I walked the Bay Circuit Trail in a series of day hikes during 2013 and 2014, starting at the ocean north of Boston and finishing at the ocean in Duxbury south of Boston. The trail is an estimated 230 miles long, but I covered almost twice that distance as I walked back to my starting point most days. Trail conditions will have changed since my walk into and though the city of Lowell, the most urban segment of the Bay Circuit Trail.
I had been walking along the south bank of the Merrimack River for about an hour, headed upstream on the Bay Circuit Trail (BCT) toward Lowell. The wide, slow-moving river was at my right shoulder, visible through a veil of trees. The path sometimes ran only a few feet from the river; in other places it bent uphill and inland, climbing steeper slopes or crossing wooden footbridges that spanned small feeder streams.
The boundary of land and water almost always offers variety, novelty, and scenery. This stretch of trail was no exception, especially on a sunny, comfortable early autumn day. I was not alone this Sunday morning. Along the way I encountered a few dog-walkers, runners, and a crew of teen-agers at work, more or less, building steps on a steep section of trail. But the Merrimack’s history as a working river was not long out of view or out of mind. As I walked out of the last of the Andover Village Improvement Society’s (AVIS) many conservation “reservations” strung along the BCT, from one corner of the town to the other, I crossed an unmarked boundary into the town of Tewksbury—a line on a map that also represented passage into another county, Middlesex, the terrain of my own upbringing a half century earlier.
Tewksbury puts the river to consequential use. I stepped out of the woods behind a small, blocky building identified on the map as the Tewksbury Pumping Station, part of the infrastructural apparatus that collects and treats water from the Merrimack for use by the town’s residents. Al French, who had put me up for the night and dropped me at the trailhead in the morning, warned that the building and access road would be plastered with “No Trespassing” signs and other ominous commandments. “Ignore them,” he advised. For more than twenty years, Al had worked as chair of the Bay Circuit Alliance, the small organization of volunteers who had succeeded in establishing the trail on the ground; I had every reason to rely on his guidance. In fact, there were no such signs visible from the backside of the building, but there were plenty at the locked steel gate I skirted as I walked up the long, wide access road that led to River Road. One sign also informed me that I was under video surveillance. I remained on my best behavior.
Immediately upstream from the pumping station, while I spent my Sunday taking a hike, others were enjoying their outdoor recreation on the greens and fairways of the Trull Brook Golf Course. The club members understandably prefer to keep the riverside course to themselves during golf season, when trail walkers are shunted along the roads bounding the property. (The club allows trail users to traverse the course during the winter.) So I walked up the rather stark access road, then along busy River Road, and past the golf course clubhouse and parking lots, full today. I turned back towards the river, following a newly routed link of the BCT through St. Mary’s Cemetery. A handful of other folks were out and about on the sprawling, well-maintained graveyard. I felt slightly furtive and uneasy, enjoying my brief passage among the deceased, so I maintained a brisk, purposeful pace along an edge of this solemn landscape. I followed white blazes past the Quonset hut that served as the cemetery’s maintenance shed, then onto an old woods road leading back to the river. As I turned left again, headed upstream, I entered an increasingly dense, more populated environment. Scooting along the neatly landscaped edge of a relatively new condominium complex, I popped out at the river-bounded end of Burnham Street. I had arrived in Lowell.
From here the rest of the walk into the center of the city follows what the BCT trail directions matter-of-factly describe as the “sewer interceptor trail.” On each of my day hikes along the 200-plus-mile Bay Circuit Trail, I carried and relied upon one of the sixteen maps, with accompanying trail descriptions, created by the Bay Circuit Alliance. The trail descriptions, I had learned, were generally accurate—but I had also discovered that their use demanded a certain degree of skepticism and interpretation.
“Don’t let the name fool you,” read the passage for this section of trail. “This public path of large boulders and gravel is a scenic 2-mile walk along the south side of the Merrimack River. It serves as the BCT route and the Merrimack River Trail route. Though not uniformly maintained and in places suffering from encroachment from neighbors, it is an interesting walk from which to observe the river.”
The sewer interceptor route into Lowell, as predicted, did prove to be an “interesting walk.” When the publicly funded sewer was constructed, Al had explained, the route had been reserved as a public right of way, intentionally designed with a flat surface to accommodate walkers. But Lowell’s officials have apparently done little to maintain or promote the facility as a public walking path. In fact, there is little evidence at all that the sewer inceptor is actually a trail or a public way. There are no blazes or signs indicating the route, for instance, nor, at least on the day of my sojourn, any indication that other walkers had recently passed this way. Immediately after Burnham Road, the wide surface, perhaps twelve feet across, was thick with brush and weeds growing through the cracks between large stone slabs; a riprap slope of boulders descended to the river. And the substantial stone and concrete structure, the purpose of which is occasionally disclosed by the powerful aroma emanating from the material it is apparently intercepting, passed immediately along the backyards of the houses strung along the river, crossing lots perhaps 75 to 100 feet wide. Every property owner uses the area differently, variously asserting dominion over their abutting span of the nominally public way. Some have erected fences, parallel to the route, that prevent access to the trail from nearby streets. Others have placed chairs, grills, piles of lumber, compost heaps, boats, and religious or whimsical statuary directly in the right of way. Some neatly mow and weed the vegetation; others ignore it. Every hundred feet or so I traversed a subtly different environment, varying from the meticulously neat to the totally neglected and chaotic. I pass directly in front of one startled, older Asian woman enjoying her little garden gazebo and talking on her cell phone in a language incomprehensible to me; but I kept my head down and moved quickly along. In some areas, especially along stretches where there aren’t houses, the vegetation grows thick. In the midst of this jungle, my hiking poles were more a hindrance than a help. At one point I find myself enmeshed in shoulder-high bushes behind the scruffiest, most ramshackle house I’d yet encountered along this stretch. I wonder whether my progress toward Lowell has come to a halt on top of a sewer pipe.
I’ve walked and hiked a lot of places by myself, usually without undue fear or dangerous incident. But I nurture one underlying, not altogether rational anxiety that rarely lets up its grip: I’m afraid of dogs. And dogs, of course, sense my fear. Thoreau frequently encountered dogs during his own epic walks. But, at least by his own account, he could quiet any ferocious cur. “When a dog runs at you,” he confidently proposed, “whistle for him.” I do not possess either Thoreau’s whistling gift or his equanimity. Wrestling with the sumac, burdock, and what I assumed to be particularly toxic poison ivy surrounding my unprotected legs, I guessed that the fenced-off hovel barely visible through the weeds would be the likely habitat of the fiercest of mongrels. And sure enough, as I continued my battle with the underbrush, several dogs, invisible to me but very nearby—I instantly conjured in imagination a pack of brindled, slavering hounds, prowling for their Sunday brunch—began to bark and growl. I had arrived at a moment of truth: go forward or retreat. The adrenaline-inducing canine cacophony impelled me to barge quickly ahead through the brush, from which I emerged covered with burs and scratches. I kept moving, even as I glanced over my shoulder to see if the crazed beasts were at my heels. But the yapping and snarling swiftly subsided; the pacific Sunday atmosphere re-emerged. I stopped to strip myself of the coat of burs in which I’d been covered and to inspect the scratches now decorating my legs and arms. Catching my breath, I resumed my progress into Lowell.
As I approached the center of the city, the residential neighborhoods next to which I’d been walking gradually gave way to older buildings reflecting Lowell’s industrial origins and heritage. The river began to bend north; the rapids and riffles of its rocky bed, at the lower of the several falls which had provided the power-generating rationale for the city’s development in the early nineteenth century, revealed a swifter current. Ahead I could glimpse yet more massive old factory buildings and the easternmost of the several bridges spanning the Merrimack in Lowell.
The way ahead immediately beside the river did indeed appear scary, though, so I climbed the incline and found the street and the nearby intersection with Stackpole Street, which parallels the river for most of the way into downtown Lowell. At the top of the slope, stopping for a rest on the sturdy guardrail, I said hello to a young man in a Boston Celtics jacket out walking his big old bulldog, which, eying me lugubriously, appeared to have seen more vigorous days. These two local patrollers offered no sign of alarm about the pack-wearing, stick-wielding, bloodied, aging stranger who had just clambered over the guardrail from the steep riverbank below.
Stackpole Street is closely lined with a motley variety of older but not ancient residences in various states of repair. Less than half a mile along, I reach Nesmith Street, a busy thoroughfare that crosses the river immediately to my right on the Hunts Falls Bridge. I continue along Stackpole, which passes through the dense complex of older institutional buildings comprising a campus of Lowell General Hospital. The variety of architectural styles and vintages represented by these buildings does not conceal the obviously Catholic heritage of the facility, which had operated for well over a century as St. John’s Hospital. Indeed, a massive granite edifice, the Immaculate Conception Church, buttresses the building compound.
I was in the heart of the city now. In front of me loomed the dull, vast backside of the Lowell Memorial Auditorium, itself a classic of neoclassical civic architecture, decorated and surrounded with plaques, stone memorials, flagpoles, and engravings honoring Lowell’s veterans from war after war. I follow a walkway between the auditorium and the Concord River, which flows into the Merrimack at this point. The hydraulic logic of Lowell’s industrial origins quickly comes into focus.
The streets of downtown Lowell were quiet and nearly empty on this sunny early autumn afternoon. I made my way down Merrimack Street, across the Concord River, and along one of the “canalways” that snake through the Lowell National Historical Park. I stop to eat my lunch at my destination for the day, the Jack Kerouac Commemorative, a somewhat unlikely but peculiarly poignant shrine to Lowell’s best-known—if not universally admired—author. Occupying one end of the rectangular Eastern Canal Park, the Kerouac Commemorative is an impressive if austere arrangement of eight polished, red-hued granite columns, inscribed with lengthy passages from Kerouac’s books. The symmetrically arranged columns, I later learned, are arrayed in a conjoined cross and circle, intended by sculptor Ben Woitena to represent both the Catholic and Buddhist influences on Kerouac’s writing. “Conceptually, the park is structured in the form of a mandala; that is, a diagram of symbolic geometric arrangements designed to make clear the relationship between the quoted texts and the visuals images which inspire them,” Woitena has explained. “The underlying principle of the mandala is a series of radiating squares enclosing a circle.”
A less sophisticated observer of Woitena’s careful arrangement of inscribed granite pillars might also wonder about the religious tradition and influence suggested by Stonehenge. As I sat on one of the stone benches set among the columns, a young couple took each other’s picture and read Kerouac’s inscribed words from On the Road and his several novels set in Lowell. A small group of middle-aged men sat on the edge of the park, brown paper bags in hand, apparently celebrating Kerouac’s memory by emulating his own bibulous habits.
In fact, when the park and Kerouac memorial were dedicated in 1988, some Lowell officials and residents were more than a little ambivalent about so prominently celebrating their own bad boy of American literature. Kerouac had died an unhappy 47-year-old alcoholic less than twenty years earlier. His most popular works vividly described binges of drinking, drug-taking, and sexual revelry that both documented and possibly inspired a dramatic transformation in mid-century American social norms. When the Lowell City Council was asked to approve erection of the memorial, the sole dissenting council member, who confessed that he was not familiar with Kerouac’s writing, worried that an affirmative vote might be interpreted as the city’s endorsement of the writer’s “heavy drinking and unconventional living arrangements,” as an Associated Press reporter described the discussion. “I’m not saying anything about his writing, but what we would be doing is glorifying his lifestyle,” council member Brendan Fleming suggested in defending his dissenting vote. “I feel he should not be used as a model for our children.”
In the 1980s, Lowell was a struggling city. Its once mighty textile industry had withered, and while the era’s high-tech boom had benefited many areas of Massachusetts, even Lowell’s own beacon of the computer industry, Wang Laboratories, had begun to falter in that decade, finally declaring bankruptcy in 1992. Lowell’s political and civic leaders had settled upon marketing the city’s industrial history as the basis of its economic and cultural renewal. Another native son, Paul Tsongas, had served as both a U.S. Congressman and then Senator during the 1970s and 1980s, and Tsongas had been instrumental in winning political and financial support for the establishment of the Lowell National Historical Park in 1978. So creation of the Kerouac Commemorative as a prominent feature within the federal urban park was entirely consistent with the city’s efforts to exploit its cultural and historical heritage. Tsongas, who had retired from the Senate in 1984 for health reasons, attended the 1988 dedication of the Kerouac Commemorative. Son of a Lowell dry-cleaner, Tsongas had been a successful politician since his own days as a young member of the City Council, but his sometimes mordant sense of humor was not always appreciated or understood by his constituents. Speaking at the dedication, Tsongas wondered whether Kerouac, whose literary reputation was based on his challenges to conventional lifestyles and authority, might have been let down that only one city council member opposed the memorial. “I felt that Jack Kerouac would have preferred a 5 to 4 vote,” Tsongas jested, according to one observer.
My visit to Kerouac’s Commemorative impelled me to read some of his novels about his Lowell childhood and youth in the 1920s and 1930s. In Visions of Gerard, Dr. Sax, and Maggie Cassidy, for example, Kerouac’s evocative if sometimes uneven prose revealed a deep, sensitive connection to his hardscrabble hometown along the banks of the Merrimack. Kerouac, chronicler of cross-country dissipation, was a sentimental softy when it came to Lowell. But he had genuine literary talent, which enabled him to recreate vividly and movingly the economically struggling, religion-saturated community he had experienced as a child and adolescent. As it happened, I had grown up not so far away, a generation later, in the landscape encompassed by the watershed of the same river.
A dedicated cadre of enthusiasts and scholars organizes an annual weekend-long “Celebrate Kerouac Festival!” each October. (“Everybody goes home in October,” Kerouac wrote in On the Road. After his death, he was buried in his hometown in October, 1969.) Lowell’s bars and pubs are favored venues for many of the festival’s events, which tend more toward readings, musical concerts, and walks than lectures or academic papers. At the festival celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kerouac Commemorative and the 50th anniversary of Visions of Gerard, I joined an all-day walk through the French-Canadian working class neighborhoods of Pawtucketville and Centralville where Kerouac had grown up in the 1920s and 1930s. We traipsed by the ten or so houses and apartment houses where the Kerouacs had lived, as they tried to stay a step ahead of the landlord. At the St. Louis Elementary School, the brick parochial school Kerouac had attended with his saintly, short-lived older brother Gerard, we sat in one of the classrooms as Roger Brunelle, a former teacher and Kerouac aficionado who had attended the same school in the early 1940s, read with genuine emotion passages from Kerouac’s Lowell books. Brunelle described with immediacy the sometimes claustrophobic intensity of the French-speaking classrooms and neighborhoods, where the priests and nuns governed with strict control, confident that they were acting with God’s authority.
Later in the day, the band of tramping Kerouac pilgrims had dwindled from twenty or so to four, including the garrulous trip leader Bill Walsh, another Lowell native and retired teacher, who had managed to talk almost non-stop, though entertainingly, throughout our six-hour tour. On our return swing back to the city center from the far frontiers of Kerouac country at the Merrimack’s upstream falls, we stopped at the remarkable Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes and accompanying Stations of the Cross behind the former Franco-American Orphanage. This century-old replica of the original shrine at Lourdes still attracts penitents and supplicants. As a boy, Kerouac had accompanied his mother here frequently, on their own walking circuits of the city. The garish statuary, crosses, and other icons on display at the Grotto could only have stimulated and unsettled the imagination of a thoughtful, searching youngster like Kerouac. The Lowell depicted in his writings is both a gritty and a fantastical place. Kerouac’s relatively short life was productive but also troubled. He drank himself to death. His wake took place at the Archambault Funeral Home immediately adjacent to the Grotto. Now Jack Kerouac is a Lowell tourist attraction.
The Bay Circuit Alliance has not yet located or dedicated an official route for the trail southward out of downtown Lowell. A walker seeking to link to the resumption of the official route, at the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail near the Chelmsford town line, must improvise a course down city streets, along the short completed sections of a planned Concord River greenway, across city parks, and through cemeteries, with which Lowell is amply supplied. On my trek out of the city, I made sure to stop at Kerouac’s grave in the Edson Cemetery. The cemetery was quiet on this fall afternoon, except for a few groundskeepers at work. At the National Historical Park’s visitor center I had picked up a brochure describing Kerouac sites, which provided a detailed map of the grave’s location. After entering the cemetery’s gate on Gorham Street, though, I stopped first to examine the impressive bronze monument memorializing Passaconaway, legendary chief of the Pennacooks, the tribe that once held sway over much of the watershed of the lower Merrimack River. One of the several bronze plaques on the stone pedestal supporting the towering statue provided a brief biography: “Great Warrior and Friend of the White Man / Embraced Christianity / Died at the age of 122 / Known as Aspinquid—the Indian Saint.” The inscription added that the statue was “Property of Improved Order of Red Men of Massachusetts.”
A few small talismans—stones and pieces of wood—were arranged neatly at the base of the monument. Another small plaque explained that the monument had been renovated by the students of the “Metal Fabrication Shop” of the Greater Lowell Technical High School; the date inscribed was June 6, 2010. The students had done a good job. The monument was in fine shape. Passaconaway loomed impressively over the cemetery, a sentinel for those buried and remembered there. He wears a headdress, a loin cloth, and holds a spear, gazing permanently eastward over and beyond this southern neighborhood of Lowell. It was not my business to speak for Jack Kerouac, who did quite a good job speaking for himself, but I could imagine that he might be pleased that his final resting place was monitored perpetually by the unblinking eye of the virtuous, improbably long-lived former ruler of Lowell’s territory.
No one else was at Kerouac’s grave when I found the small stone slab, set flush to the ground. But it is obviously visited regularly, a shrine for devotees. Neatly arranged around the perimeter of the stone are offerings and artifacts left by previous visitors: a few pens and pencils, and an array of empty bottles—Taylor’s port wine, a nip of Jack Daniel’s, Yuengling beer.
I have seen a photograph of a trio of Kerouac’s artistic admirers who made their own pilgrimage to the grave in 1975. That year, Bob Dylan was leading his Rolling Thunder Revue, a freewheeling musical tour through smaller New England cities, including Lowell. Among the members of the stimulant-saturated tour were poet Allen Ginsberg, a longtime friend of Kerouac’s, and the then-young playwright Sam Shepard, invited along by Dylan to fashion a script for the movie he hoped to create during the tour. Dylan and Ginsberg sat cross-legged beside the grave, Ginsberg with his harmonium, Dylan playing his guitar. Ginsberg, by Shepard’s account, read poems from his late friend’s book Mexican City Blues and quoted from a dark Shakespeare sonnet admired by Kerouac: “How like a winter hath my absence been. . . . What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen! / What old December’’s bareness everywhere!” Ginsberg tried to prod the taciturn Dylan to speculate on his own posthumous arrangements. “Unmarked grave,” the singer mumbled.
The inscription on Kerouac’s modest stone is terse:
JOHN L. KEROUAC
Mar. 12, 1922—Oct. 21, 1969
—HE HONORED LIFE—
STELLA HIS WIFE
NOV. 11, 1918—FEB. 10, 1990
“Ti Jean” (“Little John”) was the nickname used by Kerouac’s family during his youth. He had married his third wife, Stella Sampas, sister of one of his oldest Lowell friends, only a few years before his death. Whatever his failings and frustrations, Kerouac, in the end, did not turn his back on Lowell.
For my part, of course, this graveyard sojourn was simply a stop along the way. “He knew the road would get more interesting, especially ahead, always ahead,” wrote Kerouac in On the Road, his most popular book. He put those words into the mouth of his fictional alter ego, Sal Paradise, during the long drive deep into Mexico that represents the climactic finale of the book’s several continent-crossing journeys. Paradise was describing the feverish state of mind of Dean Moriarty, counterpart of Kerouac’s real-life friend Neal Cassady, as he “drove like a fiend and never rested.” Sal Paradise’s phrase had been my own walking mantra as I followed the arc of the Bay Circuit, on foot and at a much less frenetic pace than Kerouac’s own cross-country quest. Like Sal Paradise and Jack Kerouac, at least before he finally came to rest here at Edson Cemetery, I had to keep moving—“ahead, always ahead.”♦