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Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Magic Day

On Saturday, August 1st, 2009, I set out to ride to my folk's house in Pennsylvania, opting for the long route. My aim was to hit a list of 7 points of interest to me, and to take my new Cannondale Super Six all of 100 miles in the process. I had previously dubbed this bike The Magic Bike. I also dubbed this ride the Northern Vision Quest. One can only guess exactly what I was hoping to find with this ride. Whatever it was, it was successful. This is my story.

The Plan

Here is how I laid it out before the ride. This is how I prefaced it the day before the ride on my training thread:

"I am doing the Northern Vision Quest ride:

The idea here is to get out to Califon as directly as possible, as far from home as fast as I can. Then I'm going to meander around and hit various items of interest. This will totally be back-loaded, I think everything is after the halfway point. In order of appearance:

1. Fiddler's Elbow, the reputed hardest climb in NJ
2. Merril Creek Reservoir, where Eagles live
3. The Buddhist Shrine up on Montana Mountain
4. The house I lived in until 3rd grade
5. The East-West Shrine, just because it's there
6. Iron Bridge Road, the reported second hardest climb in NJ
7. The house I lived in from 3rd grade to college

After that I'll go up and over the hill to Milford, then up the river to my folks just south of Easton. The ride clicks in at 98 miles, so I will likely look to add a few miles to get the magic 100.

I need to figure out where my pit stops will be. I may hit Pottersville if it's open at that time of the day, even though it's only an hour into the ride. I need to make sure I don't burn myself out tomorrow."

My big concern was water intake. I had done a century the weekend before, and dehydrated colossally. I wanted to avoid that happening again. It's so easy to think you're not in trouble while you're losing water faster than you know.

The Easy Start

I woke up fresh, feeling good. A quick breakfast and cup of coffee and I felt like this day was going to be a good one. I don't know why. Maybe my mindset was on. Maybe it was meant to be. I just felt like I was going to have a good ride and I felt good getting ready to go. I was excited to be going out on this ride. It had a purpose, something so few of my rides have most of the time.

I started easy, jumping on county route 512 and taking it west to Califon. I kept a moderate pace while listening to my music. I'm one of those people who listens to his iPod on the bike now, though often I listen only for the first hour or with 1 earbud in. There are so few cars on the roads I ride I've never had it be a problem. My playlist:

The Black Keys - Rubber Factory
Kings of Leon - Because of the Times
Wilco - Sky Blue Sky
Cold War Kids - Robbers & Cowards
Wheezer - The Red Album

I got to Pottersville and the store was closed. Same deal with Califon - not opened until 8:00. I wasn't in dire need but I was being aggressive with my water and food intake for the first hour. When I got up to the town center I saw a Dunkin Donuts, and jumped in to see what it had to offer. Luckily, it was a combo DD and convenience store, and I grabbed 2 bottles of water and a Luna bar. Shortly after I was on my way into roads never before ridden.

The Unknown

Coming out of Dunkin Donuts I was heading into unknown territory. It was generally a short foray there, as I would be in familiar areas soon enough. But it was cool nonetheless. I immediately climbed up and out of Califon, and while I didn't click down into the granny gear I was close. The pull out of there is steep, and you know when you leave. I had picked this route up from MapMyRide, so I knew it was reasonably bike friendly, or so I thought. I would soon find out differently but for the time being I was on roads that were reasonably paved and peaceful.

I hopped out onto 57 south of Hacketstown and it was like gliding on ice. The pavement was so smooth I wanted to just blast my way down 57 for the next 20 miles to Phillipsburg. While I knew it wouldn't be all nice pavement and soft downhills the entire time, it felt good to be out of the hills and the rougher gravel roads that accompany them. The bliss was short-lived, as I soon turned right and headed up to a town I had never heard of, Port Murray.

Soon my route took my left onto a road that looked much less friendly than the road I was on. Aside from the obvious pavement quality, there was a sign at the head of the road. This is not a picture of it, but this is just what it looked like:

What does this sign mean, exactly? Well, the MapMyRide link went through here, as did Google Maps. Interestingly enough, NJBikeMap did not. In fact, there was a dead space where I was going to ride. Why did it not click that this might be an issue? I think the MapMyRide link assured me that I would be ok. Here is the road in question on Google Maps itself: Warren Rd.

If you pan out you notice that it's an area totally bereft of roads, except this one, the one that "isn't a through street".

At first it was fine, despite the house that looked as if it hadn't been lived in for 40 years. There was some sign of civilization. The road wasn't totally paved but it was ok, then I got to a split in the road and one way was dirt and the other clean pavement. Ok, I figure, this is all good and I'm good to go. I take the right on the pavement and immediately see a closed gate, a private drive. I then knew that I was going down the dirt road. It strikes me quickly to wonder who would have barred iron gates at the end of a half mile of ragged pavement in the middle of absolutely nowhere. But the bigger concern is that I'm going to be riding the Magic Bike on a dirt road, which I'm not thrilled about.

Quickly the dirt road turns into this:

And it got worse. If I have to guess I'm on this dirt paved road for a good solid mile. At points, this road was approaching the quality of a Ringwood fire road. Certainly it was no better than a jeep road. My car would never have made it down it. Now that I'm in the comfort of my own home, I can explore Google Maps a little bit and see that this is apparently what was behind those locked gates: a major estate of some sort.

I would love to know what was up there. If you look closely you can see what appears to be a large pool next to the house. At the top of the clearings, I couldn't begin to guess what that stuff is. Your guess is as good as mine as to what is up there, but it's intriguing as hell, I'll say that.

Eventually I spit back out on the road and was greeted with smooth pavement and nice scenery for the next little while. I was slightly distressed that my bike was full of grime and grit but I wasn't about to let it ruin my magic day. Shortly after crossing 31 I came across another deli and I stopped to stock up on water. This was a bonus as I did not know what was on the route. I was quickly approaching the meat of the journey.

The Goods

Fiddlers Elbow, the reputed nastiest climb in NJ.

This hill starts out steep, as you would expect. But it's not that bad. The real pisser with this hill is that as you go further, it gets steeper. Or at least it stays really steep and then at the end, it pitches up. I got to a point where I was sitting in, and my front wheel kept hopping off the ground every pedal stroke. So I stood up and leaned way, way forward and at times my rear wheel spun out in the gravel. There wasn't a lot of gravel on the road, but enough to make it tough for the bike to bite on the climb with my weight forward.

This was by far the toughest climb I've ever done in my life.

I got to the top, and then took the downhill. Down, down, down, and way down. Eventually my GPS told me to go left. Left, huh? Here? For the second time Google Maps led me astray but this time, at least it had the decency to try and send me into oblivion from a main road as opposed to leading me halfway into the woods before dropping me off. At this stage I was in familiar territory so I dropped down to 519 and cruised out past the county fair I used to go to when I was a punk ass kid:

I then hit 57 and headed towards Washington, around the south side of Merrill Creek. This wasn't what I wanted to do but I had actually added some junk miles at the end of the planned route in the event that something like this happened. So I took the alternate route up to the reservoir entrance, in the process climbing back up the hill I went down previously, and took a break at the reservoir:


I've never been to Tibet. But I have been to Taiwan, and the Buddhist influence there is greater than what you might imagine. Religion in the East is different than what you see in the West. It is more subdued yet more prevalent and accepted at the same time. It's a strange dichotomy, and somewhat tough to explain. While I'm not a religious guy by any stretch, I do embrace the peacefulness that is Buddhism and I was pretty excited to find out that there was a Buddhist learning center so near.

As I turned on to the road, things seemed to be more tranquil, quiet. I passed a driveway that had numerous stacks of firewood lining the drive, neatly organized. The neighborhood was old, quiet. I knew it was impossible for the people here to not know the center was there, so it held a kind of acceptance of it's existence, a harmony almost. I was excited and nervous to see what would be there.

When I came upon the entrance it was obvious:

As I rode up the driveway, there were banner-like streamers hung in the trees. I don't know enough about the religion to say what that means, but it was familiar to me in a way which I can't exactly explain. I must have seen something similar before in Taiwan. This is what the Internet has to say about what they are:

Tibetan Buddhists string prayer flags between trees and from poles on stupas, high mountain passes and other places. These flags are printed with mantras, and every time they flutter in the breeze they are spreading the merit of that mantra's message through the air to all living beings.

As I rode up there was a guy doing some yard work and we talked for a bit. We discussed the center, the hours, programs, and an upcoming festival that anyone is welcome to attend. Like I said, I'm not a religious person but it is intriguing. Part of me has become very enamored by the East, and this was a way to reach out to that without having to fly halfway around the world to see it. I look forward to going back someday when there is more activity there.

While the architecture wasn't like what you would see in Taiwan, there was some flair:

After I left I felt really energized. I dropped down the mountain and back onto route 57 and felt like I was as strong as I've ever been on the bike. It made me wonder, what is it like to really, truly believe in a god? I don't mean the token belief that most of the world gives to some deity, but to truly believe that there is a god riding with you every day, that you've got someone watching over you. Does it lead you to do stupid things on the bike? Do you just hammer forward with the idea that if it's your time, then so be it and the world will either protect you or move on without you?

While wondering this I was passed be a rather large and noisy truck, and decided that good feeling or not, I better watch out for myself.

Childhood Memories

Shortly after I turned on to the old street I used to live on in Washington and cruised up to my old house. I used to live next to a 1-legged girl who lived in the blue house on the right. Her dad was a cop and she had an insanely hot older sister who once asked me to rub suntan lotion on her. I was in 2nd grade at the time, and I think that was the moment in my life when I finally understood what a woman was. I cannot for the life of me imagine what she was looking for with that request of me.

I used to live on the left side of the white house. As I look at it now, the neighborhood is a total shit hole. The entire town is more or less rundown, and it was understandable why my parents moved out. At the time that 1-legged girl was my best friend, and I didn't want to move. We said we would ride our bikes back and forth to visit. Of course, I never saw her again.

When I came up to the house, an extremely fat woman was turning around in the doorway to go inside.

I rolled on and went past the Blue Army Shrine, which is just something I would often see in the distance as a kid. I don't think I ever went up into the grounds:

The difference in religion between the East and West cannot be better stated from the 2 pictures. One is a modest gateway, the other a sprawling 1000 acre estate. It was striking at the time and begged for comment.

I rolled into Asbury and came across my next surprise deli, which I almost rolled past but decided to hit anyway. I grabbed a bottle of water and a peach Snapple before the half mile roll to Iron Brige Rd. The people there eating breakfast seemed a little startled to see me and my bright superhero outfit there, and the old timer across the street watching the world was trying not to let me catch him staring at me. As I rolled away I gave him a nod.

Iron Bridge

Like Fiddlers Elbow, this is both brutal and relentless. After 75 miles of road riding this is not the hill you want to be climbing. While this does not punch you in the gut at the end like Fiddlers, it seems to go on just a touch longer, and doesn't want to end. When you reach the actual iron bridge, you can't be more than 1/3 up the hill, if even 1/4 of the way up. As you hit the top, or what seems to be the top, it still doesn't let up and merely eases up a bit as you struggle to get up to 6 mph and spin your legs out just a little bit.

Despite that, my legs never tried to cramp and I made it up, which is the important thing. I crossed the top of the hill and shot down 173 at mach speed, taking up an entire lane since I was going as fast as the cars on the road. I hit the bottom and kept cruising and blew right into Bloomsbury, which came up faster than I could have imagined.

More Memories

I looked down and was doing 28 mph on 173 as I came into the town. I don't know where this mass of energy could possibly have come from, but there it was. I felt like I was just about ready to line up for a race and have at it. I knew it was fleeting, but I felt on fire, just blasting down the road. I remember there was a day when the truck stop seemed so amazingly far away from downtown where we used to hang out at the Cracker Barrel all day. It took all of 3 minutes to ride my bike between the end of town and there.

Everything was so small, so beat down. I hadn't really lived there since high school, summer of 1990. I guess a lot changes, and having spent a lot of time across the world and having jobs in NYC changes what you consider up-to-date and rundown. But I was really surprised at how beat up this town is. I don't think the street I grew up on has been paved since the first time it was ever paved. What I used to think was a far walk from the store to my house was maybe a minute on the bike.

When I pulled up to my old house a woman was taking pictures of her daughter, and I asked, "Mind if I take one too?" She was taken aback, to be sure. But when I explained I grew up there she opened up entirely, as these are the people who bought the house from my parents. We talked briefly, then I snapped a picture of the old house and was off and up the hill.

This is where I grew up:

I climbed up to the old railroad bridge and stopped for a minute. A car went over when I was on it, and the way the rickety old bridge made noise when someone drove over it was like an echo from the past, so distant yet so familiar. The whole bridge creaked and shook, nothing had changed a bit. This is looking down the tracks to Pine Hollow, where we used to have colossal parties with major bonfires. Once a freight train stopped to warn us the cops had been called by the previous train. Like idiots, we kept drinking and hopped on the train. Next thing we knew half of us were sitting in the back of cop cars:

At this point I decided to jag across and climb up Bloomsbury Mountain, which Maurice thinks is tougher than Iron Bridge Rd. I was this far, 85 miles in. What the hell is another 700 feet? Along with Iron Bridge, this is also on the list of major climbs in NJ. I did this one slow & steady and aside from the sun beating down on me, I didn't think this was nearly as tough as the previous 2. Hard, no doubt, but not in league with the others. This is from the top looking down, which doesn't give you a good perspective at all as the hardest part is the first half up to the hairpin turn.

Wrapping it Up

At this point it was a matter of hopping across the mountain then coming down to the paper mill where my step-father worked years, until the economy caught up to it and it shut down. Currently the owner lives on the property in his RV. From there it was a straight & flat shot out to the river. It was all in the sun, but my legs had a lot left in them as I was able to ride out this last section at 20/21 easily. Finally I hit the border, and the Delaware River which was apparently flowing directly from Wonkaville this day:

I shot up 611 and wrapped it all up at 101 miles and 9100+ feet of vertical for the ride. This is the token shot, lovingly referred to as the money shot. I guess this is my 4th this year and slowest of the bunch, but by far the most rewarding and enjoyable.

The magic bike was great on this magic day. I have yet to give it the proper photo shoot and I may now have to clean off some of the grit from that non-through street before I do that. But there it is, waiting for me to dish out more of whatever I can. It was more than ready to abide:

And your truly, at the end of the ride:

This was a keeper, an absolute magic day on a magic bike. It may be a long, long time before I put together a ride as meaningful as this. But all we can do on a day to day basis is try. And when I wake up tomorrow and roll out of the driveway, I'll know that while it's unlikely, you just never know when you're going to knock one so far out of the park you might just remember it for the rest of your life.

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