sure they could even get in as a mixed pair). They were  training on Skyline Drive.  Sure enough, the next day I saw them stroke furiously past me as I struggled up a hill on the Drive. 

After shopping, which meant adding ten pounds apiece of extra weight, and after I had bought twenty cents worth of gasoline for my stove, we rode back to the Drive entrance where the ranger at the gate told us that the next open campground was fifty miles up the road.  It was by now eight in the evening.  Chris told the ranger that we would do that distance that evening (not very likely - we would have had to camp by the side of the road) and we started uphill.  As soon as we were out of earshot of the gate, I managed to persuade Chris that we should wait until the next day to start out, and camp for the night at a  KOA campground in Front Royal that we had heard about.  That's what we wound up doing; we got showers and cooked dinner on a picnic table there.  Dinner for me was a steak, a tomato, and some bread - so not too much work with the stove and not too much cleanup.

Week 2