Sunday, September 2, 2012

In which I ride to the Seacoast
for a once-a-year fried clams ritual

A destination worth pedaling for. An image from a few years back; the date is repainted every season.

On Sunday, Sept. 2, I rode my bike to the Seacoast to get fried clams. But not just any fried clams—no, these came from Ceal's Clam Stand, a modest shack on Route 1A in Seabrook, N.H. that serves the best I've ever had. Seabrook is also home to our state's only nuclear power plant and several of the co-conspirators in the infamous Pamela Smart murder case; more on that below.

Back to clams: Trouble is, Ceal's open for business for only a short window each year, from Memorial Day until Labor Day. With this Brigadoon of roadside seafood closing for the season this weekend, I resolved to get out there and get my share before the 2012 season came to close.

(I usually only allow myself one visit a year, for as good as the fried clams are, I know they're not actually good for me. But several chances to stop out there this summer didn't happen, leading to this last-minute steeplechase.)

I left the house in Bedford, N.H. at 12:30 p.m. under cloudy skies and headed east. The afternoon wasn't as warm as I expected, and in some places along the way I actually felt chilly. The route to Seabrook (46.2 miles, according to Google maps) took me past places with personal connections, making the whole thing a kind of two-wheeled Proustian journey.

For example: Barely two miles from home, and still in Bedford, I pedaled past Hawthorne Drive, where my mother recently moved into an assisted living place after 84 years of residency in Nashua, N.H. Thinking I should do something, I waved!

Then it was across the Merrimack via the new Airport access Road bridge, then along the southern perimeter of Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, where I saw not one but two Delta aircraft take off. (My dad was employed by Northeast Airlines, a precessor of Delta.)

With parents taken care of, I wound my way to Route 28 and headed south into Derry, joining the route not far from where my wife and I adopted our beloved dog Holly, who passed away in 2009. At the same time, I was close by the place where we take our current three dogs for daycare and servicing.

The ride into Derry is pretty non-descript, with Route 28 an odyssey of industrial buildings, billboards, swampland, crumbling pavement and aggressive drivers. After picking my way through a stretch of construction as the road entered Derry, I turned onto Tsienetto Road, passing by the start/finish of the first 5K I ran after developing adult onset Type 2 diabetes in 2000. (And near a nursing home where my wife once worked!)

Shortly after, I went through the condo development where Pam Smart had her husband Gregory murdered, one of the big stories when I was a working reporter. (As opposed to what I am now.) For years I've been planning to create an opera based on this incidident, and it still might happen.

And on and on. After swinging around the Derry traffic circle with relative ease (just get right behind a car and it works fine), I turned onto the Hampstead Road and found myself in the less frenetic area of East Derry, childhood home of astronaut Alan B. Shepard and also the location of a surprisingly long upgrade that I never noticed before.

I ground up the long hill until reaching the store at the top, where I stopped for water. (I had two bottles in my pack but decided to keep them for emergencies and otherwise follow the "buy as you go" plan.) Just after 1:30 p.m., so I was sticking to my usual pattern of one-hour intervals, it seemed.

We interrupt this increasingly long post with an image of our final destination, complete with big red garbage can near the food pick-up area. Now that's confidence! (And actually, convenience.)

Moving on, the Hampstead Road is a quiet stretch with a few big ups and downs, but the road isn't in the best of shape, so it's no picnic. Just after the Hampstead line, I turned right onto Main Street, and a whole other set of connections kicked in.

Just up the road was the house of a former co-worker at the Nashua Telegraph (we're talking like 25 years ago now, folks) and fellow Nashua native. Nearby was a cemetery where his first wife was buried after she succumbed to leukemia in 1990. And so on. With so much to think about, the miles flew by, up and downgrade.

As I neared Route 111, I swing left onto Emerson Road, and remembered that this was the exact spot of a road race I ran in Hampstead in maybe 2003. It was notable because of the hundred-plus races I've participated in since 2000, the Hampstead one had the second smallest turnout: a total of eight of us, each carrying a numbered popsicle stick so they could record our times at the end.

After some uncertainty about when I would hit Route 111, there it was: the biggest highway of the day, with long straight-aways, moderate grades, and a generous shoulder. Alas, an easterly breeze had picked up (a sign I was getting close to the coast), so it took some work to maintain speed on this section. And then I realized I had biked this exact road before—in 1985, when I rode from Nashua to Exeter to visit a girlfriend who was enrolled in a summer program at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Route 111 joined with Route 125 outside Kingston, but I soon turned onto less-travelled Route 107, which would bring me almost all the rest of the way. With 111 and 125 so flat, I figgered the rest of the route would be a piece of cake, but no. East Kingston, Kensington, and then Seabrook are full of hills, some of them quite long and steep.

Hadn't expected that, and it was enough to prompt me to make my second stop of the day (about 3 p.m.), at Jones General Store on Route 107, hard by the main railroad line connecting Boston to Portland, Maine, here just a single track even with 10 daily trips by the Downeaster passenger train.

More connections: East Kingston was notable for the road race some years ago in which a local cop started it by firing an actual gun in air!

I figgered I had less than an hour to go, but the ups and downs in Kensington made it the toughest part of the ride. Nice road, though—not much of a shoulder but solid and smooth and not crumbling at the edges. At one point, I topped a grade and looked around at an agricultural vista that stretched for miles. (But still no ocean.)

I didn't know this road, but I remembered that Kensington was the home of James MacQuarrie, a Pan Am pilot who was captain of the ill-fated Flight 103 from London Heathrow to JFK, which was destroyed by a bomb in the cargo hold a few days before Christmas, 1988. I tell you, I'm full of delightful trivia.

Funny how town borders can mean big changes. Kensington is a beautiful area, full of historic homes and older stately farms that have worn the years well and are now largely owned by horse people and other people of means. Things noticeably change when you cross the line in Seabrook, a much more—well, down-to-earth place.

The first big landmark is the former Seabrook Greyhound Park. (I always wondered where that was.) It's all simucast racing now, and maintains a "casino room" offering all kinds of gambling that I thought was illegal in New Hampshire. Roulette, anyone? Those heading to the tables this Labor Day weekend had to drive all the way across a massive empty parking lot (left over from better days, I presume), part of which was so grown up with grass that it looked like a sod farm. The whole place had the air of an old mall from the 1970s that had lost its anchor stores.

Then it was up and over Interstate 95, after which Route 107 dead-ended on good old Route 1, the coastal highway, this stretch of which is chock-a-block with strip mall developments, auto service centers, and fast food restaurants. However, luck was with me as I hit all the intersections on green lights (yes!), and in some cases even outpaced the slow-moving traffic! Fried clams at Ceal's will do that to you, and I was closing in.

After picking my way through the weird traffic circle just before the Massaschusetts line (Hey! Different political signs!), I followed Route 1 into the Bay State for a short distance until reaching my final leg to the coast: Route 286. This modest two-lane road swung back over the border (at the point where it crosses the sadly abandoned rail line between Portsmouth, N.H. and Newburyport, Mass.) and then makes a virtually straight shot over the marshes to the actual end of land.

As soon as you clear the trees and enter the marshes, you know you're getting close, as the slightly sour tidal scent of the sea fills your nostrils and deeply embedded memories of exciting childhood times at the beach starts the adrenaline pumping.

But that's countered today with a vicious headwind coming straight off the Atlantic, prompting me to gear down just to keep going, even though the road is dead flat. For a time, we're on an isolated causeway that's New Hampshire's answer to the Everglades. Far on the left, the nuclear power plant's dome comes into view. Ahead, far ahead, across the open marsh, is the actual seaside, with its dunes and driftwood and promises of civilization and skee ball and yes, fried clams.

Yet one more obstacle looms: it seems the Seabrook Fire Department is operated an "MDA Toll Booth" up ahead to support the annual Labor Day telethon to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy research. I'm not opposed to donating, but the light changes and the firefighters wave me through with a smile.

Then it's a left onto Route 1A, the real Main Street of New Hampshire's honky-tonk seaside, and a short distance north until I round a bend and at least Ceal's comes into view. Yes! I pull into the parking area, lean my bike against a Coke machine, and get in line. (There's always a line, even at 4 p.m. It's that good.)

There it is, the now requisite "bike made it there shot," taken by me with the cell phone, as this time I totally forgot my camera.

So 3½ hours to do 46.2 miles. Not bad. I keep it simple, knowing that I will have to pedal at least part of the way home: a single small order of fried clams and a side order of cole slaw, $16.95. I'm number 82. It takes awhile for the food to come up (they cook everything to order), but at 4:20 p.m., my number is called and I receive my cardboard box with beachside culinary nirvana: fried clams in a white wax paper box with red stripes (the only proper container), and coleslaw packed into a styrofoam coffee cup with a lid on it.

The meal, photographed via cell phone prior to consumption.

And, in a last-minute save, I realized that the picnic table at which I was sitting was downwind of the "sweet waffle" scent from a nearby ice cream business, which was completely wrong for fried clams. I quickly moved to the other side of Ceal's and all was right.

I will not attempt to describe this meal to you or how deeply satisfying it was. For one thing, I'm not Gordon Ramsey (I don't have his vocabulary), and for another, this post has gone on long enough. But I will say that I was worried, because since a "fried clams safari" on the Maine coast two summers ago for a newspaper story, I had lost my appetite for fried clams. Having five meals of them in one day, no matter how good, will do that to you.

But Ceal's, ah yes.

And, in another stroke of perfect timing, my wife called just as I was finishing the last clam. She was leaving work in Salem, N.H., and our plan was for her to drive up Route 111 to the coast until she found me, then give me a life home. (I didn't think I was up to getting all the way back on my own: 90 miles!) I began pedaling back, and with a tailwind, made it all the way to Emerson Road on Route 111 in Hampstead in 90 minutes (much further than I expected), where I got my ride and got saved from extra-sore ass cheeks.

More adventures loom for this month, but 67.6 miles on a bike is enough for now. I'll check in with other goals and plans (including a "50-state run" coming up later this week) next time.

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