by Robert P. Barsanti
The Professors of the Peloton passed me at our new stop sign on Surfside Road and Bartlett. I eased to a stop, adjusted the radio, then looked up at sixteen middle-aged and older men swooping past me like starlings. They pulled out into the oncoming traffic, waved at the Miles Reis truck, smiled at a minivan on Bartlett, then darted back into the correct lane. My angry old man came out on the porch and put his hand on the horn. There is a bike path.
Of course, I have been a bicyclist, just not one in a yellow singlet. I spent my first year on island bicycling and mooching rides; I know the heady thrill of riding the yellow line in the middle of the street. And I also knew the certain caution that comes from looking at the dirty stuffed animals tied to the front of the Miles Reis trash trucks rolling down York Street and at freewheeling bicycle me. Ask not for whom the horn sounds, it honks at thee.
Freedom isn’t free. The Campagnolo Clan counts on that. Their freedom got delivered by Amazon Prime on a same-day discount. They bought the road they rode on; it came in the same package deal as the Nantucket Cycling Experience. Somewhere in their minds, when they made their reservations, they bought the dream of a Tour de Ack. They don’t work on Saturdays; they have special sunglasses; and they are up-to-date on their legal retainers. We sold the Professors in the Peloton this dream, and now they are making it real. Miles Reis himself, behind the wheel of a great blue trash truck, wouldn’t break their contract.
The Campagnolo Clan have another retainer: one for righteousness. They are athletes, of course, who are bringing themselves to an endorphin peak out in the sea air while we sit, clogging our arteries and befouling the air behind the wheel. They breathe a monastic gust, one that swirls above the air conditioning and exhaust. The Clan had dedicated themselves to a higher power, and like flagellants walking through Paris, demanded a certain veneration from the rabble.
I followed the clan at a deferential distance down Surfside and onto the Boulevard. At the look of a wide open road, they stood in their saddles and raced up to and into the first puddle. When the water reached the pedals, they stopped mid-way across. I enjoyed watching them litigate their way to shore.
We don’t live on an island that can easily indulge the Professors in the Peloton. The roads are too narrow, the traffic is too heavy, and the drivers wear the black hat rakishly. Somehow, I can imagine a Concord-Carlisle bicyclist seeing the island map and the loop out from town to Sconset and back, then put himself at the handlebars on the Polpis Road dawn. Maps are the dreams men write down in the morning. When the dream fades and the wind picks up, you need to drop a few gears and soldier on.
We don’t live on an island that can make many dreams real. We try, of course, and, if the dream is modest enough, we succeed. But island dreams tend to get more and more complicated the further away from the sand and spray. I don’t think it is crazy to imagine you and your buddies biking around the island. But the island won’t hammer that dream true, nor will the agents, consultants, or contractors. The truth is an eight-inch deep puddle on the Boulevard…or Equator…or Skyline…or Lover’s Lane.
Geology is destiny. Everything that we do on the island is dependent on the rocks, water, and sand underneath us. All of those puddles have been ponds for a very long time, and they will continue to be ponds. We can fill them, divert them, and drain them, but the geology doesn’t change just because there is a strip of pavement running over it. When the rain comes, the pond returns.
For several hundred years, people saw Nantucket as a blank pillow they could fill with dreams. A sand hill thirty miles out to sea didn’t have any of the usual flora, fauna, or culture that the mainland had. So, our island fathers looked at the moors and imagined what we could put there instead of seeing what was there already: we planned our bike trip across the moors. So much of the current island came at the tail end of someone else’s fantasy. We brought the bunnies so horse riders could hunt them, we brought the deer because they looked cute, we planted the elms because that’s what a Main Street should have. The elms don’t belong here any more than the Professors of the Peloton, although they move much slower and don’t flip you off in traffic. The truth the wind knows has been buried deep in sand. Lawns, roses, hydrangea, and even elm trees obscure that truth, but can’t eliminate it.
Up in Pocomo Point, the Gamble house stands as the epitome of island fantasies. It was built on the windiest spot on-island and with Nantucket in mind…to put a thumb in its eye. But then, as the days blew past, the burned truth of Nantucket was made manifest. The owners couldn’t open the windows; the fog and wet of the island would warp all of the precious woods hijacked from Africa and Brazil. The shades had to be drawn in order to keep the wood’s color. The candy-striped bannister was at particular risk of warping, splitting, and fading. Now, the sand had shifted on the bluff and the upstairs doors won’t close. So it must be moved back from the bluff and into the next twenty years of its existence. Only the sand knows what happens after that.