On the eighth night, I doubted we would reach our goal of Albany. We stood in the rain, on the side of Route 67 as the sky grew black. Ben began to patch the hole in the deflated tube of his front tire with a piece of electrical tape from our new pal David, who looked like an extra from the set of Little House on the Prairie. One day and 60 miles stood between us and the title of end-to-enders, an honor earned by completing the Canalway Challenge and traversing the 360 miles of the Erie Canalway Trail between Albany and Buffalo. The trail is 87% off-road, and much of it follows the Towpath Trail, a path forged by mule teams led by young boys, which pulled canal boats on the Enlarged Erie Canal. But Ben and I now found ourselves far from the towpath, wearing headlamps and shining flashlights in the entrance to David’s driveway as cars sped past us at 70 mph up the steep incline of the road. We stood soaked, sore, hungry, and as deflated as the tire we all three sought to fix.
But I began this quest fueled by the pandemic, the end of grad school, my pride at being a native Syracusan, and my family. Almost four months earlier, I learned from my grandmother that two of my great, great, great uncles, Orlie and Glen, worked on the canal. She gave me five books on the Erie Canal, including a NYS surveyor’s chart of the Erie Barge Canal and a memoir by Richard Garrity entitled Canal Boatman. In preliminary research, I learned in an article from 1990 that Richard and Uncle Glen were childhood friends, and may have been the oldest surviving canalmen of the old Erie. After Uncle Glen got a copy of Richard’s memoir, he sent a letter to his old pal, and the pair, both 87 years old, reunited in 1990 after 70 years of separation. In 2008, Mark DeCracker, one of the journalists who interviewed the duo, uploaded the videos to YouTube. DeCracker even wrote a poem called “Towpath Friends” about Glen and Richard.
oth men started work on the canal around the age of 12, joining their fathers and mothers on family boats that hauled gravel from Palmyra along with lumber and stone. The ships were 16 feet wide, 97 feet wide, 9 feet tall on the sides, and carried a maximum capacity of 240 tons. Six mules, working in two teams of three, rotated every six hours, dragging the barges from Tonawanda to Albany and back again in 18 days. Glen said they treated the mules — named Pete, Sandy, Babe, and Maude, (but no Sal!) to name a few — like family.
Most resources say life was rough on the canal, but Glen and Richard likened the experience to an adventure, saying all they did was eat, sleep, and roam the countryside. Both worked as mule boys, but also helped their fathers with whatever needed doing — loading gravel or lumber, purchasing supplies, or even steering the boat. On the videos I watched, Glen and Richard shared memories of some seedier details, too, including fighting other boys outside the Palmyra movie theater, climbing under the family boat to hold a lantern for a hired man fixing a leak, and the propensity of mule drivers toward booze. The mule drivers, they said, would be hired in Tonawanda, paid, and then laid off in Albany, where they’d spend their earnings on a bottle of whiskey and search for a new gig to take them back to Tonawanda. Richard remembered, laughing, “In Tonawanda, when you went through there, the kids would sometimes holler, “Canaller, canaller, you’ll never get rich, you’ll die on the Towpath, you son of a bitch!”
Glen and Richard’s days on the Towpath ended in 1916, but the canal kids became canal boatmen, going on to captain boats on the Erie Barge Canal. In a 1994 interview with Rosalie Gabbert, Glen said, “My great-grandfather was an Erie Canal boatman. My grandfather was an Erie Canal boatman. My father was an Erie Canal boatman. And, I was an Erie Canal boatman!” His pal Richard had passed away two years before this, making Glen the lone survivor of the heyday of the Old Erie.
Born and raised in Syracuse, I always felt a connection to the canal, but learning about this personal tether gave my trip more significance. And, as I began to plan, it became more than a quest for my roots. It also became a bit of light at the end of a dark cave of an academic year. Many of my classmates and friends started talking about “burnout” in the spring semester. It became the world’s favorite buzzword (“Zoom brain,” “pandemic fatigue,” “Covid-19 burnout” all made headlines). But while the globe created new ways to describe this state, I felt like I no longer possessed access to words anymore, like all my creativity was not only dried and shriveled but fried. As a grad student in a communications school, words dominated my day — talking, listening, writing. Yet, I felt like I was talking more than I ever have, and speaking less than ever before. It felt like no one knew what I was going through, but everyone was talking about feeling the same way.
But despite all the talk about the collective fatigue, there existed little conversation about mental health solutions. Sometimes as I logged onto a virtual class, summoned my bravest face, and joined a grid of other students with forced smiles, I wondered how many felt the same as I did, with the certainty that I was far from the only one. Later, as I learned that some of my friends, people I admire, who inspire me, who I perceive as unflappable and invincible, felt the same as me, I went searching for solutions. This trip became one, offering me a vital escape from monotony, from screens, from school, from the stagnant quarantine cocoon I created. This year of grad school, and the four years of undergrad that preceded it felt like one big extension of high school.
And not since high school had I found myself falling into such a slump of suicidal thoughts. It can be empowering to think about suicide — knowing you can, and choosing to not. And as I fought those feelings and thoughts, the bike trip transformed into the inverse expression of those thoughts: not knowing if you can, and choosing to. I was not an experienced biker. I didn’t even own a bike. I doubted my ability to make it, but I believed I was stubborn enough to do so. And the closer the trip inched toward me, the more some of my friends began to tease me that they weren’t sure that I could make it, and that lit a fire under me. And even as my buddies busted on me and the likelihood that I could complete the trip, my family knew I could do it. Aunt Sue, Mima, my sisters and parents, they expressed their excitement for me.
In fact, I and the other members of my family come from similar stock to those who built the canal. My grandmother’s father came to America as an indentured servant from Canada. My grandfather was a carpenter, and so is my father, and the hard work of those who came before me placed me on a bike on the Erie Canalway Trail, fortunate enough to call this adventure my work.
Those personal connections also propelled me to research the canal, and I discovered a world of Erie Canal enthusiasts, some recreationists, some historians, all of whom share a passion for the canal system and its lore. I joined five Facebook groups for canallers: NYS Canalway Water Trail, Canalway Challenge, NY Erie Canal Trail Enthusiasts, Historic Erie Canal, and Cycle the Erie Canal Bike Tour (a page focused on planning for and sharing experiences from an annual end-to-end bike tour, hosted by Parks and Trails New York, which tends to attract 600 or so bikers — though this year the tour was restricted to half-capacity in compliance with Covid-19 guidelines). Here, I connected with End-to-Enders, pleasure boaters, state-employed and armchair canal historians alike, each person offering their own expertise, be it on how to pack for the journey, or what to look for and where to camp on the trail. The groups garner multiple posts a day, and when folks post questions, someone offers help. The Historic Erie Canal Group fuels a lot of debate. Canal history buffs flex their towpath trivia skills on construction dates, sizes, and whereabouts of locks, and the purpose of a milieu of artifacts and antique tools once employed for one purpose or another on Clinton’s Ditch or the Old Erie.
Some of the canal’s history informed my early education. Like most kids in Central New York, I received early and frequent lessons about the Erie Canal, and the song “Fifteen Years on the Erie Canal” served as a regular soundtrack to my early years. On a fourth-grade field trip to the Chittenango Landing Canal Boat Museum, once a boatyard, my class learned about the canal and sifted for artifacts. On my dig as a 9-year-old, I found a glass bottle (!!!). Then, I switched schools in fifth grade, and our social studies class took the same field trip. That time, another kid found an identical bottle, and it dawned on me that if classrooms of children dug in the same patch of dirt day in and out for years, they’d have hit the center of the earth by now.
Although the harmless duplicity of the little artifact dig shattered some of my youthful illusions, it continues to serve as a fitting metaphor for how the history of the canal is told. The reality of the canal’s construction is impressive – a four-foot deep, forty foot wide, 363-mile waterway hand dug by workers, featuring 83 stone-walled locks that lifted and lowered boats to navigate differences in elevation. An international marvel that succeeded against all odds and even more naysayers and a triumph of industry and labor.
But, like a lot of history, the narratives often shared lack the more challenging truths — a monstrous campaign of indigenous removal, the destruction of natural waterways and ecosystems, and the epicenter of barbaric working conditions and compensation. Though my personal connections to the Erie Canal are a point of pride, Freida Jacques’ relations to the waterway are rooted in pain. A member of the Onondaga Nation, Freida frames the canal as a key piece in the acceleration of the Clinton-Sullivan campaign and as the impetus for the American government to steal Onondaga land and block the nation’s access to natural resources. “To me, all it meant was that a whole lot of people could come,” Freida says. “We had to deal with that, and deal with the loss of access to some places.”
Indeed, the population of Syracuse alone increased from roughly 500 in 1825 to over 15,000 by 1850. Rochester and Buffalo’s populations ballooned even larger, and immigrants soon made their way to the Midwest, spreading out in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. In fact, the rise of Syracuse as the Salt City is an oft-told component of the triumphant canal narrative, but Freida says that the salt industry spelled disaster for native trees, further disconnecting indigenous people from the resources they depended on to maintain their livelihoods and from the wildlife that made their homes there. “We would not be free to cross that canal into the swamps to go get our medicine after that,” Freida says.
The idea for the canal grew from humble circumstances. Wheat farmer Jesse Hawley first conceived of it in a poorhouse in Geneva, and it attracted some high-level skepticism. Thomas Jefferson dubbed it “little short of madness.” And though a rich man, governor DeWitt Clinton, is credited and remembered as the father of the canal, it was a hodge-podge of immigrants of every creed and color — not just the Irish, as many falsely claim, (though they did compose a bulk of the workforce) — who did the dirty work. Yes, Irish, Germans, Italians, Eastern Europeans, and almost certainly enslaved African Americans toiled, felling trees, carving stone for aqueducts, locks, and bridges, and carted and wheelbarrowed the dirt dug for the ditch to create the towpath trail. Trudging through bug-infested swamps, the workers often succumbed to diseases such as malaria.
And so I set out to learn more about this monumental waterway that once ran through my city and that runs through my family, connecting the people of my state to our fellow Americans and the rest of the world. I invited two good friends, Ben and James, to join me, (though James could only come for the first leg, from Buffalo to Syracuse). Two years ago when I studied abroad I’d biked around Amsterdam with James for 10 days, but that was about the extent of my biking experience. Ben came with me because, for over a decade, he’s been the friend down the street that I do anything and everything with. Seeing as I didn’t even own a bike and was borrowing one from Ben’s dad, I was fortunate to have a pair of experienced bikers with me. Besides, it’d be hard to go it alone, and, like me, Ben and James were both longing for a change of pace from the monotony of school and work.
We left Buffalo the week before the rain-drenched tire blowout. Our bicycles carried camping gear, spare clothes, and bike supplies, and our Camelbaks held portable chargers, snacks, and water. A massive storm ravaged Central New York that day, but it stopped by the time we departed Buffalo. Ominous clouds lingered, signaling what would come later in the trip. From Canalside Buffalo we biked the eight miles to Tonawanda along the Niagara River, which connects the canal to Lake Erie, where we then made it to the towpath and headed eastward.
The Niagara’s chop of blue-gray water eased into the Erie Barge Canal, the most current iteration of the Erie Canal system. There’s another thing they don’t seem to tell you as a kid. The canal had three distinct eras — Clinton’s Ditch, the Enlarged Erie Canal, and the Erie Barge Canal — and each of these interpolated portions of the previous iteration, while dooming severed-off sections to a fate of disuse and obscurity. Complicating things, the “old Erie Canal” isn’t the oldest. But the Barge Canal was stunning in its breadth. The lack of boats surprised us. The water sat still for such a windy day, and the canal was wider than I imagined. The first few days of the trip we traveled alongside the Barge Canal, passing through a litany of port towns. The path is remarkably straight, and after a few days, that straightforwardness transitioned to monotony.
Once we started biking severed sections of the Enlarged Erie Canal, the algae bloom-infested, swampy, still waters further detached the canal from my majestic perception of it. While the enlarged canal sections offer more wooded sections and feature wildlife such as birds, turtles, rabbits, and even skunks, it brings with it all kinds of bugs, which fail to enhance the biking experience. The Hallmark wanderlust I possessed on the first pedal began to wear off when the trail veered off the towpath and onto Route 5. Biking on a thin bike lane on a 65 MPH road with the canal nowhere to be seen, I began to ask myself, “Why the hell am I on the side of the thruway biking uphill in the rain? How did I ever get into this mess, anyway?”
Nonetheless, the trail delivered variety. The surviving remnants of the Clinton’s Ditch era served as the most striking feature of the canal systems for me. On the third day of our trip, we stopped by an abandoned Clinton’s Ditch-era lock right behind the parking lot of a Wegmans in Pittsford. We clambered up a hill and found the lock covered in moss and graffiti, a crumbling remnant of what was, at one point, the most impressive feat of modern engineering in the world. Even the signs and plaques installed above the lock were broken and illegible.
And as I stood before this colossal wreck, a traveler from an antique land reviewing this once-proud innovation’s crumbling explanatory pedestals, which ought to have read, “My name is Clinton’s Ditch, King of Canals; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” I, too, felt the frustration toward Albany expressed by so many people along this trip. I too wanted to know why this pinnacle of design, a technological marvel, had fallen into obscurity. Men bled for this, toiled for this, died for this lock — this pile of rocks that served an integral role in a massive system that connected our state and our nation — which soon will become a grassy hill, obscured by objective Time and the subjective neglect of our forebears’ labor.
But we possessed little time to think about Time and returned to our bikes. After a few more hours, we stopped again by Fort Herkimer’s graveyard and church (here, General Nicholas Herkimer, namesake of the town of Herkimer, was born and raised, and here, he and his Tryon County militia holed up during the Revolution until his mortal wounding at the Battle of Oriskany). But rain served as our constant companion, and a deluge of water forced us into a Stewarts. Our bodies, clothes, and sponge-like shoes were soaked. We squished water with each step. We hoped to warm up in the gas station, but it proved colder than the outdoors. After burgers, pizza, more than a few Cliff bars, coffee, and water, the rain paused, and we made a dash for Johnstown, 10 miles away. Google Maps told us we could save an hour by taking Route 67 instead of Route 5 (a thruway incorporated by the Canalway Trail), and given a foreboding forecast promising more rain, we chose the shortcut to get us to Johnstown. From there we would break from the trail and head 10 miles North to Ben’s aunt’s cabin in Mayfield, or so we thought.
Two miles up a seemingly endless incline on Route 67, we stopped for a break and took a look at a tiny one-story white building on the side of the highway, a school constructed by Palatine descendants in 1850 (immigrants from the Palatinate region in Germany). Many of these people (including old General Herkimer) settled in the Mohawk Valley. We took pictures of the school and the incongruous signs, ate some Old Trapper beef jerky, and wondered how much further we’d have to bike uphill. From our perch, it felt like we stood almost above all the trees in the distant horizon. At first, this gave the view with a mist/mountained/mystique akin to that of Twin Peaks. But, soon after, it took on all the foreboding associated with the events that precipitated the Donner Party disaster.
As we walked back out onto the razor thin, bumpy bike path along Route 67, I ignored the first few drops of rain, trying to escape the reality that the next two and half hours would be wet, cold, and dark. About a quarter mile past the Palatine School, Ben hollered for me to pull over. He had a flat tire from a piece of glass, and we dug up the last of our spare tubes out of the panniers and replaced the tire.
We had managed to avoid a flat since James got one back in Weedsport, 121 miles ago. But as the rain grew steadier, an exacerbated Ben yelled again for me to stop. He had a flat, after forgetting to remove the piece of glass that caused the first flat, which, he shared, was the first rule of flat-fixing. But in growing dusk, working at a caloric deficit as the sprinkles of rain evolved into a drizzle, 16 miles from our destination, a mind tends to focus on forward progress, nothing else. Forgetfulness comes easy. Google Maps placed us four miles past St. Johnsville and six miles from Johnstown. Reluctant to turn back and render the past miles of uphill biking pointless, we decided to hoof it to Johnstown, where we hoped locals may be more inclined to ferry a few stranded bikers 10 miles north to Mayfield.
We put on our headlamps and started hiking up the highway through the now steady rain. Cars flew past us, clocking 70 mph, and as the darkness crept in around us, I realized the feeble job our reflectors and headlamps performed and the jeopardy that placed us in as drivers navigated this dark, stormy, bumpy country road, where homes were few and far between the wide open fields around us.
“I think we need to start knocking on doors,” I told Ben. He agreed.
Just as we began to scan for homes, we saw the wide beam of a flashlight swinging around the field ahead of us. As we neared, we called out, and after a pause, received a blunt, indiscernible reply. We saw the flashlight’s glow turn toward us and begin to grow closer. So we pulled off the bike lane and waited at the edge of a long driveway leading away from Route 5 through open fields and eventually, a home and a barn.
Finally, the person with the flashlight appeared before us in blue jeans and boots, a tucked-in, blue-and-white flannel shirt rolled up to the elbows, (exposing wiry, work-worn forearms), and what looked to be some sort of straw hat. He looked as if he could have been 17 or 27 and wore an expression of confused curiosity and a gentle smile.
“Would you happen to have a spare bike tire?” Ben asked.
“Bike tire? No,” the man said in a strange accent. “Why do you ask?”
We explained our predicament and asked if he might have any electrical tape. He headed down the driveway to grab some from his home as Ben and I tried to place the accent. German, maybe, or possibly Nordic? Either would fit the man’s crop of blond hair.
When he returned, we shook hands and got his name: David. As Ben set to work taking his tire off again, David stood and looked on with stoic indifference to the pouring rain that drenched the three of us, a trio that looked like some sort of cross between Little House on the Prairie and the Tour de France. David watched Ben removing the tire as if he had never seen a bicycle.
“Were you looking for frogs?” I asked David, thinking of my grandfather, who during the Great Depression, used to catch frogs with his brothers to bring home for their mother to fry up the legs for dinner.
“No, we are looking for nightcrawlers,” he said, having to repeat the last word a few times for me to understand. “We might be going fishing at Peck Lake on Friday.”
Then, a car came skidding down the highway above us with a slow, loud grind. The car was hard to make out in the dark, but we could see its headlights and taillights.
“Well, they look to be in just as shit a way as we are,” Ben said.
“What do you mean?” David asked after a pause, squinting his eyes.
“Look, it looks like they’ve run out of gas or something,” I said.
“That is not a car,” David said as the silhouette of a horse and buggy with a lantern swinging from each corner emerged from the darkness. “You are on the border of Amish community.”
And then it all made sense, the wardrobe, the accent, the curious interest in the bicycles. The buggy stopped, and the driver asked, “How are you doing tonight?”
“We’re in a bad way,” Ben said. “But our friend David here is helping us out.”
David smiled and laughed, and the buggy pulled off again. The longer we stood with him, the younger he seemed to me — a compelling mix of grow-up-fast maturity paired with a certain little-brotherness. I can only imagine what he thought of us — we in our biker tights and headlamps and bikes loaded with bags. It certainly wasn’t a sight he was used to seeing in his driveway at 9 p.m. on a Wednesday night in the pouring rain.
“Will it work?” David kept asking. “We do not have bikes in the Amish community, so I do not know much about them.” This struck me as incongruous with the flashlight in his hand, but I didn’t press him on the rules of the community.
“Yeah this’ll do the trick,” Ben said, standing up after reattaching the tire to the bike. “So, what’s it like being Amish?”
David shrugged. “It is nice. I’ve lived here all my life,” he said. “I don’t know anything else.”
I wanted to hear more about David’s life, too, but my cold exhaustion triumphed over journalistic curiosity. Of course, David could have asked us what it was like to not be Amish. Instead though, he kept imploring us to take the rest of the electrical tape, generously offering what he could, seemingly wishing he could be of more service.
“Don’t worry, man,” I said. “If that doesn’t work, nothing will.” We thanked him and shook his hand again, trying to demonstrate just how helpful he had been. “Good luck fishing, I hope you catch the big ‘un!” David got a real kick out of that, and, laughing, ambled back up his driveway.
Then as the sky went from dark to darker, we made it to the top of the hill, only to realize we were fools to look forward to the descent. The bike path was so thin, bumpy, and full of holes, the road so steep and slippery, and visibility so low that Ben and I nearly fell off our bikes too many times for comfort. As the battery percentages on our phones slipped away, we decided to try to hitchhike. No one stopped. So we called the Fulton County Police Department. After some reluctance, the dispatcher sent a deputy with a pickup truck for us. And, 30 minutes later, we sat in the cab with a young cop, our bikes in the truck bed.
“Yeah, in about 2 miles, the road gets really bumpy,” the cop told us. Ben and I tried to fathom what could be bumpier than what we had traversed. About five minutes later, the truck began to bounce in and out of pothole after pothole, and we understood. Another half hour passed, and we made it to the cabin. When we set out from Buffalo, I figured some things would go wrong on this trip, but I never expected we’d be saved by an Amishman and policeman in the span of an hour. We were nowhere near the Erie Canal at this point, but the cop and David’s hospitality continued a succession of kindness demonstrated from nearly everyone (nearly everyone) we encountered along the Erie Canalway Trail.
Back on the third night, though, we met a different kind of hospitality. At the Pourhouse Bar and Grill in Lyons (a play on Lyons’ old nickname from the Clinton’s Ditch era, in which Lock 56 was located adjacent to the Wayne County Poorhouse in the little village), I caught up with Ben and James, who dined on chicken fingers and fries while I hung back at the Lock 28A drydock admiring a spectacular sunset reflected off the mirrorlike still waters of the canal. I’d never seen water as still as that day. Here, sitting near the Tug Syracuse (built in 1933, the last State canal boat donated by the people of Syracuse), taking in the calm of the water, the sherbert sky, an explosion of fiery orange that could put any Fourth of July fireworks show to shame, my heart felt the joy of living and the power of a moment alone with a waterway along which millions of souls have passed.
When I managed to pull myself away, I got back in the saddle and pedaled hard under a purple sky into Lyons and headed into the Pourhouse Bar and Grill. Up at the bar, a large man in a biker jacket with an even larger beard was making a big deal about playing Pink Floyd off the jukebox against the bartender’s complaints that, “this isn’t bar music.” I stood to retrieve a beer and considered telling him that I appreciated the selection, but Ben and James elbowed me and said they’d been doing their best for the last hour to ignore this guy.
I soon realized why. The big biker was named Ben, and I noticed that Big Ben was staring at us. He began loudly spouting what sounded to be a well-worn political diatribe, staring at the three of us, hoping we would take the bait. When he worked himself up into an all-out thought-shout, he saw James smirk and yelled, “You got something to say?” To which James laughed, shrugged, and said no. But it was too late. Big Ben hobbled off his barstool and swayed over to our table. But rather than continuing his political oration — really just a rambling combination of buzzwords and gripes that his preferred pundits had instructed him to be upset about — he began asking us about our schooling and where we were from.
Eventually, we got sucked into a subsequent rant about immigrants at the border, who apparently come to America because the Democrats send recruiting agents to Latin American countries to encourage migrants to pack up all they can carry and walk 2,000 miles to be refused entry to our country or separated from their children and put in a cage without trial or charge. I figure anyone with that recruiting prowess would be in army fatigues in the hallways of high schools, but there was no convincing Big Ben that this ridiculous claim undermined his original point. He’s not anti-immigrant, he insisted, he just doesn’t like people who aren’t doing things the fair way, the way his German grandparents had. I told him there was some guy like him who told his grandparents that they didn’t belong here either, but it was clear Big Ben just wanted a challenge since all the regulars’ abided by the collective standard of ignoring him. The strange thing was, even though he parroted standard xenophobic dog-whistles and talking points about immigration, Big Ben did not at any point take issue with the ethnicities, cultures, or countries of origin of the people at our Southern border, and I’d be hard pressed to call him a racist or bigot. What’s more, with the exclusion of his crackpot claim about Democrat-backed migrant recruiters, every statement that Big Ben made on immigration was completely consistent with Vice President Kamala Harris’s “Do not come” address, so maybe the guy wasn’t the fringe radical that I first judged him to be.
To be clear, I thought the guy was a jerk, and in many ways, including his treatment of the bartender, he was. In fact, when he lumbered over to the bathroom, the bartender told everyone at the bar that when he gets too drunk to drive his motorcycle home (and from what I could see, that’s a regular occurrence), she drives him home instead. With that detail, he began to seem meek and lonely, and interested in the spectacle provided by our little merry band of biker-tight-clad city slicker travellers. He struck me as a forgotten man, left behind by local, state, and federal governments, ignored by both parties, and utterly lacking even one friend in this world. His frequent declaration, “See that’s the thing, I know I’m an asshole — I don’t care!” seemed a pitiful attempt to claim some agency over his lonely existence, to somehow imply that if he didn’t have friends, it’s because he didn’t want them, not because of his utter lack of a single solitary shade of social grace.
After we finished our beer, we shook hands with Big Ben and headed across the street to the Lyons Fire Department, where bikers are invited to tent in the backyard. As we got into our sleeping bags and laid down on softer soil than anywhere else on the trail, we heard the roar of a motorcycle, and wondered how in the hell Big Ben would manage to make it home.
Big Ben wasn’t much interested in talking about the canal, but in other bars, it served as the ultimate social solvent. Like Attitudes, a Lockport bar we headed to on the first day based on the recommendation of a local, whose wayward, squinty-eyed, stuttered directions he soon explained with, “Sorry, I’ve already done a few rounds there.”
A mile and a half later, and we found Attitudes. It lived up to the name. I walked in to ask the bartender if we could bring our bikes inside so that we wouldn't have to worry about our gear being stolen. It felt like the cliche scene from the spaghetti Westerns, when the new face walks into the saloon, the piano man stops playing, and the regulars turn and stare. And like the cliche newcomer, I sidled on inside, just as bowlegged from my hours in the saddle, (red helmet, biker tights, and Camelbak in lieu of a ten-gallon hat, stirrups, and big iron), and made my request. The bartender, a short blonde girl who looked to be around 18 and soon demonstrated experience beyond her years, smiled and told us yes, while a portly, bald patron yelled, “Hell no!” For all I knew, this asshole could be the bartender’s father, the owner of the bar, or both — I observed later that someone at this table seemed to be calling the shots, and the bartenders appeared to show deference to him or his companions.
I smiled back and didn’t take the bait, and we moved our bikes over by the stage at the end of the bar. We shuffled past a sticker of Governor Cuomo placed outside the window creating the illusion that he was peaking through the blinds, the first in a series of unorthodox Cuomo stickers placed, to varying degrees of humor, in bars all along the canal trail. The stickers demonstrated the anti-Albany sentiment that seemed to bubble in every town. With most of the folks I talked to, the sentiment stemmed from Albany’s management, or lack thereof, of the Erie Canal system, anger directed at the seat of our elected officials rather than just toward the conduct of our governor.
“And don’t be making too much noise. We’ve seen your kind here before!” yelled the same patron.
“Can’t make any promises,” I shot back, and the bar erupted in laughter. We sat down at the corner of the bar to get some brews and burgers.
The guys around the bar asked us where we were coming from and where we were headed. Working men, they wore cargo shorts, blue jeans, boots, and union shirts, with sunburnt skin and calloused hands. They looked just like my dad’s friends, the guys I’ve worked with since I became big enough to provide a set of spare hands at a sheetrock job. A hulking dog named Eugene, who looked like he had stolen the Babe Ruth ball from the Sandlot gang, lay sprawled out at the foot of the bar, rising only to beg for food and promptly returning to his spot on the tiles. A few of the guys played a virtual golf game, and when one of them got a hole in one, the news spread down the bar as if he just hit a Megamillions jackpot.
I didn’t learn their names, nor they ours. But they welcomed us into this little community, where every patron knew the other’s name.
Throughout the trip, I employed a certain diplomacy in my approach when talking with new people, and the majority of them did the same. It didn’t take a social scientist to understand, even before noticing the Cuomo sign, the MAGA hat in the corner, or the Trump stickers on the hand dryer in the bathroom, that Attitudes was clearly a Trump bar. We never broached the elephant, or rather, the donkeys, in the room. Because if I could size these people up and make the educated guess that many of them were probably Trump supporters, they just as easily could surmise these three kids wearing biker tights and SU crop-tops leaned left. Yet somehow, we sat down, looked each other in the eyes, and talked about things other than politics.
In the bars and on the trail, the canal kept conversation flowing. Some folks were steeped in canal history. Others knew only anecdotes and tidbits. But everyone — from tourists making similar bike trips to locals at the bar to fishermen and boaters — seemed to share a common appreciation for the once-modern marvel of engineering. For Captain Tammee of the Colonial Belle, (who I connected with through one of the various canal Facebook groups and spoke with before my trip), the history of the waterway isn’t just her job, it’s her life. Tammee used to work on the family-run ship, the largest tour boat on the canal, and returned to take the helm after her father passed away. “That is one of the reasons why I decided to continue that. Because my dad had a really great thing started, and we wanted to make sure that it kept going, it's important to me to keep it in our family,” Tammee says. “And I joke around that the boat is my sister because it was one of my dad's other babies.”
On the Colonial Belle, Tammee educates tourists on canal history and myth. She says the tour isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and she works to convey to her passengers the rough and deadly conditions experienced by canal diggers, especially in swampy areas like Montezuma, where countless died of malaria and other diseases. She includes humorous, stranger-than-fiction canal tales such as the one about poor Mrs. Cramer of Rochester. Digging under the great embankment accidentally created a leak that caused a swell of water to burst into Mrs. Cramer’s basement as she ironed her laundry. Tammee says Mrs. Cramer started to see some water coming in the window, prompting her to move things out of the way to avoid water damage, but then the whole wall of her basement washed out, including Mrs. Cramer, who was washed down the street until she grabbed hold of a tree.
“She was down there in a bathrobe, and by the time she got to the tree, she didn't have anything left!,” Tammee says. “So the first thing the firemen did when they rescued her and handed her an upgrade.”
Tammee says her father told that story for years. “Then, one day, my dad was the captain at the time, and this lady comes up and she said, ‘You know that story, I can tell you that it's absolutely true, because I’m that lady.’”
Others on my journey provided equally engaging stories. In Henpeck Park in Greece, I heard a bit of layman’s canal wisdom from Chester, a fisherman who’s dropped his fishing pole in the canal for 60 years. He had a slow, pointed way of speaking. The delivery of a man who’s told many a tale, and listened to many more. “In my research, them people really lived a hard life,” Chester says to me. “They could only use the canal all summer, until they start to get cold, then it’d freeze over.”
He kept his eyes on his line, pausing every now and then to tell me to duck so he could cast out again over my head.
“They were heavy drinkers. I heard some tales from guys that were my age, and I was only 20, 25 years old. I get to talk to ‘em, like you’re talking to me. Trying to pick my brain. They said at night, when they couldn’t travel the canal, they’d park, and they’d party, and drink. That’s all they done is drink,” Chester says. “Some of them were tough people. The women were just as tough as the men.”
He put his pole down to free his hands to demonstrate the angle at which the canal engineers designed the lock doors, but as he did so, his pole jumped ever so slightly from the pull of a fish. The pole hopped through his reaching hands and, when I all but dove for it, jumped right out of my reach and into the water.
“Get that son of a bitch, Nick!” Chester hollered to his grandson, as I alternated between profuse apologies and obscenities. Just when it looked like I would have to jump in the dirty canal to retrieve Chester’s pole, Nick came running back from the parking lot and used the tip of his pole to grab the handle of Chester’s, right before it drifted out of reach. He lifted the pole, and I grabbed it out of the water and gave it to Chester, who got right down to work reeling the fish in. As he lifted the fish out of the water, it jerked and snapped his line, which I suppose is the ultimate in breaking even. Chester cursed, then shrugged and said, “‘Well, we’ll have to restring it. Now, where was I…” and told me more about his chats with the old-timers.
The canal attracts people from all over, like John Flynn, who biked up to our tent the morning of the eighth day to take a break and say hi. A retired insurance broker from Connecticut, John is 1,000 or so miles into his own bike trip across Pennsylvania and up into New York, journaling his experiences along the way. He volunteers at BiCi Co, a group that refurbishes and donates bikes to inner-city kids.
“We need human contact if we’re going to continue to be a nation. We can’t be living our lives on a computer or a phone or a laptop — you’ve got to get out and see the world,” John says. “We are part of nature, and we need to retain that core of who we are. I think if we lose that, and we get further insulated from nature, we’re in trouble. And I think, the more people that experience it, it kind of builds on itself, and it's contagious.”
Some come for the trail; others, just the canal. Take Dale, for example, from San Diego who I met canalside at the port of Newark. He let me check out his anchored boat and shared that he travels the Great Lakes by boat in the summers and always wanted to boat the canal since he has seen some of it while bringing his boat to Brewerton to leave it there at the end of each summer. This year, he came up early to get more time on the canal.
“I used to have a boat out in San Diego and the Pacific Ocean is a highly unpleasant environment to boat on because its just so dynamic, so dramatic,” Dale says, “and so for me to come and be really relaxed, and I think that's what draws a lot of people to it, It’s safe, it’s like this all the time, even when its raining.”
He says the best part of coming here is always the towns, each with something unique to offer. On top of that, he always meets fellow boaters who hail from all over, including those completing the Great Loop, a nine-to-12-month, round trip through the canal to the Great Lakes to Chicago, down inland rivers like the Mississippi and Ohio, through the Gulf of Mexico and around Florida, and finally up the Atlantic coast and Hudson River and back to the canal.
“I just love the tranquility of it, and the fact that I meet other people,” he says. “The people behind me are from Texas, and these people here in front of me are from Chicago, but they left from St. Augustine Florida about three weeks ago, and they came all the way up the East Coast through New York.”
Long before I embarked on the Canalway Challenge, the Historical Erie Canal Facebook group helped me connect with a Great Looper and lifelong boatman named Ogie Thorkelson. Ogie built his own Great Loop website to tell his stories and provide resources, tips, and info to potential Great Loopers. Originally from Attica, N.Y., Ogie has been on the water since he was six months. Now he lives in Medina and has a collection of boats, but his favorite vessel, a boat he acquired from a family friend who passed away and that he named Eleanor after the friend’s wife.
Ogie shared the kind of canal stories derived from a lifetime of exploring the waterways of New York and beyond. He said the town of Gasport was more or less a “hobo kitchen” for the railroad. “So much gas seeps through, you can actually see the bubbles come up through the canal,” Ogie said. “So the hobos knew about this. They’d go in there and find a rocky area, set it on fire, and then they’d cook their dinners right there on the rocks.”
He also shared the legend of the Lockport Railroad Bridge, referred to as the “Upside-Down Bridge” because, well, it looks like it was built upside-down, and explained how this demonstrates the intensity of competition between railroaders and canallers. “The railroad was such shysters that they put those trusses underneath to limit the amount of cargo that could be brought down through the canal,” Ogie said. “That’s pretty cutthroat!” But the railroad barons’ reputation also earned them some challenges. Ogie talked about the grave of George Pullman, namesake of the Pullman sleeping railcar. Pullman’s anti-union efforts and notorious wage slashing made him so reviled by working people that, after his death in 1897, his family feared his tomb would be desecrated and so buried him in a concrete vault reinforced with steel rails. Author Ambrose Bierce quipped, “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the sonofabitch wasn’t going to get up and come back.”
When I began this trip, I failed to factor in the people I would meet. But they became a balm for the trip’s challenges. As I biked by folks, I’d shout, “How we doin?” and “Have a good one!” I moved too fast to hear the response and the exchange delivered zero practical information, but it communicated a camaraderie with colloquial brevity. Some of the best interactions I experienced included people whose names I never learned, whose origins I did not know, who simply talked with me over a beer or along the trail. Tenting out on the towpath above the canal, I imagined what my great uncles would say if they saw me as I watched the water roar out of a lock as the level inside lowered enough to open the 40-foot tall lockdoors to allow the boat inside the exit and continue on its way. I felt that I saw more of New York — the real New York, with all its beauty and wonders and ugly flaws — in seven days than I had seen in 23 years.
But as I biked and the world that I had painted black expanded and lightened before me, and the people (Nick and Chester, Big Ben, Tammee, John and Dale) remained as tangible and memorable as the mighty blue-gray waves of the Niagara River chopping white foam, the breathtaking battalions of storm clouds, the cardinals (my mother’s favorite bird), skittish blue herons, snapping turtles, an unending blue sky dotted with wispy clouds, imposing stone churches, chameleon-like sunsets, and rain, unending rain.
The morning after the Night of the Palatine Flats, Ben and I set out on the final push. From Amsterdam to Schenectady, the trail delivered a smooth ride, serene weather, and a joyful anticipation. Thoughts of completing the journey encouraged my strained muscles to push on (like a tired mule realizing town is near and rest is soon to come). But as we left Schenectady, just 22 miles from Albany, we once again entered a wall of rain. The next two hours unfurled as perhaps the most miserable of the entire trip. We made it to Albany, phones drenched and dying but nevertheless displaying a map that declared our endpoint three, then two, then one mile away. And finally, pedaling past the castle that is the SUNY System Administration building and through Albany's downtown bar scene, we pushed under an overpass and laid eyes on the Hudson just as the rain began to doubletime. No time for glory. No time to look around. No light to see anyway.
On the final stretch, we biked down the Hudson to the parking lot where my parents waited with their truck. The rain pelted us in big, fat, piercing globs of water. It was about 10:30 p.m., and the darkness and rain stripped away most of the fun and the celebration of making it to the end. I tried to walk to the water’s edge and take it in, but I could barely see out to the river in the dark downpour. When we reached my parents, we loaded the bikes, took off some of our wet layers, and hopped in the truck. We had accomplished our goal and completed a physical and mental feat. But I felt anything but triumphant. In fact, I felt empty, almost defeated. I had imagined that I would leave for this trip, learn all these magical lessons, somehow come back a different person, and bring with me the clear headspace I found on the trip. But, of course, life works in other ways.
I learned in those 360 miles that the going makes me feel alive. The past year my life felt as stagnant as the waters of the Enlarged Canal, but biking, moving, meeting people, learning about the land I traveled upon shifted that sensation. But when I look back on the trip, when people ask me about it, it feels less than real. The things that remain aren’t the whoops and hollers as we neared the end, but the sunsets I watched from atop the Middleport liftbridge and drydock at Lock 28A, the view as I biked past open fields of tall, uncut grass, tilled brown fields, and big red barns above little ponds and swimming holes. Or walking under the canal through the Culvert Road underpass, the only road running beneath the canal, and marvelling at the craftsmanship performed by engineers more than 200 year ago.
And in the hardest of moments, I found the demolition of my body to be therapy for my mind. The sublime agony of pushing my physical self to its limits, a different kind of self-destruction, of screaming in pain and shouting obscenities while climbing the hills on the path back home, of directing all my rage and guilt and shame into movement, into struggle, into a fight against the thoughts telling me I can’t make it, pushing until my mind can’t comprehend how my legs continue to move, still pedaling through the pain, until I ran out of water and food and sunlight and every inch of me felt tingly and my panting lungs surrendered the idea of catching my breath. And in moving so slowly I thought I might keel over on the side of East Genesee Street — until I looked up, and I was home.
Though the feeling of triumph evaded me as I sat cold and wet in the backseat of my dad’s truck on the ride home from Albany, I found it in the days following my return. Many of my friends had followed along as I vlogged my trip on my Instagram story, and they heaped congratulations on me after my return. It seemed like every person I ran into, be it close friends, family, neighbors, or even just acquaintances, not only knew about the trip, but wanted to hear all about it. My friend Kayla told me I inspired her to learn to ride a bike, and my friend Julian said he rented a bike in New York City and rode around the Hudson for a well-earned change of pace from the grind of his engineering internship.
Those stories made me think about all the bikers, be they in Buffalo or Albany, who were about to begin or end their journeys and all of them in between. The trail will take them through Tonawanda, Lockport, Middleport, Medina, Albion, Spencerport, Gasport, Brockport, Rochester, Pittsford, Palmyra, Lyons, Clyde, Savannah, Port Byron, Weedsport, Camillus, Solvay, Syracuse, Durhamville, Rome, Oriskany, Utica, Mohawk, Herkimer, Little Falls, Canajoharie, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Schenectady.
They’ll get flats along the way, be rained on — judging from the Facebook updates from the Cycle the Erie Canal Bike Tour, the rain they contended with last week was even worse than what we biked through — lose the trail, and maybe even be met with animosity at some bars along the way. And when they push on, they’ll find themselves under blue skies and soft clouds, past houseboats and lift-bridges, through thick woods and mists of gnats. All along the trail, the bikers will find dead monuments — NYS historical plaques and commemorative markers, Clinton’s Ditch locks succumbing to masses of moss and graffiti, and Enlarged Canal sections whose stagnant, algae bloom-infested waters haven’t felt the graceful, rippling movement of a boat in a century.
In each of these towns and cities, though, the bikers will encounter living monuments, too. Descendants of canal boaters and laborers who make it their hobby or career to research the Erie Canal, preserve its remnants, and share its history, like the folks who preserved Glen and Richard’s accounts of their days on the Towpath. And when I reflected on this community of stewards, historians (literary and oral), boaters, walkers, kayakers, fishers, and bikers, I realized I had no reason to despair for the fate of that Clinton’s Ditch lock back in Pittsford. I won’t be the last to look at that pile of rocks designed by ingenious engineers and carved by the skillful hands of immigrant laborers to defy gravity and elevation in a time well before the advent of the telegraph, railroad, light bulb, and telephone. Instead, I rejoiced, because (like all those bikers beginning, continuing, and ending their 360-mile journey across the state), the Erie Canal, its proud and painful history, its culture, and every remnant of its past shapes and forms, remains in good hands. And, in the meantime, I found myself a little used bike. It won’t be long before I return to join them, carrying that history and pedaling along the Old Erie Canal State Park again.
Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.