Manchester to Ithaca
I don’t know why but I had expected Manchester to be a pretty little charming city - maybe it was being a West Wing fan that led me to think this. Unfortunately, it is not, it appeared to have very few redeeming features and is definitely not on my list of places to go back to. This made me feel a lot less guilty spending most of the day off in bed getting over a hangover from the beers that it had seemed a good idea when they were bought for me the night before, not to mention the previous 5 days cycling.
The following morning I set off with a clearer head and fresher legs but feeling pretty intimidated by the next few days cycling. The cycling in Maine had been pretty reasonable with no climbs over 1000 feet and none of them had been monstrously steep. That was all about to change. I’d planned a 50 odd mile cycle with two medium climbs ending in Keene on the first day - nothing too bad. The second day was the worrying one. It was due to take me up and over Green Mountain National Forest - a day of about 65 miles and 6000 ft of climbing - most of which was in the last 35 miles. I thought that with the gear I was carrying there was a good chance I’d run out of energy or light and spend the night stealth camping just off the road. Once I was over the mountains it looked pretty plain sailing to Ithaca.
So I’m cycling up the highway out of Manchester enjoying the Piscataquog river burbling along beside me and the increasingly impressive foothills (none of which I had to climb yet!). At Goffstown I turned off the main highway and started following back roads, very quickly these roads stopped being black top and turned into stone dust or worse gravel. Each time I came to a junction I began to grin as I could guarantee that the route I’d planned would lead me up the worse of the two surfaces. By lunchtime I was dragging the bike along a rutted, soft woodland track that according to my map was a highway but there was no way a car was coming down there. I checked my GPS and I was on the right “road” I just hasn’t expected it to be in such a bad state. Hot and sweaty I took my lunch break in the wood and looked for an alternative route. I later discovered that lots of things had decided that I looked tasty too and I ended up with both legs covered in incredibly itchy bites.
I decided the best course of action was to push on another couple of miles to Hancock before heading north on what looked like it might be a bigger road and join the NH9 highway, the main road between Concord and Keene. This turned out to be a pretty good plan and the new road was a lot better to cycle along. NH9 was pretty busy and the shoulder was variable so I ended up zigzagging backwards and forwards over it following smaller roads for a few miles here and there. A quick stop in the very pretty town of Keene for supplies and I headed south towards that night’s campsite at Ashuelot river where I was given a warm welcome by Chuck.
As I was heading up to use the wifi I got chatting to Laura, Chuck’s wife, and before I knew it I was sat with Chuck and Laura chatting about the trip, drinking Chuck’s excellent home brew IPA, being offered dinner and having a very enjoyable evening!
The next morning I set off for my mammoth day. I wanted to get to Arlington, VT if all went well but expected to spend the night wild camping somewhere before that. The first 35 miles of the day were pretty flat but very enjoyable - cycling past pretty covered bridges before joining the Connecticut river up to Brattleboro and then heading off up a valley towards where I’d turn left and head off up over the mountain.
Having been badly burnt the day before I was asking anyone and everyone of the state of the road I was going to take and nobody seemed to know. Eventually when I got to Newfane I found someone who knew - it’s OK for a mile or two then turns to dirt - my heart sunk as did my chances of reaching Arlington that night. She was right, before I knew it I was putting as much effort into spinning the back wheel as I was climbing. Letting a bit of air out of the tires gave me better grip and the much increased risk of getting a puncture. Over the next couple of hours I inched my way through the hot and humid forest up to West Wardsboro. Replenishing my water supplies with beautiful cold water and a cheeky bottle of sprite from the village shop got me feeling a little more normal again. As I cycled out of the village I got nervous at every corner, bump and hill crest that the black top that had appeared as I came into the village would disappear and I’d be back to spinning wheels again. I wasn’t disappointed the surface did return to grit and gravel but not for another 6 miles or so and that put me just a dozen miles from Arlington. I had a feeling the last few miles into Arlington were downhill but I wasn’t sure how many. With 6 miles to go I was spinning my legs with very little left in them wondering if I should call it a day, hunker down and camp for the night and do the extra few miles the next day when I began to notice that I was going downhill more than up, before I knew it it was pretty much all downhill and I was given my reward for the day - a stunning 45 minute descent through a little canyon - punctuated by a conversation with Paul, a steel worker from Philly who had chosen a nomadic existence on his bike over no job and no prospects at home. I’d noticed a lot of birds of prey circling overhead throughout the day, Paul informed me that they often follow you waiting for you to disturb small mammals that they swoop on, he also pointed out the best place to camp - I missed the shop in Arlington so had a cold dinner of Peanut butter and Jello sandwiches but I didn’t care I’d made it to Arlington and had completed the toughest days cycling I’d ever done.
The next day was a glorious day’s cycling starting with a descent following the Battenkill from Arlington through some gorgeous mountain meadows with a few sharp climbs to cut off its biggest meanders and then into the pretty town of Greenwich, pronounced green-which, where an early lunch at a pretty and popular cafe put me in a great mood. A few hours cycling later and I was in Saratoga Springs - another very nice town. I had a lovely hour sat in the park reading and eating ice cream before setting off for the final 20 miles of the day along sun dappled, tree lined lanes that stretched through mainly agricultural countryside.
That night at the slightly quirky campsite I was staying at I got chatting to Scott; well he wondered over and asked if I wanted to cook anything on his fire and then started talking and didn’t stop for quite a while - before I knew it I’d heard about his 5 wives, 11 children (6 before he got married the first time), moonshine runs, truck driving, drag racing, driving bikes insanely fast and citrus farm outside Orlando. I felt a little like a cross between Louis Theroux and Jeremy Kyle as I asked him questions trying to understand his eccentric existence. I have no idea how much of what I’d heard was true but it led to an amusing evening and I left with the impression Scott was a likeable guy unless you were married to him where history seemed to show it doesn’t work out so well.
The next three days cycling was tedious and boring. After a 9 mile cycle into the depressing town of Amsterdam I joined the Erie canal trail. The Erie canal is a 374 mile canal running up the Mohawk valley from Albany to Buffalo. When it was built it bought huge prosperity to upstate New York allowing immigrants to travel easily in one direction and goods in the other but now it was empty and boring. 3 long days were only punctuated by getting drenched by thunderstorms, a hellish climb in 30 C+ heat to bypass where someone had closed the trail without bothering to put a sign at the point it would’ve been useful but 2 miles further down the trail and passing through depressed dreary towns - the most depressing of these was Utica - whose only charm was the fun company of David in the hotel bar that night. By the end of the 3rd long day I was thoroughly miserable. I eventually arrived in Cayuga Lake state park on the edge of the finger lakes having left that god forsaken canal path 15 miles previously needing the next few days to be better.
Luckily the next day turned out to be one of those really great days. The morning started with a cycle along the beautiful lake Cayuga in perfect cycling weather. As it got to lunch time I set myself a little target - I’d stop at the next place after a turning in a few miles down the road. The sign said it was a creamery - I was going to blow on past but spotted a few bicycles in the car park so thought I’d pop in and say hello and see if they served food as well as ice cream. The bicycles belonged to a local school group who were doing a week’s cycling around the area. I had a nice chat to the teachers and a few of the students, ate my lunch and headed off for the final glorious stretch to Ithaca.
As I caught up on my email I got an email from Sara, one of the teachers, inviting me to a wine tasting and dinner with her and a friend, Kal. It was really kind of Sara to reach out like that and I’m so glad she did as the evening turned out to be great fun with great company, tasty wine and lovely food!
I had originally planned a break in Ithaca but couldn’t find anywhere to stay on the Friday night due to Cornell’s graduation ceremony so I had a relaxed morning meeting with Kal again for coffee and then setting out for the short 30 mile ride to Elmira and the start of the next leg of the journey - a four day ride crossing from Ithaca to State College, PA where I’d get to see my friend Stephanie and her family.