Old Saybrook Circuit

My sister-in-law Anne has one of the coolest old bikes I know of.  It’s a Royce Union from her college years, about 35 years old (stop it!–gentlemen do not do that kind of math).  It has a white steel frame, curved forks with quite a bit of rake, ten speeds with shifters on the stem, dual brake levers on the handlebars, 32×700 tires with the old gum sidewalls, and brand new cables and cushy seat (though she still has the old one).  The frame’s a size or two smaller than ideal for me, but it’s fairly comfortable to ride if I put the seat up a couple of inches.

Anne and her husband Henry have a cottage (the Sea Turtle, as Anne is into all things testudinarious) on Long Island Sound, and it’s one of our very favorite family customs to visit them a couple of times each summer.  When we do, I ride Anne’s bike around a circuit I developed that takes me to so many different kinds of essential New England environments in their Connecticut town of Old Saybrook.  As I ride I reconnect with my native region and with memories of living there even longer ago than Anne’s college days.

I begin my ride by traveling along the beachfront road, Maple Avenue, in the bright sunshine, with the row of elegant cottages on the land side, and the shore on the other.  These cottage properties all began as modest places with minimal amenities, but many have been either radically rebuilt or torn down and replaced with more elegant structures.  That’s especially true along the road where they enjoy a wholly unencumbered view of Long Island Sound and want to make the most of it.  On a clear day cyclists can see Long Island in sharp enough profile to identify buildings and boats near that shore.  The local beach is naturally stony, but civic associations have created sandy bathing beaches, one with its own breakwater.  Not that the sound has surf worth mentioning unless there’s a winter gale blowing.

The road then goes through a short wooded area, where a right turn would take me out to the short peninsula of Fenwick, where there are some old, really nice beach homes and ultimately a lighthouse.  I usually keep going, though, across a causeway and flat bridge where South Cove, that sits behind the shoreside community, empties into the sea.  I often see mute swans there, and Anne was speechless when I told here there weren’t any on my ride last time.  There are always fishermen though, drowning some worms where the water flows under the bridge.  Right beyond that is the “Point,” where there’s a boating club, restaurant, and parking lot.  I hang a left at the stop sign and head back on College Street for about 2 1/2 miles into the town of Old Saybrook.  Along the way there are more year-round homes with lots of shade and green lawns.  The ones on the left side of the road back onto South Cove.  I pass the UCC church, and an emergency evacuation route with a depth gauge for flooding that goes up to fifteen feet.  Just in case there’s repeat of the hurricane of ’38, I guess.  This storm is still vivid in local memory and legend, probably the worst hurricane ever experienced in this part of the world.

Main Street in Old Saybrook is, rather incongruously, a four-lane boulevard.  The median holds lamp posts, which are often regaled with American flags when I see them, because our visits are often on the Fourth of July and/or Labor Day.  The street is several blocks long, including the usual assortment of banks, drugstores, restaurants, and other establishments necessary for the comforts of life in a semi-resort town (a great many of the beachside area homes are quixotically inhabited by summer people).  There’s also a big parking lot that hosts both the farmers’ market and the arts & crafts shows.  Street parking is diagonal, and free, giving a quaint Norman Rockwell feel to the place, though the width of the road prevents the tree-lined effect so beloved of small-town American memories.  At the end of Main is the traffic light that governs the intersection with Route 1, the main shore road in southern New England before I-95 was built.  Route 1 runs from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, and I have stood at the southern end, though not the northern.  Along here it’s also the Lower Boston Post Road, a main track for stage coaches between Boston and New York City in colonial days.

At the last turnaround before the light, I double back along Main Street until I pass the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, where I hang a right onto Old Boston Post Road.  You’ve really got to love it–hallowed ground!  The old post road is just a two-lane street carrying me for several blocks past modest, old New England houses, the kind with steep-pitched roofs, narrow clapboard siding painted in subdued, tasteful hues, and gardens in the informal, slightly messy, almost English cottage style, full of tall flowers and hollyhocks, and complemented by shrubbery of the lilac and boxwood sort.  And a huge old shade tree or two, of course.

A block before the Old Post Road rejoins the newer I tun left on my favorite stretch of the circuit, the road across the salt marshes.  Technically a causeway for much of its length, this road begins on the north as Great Hammock Road, and halfway across becomes Plum Bank Road.  After a brief initial stretch along more shaded old homes, the road bursts into the bright sunshiny glare of the real New England shoreline.  To my left is the marsh, extending green for acres and acres, and looking deceptively like a grassy field in the distance.  But there are water channels all through it, and at low tide I can see their muddy traces, where egrets and herons stalk their prey.  Red-wings natter and swoop in the marsh grasses.  Ospreys fly overhead, purposefully toward the shore to fish, or equally purposefully back to the nest with a catch, always held aerodynamically face-forward.  To my right are modest, old, shacky beach houses, built on stable bay dunes, with a parking lot for a small public beach.  Small boats are docked near the edge of the road where a major inlet broadens out into Long Island Sound.  Out here I couldn’t be closer to the real human and animal life of the shore.

A short stretch takes me back to the five-way intersection where Henry buys his newspapers at a tiny convenience store.  I could angle right, back to the Sea Turtle, but instead I take Maple Avenue the other way, back to Main Street where the flood gauge is.  Maple Avenue has newer homes, some built I’d guess in the 1960s and 70s.  They are of diverse styles, tastes, and qualities, though I admit to being amused by the two or three with front yards pretentiously full of faux-marble lawn decorations, statuary, and fountains.  The ride is a long, shady false flat that runs slightly uphill toward the intersection at Main.  If the flood waters are ever measurable there, all these homes will be imperiled.  Just a block or so behind Maple on either side are the sizable salt coves from which the flood waters would come, the larger of which is South Cove on my right.  I hang a right and skirt the cove on another side, retracing my route along Main / College Street to the marina, then right again onto Bridge Street, across the low bridge spanning the outlet of South Cove, and past the side road to the Fenwick community, where Hepburn’s former home is.  Then the street becomes Maple Avenue again, carrying me back along the beachfront to the Sea Turtle.

One last thing I like about this circuit is that when I do pull in to the familiar driveway, someone is almost always prepared to observe that the sun is over the yardarm somewhere.  That’s how vacation rides should end.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.

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