A sign for a bike shop catches my eye and I pull off route 117 in Norway, Maine. The morning sun beats down and I am already covered in sweat. The hospitable shop owner offers water and use of his bathroom, both of which I don’t need but appreciate the gesture. I ask about installing a climbing sprocket. I am worried about tackling the Kancamagus pass in the White Mountains without one. My low gear is bad enough in the low hills of western Maine. The owner takes a look at the chainrings.
“Well, I don’t have the parts here. We’re a new shop, not really prepared for things like this. You can check out a bike shop in Conway.”
There are four bike shops near Conway, New Hampshire, and he tells me his favorite. He asks about the chain. I tell him it’s new. He asks if it slips at all on the freewheel. I tell him it doesn’t.
“I’d say, if it ain’t broke — if your chain isn’t slipping and it’s new, you can count yourself lucky. You might have trouble with a new crankset. Your bike looks pretty good, I would say you can handle the mountains, it might be a little tough but you can do it.”
This is just the sort of advice I like to hear — what I’ve got will work just fine, no need to buy more stuff. I decide then not to get a “granny gear” for the Kanc.
There is a part of 117 that goes over a small mountain. A road sign at the base announces the name of the road has changed, “Streaked Mountain Road.” Of the signs I have seen so far, this ranks highly in the “inauspicious” column. And it was a difficult climb. I find out later it is about 2.7 times smaller than the Kancamagus — but that it is more steep. The bike can handle it.
I spend the night with friends of friends, who have built a beautiful log cabin in Bridgton, Maine, and have lived there for many years. We eat delicious tomato vegetable soup and watch part of a film in their cellar movie theater, complete with surround sound and projector. The movie’s about the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which, during a period of something like 15 seconds, caused such destruction that an estimated 255,000 people died. The next morning I pack the bike and head toward Conway.
A sign on 112, the Kancamagus highway, reads “No gas for 20 miles.” The implication is: you’ll need plenty of it for this road. West of Conway, for 20 miles, the road climbs steadily, then sharply, rising 2,500 feet to a peak of 2,855. There is a bicycle race up and down it called “Crank the Kanc.” A few other bicyclists are out today, chugging and moving quickly on sleek bikes. Those headed down hug the center line and push 40.
I have brought gas for the Kanc: two jars of peanut butter, beef jerky, an avocado, an orange, sourdough bread, roasted almonds, and dark chocolate. I peel the avocado and eat it like an apple. I have four bottles of water. I am getting 1600 miles to the gallon of peanut butter.
As the sun approaches its zenith, I approach mine, and at 12:00 I crest the top of the Kanc and glide down toward the Pemigewasset valley. It has taken three and a half hours to reach the top.
In the public library at Lincoln, I find in their archives a newspaper from the early 20th century, back when Lincoln and Woodstock were lumber towns. There is town gossip, local news, reports of so-and-so’s health, photos of men who worked for the railroad, standing in the snow. There is lumberjack poetry. One poem is titled, “I’m Goin’ Back fer Good” and begins:
Well, Bob, the winter's over an' I'm goin' out fer good, I've bin a stickin' here so long that my head is turnin' wood. For ten long months I've been teamin', an I've staked up quite a roll. But the woods haint no place fer me Bob, an' I'm gona take a stroll. [...] Here I am in the city, a grand old place at that, So different to the forest, like a man is to a rat. Everybody busy, like beavers in the wood. Oh well I'm in the city, an' I guess I'm here for good. How the folks are dessed up. Like Sunday in the town. I'll have to buy a new rig, cuz I cain't wear rags around What's that! Eighty dollars! Holy Pines but what a price. Well, I spose I'll have to take it, it sure looks clean and nice. Two months gone to Hell, Boys, fer it took just that much pay To buy clothes an' all my needs, to rig me out this way. I'm dressed up slick and dandy, but just the way I should; Cuz I'm stayin' in the city, an' I'm stayin' here fer good.
You can guess where it’s going. The ex-woodsman pines for the days of drinking, dancing and singing by fires, and destroying trees.
Say Boss, I'm going' to Licoln, will you ship me up today? Can't yer see that I'm all ready? I want to go 'right away. I'm goin' back to the mountains, to clean them of their wood, Yes I'm goin' back to the forest, an' I'm goin' back fer good.