Sunday, August 7, 2011

Life at 3.5 MPH

I did something I've wanted to do for a while on Saturday: I walked from my house in downtown Lowell to my family's house on the far end of Tyngsboro. Considering I've done the 20-mile Walk for Hunger a few times, this 10 mile "suburban hike" was a time sink without too clear of a purpose, but not a particularly challenging exercise physically. I had also considered walking to Lowell from Boston one day to mimic the path of Lowell's original Irish canal workers, but that'll have to wait...until likely never.

It took me about three hours and 15 minutes on a fairly good day weather wise, and I only stopped to sit down once for lunch (and another stop for coffee to go of course!) I figure then I actually walked for 2 hours and 45 minutes, or, I made a bit better than 3.5 MPH on average. Google's walking directions seem to estimate time based on a pace of 3 MPH, so, it is true: us New Englanders walk fast!

However, I did it, aside from "just because", because I wanted to look at a few things. Primarily, I wanted to see how safe the route was on foot, how bikeable it'd be (I just got a bike!), and how many of these places I'd never been on foot looked at 1/10 the normal speed. I also wanted to check out the time/space compression caused by the automobile: how far apart are things *really*?


I only took a few pictures, but because my Google Pedometer came up with some completely crazy numbers for how far the walk was (15 miles, or 50% off...), and elevation gained and lost (I somehow went 150 feet below sea level and ended up at over 1,000 feet above, with a total elevation gained of a good mile! I'm blaming solar flares on the GPS failure), I'm going to use my photos and Google Maps as timestamps for the trip. I started about 10:30 and was done by 1:45.

End of hour 1: North Chelmsford, a Live Smart Community
Southwell Woolen Mill: From when companies cared enough about their communities to put their names in stone (literally).
I had read in the past that people used to walk from North Chelmsford into Lowell for movies, etc. It seems to be an often-forgotten fact that streetcars were not exactly affordable to many in the working class, or, in this case, adolescents and young adults. It took me an hour, including a stop at Dunks, to make the three miles from downtown to North Chelmsford. Vinal Square of course is over 3/4 of a mile beyond this. So, people were sinking more time than a movie actually plays for walking to and from the movies. Things you can do in an hour by car: Drive from Lowell to Portsmouth, NH. This stretch of road, around the Lowell line, presented me with the first missing sidewalk. However, the very wide shoulders made it a reasonably pleasant walk. It was also fairly flat and had good sight lines and reasonably-speeded traffic, so I bet it's an easy bike ride as well.

Welcome to Tyngsboro! You'll be back in Chelmsford shortly, don't worry. Then Tyngsboro, then Westford, then Chelmsford...

End of Hour 2: This is the overpass separating Wesford from Tyngsboro. It's actually more of a haunted pigeon dungeon. Of course, there are no signs along this road ever mentioning you are in Westford.
The second hour (another three miles) was a long walk from Vinal Square and into Tyngsboro's Flint's Corner. Here was the least pedestrian friendly part of my trip, and with a horrible excuse: There is no crosswalk across Middlesex Rd (3A) in Vinal Square, so I decided to walk up it a bit until I got to a cut-through I know over to Dunstable Road, which connects Vinal Square and Flint's Corner. 3A is a 40 MPH road with a decent concentration of businesses and little stores. I even passed a big condo community yard sale. There are no sidewalks (except a few appendages seemingly installed at random [I hate Letter of the Law construction]), no shoulder, and, in fact, there are often bushes growing out into the roadway. Since the proper way to walk on a street with no sidewalks is facing traffic, this means all of a sudden you are staring at a bush that's hiding cars. You need to step out further into the roadway to see around said bush...not smart. Additionally, all the concrete and few mature trees plus the high speed of traffic make this a very unpleasant place to be. This all makes this a bad place for bicycles as well, and it's as simple as a little maintenance on the Chelmsford Highway Department's part to clear out the brush and maybe plant a few trees. Then again, this is a state highway, so it's not Chelmsford's job to maintain it. Once I found my way back to Dunstable Road, except for what appeared to be poison ivy in some spots, this was a nice enough place to be on foot. Lower traffic counts at lower speeds, well shaded, good sight lines, etc. At the end of this section, I stopped at Flint's Corner Pizza for a sub and a Gatorade, and made the last 1/3 of the trip.

A Tyngsboro architectural landmark: The "I ♥" stone house. Corner of  Westford Rd and Chestnut Street. Note the letters in the porch-thing on the left. The story is something about it never being finished, what it was supposed to say. In fact, it is said the whole building should've been stone, but the money ran out, and the wooden house we have today was built instead.
From here, continuing up Westford Road, I passed the last traffic light on the trip at the intersection of Swan Rd. This intersection was reconfigured within the last ten years or so with the construction of the new Tyngsboro Elementary School. If it hadn't been for this improvement, sidewalks, and a lighted crosswalk, this intersection might've been one of the worst parts of the trip. Instead, things were pretty easy up through where the sidewalk ends. From here on in, up Chestnut Road and onto Scribner, the road narrows considerably, large trees, cliffs, and old stone walls are right against the road, and sight lines fall to a few seconds at best at 30 MPH (posted, never mind what people actually do!). Fortunately, the majority of the traffic was going the same direction as me, so, the opposite side of the road. There are certainly places here where I was praying a car wouldn't come flying around a corner, because I'd have no way to get out of the road. Tyngsboro should do something about this. At the same time, it amazed me how far you could go between seeing cars, whereas they seem to be everywhere when driving. Part of that, again, was probably just luck with the time of the day.

It was at this last mile or two that I started to get tired and decided that this wouldn't be a pleasant bike ride. Aside from the sight line issues, lack of a shoulder, and the poor condition of the edges of the road which could easily throw you from a bike, something occurred to me that I never thought about before: Lowell is at 30 meters above sea level. Vinal Square is at about 40 meters. Flint's Corner, at 50. That's 20 meters, or about 80 feet, elevation gained over six and a half miles or so. Another 10 meters is gained in the next mile by the beginning of Chestnut road, and another 50(!) in the next mile and a half over the length of Chestnut road and up Scribner to near the intersection of Groton Rd where I turned off. No wonder it was such a tiring stretch!

Suddenly, it was clear to me why there were so few old houses out here, and why the automobile, to which these changes in elevation are insignificant, was required to populate this part of town. The old Connell farmhouse on Groton Road is the only "old" house I can think of after the farmhouse on Westford Road about halfway between Swan and Chestnut. Biking up these grades would be slow-going and dangerous with cars unable to see you around corners. Trying to hump this road 100 years ago, before it was paved, with something to bring to market or something to bring home would've been incredibly daunting. In the winter, it'd probably be nearly impossible, even with a horse and cart.

Kind of makes you understand why they say before the Model T, few people ever traveled more than five miles from home. As I finished up the trip, it occurred to me that I had walked many times from downtown all the way out to Middlesex Village, and I had been in Vinal Square on foot before as well. However, until I got to within a mile of my family's house, I had never set foot on the roads. They aren't exactly pleasant or safe to walk on much of the day, and there is also nowhere to walk to unless it is for pleasure. The entire western part of Tyngsboro is given over to private houses, save a fire station. I guess in the end, Tyngsboro should zone for a small corner store and maybe a small playground somewhere along Scribner Road. People need to get out of their houses and use their legs, which means they need attractive and safe roads to walk along and destinations to walk to. It's nice to be out there, see all the greenery, the well-maintained colonial-revivals, the people doing yard work, etc. It shouldn't involve being afraid of cars.

All in all, it was good physical exercise and a decent mental exercise, but I won't be doing that again! Just think: On a modern interstate, I could drive all the way from Lowell to Albany, NY in the time it took to walk to just shy of Groton, and I could do the drive in much more harrowing weather conditions, and be a lot less tired at the end!


  1. Run for office, don't run. what ever you do please do not stop doing what you do. :)

  2. Corey -- The Boston-to-Lowell idea sounds awesome. If you can be talked into it next year, I'm your post went on, you seemed less and less excited about the prospect of future long walks, but I'm thinking once the memory of this starts to fade by next spring, I can at least try twisting your arm on this one..

  3. Hey! Great to hear from you, how's it going out there? Yeah, I might be able to be convinced into it, but it'd be a real project:,-71.054592&spn=0.050531,0.077162&sll=42.49681,-71.18801&sspn=0.403498,0.617294&geocode=FTSihgIdHKzD-yk1_fGl73DjiTFIQBIdfKpzcg%3BFdGIigIdNM2_-yk_TSziSaTjiTFrllJ_fvXl3Q&dirflg=w&t=h&z=14

    One of the worst things about it (other than it being 25 miles and literally taking all day!) is finding a reasonable route the closer you get to Charlestown.