Pennsylvania and New Jersey Bicycling and Birding – Sept 1995

The following narrative is Liza’s trip journal converted from an old pdf. For her write-up for her cycling club, click here.

Pennsylvania Dutch (and New Jersey)
Bicycling and Birding
Sept. 16-24, 1995

Saturday, Sept. 16 – Los Angeles to Philadelphia

After an eventful week – including my mulling over a job offer from USC [which I ultimately didn’t take – lyw] and Robert landing some coverage on a BIS Oracle project – we left early to catch our 8:00 am flight to Philadelphia. It was nice to have a bit of a break, although it did mean I’d miss the return of my manager Ron Shell, back from his heart bypass surgery, on the following Monday.

The flight was uneventful; saw While You Were Sleeping, a funny romantic movie. Only four and a half hours flying time; must be that jet stream! We arrived in Philadelphia around 4:00 PM and were in our hotel room at 5:00. We were at the airport Embassy Suites, and took advantage of the happy hour before going on a search and rescue for dinner. There wasn’t much right around the hotel, at least not that was real interesting (all hotel restaurants) so we thought we’d try looking in the south Philadelphia area for Italian food. We quickly found ourselves in what is all too common for large American cities, i.e., rundown, scummy areas with decaying buildings and a general air of desolation and desperation. We managed to work our way round to an area of South Street that has had something of a Renaissance; it was kind of a cross between Melrose Avenue in Hollywood and Kings Cross in Sydney, with trendy shops and a lot of little restaurants. We happily settled on a Greek place called “South Street Souvlaki” where we enjoyed greek salad, souvlaki, and gyros, and did not hear a single person say “no coke, pepsi”.

Considering the time difference we ought to have been in good shape, but we were both surprisingly tired, so we simply came back to the hotel after dinner to catch up on college football and collapse.

Sunday, Sept. 17 – Philadelphia to Ephrata, Lancaster County

Rain! And a fair amount of it, too. This would ruin the day for sure, we thought. But out we went anyway, first to Tinicum Marsh, very close to the hotel. In a light drizzle we walked the 3/4 mile trail to the observation tower, seeing a number of birds in the trees and along the brush lining the marsh, including Cape May Warbler (new!) and a female American Redstart. Lots of catbirds, robins, and great blue herons about, too.

We rushed back to the hotel to make our noon checkout, then went into central Philadelphia for some historical sightseeing. The National Park Visitor Center was the first stop, where we found out this day was Constitution Day! 208 years ago on this day, September 17, 1787, the US. Constitution was ratified. We signed scrolls that will someday in the proposed Constitution Center (if it is built), got a button that said “I signed the Constitution,” and a little print copy of the text. We also tested each other to see how well we each knew the preamble; I did just a little better than Robert, only 4 words off!

From the Visitors’ Center we went to Independence Hall, taking the 30-minute tour, seeing where the Declaration of Independence was drafted (July 2, 1776) and signed (July 4, 1776). We also got some special theatrics in honor of Constitution Day, reminding me of similar theatrics when I was in Boston on Patriot’s Day (April 16) several years ago!

Exiting Independence Hall, we went along the short mall in front to the glass building that houses the Liberty Bell; previously housed in Independence Hall itself, it moved to its present location in 1976 during the Bicentennial. Contrary to what I always thought, the bell did not break early in its life; it rung out in 1776 to announce independence and many times thereafter in the Pennsylvania State House (which is what Independence Hall really was), and didn’t actually get its famous crack until 1781. It was “repaired” at that time, welding bits into the crack and making the bell look as if it had had stitches, but it cracked again thereafter, at which point it was “retired” and preserved.

We had hoped to visit the US Mint, but they were closed for the holiday, so instead we went to the Second Bank of the United States to see the portrait gallery, and afterwards to Christ Church, presumably modeled after London’s Chapel of St. Martin-in-the-Fields at Trafalgar Square. (I suppose it was, having just seen the original in May 1995, but only to a point.)

The “historic” Philadelphia area, unlike the bits of south Philadelphia that we saw on our search for dinner the previous evening, was really very clean and well maintained. Considering it is in the middle of “downtown”, and thus in an old area where the streets tend to be narrow and confusing, the Park Service did a nice job of making everything easily accessible. And we only had to step over one person sleeping on the street.

We left Philadelphia around 3:00 PM and drove to Ephrata (pronounced Ef’ rata). We took a more scenic route and saw a number of Amish and Mennonite carriages on the highway. The scenery was just what one would expect: rolling hills, small farms, fields. Just lovely. We met up with our Vermont Bicycle Tour group at Donecker’s Guest House; should be fun! We ate dinner with the group at a restaurant called the Log Cabin, about six miles out of Ephrata.

Monday, Sept. 18 – Ephrata, Lancaster County

We need not have worried about the rain; this morning we were greeted with clear, cloudless blue skies. Breakfast (a good one) was followed by the day’s bicycle route description by our leaders Richard and Carol. Three routes to choose from, 29, 35, and 44 miles; I coerced Robert into the 44, simply because otherwise we’d be at the picnic lunch site before 11:00!

Our rental bikes (Specialized hybrids) nicely prepped and water bottles filled, we rolled out of the parking lot around 9:30 am. Robert didn’t care much for the big flag on the back of the bike, and left it at the B&B, but I kept mine, hoping that I wouldn’t hook my foot on it getting off the bike and wind up splatted on the ground. We headed west then north in a loop that took us up to Clay Township, passing rolling corn fields and farms en route. Swinging back around Ephrata towards Red Run, we started seeing horses and black, steel-wheeled buggies of the Amish and Mennonites. Nearly everyone was friendly, returning our waves and greetings as we rolled along the countryside. The houses were very modern and attractive; the Amish homes were evident by the lack of external wiring. Mondays, as it turned out, was the traditional weekly laundry day, so many homes had clothing (mostly in typical Amish solid colors) stretched out on clotheslines running between the houses and barns. The very earthy smell of cattle was quite apparent (made us think of our farm stay in Cornwall in May of this year), and in some barns we could see recently harvested tobacco leaves drying on racks.

Our leaders had a great lunch spread out for us at Memorial Park in New Holland, at about the 29-mile mark for Robert and I. After that it was only about 15 miles back to Ephrata, plus an extra half mile or so because we missed a turn trying to get past a lawnmower chugging down the street! Ephrata is not a big town by California standards – about 12,000 people – but there was just enough traffic (cars picking up kids from schools, buggies, lawnmowers) to make navigating down the streets somewhat trying, especially after the solitude and beauty of the open farmlands.

Tuesday, Sept. 19 – Ephrata

A slightly longer route – 47.1 miles – took us first to the town of Intercourse, a bustling, Solvang-like tourist town. Sharing the road with an antique car road rally and a pack of fumebelching tour buses, we were finally able to pull out a sample a little of what the town could offer. Best deal: Aunt Annie’s Pretzels. We devoured some fresh, hot pretzels dipped in butter and drenched with cinnamon sugar – yum! We also visited The Old Country Store, where the last quilt I made, “The Country Bride” was first designed and sewn. They had the original on display; frankly, I thought mine looked better!

There were many quilts for sale, but I couldn’t really see buying one, so instead I bought some fabric instead, a set of seven or eight Amish jewel-tone cottons.

From Intercourse we spun over to Bird-in-Hand, a smaller village whose main claim to fame is that the movie Witness was filmed there (the town scene, where the non-Amish protagonist dressed as an Amish farmer punches some obnoxious idiot in the nose).

We were eager to keep moving – we still had over 28 miles to go at that point – so on we went to Lititz, where we visited the Wilbur Chocolate Factory and the Sturgis Pretzel Bakery. We bought a bunch of chocolate at the former and took a tour at the latter, learning how to roll pretzels. Slightly more interesting was the baking room, where we could watch the (hard) pretzel assembly line.

By this time it was nearly 3:00 PM – we really took our time today – so we got back on the bikes and slowly made our way back to Ephrata. Robert hit the showers while I went on a search and rescue mission for postcards; surprisingly they had been hard to find in Intercourse and Bird-inHand. I found some in a drugstore and then cycled over to the post office for stamps. Just left the bike outside and went in; it amazed me that you could do that and not worry about the bike being gone when you returned!

With the extra jaunt I figured I had 48 miles this day.

Dinner was “free”, meaning just the opposite in that we were on our own, but most of us went to Stoltzfus Farm Restaurant in Intercourse. For $12.50 we got a huge family-style meal: fried chicken, sausage, ham loaf (kind of spam-like, hmmm), candied yams, buttered noodles, corn, beans, salads…and dessert too! We managed to contain ourselves pretty well, I think. Even found a pair of the cute, faceless Amish dolls for Maureen and Maggie, too.
The next day we would leave Ephrata and cycle to Mount Joy. Trying to repack our bags with the day’s purchases was somewhat amusing…

Wednesday, Sept. 20 – Ephrata to Mount Joy

Two route choices today, a flat 29-mile and a 12-mile hillier extension. Although mentally I was up for the full 41, my body decided it wasn’t, arguing with me on every hill on the “flat” portion. About the only hill I zoomed up was to escape the stench of a very ripe pig sty; Robert waved food at me to tease me up another (after he himself had bailed well before the top!).

We had a nice picnic lunch about five miles from our end destination, and .8 miles from there was Bube’s Brewery (no longer a real brewery, but a pretty decent bar instead). We parked ourselves there for almost an hour, enjoying Lancaster Amber Ale and Yuengling Black & Tan before pushing on to the finish.

Our Inn was the Cameron Estate, a beautiful home built by Simon Cameron, Abraham Lincoln’s first secretary of war, 4-time senator and ambassador to Russia. From our large second floor room we had a nice view of the surrounding woods.

After a few days with the tour, we started to know our cycling mates a bit. There were two “May-December” couples: Ken and Jennie from Illinois (he’s 50, she’s 36, fourth wife), and Cheryl and Tom from Colorado (she’s about 10 years up on him). Duane and Patty were a recently married couple from Colorado Springs; he was raised Mennonite in Colorado but they both lived in Northern California for a few years before returning to Colorado. Carl and Helen were from Annandale, Virginia; they were just a little older than us, I thought. Lastly, our tour leaders were Richard, an Asian fellow from Huntsville, Alabama with absolutely no southern accent (his parents worked in the space program), and Carol, a ditzy ex-Pennsylvanian who called Virginia home. Both Richard and Carol were pretty young, early 20’s. Richard in particular was an awesome cyclist; the days he rode with us he easily covered twice the ground we did, going back and forth between the different riders strung out along the route. He also liked to talk about racing; he and I drooled over a Velo News one night, discussing Laurent Jalabert’s lead in the Vuelta de España.

Dinner was not until 7:00 PM, giving us a chance to relax and explore the grounds for a few hours. And we really needed it! After 121 miles in three days, I was definitely feeling a little saddle-sore. I could only hope that it would feel better in the morning.

Thursday, Sept. 21 – Mount Joy

Well, indeed, I did feel better this morning. Robert got up early for a little birding in the woods while I looked over the routes; the day’s choices were 27 and 35 miles, with the extra eight of the latter being billed as “hilly”. We didn’t have to decide until lunch, so off we headed away from the Cameron Estate. First stop about eight miles away was the Nissley Winery; did a little tasting, and some of the group watched some wine-making action while I talked bikes with Richard. We bought a half-bottle of a pleasant white wine to enjoy in the afternoon back at the estate.

From there it was 12 miles or so to the lunch stop, a really nice picnic area next to a flowing creek. Leader Carol outdid herself for our last group picnic: lots of good sandwich stuff (including lebanon bologna,) munchies, drink, cookies, etc.

At this point it was decision time: do the hills, or not? I was feeling good, and Jennie wanted to go (husband Ken was taking a rest day). Robert said he’d go, too, so the three of us groaned and settled in for the ride. Just a half mile in and we hit the “very tough one mile climb”, which was long, but not all that bad (that’s what that triple chain ring was for, after all!). A great downhill followed and brought us into the town of Columbus, right past a Watch and Clock Museum. Despite Richard’s and Carol’s advice that everyone should “stop and smell the roses”, or in this case see the clocks, we all three felt like pushing on, so we skipped the museum and rolled back through town. Too soon the next tough climb appeared before us – one marked “killer .4 mile climb” on the route instructions – and we did our best to conquer it in our own distinct ways. Robert charged and fizzled halfway; Jennie had a steadier pace, but on a true mountain bike with plain pedals, managed just a bit short of half. I got within, oh, 40 or 50 feet of the summit, but it was steep, and despite the fact I was in gear one, I could not keep turning over the pedals, nor could I stand up, and I very nearly fell over. Oh well! By that point, Robert had recovered and resumed the climb, being the only one to make it to the top still on the bike. But that’s ok; as Richard would say, walking is good cross-training.

Following that it was a relatively easy, seven or eight miles back to the Cameron Estate. Only two bikes in the barn (Cheryl and Tom), and we didn’t pass anyone, so the rest must have taken the long route after all. Only one more cycling day, a 35-mile shot back to Ephrata. If we make it, we would have 191 miles in 5 days!

Mom’s birthday today; called her at work this afternoon.

Following dinner at the Estate, we had a little “awards” ceremony. We had all drawn names the night before and were to give that person something to remember the trip by. Robert got a gourd sporting an Amish beard and hat, from Carol; I got a macraméd tow rope with a “man-in-tow” sign from Patty. Robert gave Richard a little pumpkin on which he had drawn the VBT logo, cow and sunglasses and all; it was great! Others were equally creative; Ken gave Duane 10 tips for the new husband, Carl told a great story about a magic gourd (really an apple), Jennie wrote a story for Ken, etc. I gave Helen colorful dried corn to remember the many fields we passed through.

Our last night wrapped up around 10:00 PM as we all trooped upstairs to pack. As Richard might have s
aid, it’s been “cool”!

Friday, Sept. 22 – Mount Joy to Cape May, New Jersey

The day dawned looking overcast and dreary, but it was actually kind of warm, that slightly sticky cool warm you get before a thunderstorm. We got our stuff packed into the van, ate breakfast, gave tips to Richard and Carol, and pulled on out onto the country roads. It was pretty much a straight shot back to Ephrata, over roads we had mostly seen before, but the mistiness of the morning gave it all an appropriately ethereal quality. We did climb a lot in the beginning; Jennie and Ken were with us for awhile, but we lost them (him, really; she’d have made it no doubt) on the way up to “Lancaster County’s highest point” around 11.5 miles into the ride. We came upon – and passed – Cheryl and Tom shortly afterwards; they’d gotten a ride in the van to miss some of the tougher hills.

We couldn’t quite outrun the approaching storm, but only got a little rain on us before we arrived back in Ephrata; we covered the 35 miles in slightly over 3 hours. We were able to shower at Donecker’s, then went to the farmer’s market, where we picked up a roll of sweet lebanon bologna to take home, a regular lebanon bologna submarine sandwich, and some more hot pretzels (yum!). Saw Cheryl and Tom one last time before we left town and said goodbye; also saw Jennie and Ken coming up State Street to Donecker’s as we were driving out.

The cycling was great fun, and we were so lucky on the weather. It absolutely poured most of the way to Cape May, but for the most part the turnpikes kept moving. We got to our B&B in Cape May, the very-Victorian Carroll Villa, around 5:00 PM. We had a very small room on the third floor, but it did have lots of charm. We strolled the Cape May fußgängerzone, picking up some candy (salt water taffy) before settling down to dinner at Dillon’s Restaurant. The wind blew pretty hard, but it remained balmy and sticky. It rained on us a bit walking back, and luckily did not start dumping until we were well ensconced in our B&B drawing room, watching the news on television, and thinking about birding and possibly cycling the next day.

Saturday, Sept. 23 – Cape May

Robert was up early, out to catch songbirds at dawn; I couldn’t quite wake up, so I stayed behind and planned to join him at breakfast. Just as well; the weather was fairly dismal, cold, and windy, a real switch from the previous day temperature-wise. But we went out after breakfast anyway, checking out Higbee Beach, Cape May State Park, and the Cape May Bird Observatory. Later we rewalked through the pedestrian mall, visited the Catholic Church (Mary of the Sea), and finally had dinner (again) at Dillon’s.

Sunday, Sept. 24 – Cape May to home

Better weather this day – figures! Robert was out early again while I packed and repacked for the trip home. We went out to Cape May State Park again, and caught a very good open-air seminar on raptor identification and banding. We got to see many raptors up close and personal, was great! Also got good looks at Merlin, and a very probable Northern Goshawk.

While Robert took a short walk, I climbed the steps of the lighthouse, all 200 of them. Terrific view from the top overlooking the Cape; too bad Robert didn’t come too, but he would have hated the steps.

We left Cape May around noon and drove on out to Atlantic City. It was nice to say we’ve “been there, done that”, but otherwise, what a disappointment! Monstrous casinos totally dwarfed the few small, seaside businesses that remained (which themselves were like I imagined Coney Island would be, or perhaps the great “tacky zone” of Lands’ End in Cornwall). Lots of tubby senior citizens in impossibly gaudy, ugly running suits, beggars begging; all in all, pretty much like Las Vegas except the old parts looked much older and much seedier. Basically, it was one big tacky zone itself. We did, at least, walk on the Boardwalk, and saw many Monopoly streets, including Park Place.

From Atlantic City it was back to Philly to fly home. As we passed the airport Embassy Suites it was hard to believe that it was only a week ago this day that we checked out and headed to Ephrata. It’s good when a short trip feels like more; I felt very refreshed and ready to go home. Another successful vacation; I hope to plot another big cycling trip in the next couple of years.