I woke before dawn. I was a day ahead of schedule but what with New Jersey having been smacked around by Hurricane Sandy, I thought it would be worth my time to make the push into New York City on a weekend. Less traffic, less angry commuters, more happy me. If I was going to do battle with Jersey traffic, I wanted to give myself as many advantages as I could.
I was going to miss this: Not the getting up in the dark, cold, tired and hungry, no: the pace. I woke every day with a goal, and there was no procrastinating, no avoiding it. I had miles to ride, and if I didn’t do it, it was just that many more tomorrow. It may not have been the most high-minded purpose, to go ride my bike, but it was purpose, and I was focused. I didn’t wake up dreading to have to go into work, or trying to steal an extra ten minutes in bed to avoid facing the day. I woke, I rode. Single-minded, yes, but it was a single-mindedness I hadn’t felt in years and few people are lucky to ever feel. It’s a powerful feeling.
I was out and on the road with daybreak. Though cold, it was warmer than the day before. There was little traffic through these Philadelphia exurbs, an encouraging sign that my bet on Sunday traffic was worthwhile.
I was making good time, 35 miles in and it wasn’t yet 10am. Then I got into Jersey. Navigating Jersey was like playing a game of chutes and ladders, except all the chutes were fallen trees and all the ladders were downed power line. I managed to find the two mountains in the entire state, and climbed each, twice, because of roads that were closed off. I was constantly re-navigating, turning around, dodging tree limbs, riding carefully through messy jungles of wires, hoping that they weren’t live and careful to only touch the rubber parts of my bike. I rode on closed roads when I got desperate, and trespassed through golf courses and industrial areas.
I lost major time, and by the time I hit Newark, dusk was coming soon. I decided to change my plan: Instead of riding all the way up to the George Washington Bridge, I’d take the ferry across and ride up the bike path. I knew Manhattan better, it had bike paths, and lights. As I was looking at the best route on my phone, the damn thing unexpectedly died. I was in an area of Newark where it is less than good to be white, wearing spandex, and without a phone.
I grew up in enough of a hood to know the difference between an “I’m going to rob you” look, and a “this white boy better get his ass outta here before he gets robbed” look. It was a relief to get a lot of the second stare as I stood charging my phone at a bodega’s outdoor outlet.
My route took me through the deep industrial wastelands of Newark, desolate roads guarded by the barks of junkyward dogs hidden behind barbed wire fences. By the time I got near Hoboken, it was dark. Really dark. Darker than metropolitan NYC ever is–Hoboken was still largely without power, and it was creepy. Though it wasn’t the inky blackness of the desert, it was a far more eerie scene. Whole blocks were blacked out, people moved in the shadows. I couldn’t see the road. At some intersections the National Guard had set up generators, and I rode, blinded by the lights into these oases where people huddled, looking for food, a charging station, a respite from the darkness of their apartment. Being from New York, natural disasters were always something that happened elsewhere, and one didn’t see the details of the destruction. With climate change only to make things worse and less predictable, seeing this was only a haunting vision of the future.
Far beyond climate change was the fact that many of the stoplights didn’t work. Taking traffic lights away from New Jersey drivers is like taking all the guards out of a Supermax prison and opening the cells: You take an already lawless bunch and remove the scant few rules that keep them from killing themselves.
It was a nightmare to get through these intersections, and usually involved me riding alongside a car, figuring a two-ton shield would be a step in the right direction.
The ferry terminal at Hoboken was blacked out. So much for their website proudly announcing the return to ferry service. It was fully night at this point and there was no choice but to ride up the palisades to the bridge.
It turned out to be a nice way to go, and I got my first glimpses of a mostly whole NYC skyline. I didn’t expect any major emotional response, and I didn’t get one. There it was, the city, my home for the past two years, the place that so roughed me up that I felt compelled to spend two months on a bicycle to work through it. I wanted to be back. I was happy to be back. Ready to try again, but it wasn’t an overwhelming feeling. For two months, I’d slowly clawed my way back here, making incremental easterly progress towards this city, my memories here both the homecoming and the impetus to take this tri evaluate and change myself. When the skyline finally appeared, bristling in the night, looming, solidly anchored, so big that the perspective of distance was totally distorted, it wasn’t a major change, it wasn’t a triumphant return. It was just home, and I was back.