Monday, October 15, 2018

Trunkline or Bust: Finding Adventure in Eastern Massachusetts

Rolling singletrack through Upton.
 I was a desiccated sock- dry, crumpled and salt caked.  The thirst that had been building in my throat suddenly left me feeling stale and flimsy on the bike as I rolled out of the woods and onto the blazing hot pavement.  I had gambled against a water break before my last foray into the woods and now I was going to pay the price. And let me tell you- getting behind on your hydration schedule is no way to go through an endurance ride.



Some see a hotdog stand.  I see salvation.
It was late May and I was less than half-way through my first long distance adventure ride of the season and had made a rookie mistake.  I hadn’t carried enough water.  The fact that my route seemed designed to avoid every possible mini-mart, gas station, or restaurant in east-central Massachusetts didn’t help the situation. Neither did the high humidity, cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid-eighties.  So by the time my riding partner Scott and I rolled into Whitinsville, I was ready to start drinking my own piss, Bear Grylls style.  Thankfully, there was a hot dog stand with ice cold Cokes.  My piss could wait.

Scott and I had started at the Ashland MBTA station – or really in Auburndale, but with the help of the MBTA we were whisked away to the I-495 loop west of Boston.  From Ashland we followed quiet suburban roads south and west on our way to Whitehall State Park.  We were thwarted from entering one promising looking section of conservation land (don’t get me started on those Audubon folks).  But eventually routed our way around it and onto friendly lands along the lake.  The trail rolled down to the water, then climbed high up onto an esker, eventually skirting along the side of steep banks, following the lake south.  After crossing a road we were onto old double track and on our way into Upton State Forest.
Fern lined singletrack, or as we like to call it in Eastern MA: tick application center.
As we rolled into the large wooded tract, crisscrossed with trails, I was again reminded how lucky I am to live in Eastern Massachusetts. I honestly believe there isn’t a better place to live if you’re a mountain biker.  There may be better quality trails in other parts of the country or longer “point-to-point” singletrack sections, but nobody can match us for the sheer number of options to bike in ANY direction from our front doors on a mountain bike.  You can’t swing a hardtail around your head in Eastern Mass. without it hitting a section of trail.  This ride was just another example.  I had cobbled together a ride from Ashland to Franklin, by way of Douglas State Forest, trying to use mostly trail, because “Why the f…. not?!”

Our ride through the trails around the West Hill Dam and Goat Hill just solidified these feelings for me.   Here we were in “Anytown”, Massachusetts and there were destination quality trails all around.  We enjoyed the next hour or so – despite being desperately dehydrated. Even a refill of our water bags at the West Hill Dam didn’t sate my thirst.

Scott, my riding partner, had ridden with me a couple times around our neighborhood, where I had told him about some of my crazy adventure rides, and for some reason he decided to join me when asked.  By the time were in Whitinsville, I think he was already questioning his decision and planting the seeds of bailout options in my mind. Given my water woes, my mind was fertile ground for thoughts of a road retreat.  Whitinsville was essentially our point of no return.  We could head south and hit some easy road and rail trail back toward Franklin. Go beyond Whitinsville and, we had to continue all the way out to Douglas State Forest in order to make our way back.
And bad they were. 

My mind raced through all the negatives: It was early in the season and I wasn’t in mid-season condition. The heat index was brutal.  I was already behind the eight-ball on hydration and likely to implode at any moment.  I didn’t know the trails in Douglas and there was no bailout ahead if they were too technical or our pace slowed.  We were already on the slow end of my estimated timeline.  The storm of negative thoughts assailed me as I flopped back onto the bike- belly full of hotdog.

 Against the onslaught I held onto one oasis of hope:  The ride’s elevation profile indicated that the last twenty five miles were essentially downhill and on an old rail bed known as the “Trunkline Trail”. The image of a 25 mile paved descent was like a life raft in my tiny little mind and I held onto it for dear life.  The Trunkline would be our salvation. I said as much out loud to Scott a number of times, as the line of no-return approached and passed.  To his credit, Scott didn’t protest as we launched ourselves toward Douglas.

To make up for our slower than planned pace, I skipped a section through Sutton State Forest and we shot directly on road to Douglas.  And when we got there, we were pleasantly surprised.
This is Scott's look of pleasant relief as we roll into Douglas State Forest.

After entering on a wide doubletrack trail we eventually found our way onto babyhead covered singletrack.  Although technical, it was all rideable- provided that you found the right line.  Hauling my dual suspension around all day finally paid off as I floated my way through the rock gardens.  The miles ticked away until I realized we were finally ready to start our descent.  And descend we did. Rock gardens gave way to sandy doubletrack and our prayers to the Trunkline were finally, and graciously answered.  But instead of a paved bike superhighway, the Trunkline was mostly packed sand and gravel doubletrack.  Truth be told, I much preferred the natural feel of rolling along tree lined packed dirt versus racing along pavement. And so we rumbled along- consciously aware of the fading daylight but soaking in the vistas of the surrounding forests, fields and rivers.

Sweet bliss of the Trunkline.

A road crossing revealed the golden arches of McDonalds, where we stuffed one more quick meal (cheeseburgers) into our engines, downed extra-large icy drinks, and braced ourselves for the last fifteen miles.

Near South Bellingham we reached an overgrown section of trail.  Fearful that we might miss our train, we decided to jump onto the road for the last ten miles.  With the final hints of daylight slowly fading we turned on our lights and headed onto the busy roads. The last miles were a blur of narrow-shouldered suburban roads as we rocketed to the Forge Park MBTA station in the darkness.

Scott and I reached the station with minutes to spare, and stretched out on the wooden benches sucking down water and gobbling down what snacks remained in our packs. Our day’s adventures had taken us through a large swath of the south-central corridor of Massachusetts known as the Blackstone Valley.  Aside from the quality of the trails, I was struck by the number of lakes, rivers and assorted bodies of water that seemed to be sitting around every corner.  In reality we hadn’t traveled far from home, but our adventure seemed grander- more foreign and more remote than a mere 30 minutes by train from our home turf.
It was a reminder that adventure is about tackling the unknown- regardless of how far you have to travel to find it.   It’s about nurturing that faith in your ability to persevere despite the laundry list calamities both real and perceived that arise.  It’s about learning when to push limits, when to stick to the plan, and when to adapt and improvise. 

And if that means having to drink your piss now and then, so be it.  Personally, I prefer just carrying around a water filter.
Definitely better than pavement.
Here's the map of our route:




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