“People will be watching,” warned Minna Caroline Smith at Lapham’s Quarterly about her groundbreaking three-wheeler tour of the North Shore in eastern Massachusetts. Not only were the adult self-propelled tricycles new, so were the women who rode them. It was 1885.
The gender shock may be gone now, but as the only person who drove a tricycle on the same streets a century and later, I knew exactly what the incisive Smith meant. My weekend travel comfort, a low recumbent tricycle that was driven with hands instead of feet, was probably even more attention-grabbing. This was a first attempt at adaptive bike touring. After riding around the world for a lifetime, I switched to a handwheel after suffering from spinal cancer and a complication that partially paralyzed my legs.
I hesitated at first as I was aware of how low the riding would look. When I finally flipped the mental switch, I went all-in. In the ultra-light performance trike I rented from a store called Northeast Passage in Durham, NH, I was on my back with my legs hanging on aluminum hangers as if they were stretched out on a low chaise longue with my head and my longue Upper body on a back pillow for my husband. The pedal handles were at eye level, the black cranks and the silver chain whirred around like a hamster wheel in front of me. A long pole with flashing LED lights and an orange flag pulled behind me to alert the rest of the world to me.
Cycling on the north coast of the coast
In two days as I retraced Smith’s 35-mile route from Malden Center to Cape Ann, kids raved about me and my curious device, and young adults secretly stuck their iPhones out of car windows to catch me on video. One yelled so unreservedly that it shook the quiet of the village in Manchester by the sea.
“Are you falling asleep in that thing?” an elderly man in the Magnolia neighborhood of Gloucester asked eagerly. At Singing Beach in Manchester, a driver complained that I was difficult to see and suggested safety. “You should go find a lead somewhere, ”he said.
I was happy to be able to ride again. I identified with the 19th century Smith, not as a free-thinking crusader but as part of the disenfranchised – a disabled man trying to join the fun with healthy bodies. I felt a tie. Our modern, mixed-gender, middle-aged group consisted of six riders: some experienced cyclists, some beginners. My wife Patty used an e-bike with pedal assistance, the rest of them standard racing bikes. The mood would be reserved; there was no need to rush.
Boston’s North Shore has always been a top cycling destination. In and Around Cape Ann, a popular guide book for cycling guides published in the 1880s, praised the view from the mostly well-maintained and stepped dirt roads. In 1898, in the heyday of the bicycling frenzy in front of the car, a Boston newspaper printed a richly illustrated map of our bike tour route with hand-drawn panels devoted to snapshots of bridges, churches, gates shaded by elms, and the signature of views off the coast.
The start of the modern route wasn’t a postcard from Currier & Ives – a busy Route 60 lay in front of our assembly point in the parking lot of the suburban hockey rink. But minutes later, the automotive commotion disappeared as we hit the Northern Strand Trail, a eight-mile, newly built railroad path through Everett, Malden, Revere, Saugus and the coastal town of Lynn. The trail is also part of the East Coast Greenway, a partially completed 3,000-mile cycle and pedestrian network connecting cities from Key West, Florida, to Calais, Maine.
The wide, well-marked path was a revelation, creatively lined with community gardens, living murals, public sculptures, and various green spaces and expansive salt marshes. The road surface started with asphalt and then continued on gravel and gravel (there have been several improvements to the trails since our ride in Northern Strand in 2019, including a nice new bridge over the Saugus River and pavement while.)
We crossed the path under the Route 1 flyover and around the Revere Showcase Theaters. All of us, lifelong New Englanders and some who live just a handful of miles away, kept saying a variation of the same: We had no idea this was.
The Rumney Marsh Reservation, a beautiful 600 acre salt marsh that borders the trail and encompasses parts of Saugus and Revere, would have made Smith’s poetic heart beat faster. Just five miles from downtown Boston, the habitat was a stopover for migratory birds and a constant gathering place for majestic tidal giants such as great blue herons, one of which we saw flying overhead.
As expected, large oaks and birches lined the path; unlikely to have splintered shallow-rooted maples over it, the result of a recent northeast. On the eight miles of bike-to-sea path between Malden and Lynn’s winding coastal boulevard, at least half a dozen trees had fallen, triggering all sorts of inventive bypasses: under, over and basically through the roughage.
One for all, all for one
My Low Rider, which is not necessarily seen as a versatile all-terrain machine because the seat is only a few inches above the ground, was actually so low that I could roll under splintered branches. Where I couldn’t, I accepted a nudge, or even, in the case of a crumbling Saugus River footbridge, a brief transfer. I wasn’t demoralized – I needed help. It was an all-for-one, one-for-all group adventure.
We drove one last paved, car-free path into downtown Salem, which is part of a new network of protected lanes throughout the city, which are reached at the start and finish through black metal gates that are reminiscent of high bikes. Smith’s group also stopped here for lunch and for a tour portrait shot at the iconic 17th-century Salem Common.
We knew about the photo from digital reproductions, but were surprised that the Essex Institute original was framed and hung three and a half meters in the Witch City Mall. Her formal attire – long dark dresses for the women, military-style uniforms for the men – belied her unmistakable sense of self-irony.
Above all, the men were ham sitting on the ground in front of their thrown high bikes, as the high-wheel bikes of the time were called. One of the riders looked to the side, as if pondering a bewitching vision (he was looking exactly south of today’s Goodnight Fatty), the sensational mainstay of biscuit and soft serve in the brick courtyard across the street.
The magnificent homes on the Gold Coast
The 1885 ladies lost much of their party after the official photo was taken; the rest of the riders continue to an inn in Manchester. We didn’t get quite that far and ended a 20-mile day at the Wylie Inn in Beverly City. The inn (owned and operated by Endicott College) is on a historic summer estate and is one of several stately homes on the Gold Coast that sit on headlands and secluded boardwalks.
The next day we happened to meet the owners of one of the advertised properties. We were admiring a perfectly formed cove at Kettle Cove in Gloucester, about ten kilometers northeast of the Wylie Inn, when an elderly couple stepped out of a hidden, overgrown path onto the coastal road. “This is Black Beach,” offered the man, dressed practically in high waders, a shell jacket and heavy, shrub-repellent 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 in the summer and stayed forever. I’m pretty sure that as a young man his gaze was drawn to the same open-air backdrops we’ve seen all weekend: the working fishing boats chugging in the pocket harbors, low banks of starchy offshore clouds against a wide, blue sky with cold water .
On the second day we cycled the long route between Beverly Farms and Gloucester, branching off Route 127 onto Ocean Street and Shore Road, each of which offers breathtaking branch routes with ocean views. We came across a sign etched in granite that said WOE TIDES and a weathered wooden arrow over a stone for Old Salem Path. In an attempt to take a shortcut back to Main Street, we bypassed Thunderbolt Hill, a steep, curving, granite-lined street near Singing Beach in Manchester, where James Fields, founder of The Atlantic Monthly, was once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, entertained, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Level the playing field
The tour with a hand trike, two large wheels behind me and a third in the middle in front, was surprisingly great. Of course I sat there, could relax and enjoy the passing landscape in peace. But I was entertained excitingly on the descent, leaning like a slalom driver to quickly carve corners. The pedaling power of my upper body was consistent and reliable, and as the tour continued I didn’t feel any different, even though I knew I looked different. Trikes and e-bikes ensure a level playing field. More inclusive tours and a wider variety of them are likely to follow. But it was also good to know that you can go cycling with old cycling friends, one of whom thought the whole weekend in a historic tweed vest, tie and shirt with a collar.
Minna Caroline Smith had originally planned that her trip should end in Magnolia, but a growing craving for Gloucester clams brought her another six kilometers to a hotel near Pavilion Beach. We thought the trip would end in downtown Gloucester as well, but after a perfect fried fish and chowder lunch at the Causeway Restaurant, a local lunchtime eatery, we drove on a total of 12 miles to circumnavigate Cape Ann and complete the day.
Todd Balf is the author of several non-fiction books and most recently a memoir about his disability journey entitled Complications.
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