Having spent the first two and a half weeks exploring the 16th-century Spanish settlements and the 17th- and 18th-century British settlements on our 19th-century invention, the bicycle, we headed into the 20th century, driving our rental car to the Outer Banks to see where the age of the airplane started. But, first, a trip to Rachel K’s Bakery in Washington, NC for coffee and a pastry (to share–we have to watch our diet when no longer bicycling).
Our new path (and steed) took us across Roanoke Island, site of a failed colonization attempt in the 16th century: the “Lost Colony,” where the supply ship found no trace of the colonists when returning the following year. We briefly drove through the modern town of Manteo before crossing the bridge to Nags Head.
We headed south as far as Waves, the easternmost point on Hatteras Island, then back north. Again, we were glad we had chosen to drive the rest of our tour, rather than attempt to bicycle this route. NC Hwy 12, which runs the length of the Outer Banks, has a narrow shoulder marked as a bike lane, in places, but the winter winds had drifted the sand dunes over parts of it; other sections of the road were under construction or repair, and the bridges were narrow with debris strewn in the “bike lane.”
Back in Nags Head, we found a nice coffee shop that had a vegetarian sandwich lunch special, then spent the afternoon visiting the Wright Brothers Memorial at Kill Devil Hill, site of their 1902 and 1903 glider experiments and the 1903 first powered flights. We hiked to the monument at the top of the hill just as the first drops of rain began to fall. We drove in the rain the 100 km to Elizabeth City, checking in to our motel just before the fierce downpour started.
On Saturday morning, we left early, braving the construction-confused traffic in Norfolk to finally find the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel (I-64) and on back to the 17th century for an exploration of the reconstructed 1608 Jamestown Settlement interpretive park and the nearby original Jamestowne Island, where the original colony is an active archaeological site,. The dig is peeling back the layers of the settlement over the century it existed as first a not very successful charter company colony and later as capital of Virginia, until 1699, when it was abandoned to farmland.
A quick turn through Williamsburg showed us why it had been difficult to get motel reservations–some sort of gathering was taking place in the historic district, so we backtracked 50 km to Newport News, where we had found an affordable motel. Newport News was the site of one of my first visits to the East Coast, in 1968, when I participated in the U.S. Navy’s acceptance trials of the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), as a vendor technical representative for the computer systems that ran the Combat Information Center and automated aircraft landing systems.
Sunday morning, we headed back through Williamsburg and on to Mount Vernon, where we spent the day touring George Washington’s estate, the 18th-century farm he built into a profitable plantation and where he retired after his long military and political career. We had decided by this time to forego a tour of the Washington, DC area: the traffic was overwhelming. We headed up the beltway through Virginia to Frederick, MD, gradually becoming re-acquainted with the metropolitan commuter rules of the road in the congested East Coast:
- The minimum acceptable speed is 20-40km/hr over the posted speed, proportional to the number of lanes (2-6). If you fail to adhere to this, the driver behind you is obligated to force you off the road, lest you continue to impede traffic flow.
- Rule 1 applies between interchanges: when approaching a major interchange or the site of a blocking mishap, traffic slows to zero, quite suddenly. Changing lanes in other than an orderly group fashion is frowned upon, and may be vigorously prevented.
- The lane that you are in is probably not the one you need to be in to follow your planned route. Rule 2 may affect your ability to reposition gracefully or even successfully. Abandon hope if you miss your interchange–it may have been the only viable route to your destination.
- At traffic flow speed, which may reach 125km/hr with less than 10 meter spacing between cars, lumpy road patches, deep horizontal and parallel grooves, and potholes may cause your vehicle to momentarily leave the roadway. Be sure to be aimed in
the general direction of your lane and be ready to accelerate or brake heavily when contact with the road resumes.
- Be sure to have at least a half tank of fuel and an empty bladder before venturing into traffic–frequent collisions and breakdowns may block traffic for hours. Do not be tempted to exit the main roadway: there are no through secondary roads. You must stay on the expressway to reach your destination.
- The term “freeway” is a public road, to which all of the above rules apply strictly. An “expressway” connects major industrial and population centers with few or no opportunities to exit between. A “thruway” is an expressway with tolls. Be sure to stop at any service plazas provided on your route to pad your time, even if you don’t need fuel, food, or the necessary–if you stay in the traffic flow, you will be fined for speeding when you pay the toll at the exit, as the ticket records time as well as distance.
- Some bridges, tunnels, and thruways now cater only to electronic pass subscribers. Watch for “No Cash” and “EZPass Only” signs and be ready to exit to an alternate route (which may be hours out of your way or dump you into a nest of car-strippers) or be fined for non-payment of toll.
- Road signs at intersections are often obscure and often placed on the far side of the intersection. A general rule is “if you can read the sign, you have missed your turn.” If you do miss the turn, do not be tempted to exit at the next exit–chances are there is no alternate way to rejoin your route via local streets. Continue on to a major intersection where U-turns are possible, reverse course, and try again.
- On local roads, traffic lights are suggestions–expect cars to continue through intersections at high speed for several seconds after the light turns red. Stopping on yellow may get you rammed from behind. Make sure the cross traffic is stopped before proceeding on green, even though the car behind you is flashing his lights, honking his horn, and nudging your bumper, starting within milliseconds of the light changing, especially if you did not start rolling forward when the cross signal is yellow.
- When changing lanes, make sure no cars in the second lane over are aiming for the same spot. If you can’t seem to find an opening in the desired lane, it is probably because the car pacing you in your target lane wants to get in your lane. Watch for “jockeying” speed changes and make your move when chances of success are good. Signaling isn’t always the best option, as others may aim aggressively for your space, expecting you to be gone when they get there. Make your decision and do not hesitate.
Somehow, we made it to our hotel (after some false turns due to GPS foibles and signage issues noted above). The next morning, we found a FedEx office next to a Starbucks, near our planned path, and finally shipped our bicycle and camping gear home, then continued on to Gettysburg, PA, for a tour of the Civil War battlefield and cemetery. Later that afternoon, we drove on back roads through the famous Amish country near Lancaster, PA, arriving at the Revolutionary War encampment at Valley Forge just before closing time. We did drive through the park and on secondary highways north to Allentown for the night. After more than a month on the road, staying at the more inexpensive motels, the one at Allentown was the only one that we found wanting in terms of cleanliness and perceived safety: very disappointing, as we generally read reviews before booking and this was one in a chain we frequent most in our travels.
Our tour took us next through the Delaware Water Gap, the “Columbia Gorge” of the East Coast, where the Delaware River cuts through the mountains. We stopped at a PA visitor center and the park headquarters, getting pointers on a quick tour of the best features, which paid off with a hike to Dingman’s Falls, the highest waterfall in Pennsylvania. We had lunch at a bistro in Port Jervis, NY, then continued up the Upper Delaware. At Hancock, we stopped at a coffee shop on the main street, but found it was closed until May. While we were standing at the door, it opened, and the proprietors, two sisters, invited us in for coffee and a chat. We got a tour of the place: they are renovating an old opera house into a coffee shop and dinner theater, a gradual process, with the women doing almost all the work themselves: one is the remodeler, the other the cook and baker. What a delightful stop!
Refreshed, we headed onto the main highway, NY 17/I-86 (future?) to Binghamton for the night, at a family-run hotel that occupies the former municipal building. The young man who checked us in recommended a pub across the street, where we enjoyed a pint of Guinness and veggie sandwich. Early morning, we were off again, with a short drive to Ithaca for breakfast at a bagel/coffee shop near the Cornell University campus, then across to Watkins Glen on Seneca Lake and south to Corning for an afternoon at the Corning Glass Museum, watching demonstrations of glass blowing, fiber optics, and a gallery of 3500 years of glass artifacts from around the world, including Tiffany lamps and windows and Frank Lloyd Wright windows as well as contemporary glass sculpture and art.
With the afternoon waning, we drove north to Niagara Falls, enduring yet another round of thruways, freeways, and toll bridges, arriving near sunset for a quick look at the rapids above the falls in the evening chill and dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. In the morning, we walked downriver to overlook the falls, then a quick drive by the “closed for renovation” viewpoint between the Canadian (Horseshoe) and American Falls.
Eschewing the freeway/tollway gambit, we drove on the old local roads through downtown Buffalo, NY, then along Lake Erie shore. The route took us briefly through the notch of Pennsylvania that ￼reaches Lake Erie, stopping in Erie city to have the oil changed on our rental car (it was due just then, and there was an Enterprise office near our route). Veggie lunch at the local Co-op, and we were soon on the freeway into Ohio, stopping for the night in Mentor, just outside Cleveland, to end a very busy week of history and famous scenery.
Thus, we put a close to our East Coast tour as we headed into the Midwest and family visits before returning home, several months earlier than planned. We’re a whole lot wiser about the practicality of extreme self-supported bicycle touring in our eighth decade, in unpredictable spring weather on poorly-maintained roads meant for cars only.