Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Along the Eastern Trail (Day 4: Wells to Portland)

Posted by Jeff, 10/28/14

Miles: 38

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Shorter, but with longer trails...

...than the previous three days, is a good way to describe Day 4's route. We had eased through Boston on the Charles River Greenway. We had entered Topsfield and Salem and Newburyport on shared use paths. But those off-road experiences were the exception to the rule. It gives you perspective on how far ECGA has to go to reach its grand vision and replace those interim on-road segments, respectable as they are, with a 2,900-mile green travel corridor.

This day, however, felt like biking to the future, as almost half of our 38 miles were on trails. Most rewarding, however, was what was waiting at the end: the streets of Portland, a home-cooked dinner, and connecting with old friends. And ice cream!

First, breakfast at Brewed Awakenings. That is clearly in the upper echelon of coffee-pun names, and their coffee and food was equally high-quality.

We sauntered up US 1 for 5 miles to downtown Kennebunk, hitting a cute, mini-traffic jam. From Portland Rd., we maneuvered through residential streets, aiming for the southernmost of the three completed major Eastern Trail segments.

This local street zigzagging was one of the many stretches where I used the trusty navigational method of awkwardly squinting at Google Maps on my phone while riding. Not exactly recommended, but the result of not having planned the entire route to every last cue, not owning a bike computer, and, at the moment, being east of the route mapped on the Eastern Trail Guide.

Just north of where it crosses over I-95, we met up with the Eastern Trail itself (PDF map of this section). Its surface at this point is crushed gravel.

The Eastern Trail currently stops just outside Biddeford. In the future, it is planned to reach all the way to the Saco River and cross it. We took the on-road jughandle to downtown, letting the Amtrak Downeaster pass on its trip between Boston and Brunswick.

From Saco, the trail picks up again, going another 8 miles or so to Scarborough.

Source: Eastern Trail Alliance. PDF map

This segment, the middle of the three completed ET segments, is beautiful. The first part runs behind a school and is dedicated to a prominent Saco resident, Mary Kerry Libby, who died of cancer in 1997. It includes a bridge over US 1 dedicated to the Eastern Trail's founder, John Andrews.

ET north of Saco

And it includes the lovely Scarborough Marsh.

As described by the Maine Audubon Society,

Owned and managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the 3,100 acre estuary known as Scarborough Marsh is the largest salt marsh in the state, comprising tidal marsh, salt creeks, freshwater marsh and uplands. The marsh is particularly important for wildlife as a resting, breeding and feeding ground.
I have some video that I hope to post soon.

The trail through Scarborough Marsh was the first section of the Eastern Trail, completed in 2004, and key to building public support for subsequent segments.

Scarborough Marsh was full of walkers on this Wednesday afternoon. Also situated for stopping and contemplating, it would have been a welcome place for Thoreau or Hawthorne. Eve and I relaxed on a bench for a short spell.

In Scarborough, the trail ends at Black Point Rd., where we took the ET on-road route via Highland Ave. to the Wainwright Athletic Complex. From reading the ET website, it looks like there is some movement on this trail section, but funding still needs to be identified (PDF slideshow with more information).

We rehydrated at the athletic complex, then made our way north on the 6-mile, northernmost completed ET segment, the South Portland Greenbelt.

Source: Eastern Trail Alliance

Link to larger map here

After winding through neighborhoods and along the Fore River, we turned onto the Casco Bay Bridge, with the Portland skyline across the water.

As can be seen in the first photo, the bridge has both wide bike lanes and a sidewalk that can be used for riding.

Arriving in the late afternoon, we found our way to the Munjoy Hill apartment of our friends, D and E, via the Eastern Prom Trail that courses the perimeter of the peninsula on which downtown sits.

Plenty to catch up on over a delicious homemade dinner...

...followed by a walk along the bay at dusk.

It reminded me of the imagery of Wallace Stevens at Key West.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Dover Detour and the Eastern Trail (Day 3: North Hampton to Wells, ME)

Posted by Jeff, 10/5/14

Miles: 51

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Perhaps the most jagged route of the trip...

...Day 3 was filled with two touches of the ocean, riding with a new acquaintance, a Dover detour, and the picturesque Maine countryside.

We woke early in order to get to downtown Portsmouth by 9:00am to meet Bob Spiegelman for breakfast. Bob is an ECG member and bike tourist extraordinaire. I got in touch with him after working with ECGA to set up our FirstGiving page. In addition to giving fundraising advice, he offered to ride with us when we came through Portsmouth.

The way into town was a pleasant meander through Rye, partially along the ocean.

Although one has breakfast nearly every day, one does not get to have one of the "best breakfasts in America" everyday. This is the distinction given to The Friendly Toast by various media entities. I'll add to the mix by saying that it was very good. And very good food is even better on a bike trip.

A Tale of Four Bridges...Well, Just One, Really...But the Three Others Make Cameo Appearances

Portsmouth is on the Piscataqua River. Four bridges cross the river from the city: one to New Castle Island and three to Kittery, Maine. One of those three is I-95. The other two are the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, carrying US 1 bypass, and the Memorial Bridge, carrying US 1 business.

The ECG route is on the Memorial Bridge. When it was opened in 1923, a five-year-old named Eileen Foley cut the ribbon. Eventually, the bridge needed to be replaced. The new bridge opened August 8, 2013, also known as one week after Eve and I were there. And when it opened, a 95-year-old named Eileen Foley cut the ribbon. Somewhere along the way, Eileen had been elected mayor. Neat, eh?

The ECGA was there for the grand opening. Part of the celebration of the new bridge's innovative design is the fact that it features 5-ft. bike lanes and 6-ft. sidewalks in each direction. (The original had boardwalks but no bike lanes.)

That is all well and good for the next 90 years of walkers and cyclists, but on July 30, 2013, we needed to find a detour. But Bob knows the bikeability of the roads in the region better than anyone.

Our detour used a necklace of roads, including Maplewood Ave, Woodbury Ave, and Shattuck Way to arrive at the General Sullivan Bridge in Newington, 5 miles northwest along the river.

This bridge is next to the Little Bay Bridges, which carry the Spaulding Turnpike over the river. An NHDOT project to widen the Little Bay Bridges to eight lanes, consolidate nearby turnpike interchanges, and -- importantly, for us people on bikes -- rehabilitate the historic Sullivan bridge for continued active transportation and recreation -- was under construction.

Source: NHDOT

After crossing the bridge, we were still in New Hampshire, on a peninsula separating Little Bay to the west and the Piscataqua to the east. Dover Point and Spur Rds. served as suitable western parallels to the turnpike, and New Bellamy Ln. allowed us to cross under it. At this point, we made a wrong turn that led us a half-mile south -- Bob's navigational skills took a short break! -- but before long we were pointed north to Dover.

Henry Law Park in the center of town was an ideal spot to take a 15-minute break, hydrate, and lounge in the shade.

Founded in 1623, Dover is "the oldest continuous settlement in New Hampshire and the seventh oldest in the United States" (Dover Public Library). The Cocheco River flows through downtown, and along it, Dover residents can enjoy the Joe B. Parks Riverwalk and Public Gardens, planned by the eponymous local horticulturalist and built by volunteers. There is also a community trail that runs north and south, crossing the river and serving the Amtrak station.

After the respite, we traversed the somewhat hilly terrain along Cocheco St. and Gulf Rd., heading generally downward to the Salmon Falls River, the NH-ME border. Naturally, the conversation focused on hills. Personally, of the many "banes" of cycling, hills are my least favorite. Growing up in Milwaukee, and having become a regular cyclist in the Twin Cities and Chicago, I'm perfectly comfortable with cycling in city traffic. You can probably guess, then, that I don't mind cold weather cycling (you just need to put on the right clothes). Rain can be annoying. But it's the hills that most make me wish I was riding an E-bike. When I lived in Carrboro, I used to nickname all the steep hills -- primarily as a psychological device to distract from the annoyance of the climb. No cyclist likes an uphill; at best, they are tolerated, or seen for their fitness value. Bob, the experienced bike tourist, reminded us that not all downhills are a breeze. Depending on the grade and turns, you might be doing a lot of braking. Bob recalled a long downhill on one of his trips: his hands eventually ached so much from squeezing the brake handles that he had to walk his bike a while, downhill, in order to rest them.

That's right: Maine! You are our state for the next 375 miles, so you better be good!

From here, it was 20 miles northeast through the bucolic southern tip of Maine to the Atlantic Ocean at Wells.

The Eastern Trail

In South Berwick, we rejoined the Eastern Trail after the construction-related detour around Kittery. Part of the East Coast Greenway, the Eastern Trail is 65 miles of on- and off-road route from Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth to Casco Bay in South Portland.

(Source: Eastern Trail Alliance)

Our main navigational aid was the Eastern Trail Guide, a very helpful and clear binder of segment maps and cue sheets created and kept up-to-date by the Eastern Trail Alliance (see links above). Twists and turns, frequent road name changes, and construction and traffic alerts are all part of this fantastic guide, which is sized to fit in handlebar map holders. (Paper maps are especially helpful in areas where you don't have great mobile service and aren't bringing along expensive GPS equipment.)

These roads are what you would expect: quiet, tree-lined, somewhat hilly in points, mostly narrow and low-traffic, and good for reflection or side-by-side conversation. Their names presumably hint at historic farm owners. The route passes through downtown South Berwick, where we stopped to hydrate, and crosses the Amtrak Downeaster tracks at grade on Bragdon Rd.
You get some heavier traffic -- but also an ~8'-wide shoulder -- once you get to St Hwy 9, the last stretch before arriving at Wells.

Halfway to Wells, Bob bid adieu and turned to head back to Portsmouth. It was great to have him as a traveling companion for a half-day, in addition to his pre-ride advice on fundraising for the ECGA for our trip.

Our destination was the Ocean View Cottages & Campground in Wells, which had a nice wooded tent camping area. We set up the tent, took a nap, unloaded our panniers, and went to fulfill our hunger at Billy's Chowder House, on the edge of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.


Wells was bustling with vacationers, many from Canada, it seemed. It was the farthest north beach with water still warm enough for most people's comfort. The campground was full of excitement. And the Rachel Carson NWR provided a nice contrast in its tranquility. There is beauty in town and beauty in country; touring cyclists can embrace both along their journey, sometimes right next to each other.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Witch" Way to New Hampshire? (Day 2: Salem to North Hampton, NH)

Posted 5/17/14 by Jeff

Miles: 47

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Day 2 was filled with life lessons.

Lessons like:

  • If you're a teacher, you probably get a discount at tourist spots. Or at least in Massachusetts.
  • If you're a transportation planner, you probably do not.
  • Be hopeful if it rains on you: first, because rain equals life, but second, because it just might yield a beautiful rainbow (or two).
  • The Danvers Rail Trail, north of Chestnut St., was not yet resurfaced on July 29, 2013. (But it would be a week later: another, but not the last, of such near-misses.)

Our second day route spanned the spectrum of American history...

...starting in one of the oldest European settlements on the continent and ending at a 1950s-style campground along a stroad dotted with big box retail.

We allotted time to explore Salem in the morning, and it was mid-afternoon by the time we hit the road. The lingering was worth it, however.

We woke up to the gentle gray of the maritime morning. Eve led our first yoga session of the trip on the beach. The serene cove of Waikiki Beach was soon populated with a group of paddleboarders. In contrast to the previous night's bustle of middle-school Macbeth actors hurriedly changing or washing off makeup in the campground bathroom between scenes ("Out, out, damned spot!"), the morning was very tranquil.

After packing up and heading into town, we enjoyed a tasty breakfast at the Red Line Cafe on Essex St. Eve had a salmon crepe, and I think I had the same.

It being a Monday, the Peabody-Essex Museum, to which Eve assigned rave reviews, was closed. So the Salem Witch Museum was Plan B.

In part, it was in the style of a traditional museum, with a handful of exhibit rooms. The main event was a multi-level gallery featuring a near-life-sized puppet show portraying, with a storyboard feel, the troubling tale of the Salem Witch Trials. While this type of setup might inevitably be susceptible to the "kitschy" stigma, this show was more polished and engaging.

When it was time to be on our way, we rode northwest out of town, en route to the Danvers Rail Trail (DRT) access point at Maple St. in Danvers.

As we approached the path's intersection with Chestnut St., however, we were stopped in our tracks by a construction truck.

This was not a bad thing. The truck was part of a construction crew surfacing this section of the trail with stone dust. Stone dust, you ask?

Detouring north on Cabot Rd., we parked our bikes near Danvers High School, I climbed up the rail embankment to see if we had reached the project endpoint, and there I saw the Iron Horse, hard at work.

Here's the description of the (soon-completed) project from the DRT folks:

Danvers and Wenham Rail Trails – New Surface Complete!

The last of the stone dust surface was installed on August 7, 2013. This five mile stretch makes for a smooth and enjoyable journey starting in Peabody and running through Danvers, Wenham, and beyond. We encourage you to take some time to explore and enjoy our new trail and all it has to offer. We want to thank the Department of Conservation and Recreation for the $50,000 grant awarded jointly to Wenham and Danvers to complete the surface, and to Iron Horse’s hard-working crew along with Lenny the incredibly good natured truck driver who navigated the trail so well.

More photos from the DRT site

The detour on residential collectors (Cabot, Burley, Maple) was pleasant, and we met back up with the DRT at Topsfield Rd.

Eve on the DRT at Topsfield Rd.

Here, the transponerd in me rejoiced as I spotted the first Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RRFB) of the trip. This is a good trail crossing enhancement for higher-speed facilities like Topsfield Rd., and I hope more of them are installed at appropriate crossings along the ECG route.

At Topsfield, we passed by The Bicycle Shop, appropriately located along the trail, in a new commercial building gracefully designed like an old train station.

By this time, although just to the west was I-95, which hosts 1/3 of the nation's vehicle miles traveled, and not far to the east was the Hamilton/Wenham MBTA commuter rail station, land-use wise, we were reaching the edges of the Boston metro area.

The feeling was more exurban and bucolic as we zig-zagged north on the likes of Bare Hill Rd., Pye Brook Ln., Boxford Rd., and Dodge Rd., low-traffic residential roads that make up a pretty nice interim on-road section of the ECG (Google map).

Cemetery near Byfield Parish Church

We followed the ECG on-road route down Elm St. and Middle Rd., through the Governor's Academy, the oldest continually operating boarding school in America (established 1763). The Martin H. Burns Wildlife Management Area was on our left.

We eventually reached the beginning of the path to Newburyport, the Clipper City Rail Trail, the first part (off of Highfield Rd.) being a dirt access drive in a power easement.

This short stretch led us to...the Newburyport MBTA station! It was a bit humbling to know that we rode for a day and a half, only to arrive at a place that could take us back to where we began in an hour and a half. But it was a milestone nonetheless, as we reached the paved part of the Clipper City trail, our second-last stretch in the state of Massachusetts.

The Clipper City Rail Trail gateway arch

Further down the trail

There was only one thing holding us back from New Hampshire, and that thing was ice cream.

Haley's Ice Cream

The Clipper City Rail trail opened in 2010 after Newburyport secured a 99-year lease of the old, unkempt rail corridor from MBTA, with design completed in 2007 and construction commencing in 2008. Phase 2, planned for construction starting in 2015, will extend the path to the east, along the Merrimack River and south to the town of Newbury (more info, same link as above). The long-term vision is to complete a trail loop that connects the Harborwalk, several neighborhoods, and the MBTA station (PDF map).

Merrimack River at Newburyport, looking east

Gillis Bridge, crossing the Merrimack, connecting Newburyport and Salisbury, MA

We'd have lingered a bit more by the river, but the second half of our day's journey was calling us.

Across the river, in Salisbury, we reached the Old Eastern Marsh Trail, part of Salisbury's coastal trail network. By the time we reached this ECG kiosk, a light drizzle had started. And we knew it was only 420 more miles to Calais, the apogee of the East Coast Greenway, and the town across the river border from St. Stephen, Land of Chocolate, our ultimate destination.

We dropped back onto the ECG on-road route on Beach Rd., which, as its name implied, took us east to the ocean. The rainbow was welcoming us there.

Is there chocolate at the end?

After the obligatory sun-squinting ocean double rainbow double selfie, our route refracted north along North End Blvd. (State Hwy. 1A), and in no time, we were in New Hampshire.

After a leisurely start to the day and the early afternoon departure from Salem, we had made good time, with only a couple of quick stops. It was 5:30pm on a July day, so there was still plenty of daylight left with which to cruise along the New Hampshire shoreline.

The pastoral inland of northeastern Massachusetts had given way to the touristy beach areas of Seabrook and Hampton. Hampton Beach was a strip of gift shops and restaurants, condos and hotels, arcades and ice cream, galleries with white-painted rails and sidewalk postcard racks, jewelry and swim shops, loaded with people. It felt like an old-school ocean vacation spot, retaining the air of a mid-century getaway from the hustle and bustle of the big city (cue newsreel voice here). People were meandering into the street, mixing with traffic.

We stopped at North Beach Bar & Grill with the intent of consuming a large quantity of food. Notwithstanding ice cream and usual packed snacks along the route, our last actual meal was brunch in Salem, 42 miles ago. The restaurant had pretty standard beach pub fare (or, as their slogan says, "Just a little piece of the breezy"), but the service was excellent. We could also charge our phones here.

After dinner, it was twilight, so we did our first fully-loaded night riding of the trip, weaving through Hampton neighborhoods to reach Lafayette Rd. (US-1, fast traffic and not much shoulder), where the Shel-Al Campground was.

(Bike lights were an obvious thing to bring, since we knew we'd be doing some night riding. Even if you plan to ride only during the day, bring them just in case.)

Shel-Al was packed with people, most already settled in for the night. We did the same, needing to rise early the next day to meet Bob Spiegelman, East Coast Greenway Alliance member and bike touring aficionado, for breakfast in Portsmouth.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weaving to the Ocean (Day 1: Framingham to Salem)

Posted by Jeff, 5/4/2014

Miles: 45

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We left on a Sunday morning.

With the promise of less traffic, Sunday seemed like a good day to ride through the heart of the Boston metro area.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I wondered how I'd feel as we were leaving. Nervous? Excited? A combination of these and other emotions? That morning, it turns out, although I was a little nervous and very excited, part of me just felt at ease, like we were going for a two-mile bike ride to the store. Maybe it's part of the simplicity of bikes: open to the air, close to the earth, and built to go fast enough that you can cover decent ground in one day but slow enough that you don't miss the scenery.

And we're off!

Since we were following the East Coast Greenway route (Google Maps ECG route in Massachusetts), we first needed to get to the route. We met up with it along the Boston Post Road in Weston, a National Register Historic District. (Eric Jaffe recently wrote a book on it.)

We reached Main St. in Waltham, crossed over the Charles River on Moody St., and then got on the Charles River Greenway, which took us east into Boston on an off-road, tree-lined shared use path.

A rare dirt section of the CRG, which is mostly paved

We arrived in Cambridge a little after noon via the Anderson Memorial Bridge over the Charles River (Streetview). MassDOT is upgrading this historic, 100-year-old bridge. Part of the renovation involves implementing a 4-to-3 road diet. A southbound lane is being removed to make room for 5' bike lanes, retaining the 10-ft. sidewalks (PDF of MassDOT presentation - see especially slides 8 and 10).

Just as we made it to the other side, we saw a steady trickle of cyclists leisurely coursing down Memorial Dr.: a ciclovia! The drive was closed to autos, and open to people, for Recreation Sundays (11am-7pm, Apr.-Nov.).

We were departing temporarily from the ECG route here, which continues on the CRG to downtown Boston, so we could meet my friend Josh for lunch at The Druid.

Mmmm, fish 'n' chips wrapped in newspaper.

After leaving The Druid, we wove our way north to Fellsway, where we were to cross the Mystic River into Medford.

Lo! Here be Boston again, on Mystic Ave. near Assembly Square Dr.

I have to say, this was a stressful experience. Traffic volumes seemed high for a Sunday, and we experienced the first of many frustrations with the lack of street signs (#%$^#%!).

Moreover, as bike-friendly as Cambridge and Somerville might make themselves out to be, our experience confirmed what can be seen on a map: the actual bike facilities are predominantly on the east-west radial thoroughfares, but more lacking on the narrower, north-south streets, where on-street parking must be accommodated.

For some reason, we confused ourselves (in reality, I confused Eve and myself) about how to get to Fellsway. It looks relatively simple on a map, but, long story short, we went on an inadvertent detour on the Alford Street Bridge instead (map).

This took us toward the Northern Strand Community Trail via Everett instead of Medford.

Eastern Ave. (MA-60) near Ferry St., Malden

The NCST will be a great amenity when completed. Sponsor group Bike to the Sea's vision is "a trail free of cars from the Malden/Everett area of Massachusetts to the beaches in Revere, Lynn and Nahant. That dream is now close to reality as portions of the trail are under construction."

Source: Bike to the Sea

Alas, we passed through a bit before the actualization of that reality, and had to detour on Eastern Ave.

[Aug. '15 update: The missing link in Revere has been completed]

We made an uneventful way through Saugus via the ECG interim on-road route (Salem St./Lincoln Ave.), then we zigzagged through Lynn...

...and, at Swampscott, we reached the ocean!

We had re-hydrated via a Lynn corner store, and now it was time to take a breather along the seawall, as Eve's knee had begun to give her some trouble.

We looked out over the water and the gray sky. Nahant Bay was in front of us, Massachusetts Bay past Nahant Bay, the tip of Cape Cod further out, and Morocco across the vast distance of the Atlantic.

Going north to Marblehead on Atlantic Ave., we were going to hop on a portion of the Marblehead Rail Trail (part of the ECG), but that portion of the trail was only a partially-developed narrow dirt path... we opted for weaving through Marblehead residential streets to the "attractive gate" at the Salem Bike Path (the words of a travel guide Eve read before we left). To be sure, the entrance did not disappoint, aesthetically speaking.

The path feeds Canal St., one of the major north-south arterials leading in to downtown Salem. We made our first destination! After an inkling of trepidation that morning, our Day 1 journey was successful. But not without...

...the trip's first unpleasant incident.

Stopped in the pole position at a red light on New Derby and Congress, we heard a man's voice somewhere amongst the queue. The voice was being employed to shout threatening statements at us, e.g. "Get out of the f***ing road!" Glancing back, it was impossible to tell from which exact motor vehicle it was originating. Even though this was starting to raise my blood temperature to near boiling, I decided it was best to walk our bikes to the corner, let this loquacious gentleman pass, get back in the road, and be on our merry way to the campground.

He was turning right, though -- around us -- and as he did, he looked out the passenger window and spewed further epithets. I was busy getting my phone out to call the police, while Eve and I were simultaneously trying to remember his plate number. No sooner had he completed the turn, however, than a squad car zoomed, seemingly out of nowhere, but really from Congress St. going southbound, to pull the guy over. This all happened within a span of probably no more than 10 seconds. Another squad car followed 30 seconds later. We don't know if the reason the guy was pulled over was his threatening comments, and, if so, wondered how the first officer had heard the verbal barrage. But the driver didn't seem to have made any other moving violation. So I'm going to chalk it up to poetic justice.

The lesson learned : if you experience a driver harassing you because of your choice of transportation, don't let it get under your skin. Simply try and take note of the license plate and report it to the police. The worst thing you can do is respond in kind with acidic language of your own.

That little to-do in our wake, Waikiki Beach on Winter Island was calling our name, and it was starting to get dark.

Arriving there was a sigh of relief. Despite some great paths -- the CRG, Northern Strand, and Salem Bike Path -- Day 1 nonetheless had its share of moderate- to heavy-traffic on-road cycling, capped off by the little road rage incident. Furthermore, Eve's knees needed a rest, and my mind needed a break from an involved day of navigating the Boston metro area.

It was a misty, but warm, evening. There was a kids' drama camp putting on Macbeth next to our camp area. After setting up, we rode back in to downtown for the bike tourist's best friend, FOOD!, at the Village Tavern.

Then, a stroll down car-free Essex St... ...and a stop at the -- enchanting? -- Derby Square Bookstore.

Clearly, Eve came under the influence of the occult amongst the teetering towers of books

It's too bad that the book is now closed on Derby Square Books. I'm glad we got to experience it.

And that closes the book on Day 1!