There was a hard rain that day.
Alone that morning with so many miles ahead of unknown surfaces, an untried route, and my resolve quavering, I could just forget it, this crazy idea, of skating 175 miles, of risking failure after hours and hours of insane exertion. Two months ago I had turned 50 years old. Perhaps that would explain it to some. But, attempting to skate the equivalent of running three marathons in two days could not be wholly explained by a mid-life crisis. I knew there was more to it.
There was no encouraging sunshine at all. The roads were slick with a rainbow sheen. It was depressing, really, standing there in the rain, alone, thinking conflicting thoughts about the next two days of relentlessly excruciating effort. I knew about the hills. I knew that where I was going, physically, for me, was undiscovered country.
It was not going to be easy. There would be nothing but skating, hour after hour, through traffic and bad attitudes, through the "Big Dig" construction site in the city, and then the long uphill stretch from Quincy to Plymouth and then from Plymouth to the Bourne Bridge. Past that it seemed, that things would get easier, and once on the Cape itself, it would be flat and smooth and easygoing. I had estimated, during the year of training, that it would be about 8.5 hours to the Bridge (I was off by two hours). Then from Bourne to Provincetown, I had calculated that it would be between 5 and 6 hours (way off, again). It turned out to be 19 1/2 hours of the hardest, most physically destructive, emotionally and enduringly significant event in the last two decades of my life. Had I known that morning what I came to know two days later on Saturday around 3:30 P.M. standing in Provincetown, I would never have attempted the long distance skate from Marblehead to Provincetown. For the man standing there at the beginning, this was going to be way too much. But, for the person who emerged, gaunt, drained and delirious after the long, tedious hours of slow physical attrition, it became an obsession of sweat, desperation, and determination. That person came face-to-face with the incontrovertible facts about himself, his strengths, his weaknesses, and about the world in which he lives. As if in a chrysalis state, the miles and miles of effort surrounded him, insulated him, and in the end completely changed him in a cleansing and a resolving way that cannot be feigned, and cannot be earned in any other way, except through honest, sustained individual effort.
And then, I was off into the distance.
* * * *
Skating out of Marblehead at about 6:30 A.M., my strokes were strong and smooth. Listening to "The Best Of Elton John," I was already trying to pace and reserve, realizing that if I feel good in hour one, how would I feel after hour eight? So, from the beginning, I tried to be smart, stay steady, and maintain a slower-than-usual pace of about 10 miles per hour. I had no idea what I was getting into. It reminded me of Vietnam. I was provisioned, equipped and ready to go, ready for anything, hopefully. But, really, ready for what, no one knew, least of all me.
The technique of in-line skating involves a large muscle push and glide, with another strong push at the end of the glide. Each stroke takes an effort and each stroke takes a toll. Skating uphill is much harder than downhill or on a flat, but each type of terrain offers its own challenge. Uphill is highly aerobic and exhausting. Downhill is seductive, but if you glide, your muscles cool and stiffen, making everything harder after that. On a flat, speed counts so you always are working hard with no break. In-line skaters know that long-distance skating is all uphill because uphills define the distance: downhill you skate hard to stay loose and go twice, or three times, as fast, and then it's uphill again. True flats are few and far between in New England. So it's always the hard slow uphill followed by the superfast, dangerous downhill, then uphill again. After a while, as everyone knows, it's all uphill.
Zipping through Swampscott and Lynn, I was over the General Edwards Bridge and into Revere before I knew it. Out on North Shore Drive (1A) it started to become a little more difficult; it was now high rush hour, and when the first driver drove his vehicle at 55 miles per hour through a muddy pothole of a puddle and violently splashed me so hard that it knocked me sideways about two feet, stumbling in the rock rubble of the way-too-small breakdown lane, it seemed to inspire the other drivers who came along after him as I now skated through a cascade of mud and debris of all kinds thrown my way by a parade of puddle jumpers, one after the other. Drivers think it's just water, but it isn't. There are little BB's of dirt and pebbles in the dirty water. You can feel them hit. But it was still early and despite the cruel commuters, I was still strong and confident, so I skated on waving to the drivers who splashed me on their way to work, although not always with all my fingers. This defiance was an important inspiration that spurred me on.
Avoiding Bell Circle, I took Revere Street, to Broadway, to Park Avenue, to Elm Street, to Ferry and then onto what I hoped was Broadway in Everett, but it was not. For the first of many times, I was skating in the wrong direction. If you think it's hard getting around Massachusetts in a car, try in-line skates. It is nearly impossible to see the signs. Cars are every where, honking and screaming at you if you make a wrong move or stop to catch your breath. The sidewalks are almost universally impassable on skates because of their disrepair, and the good ones are overcrowded with pedestrians, who can be meaner than the commuters. So I lost 45 minutes and probably six miles, correcting a wrong turn. I ended up taking Second Street, a one-way street, going the wrong way, through the worst part of Everett (worst in the status of both the neighborhoods and the roadways). Here, I took the first of four falls that day. Skating in rain-filled puddles that sometimes were over my ankles, I tried to traverse an abandoned railroad bed. My lead skate caught in the diamond-shaped rubber padding between the rails and I went over head first. Luckily my skate came out of the track's grip just as I did a full-body splashdown in the oily, gritty pond-sized puddle. Spitting out the filthy water and trying to regain my feet was difficult as car after car splashed through the puddle, ignoring me lying there in the oily mess and churning in their wakes.
I got up on my skates again. It was still raining a hard, sheeting rain. My headphones and tape deck were ruined. My cell phone was out. Everything in my backpack was soaked and now weighed twice as much. My carefully prepared map was ruined. It was here where I first had the thought of calling it quits and going home. Probably, I could get back home by 10:00 A.M. or so, and just call the whole thing off. Who would know? I decided to skate on a little farther and see what happened. This incident caused the sustaining theme of "Just-Keep-Going-And-See-What-Happens" to first emerge as my overall strategy. And, it seemed to help as I moved on, dripping, dirty, still determined.
I crossed the Revere Beach Parkway, not easily because it's a very busy road, and across Second Street the wrong way because it doesn't have a proper crosswalk, as I had hoped. I worked my way out to the center strip, and was there marooned for a time. I was entertained by the many catcalls and obscene gestures from passing motorists. Remember, it was raining, and I probably looked a little nuts out there in rush hour. I noticed, forlornly, for the first time that all of the road rage and driver-insensitivity was beginning to take its toll. I have to say that every once in a while, one of them would smile, or laugh, and wave as well. But overall, an in-line skater is faced with derision and ridicule as a constant companion on the streets. Like the children of a tyrant, we learn to live with it. I have come to feel that it is unfair to judge people while they are behind the wheel. Almost in the way society for many years looked the other way and always forgave drunk drivers, I have come to feel that the metamorphosis that occurs when an ordinary person buckles in and starts his or her car's engine is an extraordinary effect, outside of their control, and once they are out of the car, it's as if it never happened. So, as a skater, I look on each passing car as having a malevolent impersonator at the wheel, who will behave in ways that, in his or her other mild-mannered, humane existence, they would easily control. I view every driver as drunk, and thereby am prepared and ready for the worst. As the poet, A. E. Housman, put it:
The thoughts of others
Mine were of trouble
One should remember, however, that Housman killed himself.
Once across the Parkway, I approached one of the main stumbling blocks of in-lining through Boston: getting over the Mystic River and its tributaries. Most of the bridges, rightly or wrongly, are closed to pedestrian traffic, which legally defines in-line skaters, since we are, after all, on-foot, according to most Massachusetts laws. The bridge on Route 99, Broadway in Everett, is open to all comers. As I went down the street approaching the bridge, I saw the famous, Mike's Donuts, where a former extremely rotund Speaker of the House was fabled to order a dozen every morning and eat them in the car on the way to his office. He is said to have arrived every day with crumbs on his sweatered belly that he would pick at throughout the day as "snacks." I always admire people who have transcended, for whatever reason, caring about their appearance. That's a nirvana that I have never attained. Obviously, skating along, burning 10 calories a minute, I know now that I should have stopped in for a donut or two, perhaps delaying the inevitably destructive nutrition-deficit rendezvous lurking in the many miles ahead (but more on that later). Now to the bridge, which was the immediate problem dead ahead.
As I neared the Malden Bridge, the ocean came back into view on the right. The quiet serenity of the inlets and abandoned pier posts were beautiful and soothing. The sea birds and cormorants were doing their breakfast dance on the water, and I wondered how nice it would be to have my sea kayak on these waters and maybe even wet a fly line to see what might tighten it there beneath the glassy surface. With these thoughts swimming in my mind, I had stepped up onto the sidewalk of the bridge in the effortless way an in-line skater who skates an average of 75 to 100 miles a week can do. It was a oversized curb of maybe 26 inches, and somewhat more than my wandering mind was expecting, so I stumbled a little, which importantly helped to refocus my attention just as an eighteen-wheeler came careening onto the opposite end of the bridge at top speed, probably 45 miles per hour, thundering the structure under my blades. Now, I am no engineer, but it seems to me that the Everett budgetary priorities probably included the maintenance of the elemental structural integrity of the bridge, but clearly not of the adjoining sidewalk. So, while the bridge itself was sound enough for the weight of a massive transport truck, loaded to the gills, the sidewalk had been slowly compromised over the years. The crushing weight and momentum of the truck's passage were causing panel after panel of the sidewalk to jump from their frames up into the air as the behemoth passed, one after the other. Regaining my balance, I looked up and saw a metal wave of sidewalk panels lifting up, rushing ever closer to me with no way for me to escape except to leap over the sidewalk railing into the dreamily placid September waters of the Mystic River twenty, or so, feet below. Never having swum with full roller blading gear on (helmet, elbow, wrist and knee pads, plus, of course the weight of skates themselves and a water-logged backpack) I quickly opted out of that alternative and stayed on the sidewalk. Now, when kayaking in surf, everyone knows that you beach on the back of incoming waves so that the energy of the crashing surf gently lowers you and your craft to the sand, rather than coming in on the breakers which has the opposite effect, tumbling you head over heels. So, using my kayaking experience as a guide, I leaped into the air as the metal panel of the sidewalk reached its pinnacle probably twelve inches off the sidewalk, and rode down its back, accelerating, and then repeated this maneuver on the ricocheting next panel and the next as they settled down again into a smoother surface like the ripples in a lake receding into the distance from the point of impact. A driver following the truck, in apparent appreciation of this difficult and successful maneuver on my part, leaned on his horn and nodded his head approvingly, thumbs up. Unfortunately, my attention was so focused that this sudden loud noise scared the crap out of me and, distracted, I crashed into the wall to my right, spun around once, bruising my hip, then fighting to regain balance, grabbed a passing lamp post, spun the other way and fell flat on my back, skidding along the sidewalk to a stop. Getting up, out of breath and shaking all over, I thought, standing there in the rain on a rickety old bridge in Everett, this is crazy, I'm going home. In the end I decided to keep going and see what would happen next.
Now, before me, lay the historic city of Boston and the world's largest public works project ever attempted, in full operation, "The Big Dig." My carefully prepared, 14-page map, now just a wad, had previously indicated, I recalled, that this part of the transit should be no problem: Rutherford Street to Revere Street, then work my way onto the Charlestown Bridge to Commercial Street, then Atlantic Avenue, then Dorchester Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard. No problemo. Except of course, I completely missed Rutherford.
Hey, the roads were rough and wet, the traffic was a slow moving gridlock with flashes of recklessness near every intersection, and tempers were rush-hour hot. If I kept moving (and remember, I was now moving faster than the traffic jams) and stayed vertical, I was pretty happy. Missing Rutherford was bad, but it was understandable. Actually, I was on it briefly and then it seemed to bear to the left, but actually it went under the overpass and parallel to the road I was on. Some miles later, this became obvious. I was lost, with impenetrable fields of unskatable railroad tracks between me and where I wanted to be. Backtracking, I finally crossed Boston Harbor on the Charles River Dam, into Leverett Circle, only a mile from my intended crossing point at the Charlestown Bridge. Working through the area between where I was and where I wanted to be was extremely difficult due to the extensive excavations of the Big Dig and all the trucks, tractors, backhoes and construction vehicles, police details, traffic jammed bumper-to-bumper, and now, a new element appeared: pedestrians everywhere. At this point, I was lucky if I was making a balky five miles per hour, with over 80 still to go just to get to the Sagamore Bridge. While the terrain was fairly flat, it was still exhausting. Dodging, weaving, stopping, starting, crossing on awkward footbridges, through "pedestrian detours," and for nearly an hour, I resolutely made my way.
Nearing Rowes Wharf, I fell for the third time. The slimy mud that they were digging out of underground Boston, at tremendous expense and inconvenience, was everywhere in all the construction sites. To cover the holes, they always use those large pieces of iron plating on the roads. As I skated to a stop before the upheld palm of a uniformed police officer, I lost purchase with my right skate in the slime. Ordinarily that is no problem (I skate in the rain all the time). But, as I moved my left skate to compensate, I realized, too late, that I was on one of those iron plates, surrounded by ten feet of slime in all directions. My left skate went out from under me, and I was going down in a broad two-legged split that I would have never been able to sustain. Both hamstrings were screaming. So, in an effort to save them, I went over frontward to relieve the pain, in an almost-perfect, head-first somersault. At the last minute I rolled to the right, to avoid neck injury, ending up spread-eagled on my back with the police officer screaming at me to "Get the hell out of there!" Most people don't realize how upsetting it is to fall on in-lines, and how much it shakes you up. It's hard enough to get up with skates and all the other gear on, but I was really struggling now on the slimy iron plate, like Bambi on the ice. It took a few painful tries, but soon enough, I was going along again, bruised and battered, soaking wet, ego discarded, discouragement now looming over me like the black rain clouds that had been my constant companions all morning, fearfully wondering what could happen next.
It was an ill-fated plan to get to Dorchester Avenue via Atlantic Avenue because Atlantic Avenue had basically ceased to exist in all of the construction. I took out my map wad and looked at the pulpy remains of my best-laid plans thinking how carefully my assistant had prepared it. I threw it down a construction hole along with many other sentiments and confidences I had foolishly used to prep for this trip. It was clear to me now that all bets were off. If I were going to succeed from here on, it would be on the basis of sheer insane, single-minded endurance disregarding all obstacles and physical setbacks. I was now fully engaged in a battle royal, sustaining injuries, fighting my way alone towards a far-distant and elusive victory. And, I had only just begun.
So, working down the wrong side of the street, weaving in and out among innumerable walkers, runners, and people, doing whatever I could to get around large construction vehicles, staying on my feet, with the police blowing their whistles and variously holding up the palms of their hands and yelling, "Stop!" and wildly waving their arms at me to, "Get moving!" I finally emerged on Kneeland, once more heading in the wrong direction. Four blocks later I turned around.
The complexity of innermost Boston's well-known confusing traffic patterns was all screwed up beyond recognition because of the semi-permanent construction. Someday, I'm sure, it will be wonderful, but that day it was a nightmare, especially if you were rolling along on eight little wheels. At this point, I knew where I was and the general direction I wanted to go, but I had never been in this exact area before. I remembered Berkeley Street was important, so skating down Hudson Street, I eventually found Berkeley and turned right, the wrong way. You may think it odd that I was making so many wrong turns but remember, in-line skating is not easy. You extravagantly and constantly burn calories with every stroke. Stopping, starting, falling, dodging... all of these take their toll, and I was tired now. I eventually figured out that I was heading in the wrong direction when I got to Columbus Avenue, and as I turned around and dejectedly skated back towards Route 3, I didn't know it, but things were actually going to get better. I made another brief wrong turn getting to Dorchester Street, but once correctly heading south on it, I found Old Colony, then through the circle to Morrissey Boulevard, and on into Quincy where I stopped at a McDonald's, exhausted. It was only 10:30 A.M.
Removing my skates outside, I squeezed the muddy water and sweat from my socks and did the same to my shirt. Entering patrons took little notice. I went inside, ordered a cup of coffee and sat down. Now, people were looking at me, as though a strange intruder in their midst. A little girl walked over, maybe six years old. She just stood there looking at my mud-covered skates, strange gear, and me. My wet, gritty legs and arms. My dirty, splattered face. She was especially interested in my helmet that was slopped with mud. I said hello, and she ran back to her Dad. While at the table, I ate one of the six power bars I brought along and for the first but not the last time experienced what I now know was the imminent onslaught of the then, just beginning, and later fully developed, nutrition deficit I was accruing. The usually disappointing power bar tasted so delicious that I ate it in just two voracious bites, in the style of the famished prisoner you see in the movies, cramming it in. This made me laugh, but it also made me wonder about why I was so hungry. Before I knew it, I was mechanically moving out the door, suiting up again, and skating along on my way. I intuitively knew that if I stopped too long anywhere I would stay stopped. The coffee had been hot and delicious.
On the road, again, now skating along 3A was not all that bad. Cars everywhere of course, but it was better now and small improvements were enough for me. I continued drinking 10 ounces of the electrolyte mix every half hour, and believe it or not, skating along at 12-13 mph I began to recover my energy and spirit, in the proverbial second wind. It was about 11:00 A.M. as Braintree and Weymouth began to appear on the road signs. It was also around here, that I sort of blanked out that way you do on a long trip. I knew exactly how to get where I was going, but had no clear notion of the distance. My cell phone and Walkman were both dead, but my digital camera, protected in a Ziploc bag, was still fine. The thought of taking pictures of this trip was now repugnant to me, as I had begun to view what I was doing as torturous, not really fun at all. I have said to people since this trip, and I really mean it, that had I known what I know now, I would never have attempted it. In any case, I certainly wanted no commemorative photographs of my idiocy.
If you look at the distance on a map from Weymouth to Plymouth, it looks short and easy. But it is not. It's probably 25 to 30 miles of the second-hardest terrain in Massachusetts, apart from the western mountains. It's uphill, with too-narrow two-way roads that wind and turn and then go straight uphill again. It's not any hill in particular, but like an old prize fighter whose brain is suffering from the cumulative effect of too many head punches, hill after hill takes its toll. It's physically very taxing, even for one in excellent condition. So more than merely physical, it's also mental, and it wears you down slowly, almost unawares. Furthermore, not knowing exactly where I was or how long I would have to sustain this leg of the journey was disconcerting. But I continued to skate along, drinking now as I was going, not stopping to drink as before, towards Plymouth. Scituate finally came along, then Marshfield. I remember a big hill in Marshfield that for the first time in all my in-lining life I could not go straight up. I had to stop, exhausted. It was then that I noticed the locking effect stopping had on my legs. They were great skating along, but if I stopped, weird things happened. I had now been skating for around six hours and around sixty miles. Resuming skating after feeling the lockup, and resuming on the hardest hill so far, took more effort than I expected. Once at the top of a tough hill, a skater usually feels a brief sense of exhilaration, but skating downhill is not any easier, really. You are going at least three times as fast, if you coast, your legs bind up, so you must continue stroking, going really fast, with high demands on your attention and concentration. Also, skating downhill really fast, you get to the next uphill even more quickly and with no rest. It went on like that, from exhaustion to exhaustion, for mile after mile. The rhythm was only broken by car horns and people yelling at me as they went by. I should mention that this was the constant background noise all the way to Provincetown. Everywhere, apparently, the personality types that generate this unkind and unreasonable response to the sighting of an in-line skater exist in vast and widespread numbers. Why do people do that? Why do people honk at golfers about to make a putt? Why is there such a thing as road rage? I don't know, but it's all out there and like the hills after hills, this constant berating and shouting and honking wears you down.
Once in Duxbury, all I was thinking about was getting
to Plymouth. I remembered the map and I knew things would be better
Plymouth. I could get something to eat, rest a little and then
finish with an energetic flourish with the last leg of today's
skate: Plymouth to the Sagamore Bridge. We will come back to
this later, but I could not have been more wrong. First of all,
just to get to Plymouth turned out to be almost more than I had
in me. Finally arriving, totally exhausted, soaking wet with
sweat, car splashes, in the continuing, pelting rain, which I
had come to enjoy in a strange way, I sort of woke up sitting
on a bench on the sidewalk in the middle of the Plymouth business
district. It was 2:00 P.M. or so, eight-plus hours from Marblehead.
Sitting there, I noticed that my hands were shaking and were
covered with electrolyte powder. It has an attractive orange
color. My bottles were both dry. I had put the powder in but
I had no water. I wondered how long I had been skating with no
water, remembering that dehydration shakes are a bad thing, and
preceded by an intense coldness, I also noticed that I had removed
my shirt and was now getting a trembling chill, goose bumps everywhere.
I quickly took a dry shirt from my forty-pound water-logged backpack,
and put it on. That felt better, but the road grit on my skin
diminished the comfort of the change, the grittiness reminding
me of how far I had yet to go. I stood up, still in my skates
and looked around. I was outside of a little sandwich shop. "The
Corner Deli" was gold-lettered on the window. People who
know me, know that I can be fussy about where I eat, but I was
inside that place before any other thoughts occurred to me. I
took off my gear inside, leaving a little area on the linoleum
covered with road grit, and a muddy wetness. In just my skate
boot liners, nylon running shorts and the clean T-shirt that
proclaimed (unnoticed by me at the time, but very funny to three
women in the deli), "Life is Simple, Eat, Sleep, Rollerblade."
One of them walked up to me, and looked at my face, standing
a little too closely. I looked back at her, blankly, like a zoo
animal. She asked, "What IS wrong with you? Are you OK?"
Over the next hour, these three ladies, each in her early forties and fifties, were so wonderful, so warm and so generous to me it is hard to express. Slowly reemerging as a conscious human being, I intermittently asked for, "Hot soup? " (they had chicken tarragon, hot and delicious), and "A sandwich?" (they made fresh egg salad, for me, with celery on wheat toast), and "More coffee, please?" (they had only the best gourmet blends). They gave me a new map, highlighted the way I should go and tried to hide the truth from me about how far it actually was. I said to them, "It's less than ten miles, and it's easy-going from here on out, right?" They looked at me, glancing back and forth among themselves. I noticed the worry on their faces, but I was feeling much rejuvenated and in my euphoria, ignored this warning sign. They even let me use their private bathroom to freshen up. This was the first time I noticed that with all the fluids I had consumed, I had actually felt no urge to urinate. So, I just washed up with warm water and combed my hair. They also let me use the phone to check in with my staff and family. All was well back home. I really could not have thanked the women of "The Corner Deli" enough. Their generosity, as much as the rest and nourishment, had truly, perhaps ironically, lifted my spirits tremendously. The three of them watched from the door as I left, waving encouragingly. The restaurant behind them was empty; they had extended normal hours on my behalf.
I resumed my skate with a much happier spirit. My skates were rolling a little more lightly. But, not for long. Apparently, the level of exhaustion was deeper than I thought, and the rest period was vastly insufficient. In less than 45 minutes I was back in the stuporous blankout, sweating and drinking electrolytes to stave off crippling cramps. The terrain's difficulty had, at least, doubled after Plymouth. The hills were now twice as long and steeper. I have confirmed with bicycle enthusiast friends of mine who have made this trip that now I was in the most difficult part of the trip to Provincetown. The hills around Vallersville and Ellisville are the worst in the state. I was panting like a tired dog, I watched the big muscles in my calves cramp as though with an alien possession, and my heart began to feel strange. I was drinking constantly now, never putting the bottle down, drinking one bottle and then the other, then searching around people's houses for water hoses on my hands and knees, or stopping at gas stations and demanding water "Quick!" One station attendant made me buy it, but was a little surprised, when I opened my backpack, rainwater spilling out of its pockets, mud splattering on his counter and floor, and got out about a hundred dollars in small bills and threw them at him angrily and skated across the floor to his cooler. There, I immediately tore one open, drank it, after first taking a handful of orange electrolyte powder and shoving it directly with a powdery "poof" into my mouth. I noticed a small cloud billowed out as I breathed. That worked, so I did it again with a second bottle from the cooler. There was an orange mist forming around me and he said, speaking more carefully to me now, "Could you please take that outside?" I must have truly seemed strange to him standing there with orange powder all over my hands and face, water streaming down my front, drinking as fast as I could. I answered with my mouth full of the third dose of the powder, "Just a minute, I need onefth more." He brought me my change just as I hurried to the toilet with stomach cramps from sudden diarrhea. I came out a few minutes later. He had put three more bottles on the top of a little newspaper vending machine, away from his counter, along with all of my change. I proceeded to mix up two bottles, spilling powder all over because of my shaking hands, bundled up my pack and then I skated out of the station and away. I think I gave him the finger as I left, orange smeary messes everywhere. I know now I didn't really mean to be so disagreeable. I was just verging on delirium.
Somewhere between that station and the home of Janice Armiston and her son, Billy, I snapped.
I became obsessed with the fact that over the next hill, around the next corner I would see the Sagamore Bridge looming out of the stormy gloom and rain...it was getting darker, colder. This obsession created a constant disappointment syndrome, and my spirits dropped lower and lower. I began to talk to myself. Then I was shouting, "Come ON, it HAS TO BE THERE!" I repeated that over and over. I stopped once when my heart was pounding so hard that I thought it might pop. Then my legs started to cramp. I slumped to the ground once and started to rest right there in the road, but then jumped up and started off, suddenly afraid that if I didn't get up I wouldn't be able to. It wasn't too long after that that the seminal incident of the skate occurred: unconsciousness. Now, I know people will say I am crazy and stupid and foolish to push that hard, but really, I didn't know what I was doing anymore. I remember it happened after I had to stop twice on a truly killer hill. I started to feel really clammy and cold and my stomach was turning with cramps. I remember thinking, I am going to fall over, and that I wanted to fall on something soft. My last thought was "green." I wanted to fall on something green. Then there was just a heavy blackness that came over me and everything went soft and quiet.
I remember smelling wet soil against my face, and hearing a voice: "...dead" I thought it said. Then it said it again, "Are you dead?" It took me a minute before I realized it was speaking to me. "Are you dead?," it asked again. "Not yet,"I answered feebly. Then it said, "Good, I'll go get my Mom."
I had fallen face-first on the soft lawn of the Armistons of Sagamore Springs. Their son, Billy, had walked up to me and looked me over. He said later he thought I WAS dead, but hoped I wasn't. His wonderful mother nursed me back to some semblance of health. She took my shirt and socks and rinsed them out with fresh, warm water. She washed the grime from my helmet and backpack. She gave me some fruit and clean, cool water to drink and then, believe it or not, followed me the next six miles to Bourne in her Suburban. I was not going very fast at all, tenuous, uncertain and weak, so it must have been boring and a chore for her to follow me for those 90 minutes or so. Her husband had not wanted her to do it at all, but she had insisted. She was an angel from the gods of roller blading come to help me on the way. Because I was all done. If not for her, my trip would have ended there.
It is perhaps a strange thing, but the three times I received real, genuine help on the trip (I'll tell you about the third incident in the next segment about the final leg from Sagamore to Provincetown) were occasioned by people who not only helped me physically, but who were instantly committed to insisting that I could actually continue to Provincetown and win the success they felt I so richly deserved. They would absolutely not take "No" for an answer, regardless of how many times I said it. Both in Plymouth and at the Armistons' grassy knoll, I was pleading with them to call my wife and have her come and get me. I was insisting on quitting, but they wouldn't hear of it. I tried to get into the Armistons' car, but I was blocked. So, with no other alternatives, I started out again, now with an escort. I removed my skates and walked over the bridge (my brakes were worn away and it's very steep). She stayed with me every faltering step. Not until we were in the parking lot of the Bourne Best Western did she wave good-bye. I told her I would send her something to remember me by. She laughed. She was an attorney, mother, wife, and a good Samaritan who made me proud to be a member of the human race. Random acts of kindness: I will never mock that bumper sticker again.
* * * *
I awoke in the hot tub. There was a clicking of the door, and suddenly there was my wife screaming at me about how pissed-off she was. "Do you know, we've been stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for THREE #!@&#%!! HOURS!!!?"
* * * *
I do vaguely remember skating into the motel. My staff had been calling to see if I had made it, and they had prepared the motel staff for the condition I would be in. When I skated into the lobby, the young receptionist pointed at me and said, "Are you Mr. Purdin?" I said "Yes." Then she said, "Come with me." She took me to my room, I skated over the carpeting of the lobby, down the hall into the room, and she closed the door behind me. I turned on the hot tub, took off my skates and clothes and got in while it was still filling with hot water. I drank the water, ate a power bar, and fell asleep. Luckily, I didn't drown. When I woke up, the water was cold and wrappers were floating around. Someone had turned off the water and the wonderful vibrating bubbles.
* * * *
When my wife and daughter calmed down from their ordeal, they saw I was in trouble. They let me rest, helped get me dressed, and, together, we went to dinner at the restaurant. My staff told me that they selected this excellent motel for two reasons: one, its location, of course; and , it had a very good restaurant. It also had a reputation for great service. It was all true. I ate appetizers, then steak and potatoes, and three gigantic glasses of ice cold water that were about twenty inches high. The food was so delicious I was licking my plate and eating everyone's leftovers. The drinks were so quenching and voluminous that I could feel myself rejuvenating. When I climbed into that bed, the sheets were so cool and clean that I slept like a dead person. It was a wonderful end to a terrible, no good, horrible, very bad day. My last thought falling asleep was, "That's it. We're driving home in the morning. I can't do anymore." It was a wonderfully comforting thought as I descended into sweet oblivion.
* * * *
I mentioned the nutrition deficit early on, but now it was starting to cause a problem. I awoke alarmingly famished. I ate the remaining bars in a panic, drank cups of coffee, and ate the complimentary donuts in the lobby. But, I was still hungry. As a dedicated dieter, I always watch what I eat, so out of habit I resisted these demands-for-calories messages my body was sending to my brain. Six months afterwards, I was still suffering the consequences of my ignorance. On Friday I probably burned 8000 calories and consumed only 2500. On Saturday I did it again, and really didn't eat anything until I got back home to Marblehead. I probably had a 10,000 calorie deficit over the two days. That was bad. Next time, I will do that part better.
If there ever is a next time.
* * * *
And then, I put on my other pair of skates. They are a little slower, but very comfortable, and they had new brakes. I said to my wife and daughter, "I'm definitely not going to make it to Provincetown, but I will skate for an hour or so, and see what happens." I asked her to call me (she brought the other cell phones from the company) and off I went.
* * * *
I had always assumed that once I got on the Cape itself, life would be better, the hills would be smaller, and roads would be less-traveled. It would be easier. I was wrong on all counts. The hills were smaller, that was true for the most part. However, there were a lot more of them. The roads were even narrower, and there were a lot more cars; almost bumper-to-bumper. The skate from the bridge to Provincetown was just as difficult as the day before, but now I was starting out exhausted and discouraged, not foolishly optimistic. The hills were shorter and so, for a time, I felt empowered and capable. I did notice that there were a lot more pickup trucks with men (and gun racks) going by, and I noticed that they were prone to shouting at me to "Get the hell off the road, you idiot!" and, a thousand permutations of that debilitating sort of senseless comment. One of them spit on me from the passenger window. Three of them threw burning cigarettes at me, which I concluded was karma-like payback for when, way back in Everett, I had shouted at a woman who had casually flipped her cigarette out the window and hit me in the helmet. I scared the daylights out her and she almost got in a wreck. I can still see her, in my mind's eye, jumping out of her skin as this guy in roller blading gear appeared out of nowhere yelling in her window, "What are you DOING, lady?"
Every fourth or fifth car shouted or honked at me. There were also a lot of nice people, who waited for a clear spot to pass and who waved or smiled at me as they glided innocently past. But the others dominate my memory of skating from the bridge to Provincetown. They would gun their engines, pass me, way too close, blast their horns to scare me, and give me the finger out of the passenger windows, the driver's window, in the rear view and side view mirrors. I did not get a great opinion of Cape Cod people on that leg, at all. Especially the innumerable people of Cape Cod in pickup trucks. When I reached Yarmouth, my wife called, as prearranged, and I told her to drive down 6A and pick me up, but that I would keep skating in the meantime. I was losing track of time and distances. I told her that when I got to Dennis, I had planned to go on the bike trail so I said I would wait for her there, and we would go home instead.
Two hours later I was in Dennis sitting in a Wendy's having hot chocolate with a retired wounded veteran named Charlie in a wheelchair. He was highly impressed with my adventure and immediately took up the cause of insisting that I complete it. "You are only 35 miles from Provincetown, now. You can make it." Easy for him to say. I knew I was over the top of tired. With his sanguine encouragement, I started to fantasize that the "bike path" would be for me what those flat, motorized walkways in airports are to walkers. It would be smooth. There would be no cars and no one screaming at me. It would be wonderful, easy. Maybe I could make it. By the time Joy and Blythe showed up, I was ready to go on, again. My champion, Charlie, was beaming with confidence. Just as in Plymouth where euphoria preceded disaster, I was once again immersed in self-delusion and heading sprightly into more trouble. Charlie waved vicariously as I skated out of Wendy's silky smooth parking lot.
First, finding the bike path was hard enough. Remember, all road signage is meant for cars, on blades it's harder to see them in the rotaries, and they are always too far apart. By the time I found the path, I had predictably skated a couple of miles in the wrong direction, and before I actually got on the path, I had to chase down an athletic biker who had come frenetically off the path to breathily ask her if it actually WAS, after all, the path, or something else? And if it was the path, was it going in the RIGHT direction? I suppose that I was a little disagreeable in appearance, because apparently she didn't want to stop, and that just made me mad. Chasing her down was difficult but I was determined. Once that was settled, I skated onto the path, in the right direction, full of great expectations of having a much easier time from there to Wellfleet.
Not to be.
In fact, the surface of the bike path was the roughest surface I had ever skated on, catching my high-tech wheels in the embedded pebbles of the obviously underbudgeted, cheapest, lowest-bidder asphault covering they could ever have found, all but tripped me up as I came onto it, stumbling, almost out of control, from the smooth street blacktop at a high rate of exuberantly optimistic in-line skating speed. The rough surface thrust my body forward as my skates met the obstinate resistance of the rough-paved path. Arms wheeling, confused and surprised, I was suddenly skating with the greatest difficulty, and a recognition of continuing despair on the path for miles ahead of me.
Now, skating took at least twice the effort and was half as fast. It was as though I had skated onto a super-rough sandpaper with bits the size of small rocks. My skates were chattering and vibrating so furiously that one of the buckles popped open and I had to stop to refasten and tighten up. All I could think of in my tired, worn-out, battered brain was "What kind of IDIOT would pave a path like this?" It was so hard going that I couldn't imagine skating the twenty or so miles to Wellfleet on it. In fact, I was considering turning around. I had done it before on this trip. More than anything else, I had been fantasizing about this path and how great it was going to be and here it was: the worst part of the trip, a skating nightmare. My legs were burning with the vibration, and each stroke was sapping and enervating. Way up ahead I saw a person on a bike. He was not going all that fast. So, in a moment of hopeful lucidity, I decided I'd try to catch up and ask if it was like this all the way to Wellfleet. After about ten minutes of excruciating effort, I pulled alongside, exhausted, nearing panic, and shouted at the elderly man on the bicycle. "Is it always like this?" I think he thought I meant the peaceful, clear-skied, enjoyable ride he was having, so he replied, smiling, "Yes. Yes, it is." I slumped in confused frustration, and then he saw what I meant: the path's surface. "No," he said pulling away. "No it isn't. In two miles you're going to love it!"
And he was right.
As he predicted, when I crossed a distant street about fifteen minutes ahead, the pavement smoothed to a satiny, non-vibrating quiet, as though someone had suddenly turned off the noise and the vibration. Gratefully, it went on and on just like that for 15 or 20 of the best miles I have ever skated. I stroked along, happily sipping my water, legs resting and recovering in the smoothness even while I sped along at probably 15 easy miles per hour. It was effortless and flat. After all I been through, it was a great relief. It was an old railroad bed that, unlike its oafish progenitor, was intelligently designed with care. It had little perforations before every cross street to warn the daydreaming cyclist or blader to wake up and pay attention. There were half-moons of benches every two miles to sit down on and rest. There were vistas of the wetlands all around, and birds and other wildlife were everywhere. I saw a little herd of turtles slowly crossing the path in perfect safety. There were lots of other people, running and biking mostly, and I did stop and speak with two young women on in-line skates. They were, incidentally, the only two other skaters I saw from Marblehead to Provincetown. And then I skated on. And on. It was just like one of those flat escalators in an airport I had envisioned. I felt as if I was flying. If there were a path like that all the way, I'd leave right now to go to P-town again. And then I'd skate back home, too. It was absolutely, positively, certainly and clearly the best part of a two-day ordeal. I loved it passionately, but, as the saying goes, "All good things must end." And it did, abruptly, in an impassable dirt road. I was left with no alternative except to skate the last ten miles out on the divided super highway where cars were passing, bumper-to-bumper at 60 miles an hour or faster, where I was singularly unwlcome and unwanted.
Highway 6 did have some advantages, but in no way did anything ease the pain of the last miles. There was one good thing: a large shoulder, or breakdown lane, where I could skate more or less out of the way of the speeding cars. But it was very rocky and rough with dirt and sand, and it disappeared whenever there was a turnoff, turnaround, drive in, or any other change in the road. When there was no breakdown lane, I had to skate in one of the lanes out on the highway, and that was really frightening. Cars coming around corners so fast, cars passing on the right at 55 or 60 mph, or just cars going by two abreast at those speeds are terrifying, all racing up from behind an in-line skater.
The honking and the swearing promptly and predictably resumed and now were accompanied by wild rushes of violent air displacements as the cars, trucks, and sports utility vehicles rushed past with hurricane wakes. And, there was the unwelcomed resumption of the hill-after-hill syndrome. But now, these hills were designed for high-speed vehicular travel, so they were exceptionally long and steep. The terrain was boring, as is most highway terrain, and suddenly I wasn't in the shadows of the side streets or in the blissful shade of the idealic bike path. Now, I was in the glaring sun of a divided highway, and the pavement was radiatingly hot. I was completely out of water. I stopped at a fried food and ice cream place and had to wait in a long line of fried food seekers until they called my number. I was pouring out cold sweat, panting with thirst, and if anyone looked at me, I was gaunt and mentally gone. "Number 604!" I rolled up to the window. "Can I... pant pant pant .... please have some... pant pant pant .... water?" The lady started to pour a little Dixie cup for me as I passed over my two empty, orange-stained bottles that were dirty and disgusting looking. "Well, hell boy, why didn't you tell me?" And she reached out of the window and snatched the bottles. She was unhappy that she had poured the water in the Dixie cup for nothing, when, all the time, I wanted it in the bottles. She was upset at the wasted effort and that I didn't tell her right away what I needed. She was lucky I was still speaking at all, and didn't keel over right there. She handed them back and just waved me away, yelling, "Number 605!" into the microphone. The sound reverberated in my ears as I gulped the water, slowly rolling through the parking lot, heading back out, letting the coolness pour in.
Back on the highway, I figured I had about 8 miles of highway to go, so I just started grinding them out. There was a mile-marking system along the side of the road and I thought I had it figured out, but I didn't. About an hour later, Route 6A reappeared and I got off the main road, relieved. Less than a quarter of a mile from there I was climbing the steepest hill on the trek so far. At the top I nearly collapsed, but skated on and on, trying to gauge, with each stroke, how much farther I had to go. That last hour felt interminable and confusing. It seemed that I just wasn't getting anywhere. The world had gone into slo-mo.
And then, I ran into a threesome walking: two men, one woman. I slowed and asked them, yelling really, "Is Provincetown up ahead?" I always had the feeling that I could be lost again at any time. No hesitation to ask for directions at all. They stopped walking so I glided over to them, heel-stopping beside them. Instead of answering my question, the woman asked one of her own. "Where are you coming from?" She smiled.
"Marblehead," I said. She wrinkled her forehead
and her eyebrows shot up.
"19 hours over two days." The three of them exchanged looks, then she smiled and said words I will remember forever.
"You are almost there. It might be four miles ahead, but not more than six. You're there." I laughed at that comment and skated away waving back to them. Again, encouragement to finish. Still, four to six miles to go seemed a long way to me. Of course, there was another series of hills, and continuing exhaustion to fight. One hill seemed almost as if it was going to actually kill me. My knees were burning, my calves were cramping, I was out of water again and thirsty. I was famished, and my head started spinning again. Looking down as I humped up the hill, not really skating anymore, but trudging, bent over, I saw the words written magically on the road in a clear hand, in bright orange spray paint, "This is the last hill." Now, maybe it had been put there for runners in some past road race, but to me it was a message directly from God, and a truly welcome one. The last hill before Provincetown. I flew down the backside of that hill, abandoning the mentality of saving energy, of being discouraged. I skated with all remaining determination, as fast as I could and I was really flying. The road bent once to the right, and then a long straight section, with sand dunes now appearing on the right. The road went to the left again and there it was: the fabled peninsula that juts all the way out to sea at the very end of the Cape's arm. Provincetown. It looked as if it was a hundred miles away. Had I miscalculated again? Was the border of Provincetown just ahead, but the end of the peninsula another twenty miles or more, as it appeared? I was devastated with that thought. I saw a guy picking up a newspaper in his driveway and skated over to ask him about the distance. I didn't notice that his driveway was all cobblestones, impossible to skate on, and nearly went down right in front of him. He reached out and helped me to steady up. "Wow," he said, "you're soaking wet." His retracted his hands in disgust. "And cold," he said.
"I know. How far is Provincetown Center from here?
It looks like it's still miles away."
As I got farther into Provincetown, there were no cars on the narrow streets, just people walking everywhere. The sun was shining. It was like a holiday. Brightly colored clothes, smiling faces were everywhere. I shouted out to someone in the crowd who was watching me skate by, "I'm coming from Marblehead!" and people started to applaud. So I kept saying it all the way to the water and people kept applauding and laughing and congratulating me. They offered me their Cokes and it was just great.
As I rounded a corner, I inadvertently joined a gay parade underway. There were convertibles full of transvestites and people with elaborate costumes all in a row, waving and parading towards Provincetown Center, honking their horns. After all that had preceded, and now suddenly in a parade of fancy cars and happy craziness everywhere, I was laughing and crying at the same time. Everyone was laughing and happy. It was quite a moment.
At the end of the main street the road dead ended into a small shopping plaza and a boardwalk out to the water. I skated through the shopping crowds and out onto the boardwalk. I heel-stopped at a point as far out as I could go. There was a mild breeze and the sea was scintillating beautifully before me. I noticed that I was still crying happily, tears running down my face and a huge lump in my throat.
I knew then, that no one would ever know, the energy, the determination, the pure unadulterated effort that it had taken for me to get there. I know now, that no one has ever done it before. Oh, people have skated farther, to be sure, but no one has ever skated from Marblehead to Provincetown before, that I know of, and certainly it will be a long time before anyone does it again.
For a moment in time, I was there with the full knowledge and appreciation for the distances, the roads and hills, for my wonderful skates, and my unbelievable body and its tested durability. I was grateful for the imagination that allows me to think of things like this as possible, and I was humbled to think of the far greater, far more difficult things that others have done before and will do in the future.
For that moment, I was suspended there, in time and place, and completely happy to be whoever I am and to be right where I was. No questions asked. No doubts secretly harbored; just sincere happiness with the here and now.
Finally, at peace.
* * * *
There is a little more to tell. It has taken a long time to recover. I think the nutrition deficit may have hurt some internal organs with some lingering effect, and my lungs hurt for weeks. I'm starting to sleep better now, but for a while, it was nightmares and wake ups every night.
The second day after the trip I had the profound sense of having cleansed something and of being cleaner and freer as a person than I had ever felt in my life. That feeling has persisted.
That's the best I can do towards explaining it all. It was and it still is wonderful to have done it. It's wonderful to have lived long enough to have the patience and the will to do something like that, and I will probably try either to do it again sometime (perhaps the other way), or something else like it.
People often ask me, "Why?" And my friends like to make fun of me about it. But I always say, and I always hope they will take it to heart, that I like to try things I am absolutely not sure that I CAN do. Because if all you ever do, are just things you know you CAN do, or have done before, what, exactly, are you doing?
And, I'm not ready for that yet.
This trip was originally planned to commemorate the "Eleven Cities" ice-skating race in Holland: a 126-mile race held spontaneously whenever the rivers all freeze at the same time. Immortalized in "Hans Christian Anderson," this race was won in 1997 by a 29-year old farmer who skated the distance in 6 hours and 49 minutes, finishing less than one minute ahead of the next skater and then followed by the other 16,000 participants. There are exactly eleven municipalities and cities between Marblehead and Provincetown, although the distance is farther, and the route is obviously not sea-level flat as in the Netherlands.
In the 1997 race, the oldest competitor was 78, the youngest was 18. More than half a million people watched from the river banks, and millions more watched on start-to-finish television coverage. The winner, Henk Angement, Jr. said, "This is the best day of my life," and although his time was two minutes off the record set in 1985, he was the premier national hero of his country that year.