The summer of ’16 marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the darkest time in my life—a 14-month stretch when all the adult men in my family lost their lives; sometimes as the result of wonderfully old age, sometimes the result the of colossally bad genetic luck, and at least one from circumstances that are still not clear. This ride was conceived as a way to honor those men, to reconnect with my cousin, the then 20-year-old college student that I became estranged to in the tumultuous time that followed and the only other adult man left in our family, and to pay forward a good deed done for me when I was a child.
My ride starts from the place where my grandfather taught me to pedal a bike, a gravel road leading to a boat ramp on Lake Massapoag in Sharon, MA. I came to learn how to ride relatively late in life, 11 or 12 years old. My parents had tried unsuccessfully to get me riding for a number of years and finally resigned themselves to the fact that I would not. My grandfather (or Opa as we called him) was a short but extremely hardy and resilient soul, an avid rider himself in rural pre-war Poland—he was not about to let me give up on riding, knowing the freedom it provided him as a young man. It seemed only fitting to start here, as I did my cycling career, to memorialize and thank him for not letting me quit.
My ride through Massachusetts would take me on both roads I’ve trained on for years and bikeways and trails I’d never even heard of until I started researching my route; my great hope for this ride was to utilize everything from tarmac to bike paths to dirt roads and trails.
I pick up the Neponset Valley Parkway in Milton, which connects me to the Boston Harborwalk in Dorchester. I can see the frustration on the faces of the commuters trapped in Expressway traffic as I fly by below them. This being Monday morning, the good folks at Firefly are already hard at work so I stop by to say hi and ogle some new frames Jamie and Daniel were working on. Before I go, we weigh my bike fitted out with all the gear I would carry for the trip and was surprised to find it came in at a little over 49 pounds, far more than twice its delivered weight. Riding the bike configured this way left it feeling necessarily rear end-heavy, but it remained nimble and stable at speed—my perfect bike.
On the road again, I stop at the Lawn on D for a quick snack before picking up the Harborwalk again in the Seaport District of Boston and dodge the snarl of traffic through Charlestown and Everett where I could pick up the Northern Strand Trail which takes me a good way to Salem—the first of many iconic coastal New England towns along my way that I hadn’t visited for years.
I jump on the Independence Greenway in Peabody, which connects me to the amazing Border to Boston Trail. I make my way on quiet streets through the picturesque towns of Topsfield, Georgetown, and Newburyport where I pick up the Clipper City Rail Trail with its amazing outdoor art displays. Before very long at all I’m passing through the kitschy beach towns of Salisbury, Hampton, and Rye where absolutely nothing seems to have changed. The boardwalks are still lined with noisy arcades, t-shirt shops, and the enticing smells of all manner of fried foods, pizza, and ice cream. These are the places my father loved and would take me to when I was a child, when I couldn’t have appreciated how amazing they were. I’m glad to be back and am comforted by the time capsule like quality of these towns I get as I pass through.
I spend the night in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where the local brewpub is a short walk from my hotel, thankfully. I’m up early and back on the road as the delivery trucks are just starting to restock the restaurants and stores. I’m riding narrow cobblestone streets that remind me of just how long our corner of the country has been established here while passing amazing murals on the old brick buildings that the founding fathers would probably not have approved of.
As I cross the border to Maine, the scenery starts to change. The coast is more rugged and the bays are filled with far more working vessels than pleasure boats. I stop briefly in York to refuel and enjoy the sights at the beach and take a quick detour to ride some impossibly flowy trails—once again the fully loaded Firefly does not disappoint, its only limitation seems to be its rider. I trace the coastline up through Ogunquit and Wells, the smell of the tidal flats at low tide heavy in the air as the sky opens up on me.
By the time I reach Kennybunkport the rain has turned into a deluge. My glasses are useless and my rain resistant jacket has long given up. I am resigned to the fact that I will be soaking wet for the rest of the day and I am surprisingly ok with that. The one benefit to all the rain is that is has kept all the tourists indoors and I am the first (and only) in line at the lobster shack when it opens. I feel like my dad must be smiling on me as I eat my lobster roll, butter no mayonnaise, as anyone who knows me knows I have no taste for lobster. I sit in the pouring rain eating something I do not care for because I know he would if he could. I’m heartened by the fact that my ride will end for the day not long from now and the bike and I both will get a warm shower when we reach Saco.
The early morning brings bright skies and the promise of a hot, steamy day. I pick up the Eastern Trail a few miles from my hotel and follow it the whole 8+ miles off road to Scarborough, through the stunning Scarborough Marsh. The tides and my spirits are high as I reach Portland before most of the office workers are settling in for the day. The fog is still thick over the waters in the Fore River and the lobster merchants are readying the day’s catch for the hungry hoards that will be visiting them later. To the north of Portland, the roads become more rural again and the numerous islands off the coast start to become visible from shore. I roll through dozens of paved miles through Falmouth, Yarmouth and Freeport and I marvel at the bicycling infrastructure the state of Maine has invested in—protected lanes, bike path highway overpasses, even bicycle-only tunnels built in to the design of tricky intersections to keep cyclists safe. We Bay Staters have a long way to go to match Maine’s dedication to its riding population.
I leave Freeport the following morning well before the sun comes up as the specter of thunderstorms and excessive heat index warnings in the afternoon motivate me to get going. I have never wanted to start a ride this early as I cherish my sleep, but the beauty of pre-dawn, empty roads and farmlands has me reconsidering early rides. The smells of the wet grass and cut hay seem more intense and the crows cheering me on as I pass sound louder than ever before.
I pick up the Brunswick Bike Trail at the Androscoggin River and follow it to Old Bath Road, where I run in to the only snafu I have on the entire trip. It turns out that the bridge on Old Bath Road was also very old and was being replaced. The construction crew kindly gave me a roughly 13-mile work around when I would have greatly preferred a lift across the empty span. No such luck. By 8:00am I reach Bath and its impressive Iron Works where they build tomorrow’s naval fleets. I stop briefly to eat and it is immediately apparent as I step back outside that the heat has come pouring in.
For the first time on this trip I feel like I need to hurry. By noon the storms were supposed to be rolling in and the already hot, soupy weather was nearly unbearable. As luck would have it, this portion of the ride presented the only real climbing of the entire trip. I was riding at too high an intensity than was reasonable for this weather, carrying too much up the hills and I was feeling like I was burning too many matches. I reached an oasis in Damariscotta in the form of a rustic old soda fountain. Outside, a sign told me that today was a good day for Raspberry Lime Rickeys—at a current heat index of 114 degrees, that sign could not have been truer. Too hot to have an appetite, I skipped the diner food options and ordered two Raspberry Lime Rickeys, to the amazement of the kindly old lady working behind the counter. The syrup was store made and the limes fresh. The drinks were delicious and truly may have saved the trip with three more real hills to come.
Almost six hours have passed since I started this morning and my nutrition is failing, as is my sunscreen. I reach the outskirts of Waldoboro with only about five miles to go when I spot the “Finish” flag in the corner of the Garmin’s screen. Inexplicably my cadence quickens as I power up the last climbs; I am excited to see my cousins and complete the last mission of the ride.
I turn onto the dirt driveway of my cousins’ beautiful farm. I am greeted by endless fields chock full of wild Maine blueberries, countless farm animals roaming free and family as emotional as I am that I had made it. We sit for an incredible meal and catch up as the weather starts to sour. It was as good a time as any to fulfill my promise to pay it forward.
When I was a child, before I could ride, I used to dream of being able to fly. I would stand outside and try to will myself off the ground. I read all I could about birds and folded countless paper airplanes to try to figure out their secrets. I was told by teachers and family alike that I would never be able to fly. For my birthday one year, my uncle presented me with a kite and told me not to believe what other people said I was capable of, I could now fly whenever I wanted. I told this story of a simple act of kindness through tears as I presented my uncle’s grandson, that he never got to meet, a kite of his own.
We woke up late the next morning for folks on a working farm. The storm had brought stiff winds and the temperature dropped almost 30 degrees over night. As early as chores would allow, we headed to the beach to fly the new kite and dig for clams. My family would be coming to pick me up that afternoon and the kite seemed to know our time was limited; it took to the sky anxiously, mere moments after being strung. We took turns digging and watching the kite as it flew higher and higher, providing the only color to the sky besides grey. I don’t remember the last time I had been as happy or satisfied, but it was probably on a bike.