June 28, 2014
I return to CT once a year to visit with my family. This year I will use the time to train for my upcoming trip to Georgia when I attempt to complete the Rapha Rising Challenge in late July. The challenge is to ride 8800 meters of climbing in nine days. Training in Miami to prepare for this challenge is difficult to say the least. Southeast CT provides rollers and progressive graduated climbs perfect for taking a flatlander up a notch before I take on the kind of sustained climbs GA offers up. Riding the tarmac of my youth is an olfactory experience triggering those emotional rollers of nostalgia.
It starts when I pull into the parking lot of Mystic Cycle Center. The smell of the salt marsh surrounding the shop reminds me of the countless hours I spent pining over imported Italian steel frames and deliberating over the choice between Campagnolo beauty and the new index shifting from Shimano. Once known as Mystic Valley Bicycles the business is now co-owned by Rick Ely an Iron Man triathlete turned business owner who I trained alongside in the local community pool. He was a living legend for us mere mortals back in the early eighties and when I say “trained alongside”, I mean we shared the same pool while I trained and he shredded water.
Riding through downtown Mystic and over the draw bridge the salt water smell engulfs you as the sea breeze gently caresses your face and arms. I remember the many times I crossed that bridge or counted its rise and descent while enjoying Guinness at John’s Café in the company of good friends and local characters. The Mystic River Bridge is a Bascule design built in 1922 spanning 85’connecting Stonington and Groton and still operational to this day. A friend and founder of Mystic River Photo, Richard Flesh, would tell you that it was the most photographed object in town.
Taking the first right after crossing the bridge and onto Gravel Street I meander through the streets bordered by beautiful Victorian homes of bygone captains and the affluent citizens of the seafaring trade.
Mystic Seaport is in full view from Pearl Street while small Gaffe rigged sail boats gently navigate the Mystic River.
Mystic Seaport is the nation’s foremost maritime museum with a wooden boat collection that includes a whale ship, a sandbagger, a few schooners, a steamboat and even a square rigger. I remember visiting the seaport many times through my adolescence developing a passion for wooden boats in the process. It was every local kid’s first trip to a planetarium and the colonial village was an education on early American life. I cannot count how many times I boarded The Charles W Morgan spurring my imagination about whaling off the shores of New England. When I heard they have finally restored her to sailing condition I was thrilled.
I continue my ride down the Mystic River and head north onto Shewville Road lined by iconic CT stonewalls, horse fence and rolling green pastures. Shewville is filled with false flats and undulating climbs that keep the heart rate, effort and excitement high. Segments are bordered by deep, lush, forest with a smell of earth, foliage and flora delivered by a cool, light breeze. An outcropping of six foot tall Queen Anne’s lace decorates the road side while wildflowers can be found everywhere you look. I can remember my long commutes to and from work included this beautiful road where I would pick the very same wildflowers on my way home to present to my girlfriend now wife, Renate.
A short jaunt on busy Route 2 with the odor of automobile exhaust connects me with Brickyard lane where the heady, fragrant, aroma of honeysuckle warmed by the summer sun fills my nose reminding me of when my brothers and I would pick the flower heads off and suck the sweet nectar from the base of the petals. It was a simple childhood pleasure like blueberry picking or running through a water sprinkler. Brick yard lane is a series of punchy climbs that test the legs and lungs that travel through a canopy of trees so thick the change in lighting fooled me into thinking a summer storm was brewing.
To my left gravel roads lead to nowhere and small plantings of lilies grow in rows waiting to be cut for a dinner table display.
An old roadside gas pump next to a small building harkens to a bygone era and the sound of a lawn mower and the scent of fresh cut grass complete the experience. It is summer in Connecticut “and the living is easy”.
Longer climbs reward with long descents along the cornfields and pastures of the Shetucket Turnpike. The blue sky peeking through the green leaves of Sugar Maples towards the end of the first long descent betray the water that lies just beyond view. Even as an eight year old boy the parting of the forest was a landmark that filled me with anticipation. Pachaug was and is the first of three ponds on our “long” car ride to reach the last, Beach Pond, where we would spend all day swimming and playing in the cold fresh water. Even fresh water has a scent yet I fail to find words to describe it. Water is a mother’s secret weapon deployed in search of peace as nothing exhausts the virtually unlimited energy and angst of four young boys like a day at the beach.
The fast descent to Pauchaug is replaced by a steady ascent to Buttonwood Farm where fresh farm ice cream can be savored on a hot summer day with friends. The road continues down past the water lilies of Glasgo pond where shirtless boys sit along the shore fishing for bullheads and bass. Here begins a graduated climb that leads to the center of Voluntown. It is not much of a town center really, a gas station, post office and an elementary school is just about it. Here there is a ghost on the hill where I dare not go. My heart saddens as I think about all the hopes, fears and expectations of a talented cabinetmaker that lie buried in a graveyard beyond my route. Tears flow down my cheeks as I turn onto Pendleton Hill Road and ponder what would have become of his daughter’s life had she not departed us so very young. Rest in peace Sativa, you are forever in our hearts.
The Continental tires roll quietly along smooth, freshly laid tarmac smelling of petroleum while dried pine needles fall softly from coniferous balms like snowflakes as I make the climb away from Voluntown.The road is a rolling ascent along horse fence, country homes and stacks of cordwood until I reach the expansive sea of cornfields and aroma of freshly cut wood from the tiny sawmill of a hill top farm.
Such a beautiful view cannot be replicated by amateur photography yet photos I still take. A false flat at the top is made all the more difficult by the metered telephone polls that seem to mock your effort as they mark the distance yet travelled.
The ride continues along undulating terrain with a final climb to Pendleton Hill Church passing by the houses and roads of the girls I once knew. Skinny girls, round girls, smart ones, silly ones, tough ones, those a bit crunchy, and some more sophisticate, every one beautiful, and if truth be told I loved them all. During the ride I tally the ones I kissed and the ones I once wished I had. Memories so fresh, it is hard to believe they are more than thirty-five years old, seventeen in the making.
Although the pace of the descent off Pendleton hill is fast and furious, even at 45 mph, impatient motorists pass me around corners endangering us all. I so love the speed and with child like enthusiasm I let out a scream of delight so loud it inspires dogs to join in the revelry.
I ride past roads with names like Sleepy Hollow or Hangman hill and wonder if there is some story there somewhere. The fresh tarmac has disappeared replaced by the cracked and potted gravel embedded tarmac I remember so well. Town workers would lay down some hot tar layered with gravel and covered with sand allowing time and vehicles to magically work the stones into the decades old foundation. It was a wonderful opportunity for sixteen year old boys to play out their Dukes of Hazzard fantasies while driving at breakneck speeds sliding on the loose sand from side to side and on occasion to lose complete control. Meanwhile this rough pavement is sucking what little energy I have left out of my flailing legs.
A turn on Babcock Road, then Wyassup Road and finally onto Rocky Hollow gets me through downtown North Stonington. Again, a school, library, post office and hardware store is all that marks its center. There are more memories of the time spent in that school than I am able to share in a single blog post. For a later time perhaps. On Rocky Hollow are some tennis courts, part of a recreational area championed by our childhood neighbor Mr. James McDermott. I learned to play tennis on those courts spending countless hours in the hot sun hitting balls against a backboard or practicing my serve. It was a great way to flush out teenage frustrations while imagining days of tennis glory. I never gave the man the credit he deserved and wished I had communicated a simple “thank you” when he was still alive. There is a lesson there folks.
Once across New London Turnpike I travel along Stony Brook Road while pedaling squares up its steep grade I come across a patch of Tiger lilies.
Tiger lilies grow seemingly wild all over Southeast CT. They were my mother’s favorite flower and so my father would pick them from the roadside for her pleasure only to be disappointed by their short life. The wild is best enjoyed in the wild rather than kept dying in a vase.
Taugwonk road takes the last of me. A quick descent is followed by a steep ascent.
I am tired.
I am hungry.
I am buzzing.
Peqout Trail descends enough to ease my effort and so I coast through its lush green canopy. A couple more roads returns me to my car satisfied by my effort, renewed by the miles, and comforted by my past.
These roads hold dear memories.