I generally begin each bike ride with a good idea of my route. Part of this is for practical purposes ... avoiding traffic, figuring out where to ride within a limited amount of time, etc.
But riding familiar roads also gives me the great feeling of being a local cycling expert. It's as much sailing as cycling, following the currents of the local terrain like an old Gloucester fisherman on native waters. There's something reassuring about being so in touch with your surroundings.
Once in a while though you simply have to satisfy your inner Lewis and Clark and start exploring. So last Saturday I hit the road at 5:30 a.m. and headed east, along the southern rim of Boston Harbor, with no plan or destination in mind.
The nice thing about cycling is you don't have to ride into unknown territory to feel like you're making new discoveries. Roads you've already driven by car seem fresh and new on a bicycle.
Riding out on Washington Street, the temporary drawbridge across the Fore River Inlet loomed large up ahead...
Rather than cross it (it's hazardous for cyclists), I turned right into the Fore River Shipyard. Active from 1901-1986, workers here built submarines, battleships, aircraft carriers, and other large ships, including the USS Salem, which now rests in one of the shipyard's old slips. Volunteer guides give visitors a great tour of this historic navy vessel.
Next door is the ferry to downtown Boston.
But unfortunately that's all that's left of this once mighty shipyard, other than abandoned buildings (note the broken window)...
...and wide spaces of industrial nothingness.
Looking through those broken windows at the old office furniture inside, you can just imagine engineers hovering over blueprints of massive ships, and secretaries noisily banging away at their typewriters, transcribing their shorthand notes. There was a certain artistry to work back then.
Riding out from the Fore River Shipyard, I followed quiet side streets in an easterly direction, passing through a nice neighborhood of little Cape Cod style houses in Braintree.
Without even trying, I eventually found myself in Hingham, Mass. Hingham is a beautiful seaside town, and home to the famous Hingham Shipyard.
The Hingham Shipyard is faring better these days than its Fore River cousin. Although no longer an active shipyard, it's now the home of a nicely-designed shopping center, a modern ferry terminal, a marina, condominiums...
...and a lobster shack.
Next door is a memorial to the shipyard's remarkable history.
But best of all, walking my bike down the nearby path...
...led me to an amazing spot.
It doesn't look like much now, but what you're seeing are the old launching sites from the World War II-era shipyard (look close and you can still see ruins of the wooden pilings on the beach).
All's eerily quiet now...
...but just imagine what this place was like 60 years ago, as each new ship was launched into the deep-water harbor with cheers and fanfare. Over 15,000 people worked here, building 227 ships in the 3.5 years that the yard operated during World War II. Incredible.
Riding back home, I didn't have much time to reflect on those two great shipyards. Even while retracing the same roads, there were still so many little things that caught my attention. What's wonderful about cycling though, is that those reflections come later, all throughout the day, as images and thoughts from the ride rise to the surface.
That afternoon I would be quietly reading a book on the subway -- but in my mind I was still standing on that windy pier in Hingham, imagining those magnificent ships launching into the sea.