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An American Bikeway Idyll

Cycling through upstate New York, a reflection on the landscape we’ve made. 

I had one of those consciousness-shifting episodes in July when I rode the newly constructed and just-opened Champlain Canal bikeway from Fort Edward to Fort Ann here in upstate New York. This corridor, roughly 50 miles north of Albany, connects the Hudson River and St. Lawrence watersheds via Lake Champlain and has a lively history going back to the French and Indian War (1756-1763). The events portrayed in The Last of the Mohicans happened around here. Later, in maneuvers preceding the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Saratoga (1777), Jane McCrea, the famously beautiful settler, was murdered by a Wyandot named Le Loup—or the Panther—in the service of British General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne someplace along the route.

Today, you could easily overlook that bloody history in the peaceful summer landscape. Now it’s as domesticated as the Holstein cows grazing here and there along the way. Since the new bikeway follows the canal, the route is pretty flat, though the Green Mountain foothills rise a few miles to the east and the Adirondack mountains loom to the west. The valley was once an immense lake formed from retreating glaciers. Now it’s shrunk down to two lakes (George and Champlain) connected only by the very short LeChute River within a broad bottomland that was the ancient lake bed.

The terrain is mixed hardwood and pine forest and farmland with the forlorn ruins of bygone industry decrepitating here and there. The biking surface is about 40 percent crushed stone, 40 percent asphalt paving, and the rest stretches of regular country road where a car or two might pass by you. It’s a rare blessing these days to move through a landscape with no engines ringing in your ears, but it’s also a highly exceptional feature within the ubiquitous demolition derby of our national life, mainly a recreational thing. In many European countries, the bike trails integrate all the comings and goings of daily life: the shopping, the work-places, the schools, as well as the countryside. Of course, we had to drive to even get to the bikeway.

After a couple of hours toodling north in tranquility, we reentered the real world at Fort Ann, biking another quarter-mile to a convenience store on the main intersection of State Routes 4 and 149, busy two-laners. We sat outside on a concrete knee-wall there chomping ice-cream bars for a while. The violence of the scene was impressive: the giant pickups coming in to gas up, the hordes of motorcyclists with RevZilla exhaust systems, the tractor-trailer trucks with their screaming air-brakes. It’s easy to understand how total immersion in that milieu of remorseless internal combustion uproar has turned us into a nation of quasi-psychotics. 

It was also startling to compare the obviously lavish spending on all the motor vehicles with the visible disinvestment in the town’s buildings. Just about every one of them was a wreck. It’s now the exceptional thing in any American town to see a house or a business building that looks cared-for, especially along the old main streets where motor traffic so aggressively disfigures the cognitive experience of people going about their lives there. The more tragic effect of the cars and trucks is to make us feel as though we hate the places where we live. We couldn’t wait to get out of there and back on the bikeway.

Ironically, we are building these bikeways at the very inflection point in history when mass motoring is downshifting into its sunset. We’re not only having trouble with the vast, complex networks of resource supply-lines that make car manufacturing possible—the ores, the petroleum, the plastics, the computer chips—but also especially now the financial arrangements that made it normal for the middle-class to easily buy such big-ticket products on installment loans. 

It’s conceivable that in a few years we won’t need any dedicated bikeways because all the regular roads and highways will be car-free. I know how that sounds, but there it is, like so much meat on the table. I’m not even so sure we’ll have the manufacturing mojo to make bicycles which, after all, require pretty sophisticated metal alloys, plastics, and rubber—not to mention the irksome question of how we might possibly maintain a smooth asphalt surface on that immense hierarchy of streets, roads, and highways. Bicycles don’t do so well on broken pavements.

Riding back to where we started, it was impressive to read the many changes in the landscape over the past two hundred years, starting with the fact that the original Champlain canal, opened in 1823, was abandoned when the state built a much wider and deeper canal next to it, with bigger locks, in 1913. The bikeway runs between the old and the new, and the old ditch for many stretches is gone to cattail swamp with herons stalking minnows in the open shallows. The new canal is immaculately maintained by the state, mainly for pleasure-boats. If I’m right about the destiny of the cars, trucks, and roads, then I think we’re going to need that canal pretty badly in the years ahead.

Indeed, one would be compelled to imagine a whole new reorganization of this landscape for the next phase of our history. If you look at photographs of Washington County, New York, from the late 1800s it’s startling to see today’s forests mostly cut down. The farming then was intense, since it occupied most of the population, and the scale of it was much smaller and finer when all the work had to be done with horses, oxen, and human labor. The uplands rising a few miles to each side were mostly sheep pasture. It might be comforting to think we could return to a disposition of things so tender and mild, when our current high-energy fiesta dribbles out.

Personally, I doubt we’ll achieve that transhuman A.I. techno-dystopia depicted in movies like Blade Runner 2049, with our world looking like one big ashtray. The techno-narcissists who dream about that always forget the part about where you plug in the robots to recharge, and where the energy for it is supposed to come from.

Possibly, there will be far fewer of us here, perhaps none at all, and the landscape will go back entirely to the great woods. And then it may sleep for a hundred millennia under a mile thick ice-sheet, which will melt and retreat as it had before, and a fresh new world will present itself to something supposedly intelligent who can find a way to abide on it.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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