âPeople will watch,â Minna Caroline Smith warned in Lapham’s Quarterly of her pioneering tricyclic tour of the north coast of eastern Massachusetts. It wasn’t just that self-powered adult tricycles were new, but also the women who rode them. It was in 1885.
The sexual shock may be over now, but as the only person to ride a tricycle on the same roads a century later, I knew exactly what the incisor Smith meant. My weekend travel convenience, a low-rise recumbent trike propelled by the hands instead of the feet, arguably attracted even more attention. It was a first attempt in adapted cycle touring. After a lifetime of riding around the world, I switched to a hand bike after spinal cancer and a complication that left my legs partially paralyzed.
I had hesitated at first, aware of the look of low driving. When I finally flipped the mind switch, I went all-in. In the ultra-light, high-performance trike I rented from a store called Northeast Passage in Durham, NH, I was lying on my back with my legs hanging in aluminum stirrups as if I was lying on a low chair long with my head and upper torso supported by a husband’s pillow that cradles my back. The pedal grips were at eye level, the black cranks and silver chain spun in front of me like a hamster wheel. A long pole with flashing LED lights and an orange flag trailed behind me alerting the rest of the world to notice me.
Cycling on the North Shore
In two days, tracing the 35 mile Smith route from Malden Center to Cape Ann, I had kids pounce on me and my curious platform, and young adults smuggled their iPhones out of the windows of the car to see me on video. One person shouted so wholeheartedly it broke the calm of Manchester by the Sea village.
“Do you fall asleep in this thing?” An older man from Gloucester’s Magnolia section asked longingly. At Manchester’s Singing Beach, a motorist complained that I was difficult to see and offered me a safety suggestion. “You should go find a lead somewhere, âhe said.
I was happy to ride again. I identified with the Smith of the 19th century, not as a freethinker crusader exactly, but as a member of the disenfranchised – a disabled man trying to join the fun of the able-bodied. I felt a tie. Our modern, mixed and middle-aged group consisted of six riders: a few experienced riders, other beginners. My wife Patty used a pedal assist electric bike, the other standard road bikes. The atmosphere would be discreet; there was no need to rush.
Boston’s North Shore has always been a premier cycling destination. âIn and Around Cape Ann,â a popular guide for wheelmen published in the 1880s, praised the views from the largely well-maintained and leveled dirt tracks. In 1898, at the height of the bike-before-car craze, a Boston newspaper printed a richly illustrated map of our cycle touring route, dedicating individual hand-drawn signs to snapshots of bridges, churches, of walkways shaded by elms and signatures off the coast. views.
The departure from the modern route was not a postcard from Currier & Ives – a bustling Route 60 faced our suburban hockey rink parking assembly point. But a few minutes later, the automotive hustle and bustle was gone when we set off on the Northern Strand Trail, a newly constructed eight mile rail trail crossing Everett, Malden, Revere, Saugus and the Lynn Coast. The trail is also part of the East Coast Greenway, a partially completed 3,000 mile cycle and pedestrian network connecting the cities of Key West, Florida, to Calais, Maine.
The wide, well-marked trail was a revelation, creatively bordered by community gardens, vibrant murals, public sculptures and assorted green spaces and expansive salt marshes. The road surface started with pavement and then continued over gravel and dirt (since our Northern Strand hike in 2019 there have been several improvements to the trails including a beautiful new bridge over the river. Saugus and a causeway all along.)
We crossed the trail under the Highway 1 overpass and around the Revere Showcase Theaters. All of us, lifelong New Englanders and some living just a few miles away, kept saying a variation of the same thing: We had no idea it was all here.
The Rumney Marsh Preserve, a magnificent 600-acre salt marsh bordering the trail and covering parts of Saugus and Revere, is said to have made Smith’s poetic heart soar. Just five miles from downtown Boston, the habitat was a stopover for migrating birds and a permanent haunt for majestic tidal giants like the great blue herons, one of which we saw flying above us. .
Large oaks and birches, as expected, lined the path; Shallow root Norway maples were not expected to split through, the result of a recent nor’easter. On the eight miles of the Bike-to-Sea Trail between Malden and Lynn’s winding seaside boulevard, there were at least half a dozen trees at the bottom, rushing all kinds of inventive bypasses: under, over above and mainly through the forage.
All for one, one for all
My low rider, not necessarily considered a versatile all-terrain machine because the bottom of the seat is only inches from the ground, was actually so low that I could roll under broken tree branches. Where it couldn’t, I accepted a nudge, or even in the case of a then ruined Saugus River walkway, a brief portage. I was not demoralized, I needed help. It was an all for one, one for all group adventure.
We took a final, paved, car-free path to downtown Salem, which is part of a new network of protected lanes throughout the city, which is accessible at the beginning and end through gates. black metal resembling large wheels. Smith’s group also stopped here for lunch, as well as for a touring portrait taken in the iconic 17th-century Salem Common.
We were familiar with the photograph from digital reproductions, but were surprised to find the original belonging to the Essex Institute framed and hanging in a three-and-a-half-by-two-and-a-half-foot glory at Witch City Mall. Their formal attire – long dark dresses for women, military uniforms for men – belied their unmistakable sense of self-satire.
The men in particular were hams, sitting on the floor in front of their discarded penny farthings, as the high-wheeled bikes of the time were called. One of the runners looked sideways, as if ruminating on a haunting vision (he was looking exactly in the southerly direction of present-day Goodnight Fatty), the sensational cookie and pillar of the soft serve in the brick courtyard of the ‘across the street.
The magnificent homes of the Gold Coast
The ladies of 1885 lost much of their group after the official photo was taken; the remaining riders continuing to an inn in Manchester. We didn’t go that far, ending a 20 mile day at the Wylie Inn in the town of Beverly. The Inn (owned and operated by Endicott College) sits on the grounds of a historic summer estate and is one of many beautiful Gold Coast homes dotted with promontories and secluded waterfronts.
The next day we met the owners of one of the advertised estates. We were admiring a perfectly sculpted Kettle Cove bay in Gloucester, about six miles northeast of the Wylie Inn, when an older couple emerged from a hidden overgrown path on Shore Street. “It’s Black Beach,” the man offered, practically clad in tall wading boots, a protective jacket and heavy noise-proof gloves. “The other is White, but we don’t call them that, we call them Pebbly and Sandy.
My father, Oliver Balf, was one of the many New York artists who came to Cape Ann in the 1940s. Like many others, he came for the summers and stayed for good. I’m pretty sure that as a young man his eye was drawn to the same outdoor settings we saw all weekend long: the working fishing boats plying the pocket ports, low shoals of starchy clouds off against a wide, cold water blue sky.
On the second day we cycled the long road between Beverly Farms and Gloucester, detouring Route 127 to Ocean Street and Shore Road, each beautiful spur road facing the ocean. We came across a sign, carved into the granite, that said WOE TIDES and a weathered wooden arrow above a stone for “Old Salem Path”. In an attempt to take a shortcut to the main road, we bypassed Thunderbolt Hill, a steep-curving granite-lined road near Singing Beach in Manchester where James Fields, the founder of The Atlantic Monthly, once entertained Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Level the playing field
Turning with a hand tricycle, two big wheels behind me and a third centered in front, was surprisingly awesome. I was seated, of course, able to relax and quietly admire the passing countryside. But I had a blast on the descents, leaning like a slalom skier to carve turns at high speed. My upper body pedal power was steady and reliable, and as the tour continued, although I knew I looked different, I didn’t feel any different. Tricycles and e-bikes help level the playing field. More inclusive tours and more variety should follow. But it was also good to know that you can leave with old cycling friends, one of whom saw fit to ride all weekend in a vintage tweed waistcoat, tie and collared shirt.
Minna Caroline Smith had originally planned for their trip to end in Magnolia, but a growing craving for Gloucester clams took her another four miles to a hotel near Pavilion Beach. We thought the trip would end in downtown Gloucester as well, but after a perfect lunch of fried fish and chowder at Causeway Restaurant, a local lunchtime favorite, we went further, 12 miles in all, eager to get around Cape Ann and make full use of the day.
Todd Balf is the author of several non-fiction books and most recently a dissertation on his disability journey titled Complications.
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