Sunday, September 13, 2009

Ground Zero and beyond

Flanman asked a passer-by to take his picture at the Brooklyn Bridge

Wednesday, Sept. 9 -- When I'd arrived at the North Wildwood motel at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the office was closed. I asked some folks who were sitting on their balconies over the tiny pool enjoying a few beers if they knew where the staff were. "Oh, they left this afternoon," one woman said. "Things are pretty slow around here."

How could I get into a room? I had an email confirmation of a reservation, but no key. "If you got an email, there should be a number to call, right?" she suggested. That worked. A young man with an eastern European accent showed up about 20 minutes later, asked about my trip, let me into a pool-side room and showed me where I could park the bike off the street and out of sight.

"I always want to take trip like that," he said.

Wildwood has none of the glitz, newness or polish of Myrtle Beach. It's a gritty old sea-side town populated by low-budget tourists and recent immigrants. A Spanish-language show blared from the TV at the laundromat where I dried my clothes while a skinny, hammered-looking guy in a straight-brimmed baseball cap and calf-length basketball shorts mopped the floor and two young Hispanic women chatted while they folded a load of clothes. A blonde in shorts showed up to move her laundry to a dryer only to find the washer never started.

"You gotta slam it," the guy with the mop said, unapologetic, and demonstrated the technique. The blonde sighed and sat down with a paperback to wait.

Next morning, the forecast wasn't great for South Jersey, but things looked to be better further north. To avoid spending the day on the Garden State Parkway, I set the GPS to avoid toll roads and set off, stopping for breakfast at the airport in Ocean City, just south of Atlantic City, which consisted of a parking lot, a runway and a building housing both the aviation operation and a cafe, staffed by a cheerful waitress and a competent short-order cook.

From there, I passed through the grim streets of Atlantic City, where urban blight is tenuously held at bay by Trump's casinos, which are beginning to show their age. The newer gambling palaces, like Harrah's, have abandoned the old Boardwalk and sit on the previously undeveloped, muddy bay shore. What do gamblers care about ocean views anyway?

Harrah's Casino in Atlantic City

It rained briefly as I passed through the Pine Barrens on my way north to Newark, so I stopped to put on my rain gear. An hour further north, I took off the jacket and gaiters, but kept the pants on just in case all the way to Manhattan, which I reached weaving through a maze of construction projects to the Lincoln Tunnel. Stopping under elevated highways leading into the city, I saw enough rusted steel and rotting concrete to wonder how long this transportation system can last before disaster strikes.

From Midtown, the GPS led me to New York's City Hall -- if you don't specify an address, that's where a Garmin will always take you. The sun came out and I found a space at the curb to dismount, take off my rain pants and shoot a picture.

The GPS led me directly to City Hall in New York City

From there, I headed south toward Battery Park, thinking I could take some pictures of the harbor. As I passed through the Village and got closer to Ground Zero, however, security checkpoints had traffic at a standstill and I detoured to South Street Seaport, then up the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge, where I stopped for some photos.

The photogenic Brooklyn Bridge still rivals the shiny new spans

I ended up at South Street Seaport after hitting the pre-9/11 snarl of checkpoints near Ground Zero

Transportation options create a maze of iron, steel and concrete on the Lower East Side

The FDR Expressway up the East Side, probably the most exciting and dangerous piece of road I encountered in the entire trip, took me up to Harlem before I found a bridge to the Bronx, where I saw a sign for Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, I never saw another stadium sign -- I would have liked to take a picture of the new arena -- and ended up on old US 1 heading through New Rochelle to Larchmont.

Eileen, my dad's older sister, lived in Larchmont when I was a kid growing up in Western Massachusetts and we used to drive down to visit her family. Barry, her husband, worked at a museum in the city, commuting by train, and, although my cousins had cool English bicycles, took violin lessons and lived in a big house that even had servants' quarters, the family didn't own an automobile and I felt sorry for them. My brief visit to affluent Larchmont proved that my pity was misplaced.

North of Larchmont, homeward-bound traffic on US 1 became irksome and I got on I-95. As I reached Stamford, one of the screws holding the windshield and fairing together vibrated loose and got off the bike. With the windshield flapping up and down, I got off the highway and used the GPS to find a Home Depot, where I figured I could find a replacement.

With things back together, I used the Blackberry to Google state parks with camping, got back on I-95 and headed to Hammonasset State Park, on the Long Island Sound, which was staffed by volunteers happy to put me up for the night in a tent site in the, Algonquin Section, which proved to be hard to find until a pleasant Canadian man with a French accent took pity on the guy on the motorcycle with the map flapping in the breeze and told me I was on the wrong road.

The nice volunteer recommended a nearby seafood restaurant for dinner and a Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast. She was right about breakfast, but the watery chowder I had at the fish place had me missing the food in Maine.

It wouldn't be long before I could have some real chowder.

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