A Boy on the Bummel

Over the Labor Day weekend, events- both business and pleasure- conspired to take me to of all places, Bangor, Maine. As usually happens, I find myself drawn to libraries and this trip was no exception, ending up at the Bangor Public Library on a Friday afternoon. In amongst the other bibliophiles and bohemians, I chanced upon a bicyclist who had stopped to avail himself of the sanitary opportunities that a library provides. His bicycle was burdened down with panniers both fore and aft and yet he seemed to enjoy the extra ballast. He was of average height and average build, dressed in average clothes, but with an enthusiasm that tipped into above run-of-the-mill average. We struck up a conversation and it wasn’t long before I learned he was on his way back to Boston from an excursion to Bar Harbor by bike. He was a bit circumspect about his current itinerary, but felt he’d find his way home in a week or so.

And so I thought of him as a boy on the Bummel...

“A 'Bummel', I explained, I should describe as a journey, long or
short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity
of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started.
Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields
and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for
a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever
on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with
some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We
have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we
have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when 'tis over.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel


In amongst our tête-à-tête about this and that, I casually extolled the virtues of cycling in my hometown, as I reported there is none finer under the wheel than Burlington, Vermont and suggested he may wish to grant us a visit before the leaves should fall.

“I’ve heard that it’s a pleasant place for cycling-I may very well do that” he said as we parted company, he on his way and I on mine. I felt that even if our paths should never cross again it had been an agreeable encounter and in parting wished him a safe journey and a repeated invitation to visit.

Weeks passed as autumn progressed on a leisurely yet colorful pace across the region, crimson leaves starting to scuttle back and forth in the gentle breezes. On this crisp Saturday morning it was my duty to open and operate the Valet Bike Parking and so we, the cheerful volunteers and I, set about assembling the racks and welcome station in our usual spot, right behind the majestic marble edifice that houses RiRa, the Irish publican house. Imagine my surprise when I turned to greet our first cyclist of the day and it was my newfound friend from Bangor!

“Good morning! So you did decide to pay us a visit. Welcome to Burlington.”

“Did you just arrive?”  I queried, wondering from where he must have started to arrive so early.

“No, I came in last night and found a nice quiet green space to pitch my tent, right on the edge of the lake.”

Where could that be I wondered?

“Did you stay at North Beach Campground ?”, constrained by my much too logical thinking that you are obliged to use only permitted areas to reside, if only temporarily.

“No, it was next to the sewage treatment plant, there’s a nice little park on the point. People were really nice- I overheard heard them talking in the middle of the night- Shhh.. There’s someone sleeping in the tent. I like to conserve my financial resources for more practical purposes.”

Ah, a wild camper. You read about them in the magazines, setting up in a farmer’s field in Portugal to wake to a herd of curious cows surrounding them. But providence usually provides and rarely is it a problem. Most of us are not that adventurous, at least not in this part of the world.

I don’t believe I was mistaken, but he appeared clad in the same attire as the last time we met. I appreciate frugality and common sense and find myself following the same path. “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes”, Thoreau advised, presaging the mania of many cyclists to become what are affectionately referred to as Lycra Louts, festooned in brightly colored jerseys advertising their last group adventure. I make no judgement, but prefer my clothes to have the label on the inside, thank you, not emblazoned on my chest and back.

But I digress.

His cycle was weighted down exactly as I observed in Bangor, with four panniers, a tent and sleeping pad and miscellaneous bags stuffed here and there about the bike, waterproofing provided by garbage bags when convenient.

‘Is it okay to lean my bike against the wall?”

In truth, there was nowhere else to place it as it was far too heavy to hang by the saddle. I had described the nirvana ( defined as a goal hoped for but apparently unattainable) of Valet Bike Parking during our first meeting; that for once you could leave your bike and all your earthly possessions with the friendly and attentive staff on duty and wander about town, unconcerned about theft and vandalism and unfettered by your cumbersome load. He evidently remembered, as he soon was gone in search of a bite to eat.

Shortly he returned, satiated by a modest repast from City Market. We chatted for a few minutes; he asked if he could leave some victuals he’d bought with his bike, and then he was off again, a man on a mission.

This time it was in pursuit of new footwear.

“You might try Outdoor Gear Exchange” we suggested, in his quest to replace the well-worn shoes that helped propel him here. He soon returned, proudly proclaiming he found exactly what he was looking for, at half the price he expected.

The day wore on and he continued to come and go, always off somewhere new, gathering maps and charts from the table for inspiration of cycling destinations he could explore in the immediate area.

“Here is a copy of the Island Line Trail. Do you know about it?”

I described the trail, about 14 miles long, as a wonderful meander along the lake, with the causeway coursing like a string of pearls out into the bay and joining up with the islands to the north.

“It’s so narrow, you can almost touch the water on both sides”, I said, exaggerating but a little, and if you take the Bike Ferry, you can do the Three Ferry Ride, crossing into the Champlain Islands, taking the car ferry to Plattsburgh in New York State, riding down the east coast of New York to Port Kent and enjoying the experience of the early 1900’s Adirondack ferry back to Burlington.”

 That got his attention!

As we close at 2PM, his and our time together was coming to an end, but you could tell he was enjoying himself, a solitary traveler amongst friends, each appreciating the others company. He returned for a final time, finished rearranging his load; bid us thank you and adieu, announcing that the ferries sounded like a wonderful way to cap his excursion. He pushed his steed to College Street, mounted and turned westward, down the hill toward the intersection of the bike path which would take him on to his next adventure. And that’s the last I’d see of him- or so I thought.

As chance and schedules would have it, Valet Bike Parking was set up the next afternoon, Sunday, at the waterfront for one of the many concerts that occur all season long. I had drawn the straw for a double weekend shift, but I didn’t mind as there are always lots of characters to observe attending the performances, and people really are your best entertainment.

“Okay to lean my bike against the fence?”

I turned and smiled- he was back! Or more accurately, he’d never left.

“Thanks for telling me about the ferry, that was a great ride.” The guy was a glutton for punishment, thinking nothing of doing the 50 mile circuit accompanied by his entire set of ersatz luggage. In earlier days he would have shipped it onwards to his destination, like Frank Lenz, the Lost Cyclist.

We chatted some as he reflected on the many memories of Burlington and surroundings he had stored for a quieter time.

“We’ll, this is my definitely my final goodbye. I’m off to catch the Amtrak train in Essex to take me part way home. I reserved one of the bike spots online. I’ll get off in Northampton and bike back to Boston from there. Thanks for all your help; I had a good time discovering the area. ”

I guess that first impressions can be somewhat deceiving; I was laboring under the illusion he was a marathon cyclist, like many I’ve met before. It turns out he wasn’t a purist after all, someone who had to bike every mile of his journey. He’d pick and choose his battles, preferring to mix up his transportation choices. As we continued to talk, he revealed he’d actually taken the bus from Boston to Rutland, and then cycled up to Burlington. I don’t have a problem with that, do you?

“And then what?”

“I’m on my way to Arizona for work next week. I’m a bus driver. I drive long distance bus, so I can always find work somewhere. I figured that would be a good place to spend winter.”

And so his journey continued, a boy on a perpetual bummel.