Shifting Gears on the Empire State Trail

May 9th, 2022

I woke up to the sound of something rustling around on the piece of Tyvek I use in the vestibule of my tent. I opened my eyes and peered through the mesh and was face to face with a skunk. Oh, good grief. How do I handle this?

As an experienced camper, I’ve awoken to bears stomping by, giving a roar for good measure, and dealt with rampaging raccoons who stole my chocolate and turned everything in reach upside down. But a skunk? It kept brushing its rear against the mesh with my face mere inches away. I had visions of turning suddenly in my sleep and startling it, with return fire leaving me and my gear reeking. Luckily, the skunk finally left, taking my peace of mind with it. When the coast was clear, I grabbed my sleeping bag and a few other items and nose-dived into the rental car, locked the doors, and settled in for a bit of sleep.

The morning’s peace was shattered by screeching and swearing from the neighboring campsite. I had reserved two nights on the shores of Lake Champlain. But enough already. Skunks and screaming neighbors? I packed up my tent, finished breakfast, and headed North.

Wait a minute … a rental car? Let’s backpedal to the beginning of this sideways adventure.

Mid-August 2021, I loaded up my Bike Friday with food, equipment, and plans to bicycle the Empire State Trail north from Brooklyn, New York to Rouses Point, Vermont, with a return train trip home from St. Albans, Vermont. The Empire State Trail starts in New York City at Battery Park, following the Manhattan Greenway north to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx. From Van Cortland Park one picks up the South County Trail. The entire trail is 750 miles and can be bicycled west from Albany to Buffalo or north to Rouses Point. There is some on-road riding including urban traffic in the Manhattan and Bronx portions but most of the route uses rail trails so climbs are gentle and, with the exception of road crossings, mostly car free. And it’s possible to start further north of New York City by taking the Metro North train. Upstate, the route includes well marked bike lanes, sometimes separated from traffic. It’s important to note that the northbound branch doesn’t have many easily accessible campsites, so cyclists wishing for shorter days in the saddle, or lighter loads, will need to look for other accommodations. 

Between the increasing knee pain and the wiggly front end, my concerns mounted. 

My day of departure was hot and humid. The air was thick, and my legs felt like they were pedaling through mud. At a downed tree, I unloaded my bike and carried it across the old train tracks to the other side. Retrieving my bags, I continued to plod along. About three-quarters of the way to Poughkeepsie, the sky darkened. I pulled over to get the rain covers over my panniers. A few drops fell. Then nothing. But the temperature dropped ten degrees. I mixed a packet of electrolytes in a bottle of water, took a few good slugs, and hit the trail. I felt like I was flying the rest of the way. Except for the growing pain in my knee.

Arriving at my friends’ house, I was greeted by a collection of cats and dogs, two delightful toddlers, and a meal of gluten-free, vegan Thai yumminess. I downed a mix of ibuprofen and Tylenol. The knee pain was not impressed. 

When I headed out the next day with the aim of making it to Albany, the temperature tipped toward 94 degrees. On top of the heat, my knee was not cooperating despite more pain pills, and my GPS seemed to be taking me in circles. Where the heck was the trail? Finally, I hailed another cyclist who guided me through the streets to pick up the trail on the other side of the Vassar campus. To add to the challenge, I noticed an interesting new movement in the front of my bike — the headset seemed to be loose. Between the increasing knee pain and the wiggly front end, my concerns mounted. 

Another week of pedaling with a loaded bike was unlikely to benefit my knee or my bicycle. Not wanting to call it quits on my trip — having taken the time from work and made my reservations — I called around and was able to secure a rental car. I took the smallest one available and sucked in my breath at the cost. 

When I staggered into the car rental agency, fifteen minutes after closing, a very patient man looked at my loaded bike and shook his head, doubting it would fit. “Do the seats go down to make a pass-through,” I asked? Sure enough, I tossed the panniers in the passenger seat and slid my bike in with ease. Bike Fridays are made to fit in a suitcase so one way or another it would work. I finished making my way to Albany. I stayed in Albany from Friday evening until Sunday morning, enjoying the Sabbath with friends and giving my knee a rest.

After all, when on vacation, eat dessert first.

Refreshed, I headed to my campsite near Lake George. Since driving takes far less time than bicycling, I had the day to explore. I got directions to the Warren County Bike Trail, a nine-mile one-way path partly on a rail trail, and headed out along the shore of Lake George and then off into the woods. The trail took me past historical markers, over highways, and south to Glens Falls. To the disappointment of several of us who were enjoying the car free path, the trailside brewpub featuring local microbrews was closed. We continued to pedal on.

Riding without a load was easier on my knee. I had seen an orthopedist in July about pain in the back of my knee and down my calf. At the time, he thought I had a badly pulled muscle but by mid-August, prior to taking off on this trip, it seemed to have healed. I had been doing plenty of bicycling without significant knee pain so this was an unexpected development. Can I honestly say I didn’t consider the possibility that any pedaling could make matters worse? I did. But I have a history of taping up broken thumbs so I could enjoy a gorgeous day of spring skiing and other such foibles. Having an appointment on the books to see a Sports Medicine Orthopedist on my return to NYC, I figured I would deal with it then. I later asked if coming in sooner would have made a difference and was reassured it wouldn’t have changed things significantly. I had a torn meniscus root, not a pulled muscle (and it was surgically repaired in January of this year).

When I returned from my ride to Glens Falls, I treated myself to a pre-dinner root beer float at the A&W. After all, when on vacation, eat dessert first.

In the morning, I decided to make the most of my change from bicycle traveler to car traveler with a bike. I did the full-on tourist thing and took a steamboat ride around Lake George — so scenic and fun! I was seeing new parts of New York State, taking in the sights, and learning some history.

Onward to Lake Champlain and close encounters of a skunky kind. I used Reserve America as my source for campsite planning for this trip; it features inexpensive campsites all over the U.S., is easy to use, and includes information about amenities as well as maps of the site. However, camping at Lake Champlain was a bust. I didn’t fancy another night of skunks or fighting neighbors, so I hightailed to Rouses Point to figure out my next move. Canadian and U.S. flags waved in the breeze in this small town on the border.

There is nothing like a great cup of coffee to clear the mind, especially after a less than pleasant experience. While caffeinating my body and brain into function mode, I perused the local paper and assorted brochures. One brochure advertised a bicycle hostel on an island in Lake Champlain. I made the call. The owner was getting ready to sell and move. She had planned on a few days off to rest without having hostel guests before her last scheduled group was due. Fortunately, when she heard my predicament and that I was a party of one as well as also being an older woman, I was told to come on over.

The hostel was in an old schoolhouse on Isle La Motte. I don’t know if the new owners continued the bike hostel business, but the island was lovely to ride around and offers other accommodations for travelers. I cycled along the shore, past farms, and to an art gallery. The next day I headed out by bike to explore some historic sites along the shore in the other direction. 

With my bike tucked into the back of the car, I was back on the road to St. Albans, Vermont. I arrived at the hotel with rain pouring down. I checked into my room and unloaded my panniers. This was my one planned splurge for the trip. The La Quinta Inn had nice rooms, a pool, and an easy ride to the train station. Staff at La Quinta Inn didn’t blink at the sight of my bicycle being rolled across the carpets and up to my room. The receptionist also provided a brochure guide to the area, which included descriptions of various restaurants. One such place was Nourish. This vegan restaurant bravely opened in March 2020. They offer gluten free options, and one can eat in or take out. Everything I ordered was delicious. I keep kosher and have a gluten intolerance so finding food on the go isn’t always easy. St. Albans is a fun town and worth the trip if you are in the Burlington, Vermont area. To top it off, there is a bike route between Burlington and St. Albans.

And the trail is still there for me to ride again, with a tightened headset and a healthy knee. 

Returning my rental car, the staffer informed me there was a bus to St. Albans in the late afternoons. The buses are free, and they have bike racks. I enjoyed a ride into town, stopping at a grocery store that had a large selection of natural and organic foods. I took advantage of the outdoor tables and grabbed a coffee and some of the creamiest yogurt I have ever had. Thus fortified, I continued bicycling, taking a route along the Vermont side of the shore of Lake Champlain. 

It was fun sitting on the bus, and seeing my pink and yellow mini velo riding upfront in the rack. I arrived in St. Albans in time to enjoy some local brew and a free concert in the park. I had a wonderful dinner from Nourish. After my meal and refreshing beer, I crossed over to the park to enjoy the music and dancing, pet some pups and chat with locals. As dusk settled, I rode back to the hotel for the night where I took advantage of having the pool to myself for a few laps before bed. 

The next morning was damp and drizzly as I waited for the Amtrak back to New York. I secured my bike in the bike hanger and settled in for the ride. By now my knee was visibly swollen. The pain was unrelenting. I knew it needed to be taken care of. 

Although I didn’t get the trip I had spent hours planning, it was fun! I had followed sections of the Empire State Trail by both bicycle and car. I was able to find a beautiful little island I would not have known about if everything had gone as planned. I had done other kinds of activities which brought me pleasure. And the trail is still there for me to ride again, with a tightened headset and a healthy knee. Hopefully, the skunk won’t be there. It did leave a little whiff on some of my gear, just so I wouldn’t think I imagined the whole thing.

Related Reading