People: Buzz, Tobias, and Walt and many others along the way, too many to name…
Location: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire.
Recently, I went on a bike ride. A rather long bike ride. Four days to be exact. I needed to start training for my six-month trek through Asia and four days, while a pittance compared to six months, is hardly chopped liver, or at least that’s what you tell yourself when it’s the maximum time you can sneak away from work, and you’ve got a gnawing sense of dread that the time is nigh to test yourself, alone on the road, to see how you fare.
I did my first solo bicycle trip three years ago, thinking surely I’d hate every moment, only to discover the opposite was true; I fell in love.
Yet, like love, each time I set off anew on my loaded “steed,” I feel the fizzy cocktail of emotions that love can bring: a jittery excitement about the journey ahead, combined with terror about its potential outcome. With biking, the fear comes from imagining myself splayed on the side of the road after being sideswiped by a fast-moving vehicle or hacked to death in the middle of the night by a deranged sociopath. That I pedal on despite these fears is a testament to my desire even if – or perhaps because – the love may be doomed. Blanche Dubois could relate.
This most recent journey began on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, on a route I’d painstakingly plotted out for days: New Brunswick, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and back. If all ran smoothly, I’d cycle 40 miles a day, a relatively easy distance, sleep each night at established campgrounds, and have plenty of time to mosey back along the same course and return rested and relaxed to my desk the following Wednesday. Easy, squeeze-y as a Texan friend of mine might say.
Of course, nothing went as planned.
For starters, my maiden route from Brooklyn to the World Trade Center subway station, a ride that on any normal day would take 30 minutes, required a full hour between loading the bike, hoisting it up and down stairs, maneuvering it through turnstiles, stopping to buy water, getting lost finding the elevator to the station platform, and waiting for the train.
Then, in Newark, I was steered toward the wrong platform and had to exit a few stations later to wait for the correct train to jettison me to my intended destination. Mind you, at this point, I’d been gone less than three hours and was already two hours behind schedule.
I won’t bore you with the minutiae of every unmarked road, dead-end street, unnavigable highway, and misbegotten avenue. I’ll only say that this is what makes bicycle travel the pleasure that it is. It’s ABOUT the getting lost, don’t you know.
For it’s only in taking the roads less traveled that you make great discoveries.
Who knew, for instance, (surely not me) that the train station in Newark was an early 20th-century architectural marvel?
Or that the downtown of Trenton, New Jersey is spectacularly beautiful.
I learned (in that connection you develop with a place only by intimate distance from its edges that biking provides) that the German writer Thomas Mann lived for a time in a Georgian mansion in Princeton, New Jersey.
And that Carolyn Jane Benson makes an excellent lemon pound cake and hopes to work full-time as a baker when she retires from her city job.
That wild strawberries grow secretly along the edge of the Delaware-Raritan Canal.
And that a famous movie studio once existed a few miles from where George Washington and his troops endured a brutal revolutionary winter.
More incredibly though than what I saw was what I experienced. For over four days of travel, I was taken in each night by strangers. Not even couchsurfers. Complete strangers whom I met randomly on my travels and had no intention of hitting up for a place to bunk, despite a threatening rain.
The first two were men on bicycles, and the third was a member of a bicycle organization that, like CouchSurfing, takes in errant riders who lack comfort and sustenance for the night. Beyond the bicycle connection, however, they couldn’t have been more different.
Tobias is a theoretical physicist specializing in the study of plasma at the Max Planck Institute. A man who, I one day predict, will win the Nobel Prize for Physics, or its equally impressive equivalent, at which point he will undoubtedly thank me for the tzatziki I made him the night I slept on his guest bed.
Walt daily scales 50-floor office buildings as a glazier, installing windows at heights that would give any normal person an acute case of acrophobia. He’s also the proud owner of a rescued boxer dog that he named Rocky, after the Sylvester Stallone character that put Philadelphia on the map, and grows vegetables in his backyard when he’s not lavishing attention on the two daughters he loves more than himself.
And then there’s Buzz and his family. Buzz is a retired virologist who dedicated his life to solving the mystery of influenza, who now spends his free time riding his recumbent bicycle through the hills and valleys of his bucolic suburb. His wife, Maria, is helping develop cancer medication, his daughter plans to attend medical school, and his teenage son is a budding artist/photographer and dangerously successful knife salesman. Together, they’re a world-traveling family who made me feel like a member of their family during the night I stayed with them.
This is all to say that what travel does is dispel our fears and upend our expectations. Not only was I not murdered in my tent while sleeping, I was repeatedly, heartwarmingly, beyond-my-wildest expectations, befriended. Again and again and again.
Every religion has a tradition of welcoming the stranger in our midst, or preparing tea or a meal for the wandering traveller. It’s because we all recognize that, at some time in our lives, we will be that person, that wayfarer. And thus to be a stranger in a strange land and to be taken in is to know the true meaning of kindness.
It’s why I host people at my home, even when sometimes my place feels too small or I’m craving privacy. Because I know deep down that I’ll be made richer by the experience and the presence of a person whom, the night before, was unknown to me.
Great Places to Visit During Your Travels from New Brunswick, NJ to Valley Forge, PA:
Kim’s Bike Shop, New Brunswick, NJ
Choopan Grill, a great Afghani Restaurant in Somerset, NJ (with branches in Hicksville, and Selden, NY, too)
PJ’s Pancake House, Princeton, NJ
Dominik’s Pizza, Trenton, NJ
Maryanne’s Diner, Croydon, PA
Fork Restaurant, Philadelphia, PA
The new Barnes Foundation’s museum, Philadelphia, PA
Lix Water Ice, Cynwyd, PA