Ohio to Erie Trail

Although fortunate to get a ride into Columbus, I rely on pedal power to get out. From my hostel I pass a row of fraternities and cut across Ohio State University to the Oletangy Trail that hugs a river of the same name bisecting campus.

Leaving Columbus’ downtown is quick. Leaving the Columbus’ corporation limit takes forever. After a brief reunion with my unfavorite Route 40 (National Road), I weed my way through polyethnic poverty. It hits me hardest on South Wayne Avenue where dilapidated houses with broken windows and sagging shutters sit on overgrown yards littered with abandoned kids’ bikes. Seeing deserted bikes of any kind now strikes a chord with me.

Whites, blacks and Latinos live as neighbors. On one front porch adults from all ethnicities congregate—on a weekday mid-morning. I avoid eye contact and pedal faster.

A cornfield marks my exit from Columbus as I return to the countryside. I hadn’t realized I was still in the city limits this far out. I’m rewarded with a non-motorized passage, the Ohio to Erie Trail, which stretches through Ohio from Cincinnati to Erie, PA.

I’m riding south to Cincy with confidence. The Ohio to Erie Trail represents worry-free cycling at its best: bike trail (no cars), flat (no hills), straight line (no getting lost), paved (no dust to coat the chain). A long distance bike commuter can’t ask for anything better, expect perhaps a little variety from these farming fields.

The ride along Darby Creek below the rail bridge that connected London, Ohio to Columbus breaks up the visual monotony.

Speaking of London, it’s a lovely little town and the seat of Madison County. The magnificent courthouse house, built in 1890, makes me dismount for closer appreciation.

I am deeply disappointed, however, that Takacs Family Ice Cream closed for the season the day before. Who closes for the season the Wednesday after Labor Day? I would have purchased 10 milkshakes to make it worth their while to stay open for me. I sadly settle for a Subway sandwich.

Today I ride a personal best 54.4 miles to reach Cedarville. Thanks to the flat Erie to Ohio Trail, I’ve still got gas in the tank, which I guess is a terrible metaphor when riding a bike.

This trail town is home to Cedarville University, “an accredited, Christ-centered, Baptist university of arts, sciences, professional, and graduate programs.” (Dan, a biker who I’ll meet in Cincinnati is an alum who had to flee the flock and settle in the city.)

Six in the family
My host father for the night is a mechanical and biomedical engineering assistant professor at Cedarville. His lovely wife Andrea cooks a hearty pasta dinner and leads us in saying grace (slightly awkward when you’re the only Jew at the table, a fact I keep to myself).

I meet three of their four children. The seventh grade son is just home from cross-country practice. He retreats to the living room to ice his knee with one hand and swipe the screen of an iPad with the other. He’s doing homework, he says.

A daughter in high school drops in with her boyfriend who grew up in Cambodia where his parents were missionaries. He speaks fluent Khmer, which he considers his first language, and the two take flight upstairs to write papers in English.

Another daughter is at a volleyball away game an hour’s drive from Cedarville. She won’t be home until 9:30, yet her coach is calling for practice at 5:30 AM tomorrow.

“Four to six kids is pretty average around here,” Andrea says. “But we know a few families with 10 or 12 children.”

I stop chewing. “You can field an entire sports team,” I exclaim with pasta falling out of my mouth. “No need to drive an hour to the game, just play in your backyard.”

Outside, softening sunlight strikes a majestic oak tree amid rows of corn stalks on their neighbor’s farm.

The oldest daughter, a pretty and slender blond named Ella, I get to know best because she’s the only one eating at the table with her parents. Ella just landed her first nursing job in nearby Dayton, which deserves a congratulatory cheers with my glass of sweet tea.

Building cars and bikes
In the garage sits a wrecked charcoal grey Hyundai that she’s salvaging for her commute. The front bumper and headlights were sheared off in the crash, and the rear bumper was damaged from the junkyard forklift, but she and her father are rebuilding the car. To prepare for tomorrow’s paint day, Ella returns to sanding duties after dinner.

Dad, too, has a penchant for building. His side business is building wooden bicycles. He’s flying to Toronto to supervise installation of his wooden frame for a client who collects rare bicycles worth tens of thousands of dollars. Or maybe hundreds of thousands, I forget. Zeroes like that makes Michele’s bike in Delaware seem like a sale item at Dollar General.

The parents and I continue to chat. I’m having a glass of overly sweet wine from Cleveland when in rolls Spencer. He’s not part of the family. He’s another cyclist going the opposite way on the trail. On super short notice he called to crash here for the night and arrives just before dark.

Saving Spencer
Spencer is a 22-year-old barista at an indie coffee shop in Olympia, Washington. He had quite a following there, but left to ride down the West Coast and is now moving east on a shoestring budget. He usually camps outside and bathes in waterways. His goal is Portland, Maine or Burlington, Vermont, two options for him to relocate.

I smell Spencer before I’m close enough to shake his hand. Tanned arms flex out of his olive tank top. He pulls long dirty blond hair behind his head and dives into our leftover pasta like a shipwrecked survivor. Food piles up on his plate as if he’s eating for three.

Spencer and I have a sleepover in the basement. I claim the firmer couch while he collapses on the air mattress in the downstairs kitchen. It’s fun meeting another cross-country cyclist. We stay up late and eat bowl after bowl of cinnamon Life cereal, which Andrea set up for our breakfast. (The best part of sleepovers are eating foods that your own mother wouldn’t allow in the house, am I right?)

First, we talk about how awesome it is to eat cereal at midnight. Then we talk about our travels, although the most frequently used word is “dude” and not “bike.”

When he learns I’m riding a Citi Bike he goes wild (in a mellow West Coast kind of way) and calls his girlfriend to tell her. He also needs to smooth their ever stretching long distance relationship.

I try to catch up on writing but surrender to tired muscles. After 54.4 miles today I’m scheduled for another 50 tomorrow to reach Cincinnati.

I ask Spencer for any onward advice since he is coming from the way I’m going. He warns me that Kentucky drivers are hostile.

“Dude, gravel trucks are the worst. They travel in packs. Rocks fall off the top. They must radio to each other or something to give you sh!t and try to run you off the road. I was almost hit by those fu&*ers. Be careful in Kentucky.”

For now I don’t need to worry. It’s all protected trail down to Cincinnati where I have cousins waiting for me with open arms.