The morning dawns without clouds or rain. My usual routine—up, pack, bathroom, drag gear to truck, eat, listen to brief talk about what lies ahead, get the map for the day, check tires, gear up and head out—changes. I collect all my damp gear first so only one trip will get everything across the field of mud that has not disappeared with the rain. I am thankful the sodden tent is not my responsibility. It’s time for ‘serious Sue’ to settle onto her seat.
The morning’s ride traverses more rolling hills, but then eases into the flatter trail along this part of the canal. So far, every morning I wake wondering if I can accomplish the task of the day—so far, I have. Today’s ride crosses 39 miles to our next stop in Syracuse. My usual morning ‘fret’ seems to still be snoozing. A lightness fills its place, accompanied by a small sense of peace. More murals depicting historic scenes of the canal greet us in the next town. The July sun bears down on the rain soaked surroundings. The air feels more like slush as my lungs seem to resist taking it in. I gaze at the clear sky and pray for clouds to block the same rays I had wished for yesterday.
Following a break for lunch, the ring of my cell phone startles me—the first call aimed my way since I started the trip. It is my aunt who has no idea where I am or what I am doing. My mother’s younger brother has passed away. It has been six months since my mother’s passing, one factor that pushed me to take this trip, to look at my life and decide to live more fully, take more risks, do things now so I am not filled with regrets like those she expressed during her final months. My uncle had struggled with severe heart disease for many years. This news should not be a surprise, but I am stunned. Another story over. I tell my aunt I am in the area and will somehow find my way to the funeral this evening. I don’t know how with no car or appropriate clothes, but I know I can figure it out. She insists I continue on, that her children will be there to care for her. I still tell her I will try-and mean it.
I start back along the bike path and start whispering to my uncle: “Are you here with me on this path? Is your spirit beside me? Can you see me smiling at your memory? Are you with mom, who always worried about you and loved you so much?” I know a part of him is, the part I carry within me. I didn’t believe in an ‘afterlife’ throughout most of my life. But as I age and experience deaths of family and friends, I sense their presence surrounding me. I stopped questioning what I’m feeling or what it means and instead accept and take pleasure in knowing I am not alone.
As I bike into the town of Camillus, someone is holding a sign that says ‘Half Way!’ I smile and wave. I feel accomplished! Mid afternoon we arrive at Sims Store—a replica of an original canal store containing items that were sold for use on the canal boats. There are also photos, drawings and artifacts from a time when the canal was the major route for travel west. Accounts of the history of the canal and actual tools used to build it add depth to the flavor of canal life. We take a boat ride over the Nine Mile Creek Aqueduct—a water filled bridge that carried canal boats over unnavigable areas. This restored example is one of only a few left. The captain of our boat spins a vivid rendition of life on the canal, bringing us on board as part of a family living on a boat. He describes the animals that also lived in this limited space-including goats, chickens, a cow and-most importantly-the mule required to pull it along the towpath. He verbally paints a picture of laundry strung across the roof, barrels of goods being carried for sale, young children working or playing on deck, the threat of being robbed with no place to run, the camaraderie of those traveling in close proximity, and the availability of vices not restricted to dry land. It was a life filled with hard work, adventures, and the hope for at least a small bit of prosperity. I begin to wonder if my family history contains chapters related to the early years of the canal.