I am the leader. I ride the first bike because I am the father, and I will handle any of the problems that may arise. An out-of-control car? I will take the brunt of the collision. A sudden dip in the topography, a patch of sand, a stone wall? I will meet the trouble first because my daughter is only five years old and this is her first bike and the training wheels have not been removed for very long and...no, this is not exactly the truth.
My daughter is 17 years old. She rides a bike very well. I am the leader because I don't know what else to be. I suddenly am the father of a young woman.
"Why do you keep looking back at me?" she asks.
"Just checking," I say.
"Well, I'm all right," she says. "Just watch the road."
This is the summer between her junior and senior years in high school. She was born about a week ago, and I think I remember taking her to kindergarten for the first time last Thursday. There was a nervousness about a junior high school dance just yesterday. Seventeen years old? A senior? I am the victim of some mad prank in time-lapse photography. I finished building that three-foot-tall green dollhouse only last night, wallpapering the rooms with pieces cut from a fat sample book. Why has a covering of dust suddenly appeared on the roof?
The last time I was on Martha's Vineyard, my daughter was not born. Her brother, Leigh Alan, who now goes to college (her brother goes to college?), was only a year old. There was a tidy clapboard motel on the edge of Edgartown that catered to young families. The motel featured a swimming pool and a kiddie pool and a set of big iron swings that looked very dangerous at the time. Who would let a kid ride on those swings? I remember picking up a killer sunburn in approximately 35 minutes, sitting by the kiddie pool, on guard against all danger.
"That motel we passed...," I say.
"I know, I know, you were there when my brother was a year old," she says. "You told me this three times already. You picked up a sunburn in 35 minutes. Sitting by the kiddie pool. The swings are still there. Isn't it amazing?"
Everything is amazing. Edgartown has not changed. Martha's Vineyard has not changed. A triangular-shaped island, 22 miles long and nearly nine miles wide, Martha's Vineyard sits off the shoulder of Cape Cod, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, removed from the modern commerce of the mainland by a 45-minute ride on a ferryboat from Woods Hole, Mass. There is still a Disney sort of perfection to the island on a summer's day. Looking for New England? Disembark from the ferry at Vineyard Haven, with the cars and the tourists and the hubbub, and disappear into the fantasy, which also is reality. The boats in the harbor are actual fishing boats, used every day by actual fishermen. The lobster pots collect actual lobsters. The various restaurants in the six Vineyard towns sell the lobsters, with actual college students waiting on tables, taking the orders with actual smiles.
I am told that in the winter the island can be a bleak outpost, the days gray and unemployment high among the 12,000 year-round residents. The summer is much different. Shutters are opened. Plywood panels are removed from storefront windows. The population is increased by a multiple of five or six. Money is spent as if it has just been invented.
"John Belushi is buried here," I say. "It seems the perfect place for him...."
"You told me this on the boat," my daughter says. "His grave is in Tisbury, right? His wife still lives here. Right? Carry Simon lives here. Walter Cronkite. Spike Lee has a place in Oak Bluffs. You gave me the entire story. I know, I know. That movie Jaws was filmed here. You can stop pointing out scenes, because I never saw Jaws. I was too young when it came out. You said I'd be scared." You never saw Jaws? I say to myself. Didn't it winsome Academy Awards just this year?
The idea of this trip is that we ride the bikes, spend three days traveling together. The car is parked in a lot on the mainland. The only means of transportation we use are biking and walking. The weather, late in August, finally is terrific after a cool and rainy summer. We have T-shirts for the days and sweatshirts for the nights, shorts and sandals and sneakers and that's it. There is no schedule. There are no lessons for her, no assignments for me except writing this story. We can pedal and talk. We can swim and sunbathe and talk. Talk. It is a vacation luxury.
Neither of us is what you would call a cycling enthusiast. We own sturdy, fat-tired bikes with a mystifying assortment of 15 gears. I ride maybe a dozen times a year, half of these times when my car is being serviced. My daughter rides more, out of necessity. She has no car of her own and sometimes needs a way to travel to her part-time job at a bakery or to her music lessons. That is the scope of our cycling. We have done no special training for this trip except lifting the bikes on and off the rack on the back of the car. I suppose we would be considered novices, but I would call us normal tourist riders.
"Is this supposed to be a sports story?" my daughter asks. "What's the sports story here? That we're riding the bikes?"
"I guess," I say. "I suppose this is as much a sport as, say, working out on a machine in some gym somewhere, as much a sport, maybe, as going skiing with friends. It's physical. If you took it to another level, rode in some races, then it definitely would be a sport, because there would be competition and standings and trophies and all the rest. Here, I suppose I would call it a participation sport."
"What about walking to the store for the morning newspaper?" she says. "That's physical. Is that a participation sport? What about painting a house? Mowing a lawn? Are those sports? Little kids ride their Big Wheels. Is that a sport, riding Big Wheels?"
"Sport," I say. "Everything is sport. Walking, mowing, eating, thinking. Picking up your room is a sport. You have a chance to be in the Hall of Fame for Picking Up Rooms. It will be a long shot, but you have a chance if you start practicing as soon as you are home. Is that fair enough? Riding bikes is a sport."
We ride everywhere. Our base is Edgartown, at the Harbor View Hotel. The town is an old whaling village, the 19th-century homes of the captains preserved and almost venerated, the ghosts of dour women patrolling the many widow's walks in veils, eyes turned toward the sea in search of absent men. The streets are narrow, the sidewalks cobblestone. The tourist crush overwhelms the scene, well-dressed families back from the beach and in search of the perfect T-shirt or pizza.
Our grand in-town adventure is a narrow brush with an oncoming Ben and Jerry's truck that is delivering ice cream to the populace. We do not see the truck. The driver does not see us. There is a three-way squeal of brakes at the last possible moment. My daughter says it would have been a perfect yuppie death, the two of us hit by a Ben and Jerry's designer icecream truck in the midst of a yuppie town, and we would have been taken directly to yuppie heaven. I wonder how such cynicism is borne by someone so young. She says she learned it from me.
The prettiest trip is a six-mile ride along the coast to Oak Bluffs. A paved bike path takes us past the long state beach to a town of totally different character from Edgartown's. In the path is a menagerie of riders ranging from professional-looking racers who fly past with a careful warning—"Left!"—to slow-moving families with little children riding in carts attached to the backs of the bicycles. At any point there is a place to stop, spread a blanket and enjoy the sun. On our trip we see hundreds of riders, more bicycles than we see cars on the adjacent road.
Oak Bluffs is Victorian and funky. It was built mainly in the 19th century by Methodists. The houses feature ornate gingerbread trim on their porches and eaves, and many are painted in pastels. The area has long been a vacation spot for affluent African-Americans, who call the local stretch of beach the Inkwell. One of the oldest merry-go-rounds in America is in town. It is a historic preservation that actually works. I tell my daughter that I remember riding on the horses with her brother when he was a baby. She says I have told her this already. I almost fell off reaching for the brass ring. That is the punch line. Hilarious.
Other trips take us to the beach at Katama, to the Wampanoag reservation at Gay Head and to the center of the island, where only the sea air tells you that water is not far away. We also take a small ferry across a channel to Chappaquiddick Island, the site of Senator Ted Kennedy's automobile accident in 1969. This is probably the most historic spot in the area, where a presidential future died along with young Mary Jo Kopechne. I remember my last visit, not long after the accident. A wonderful beach was on the other side of the Dike Bridge, where the tragedy occurred. We would go to the beach every day, and every day tourists would gather, re-creating the accident. How did Kennedy's car go off the bridge? How did Kopechne drown in such shallow water? When my daughter and I arrive, I am surprised to see that there are three groups of tourists still asking the same questions. Will this never stop? I also am surprised to see that the bridge has been closed. A large fence bars passage.
"You should see the beach on the other side," I tell my daughter. "It's the best on the island. At least as I remember it."
"But what are you going to do?" she says. "It's closed now. Gone. To go to the beach, we're going to have to go back to Edgartown, then on the road to Oak Bluffs."
We have brought our towels in anticipation of the beach, and we keep them around our necks as we pedal back. This ride on top of all the other rides seems to be a bit too much for me. I feel a pain in my backside, pain in my thighs, pain in my calves. Almost without noticing, I am not the leader anymore. I am laboring, and my daughter has moved to the front.
I watch her as I clunk along. She is confident. She is strong, balanced evenly on the bike, hair flying behind her. Danger? She can handle danger. A construction truck rides past. It contains two young guys, and one of them whistles. My daughter rides straight ahead as I glare into the cab. Next summer at this time she will be busy, preparing to leave for some college, and in the summers after that, who knows what she will be doing? She will be in control. My daughter, Robin. The young woman.
How did this happen? I still am not sure. I simply keep pedaling.
The author began his visit to Martha's Vineyard as the leader of the pack, pedaling past the island's traditional shingled houses and the rugged cliffs at Gay Head, but by the end of the three-day tour, daughter led Dad.
Edgartown retains much of the charm of its heyday as a whaling port.