The Ashuwillticook Trail, The Old Man’s Last Ride
By Wayne Bizer
As he removed his bike from the trunk of his car, the old man thought everything must come to an end. Like him, the bike was old but still had miles left in it. He looked up to the sky and saw what a beautiful day it would be to end his summer vacation. The recent death of a close friend reminded him next summer could not be taken for granted. He knew today could be his last ride on the Ashuwillticook Trail. Old people view things differently when they believe they might never see them again.
The Ashuwillticook Trail was an abandoned railroad bed that had been converted into a hiking and biking trail. It was ten feet wide, nicely paved, and offered inclines no steeper than three degrees. He knew riding the Ashuwillticook was a retreat from the not-too-distant days when he would bike to the top of the 10,500-foot Vail Pass. He had long ago made peace with the negative gifts of aging, yet he still held out against getting a battery-powered bicycle. “Not yet, maybe next year” he would tell himself. He hung on to the belief that bike riding was an enjoyable way to exercise, and as such, should be done as vigorously as he could tolerate.
He was proud that he had finally learned how to pronounce the name of the trail as well as any of the locals. “Ashu” like a sneeze, followed by “I have lost my will to cook,” minus a few words, he laughingly recalled. But saying the name also made him sad as he recalled this was the name given to their ancestral home by Mohawk Indians before their forced exile in 1832.
“Ouch,” he exclaimed, banging his elbow against the car while removing his bicycle. He cursed the little blood slowly dripping down his arm from another rip in his frail skin. Luckily, he was never far from a Band-Aid and placed yet another one on his arm. He thought about the new bruise his wife would surely ask about.
With sunscreen, ID bracelet, watch, pulse meter, and all his other preparations complete, he put on his sunglasses and adjusted the small rearview mirror attached to its left temple. He crowned himself by placing his helmet on his head and tightening his chin strap. He knew all serious bikers have fallen and he must protect his head, even if it wasn’t as good as it used to be. He chuckled when he asked himself, “Was anything as good as it used to be?”
Eager to start, he selected a music playlist from his phone and placed the Bluetooth earphone in his right ear, leaving the left ear to hear people and other sounds of danger along the trail. Today he would begin at the southern end of the trail in Pittsfield, ride the 14-plus miles to its end a bit north of the town of Adams, and then return.
He pushed off and clipped his bike shoes into the pedals and left the parking lot. He had planned to ride a bit slower today to take in the beauty of his last ride as one might savor the last glass of fine wine. The nearly full parking lot meant there would be many people on the trail today and he knew a slow ride would be safer.
He was only a few hundred yards up the trail when he passed an older-looking man and woman slowly walking toward him. The man shouted, “I love your shirt.” The yellow jersey was his favorite, not only because its bright color made it easier for him to be seen by others on the trail, but also because he loved the large printed “OLD FART” on its front and back. The “Old Fart” yelled back at the man, “You’re too young to wear this jersey,” and they both laughed. It was the same reply he usually gave lovers of his “Old Fart” jersey.
The peaceful song in his ear ended, and the next song on the random playlist captured him. “Staying alive, staying alive, ah, ha, ha, ha, staying alive.” The beat took over the “Old Fart,” and it took over the old bicycle, too. The beat drove his legs in a perfect rhythm for the piston-like motion of a bike rider. One, two, three, four, legs jamming, let’s go!
Now he was pumping with all his strength, not the strength of yesterday, but not yet the lesser strength of tomorrow. This was today, and today was all that mattered. He didn’t realize the 1977 Bee Gees hit song was hypnotizing him into believing he was nearly a half-century younger and biking in the years when his sons were born.
Up a slight hill in the trail and into the forest, he raced. The canopy of trees made him feel that he was inside a tunnel with trees flying past him on both sides. His eyes focused straight ahead, scanning the trail for people, animals, debris, or anything else that posed a danger. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Staying Alive” he sang in his head.
He passed several people who had started up the trail before him and many more who were returning. Bikers, walkers, a guy in a wheelchair, and people with dogs and kids were all enjoying the trail, as he wove his way between or around them.
Soon he came to the “S” turn and the first intersection to the left where the green sign proclaimed, “Berkshire County Jail and House of Corrections.” He briefly wondered what the jail looked like but knew he didn’t want to find out. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Skipping the Jail!”
He had considered starting earlier, but he didn’t like the flashing lights of his early rides. The morning sun coming from the east cuts through the forest creating beautiful patches of light and shadow upon the black paved trail, but when riding fast, the light shining between the trees produces a strobe light effect like some cheap dancehall. It was so distracting, he never started so early again. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Saving my eyes.”
Like life, he thought of the trail in segments and moved on to the second and busiest portion of his ride. It was shaded by the thick canopy of the forest and had a gentle incline favored by rollerbladers and walkers, some with dogs and kids. Bikers usually knew the rules of the road; it was non-bikers he worried about. He would have to go a bit slower for the next mile or two.
Less than a hundred yards up the trail he came upon a family with a cute little girl learning to ride her shiny new green bicycle. Alarm bells screamed in his head. They’re looking at her and not at the trail, he realized. “On your left,” he shouted, in a carefully practiced voice that was loud enough to warn them of his approach but said in a way to avoid frightening them. The rules of the bike-riding road are to announce yourself when approaching someone from behind, indicating the side on which you will approach them. The default is like driving a car; keep right and pass on the left. But the little girl on the shiny green bike didn’t know the rules, and her proud parents were watching her, not the trail. Surprised, the father quickly reached down and held the bike with his left arm as the old man passed as far to the left as he could ride. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, ‘Watching the kid.”
There were a few walkers and bikers heading toward him, but he could see they were paying attention to the trail, and it would be safe to “kick it,” as he rode up this stretch to the Berkshire Pond. Lilly pads with yellow flowers were everywhere in the shallow water to his left, making the pond look like it had been sprinkled with gold. The sun reflected off the blueish water, giving life to the green lily pads and creating a neon-like glow to the yellow flowers. Unfortunately, this was also the area with the greatest density of those tiny bugs, so he always kept his mouth closed when he rode by the pond. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Spitting out bugs.”
He knew the third part of his ride, beside the Cheshire Reservoir, was just around the next curve. It seemed different every time he saw it. This beautiful lake was created in 1869 by the placement of a dam on the Hoosic River. The blue water was more than a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide, but no more than nine feet deep. Powerboats, sailboats, kayaks, and paddleboards traveling on the reservoir always made it look different, unlike the six small islands that only changed with the seasons. The trail hugs the east bank of the lake with many picnic tables, benches, fishermen, and geese along its edge. His eyes wanted to linger and stare at the lake, but he forced them to be satisfied with fleeting glances. He was in a zone and wouldn’t break his rhythm to enjoy the view. Across the lake, the land slopes up dramatically, and several large and expensive homes came into view. The old man would like to have looked at the lake from inside one of those homes but had never figured out how to get an invitation. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Coming to tea.”
Far ahead, he could see a person walking awkwardly toward him, as if drunk. Moments later, he realized it was a lady on rollerblades, and she had a small dog on a leash. He’d seen plenty of dumb things, he thought, but never one like this. “She’s on wheels, and the dog was on a leash, so she’ll have no control if the dog goes nuts.” Just as he feared, the dog started barking and pulling her straight at him. The distance between them was closing fast, and the old man went for his brakes, never taking his eyes off the dog. The lady couldn’t stop the dog that wanted to stop the old man. Expecting a crash, he unclipped his feet from the pedals, but at the last moment, the lady was able to jump to the gravel at the side of the path, jerking the leash and pulling the dog to safety. “Oh crap, that could have been bad,” he thought. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Rolling the dog.”
The north end of the reservoir ends at State Highway 8, heavy with traffic. The old man hit the pedestrian walk button to stop the cars and then walked his bike in the crosswalk. Here began the fourth part of his ride; a short flat mile or so to the giant orange snowplow blade with the words “Welcome to Cheshire” painted in big white-and-blue letters. He had ridden this trail with his grandson once and remembered the picture he took of the boy beside the blade. Across the street was a shaded rest area with benches and a 2001 memorial plaque honoring Sergeant First Class Daniel Petithory, age 32, one of the first Americans killed in action in Afghanistan. Sometimes he would stop for water at the memorial for this native of Cheshire and think about this senseless loss of life. Nearby was a model of a giant yellow cheese wheel with the inscription, “Cheshire’s Mammoth Cheese, 1235 pounds, Presented to President Thomas Jefferson January 1, 1802.” He had read the story of how The Cheshire farmers had pooled all their milk from a single day to make the cheese for the President. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Cutting the cheese.”
The fifth section of the trail was a long and flat stretch along a swamp. There was little to see and few people on this three-to-four-mile run. It was perfect to go all out and so he did. A flash of light from his side mirror alerted him to oncoming bikers. He was pushing it, and two bikers were quickly gaining on him. In less than a minute, they passed him. Oh, they were girls, and despite being in the middle of a conversation, they blew by him without losing a word or a breath. He tried to catch up to them, but he quickly realized there was no use. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Chasing the girls,” he hummed nostalgically.
Suddenly a chipmunk on the right side of the trail decided to go shopping on the left side. In a flash, it was three feet in front of his wheel, and the old man squeezed the hand brakes as hard as he dared. He swerved to the right, fearing he might go into the swamp. “Phew, missed him,” he said aloud, breathing out slowly. Then, after voicing a few selected words about the chipmunk’s ancestry, the old man continued his race beside the swamp. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Dodging the munk.”
The sixth section of the trail began at Harbor Road. This was another beautiful portion of the trail. Half of this segment was uphill, and the other half was downhill. He loved glancing at the waterfall on his left and had stopped a few times to take photos of it. Although it wasn’t a “Niagara,” it roared like a lion and was a beautiful sight the way it was nestled by the forest. He wondered about the workers who had excavated the railroad bed from the side of the mountain nearly two hundred years ago. The trail went uphill at the three-degree maximum rule while the Hoosic River went downhill in whatever way it wanted. The old man geared down, which made the pedaling easier, at the cost of his speed. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Saving the legs.”
Finally, the trail crested and started downhill to take its place beside the river most of the way to Adams. He loved this part of the ride because he could gear up and let it fly. The wind and the speed made him feel young as he recalled the way his rides used to be, the way they should be. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Making it fly,”
Adams is a city of over 8,000 people and sits quietly at the bottom of Mount Greylock, but in the textile days of the 1800s, it was a busy place with 30,000 people. Textiles were the reason the railroad came to Adams. Today many large, deserted buildings of brick and glass serve as gravestones to that long-departed industry.
The last segment of his ride passed more deserted buildings. One looked like it might have been a schoolhouse, and the steeple on another made it clear it had been a church. Soon he rode past AJ’s Trailside Pub whose patio extended to the edge of the trail. He was so close to the tables he could almost grab a French fry from someone’s plate. He often thought he might stop and eat there someday, but he never had. He never ate much in the middle of a bike ride. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Stealing the fries.”
The trail went past the old Adams Railway Station where people can buy tickets for a Sunday morning ride to North Adams and return. The train had already left the station and hadn’t yet returned to Adams. He would like to have seen all the excitement of families and kids boarding the train and maybe heard the whistle blow. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Riding the rails.”
The remainder of this segment was a curvy one-mile downhill stretch past a large spillway in the north-flowing Hoosic River. Water poured over the top of the spillway creating an eddy in the current at its base. He often saw rubber balls and other floating debris spinning in the eddy, temporarily defying the downstream flow. He wondered if this ride had been such an eddy in his life. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Fighting the flow.”
Just around the next curve, a green sign defiantly proclaimed the end of the Ashuwillticook Trail. He sat on a bench in the warm sun drinking from his water bottle and eating the rest of his Cliff Bar. He squirted cool water over his head and re-wet his dry bandana. He looked longingly at the top of Mount Greylock visible through the clouds and thought how great it would feel to hike up that slope to the observation tower. He knew the tingling in his legs would begin before he got very far, and he thought, “Maybe in my next life.”
He stared at the green sign for a long time as if its “End of Trail” message foreshadowed his own trail’s end. Old people often think about the end but seldom talk about it. Who wants to hear about the last chapter of another old fart’s life and what can be said anyway?
He thought back over the segments of his life—his childhood, family, friends, and accomplishments—and how they related to the segments of the Ashuwillticook Trail with its ups and downs, sharp turns, wonders, and surprises. He smiled as he knew he’d had a great ride in both. He thought about his regrets and how he rarely took the time to “smell the roses.” Then he shook himself, realizing that, unlike life, he had one more chance. His car was 14 miles down the trail and this ride wasn’t over yet. Today he would make the most of the return. He would try to see what he had been missing.
Suddenly, the leaves on the trees began rustling. The winds were picking up, and dark clouds were coming from the places he had been. He thought it might rain. His old orange raincoat was stuffed in the saddle bag beneath his seat, but it didn’t do much good in heavy rain. It was time for the “Old Fart” to ride again.
He gave a goodbye nod to the “End of Trail” sign and promised himself that he would take it slower on his ride back, even if it meant getting soaked. This time he would stop to look at the faces of the people on the trail, stop to linger by the waterfall, stop to memorize the beauty of the reservoir and the pond, and embrace the headwind that would ensure a slow ride. This would be his ride to “smell the roses” while he was still in bloom. He was grateful to have one more ride on the Ashuwillticook Trail. “Ah, ha, ha, ha, Loving the trail.”
Wayne Bizer, is an 80-year-old retired ophthalmologist and possibly an emerging author. He has been published twice. The first, “My Treasure,” in the July 2020 issue of “The Berkshire Edge,” and again in 2021 in “The Write Launch,” titled “The Fog.” I had self-published his autobiography, “The One-Armed Soldier, My Amazing Adventures With ADHD, Dyslexia, & A Broken Home,” with Amazon Kindle.