There is a place in Yellowstone National Park that’s more than twenty one miles from the closest road. It requires a week-long, seventy five mile hike to reach and is considered the furthest spot in the continental United States from civilization. If you were looking to “get away from it all”, that would likely be the spot to beat. On the East Coast, there is a stretch of the Appalachian Trail so remote people refer to it as the hundred mile wilderness. The woods are so thick around the trail that you could wander off by a few hundred yards and never find your way back. But how far do you really have to be from the nearest house or road to feel like you’re getting away from it all?
Some would argue you need to go beyond the reach of cellphone signals and quick rescues. Somewhere where your very survival depends on your planning and guile. But those places are quickly disappearing. With the advent of Starlink and Spot, there are fewer and fewer places that you are truly on your own. The ones that remain usually involve a major expedition: months of planning and weeks of trekking to reach that elusive remote location.
But the sense of adventure that these bring can be captured on a smaller scale. The route planning, the uncertain outcome and the dependence on wit and improvisation to survive don’t require a high consequence for failure.
The bikepacker’s answer to this has been the sub twenty four hour overnighter, or S24O for short. It is a micro-adventure where you seek to capture all the best elements of an expedition adventure and condense it into an overnighter. COVID and the resulting lockdowns and travel restrictions have only amplified the need for the S24O: a compact and accessible adventure out the backdoor.
And there are few places better for a S24O than eastern Massachusetts. It is the beneficiary of ample suburban magic. Numerous public spaces interspersed between the suburban streets and town centers where you can venture no more than a half mile from the nearest house, and yet still feel surrounded by nature.
I decided to summon some of this magic by designing a route from Arlington to Ayer in the Fall of 2019. The route would make good use of the byways followed by revolutionaries back in April 1775, winding through the historic towns of Arlington (then Menotomy), Lexington and Concord, and stretching out through Acton, Harvard and Ayer. And with a little help from the MBTA, I could do the route in under twenty four hours. An escape within the embrace of a few hundred thousand people. A revolutionary S24O suburban magic trick.
After putting a lid on work projects for the week, I set out on a late September Friday afternoon on my dual suspension rig, a Rocky Mountain Sherpa, adorned with camping gear. Although I had a general idea of where I was going, I still had not chosen a place to sleep for the night. The uncertainty only added to the sense of adventure.
Knowing I had about five hours of daylight left, I started on the paved Minuteman headed west to Concord. Before long I couldn’t resist the siren’s song of dirt under my tires and by Lexington, I was already off into the woods. Although I could have taken rail trails all the way to Concord, what good was hauling a full-suspension bike around without using all the squish?
The famous Revolutionary Battle Road, with its wide sandy byways ferried me out to Concord where I scooted over to Hapgood Wright State Forest and out past Walden Pond to Fairhaven Hill. The majestic old pines, and hill hugging singletrack of the conservation land have always made this area a favorite of mine. In the warmth of an early Fall afternoon the glow of the sun through the canopy was heavenly. I paused to soak in the smell of the pine needles and the sound of the wind rustling the pine boughs, and pushed onward to wherever it was I was going to camp that night.
I soon connected to the tall pines and abandoned bunkers of the old rifle range. A thin ribbon of singletrack cut along rolling hills, occasionally broken by exposed roots. The landscape felt wild and apocalyptic. Like a scene from our possible future I skirted past the husks of old buildings that had been reclaimed by the forest. Out of this dream I emerged onto pavement and hastily traversed some busy roads until I was back into the trees along the rail corridor. I worked my way along the leaf covered doubletrack down below the raised bed of the rail line, eventually climbing up to emerge from the dense woods just as a commuter train thundered by. I wondered if anyone spotted me there on the bank, drinking my water and starting at my reflection in the windows as they whizzed by.
Since leaving the Battle Road I hadn’t seen another person in the woods. And while I was diving in and out of woods, my thoughts were my own. I was by myself, unmoved by the actions of others.
Emerging from the woods I followed quiet pavement into the center of South Acton where I happened upon the busy Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. The bustle was short lived, though, and I cut onto a dirt road to Captain Sargent Conservation Area just to the west of town. I had previously ridden this area and remembered its trails well. A long slow climb led to a raucous descent to the pond on the far side. The sun was now creeping low on the horizon but I was unhurried: the advantage of having no set destination and the means to set up camp anywhere.
In the waning light, I navigated my way through Heath Hen Meadow Brook and Marble Hill Conservation Area. Twilight descended as I crossed the basin of the Delaney Flood Control site, and I finally ignited my lights as I crossed another road and began the steep climb into the hardwood forest of the Annie Moore Land. The reflection of deer eyes, seemingly detached and floating, stared at me from the forest as I moved steadily along the singletrack. The air was cooling fast, and hunger was calling, so I began my search for a quiet and secluded corner to set up camp for the night.
It wasn’t long before I came across a pine forested hollow that had enough young trees for good cover and enough older trees to provide steady anchors for my hammock. With the hum of the nearby highway, I tied up the ends of my hammock. It was total darkness, but in my estimation I was a good ways off the trail. I sat on a log as I cooked up my meal of Udon and venison jerk, the warm red light of my headlamp making a small island of light in the surrounding darkness.
The forecast that night had been for lows in 50”s, and so instead of lugging my sleeping pad, I opted for a mylar blanket to lie on in the hammock. But this plan ignored the cardinal rule of hammock camping which is to always overdress. The mylar was stretched to its limits and I eventually found myself in the fetal position at four in the morning, shivering and praying for daylight. A candybar stoked my fire so that I was warm enough to retreat back into my dreams and before long I was enjoying my morning coffee with a herd of deer curiously staring at me through the trees.
Early morning mountain bikers passed close by on the singletrack I thought I had hidden from, but they apparently didn’t see me crouched off the side of the trail sipping coffee and munching on my pop tart. After quickly breaking camp I was again on the bike navigating the winding singletrack of Rattlesnake Hill.
Whether it was the coffee, the pop tarts or the punchy technical terrain, I was wide awake and the blood was pumping right off the bat. I found my way to the road where I crossed over the highway and then dipped back into the woods for more technical climbing through Northwoods Land and Bowers Springs. The highlight of the day was definitely Vaughn Hills and Moen Property, which had playful single and doubletrack under large cliffs. Fall colors were just emerging and the early morning light through the brilliant yellow leaves made for a memorable scene.
The sky was bright blue, and the local road through Bolton Flats was peppered with volunteers for a road run that day. My ride on this road section was short lived as I drove up into a wide field, climbing to the woods that sit on the height of land above. I stopped at the high point to admire the view of Mt. Wachusett and suck down a sugary drink. I then rolled along the edge of the field and into the thick woods that covered the hilltop. After winding through a series of hills and getting briefly lost, I found the passage through the Fruitlands to a snowmobile corridor below which was heavily overgrown with goldenrod and blackberry brambles. My legs paid the price over the next half mile until the trail climbed out of the hollow along the bustling Route 2.
More brambles tore at me before I was able to reach the road, where I crossed under to the well maintained gravel trails on the far side. These were night and day from the blackberry thickets I had just escaped.
The manicured gravel eventually led out onto road and hooked up with the busy main thoroughfare that carried me into the center of Ayer.. While I waited for the late morning train I wolfed down my second breakfast and enjoyed the sunshine.
Although I was back home in less than twenty four hours, it felt like I had been away for a week. The memories of those few hours are still vivid in my mind. Something about these forays leaves an outsized impression. Perhaps that feeling of exploration and living in the moment is the feeling of being alive. It is the core of adventure- the core of the S24O. Maybe that is the magic trick. Turning those few hours into indelible memories that sustain us through our lockdowns.
We could all use more some S24O magic in our lives.
THE PLANNED ROUTE
MY GEAR LIST
Large Ziplock Bags
Feed Bag (Pop Tarts, Dehydrated Milk, Coffee, Sugar, Udon Soup Mix, Venison Jerky)
Extra Stans Notubes Fluid
Rear Flashing Light
NiteRider Pro 2200 Light Battery
Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag
Wool Socks x 2
Wool Underwear x 2
Long Sleeve Baselayer
Puffy Down Vest
1 x Water Bottle filled with Electrolyte Mix
Snacks (Almonds, Gels, Waffles, Cliff Bars, Chocolate)
Watch Charger Cord
Phone Charger Cord
Niterider Pro 2000 Light
Hennessy Hammock Snakeskins 1” Webbing x2
Reinforced Heavy Duty Mylar Blanket