Sunday, September 13, 2009

To the tip of the world and back

Friday, Sept. 11 -- My sister Betsy and her husband Ed installed a steam shower a few years ago at their house in Portsmouth, N.H., and I sat in it for a half hour of deep appreciation on the afternoon I arrived thoroughly chilled on the last leg of my eastern circuit, down the Appalachian Mountains and back up the coast.

I'd decided that morning to breakfast in Provincetown, Mass., on the outermost tip of Cape Cod. That was the day's first destination. A sprinkle of rain on the tent at about 6:15 got me up and packing to leave before something wetter arrived. The road wound out from my state park campsite in Brewster through Truro. Then, the big sand dunes appeared. The first sign of Provincetown itself was the Pilgrim Memorial, a granite tower on the horizon topped with gargoyles set on a hill above the harbor.

The Cape Cod dunes with the Pilgrim Monument on the horizon

I found a cramped little restaurant in Provincetown where grumpy old waitresses ("I've been working here for 30 years.") served breakfast to tourists in Travelsmith and LL Bean outfits -- cotton sweaters, crushable hats and cargo pants with legs that zip off. The food hit the spot and, after filling up, I got back on the bike and rode out to the Cape Cod National Seashore. Despite the lack of sun and a cold wind that drove beach goers away, a sign there warned that nudity was prohibited -- as if the gray-green waves crashing on the beach encouraged that possibility.

The temperature was 58 degrees, but this sign still warned beach goers to behave

Summer was over and the flag at the Seashore headquarters building was at half staff. My travels had left me out of touch and I thought it was in honor of Teddy Kennedy's death -- after all, I'd passed Hyannis yesterday. Only later did Betsy remind me of 9/11.


I cluelessly thought the flag at Cape Cod National Seashore flew at half mast for Senator Edward Kennedy

Provincetown attracts visitors from Boston who come by ferry, avoiding a long, crowded and not particularly scenic drive out US 6. Many were huddled on the pier that morning waiting to board for their return trip. The harbor waters were cold and gray. For me, the only real highlight of my ride from Newport, R.I., on Thursday afternoon was the bridge over the Cape Cod Canal -- a high steel arch that lifted me high enough to enjoy the view north to the Bay and south toward Hyannis.

The cold, gray waters of the Provincetown, Mass., harbor

From the Cape, I stayed on the main highways all the way north through Boston's Big Dig tunnels and over the snazzy Lenny Zakim Bridge to I-90, I-95 and US 1 all the way to Portsmouth and that hot shower.

As I rode that last leg, I added up the numbers in my head: 6,000 miles, five weeks, 40 stops for gasoline, four ferry crossings, two oil changes, and 20 states: New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Caroline, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

I'd seen both ends of the Appalachian Trail and ridden the length of the Outer Banks, the Skyline Drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace and the Tail of the Dragon. I'd filled in some blanks -- places I'd never visited but always thought I should: Moosehead Lake, Niagara Falls, Vicksburg and Cape Cod. Threatened by moose, elk, bears and beset by chiggers and mosquitoes, I still spent more nights in a tent than in motels.

Riding a motorcycle seems to involve even more sitting and less exercise than sailing. Twenty years after the 29-day passage Mary and I made from Seattle to Honolulu in a 37-foot ketch, my five-weeks on two wheels proved to have similarly positive results physically.

I ate barbecue, biscuits, lobster, gumbo, mashed potatoes and waffles but didn't gain weight. No colds, flu or allergy attacks slowed me down and I developed an iron butt that, with the help of half a sheepskin donated by my brother, could endure a 400-mile day on a single-cylinder thumper.

Would I do it again?

Can't wait.

Getting down to the last leg

Thursday, Sept. 10 -- The toll taker at the high bridge over Narragansett Bay into Newport, R.I., said, "You guys really get screwed" when I handed him $4 -- the same toll passenger cars pay. Still, the ride was worth it on a sunny Thursday morning after a Dunkin' Donuts breakfast and an uneventful ride from Hammonasset Beach.

I'd visited Newport's fantastic mansions and harbor years ago, so passing through was mostly a way to get off the Interstate and see some of the countryside before heading out to Cape Cod. While most East Coast vacation spots were sparsely attended after Labor Day, however, Newport was jammed.

The high bridge over Newport Harbor provided a breath-taking view

Police had set up multiple detours for some unknown reason and getting to the downtown waterfront down a tangle of narrow streets was a challenge. Once there -- the GPS again took me right to City Hall -- I found a spot to park the bike next to another motorcycle, buttoned things up a bit and went looking for lunch.

Newport's harbor restaurants proved to be tailored for visiting yachtsmen and a bit rich for my taste. Since "local cuisine" seemed to be lobster and New York strip steaks washed down with a piquant French vintage, I walked around for a bit and settled for a Subway sandwich.

I had a bit of a scare when I saw I'd left the key in the ignition and the headlight on when I'd parked more than an hour ago -- something I'm frequently guilty of. Happily, no one was observant enough to drive away on the unlocked bike, the battery still held a charge and the engine started right up.

Leaving Newport, it wasn't long before I was out of Rhode Island and making my way through the fat elbow of Cape Cod which, like Niagara Falls, is a place other people I grew up with went in the summer, but our family didn't.

By late afternoon, I was ready to camp, find some groceries and have a light dinner. I could still taste the five-dollar-foot-long I had for lunch, so a little bread, cheese and a fresh-picked apple washed down with a little airplane bottle or two of Sutter Home Cabernet would do the job.

I found Nickerson State Park in Brewster, Mass., which is about 30 miles short of my target, the tip of the Cape, and made camp. The camp store sold plastic-wrapped bundles of "kiln dried" fire wood for $5 plus tax and I indulged.

Sitting on a log by the fire, I contemplated nearing the end of my trek. On Sunday, Mary was flying into Manchester, N.H., from her visit to Nebraska. It was getting cold and the forecast was for cloudy skies. I could make it to Portsmouth by Friday evening, a day ahead of schedule.

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