Saturday, November 3, 2012

Biking Into and Around the Big Apple

Ta Da!  Two weeks after being sidelined from our bike ride to New York City by a careless driver who hit Louise in the back with his rearview mirror as we walked up a hill, we remounted the tandem in Pittsfield MA.  New York City was now 175 miles away, and part-way there we did a few miles on the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, where this photo was taken.  It was 101 miles to the Big Apple on the rail line that this was once part of, but the route we took was 10-15 miles longer . . .  but we DID it!  Granted, Louise was using ibuprofen and some patches that released pain medication on her back and still was far from pain-free, but she reports that the endorphins from the biking overpowered the messages from her back  -- mostly.

After that little matter of keys locked in the rental car we described in our last entry, we turned it in with 636 miles added to the odometer and a bunch of $$$ added to what the driver's insurance company, Progressive, has assured us Louise will be reimbursed when she's done getting her back feeling better [this is actually being written 2 1/2 months later, and she's not there yet]. 
Luckily, we had ample time to pick up sandwiches at a Subway shop and ride 15 miles to Tanglewood without rushing.  Four months ago we ordered tickets to hear the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and here we were!  Although we both had lived many years in Massachusetts and loved the BSO, we had never made it from where we lived in Boston or Weston out to Tanglewood, the BSO's summer home in the Berkshire Mountains. 
The grounds were lush, with an expansive lawn surrounding the Koussevitzky Music Shed.  The Shed holds 5,100, and up to 10,000 more can hear the concert on the lawn, though for them the sound really comes from the loudspeakers, not directly from the orchestra.  We didn't come all this way to listen to amplified music, so we got seats half-way back inside the shed.  As you can see, it's pretty darned big, but the sound was good, though not quite as rich and resonant as in a concert hall.  Beethoven's Ninth, as always, was inspiring.
Although Tanglewood is in the Berkshires, our route there had mostly followed some river valleys and wasn't too hilly.  As we left the concert, we could look to the southeast and see the next challenge, the Taconic Mountains.  However, in the distance past the stone lion who's hiding behind the pine bough, you can just make out a pass.  That was our route the next day, and the climb over it wasn't bad at all.  We rode the whole way because it wasn't too steep, not only because of our understandable reluctance to get off and walk up hills after what happened to Louise.

We were now in what the New York Central called the "Harlem Valley," since the train that used to go up there first passed through the Harlem neighborhood in New York City.  Metro North still runs trains as far as the town of Wassaic, 2 hours from Grand Central Terminal, but north of that the line is partially converted to rail trail, with more of it scheduled to become trail in time.  It was a beautiful paved trail, especially when it ran through passages that had been cut through outcrops of the Taconic rocks.

In fact, in addition to the two segments of the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, we had three more interconnecting trails that got us to the edge of New York City: the Putnam County Rail Trail, North County Rail Trail, and South County Rail Trail.  All three followed old rail lines for a while, then took off on new routing, meaning way twistier and hillier than any rail trail you've ever ridden.  But there were more flat miles than hilly, and the trail was traffic-free, with long stretches between road crossings.  It was a great way to approach New York City. We've shown the parts of our 175-mile journey that were on trails in green.
Once we navigated a short stretch of streets in the Bronx, NYC's most northerly borough, we would be on the Hudson River Bikeway almost to the door of where we were staying.  Just one problem lay in our way -- a rock on the trail that Jeff did not see as he was distracted by scenery off to the right.  It was about the size of a grapefruit, but jagged, so the first thing it did was cause a "snakebite" puncture, where pinching of the tube causes two small punctures that look as if were bitten by a rattlesnake.  In twenty minutes, that was patched.  The much bigger problem was what the rock did to the front rim:
Since we were a few miles from anywhere, we didn't have a lot of choices.  We rode on it, with the tire pressure reduced to the minimum recommended.  The tire stayed on the rim, but the front brake was almost unusable.  Jeff compensated by anticipating places where we would need to slow down, first applying the drum brake that acts as a drag on the rear wheel, then braking with the rear caliper brake as needed.  In an emergency the front brake would help, but it went THUMP THUMP and probably wasn't good for the health of the brake pads or the caliper arms, so we tried to avoid it if possible.  Luckily, most of the remaining miles were on bike trails where the brakes did not have to be used very often as we rolled on, a little slower and a lot more cautious than usual.
We did have a 4 mile stretch on city streets in the Bronx and the very upper part of Manhattan, but a bike website had shown us a good route that took streets where there was relatively little traffic.  As we crossed the Harlem River into Manhattan we took a photo through a chain link fence of Spuyten Duyvil, where the Harlem meets the Hudson River just past the bridge in the distance, and causes tidal rips that the early Dutch settlers called "the devil's spout."  A Metro North train we would take a week later was pulling into the train station below us.
Now we were truly in "the city."  Jeff grew up in Queens, one of the other boroughs, and still speaks about going from his boyhood home "into the city," when he was merely going from one part of New York City into another.  For to almost everyone, Manhattan is truly what they mean when they say "The City."  And the views down the Hudson River from our bike route, first from upper Manhattan and then from midtown, made that clear.  We weren't in Kansas anymore, Toto!

As we passed under the George Washington Bridge we paused to visit The Little Red Lighthouse.  We had read a children's book about it to our granddaughter years earlier, so we took a bunch of photos to send to her.  She's now in third grade, and we were rewarded a few days later when she sent us her first ever email thanking us for them.  It's not the tiniest lighthouse we've ever seen, but it sure looks that way next to the "great gray bridge!"

Just how tiny the Little Red Lighthouse was compared to the Great Gray Bridge took a bike ride a week later to see, when we crossed the George Washington Bridge and looked back.  See that little red fleck on the far (Manhattan) shore?  (You may have to click on the photo to enlarge it, then hit the Back Button on your computer to return)
 Our destination was Ninth Ave and West 49th Street.  We had found many potential places to stay on VRBO and other websites, but at $170-200/night for any place we'd think about staying in.  Then we found one with a minimum stay of a month, and at a much better price.  We had already planned on a 2-3 week stay, so with a deal like that we booked for the month of September.  Better yet, it was less than half a mile from Louise's brother's apartment!  Our studio apartment was part of the Worldwide Financial Center, the brick building with the pyramid top in this photo taken from the roof of brother Richard's building.

Here's part of the website that lured us in:

It was, in fact, as advertised.  But what wasn't advertised was that the kitchen would be smaller than some closets in our Seattle condo, or that the window looked out at busy Ninth Avenue, where police cars, fire engines and ambulances coordinate travel times to be sure we get to hear one or the other a few times an hour, all night long.  We loaded up on industrial-strength ear plugs and made it through the nights, but it did make us more homesick than ever for our quiet Seattle home.
Jeff grew up in New York City, in a neighborhood called Woodhaven in Queens.  But he commuted an hour on the subway to a high school in Manhattan, and also worked summers during college on Wall Street and for two years after college in the Registrar's Office at Hunter College in midtown Manhattan, so he came to know the city well.  He was amazed at the change that has come over New York.  Much cleaner, more diverse than ever (particularly at the local level -- in his youth many neighborhoods, including his own, were not diverse at all, even though the city as a whole was), with many more facilities for sports and family activities.
Central Park helps exemplify this.  It has a network of roads that form a six-mile loop, filled with cars when he grew up.  It started to shut out the cars on weekends in the summer about the time he was too busy with college and work to consider biking there.  Now it is almost car-free year-round, except for the southbound side during 3 hours of morning rush hour and northbound for 3 evening hours.  Even then, there is a bike lane protected by a wooden barrier, so bikes can still get through.
We were allowed to keep our tandem in the apartment, though due to that gimpy front rim we decided to do only a few bike rides.  One ride did go the half-mile up to Central Park and around it twice.  It was a weekday in mid-September and there was a constant stream of bikes, pedicabs and rollerbladers.  The southern part of the loop is also where New York's famous horse-drawn carriages go.  Definitely a different sort of traffic to wind through than cyclists usually encounter!
Since this blog is being written over a month later, after Tropical Storm Sandy moved through, we can tell you that the crane on the top of the tall building under construction is the one that broke in the storm and dangled over 57th Street, putting Carnegie Hall out of business until they fix it (ongoing as we write this).
To return to our apartment, we biked down Broadway.  There was nothing like this when Jeff grew up!
As mentioned earlier, we did a ride over the George Washington Bridge.  Since it was 9/11, the large flag was flying over the western tower to commemorate that grim day.  In the second photo, taken from the New Jersey end of the bridge, you can also see the extensive parkland running down the Hudson River shore, bike and walking trails running the entire distance from the bridge to the bottom of Manhattan Island in the distance.

Here are two more shots taken along the Hudson River Bikeway, looking toward the new skyscraper going up on the World Trade Center site in the photo to the right, then looking at the 79th Street Boatbasin below.  To get an idea of distance, the George Washington Bridge is five miles upstream in this shot.

A similar but narrower path runs along part of the East River, and we explored it one day.  Terrific views of the UN and the 59th Street Bridge, but the trail ended south of the UN and 2 miles from our apartment through midtown traffic.  The ride back was challenging enough, but especially so with our battered front rim and so-so front brake.  It was our last bike ride in the city.
However, we did one other ride a few days earlier we will share with you, the "New York Century."  Like many "century" rides, it had a 100-mile route but also several shorter options.  We had signed up for the 35-mile version in order to join Jeff's cousin Bill and Bill's wife Sheila, and about 7,000 other riders.  Sheila was recovering from a short illness when the day arrived and passed on the ride, but Bill joined us for a route that took us down Eleventh Avenue, through Greenwich Village, across the Broooklyn Bridge (undergoing major renovation but nonetheless open for biking and walking), and through neighborhoods in Brooklyn that Jeff wouldn't have entered without a police escort 50 years earlier.  We were very glad to have had this chance to explore parts of the city we would never have thought to visit, and to get further insight into the regeneration of this great city.

We'll recount further off-bike adventures in New York in future blog entries.  Thanks for coming along on this ride.