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WORDS: Jeremy Dunn | PHOTOS: Brian Vernor
Those of us that reside in the Boston area had done this ride hundreds of times, leisurely cruising out and around the roads surrounding the Lexington/Concord area. At times pushing each other up Strawberry Hill, or sprinting for the Lincoln town line. Yet somehow this time was a little different. This time, instead of hammering down the broken, sun-blistered road that passed alongside Walden Pond, we found ourselves motionless next to its choppy shores.
Here we were, standing in carbon-soled cycling shoes, a few feet from where Henry David Thoreau penned the American classic, Walden, Or, Life In the Woods. Having stopped at the pond as a group, it was impossible not to appreciate the history of the area and the American ghosts that had lined our route. Often times, these ghosts are easily forgotten but as we left Boston that morning, we had traveled the same roads as some of the great heroes of American history and literature. On Walden’s shores, these ghosts finally caught up with us.
Maybe it was because half the Continental team is from outside Boston? I’ve noticed this phenomenon over the years; whenever I’ve ridden with people from out of town, they notice the things that I take for granted. People suddenly start remembering that they’ve always wanted to take a walk on the Freedom Trail, or they spot the historical sign marking the start of Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn the American militia of the approaching British. They make me feel foolish that I regularly forget the exact year of the Boston Tea Party (1773).
Or maybe it is because, when you really start to dig, especially in Massachusetts, you’ll notice that a few other ghosts are hanging around as well. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned the Walden property. Or Emily Dickinson, who grew up in nearby Amherst. Throw in Ben Franklin and that celebrated midnight rider Revere, and you have yourself a party. The one that I kept coming back to, however, was Thoreau.
I couldn’t shake him as we spurred our steel horses up and out of the sandpit that surrounded Walden Pond. What was he doing out here? Did he have it all figured out? In fact, it was something that our group spoke of often. Should we move out of the city and into the countryside? That would surely make us better cyclists. I mean, look what we could be riding every day. On a basic level, Thoreau’s quest for solitude in the woods surrounding Concord is one that we, as cyclists, recognize. We realize that, even though we may ride as part of a ‘team’, we have done the training alone, fixed our bikes alone. Even surrounded by people, we rely only on our own legs to make our bicycles move. We know this solitude in cycling because we face it everywhere. It is in the isolation of the time trial, the lonesome suffering of the greatest climbs, and the alienating feeling of getting dropped before the final stretch.
So we follow the path set by these pioneers, these ghosts. As we traveled the back roads of Massachusetts, we gave a nod to the tradition set down by Thoreau. Here was a man who chose to never fully reject civilization, to completely give himself over to the wilderness. In effect, it’s what we do every time we head out on a bicycle. On the one hand, we turn our backs to civilization, preferring a simpler means of transport to take us away and into the hills and surrounding countryside. On the other, we cannot fully commit to the unknown. Even after the longest days in the saddle, we still find ourselves turning around and heading back to the cities we were so eager to leave behind. Henry David Thoreau knew this duality better than any of us. Yet somehow Thoreau had figured it out, had kept a foot in both worlds. He could seek his inner self through reflection in nature and isolation but in maintaining his ties to the ‘real world’, he never relinquished the necessities it provided.
We had made a similar choice, turning tail and heading back toward Boston. Battered, we politely nodded at the remaining monuments in the passing towns. Weary, we paid a silent homage to what we locals had come to take for granted. Cycling has its own gallery of ghosts and every time I throw my leg over a top tube, I pay tribute to them. Today though, on this ride, we paid homage to a different set of spirits.