A ride on the dark side

An October road trip to Witch City, USA

Mens Journal (6/13/2002)

Brion's comments:
'What better place to conjure the supernatural side of mountain biking than Salem, Massachusetts? Here's a weekend itinerary for October visitors.'

Feature article:

Ah, to visit the dark side on All Hallows Eve, where shadows speak and souls are forever lost. If you choose that crooked path, it's bound to bring you to Salem, Massachusetts. Be sure to bring your mountain bike.

Don't despair that Casper the Friendly Ghost was led off in handcuffs last year, or that the city's "official witch," Laurie Cabot, has spent more time before a judge than on her broomstick after threatening to blow away a housemate. It all just adds a little spice, along with your basic eye of newt, to the mix. Bottom line? On Halloween night, there's no place better to party than the Witch City. And with a host of state- and city-owned forestland, the area offers a delicious mix of autumn off-road riding, especially if your tastes run toward spicy singletrack.

This small coastal city is inextricably caught in the web of its past. Once the Colonies' crown jewel during the heyday of Far East trade, Salem's infamy was sealed with the hanging of 19 innocents during the witch hysteria of 1692. While curators of the renown Peabody Essex Museum and local historians tout the former, schlockmeisters of all stripes have made a bundle on the latter. Every day, visitors flock to hokey send-ups like the Salem Witch Museum and Mayhem Manor, legitimate historical landmarks such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables, and benign psychic boutiques -- the Mom & Pop shops of the modern-day witch crowd.

On Halloween, energy crackles in the city like a thunderclap. Wiccan practitioners may attribute this aspect to the fervor of a high holy day, but it's more likely a phenomenon of fermentation. Regardless, it's a city-wide celebration not to be missed, especially when the big event falls on a Saturday. You won't find Harry Houdini, despite a celebrated seance a few years back to recall his spirit from the grave, but you'll be surrounded by upwards of 50,000 kindred souls.

Top billing on the party list goes to the annual Halloween Costume Ball at the elegant Hawthorne Hotel ($75 per person; 978-825-4334 for reservations). Other costume parties include the Dodge Street Bar & Grill (978-740-0139) and the Lyceum Bar & Grill (978-745-7665) downtown, >and the Rockmore Dry Dock (978-740-1001) and Victoria Station (978-745-7460) out on Pickering Wharf.

Of course, some of the best parties aren't advertised, but you'll discover them on foot. Or bike. Get your trip rolling by heading north from Logan Airport on Route 1A to Lynn, the inspiration behind the famed line "Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin, never come out the way you went in." On Route 129, you'll find Lynn Woods, a country's oldest city-owned park. There are fast fire roads and nasty singletracks snaking through more than 6,000 acres, not to mention a few ghosts (like the body of a shooting victim that turned up during a race a few years back). You can even pedal up to Salem to check on the pre-Halloween entertainment. After a good hard spin, grab a pizza at Bertucci's at the intersection of Routes 1 and 128.

Route 128 North will take you to the state's lesser known peninsula, Cape Ann. If you're up for an afternoon ride, you can detour on Route 114 West in Peabody and check out the gentle, rolling terrain at Harold Parker State Forest in Andover. Save time on the way back by jumping on Route 62 -- wave to the lost souls at the Essex County House of Correction in Middleton as you drive past -- which will bring you to Route 128 again.

If you don't have reservations or friends living in Salem, your won't find Halloween accommodations there. Consider some smaller inns or hotels on Route 127 in Manchester-by-the-Sea or even Gloucester and Rockport (for lodging, call 1-800-742-5306, or check out www.northofboston.org).

Early Saturday, warm up with a ride at Dogtown Commons, found off Route 127 in the Annisquam section, or west side, of Gloucester. Dogtown has its own colorful history as a haven for "witches" during Colonial times, but today its far better known for its intricate and challenging trail network. Many of the huge boulders that dot the landscape offer motivational messages such as "Spiritual Power," "Never Try, Never Win," and "Help Mother" carved by former landowner Roger Babson, founder of Babson College.

Unwind with the Route 127 motor tour around Cape Ann. Stop in at Hammond Castle Museum, the stunning former home of eccentric inventor John Hays Hammond Jr., built on a perch high above the rocky shoreline of the Atlantic. For the big events, continue south through Beverly on Route 127, which will eventually bring you into Route 1A and the Witch City itself. You can even grab a spin on the dark, loamy trails of Salem Woods behind the municipal golf course, Salem Greens, off Highland Avenue. Back in town, festivities abound, from mid-day parades to the local bars and neighborhood house parties. If you've got a costume and cash, you'll get in.

On Sunday, take your Halloween hangover, your bikes and rental car back to Boston and fly home. Don't leave your heart, or your soul.

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