From Skyscrapers to Farms
Twenty-one years after finishing my first cross-county bicycle tour at Yankee Stadium, I ride north on the Hudson River Valley Greenway along Manhattan’s west side. I share the trail with joggers and bike commuters sometimes going faster than the rush hour motor traffic on the parallel Henry Hudson Parkway. It’s a crisp, 42-degree early November morning, about the time of year I seem to do bike overnights, past peak bike touring season. Yet I’m warmed by the sun in a cloudless sky.
I’ve just left my parents’ apartment to fill in the only gap in a segmented, self-contained Florida to Maine ride—or really, a Washington to southern California to Florida to Maine through all the perimeter states ride—that I didn’t know I was starting with that first cross-country trip more than two decades ago. As usual when I come into the city, yesterday I biked the first 24 miles to the Wassaic Metro-North commuter rail station, then wheeled my bike onto the train with me for the rest of the journey into the city. But this time I only bought a one-way ticket, and I’ll have a 122-mile bike ride back north.
After passing under the George Washington Bridge, the trail climbs the hillside away from the river, up what I expect to be the steepest hill of this trip. I exit the trail at the ramp to 181st Street. Aided by a New York City bike map and then by signs, I make my way along city streets to the bike entrance to the bridge. I ride onto a separated sidewalk trail on the south side of the bridge’s upper level and cross the bridge, looking back over the river at Manhattan’s skyscrapers.
At the bridge’s exit on the New Jersey side, I’m happy to see a “Bike 9” sign. I plan to follow New York's Bike Route 9 most of today and into tomorrow. After exiting the bridge, the route zigs and zags a bit, and my map keeps me on track where a sign is missing. Within a few miles, I’m riding north on the relatively quiet (given my proximity to the City That Never Sleeps) Highway 9W; most of the motor vehicle traffic is on the parallel Palisades Interstate Parkway, which is frequently within earshot. 9W to Nyack and back is a popular weekend day ride for NYC cyclists, but on this chilly November Tuesday I see only a few other riders.
The sun lights up the golden and rust leaves of trees lining the road. I think that if I lived in NYC, this would be my escape ride, too. Single-family houses replace apartment buildings. Gentle hills reveal intermittent views of the Hudson River to my right.
After passing through Nyack, I stop for a picnic lunch in Rockland Lake State Park, about 30 miles into my ride. It has warmed up about ten degrees. but some clouds have blown in. As I eat, gazing at the lake, most of my neighbors are geese rather than people. After lunch, I ride through the town of Haverstraw on local streets, then pause for a break where there’s water on both sides of the road: a marina on the Hudson to my right and an estuary to my left where the sun glints off cattails rising up from the water and off the yellow leaves above.
Bike Route 9 utilizes an unpaved trail around Bear Mountain, but the trail is rocky, more like a mountain biking or hiking trail than the smooth, crushed gravel I was hoping for. I turn back and climb the mountain on the highway, which is steep enough to have a passing lane but not as steep as the trail up from the river in NYC. A trashed overlook, tourists who slow down enough to ask me questions through their window while I’m riding, and a honking driver are not the highlights of my ride.
I cross back over to the east side of the Hudson River on the Bear Mountain Bridge and continue following the bike route north along Highway 9D. Glimpses of the Hudson fade as I ride north. 9D is flatter than 9W and initially very quiet, but it lacks much of a shoulder and begins to feel hectic with some rushes of traffic. I turn east in Cold Spring, miss the historic downtown I don’t know is there, and climb a hill that looks big only because I’m tired. Route 9’s smooth, wide shoulders take me the last seven, thankfully relatively flat, miles of this 66-mile day into Fishkill.
With campgrounds closed for the season, I stop at a cluster of hotels just as it’s getting dusky, then walk back out for a veggie stir-fry dinner at a nearby diner.
Gray clouds blow in overnight. Forty degrees feels much colder without the sun, and I linger after breakfast at the hotel. When I do depart, the American flag indicating a strong south wind puts a huge smile on my face. I’m tempted to just ride due north on 9 all day and see where I end up; instead, I turn right off Highway 9 and go east on Route 52 for a couple of miles. I then turn left onto Route 82, which will take me northeast for 43 miles, into southern Columbia County. This far south, houses and small strip shopping centers line the road. The shoulder varies in both width and quality, but the traffic is never heavy enough that I consider it a problem.
The big advantage (other than today’s tailwind) in doing this ride from south to north, rather than north to south, is that traffic gets much lighter as I ride along.
About 20 miles into the day’s ride, I cruise past a red farmhouse and the whole feeling in the air changes. It’s as if I’ve crossed the line from the edge of NYC’s hectic, always-in-a-rush, city-that-never-sleeps energetic clutch to a more relaxed, soothing, grounded energy. It’s not that the farmers here don’t work as hard as the city’s stockbrokers; they do (probably even harder, in fact). And not that people aren’t busy everywhere in today’s USA; they are. But here there’s a sense of space, of openness, that the outdoorsy yoga teacher in me picks up on immediately. I breathe deeply, savoring the country air filling my lungs.
As I continue riding north, the vistas open up. Fewer and fewer leaves remain on the trees. There’s more space between houses. The corn stalks have been cut down. Gray clouds stick around, allowing only a few occasional peeks of sunshine through. I stop at a diner for hot chocolate and a sandwich. Then I cross the county line and am welcomed to Columbia County by horses on a farm on one side of the road and cows on the other.
I saw my last traffic light of the day miles ago. I turn off 82 and meander on roads I know well for the last ten miles of this journey.
Twenty-one years ago I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect place to end a bicycle tour than at Yankee Stadium, and I expect I’ll always treasure that grainy photo of me and my bike in the stadium with the field behind us. But one of the places bike touring has taken me over these years is to an even greater appreciation for and deeper love of nature’s beauty and the earth’s natural rhythms. And so now, I can’t imagine a more perfect place to end a bike trip than in a beautiful spot in the country. I ride into the driveway of my parents’ vacation house and gaze down the grassy hill at the lake and out at the trees—maples still hanging onto yellow leaves; oaks and pines among them—and the surrounding hillsides and farmland.
Smiling, I take a few deep breaths. Certainly there’s a sense of satisfaction at having completed Washington to southern California to Florida to Maine (with a lot of the Northern Tier still to go to complete the perimeter). But even more importantly in my heart at this moment, by riding from skyscrapers to farms, this country girl—something I never thought I’d call myself 21 years ago—has come home.
Tip for this adventure: You need a permit (good for life) to take your bike on Metro-North, and bikes are allowed on many but all on trains. For details, visit this website.
Favorite local bike shop: Bash Bish Bicycle near the northern end of this trip is a small shop with a great mechanic.