Personal Geography

By: Nathaniel Ward Aug 18

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Cyclocross racers in New England and all over North America know Stage Fort Park in Gloucester, MA as one of the cornerstones of the American ‘cross season. While the race that takes place there isn’t all that old—not as old, for example, as the Cycle-Smart International—it has all the elements of a classic that has always been part of the collective memory, even if it hasn’t, quite. The historic setting by the sea; the stories of epic weather and Tim Johnson’s hyper-legendary comeback victory in the snow in 2005; Erwin Vervecken’s visit while world champion, and a thousand stories of effort and heartbreak from every category are told and re-told in parking lots and on group rides all over the continent. Gloucester is a part of our collective identity as cyclocross racers, even if we’ve never been there. I mean this in the same sense that people who have never been to Belgium wear the Belgian tricolor on their kits, name their blogs after Flemish words, and refer to their fried potatoes as “frites”. History is like that: it works its way into us, we work our way into it, sometimes without actually being there, fighting the battle, racing the race.

Stage Fort Park, though, has an older identity, a longer history. From here one could have seen, perhaps, Captain Nathaniel Bowditch on Christmas day, 1803, guiding the Putnam home in a blizzard on dead reckoning. And within living memory, one might have found the late, great poet, Charles Olson, on one of his long walks, wrapped in his cape, pipe between his teeth, becoming history, becoming Gloucester.

Olson’s life’s work consisted largely of creating a monumental poetic historiography of his hometown of Gloucester, MA called The Maximus Poems. He referred often in his work to the idea of a Polis, or Greek city-state, and crafted his poetry from the landscape, artifacts and people that were the stuff of his daily life. The view from Stage Fort Park, the routes he learned as a letter carrier in his youth, the fisherman, the drawbridge. Gloucester was his Tyre. He said famously,

“I would be an historian as Herodotus was,

looking for oneself for the evidence of,

what is said:”

Olson’s imperative was that a person should be, should go, and should do. In particular, one should come to know the place of one’s origins, one’s home and its environs. As you come to know your streets, your fields, your waters, your neighbors, they come to know you, as well. The interplay between these elements, the symbiosis of human being and inhabited environment, these were the nadir of Olson’s poetics.

My bicycle brings me into the world as it brings the world to me. To be at home, to know where I am, is to have ridden every road; to know traffic patterns; shadows at sunset, and sightlines in the rain. How long does it take for the dew to burn off in the morning? Where are the trees the thickest for sheltered, winter riding? Where does the lake-effect snow belt end in upstate New York, and which roads do I ride to dodge the January squalls? This is knowledge of the kind Olson had about Gloucester.

The geography of the cyclist is personal, spiritual, physical in nature: any road I know, any road I ride, becomes a part of my body, a part of myself. The miles work their way into my legs and change my physiology, my musculature, my metabolism. The link between rider and road, it’s tangible, and for me, being at home means being in the place I have etched into my being, one pedal stroke at a time. Even as the road pushes me, up or down, to my limits, I compel it—The Road—back, I am a piece of my landscape, it is me. Polis. Olson was to Gloucester, but the bicycle brings person to place—Me, into It, and vice versa—in any place. The temporality of this can’t be fabricated, can’t be rushed. If you walk 20 paces into the woods, you walk 20 paces out.

Olson knew Stage Fort Park. I know Settles Hill, and from there South along the escarpment, up again Wolf Hill, remembering the 19th century down rent wars of my father’s historian’s gaze—damn the landlords, stuck in the cart tracks and sniped at by their tenants. Wolf Hill moves me west again, along Pinnacle, above where Davis Phinney paperboyed his way to the top, the day the best pro’s in Europe raced a stage designed by my friend Andy in the 1990 Tour De Trump. Down again, 443 into Clarksville, Scott’s music studio in the barn there; and there the car that flipped over in front of my brother and his then wife; and my parents, both of them, when my mother was still alive and my daughter only 2 years old. They took her to Thacher Park for the afternoon and then for ice cream, and some nut rolled his car, not more than 50 feet away. One jerk of the steering wheel and I would have been worse than orphaned. Further down 443 where the guy died on the group ride a few years back, owned a taco restaurant. Wore a cheap helmet, people said. Rode bald tires. Now a roadside memorial. These places I know.

Now I ride in a landscape of red clay, tobacco fields, and someone else’s history. And yet with each day, with each ride, with each revolution of my wheels, I come to know this place as my own. Caught in a blinding rainstorm at dusk last night; those roads now mine forever. Do my neighbors back in Albany know their home so well, though they might own it, pay taxes on it? No, this is the intimate geography of the cyclist, of the citizen.

Charles Olson reads “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 (Witheld)” 1966 Inspiration for this essay @ minute 1:50, final stanza.

 

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