Friday, October 29, 2010

Made It! Our Last Leg, from Gettysburg to the Goal Line

Four months to the day from when we left Seattle, we rode onto the Mall in Washington DC.  What a great feeling!

But more about that later -- let's start where we left off, in Gettysburg.  This is quite a place, the site of the largest battle ever in North America.  Of the 160,000 soldiers who fought on the two sides, over 11,000 died here, almost as many people as the entire undergraduate population of Cornell University!  Then there were those who did not die but were wounded or captured, another 45,000 or so, and you have a number equal to the entire population of Ithaca and several of its surrounding cities!  It all seemed a little more real to us knowing that the brother of Louise's great grandfather, Frederick Cutter, was killed here fighting to preserve the Union.

We arrived mid-day, having had a fairly easy 30-mile ride from York, and cycled down park roads through the area on the northwest edge of town where the 3-day battle began, seen first above as it looks today and below as it was painted shortly after the battle.  A nearby cannon shows you how close the battle was to the center of town, which was not much smaller then than it is today.

The town also looks much as it did then, with numerous buildings around town bearing witness to the battle, some with stories, some with battle scars as well.  Although the fighting raged all around, amazingly only one civilian was killed, a woman who was shot by a bullet that came right through her wooden front door.  The square in the center of town is particularly well preserved, including the Wills House on the left side of the photo below, the home where Lincoln stayed the night before his Gettysburg Address, which he polished and practiced that night in his bedroom.  On the street below is this realistic statue called Return Visit by J. Seward Johnson which utilized a death mask and a cast of Lincoln's hands made a year or two before his death to be accurate down to those details.  The statue was so convincingly real we had to touch the "wool" sweater to be persuaded it was actually bronze.

The next day was rainy, so we spent as much of it on the computers at the town library as we were allowed to get away with, then walked around downtown getting a feel for the town and taking breaks for Jeff to speed-read Michael Shaara's compelling novel about Gettysburg, Killer Angels.   Louise read it a few years back when we attended a series of lectures at the University of Washington on the Civil War, and we both agree that it is a most compelling read.  It certainly made our time here more meaningful.

Our last day in Gettysburg was a full one, half spent at the National Park Visitor Center and half walking the battlefield.  The Visitors Center had an excellent film explaining the three days of battle and then Lee's withdrawal back to Virginia.  After that you troop upstairs to the Cyclorama.  There were once hundreds of these around the world, bringing places and events to people in a world without movies and TV.  It's a 370-foot-long painting that surrounds you, giving you a 360-degree view from a specific point on the battlefield in the middle of Pickett's Charge.  Soldiers who were there commended it at the time it was painted in 1884 for its accuracy.  Its realism is enhanced by a three-dimensional foreground of actual dirt and objects that flow right into the painting (sorry about the color of that third photo from the Cyclorama illustrating that, the camera's white balance just wouldn't cooperate for that shot).

After the Cyclorama we found enough great exhibits downstairs in the museum to keep us busy another hour or two, including these slave manacles and a pre-war pamphlet explaining how slavery is "ordained of God."

We took one walk through the National Cemetery with a park ranger, here showing us the monument at the heart of where the soldiers were buried.  This was actually the first national cemetery in the U.S., inspiring many others such as the one created soon after in Arlington.  The cemetery is on a hill already named "Cemetery Hill" at the time of the battle due to a neighboring resting place for the citizens of Gettysburg, but they got no rest during the battle as Cemetery Hill  was the heart of the Union position for those three days.  The National Cemetery is on the southeast edge of town, and you can see how close to town the battle was in the second photo we took here, from the position of the red brick tower on the right, part of Gettysburg College on the far side of town, and the white column to the left, where the first day's fighting occurred.

The third day of battle was dominated by Pickett's Charge, a suicidal assault by over 12,000 Confederates on a Union position that was just too strong.  It was pictured above in the Cyclorama, and you can see part of the field they attacked as it looks today in the first photo below, including rail fences that had to be climbed over while tens of thousands of Union soldiers were shooting at the Confederates with cannons and rifles.  The second photo is one of the stone walls that Union soldiers hunkered behind while shooting at the attackers.  In less than an hour, more than half the Confederate attackers were killed, wounded or captured, and Robert E. Lee's army would never again attempt to attack north of the Potomac.

We had conflicting information about which day Frederick Cutter died, the second or third day, but with some help from the internet we were able to find the monument to his regiment, the 32nd Massachusetts, located where they fought on the second day of battle.  They had their fiercest fighting on this day, defending a position just north of Little Round Top.  The entire battlefield park is filled with monuments of every sort and design, and the one for Frederick's regiment was in the form of a pup tent, with engraving on the sides of the tent.  It was a stunning October day when we visited, far different than the hot humid weather of July 2, 1863, and time has softened the horror of this place.  There was a comfort in the beauty of this place now, where he died so far from his home in Weston Massachusetts.

 After three days at Gettysburg, just like Lee we decided it was time to move South.  But unlike him, we took one last look from a tall lookout tower the Park Service has erected across from Little Round Top, the hill that doesn't look all that big from over here but which loomed so large in the battle on the second day of Gettysburg.  Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain famously held the last position at the end of the Union Army near the right edge of this shot, and Frederick Cutter, our ancestor, fought close to the base of the hill, near the center of the photo.  The next picture was taken near the base of the tower by turning 180 degrees around to look over to the farm that Dwight Eisenhower bought after he retired from the U.S. Army in the late 1940s, and as you can see it is quite close to the battlefield.  He spent a lot of time at his farm during his presidency, and loved to take world leaders to the National Park to explain the battle to them.  Then Charles DeGaulle came as a visitor, and surprised Ike by knowing as much about the battle as he did.

Our route south took back roads, many of them taken by the retreating Confederate army and/or by the pursuing Union soldiers.  We found a wonderful route using a bike map of the greater Washington DC area, even out here 50 miles from the capital.  Besides riding over a Maryland covered bridge, we also got to ride down this odd country road, paved only in the center.  When two cars approach, each proceeds with its right wheels on the hard-packed dirt.  Saves a lot of asphalt, but we've only seen one other road like this in all our travels, in a remote part of Australia!

After a night's stay in Frederick MD, we headed to the Potomac.  Alongside the river is the C&O (Cumberland and Ohio) Canal.  The westernmost part of the canal, in the Georgetown section of Washington DC, was actually begun by a company founded in part by George Washington, but the canal never made it to the Ohio River.  It did get as far as Cumberland MD, 186 miles from DC, but a storm in 1924 caused so much damage that it was closed thereafter.  As you can see, it requires a little imagination to see where the canal water once flowed.  Many mountain bikers ride the old towpath, but as you can see from the photo on the right, it's not a particularly friendly surface for a skinny-tired bike like ours.  We're hoping to walk some of the canal towpath when we get to DC for our month of sightseeing, so perhaps we'll have some more images in a future blog entry.

There used to be dozens of ferries across the Potomac, but today only one remains, White's Ferry.  As you can see, it runs on a cable strung across the river, and cost us all of $3, $1 each and $1 for the bike.  At least ten feet higher than the river sits a small store, but the walls of the store tell an interesting story about how big some floods can get in this valley!

Five miles from the Potomac we picked up the W&OD Trail, named after the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad that once ran trains here.  Today it is a 44-mile railtrail that brought us into Arlington, where we connected to another bike trail that connected into yet another bike trail which brought us to within a mile of the apartment that is to be home for the next month.  In short, the last 40 miles of our trip were almost entirely on bike trails, out of Washington's notoriously thick traffic!  What a pleasant way to arrive!

Well, 3,022.9 miles from our start in Toledo Ohio, we're finally ready to stay still for a while.  For the next month we have an apartment rented on Mintwood Place NW, a terrific location that's within a mile of three Metro (subway) stations, within walking distance (about 2 miles) from the White House and the closest of the Smithsonian museums, and in an attractive building on a quiet and equally attractive street.

 What's next?  We plan to see a lot of museums, memorials and the like, interspersed with some biking (especially out to Mt. Vernon, a 20-mile bike ride almost entirely on bike trails), and walking (to the C&O Canal and other spots around the edge of town).  We'll write a blog entry a month from now showing you the best of the best, then take you along by blog as we take Amtrak to visit Jeff's daughter Rebecca in Austin TX for Thanksgiving, then continue by Amtrak to Los Angles where we have another month-long stay booked, this time near Louise's son Brian.  Thanks for following our travels thus far, and Happy Trails to you.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Challenging Ten Days

It's been a challenging week and a half, so much so that on day 9 of this stretch our spirits got so low we spent 2 hours researching ways to cut the trip short by as much as 125 miles by hopping on Amtrak or even by renting a car.  Then, in the course of a morning, the clouds parted just a bit, both literally and figuratively, and we pushed through that low spot to a point where we can see ourselves arriving in DC on our own two wheels.  But it was a close thing, as we'll explain below.

Overlaying the whole two weeks has been a pair of annoying colds.  As we mentioned in the last posting, Louise came down with one as we approached the suburbs of NY.  Those 5 days we spent at Ardsley Acres were in part to get her past the worst of it.  Well, spend 24 hours a day rarely further from someone with a cold than the length of a motel room, and you're bound to be in trouble.  Just as we left Ardsley, Jeff's throat started to burn, and pretty soon the rest of the symptoms followed.  We ended up spending three nights in Milford PA, partly to avoid two days of rain but, as at Ardsley, to get Jeff past the worst of the cold.  That low spot we hit two days ago turns out to have been Louise's last night of her cold, more or less, and Jeff now sees some hope since he's on a similar schedule, but ten days behind Louise.  In short, the coughing and tiredness have played a part in dragging down our spirits of late, but hope is around the corner.

Another factor has been the changed nature of the trip, which has led to some surprising discoveries but carried with it the stress of uncertainty.  For the first hundred days of this trip, all but 7 nights were booked before we left Seattle (three places where we had lots of options for lodging and needed flexibility for route selection).  The next week wasn't booked but the route was fairly fixed, and proceeded smoothly.  Since leaving the NY metro area, however, we've been booking rooms only a day or two ahead, keeping an eye on the weather, and followed only a general outline of a route.  This gives us flexibility, but the downside is the stress of finding those places -- for example a major re-routing when a plan to go back through New Paltz would have put us there while the local college celebrated Parents Weekend, and every motel room was booked for 50 miles out.

On the other hand, not knowing exactly where we're going to route ourselves has meant we've had some wonderful surprises, and Milford PA was one of them.  Given our health we decided to lower the mileage each day, and Milford was 25 miles from an overnight in Wurtsboro NY, a tad short but not something to argue with under the circumstances.  We woke up that morning, however, to a beautiful Fall day, cool and crisp and with a 10-15 mph tailwind.  The road was one we hadn't researched thoroughly, but it turned out to have a wide shoulder, exceptionally smooth pavement, and almost no hills.  We were in biking heaven, and covered those 25 miles in less than an hour and a half.  We thought maybe we shouldn't have been so cautious about the mileage, but the next town with lodging was another 30 miles away so we decided to make the best of it.  Good choice -- Milford was charming!  The town itself was attractive, with a number of well-preserved and interesting homes and public buildings.  Near the heart of town is a mid-19th century hotel now known as the Hotel Fauchere, run by the ultra-elegant Relais & Chateaux firm.  We were charmed as we walked home from dinner one night past these pumpkins carved  by their kitchen staff for an in-house contest.  Our favorite was the large spider on the right.

Milford also has one of the best historic homes we've visited, Grey Towers.  Gifford Pinchot (pronounced PIN-show) grew up here (the portrait is of him at age 2).  His is not a well-known name, but one our Washington friends might recognize for the National Forest named after him that includes Mt. St. Helens.  He is, however, a giant in the history of the conservation movement in the U.S.  Teddy Roosevelt named him as the first head of the National Forest Service.  He sided with Teddy in the later internecine battles between Progressives and Conservatives in the Republican Party, and served several terms in the '20s and '30s as Governor of Pennsylvania.  Although a Republican, many of his policies were almost indistinguishable from those of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, such as the CCC and WPA, forms of which Pinchot launched before FDR created those agencies.

Pinchot was from a wealthy family, and Grey Towers was actually only a summer getaway, but what a getaway!  Gifford's father had General Sherman there so often as a guest that a suite of three rooms was reserved for him!  We had a tour led by a Forest Ranger, including this massive hall with a cozy little nook to one side, a library as big as a small-town public library, and priceless artwork such as a pair of T'ang Dynasty camels from the 8th century AD.  One of the most interesting features, however, was outside, an area the Pinchots called the Punch Bowl.  Since this was mainly a summer home and one where lively conversation was a major activity, this was where many meals were held, the food circulating on wooden bowls that floated around the pool.

Another serendipity in Milford was the motel we stayed at, the Myer Country Motel, and our fellow-guests.  This was one of the most comfortable rooms of our trip, a good thing since we hunkered down there for 3 nights as heavy rain came through the area and Jeff nursed his cold.  Our stay coincided with part of a 5-day stay by 18 bow hunters from central Massachusetts, and these two outdoorsy groups -- tandem cyclists and bow hunters -- shared their experiences with each other, particularly with the two fellows in the cabin next to us who go by "Lone Wolf" and "Rhino" when they put on their own distinctive garb.

Now we have never really thought much about how one goes about hunting deer with bow and arrow, but we kind of imagined a lot of skulking around the woods looking for your prey.  Nope.  Your modern bow hunter lugs a bunch of stuff into the woods until he finds himself a good tree and then hauls a sort of lawn chair with spiky, trunk-grabbing legs 15-20' up the tree and waits there.  Not just anywhere, of course -- it has to be near a pathway deer appear to be using, and with good sight lines for a clean shot, preferably downwind of the deer path.  Apparently this system works, for the 18 hunters returned home with 18 deer at last count before we took off.  Lone Wolf just happens to be a butcher in his other life, and he was much in demand by his buddies.  He explained for us that you can get 50-60 pounds of meat from a deer, and he showed us his cooler chest full of steaks, roasts and meat ready to become venison chili or hamburger, all packed in ice.  We thought that image might be just a bit graphic for some of our blog followers (though it looks just like the beef section of any supermarket, saran wrap and all), but the curious among you who look closely at the next photo, of Myer Country Motel, might just see two of the deer Lone Wolf has not yet gotten to hanging in the trees at the back of the property.  Oh, the things we learn on these bike trips!

At last the weather cleared and we continued down the Delaware.  We came through here two years ago, but that time spent 80% of our time on the NJ side, 20% in PA.  We reversed the percentages this time, and found the scenery prettier generally on the PA side, although the crisp weather and a hint of Fall color on some of the trees may have influenced our thinking.  This time we did find two spots with interesting views of the Delaware Water Gap, one from a pullout and one right from the road:

Along much of the route further down, we rode next to the Delaware Canal, at 60 miles in length the longest intact 19th-century canal in the U.S.  The entire towpath is walkable, but a little too rough for our road bike so we just enjoyed it from the side.

The roads were some of the narrowest of the trip, but the traffic was surprisingly light, and the scenery wonderful, such as this ancient house and barn.

Our next surprise was Doylestown PA, chosen for an overnight simply because it was at an appropriate distance from a prior night's stay.  It turned out to be a charming place, full of interesting buildings and shops and just teeming with folks out for a Friday night dinner.  Doylestown was home to two of the giants of mid-20th century American writing, James Michener and Margaret Mead, both of whom graduated from Doylestown High a few years apart!  Margaret Mead's childhood home was on our route out of town, and it is a most attractive place.  Imagine going from this to Samoa!

At Doylestown we picked up Pennsylvania Bike Route S.  Like NY, PA has created routes for long-distance cyclists that patch together generally quieter roads, and publishes maps of these routes on the web.  We followed two others in far western PA and in north central PA as we left the Allegheny Mountains.  Bike S proved quite helpful as it went almost exactly where we needed to go for the next 3 1/2 days.  We found the maps excellent and the on-road signage perfect -- not a single turn was missing its sign -- but the first 15 miles out of Doylestown were a bit busy for a road with little or no shoulder.  Perhaps there are no options in that part of the state, but it did make us wary of the route until it improved further along.

We did not follow it slavishly, and went off-route to visit a few interesting places, the first of which was the Peter Wentz Farmstead.  This area has been farmed for almost 300 years, and the farmhouse itself dates to 1758.  General Washington used it as his headquarters for a brief period in October 1777 when he was trying to figure out a way to force the British out of Philadelphia, resulting in the Battle of Germantown.  The land is still farmed, and cows and sheep lingered near us as we munched down a picnic lunch.
The next detour was to Valley Forge, where the Continental Army spent the winter of 1777-78.  It was not the coldest winter encampment of the war, and it was only used once compared to Morristown NJ and the Hudson Highlands area of NY, which hosted the army for five different winters between them.  However, it has somehow become emblematic of the hard times the army went through during the war, and the Park Service has created replicas of the types of structures the men built and used for about 6 months, setting one of them up as if for an officer and another to show how they could house 12 men in about as much room as those chaps on the USS Nautilus had in a photo a few blog entries back.  Note that we are not the only folks touring the park that day by bike!

And what would a visit to a Revolutionary War historical site be without a demonstration of the black powder muskets?  These two volunteers filled the need, rather loudly we might add.  At the other end of the park we got in line to see the house George Washington rented for those 6 months, set up by the Park Service to show what the officers' work area might have looked like, along with the room that might have been George W's.  The section of the house separated from the rest was of course the kitchen, to protect the house from the heat and fire threat of cooking.

Our third sally from Bike Route S was to Hopewell Furnace, a major industrial site from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century.  We enjoyed another picnic lunch then learned enough about iron-making to know we're glad we didn't live then -- it was tough work!  But the master of the furnace apparently lived well, given the house he built himself.  The National Park Service has furnished this as well to show how he might have decorated his parlor two hundred years ago.

Which brings us to the Pennsylvania Dutch country.  We did see buggies, we did see well-kept farms with loads of laundry hanging on the line, but nothing particularly different than what we saw when we went through Amish areas in northeastern Ohio and southwestern NY.  We can't say whether these two farms are Amish or not, but the farms in this area were quite attractive and appeared reasonably prosperous, as the photos hopefully show.

Which brings us to that low point we mentioned earlier, when we were at the Harvest Moon B&B in New Holland PA.  The bike riders among our readers may have noticed that the last two photos and the shot of Hopewell Furnace show land that is distinctly not flat.  Our 33-mile ride to New Holland wasn't overly long, but the hills were steep enough that we had to push all-out on a number of them, and walk several others that were steeper yet.  Then there's the tiredness from a few weeks of fighting our colds.  Then the weather began to conspire, threatening rain the next day and again two days later.  We started browsing hotels in Gettysburg, and the rain made it look like we'd need until the weekend to get there, when rooms were scarce and expensive, and the few rooms available were two miles out of town.  It looked pretty glum, we looked into whether to cut the trip short by taking Amtrak or renting a car, then finally decided to sleep on it and see what the morning would bring.

And then the clouds began to part.  First figuratively, when B&B innkeeper Carl (a chef who trained in the RISD Culinary Arts program) served us a wonderful breakfast, including poached eggs in a tomato herb sauce).  Then literally, as the rain threat for the day disappeared.  With a lot of help and information from Carl about the route and lodging options down the road, we decided to ride west and see how we felt.  The roads were suddenly much less hilly, the wind cooperated, and well before our engines gave out we had covered 40 miles to York, where we got a wonderful room at the Yorktowne Hotel, a recently restored and ultra-comfortable mid-1920s hotel a block from the town square, which even had a biker's discount!  Gettysburg was now only 30 miles away, with one more day of good weather to get there.  Now a few days earlier than we had feared we would be, we were able to book a place inside the town of Gettysburg and at an affordable rate.  Hey, we can do this!

We'll tell you about Gettysburg and the final week of our trip in our next blog, from what Seattleites call "the other Washington."   DC, here we come!!!