Wait for Permission: Tale of a Novice Leader

First, I came up with a tour. Next, I invited some buddies to come along. Then, I worried.

The tour grew out of my fascination with a historic tale and trail: the three-month trek of Mary Rowlandson, who, kidnapped by Indians in 1675’s King Philip War, walked with them to the far reaches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. After years of research, I had pieced together enough of their route to create a four-day bike tour.

The story was gripping; the wilderness through which they walked so long ago was surprisingly undeveloped and rural today. Why not share? When twelve people actually signed on, my worries crystallized: my experience lay in bike touring, not leading. How would my bike-club pals react when whatever could go wrong, did? I knew in advance the route was hilly. The Indians, at war, walked along high ridges with commanding views. They — and we — had to get up to those ridges. But having refined the route over years, changing bits and pieces as I learned more, I hadn’t realized how ridiculously hilly it was. In fact, I’d told everyone it would be “no problem.” Whoops.

On Day One, we struggled through 4000 feet of elevation gain in 53 miles, similar to crossing the Continental Divide over the Spring Creek Pass. My breezy assurance was reason enough for a lynching. The weather only made things worse. Our trip took place in the wettest, coolest summer in years. But we managed to begin on the only 90 degree day in August…during which the rain blew in and blew off in great gusts. We were either superheated by the sun or blinded by torrents of rain. OK, the weather wasn’t my fault, but that didn’t stop me from feeling responsible. So what did people have to say at the first day’s end? Helen: “This is a stroll in the park compared to what Mary went through.” Sandi: “I never biked in the rain before. Now, I can stop worrying about it.” Phil: “Did you see that giant sculpture of the pig outside of Hardwick? Outstanding!” On that first day, we had planned to gather near an ancient Indian village, Wenimessett, to which the Indians had detoured. There, a memorial stone honors the death of Mary’s six-year-old “babe,” a casualty of the war.

Naturally, we hit a virulent downpour just five miles before. Those at the front of the pack, soaked on arrival, grew cooler and cooler as they waited for a quorum. No problem for me; I’d have waited hours for a chance to expound on my subject. But I surely couldn’t blame anyone else if they biked on ahead. One by one, each rolled up and stayed. They were actually interested! Mary and the Indians would stay at Wenimessett for two weeks, during which Mary could more or less wander around at will. Apparently, the 14 women and children hostages feared the wilderness more than they feared the Indians. Here, Mary had a chance to see her two other children — both unharmed — who’d been kidnapped at the same time as she. And here, Mary gained a bible, a gift from an Indian returning from the raid of another colonial town. The story this place tells was as devastating for the Indians as for Mary. The ground where they buried her child had been their home, their center, long before Europeans came to America. After the white man’s arrival, the Indian population had shrunk to a sliver of its former bulk, mostly from disease. With their world in flux, tribal chiefs had vied for dominance. “King” Philip, a Pokanoket, hoped to form a coalition of tribes that would send the Colonists back across the ocean. He would fail, fast and miserably. This little patch of land on which we cyclists stood stretched to wetlands behind and to purple, rolling hills ahead. It is protected and empty. The scene was beautiful, haunting and, appropriately grey. It felt right to be standing in the rain.

The battles over that land are now largely forgotten; similarly, the industries that pulsed along this swath of Massachusetts are now gone, replaced by others, elsewhere. The roads we used, though well maintained, were old: one serviced a 1721 grist mill; two others dated to the 1800s. One of those dead ends at the Quabbin reservoir, a man-made body of water created a century later. The farms and farmers of the valley under the Quabbin are long gone, and today the roads link nothing to nowhere. Consequently, this was a facility-challenged ride. Toilets were almost non-existent, and the rare food stops came along too soon after breakfast to be of any use. The good news: the countryside looked as if MacDonalds or Dunkin’ did not yet exist. We biked on narrow roads edged by lush woods, over a causeway that split a pond in two, past apple orchards and grazing horses. As if that was not compensation enough for a little inconvenience, about 8 miles from Wenimessett, in the tiny town of Hardwick, we happened upon what was billed as the oldest country fair in the US of A. It featured home-made ice cream, fried everything, old-fashioned games and a welcome line-up of porta-potties. We filled, refreshed and emptied. Revived, we pushed onward and further upward to our B&B.

In the months of organizing, the best I could say about the proprietress was that she was business-like. In person, I found her surly. My heart sank when I saw my room! It was stuffed with handcrafted dolls (for sale), fuzzy slippers (for sale), and so much furniture that there was no space to walk. What would my pals think? The group raved! They saw charm, and, because the owners let us roll our wet, gritty bikes indoors, saw them as accommodating. I was the lone griper.

Day Two was shorter, less hilly, and overcast, but it too had its problems. Because I was aiming for historic authenticity, we sliced through both “the Great Swamp” and a lesser swamp. The roads through these dark and lonely places were gravel, which, of course, was wet. Our skinny tires shimmied and lurched. We pedaled cautiously, providing the year’s bumper crop of mosquitoes with a generous buffet. Finally, as a refreshing drizzle started, we turned onto a well-paved, 3 ½ mile downhill and glided all the way “home,” into Northfield, Massachusetts, where we would spend the next two nights.

At this point, Mary had been in the wilderness for a month. She had walked and traveled by horse and raft to Northfield, and was relentlessly, forever hungry, blazing through the few calories she could garner. The Indians, at war, could not hunt or farm. They foraged for groundnuts (a kind of tuber), acorns, corn from abandoned fields. They drank the broth from a hollowed horse’s leg bone, harvested maggots from the marrow of rotting meat, ate bear, horse liver, wheat cakes. Mary thought, and later wrote, about food endlessly, like a modern cyclist on tour.

We entered Northfield on a Sunday near 2 PM. The only place to get a meal was a boxy, old diner, where a few patrons sat in leatherette booths. The menu appeared unaltered since 1950: hamburger steak, turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy, brownie sundaes. The 12 of us overwhelmed the one waitress and cook, and waited a good hour to be served. Complaints? Tom: “Comfort food at its best.” Edie: “Well worth the wait!” And Mike, still relishing the swoosh into town: “That downhill was faan-tastic.” Our B&B, one street away, was truly classy. If my friends had loved the first, how would they rate this one? “Perfect”!! With everyone accentuating the positive about everything — the rain, hills, food, inns and each other — the group coalesced like milk in a churn. This, though, was not a pack of Pollyannas. We all recognized that most of the tour was hilly and hot and wet. And, like all cyclists, we treasured the tales of our own accidents or our hardest rides. What else are “happy hours” made for? But here’s the thing: on tour, whatever can ordinarily be viewed as bad is almost always seen as good, and whatever can normally be viewed as good, is also seen as good. As an experienced bicycle tourist, I had already known this, yet as the leader, I hadn’t dared count on it. What had I been thinking? Given that cyclists are notoriously nice, and—when under the influence of endorphins—more so, my friends’ attitudes were positively predictable.

Mary Rowlandson wrote the first female-authored book to be published on this continent. “The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” can be found in its entirety online through Project Gutenberg.

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Editor's note: Yes, this site is dedicated to 1-2 night bike trips, but there is so much spunk in this story we had to run it!

7 responses so far ↓

Winona Bateman - Oct 12, 2011 at 2:17 PM

Great story!

Helen Greitzer - Oct 12, 2011 at 5:57 PM

Congratulations, Susan. So happy to have been a part of this wonderful tour.

Lee Dougan - Oct 13, 2011 at 9:35 AM

Great Adventure! And a great group of bikers.

Louis Pastor - Oct 14, 2011 at 6:12 PM

As a cyclist and a historian, I rate this piece A+

Joan Stoia - Oct 17, 2011 at 7:51 AM

As the "classy" B&B in this tale, we applaud the group and their leader. Their immersion in the Rowlandson story, their athleticism and good-natured camaraderie were an inspired combination. Thank you, Susan.

John Gaffney - Apr 17, 2012 at 2:21 PM

Great story - impressive amount of detail and a nice glimpse into the emotional ups and downs of both being an organizer and being on the road at the same time.

Really well done!!

Helen Greitzer - Apr 17, 2012 at 7:42 PM

Wish we could do this tour again.

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