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New England: Revisiting Old Haunts, And Some New, In The Six States

Clement Salvadori
December 4, 2013
Filed under Featured Great Road, Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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Ocean Drive in Newport, Rhode Island

The view is looking along part of the 10-mile Ocean Drive in Newport, Rhode Island; this tasty bit of road is best ridden very early in the morning. (Photos by Clement Salvadori)

The sun was shining, the day was warm, and traffic minimal. It was like old times, traveling along Route 66 (Massachusetts, not U.S.) into the Berkshire Hills, T-boning into Route 112 as it runs alongside the Westfield River, heading north to Worthington, then east on Route 143 through Chesterfield—all roads I was familiar with from riding my first motorcycle, an NSU 250. Except this time I was on a new Harley Electra Glide, rolling over what appeared to be the same frost heaves and around the same potholes that I knew in my teenage years.

I grew up mainly in Massachusetts, and always have a lot of people I would like to see. I like visiting the old haunts, and there are places I haven’t been to, so I arranged to pick up the Electra Glide from a Harley-Davidson Authorized Rental dealer near Boston.

Joseph Conrad ship

The fully rigged, three-masted Joseph Conrad was built in 1882, and donated to Mystic Seaport after serving as a training vessel in World War II.

New England has its big cities, but away from the urban areas is a lot of countryside, a lot of woods. After picking up the Glide, I thought I’d hang around Boston for a bit, take in some sights I had not seen for a while. However, in truth, the traffic was so jammed, midweek at midday, that I decided to move on…this from a person who was driving a cab in that city in 1980. Times have changed, the population has increased, and even the newer roads can’t really handle all the cars and trucks.

Wanting to get away from the freeways, I decided to pile some miles on and head south to Rhode Island. I had been told that Sakonnet, in the very southeastern corner of the state, was a worthwhile ride. Seeing the sign for Adamsville, which is on the way to Sakonnet, off I turned, and in minutes it seemed like I had slipped back 50 years, with a two-lane road running between rock walls and trees. The Glide was happy chugging along, no need for overdrive.

The English colonists came here back in the 1600s, finding the soil good for farming, the waters good for fishing. Adamsville is home to the oldest general store in the entire country, Gray’s, but it closed last year—having been in business from 1788 until 2012. I imagine it will morph into an antique emporium if the family decides to sell the place.

Heading across to Sakonnet Point, I admired the openness of the fields and the multitude of graveyards. Today’s real-estate types must look at these expanses of ocean-view land with longing. The small harbor at Sakonnet is well protected, with many small boats, and a fine old building turned into a gathering place for the moneyed types who summer out here.

Burkville covered bridge

The old Burkville covered bridge crosses the South River in Conway, Massachusetts, and is now limited to pedestrian and bicycle traffic.

Moving on, I rode up along the Sakonnet River—in reality a tidal strait—to cross the Sakonnet Bay Bridge on my way to Newport. After a good night, I rose early to ride the famous Ocean Drive uncluttered by traffic; it is a stunning 10 miles of smooth, winding coastal road. Looking at the 19th century mansions, one realizes that there were a goodly number of very rich people back then.

From Newport, Glide and I headed west over several tall bridges that span the significant waterways connecting Narraganset Bay with the Atlantic Ocean, as well as the eastern and western parts of Rhode Island. Good views, good roads, and all too soon we were in Connecticut, where we stopped at the Mystic Seaport. This is a magnificent working museum dedicated to the boats and ships of the 19th century…very much worth a visit. In this day of jet planes and the Internet, we might forget that 200 years ago commerce and prosperity relied upon sailing vessels…and the Mystic River was a major port. It is easy to spend a few hours there, and many of the ships can be inspected close up.

Newport-Pell Bridge

Route 138 over the Newport-Pell Bridge ($4 toll) crosses Narragansett Bay, connecting Newport with Conanicut Island and the southwest of Rhode Island.

About 25 miles west of the Mystic is the mouth of the Connecticut River, and 12 tree-shaded road miles upriver is the Gillette Castle, with a twisty drive going up the hill on which the castle sits. A wealthy actor, William Gillette, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes, built this lovely monstrosity in 1914. It is now a state park, and when one wanders through the building it does become apparent that Gillette liked spying on his guests.

From the castle, one looks down on the river where a small ferry can be seen crossing from shore to shore. For a motorcycle and rider the cost is a mere two bucks, which we took advantage of. A little farther along the river is William Goodspeed’s opera house, which began amusing audiences back in 1876. Back then, steam-powered boats provided good access, and the river was the 19th century equivalent of today’s Interstate highways. The theater was refurbished some years back and puts on excellent productions, many of which end up on Broadway.

John F. Kennedy Library and Museum

The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, designed by architect I. M. Pei, sits on Columbia Point in South Boston and was dedicated in 1979.

Next morning Tropical Storm Andrea had caught up with me, and rain pelted down on us all the way to my hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. The Batwing fairing and leg guards give reasonable protection, and the bags on the Glide had good seals, fortunately, so my clothes stayed dry. By morning, Andrea had gone, and the sky was blue with puffy white cumulus clouds.
Lots of friends to see in N’ton, and great pizza at Joe’s Café; I recommend the #10 well done.

A side trip to Springfield’s interesting Museum Quadrangle allowed me to have a look at the new Indian motorcycle exhibit in the Museum of Springfield History. The city was well known for making motorcycles and cars in the early part of the last century, the most famous being the Indian. Other Massachusetts motorcycle marques were the Pope in Westfield, Iver-Johnson in Fitchburg, Marsh-Metz in Brockton, Royal in Worcester, to name just a few. The Duryea brothers were building cars in Springfield as early as 1893.

William Gillette Castle

William Gillette, an actor who earned reasonable fame and fortune playing Sherlock Holmes a hundred years ago, spent a lot of his money on this castle in Connecticut.

After a couple of nights in Northampton, I angled east to see other friends in Shutesbury, then west to Old Deerfield and the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, puttering along the local roads in third and fourth gear. The Glide is an excellent puttering machine, and equally happy to stay in the fast lane on the Interstates. The Shelburne Bridge was built in 1908, but the arrival of better roads and heavy trucks caused it to be closed to traffic 20 years later. Since it also carried the main water line, it was not destroyed. After falling into general decrepitude, the bridge was adopted by a local group that prettified it with many flowering plants, and it has become a major tourist attraction since then.

A minor storm was headed east while I was going west on the Mohawk Trail (State Route 2); we collided at Charlemont as I was trying to photograph the Mohawk “Hail to the Sunrise” statue. Hoping to get north of the storm, I went up Route 8A toward Vermont and crossed the latest covered bridge, built about 10 years ago, across the North River. The old-timers understand the primary practicality of a covered bridge; it will last longer than an open bridge. Crossing into Vermont, we joined up with the scenic Route 100 in Jacksonville as the rain continued.

Goodspeed Opera House

The Goodspeed Opera House originally opened in 1876, and the Haddam Swing Bridge began swinging in 1913, allowing big ships to go along the Connecticut River.

All right, all right, I know when to be discreet and when to be valorous. Trying to outrun the storm, I headed east on Vermont Route 9, going over Hogback Saddle, but the rain kept pace. Crossing the Connecticut River into New Hampshire, I rode along to Keene to check into the motorcycle-friendly Best Western. Which did have a nice public house attached, meaning I did not have to go out for dinner. A glass or two of Sam Adams, a plate of sausages and mashed, and a hockey game kept me amused.

Come dawn, still very wet. And the forecaster said it would be wet all day. No point in hanging around, so I kitted up and kept going east on New Hampshire Route 9. Not far from Hillsborough, I saw a makeshift sign reading: THE TENT 4 MILES. Then 3 miles, 2, 1, and finally the tent, or rather three tents, on the north side of the road. The Cornerstone Motorcycle Ministry has been doing this for 35 years, setting up the tents and offering free food and coffee to the bikers headed for Laconia Motorcycle Week. No permits are needed as they neither sell anything nor stay longer than 10 days. The presidents of the New York and New Hampshire chapters were doing the cooking, with mounds of hash browns, sausages and eggs cooked to order.

Museum of Springfield History

The Museum of Springfield History features a major display of Indian motorcycles, which were made in Springfield, as well as others, like this V-twin Yale.

Taking Exit 20 off Interstate 93, Laconia was right down the road. Had the sun been out, or had it even deigned to stop raining, I would have spent the day at Weir’s Beach, the center of activity for the Laconia rally, officially designated as a Gypsy Tour by the AMA; 2013 was its 90th anniversary. But not in the rain. Especially since every room within a 20-mile radius had been taken. I cruised the beach, listened to the vendors complain about the weather—but that is standard. Seems like every Laconia it rains during the week and clears off for the races on the weekend. Which is what happened this time.

I pushed on toward Maine and ended the day at another Harley-friendly Best Western, the Freeport Inn. Very pleasant, and The Café served significantly good food, with 15 percent off to those staying at the inn.

The Maine coast, as multitudes have observed, is stunning, with many residents trying to make a year’s income out of three summer tourist months, and the peninsula leading to Bailey’s Island is no exception. Very charming motels and inns were all along the way, where out-of-staters sign up for a week or two, frolic on the beaches, eat lobster rolls and steamed clams, and wish they lived here rather than in New York City. Except they’ve never been here in winter.

As I headed back to Boston, the showers turned to rainstorms; not a fun time. And the next day when I turned the bike in, more rain. The detail guy who would clean the bike had his work cut out for him. But the Electra Glide worked perfectly—I couldn’t ask for more.

Harley-Davidson Authorized Rental Program

More than 350 dealers are signed up to provide Harley-Davidson Authorized Rental motorcycles. Prices vary according to the model you choose, and the nice thing is the deal includes 24-hour emergency roadside assistance. Harley is also connected with Best Western, and if you join that program (free—see bwrider.com) and stay at a Harley-friendly BW, the card accumulates points that can be redeemed for all sorts of things.

(This article One Small Lap of New England was published in the December 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)

Gary’s Handy Lunch

Gary’s Handy Lunch on Thames Street in Newport Rhode Island also serves breakfast; the food, service and atmosphere, but not the prices, are right out of the 1950s.

2013 Laconia Gypsy Tour

Traditionally it rains midweek during the Laconia Gypsy Tour; 2013 was the 90th running of the event, and it was a wet Tuesday at Weirs Beach, the usually packed center of activities.

Shelburne Falls Flower Bridge

What does a town do with an old bridge that is no longer safe for traffic? Shelburne Falls folk turned theirs into a flower garden and major tourist attraction.

Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden

In the middle of the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden are bronze statues dedicated to the children’s book author, and Springfield native.

New England route map

Map by Bill Tipton/Compartmaps.com

Hail to the Sunrise statue

The Mohawk Trail, State Route 2, crosses the Berkshire Hills where a park has been dedicated to these Native Americans with this bronze “Hail to the Sunrise” statue, unveiled in 1932.

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