Days 66 & 67: Savannah to St. Johnsville, NY
Rain set in on Wednesday night and was falling steadily when the sun came up on Thursday, October 16. The forecast said that the rain would end around noon, but the 45-minute ride to Savannah from Ithaca was still pretty grim. Tania dropped me off at a gas station/convenience store, and I made the clerk look twice when I brought five bags in with me. “Looks like you’re moving in,” she said. “I am, but only for 15 minutes,” I said.
Jim and Sara pulled in and when we set off at 11am. The rain had stopped but the road was wet. We set off in full gear — fenders and rain jackets and neoprene galoshes – and we were soon damp but not soaked. We took Route 31 east through the muckland north of the wildlife refuge, crossed the Seneca River, and passed through hard-scrabble towns like Port Byron and Jordan. The Erie Canal Towpath Trail started up again in Port Byron, but we stuck to the pavement in an attempt to avoid mud. Then in Camillus we had no alternative to the towpath, and soon our bikes and bags were spattered.
After Camillus the towpath trail ended and would not start up again until we were past Syracuse. We started through the city on Milton Avenue, which took us past one of my favorite Syracuse restaurants, Eva’s European Sweets and Polish Restaurant. We were just in time for lunch, too. The chicken and dumpling soup was delicious, and Jim said that their hot chocolate was made from scratch. I ordered a plate of potato pancakes topped with Hungarian tomato-and ground-beef goulash. I could happily eat at Eva’s three times a week, but I would weigh 300 pounds if I did.
Eva’s was a good consolation prize for the chore of riding through Syracuse. New York State Highway 5 is an official bike route, and in the city it follows Genesee Street downtown to Clinton Square, then continues east out of town on Erie Boulevard. Our old friend “sperm man” appeared and lead us to some lower-traffic alternative roads (”sperm man” is what we call the spray painted route markers put on the pavement by the group New York State Parks and Trails). It was mid-afternoon and not rush hour yet so the traffic was tolerable, but it was also urban riding on bad pavement with strip-mall scenery. The drudgery continued until we got to Interstate 481, where Old Erie Canal State Park begins.
Old Erie Canal State Park is a 34-mile stretch of the original canal bed, which was dug in 1817-25 and widened in 1851. Boat traffic now runs on the New York State Barge Canal (1908), which bypasses this section to go through Oneida Lake and re-joins it in Rome. The old canal doesn’t serve any commercial purpose any more, but in the years I’ve used it it has become more and more popular with boaters and bicyclists. The clouds were lifting and soon sun hit brilliant fall foliage as we moved through Syracuse’s wealthy eastern suburbs. Then we rode on to Chittenango, where Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum was raised, and onward to Canastota, the hometown of Heavyweight Boxing Champion Carmen Basilio. Thanks to Basilio’s influence, the Boxing Hall of Fame is in Canastota. It was closed, but we waited there for Sara to come and pick us up. The nearest campground was 11 miles away because camping season is over. A cold front had come through and a north wind was stiffening as we set up our gear and made dinner. By nightfall it was in the mid-40s, and it would be close to freezing overnight.
Day 67: Fish Creek to St. Johnsville, NY
Our campground on the 17th was on Fish Creek, which drains into Oneida Lake and is home to hundreds of geese, ducks, and other birds. We slept long and deep because of the cold, and the birds woke us up at dawn. It is possible to ride a bicycle when it’s below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but if you don’t have to, why should you? We waited to leave until 10 am, when Jim’s bike thermometer read 45. But it was a sunny day, and by noon it was perfect riding weather.
We rode back to the canal towpath on county roads and crossed an early 20th-Century steel-deck bridge over the barge canal. It had been closed and was waiting for the wrecking crew. Soon we were met by a friend who came up for the day – Lloyd Peterson of Canandaigua, a faithful training partner for Jim and an important assistant on the blog for me. Lloyd met up with us at the Erie Canal Park outside of Rome, where several busloads of schoolchildren were being wheeled around a small track in an antique train. Lloyd took a panoramic photograph of us in front of a canal boat by taking several overlapping photos and stitching them together with photo software. Can you find the seams?
We rode on city streets through Rome, then left town on a county road that took us back to the towpath east of town. The towpath here borders a large wildlife refuge on the north side, and beyond that is Griffith Air Force Base; if you’re lucky, you can see a huge B-52 take off over the marsh, its engines shaking the earth, but we didn’t see anything on this day. We rode on through the day until the towpath ended just outside of Utica, and then we braved some overpasses and heavy traffic to get to Bleecker Street for lunch.
Bleecker Street is where Utica’s Italian neighborhood had its heyday. Those days are long past, but a few restaurants and pastry shops hang on. Their products are so good that you’d think you were in Brooklyn. We ate chicken parm subs at the O’Scugnizzo Pizzeria, owned and operated by the same family since 1914, and then finished it off with pastries and coffee at Caffe Caruso. After the first bite of his Napoleon, Jim said, “I could eat six of these, but then I’d have to take a nap.”
Lloyd turned around after lunch. Jim and I pushed eastward, through Franklin, Mohawk, and other beaten-down little towns in the Mohawk Valley. At Little Falls we picked up the towpath again, and the last ten miles were a pleasant churn through fallen alder leaves on a surface of hard-packed stone dust. Sara had found us a great campsite at the St, Johnsville Municipal Marina Campground, wedged between the barge canal on the south and two active rail lines to the north, with the whine of Interstate 90 in the near distance. It will be a night for earplugs, but after riding 70 miles in cold weather you can pretty much sleep through anything.