For the love of Vermont!

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.

Townshend Common

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.

Breadloaf

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?

Poet’s Walk, on the Hudson

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.

Phoenecia, from Tremper Mountain

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.

Words of encouragement

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 Chautauqua at Mt. Gretna, Pa.

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.

Lehigh County, Pa.

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Happy Second Birthday, CoMo!

Sometimes it is about the bike.

If it weren’t, then the purchase of my Cannondale aluminum hybrid six years ago, after Laurie badgered me into upgrading my well loved and worn 1979 Fuji, wouldn’t have marked a shift in my life, when I embraced long rides as a joyful physical and mental test.

My CoMotion touring bike had its maiden voyage two years ago this week, at the 2010 BikeMS — right before I took it to Portland for a thousand-mile journey to Jackson, Wyoming. It has been the workhorse in my stable ever since: some 9500 miles (out of more than 15,000 over that time) of commuting, errands-running, touring, and day-long looping. With a geometry that is a balance between my aggressive carbon frame and relaxed aluminum hybrid, I tell admirers, it rides like a Cadillac (and weighs nearly as much).

The bike does matter. For that Tour de France guy to suggest otherwise, while riding a custom-made machine, is a tad disingenuous. You can get there on any bike, with any components. But every part, from the saddle to the shifters to the rims, can affect how you feel, and that joy will affect every ride.

The SuperSix, on White’s Ferry, Christmas 2007

I’d been loving my Cannondale “Road Warrior” for about 4,000 miles, including that life-altering ride up Going to the Sun in Glacier National Park, when I took it to the 2007 Seagull Century on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. After digesting that ride, I decided I wanted something speedier to compliment the everyday reliability of the Road Warrior. So I went back to Tony at Pro Shop in Georgetown and rode most of the carbon bikes in stock over about six weeks. The eventual test on the Cannondale SuperSix carbon was love at first ride: It seemed to leap forward under me, as if were anxious to please. The geometry was aggressive, pushing me down in the wind; the brakes firm and the drivetrain flawlessly smooth. I found it to be about 2 miles an hour faster than the hybrid — but it felt much faster.

The Road Warrior, Rocky Mountain NP, July 4, 2009

Touring the Texas Hill Country on a rented bike in April 2009, I started thinking about an upgrade for the hybrid. After mulling for a year (during which I’d logged another 7,000 miles, evidence that cycling was not, after four years, a passing fancy), I rode over to College Park Cycles to talk with Charles about my options. I’d been eyeing CoMotion since the trip to Austin, and then on a sojourn to the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond. There were less expensive bikes, like the Surly Long Haul Trucker, a wonderful make. But in the end I felt like the heavier and more refined CoMotion would be the last bike I’d ever need.

So far, it is.

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Red Gate Gravel Ramble

Hawksbill, behind Buracker Hollow, Page Valley

Two goals when I plotted this route around the central section of Shenandoah National Park in early May: climb a lot, often on gravel; and explore some back roads whose destinations were ambiguous on maps. Both were accomplished.

Crista got excited when I sent her the route, so she and Chuck brought their Ibis tandem to Sperryville for the start. We churned up Thornton Gap and then down to Jewel Hollow, following the base of the mountains south for 10 miles, where we turned toward Kite Hollow and followed the gravel Red Gate Road into the park. Nearly an hour later, we arrived at Fishers Gap on Skyline, still 600 feet below our peak at Big Meadows Lodge.

By the time we arrived there, sun had retreated behind fog and chill. After lunch at the wayside, we headed south — into pelting showers that dogged us until we were well east of Swift Run Gap. Then the adventures began on undiscovered gravel roads in the Rapidan River Valley falling away from the Blue Ridge.

Washed out trail left, private road right

Ten miles into the valley, we turned upstream beside the Conway on Middle River Road. On Googlemaps, the road horseshoes over the river and runs east to Graves Mill. Other maps show: nope.  A local told us that floods had taken out the joint in 1994. Hardy hikers can pass, but bikers without sherpas face a dead end. Google insists: that double-gated private road is the way through. Anyhoo, we backtracked to Kinderhook and rode east to our familiar pop stop at Wolftown.

After a lengthy pause, we shot toward Madison and then weaved north on paved and dirt roads until our passage climaxed on the quaint Quaintance Road, between Slate Mills and Woodville. Soon Thornton Gap would again be in view, as we approached our starting point, a hundred miles and 11 hours later, still dreaming of crossing routes to Graves Mill. Another day.

The (revised) route: Red Gate Ramble. The pics are here.

Setting sun on Thornton Gap

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Revolutionary Soup

Blackwells Hollow Road, Albemarle County

Blackwells Hollow Road, Albemarle County

I was intending to scout a new route out of Sperryville, on a lot of gravel hugging the eastern base of the central section of Shenandoah Park. But then I got a hankering for soup — from a favorite hole in the wall in Charlottesville. So I sorta combined them, without the gravel. It would be a sun-up to sundown ride, I expected — about a 150 miles as I plotted it. As usual, I veered here and there as the notion struck me.

Among the highlights: the many views of Old Rag in the morning sun; the ups and downs around Ruth, west of Madison (where I found a cottage I wouldn’t mind having); the grounds of the Blue Ridge School in Albemarle, where everyone smiled and waved, especially the boys emerging from their dorms in ties on a Saturday; the views of Fox Mountain riding along Blackwells Hollow Road; and the long descent toward Charlottesville on Browns Gap Turnpike and Garth Road. Finally, the soup menu on the downtown mall, after six hours in the saddle.

The best thing about the return was the strong tailwind all the way to Old Somerset. When the wind turned from the east as I made the left turn toward Beautiful Run, I thought I had been delivered a supernatural gift. The real gift was being able to spend a Saturday marveling at the natural wonders of a favorite part of the world — and to finish just as the light of the day ebbed.

The pics are here.

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‘Three Babes in the Woods’

On the first Saturday in April, a Chuck & Crista jaunt through the fruit orchards of Adams County and the elevations of Kings Gap and Piney Mountain in southern Pennsylvania seemed the perfect antidote to a warm March that pushed us too quickly past the early spring blooms of our home territory. Here we might slide back a couple of weeks, to the forsythia and the ornamental cherries, and find a range of blossoms on the apple trees.

From Emmitsburg, Maryland, just below the Mason-Dixon Line, we rolled through the orchards for three hours before making the first climb over South Mountain, where the trees aren’t yet shooting leaves. In the afternoon, we ascended Kings Gap, where a stone mansion built in 1908 by steel magnate James McCormick Cameron overlooks the Cumberland Valley, then took a steep climb over South Mountain to Pine Grove Furnace, the midpoint of the Appalachian Trail, and then rose steadily through Michaux State Forest over Piney Mountain. It was on the South Mountain ascent that we encountered the sign: “On this spot were found three babes in the woods, Nov. – 24 – 1934.” (Yeah? What happened then? As in most things, just look on Google.)

With the sun starting to wane, we again crossed through the orchards, a good tailwind at our backs as the temps fell back toward 60. As Crista exclaimed on the homeward journey, What a good day to be alive! The pics are here.

Northside, Emmitsburg

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Early Spring in D.C.

Normally (or, what used to be normal), March is when nature begins to stir. The first Monday of the month, I made my normal bike commute over Memorial Bridge: The willows on the edge of West Potomac Park had broken into green over the weekend, and the hardwoods had a redness in their canopies that indicated shoots. This was ahead of schedule.

Then I went away for a week (behind a wheel for 600 miles around Texas seeing family, then another thousand miles from Boca Raton, stopping in Savannah, with my daughter back home). A day later I had a leisurely ride around town, taking in the flowers, the White House of Rick Santorum’s dreams (pictured on the right), the cherry blossoms of Kensington, and some of my favorite neighborhoods of upper Northwest.

Through the rest of March, I dallied on my way to or from work to capture the glory that is Washington in spring. Since we moved into this house six years ago, we’ve had all the cherry blossoms we need just outside our back door, but those public ones are pretty nice too.

The flickr pics are here.

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Seeking a Century

Light snow on Hogback Mountain, Shenandoah National Park

Despite the mild winter, I hadn’t managed to ride a century since December. I’ve been on the bike nearly every day, but the short days combined with cramped schedules and weather that went lousy (only cold rain and wet snow meet the definition) kept me from riding a full day.

Chester Gap, from Crest Hill Road, Fauquier County

By the middle of February, I was feeling charged to brace whatever the weather gods might throw at me. As my buddy Harry Campbell says when heading to the White Mountains to camp in January, we’re just after a little discomfort in our oh-so-comfortable lives. So when I awakened Sunday morning in Sperryville to 22 degrees and howling winds, I was excited about the day’s potential for a little discomfort. But by the time Laurie and I headed down the driveway it was already 10 o’clock, and I would’ve been hard pressed to make it home before dark. I had her drop me in Washington so as to avoid starting 94 miles facing the wind on a highway. I would have plenty of blustering breeze — and a very nice tailwind from Leesburg to Arlington. Pics: Washington to Washington.

The following Saturday, Lane drove us to Marshall to meet Ed and Mary’s tandem for a modified, 113-mile “We Can See Clearly Now,” a route circumnavigating the northern section of Shenandoah Park and the Massanutten Valley, with Front Royal on the north and Thornton Gap on the south. But we hardly felt discomfort in the weather. Temps at the start were high 30s and rose to the upper 50s by the time we stopped for lunch in Luray.

Lane, Mary and Ed, near the northern end of Massanutten

We did a lot of dawdling over a 10-hour day: a coffee break in Front Royal, the long lunch, a couple of other pop stops, pauses to take in the views — and cautious approaches to unrestrained canines. It was Lane, who never seems to tire, who dragged me safely the last six miles behind his headlight and his draft  back to Marshall, a good half-hour after dark.

Pics, with a few by Mary: On a clear day.

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