Monday, September 14, 2009

North Shore Adventure

A bicycle is a graceful and elegant machine ... until you try fitting it into a car.

It's 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and I'm standing before a Zipcar SUV that looks like it should hold my bike pretty well though. Parked in its space at my local train station, the car is a Honda Element, described on the Zipcar website as: half car, half house -- extra large capacity for medium furniture items.

"That should work nicely for us, don't you think?" I said to my bicycle Saturday afternoon, looking through the various Zipcar rental options online. My bike just glared at me. I thought about it for a moment, then clicked reserve.

"You'll be fine," I said.

Here's a photo of the car (taken later on Sunday)...

By 4:30 a.m. Sunday morning, I had driven the car home, figured out how to lower the back seats to create extra hatchback space, put on my cycling clothes, printed maps from my computer, and packed the car with all sorts of stuff (helmet, gloves, change of clothes, camera, sunscreen, paper towels, cereal bars, pocket knife, cell phone, wallet, notebook, and cycling shoes). All that's left now is to put my bike in the back.

"O.K., time to go!" I announce. I gently roll the bike out to the car and set it beside the hatchback.

My bike just stands there, looking at me.

"You're going to put me in there?" it says.

"Don't worry," I reply, "it'll be fun. We're going to the North Shore for a 6:00 a.m. ride, and it's beautiful up there..."

That's when my bike kind of lost it.

"The North Shore?! I don't want to go to the North Shore! I'm a South Shore bicycle. What do you want to go to the North Shore for? It's so far, all the way on the other side of the city! Ugh!"

My bike is such a Bostonian. Here in Boston, the coastline north of the city is called the North Shore and the coastline to the south is called the South Shore ... and if you live in one, you rarely, if ever, visit the other. They might as well be separate universes, even though they're only a little over an hour's drive apart. It's that city of 600,000 people in between that creates the mental barrier. While the two shores are somewhat similar -- both have rocky ledges, beautiful homes, sandy beaches, and awe-inspiring lighthouses -- the North Shore is a bit more more rugged, with deep coves and rocky necks jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

"It'll be okay, you'll see," I reassure my bicycle.

Lifting it up off the ground, with a turn of the handlebars one way and a skewing of a wheel another, I set my bike on its tarp in the back of the SUV and ... unbelievably ... I manage to fit it inside, awkward limbs and all.

"That wasn't so bad, was it?" I say. It answers by unexpectedly slipping downward, shifting all its weight on the delicate rear derailleur.

"You're impossible," I mutter. I reposition the bike more securely, put towels on all the spots it makes contact with the car interior to keep it nice and clean (the car, that is), and with a bit of a flourish I shut the hatchback. Done!

I climb into the front seat, start the ignition, turn on the headlights ... and we're off!

Through the dark pre-dawn night we make our way up I-93 to the glittering city ahead. It sure seems easy driving the northward passage at 5:10 a.m. with no traffic. As we emerge from the new Central Artery Tunnel and up over the Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, we're officially on Boston's other side. The North Shore awaits.

The Honda Element drives nicely, although it does feel a bit like the old company van my father used to drive home from work when I was a kid. Ride over a bump, and all sorts of strange things clunk in the big space behind you.

"Everything o.k. back there?" I ask. My bike says nothing.

"You'll love it. Trust me."

I count off the towns along the expressway: Peabody, Salem, Beverly, Prides Crossing, Swampscott, Essex. Then at about 5:50 a.m.: Exit 14, Gloucester.

"That's us!"

It's exactly 6:00 a.m. when I reach the center of this legendary commercial fishing town -- America's oldest seaport, recently made famous by the book The Perfect Storm. I make a quick stop at the local Dunkin' Donuts to buy a corn muffin (which I'll save for a post-ride treat), park in a municipal parking lot, drop quarters in the meter (until I realize it's free on Sundays), and unlatch the hatchback.

I pull my bike out and set it on the ground.

"We're here!" I say. "What do you think now?"

My bike is still unsure. But little-by-little as it sits there in the glow of the early morning sun, its elegant self begins to return. Breathing in the fresh salt-air of the ocean, we both have a moment of clarity. Yes, it sure does take a lot of preparation to plan an out-of-town bike trek like this. But if everything is done correctly, then soon it's just you, the bike, and the open road ... and that's all that matters. The world is good and right once again.

"O.K., let's ride," says my bicycle. A machine of few words, my bike is. I put on my cycling shoes, helmet, and gloves ... and off we go!

Just across Gloucester Harbor is a rocky peninsula called Eastern Point. My father and I drove out here a few weeks ago when he came up to visit from North Carolina, and I decided then and there that I needed to come back and ride its rocky shores on my bicycle. It's not a long road around Eastern Point ... maybe 10 miles or so. But it takes me almost 1.5 hours with all the photos I stop to shoot!

Uninhabited Thatcher Island lies in the distance, its gloomy twin lighthouses barely visible in the early-morning mist...

I then ride on to Good Harbor Beach, with its stunning ocean views...

I now turn around and ride the same road back into town, but this time putting my camera away and simply enjoying the scenery. I couldn't help but take a couple more photos though...

Making my way back into Gloucester, I'm reminded at nearly every turn that Gloucester is still a busy fishing village, dotted with nautical supply stores...

...and of course commercial boats in the harbor, lobster traps strewn around on the docks, and coast guard vessels on constant alert...

Riding further on to the other side of town, I arrive at the Fisherman's Memorial, honoring the over 5,300 fishermen lost at sea in the town's history...

A series of plaques sit on the other side of the statue in a large semi-circle, with the names of all those who have perished at sea over the past 200 years. I stop and stand there quietly for a few moments...

It's now around 8:00 a.m., and I'd slowly watched the town come to life over the past couple hours. Riding along Eastern Point, tourists emerged from the motels lining the shore, taking photos of the rocky coast. I greeted a number of early morning walkers on the road. And around 7:50 a.m., I stopped to chat with another cyclist as we waited at a drawbridge.

"The bridge is 70 years old, and it still works fine," he told me as it noisily opened and closed, "although it probably could use some oil..."

As the sun rises higher in the sky and the number of cars on the road increase, I decide that it's time for my ride to come to a close. I do love the early morning hours ... the way the landscape seems fresh and new, and the feeling that it's a time separate from your everyday life and responsibilities. So it's nice to simply keep a good ride framed within that special time of day.

I take a detour back through the center of town...

...and then ride along the harbor one last time -- when I come across this wonderful statue...

...commemorating the Gloucester artist. The pose is perfect. Headstrong, with his face to the wind, the artist magically brings the stories of this colorful old village to life.

And with that, it was time to ride back to the car and head home.

I gently clean my bike of all the sand and mud it had collected. Soon it positively glows. My bike lets me put it back into the car without complaint this time, happy to lie down and rest for while.

Driving back to the same Dunkin' Donuts I visited a couple hours earlier, I stop in the restroom to change out of my cycling clothes into jeans and a cotton shirt, and then I buy an unbelievably refreshing iced coffee (I absolutely love my morning coffee, especially Dunkin' Donuts!). Back in the car, I put my large iced coffee in the cup holder and unwrap the corn muffin that had been patiently waiting for me since 6:00 a.m. Coffee and a muffin ... that's a good post-ride treat.

As I sit there in the car enjoying my breakfast, I watch other cyclists ride by -- just getting out on the road, I suppose. But my adventure for the morning is complete, and it feels great.

Finishing the muffin, I put the car in "drive" and turn toward home.

"Now wasn't that worth it?" I ask my bike as we zip down Route 128. It just sits there, dreamily looking out the window. A machine of few words, my bike is. But I suspect it couldn't be happier.


  1. Lovely post and very well articulated. It seemed like I was there too while you described everything and the pictures only strengthened the imagination! Loved it :)

  2. Very cool story! Very cool ride. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Lovely, enjoyed reading this.