On a Saturday in August, Laurie and I took Louise to college in Massachusetts for freshman registration. My last glimpse of her was sitting in a classroom six hours later with a dozen fresh-faced students taking the next step of their journeys. She was radiant (as was I). We had lunch with her seven days later, when I was able to have a proper boo-hoo of joy. In between, we did this.
Perhaps it’s no accident that of the four nights Laurie and I spent biking around Lake Champlain, our two nights in Vermont were as guests of cyclists through www.warmshowers.org.
The B&Bs on the New York side were nice enough. But in Vermont we found an emerging culture: communitarian, Green, human-oriented, buy-local. The state boasts of its farming best-practices – the “Dairy of Distinction” signs in front of modest-size farms (and milk from Monument Dairy that is to die for) and small-scale gardens with vegetables apparently grown in rotation (and in greenhouses). Small-production businesses. Artisans and artists. We encountered many who moved here for the biking (or, like first-night hosts Ed and Mary, met on a www.vbt.com tour) and a thriving promotion group, www.LocalMotion.org. Whereas.
New York, along the upper-Champlain, has not recovered from a long-passed era. Industrial New England has died, and with it the jobs and lifestyles that created middle-class prosperity. Americans once vacationed in cabins by the lake; now they fly elsewhere. But the evidence of the former style remains in declining hamlets by the shore. Inland, at Keene Valley, a village in the Adirondacks where we spent our fourth night, a small town struggles to survive. An attractive flyer solicits immigrants by noting culture, schools, security, and availability of the Internet – but it has no cell service. As we biked toward Crown Point, a narrow channel across the lake, we passed a closed general store with a sign in the window: “We’ve moved to Vermont.”
We started our tour near Middlebury, a charming town whose college sits on a ridgeline above it. Following one of the many bike routes on the www.LakeChamplainBikeways.org map, we set northwest toward the lake, crossing several ridges over 30 miles until we hit the bike path that runs along the shore through Burlington, a town that reminded me of a much smaller Seattle, with water on the west across from the dramatic horizon formed by the Adirondacks. Heading north, we followed the trail on a defunct rail line to a three-mile causeway across Mallets Bay, where a pair of ferries run by Local Motion takes walkers and bikers across a 200-foot wide water gap. On the north side are a series of Vermont islands that feel like another country.
Grand Isle, North Hero and Isle la Motte, deeply rural and sparsely populated, are linked by causeways to a peninsula that runs into Quebec. US Route 2 runs north and then west across the lake to Rouses Point, NY. The islands are flat but not without modest climbs along the bluffs by the water. There is virtually nothing here but farmland, state parks, and vacation homes around the shore (and our second-night hosts, bike fiend Carol and her easy-going, fly-fishing husband Roland). Though the many For Sale signs suggest recession in the vacation-home market, these communities appear to be intact.
The New York side has a different feel: older, less rural, dilapidated. The farms are bigger. Industrial-scale corn and soybean operations. (Vermont has those, too.) We passed several farms raising veal – the calves in pens big enough for a plastic “cow house” and a tiny yard in front of the opening, too small to do much more than turn around. But we also passed beautiful and ancient apple orchards.
New York’s US Route 9 runs the state from Canada to New Jersey, and its spurs, such as 9N, are promoted as bike corridors. We hugged the shoreline to our third overnight, at Point au Roche Lodge, across the street from a state park, and then followed Route 9 south through Plattsburgh to Ausable Chasm, a dramatic geological gouge on the eponymous river. At Keeseville, the Ausable (“Au Sable”) turns west and runs up (well, in reverse) into the Adirondacks, along 9N.
This was my favorite riding. The two-lane road has a decent shoulder as it inclines through a series of hamlets by the river – Clintonville, Ausable Forks (where the river – forks), Jay, Upper Jay, Keene, Keene Valley. After 30 miles, we were well into the mountains and nearing the famed lakes, Placid and Saranac. Keene and Keene Valley are determined to take advantage of the tourist trade in hiking, biking and skiing by providing restored B&Bs, galleries, and decent restaurants. I look forward to returning here to ride loops through the mountain passes.
After Keene Valley, our route rose sharply for four miles before plunging back over the next 20 to the lake at Port Henry, a village that had seen more prosperous times when lake commerce was prominent. But the route from there south to Crown Point was depressing. The road needed maintenance, and the homes and businesses alongside were crashing to the ground. A passing shower, sprayed up from the road by passing trucks, seemed the perfect coda as we approached the 80-year-old Champlain Bridge to carry us Chimney Point, Vermont. On the New York side stands the ruins of the Revolutionary Era fort at Crown Point. On the Vermont side is a handsome museum of Indian artifacts, housed in a building on a foundation visited by Thomas Jefferson. It was pleasant to return to the east side of the lake, more than 200 miles from where we had started.
We settled at the lovely Middlebury Inn for three nights. After a day off to wander the town while Laurie took to the day spa, I soloed over the popular loop encompassing the summits of Middlebury and Brandon gaps. Locals estimated the two climbs at 15 percent. But their far sides, deemed in a brochure to be steeper, were 12, according to the caution sign. Whatever, the route was gorgeous. First through the hamlet of Ripton, with its out-of-time general store of staples, penny candy (it used to be a penny), antique pharmacy bottles, and wood stove sitting in the center. Through Bread Loaf, the mountain retreat of Middlebury College. Past the Snow Bowl, home of the college ski team. And over the summit to Hancock, the beautiful village of Rochester, and back west over Brandon, on whose western slope I freewheeled at 46 mph. I zigzagged for another 40 miles, taking in the views of the Green Mountains on the east and the distant Adirondacks on the west, passing blueberry patches, fields of wildflowers, hidden inns, small farms, and Lake Dunmore, on whose shores generations of families have lodged in cottage colonies.
Vermont in late August, with a hint of fall in the air, is heaven. Laurie’s ready to move there, build a kiln and start throwing pots. But for me it’s too cold in the winter. I don’t want bike snow tires.
My flickr page of the trip.