An Inkling of the Vastness: Cycling from Baltimore, MD to Doylestown, PA

August 8, 2011

On July 30 I joined a couple of thousand fellow teachers, parents and activists from across the country who traveled to DC to attend the Save Our Schools rally to demand an end to the  use of  children as political pawns, the  demonization of teachers, and the whole  disgusting, cynical and ruthlessly anti democratic corporate takeover of public education that has damaged this  nation for over a decade now.

Despite the almost unbearable heat, it was a good day.  Highlights included passionate, informed speeches by education war horses Jonathan Kozal ( who, recalling marching with MLK in 1968,  did not disguise his  disgust at the corporate reformers hijacking the mantle of civil rights ) a fiery  Deborah Meier  and a defiant Diane Ravich.  Actor Matt Damon also spoke and did so with articulation and intelligence, a welcome surprise.

The next morning I was to set out on my bike for the 300 or so mile ride home.  It wasn’t to work out exactly as I  imagined it to but…it was good.  Over the past few summers I had made a few long distance expeditions  — twice cycling both the Erie Canal and the Great Allegheny Passage – but they were both largely on bike paths which are a different kettle of fish altogether from road cycling.  They tend to be flat, there are no cars or trucks to contend with and the route is  mapped out for you.    This journey was to be the first I undertook that was laid out almost entirely on roads and I will admit to an unfamiliar feeling of  apprehension before setting out.   In retrospect, I would have planned far better and researched the terrain of the roads with scrutiny so as to choose which ones to take more intelligently. But…this is how I learn.   I am grateful to my friend Ben in D.C. who showed me all kinds of things that Google maps could do that are potentially of great value to a cyclist. Next time I will utilize them more intelligently.

I was to set out at dawn the next morning out of Washington but…. alas, due to a series of mishaps, miscalculations, and bad maps, it was not to be. Fortunately, friends were kind enough to transport me and my bike to the outskirts of Baltimore where I began my journey proper.  It was not immediately auspicious.  Within an hour of moseying around the city, I had tire trouble.  Luckily, as I struggled to make things right I was happened upon by a Baltimore firefighter named Keith who, having worked in a  bike shop,  set me  straight in a few minutes.  A good soul and a good  sign. Keith also warned me that Baltimore was an extremely violent city and I would be well advised to avoid certain areas.  I avoided them.   Baltimore has gone to some pains to make itself into a bike friendly metropolis with dedicated bike lanes (and, like apparently every city in the US except NYC, buses with bike racks) so I meandered happily hither and thither. I wound up at the brilliantly constructed Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles and one of the most beautiful ballparks in the US of A. The team was away, so  like many an American boy to whom baseball was once almost a religious experience, I joyfully peered through the bars unto the green grass of the field and took my time taking in the monuments outside the park, reveling in the feeling of being 10 years old that baseball, almost uniquely, seems to induce among many American males who once played the game. As evening set in, I set out to Cockeysville, a town some 15 miles outside of the city where I had booked a reasonably priced room for the night and where there was also a 20 mile rail trail leading in the direction I wanted to go. On the way I spent a good deal of time cursing out the map makers of Rand McNally but, eventually, arrived at my destination which was situated on a strip mall populated by Subway, Dunkin Donut’s, Pizza Hut and the like.   Herein lay one of the many crimes of corporate America: the place was utterly indistinguishable  from  tens  of thousands  of other places, utterly devoid of character, like a airport or a corporate middle manager. Alas! The next morning at dawn I was riding  the very pleasant Northern Central Railroad Trail heading north toward Pennsylvania.   At Monkton I left the trail to check out the still extant station house and there encountered  two volcanically enraged unemployed middle aged white guys;  Tea Party members who had somehow convinced themselves that the absolute destruction of all vestiges of the  social contract was, in fact,  a good thing and would somehow give them back the jobs and the dignity that they were so painfully missing.     I asked them —   very politely – how this war of  all people against all other people was to benefit anyone but those on top and if they were aware that the billionaire  Koch brothers bankrolled their Tea Party.  I asked them – very politely —  why they did not mention the  fact that their country had spent the last decade engaged  in two criminal wars.    They looked at me as if I were mad.  But they listened and the confab ended amiably enough.  They felt betrayed; betrayed by the Democratic Party of which they were formally supporters; betrayed by corporate America; which had exported their jobs to slave wage earners in  Micronesia or where ever; betrayed by a mass media who were nothing more than   entertainers and purveyors of ideology and idiot distraction. And  they had every reason to feel so.  It would not be my last such encounter along this little journey.         That day’s ride would be one of the most physically challenging experiences in recent memory.  Most of this was due to my own foolishness in not discerning the lay of the land.  I.e. hills.  Many, many hills made that much hillier by the scorching temperature. At any rate, I made it up the hills and made the best of it and followed Route 138 through tiny villages called Black Horse, Shawsville, and Drybranch into  Whiteford and Route and the border of PA.  Somewhere in there I crossed the Mason Dixon line. My goal was to cross the Susquehanna River using the Norman Wood Bridge at Holtwood where I would not have to pay someone to carry  my bike and me across the bridge in a van as is the case in most bridges.  Sometime in early afternoon, I turned on a road which bore a sign reading “Norman Wood Bridge / Seven Miles.”    The road went downhill and I before I knew it, I  realized with a  start that I was crossing the Susquehanna and had not pedaled for the entire seven miles.



Dusk found me in the pretty little town of Strasburg in Lancaster County, Amish territory,  where Robert Fulton happened to be born.  At the outskirts of town I asked a women who was standing in her front yard if she knew the location of my motel.  She did.  And she also knew that I needed a big, cold  glass of homemade mint tea and insisted I stay put until she gave me one.  She did that too and it was delicious. A good omen. Strasburg offers you something you rarely see in our increasingly and hideously corporitized nation: a confrontation with another  view of the world, another way of  living.  Strasburg is a town where cars, trucks and Amish horse drawn buggies share  the road harmoniously.  At first it’s unsettling, like watching two different centuries unfold at the same time.   Most of the buggies were carrying straw-hatted or bonneted Amish children who would wave to you when they passed.  Every time I saw one of these children I could not help but remember the murderous rampage that took place in an Amish schoolhouse in 2006,  in which the America that this community had gone to such pains to keep out came blazing in.    When it was over 10 such children were shot and five such children were killed. The killer then turned the gun on himself.  More to the point, I could neither forget nor truly understand the almost divine magnanimity the Amish people as a whole displayed in the wake of the horror:  they not only immediately forgave the murderer of their children but also comforted the murderer’s family. That day as I cycled slowly past Amish farms on silent roads with names like Paradise Lane I would see Amish men (all of whom looked almost ridiculously healthy) working their fields or hear the hooves of their horses approaching behind me, I was filled with the blessed sensation that somehow in the end all would be well.

There seems to be  little if any separation between what the Amish  say they believe and how they live and treat each other.    They breathe what they believe,  and who among us can say the same ? Even as I could never be one, I could not help but admire these people for their faith, their compassion and their tremendous integrity.

By early afternoon I had reached New Holland,  and, munching on fresh blueberries and nectarines I  bought at road side  stands,   rode Route 23 straight on through the villages of Goodville and  Churchtown  and the depressingly touristy St. Peter’s Village on my way to Phoenixville,  some 60 odd miles from Strasburg.

Phoenixville’s claim to  pop culture fame is that part of the goofy 1958 sci-fi horror film The Blob was filmed in the still  functioning Colonial Theater.  Indeed, for the past decade the town has held an annual Blob Fest in which movie viewers flee the Blob infested theater just like Steve McQueen and the teenagers did in the movie. ( Sounds like fun.

It remains  a beautiful theater. Like all  Pennsylvania postindustrial towns, Phoenixville is a town reeling on its heels, filled with interesting and even beautiful architecture but struggling to survive.    Some sections are simply squalid while others, such as Bridge Street where I stayed, are doing their best to breathe new life into the old town with the typical fare of  bars  and restaurants.    I wish them luck. That night as I ate my dinner in one of those restaurants I could not help but over hear from the table next to me two women engaged in an intelligent if angry discussion of Obama and American politics including the debt ceiling farce, the exporting of jobs and the endless wars.  I was heartened enough by their conviction and intelligence that I piped in about the rally I attended in DC some three days before.   I was dismayed to discover that these decent, reasonably informed, intelligent,  Left leaning folks had  no grasp of what what really happening to education in America and had bought into the Time Magazine/ Arne Duncan narrative of failing schools, bad teachers, impossible parasite unions and redeeming charter schools, lock stock and barrel.    They were astonished, however, to find out  that charter schools were publicly funded but privately run, accountable to no one but their board of directors. Like most Americans I’ve spoken to about it, they were equally astonished to hear  of the immense roles of non elected billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family and Eli Broad and others in imposing their will on and outright making public policy in the highest offices in the nation. But they listened and they said they would look into it.  And I bet they did.  And I bet they are well pissed.

The last day of my journey began with a spin around Phoenixville before pedaling over to the Schuylkill River Trail, which runs from Valley Forge all the way to Philadelphia. My destination, albeit not to be realized on two wheels,  was Milford, New Jersey by way of Doylestown, New Hope, and Lambertville, N.J. . My first stop on the way was the scene of the Valley Forge Encampment where   General George Washington held together the Continental Army during the long savage winter that the English occupied Philadelphia. It is mostly green space, a 10-mile circumference with a monument here and there.

There is a fine visitor center containing artifacts of the encampment and many illustrations.

Further on down   Schuylkill River Trail there  was a sign for the Betzwood Motion Picture Studio,  a strange thing to encounter in PA.

The next destination was Norristown, a forlorn and seemingly forgotten place that I wanted to get out of as soon as I got into it.   Sadness and defeat hang over the place like a shroud. Here and there one saw the shells of former  mills, factories or  breweries  but most of all one saw fast food joints and boarded up storefronts.  Unable to find a smaller road, I  took Route 202  out of town as fast as I could.

I  stayed on that miserable road far longer than I should have,  passing  massive shopping mall after massive shopping mall with big trucks zooming way too close for comfort. Toward afternoon, I could see rain was coming.  This  was not how I wished to spend my  last day on the road.

Somewhere in a place called Gwyneed, I called a friend who works in Doylestown and asked him if he knew of better routes.  He did. The routes  — Evan’s Road and Upper State Road – were great improvements over 202 and allowed me to enjoy what turned out to be the last couple of hours of my journey.

By afternoon, just as the rain  began falling I rolled into Doylestown, a lovely little city of  winding streets and beautiful architecture that has somehow maintained its heritage without becoming a toy town for the rich and poisonous.

They even had a monument for a public school that had  burned down, an unimaginable tribute in a time such as our where a handful of idiot billionaires seek to end public education altogether.   Margaret Mead and James Michener grew up there and had attended the school.  Fortunately for them ( and us ), their teachers were not forced to contaminate  them with standardized corporate induced idiocy.

As I set out for my  trip from a rally defending public education, I took the monument  to be a good omen.

I stopped into a café in the center of town to have a coffee and watch the rain. The café owner asked me how far I had traveled and when I told him he refused payment.  A sweet gesture.  I  decided that it would be foolish to go on in the rain so I called my friend who worked in town and with whom  I would be staying with that night and asked him to pick me up.  He did so and I spent a pleasant evening with him and his family in Milford, N. J., arriving there on four wheels rather than two but arriving safe and dry.

My litte journey had ended.   I had accomplished most of what I had set out to do and I had learned a bit about doing it better the next time I do something of the sort. I felt grateful I had the opportunity and the wherewithal to undertake the trip and grateful too that I had been provided another  inkling into the vastness of this immense, pained, perhaps yet-to-be-born  even as it  is dying nation.

A great thank you to Setareh and Ben as well as Carl and Betsy  whose kindness allowed  this little journey to take place.


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