Sunday, August 28, 2011

August Cycling: Massachusetts and New York

The Farm Ride

After the not-so-rolling hills and humidity of the Hudson River Valley in July, an early August, two-day bicycle trip through western Massachusetts farmland was the perfect change of pace.

The area around the University of Massachusetts, Amherst--pronounced without the "h" if you want to sound more like a New Englander and less like a New Yawker--has endless miles of bicycle friendly roads. A converted railway trail and the Franklin County Bikeway wind through bucolic and breathtaking scenery: waterfalls; barns; cornfields; farmhouses; cornfields; a cow; vegetable plots; and, endless rows of corn.  This organized ride, appropriately named 'The Farm Ride,' meandered through several historically significant and just simply old towns.
Amherst Courthouse
Four colleges and one university populate the Amherst geographic area: U. Mass; Amherst; Smith; Hampshire; and Mt. Holyoke. The actual town of Amherst, in addition to housing the actual college and the University of Massachusetts, has the standard requisite college town requirements: tattoo parlors; coffee shops; ice cream shoppes; pizza parlors; and, not shockingly, bars and pubs. Coffee and "green" businesses abound. Besides Starbucks and a friendly roaster called Rao's, a cute little breakfast place replete with wide-planked wooden floors and cozy booths, the Black Sheep, enticed me with some earthy aromatic single-origin brew and peppy tunes on a rainy Sunday morning.  Also, if you ever visit Amherst, you must not miss the apple strudel coffee cake baked fresh daily at Henion bakery downtown.  The bike ride started with this scrumptious nosh, and my tastebuds have not forgotten it. 

This college town also has ample museums, especially for the literati. For example, the Emily Dickinson museum and the Dickinson homestead are located here; for those with a more highbrow preference, as I whisked by Hampshire College I noticed the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. (Remember the caterpillar picture book we read as kids? Imagine a whole museum of that fun stuff!) 

Near Amherst, the town of Hadley offers retail favorites like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, and a farm road straight to the Sugar Shack, where we had the Farm Ride's finale barbecue. In the first whispers of spring, when the maple sap starts "running," this cute little place cooks the sap on premises to make maple syrup and hosts a giant pancake breakfast, too.  

One town in the area, Deerfield, has a cute colonial village and quaint old hotel. The colonial settlement has a rich history of French, Native American, and English influence. No matter how quaint the restoration presents these recreated settlements, though, my first thought is always how miserable and cold those settlers must have been in the winter. 

Moving along the Franklin County bicycle trail into Hampshire County, another town of interest, Hatfield, had many examples of grand colonial architecture.  Mostly agricultural in its origins, this town, founded in 1660, is also known for supplying resources and men for the rebels during the American Revolution

One last place of note is another "green" city, Northhampton [nothing like the "Hamptons" on Long Island], not far from Amherst.  Northhampton has a Berkeley-meets-Greenwich Village feel to it, with cute boutiques, health food, pet-centric shops, and a popular and famous ice cream store called Herrells. Like most places in this area, Native Americans were the original settlers of Northhampton [known to them as Norwottuck, or "midst of the river"].  The majestic scenery of the vast and fertile farmland in the foothills of the Berkshires displays its obvious appeal as a place to settle.  My suspicion, though, is the colonists probably did their settlement shopping in the summer, not the winter.

Summer Streets

For the first three weekends of August, the City of New York closes Lafayette street from the Brooklyn Bridge up to East 72d Street so that pedestrians and cyclists can ride "fancy-free" up the east side without fear of being hit by a cabbie or typical New York driver. Unfortunately, you will still have to deal with the more dangerous obstacles of pedestrians, inline skaters, scooters, runners, and other cyclists who have no idea which side of the road they should be on. In concept, this is a great idea, with lots of inducement to get people off the couch and exercising with free skate and bike rentals and other fitness related activities. [Note: the lines for these amenities are very long, so unless you are very patient, fuggedahboudit]  Along the route are water stations with New York's finest water, and Whole Foods sponsored a picnic area with free samples of purportedly healthy snacks. I can honestly say there is something appealing and exhilarating about riding a car-free Manhattan street.  I had my first taste of this in early May for the Five Borough Bike Ride; now that I live even closer to the City, I thought I should give it another heartfelt try. 

Every now and then I participate in some event, usually fitness related, that I am grateful to have experienced once, but do not need to repeat. Summer Streets by bicycle is one such event.  (Another is the 50-degree October day Bronx Mud Run, which included waist-high wading in the ocean and a post-race "rinse" with a cold garden hose.)  The first challenge of Summer Streets was cycling the six-plus miles from my apartment in the southern part of Brooklyn up to the Brooklyn Bridge. This included passing through some sketchy neighborhoods, dodging potholes, and holding my breath for the ride over and near the Gowanus Canal.  After passing Cadman Plaza in downtown Brooklyn, home to several gorgeous courthouses, I ascended the ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge.

Now, traversing the Brooklyn Bridge is a must and on my list of repeat activities. Traversing the bridge by bicycle, however, is not. It is a harrowing experience, and because cyclists and pedestrians share one narrow walkway, it is quite dangerous, evidenced by frequent ambulance-worthy accidents.  Despite the clearly marked bike and pedestrian paths, the inevitable human 'common sense' factor--the same one you witness watching people board an airplane--makes navigating the proper lane a challenge. Due to the intensity of the journey across by bicycle, I have included a picture from a previous visit.

Again, I do recommend viewing and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. The magnificent structure never takes a bad picture.  On the Manhattan side, do not miss viewing and also marveling at the new Gehry structure. Originally known as Beekman Tower, at 76 stories, New York by Gehry on 8 Spruce Street is "the tallest residential tower in the Western Hemisphere, and the first ever designed by Frank Gehry."  

On the Brooklyn side, many people cross over the bridge and then look around like they are not in Kansas anymore. Head toward the water. Along the waterfront the greenway and park [] have superb people watching opportunities and picture-perfect vistas of the City and the East River.  There is no shortage of fabulous restaurants; whether it is Grimaldi's pizza or the fancy River Cafe--both are worth the wait.