Last-minute adventuring in the Northeast
I fall out of bed, groaning as I realize how much I have overslept — a ritual that’s becoming all too familiar as the days shorten and my problem sets lengthen.
This time, however, it isn’t lectures I am missing but the first day of a long weekend —theoretically perfect for knocking things off the bucket list. But with the sun setting at six, waking up deep into the afternoon isn’t doing any favors to my scheduling.
Fickle as it may be, fall is still my favorite season. Keenly aware of the weekends remaining before I graduate, I decide: The day must be salvaged.
My bucket list mostly involves biking stupid distances to silly places.
I ride north. The trees in Providence have stayed green so far, but as I leave the heat of the city, more and more colors filter into view. Soon, I’m following a bike path along the Blackstone River, passing dams and the remnants of old mills every couple of miles.
An extensive network of these paths winds through Rhode Island. I’ve ridden one—the East Bay Bike Path—since childhood, when my parents were graduate students at Brown, and have been slowly crossing the others off my list since freshman year, after returning to the Northeast. But one route of my own creation—a dirty, muddy, 100-mile loop linking trails in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—has remained unfinished. The route begins and ends on the paved pathways in Rhode Island I’ve so frequently ridden but continues where the asphalt ends, winding through heavy forest, rolling hills, and swampland mostly on sandy hiking trails and gravelly railbeds. I call it the Tristate Circular.
A combination of distance, a bicycle not equipped to deal with off-road trail conditions, and a lack of time has always dissuaded me in the past. By now, however, I’ve gained the fitness, the bicycle, and the schedule to make one final attempt. My prospects for returning before midnight are dim since I overslept, but what’s a bucket-list attempt without a bit of challenge?
It starts to drizzle. No one else is around, so I take my corners wide and fast, cutting to the inside of the path at the apex of each turn. The rain is not heavy enough to distract or soak and cools me down instead. It’s the perfect kind of weather for riding.
Fall in the Northeast is easy to like for practical reasons alone — it’s warm during the daytime, but cool enough for sleeping in an un-air-conditioned dorm at night. The weather might be varied, but it always feels appropriate—sunny days out are interspersed with cozy, rainy days in, and I’m thankful for both.
Riding through Lincoln, I’m sandwiched between the river on the right and the Blackstone Canal on my left. Built in 1828 but only operational for 20 years, the canal is old but has spent far more time as an abandoned structure than a functioning part of the built environment. This is true for many remnants of Rhode Island’s industrial past — though they evoke feelings of timelessness, the eras they belong to are actually as transient as the season I’m biking through.
But I think it’s this idea of transience— of a season ephemeral—that’s my favorite part about fall. The glory of fall colors is heightened by the limited time in which they exist, and the scarcity of good weather makes me appreciate the perfect days even more.
At the Massachusetts border, the trail turns west and loses its paving, revealing its gravelly origins as an abandoned railway. This is where I’ve stopped before. It’s getting dark, and I could turn back now and be back in time for a pregame and the associated festivities: familiar comforts for the collegiate soul.
As I nose my bike tentatively forward, an early challenge emerges — two giant mud puddles block my way, taking up the whole span of the trail. Riding on a farm road next to a recently irrigated field this summer has taught me not to underestimate mud: It clogs wheels, sprockets, shoes, and cleats — in other words, everything . But there is no other way through, so I grit my teeth and downshift, powering through on the shallower edges. Large chunks of mud fly off my wheels onto the road and my face. Thankfully, nothing jams, and I’m able to ride through.
This success—and the adrenaline that follows—convinces me—fuck it, it’s the long weekend — to push ahead. I know what FOMO-ridden freshman Chen would’ve picked, however, and it’s a satisfying testament to how much I’ve grown and changed in the past four years.
I’m concerned the rest of the trail will be similarly muddy, but it stays mostly nice and dry afterward, a product of sitting on a rail embankment with relatively good drainage. As my tires crunch against the ballast, a spectacular sunset, likely the product of the earlier rain, leads the way.
Riding on gravel is a hypnotic experience. Unlike on pavement, I control the bike indirectly— where the bike goes is as much a product of the angles, friction, and textures of the trail as the factors I can influence: my line, speed, and moment. This isn’t a cerebral task, and I’m soon left in a focused but passive state, relying on instincts to keep myself upright as I ride faster.
It is now thoroughly night. The trail widens and evens out as I enter Douglas State Forest, and I bob my lights to wave as I pass a man wheeling a child inside a wheelbarrow. The forest is dense, but swampland lit by moonlight peeks through.
I stop occasionally, shining my headlight at information signs. I learn that George Washington criticized this area of Massachusetts as useless, but its lack of resources for European settlers to utilize has protected it into the 21st century, making it one of the most biodiverse regions of Massachusetts. This, too, is part of the wonder of New England, where even forests and pathways sit on layers of history.
I cross into Connecticut—I think. The tri-state marker separating Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut informs me that there’s actually been a low-level dispute between the three states about the exact boundaries since the 1600s. The sign describes the situation evolving from a colonial exchange of arrests, blows, and very British insults (only silenced after “English authorities threatened to revoke both charters and attach the colonies to New Hampshire”) into a modern legislative battle about property taxes, the conflict only really pausing for World War II.
It’s here that I also ride by (but don’t attempt to pronounce) Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.
The trail bears southwest and ends in Thompson, where I continue south on Connecticut backroads. Rural Connecticut at night is an experience of alternating blinding light and pitch black. Rolling hills mask the approach of cars until they crest, high beams at the ready, briefly making night into day. It is fast riding, however, and the hills give me an additional push.
After stopping for pizza in Putnam, I follow the East Coast Greenway, a continuous bicycle route from Florida to Maine, which will eventually guide me back to Providence.
At Moosup, in southeastern Connecticut, I get on the Moosup Valley State Trail. Also an abandoned railbed, this trail is scheduled to be paved in the next year. For now, however, the surface is very rough, littered with sinusoidal moguls (arrays of small humps generated by ATVs and dirt bikes) and occasional fallen branches to bunny-hop or dismount-hop over. It’s mile 70, and I’m too tired to do a fluid flying dismount, hop, and remount, but my efforts are noted by nearby bunnies and raccoons as they scurry away. Mysterious side paths branch off, but I continue east, chasing the setting moon. I cross back into Rhode Island without much ceremony.
I pass beneath beautiful stone arch overpasses and have to cross a gorge using an abandoned rail bridge, tiptoeing along a one-foot-wide strut with the bike on my shoulder. My cleats click as they contact the metal, emphasizing how poorly suited my shoes are for this. But as with most challenges when riding offroad, the trick is to not hesitate and let instincts take over. Standing too long in one place results in muscle tremors, and muscle tremors result in instability…
A final hop over a gap, and I’m across, back on firm ground. An eternity of sandy moguls later, I re-emerge into (relative) civilization, at the foot of a general store in Summit, RI.
I come to the start of the familiar Washington Secondary Trail, a no-nonsense, paved, 20-mile bike path that will take me back into the heart of Federal Hill. Too bonked to go much faster, I hunker down and ride the W2T’s gentle grade back east and north at 18 mph. I daydream about donuts and watch the remaining miles tick down on my GPS.
As the forest starts to disappear, I find myself taking stock. It’s these memories that I’ll miss the most about fall at Brown — taking time to explore new things and going on the occasional solo adventure, everything else be damned. Four years pass quickly, just as one season does, but it’s the brevity of these time periods — of moments in transition — that make them so special.