Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

Jewish Witches and the Town that Can’t be Licked

Salem, Massachusetts is a funny place. As you walk through the Commons en route to the center of town, the air changes. The grass becomes a little greener, the smells a little sharper, the people, well, just a little stranger. You see inanimate women transforming themselves into men before your very eyes. You encounter androgynist skateboarders singing in falsetto as they bop down the street. You spot drunken revelers carted off in police cars at 10:30 in the morning.

Okay, so the person sitting on the lawn probably didn’t transform himself into a man… But I could have sworn he was a woman when we first looked at him.

The town, largely supported by its tourist industry from June through October (and supported by little else the rest of the year, according to a local bookstore owner) blends well its maritime pride with its bewitching kitsch. Founded in the early 17th century, Salem – as we learned from the 20-minute video at the visitor’s center – got its name from the Hebrew word, Shalom, or Peace. Though most famous now for the Witch Trials of 1692, the town was a crucial player in the country’s quest for independence and later establishment of itself as an international player in the shipping industry.

We started our day in Salem with a visit to the Friendship, a fully functioning replica of the Salem East Indian trading ship, originally built in 1797. Brent, as both a navigator and a scuba diver, was particularly interested in the maritime history, and I enjoyed playing on the boat.

My own interest in Salem goes back more than a decade, to when I first read the Crucible. I was fascinated by the story and its allegory to the Cold War hysteria, and have been reading about the Witch Trials ever since. From a historical perspective, the pre-revolutionary era has always rather bored me, but from a human rights and legal rights perspective, I find myself struck by the utter chaos and complete disregard for humanity that the trials and surrounding events brought forth. Eager to see how the town memorialized the historic episode, we wandered around and were rather dismayed to encounter store after store selling everything that’s in, in witch chic. Not to mention the photo ops that sat on every street corner.

We did visit the Witch Dungeon, which we were told was the most engaging of the witch-oriented museums in town. There, we saw a reenactment of one of the trials, taken from actual trial transcripts. Afterward, the tour guide led us to the basement, which housed a replica of what they thought the actual dungeons where the charged were incarcerated looked like. Toward the end of the dungeon walk, one of the ‘manequins’ of the accused jumped out at us. I squeaked, of course, and then laughed and told her I thought it was an unnecessary touch. I was bothered by the oversimplification of the events, but the reenactment was reasonably engaging.

The most provocative part of town was the Witch Memorial, a somber series of stone benches, one for each of the individuals killed for refusing to confess to witchcraft. Into each piece was etched the name of the victim, the date of his or her death, and the method of killing. Most were hanged. Giles Corey, however, was pressed to death by stones for refusing to plead innocent or guilty.

As we were heading out of town, we came across something that stopped us both in our tracks: a Rita’s Water Ice soon to open in little ol’ Salem. Philadelphia is taking over the eastern seaboard!

From Salem, we drove to Newton, Mass. for a great visit and dinner with Brent’s childhood friend Alex and his wife Julie before heading out to Amherst and Brent’s parents’ house for a few days.

Yesterday, we did the unthinkable (at least for me): relaxed! After waking up late(-ish), we went grocery shopping and spent the afternoon reading (for fun!) and lounging. I even took a two-hour nap while Brent watched the red sox game. Unheard of. And fantastic. We had dinner with Brent’s folks and his brother and sister-in-law and their kids. And then, last night, Brent surprised me by pulling out the DVDs of American Dreams, which we’ve been watching for the past few weeks at home. Seems he snuck them into his bag before we took off for New England. Quite squirrely, this husband of mine.

Today, though, made up for all that lethargy. After Brent slept in and I read for two hours, we embarked on an epic 60-mile bike ride, on our mountain bikes, through the Western Massachusetts Hill Towns. I’m racing in the Wisconsin Ironman this coming September and knew that I had to keep up the training while we traveled this summer. Unfortunately, a bum knee is preventing Brent from joining me on any of the runs, but luckily he’s just fine for biking, so I have a training buddy for the long hours in the saddle.

So, we set out today stocked with water and bars and electrolyte gummies, enough for a 5-hour adventure. I knew that this ride would be harder than the 75-miler we completed a few weeks ago, in part because we would be on mountain bikes, and in part before of the hills.

Oh, the hills…

I had no idea there was so much elevation within a stone’s throw of Brent’s parents’ house! The plan was to bike around Quabbin Reservoir. Perfect, I thought – we’ll be going along the coastline. Brent talks about hills, sure, but it’s gotta be pretty flat there. Brent attempted this ride once on a whim when he was 13 or 14. No water, no food, just him and his bike. He got more than 50 miles into it before calling his mom to pick him up.

I know for my friends who recently completed that 10-day, 500-mile race in Montana, this will seem paltry, but for me, whose long rides have all been on the flat, pleasant Schuylkill River Trail near Philadelphia, this was a wake up call… and then some.

We started out with a 1,000-foot climb up dirt roads before hitting Route 202 (yep, the same 202 that goes by the King of Prussia mall) and winding our way through small New England towns. My favorite was Ware, Massachusetts, whose sign read, “Known Nationwide as the Town that Can’t be Licked.”

I’m not sure whether I believe in God, but at one point, early in the ride, I found myself wondering: whoever created the earth, why in the world would they include so much up and down? Why couldn’t it all just be flat? You could get from Point A to Point B far easier.

And then we came to our first real view of the mountains. And I understood.

Long bike rides always provoke introspection for me, and this one was no different (particularly because we didn’t bring our IPods). This blog entry is already long enough, so I won’t go into the details. Mostly, though, I realized that the most important things in my life (family and friends aside) are beginning to feel like chores. School, which has always been a source of excitement and engagement, is overwhelming me, and training and racing are starting to feel obligatory, rather than the enjoyable and often passion-filled outlets they’ve been for as long as I can remember.

To quote an email I sent to a friend earlier this evening, I went into this year with the Ironman as my main focus, thinking that I’d like maybe to try a 12-hour adventure race toward the end of the season, and through circumstance I found myself attempting a 24-hour race (along with a couple twelve-hour races and a grueling 6-hour sprint race to kick off the year) Don’t get me wrong – I’ve loved these races and especially racing with Brent and the rest of the GOALS network, but I feel like the past few months have been more reactionary than deliberate for me, and I’m really struggling with that. I’m tired of feeling like I’m fighting my body, between the stomach issues from the last race and some breathing problems I was having earlier in the season, and I want to figure out a way to make myself an asset to a team, rather than someone who tags along and occasionally spots an orange flag when we’re already in its vicinity!

Basically, I’ve decided that in order to preserve my currently precarious mental state, I’m going to start actually focusing on the Ironman, as opposed to feeling like I’m going a mile a minute in ten different directions, and also to have the Ironman be the end of my season this year. Brent and Chris and I qualified for the adventure racing national championships earlier this spring (which felt like a total farce to me, given the circumstances, but still, we qualified), and I’ve been going back and forth about whether I want to compete there, not to mention train for a fall marathon… but I think I need to give myself a little bit of a breather. I try really hard to live my life intentionally, and between the frenetic-ness of the racing season and the ridiculousness of my school schedule this past year (or three), I’ve not been doing a very good job of that.

So, no nationals for me – luckily, Ali Bronsdon, a teammate and friend and adventure racer extraordinaire, will be filling my shoes, making it a far more fulfilling experience for the whole team, I’m sure.

To that end, as well, I’m going to put down my dissertation research while we’re traveling. This, for me, is actually a far bigger deal than it might seem. Initially I’d planned to try to get in a couple hours of work every morning before we started our day, but I’m realizing that this is both unnecessary and needlessly stressful. I’ll get it done in plenty of time, and I’ll enjoy the process plenty more – when I get home.

Not bad for half a day of riding, huh?

In total, we rode for just over 5 hours today, covered 61.18 miles and nearly 10,000 feet of elevation change. (Brent actually rode a bit faster, finishing in 4 hours and 45 minutes, pushing forward and then waiting for me to catch up every couple miles). There were about 6 miles of flat road on the entire course – as we entered Amherst for the last stretch home. The best part – this ride put the Wisconsin hills to shame.

Before setting out (and knowing anything about what was in store for me), I thought that maintaining an average pace of 12-15 miles per hour on my mountain bike over the 60 miles would make for a good ride. Once I saw the elevation, though, all considerations of pace went out the window as I sought only to make it back still standing.

In the end, the little computer attached to my handlebars – my lifeline on rides like this – read 11.98 average mph.

I’ll take it.

And on a totally unrelated note, today is my parents’ wedding anniversary. 32 years ago this morning, these two lovebirds – who’d known each other for all of 147 days – found themselves driving through Las Vegas on a cross-country road trip. The only sober people in line at the all-night justice of the peace (they couldn’t afford the all-night wedding chapel), they made it official in the eyes of the state of Nevada at 1 AM on July 10th. (Six weeks later they made it official in their parents’ eyes when they had the big Jewish ceremony).

Happy Anniversary, mom and dad!


3 responses to “Jewish Witches and the Town that Can’t be Licked

  1. marc July 11, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    love the blog abby!!keep the writing up, great stuff..and happy anniversary to your parents :-)-marc

  2. N.D. July 11, 2008 at 4:24 pm

    I can just picture you guys taking your future children on these educational trips, and giving them the history. Hah, sounds great. The hills were tricky, looks beautiful though!

  3. amy July 11, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    I love your parents wedding story. I think I’ve actually retold it a few times, hope you don’t mind!

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