Quaint villages, nestled in valleys and set upon hilltops. The greenest mountains. Stunning scenery. Steep mountainsides. Dramatic geology from five distinct eras. A state that has written the book on small-town tourism, yet remains remote enough not to be overwhelmed by visitors. Two modest cities filled with our kind of crunchy, gluten-free granolaheads, who have voted in the U.S. Senate’s only Socialist. These are some of the draws of Vermont.
Something else sets the Green Mountain state apart, but I only noticed when I biked out of it: No garbage on the side of the road. It’s not a part of the culture to throw trash in your yard. I only had to cross the state line to be struck by the difference.
Crista Borras, Chuck Wood and I had been talking about this trip for over a year: a point-to-point tour that would mean getting ourselves to Burlington and biking home over two weeks. We passed on it in 2011 in favor of another Appalachian Adventure. But Vermont beckoned – though I’d done loops there in 2009 and 2010, and C&C have been more times than I can track.
Because it’s special. Summer weather is a break from the heat of home. The mountains offer challenging climbs and hair-raising descents. Every bend in the road brings another postcard view of farms, ponds, vegetable gardens, towns, general stores, covered bridges. And the roads have decent shoulders.
As always, Crista’s meticulous cue sheets for our “Country Store Crusade” included points of interest, multiple lunch and snack stops and a ton of turns, keeping our navigating skills sharp – or not so sharp, in which case we rolled off-course if traveling alone. We also had distance options, from 90-plus miles to as little as 45.
Crista assembled a varying crew of three to seven riders (plus a couple day riders) over the 14 days. We arrived in Burlington June 23 in three cars: in a rental from Philly were Eduardo Ruchelli and Scott Laubach; in the Chuckwagon were C&C, Joel Dechter and ferry driver Lane Giardina, who would loop with us a couple days and otherwise spend the workweek in Vermont; and in my truck our critical fellow-traveler: my wife Laurie, who would sag our bags from hotel to hotel, occasionally meeting us for lunch and otherwise piecing together her own daily itinerary.
The first six nights we stayed in Vermont – no easy feat, as the state is only 159 miles long and averages 60 miles wide. We had a lot of twisty routes, taking in highlights Crista (and her advisers) had accumulated over her many tours and sometimes adding or subtracting miles as conditions advised. Each of the towns and their accommodations offered something different: an old-style tourist motel on the edge of downtown Burlington, home of the University of Vermont on the shore of Champlain and full of hipsters and students; the stately Middlebury Inn, on the hill above the town’s low-key strip and the former Middlebury Mill; a court motel up the hill from Quechee Gorge, a settlement that makes the most of a geological squeeze on the banks of the Ottauchechee River; a truly ancient tourist court outside Chester at the end of a circuitous ride through Woodstock and Weston; and finally a B&B in West Dover, for the last night of John Bailey’s management of the business, after I’d gone my own way bouncing southeast to Brattleboro and back via three mountain ridges.
Highlights for me were the walkable downtowns in Burlington and Brattleboro; the climb through a cool fog past Middlebury College’s Breadloaf campus (which was to start summer session the next morning) and over Middlebury Gap; riding by the Ottauquechee between Quechee and Woodstock, where last year’s Tropical Storm Irene took out many of the covered bridges; the group’s late-day climb over Ludlow Mountain to Weston; and a seven-mile climb on gravel to the pristine Sunset Lake northwest of Brattleboro, a reservoir for the town’s water supply.
My flickr of Vermont is here.
We crossed into Massachusetts on a hot and humid Day 6. Within two miles, my tire was shredded by glass. My backup supplies failed, and Laurie picked me up in a coffee shop in downtown North Adams. Had she not been sagging us, I would have been better stocked to continue on to Great Barrington. But traveling light, the mishap gave me the chance to wreck Laurie’s plans. What’s a husband for?
Day 7 was epic. I departed Great Barrington alone at 6:30, an hour after Eduardo and Scott but before Chuck, Crista and Joel, heading west over Mount Washington, Bash Bish Falls on the New York border, and into the foothills of the Hudson Valley. On the river’s east bank, I toured Poet’s Walk Park, created in the 1840s and a prominent example of Romantic landscape design. It features a series of outdoor “rooms,” each intended to evoke an emotional response. Then across the river toward the Catskills, to Woodstock, beautiful Cooper Lake, and finally Phoenecia, a hamlet alive with tourists from NYC.
Lane rejoined us that evening on his way home from Vermont in the Chuckwagon. While the rest of the gang did a tough loop through the Catskills, Laurie and I hiked with old friends and lunched in Woodstock, which has made a charming trade out of its association with 1969, sometimes updated. For example, one of the “historic” markers in town reads: “On this site once stood a local market bankrupted by the monopolistic, make-it-cheaper-in-China, anti-union big box store where you shop.”
From the Catskills on, we rode relatively straight routes toward home. Relative for Crista. We had three nights on the Delaware River, two on the Pennsylvania side at Matamoras and Delaware Water Gap. After the first night, we rode east, back up the Shawangunk range we had followed for much of the previous day. I soloed up to High Point State Park and made my way south, and stopped at an echo. Lusscroft Farm demonstrates my favorite law of physics — that stuff falls apart over time. Opened as a model dairy farm, Lusscroft was in turn a research station, a forestry preserve, and by 1970 a 4-H camp. By 1996, teenagers had developed other things to do, and the camp closed. Walking around the farm, I could almost see the generations of kids that had learned about farming and themselves, but all you see now is a haunted campus and peeling paint. The pics are here.
The middle night, in Belvidere, New Jersey, was the set-up to challenge Fiddler’s Elbow, reputed to be the steepest paved road in the state. We were down to three riders in the morning, when C&C and I, with Laurie enticed to video the assault, left the beautifully restored but strangely inhospitable Belvidere Hotel. After a five-mile warm-up, we hit the first slope off the river plain. Chuck’s heart didn’t feel adequately pumped for a return engagement, so I set off alone up the 1.7 mile climb. It took about 14 minutes, and it lived up to my companions’ chatter. Later Chuck asked if I’d considered stopping. I had to ponder what I had been thinking, other than keeping the rings churning without suffering cardiac arrest. Probably not, I answered, since I knew my wife was watching. (If you have a taste for the tedious, a four-minute piece of my climb is on Youtube.)
The last two days I rode took us along the grain of the Pennsylvania Alleghenies to Hamburg and then York, where Laurie and I planned to decamp in our truck, leaving C&C to ride home the last day. The forecast for their final day was 104. I volunteered to pick up the Chuckwagon in Rockville and meet them for lunch, which after due consideration Chuck accepted. So as we stopped in front of the Yorktowne Hotel, I had the smile of completion: 12 out of 13 days in the saddle, 830 miles, countless hills, and a multitude of memories shared with good friends.
Pics from the second half of the tour, from Great Barrington to York, are here.