World by Bike: New York State - A Long Way From Home`
New York: New York City - Niagara Falls
September 19th - September 25th
Leaving Western Europe and arriving in New York City was more difficult than I had anticipated. It wasn’t just because of the delays in my flights and the fact that my bike had missed my connection, but the fact that I was suddenly a very long way from home. The language was familiar again, but it definitely started to feel like a proper expedition as I could no longer simply call home for a pick up if I'd suddenly decided this bike ride was a dumb idea. For all intents and purposes, I was on my own.
I'd been to New York before, over Christmas in 2015, and I'd found the place fascinating. However, I had left knowing that it must be incredibly different from a tourist's perspective than if you lived there, and I wasn't sure that the city had lived up to the hype and expectation of being the greatest city on earth - I mean, how could it? It’s marked as probably the greatest city, in supposedly the greatest country and it had been given the responsibility of representing the whole of the US, a country I'd aspired to live in having grown up playing basketball in the UK. My impression probably had too much riding on it, but I hadn't found the love of New York that others had spoken of after they visited. I felt like it had missed something. It had appeared too hard and distant for me to make a connection with the place..
When I was here before I just jumped on the train from Newark airport, headed to Manhattan and set up camp for a few days, figuratively speaking. However, this time, arriving with my bike and all my gear, I decided to stay a little nearer the airport (JFK on this occasion), which meant I could see a little of Long Island. Then, when my bike didn't arrive after missing my connecting flight, I moved into Manhattan and Harlem, way up on 137th St. I was incredibly lucky to stay with such generous hosts, both on Long Island and in Manhattan. However, there are some people you meet who are such a great fit into what you're doing, you start to wonder about the probability of you crossing paths by pure chance alone.
In Harlem I was staying with a doctor specialising in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, with two of my family members due to give birth within a few days of our meeting, and a lawyer who specialises in bicycle accidents and advises the city and surrounding area on bike routes. If ever you get into a bike accident in the New York area, Vaccaro and White are your people! They were an invaluable resource and were incredibly understanding of my woes as I tried to get my bike back from the airport. We could chat all day about medicine (I start med school next September) and cycling, and they could give me insight as to what it's like to live in the Manhattan. They planned me a route from JFK through the different parts of the city: from Queens to the beach on Long Island, where I could start my journey on the Atlantic coast, through Coney Island, over the Brooklyn bridge, then around Manhattan by night. They didn't suggest the night bit, but I had been further delayed by mechanical issues at the airport, and it was great fun dodging the taxis up 6th Avenue in the bright city lights.
Due to my bike delay, my schedule now coincided with the New York Cycle Club's annual 'Escape New York' charity ride out of town and upstate. I joined in and followed the ride on the suggestion from my hosts. The route pretty much followed my planned route up the Hudson Valley into New Jersey, and when the rest of the riders would head back to the city I just continued north.
I was wonderfully surprised at how quickly things changed after crossing the George Washington Bridge, out of Manhattan and into New Jersey. Immediately it became more clean, more spacious, with greenery and houses with gardens (not saying yard just yet). From there, things just became more rural as I torched my legs trying to keep up with the charity ride despite all my extra gear I was carrying. I chatted to others on the charity ride and was reminded of the enthusiasm and positivity that seems to sit at the heart of North American culture when I was invited to share in the snacks and refreshments at one of the charity ride's food stops. People were so keen to hear about what I was up to and share their own story, particularly Steve, pictured right.
Heading north I kept the Hudson river as my riding partner, trying to hug it ever closer as the scenery became more mountainous. I love the mountains normally, but when you've got distances you need to cover and you're carrying an lot of extra gear, it isn't as much fun. I had to keep bearing that in mind whenever I took route advice from other riders out on the road - most road riders are looking for a challenging route! I learned the hard way on Seven Lakes Road, about 60miles outside of the city - good views are often preluded by pretty unpleasant climbing.
However, pushing further north up to Albany and then departing the Hudson and following the Erie canal trail westward to Canada, I was repeated blown away with the kindness, generosity and interesting stories of those I met and those who helped me along the way. In what quickly became a relatively rural existence compared to the concrete landscape of Manhattan I was welcomed into small towns, I was cooked fresh bread, given a new biking jersey and even joined one family for breakfast waffles to celebrate their daughter's 6th birthday! All just within a few hours of what can seem a harsh and hardened environment of New York City's five boroughs. I stayed with a Guinness World Record holder pursuing his dream of creating his own brand of e-bikes; I met a couple volunteering in the local fire service as they and their friends were too far out of town for the regular fire brigade; and I was even hit on at a gas station, despite being muddy, sweaty and in my Lycra. (A slight aside, but in the interest of candour I have to state the person who hit on me was a dude, which personally isn't my bag, but a compliment is a compliment. He totally lost it when he found out I had a British accent - it's too funny out here).
The rest of the ride along the Erie canal trail passed without major event, stopping to chat with other tourers tackling this popular route, getting lost in the trails and exploring all the small towns as I approached the Canadian border, racing to catch the sunset at Niagara to complete this chapter of the journey. It’s a great place to ride.
I think my biggest take away from the ride up through New York state, to Niagara Falls and into Canada is about perspective. I'd never been further into America than Newark airport before, but to step outside of the hard exterior of the city and ride into the more rural parts of the state exposed me to such generous people, quietly going about their lives, with their own goals and struggles, and many were making the time to help out a poor stranger like me. The contrast of city to countryside helped shift my perspective of what the attraction of living in Manhattan is, with the city's possibilities, drive, and its seemingly never-ending desire for better. Equally, stepping out of the city showed me that if you wanted to escape the rush there are wonderful places you can abscond to quickly to find some peace, tranquility and natural beauty. For me, being able to contrast both elements of the Empire State gave me a better, more intimate picture of America, and a better idea of the range of people and the opportunities this country broadcasts to the world. These few days in NYC and the rest of the state have made me much more attracted to the idea of living in Manhattan for a season, should I ever get the opportunity, as the contrast of the city to mountains upstate, only accentuated the attraction of both environments. I could feel the draw of the city as soon as I left, and knowing the wilderness of the upper end of the Appalachian Mountains are so close only made the state even more attractive.
I suppose that in a city that dangles limitless possibility in front of you, before, in my mind, it was only limited by that fact that it was a solely a hard, concrete city. However I feel as though that has changed with the exploration upstate, as I now know how close epic trails, tough mountains and quiet roads are. I have a much stronger attraction to the place now, and I'm already thinking about I can spend a summer living there in the next couple of years. I fee; I understand the allure of the city more, and that I’ve made a better connection with it by leaving the city limits.
My experience with a few of the people in different parts of the state, and experiencing their hospitality, kindness and infectious positivity majorly helped me adjust to being far from home. From a place that before seemed rushed, unfriendly and unwelcoming I now felt a lot more comfortable, and nowhere near as isolated as I had initially. I felt like I knew a little more of what it would be like to live in the Empire State, and therefore no longer felt as far away from home.
The whole experience of my changed perception of NY made me wonder about what other areas I've built up a particular perception in my mind that needs shifting by exploring a bit deeper. Whether friendships, career decisions or in life goals, whether push beyond the current perspective, to see underneath what is surface level and not settle for what is easy.