Five percent of Vermont.

Brad and Jason

In Ling Ma’s novel Severance, the fictional Shen Fever creates in its victims a compulsion for mindless repetition. They lose themselves in the return to old routines.

But for me in recent years, return and repetition have come to feel generative. To return to something familiar and see it in a new way feels like a gift. It’s a way of catching a glimpse of your changing self reflected back to you.

This last week’s trip from Wassaic through Massachusetts to Montpelier, Vermont was such a return.

I’m not sure when I first visited Vermont–I must have been there as a child (I grew up not so far away), but if so I have no memory of it. Then I spent many years living in the south and midwest.

But in 2018–not long after I returned to the northeast–I took my first bike trip through the state, from St. Albans down to Stratton Mountain and back up to Randolph. It was the week in October when it turned cold and I was unprepared; I lost my wallet in the snow and, for a bit, the feeling in my toes. But I fell in love with the state and I keep going back.

Stealth-camping along the Roundabout Brattleboro route with Chris in 2021 convinced me to switch from a tent to a hammock (trees being notably easier to find than flat ground in the Green Mountain State).

A southbound VTXL ride with Alex E in 2022 (with near-perfect weather) opened my eyes to just how thickly connected the dirt roads are there; we barely saw pavement for 300 miles, from Canada to Massachusetts.

In 2023 a bunch of ADV friends did a Lake-Champlain-adjacent loop over the Memorial Day weekend, and later that year I’d pass through the state again on my Eastern Divide ride.

In April of this year I did a three-day loop for the solar eclipse with my friend Josh: from Burlington to South Hero Island in Lake Champlain, across to New York and then back to Vermont.

And last week five of us (Alex S, Brad, Jason, Robby, and me) spent five days riding many of these familiar roads. The route came together at the last minute–originally, we’d planned to end in Glens Falls, New York, where Josh (who’d planned to join) had a wedding to attend. But three weeks ago he was hit by a car, breaking six ribs and puncturing his lung. He will make a full recovery–but he’s off the bike for a while. So the rest of us decided to change up the route a bit; from the end of the Metro North’s Harlem line at Wassaic, we’d head north into Massachusetts and then pick up the VTXL route northbound at the Vermont border; we’d do about 2/3 of the VTXL before diverting west to Montpelier (chosen for two reasons: its Amtrak service, and the Three Penny Taproom’s excellent selection of delicious Vermont beer).

Farm humor
Farm humor

Our friend Brad put together the final route. Brad was an ADV regular for years before moving to Mexico City in 2021, and he flew back with his bike for this trip. While living in Mexico he’s been doing a ton of riding in the mountains and participated in a few competitive endurance gravel events–all of which is to say that he’s very strong and very fast these days.

This was a hard ride. The weather (in the 90s almost every day) was some of the hottest I’ve toured in–hotter than Cuba in 2020. The heat and humidity brought out the bugs–plenty of mosquitos, and the deerflies were swarming in Vermont (somehow by dumb luck I’d managed to avoid them in my previous trips up north).

And the route was plenty climby. The second day had us riding up Mt. Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts. The road to the summit gains 2,700 feet in nine miles–lunacy, really, with a loaded bike. But I’d been thinking for years that I should someday try to climb Greylock on a bike, and it was very satisfying finally to do it.

Alex S, Jason, Brad, and I (Robby skipped Greylock)
Alex S, Jason, Brad, and I (Robby sensibly skipped Greylock)

This was another return for me: I first visited Greylock when I was something like 12 or 13, to spend a week doing trail work on the Appalachian Trail. How this came about I’m not sure. Mine was mostly a sedentary, indoor childhood, centering books and computers. Spending a week in the woods was very out-of-character for me back then. I am pretty sure this was the only backpacking trip I ever took as a kid–it would be over 20 years before I went backpacking again. But the memory of Greylock stuck with me: the steep and winding road to the top crisscrossed by hiking trails, the War Memorial and the CCC-built Bascom Lodge at the summit (during that childhood stint of trail work we stayed at the lodge for a night before and after). When I moved back east I made a point of visiting Greylock again (by car) in 2018.

On this trip Bascom Lodge was closed. But otherwise everything was as I remembered it. At the summit our phones erupted with emergency alerts informing us of a statewide 911 outage, so we were extra-cautious on the descent into Williamstown.

There we met a college friend of Jason’s. Their friendship had its origins in their shared interest in the economic ideas of Henry George, which interest on Jason’s part was news to me. The friend pointed us to an in-town swimming hole in the Green River where we spent an hour or so cooling off before (somewhat reluctantly) getting back on our bikes for the final climb across the Vermont border to camp.

In Vermont we picked up the VTXL route, which meant more climbing and less pavement than the New York and Masschusetts sections. These were roads I knew and had ridden, and they felt like old friends. The old International Paper road over Stratton Mountain stood out: it’s rutted and rocky but heavily overgrown, making it hard to pick a line, and more than one of us fell on the descent. But any momentary pause meant a dozen or so deerflies appeared instantly on your hand and arms, so we picked ourselves up quickly and kept going.

Brad in his element on the IP road
I don't think Brad was enjoying the IP road as much as it looks like he is here.

Return and repetition, again: Stratton has figured in four of my Vermont trips. On my first, in 2018, I climbed it on the paved road to the ski resort in an attempt to reach the campsites at Grout Pond, not realizing that my intended route took a snowmobile trail to the IP road; I was on essentially a road bike with 28mm tires, expecting a road tour, it was raining, and when I arrived at the snowmobile trail (after dark) it was under several inches of water. I bailed to a ski lodge partway down the mountain and spent the night indoors. (I still have never made it to Grout Pond.)

In 2021, on the same unsuitable bike (now with slightly bigger tires–32mm I think) but with more of an appetite for dirt I rode the IP road northbound following the Roundabout Brattleboro route. This time I made it through, but broke a spoke in the process. (I feel deep gratitude to the kind bike mechanic at Equipe Sport in Rawsonville who was able to get my wheel true enough for me to complete the ride, and who wouldn’t take any money.)

In 2022 I rode the IP road southbound for the first time. A revelation! I’d been dreading it the whole trip–Stratton is the biggest single climb on the VTXL and I knew how rugged the road was. But going south, you climb on the rough IP road and then have a smooth, scenic descent down Kelley Stand Road along Lyman Brook into East Arlington and its excellent store. I think climbing the IP road may actually be easier than descending it; the grade is not bad and the rocks don’t kick you around as much at 4mph.

This time were going northbound. I was prepared for the grueling descent but my friends were not; on an elevation profile, it looks like you can just coast down the north side of the mountain, but it’s so rough that you can’t go much more than 10mph, and it’s hard on the body. A real mountain bike would be more suitable here.

At the bottom of the descent Brad and I stopped at the Stratton snowmaking pond, which is only a stone’s through off-route, but which I’d never noticed on my previous traverses. This deep, clear pond is open for swimming in the summer and on this sweltering day it was full of local families. We soaked our tired bodies for a bit, waiting for the others.

Happy to be over the mountain and in the water (photo credit to Brad)
Happy to be over the mountain and in the water (photo credit to Brad)

In Rawsonville we were sad to learn that the excellent burger spot (Honeypie) is a weekend-only situation, so we settled for the only other restaurant in town, a combination pizza/pasta/Chinese place. Then we kept going–Winhall Brook just a few miles out of town would have been the logical place to camp, but it’s closed due to damage from last year’s floods, so we kept going to a beautiful (if buggy) secret stealth spot.

Lake beers
Lake beers

The next day we went off-route at Cavendish (turn left at the gruesome monument to Phineas Gage, who survived a railroad accident that sent an iron rod through his skull) to Singleton’s General Store in Proctorsville. As in 2022, I got the brisket-and-horseradish sandwich, which is not really the thing you want on a hot day of hilly bikepacking, but which is too good to skip. And as in 2022, the mile or so of Main Street between Cavendish and Proctorsville seems to run downhill both ways–a gift from the cycle-touring gods upon which perhaps it is better not to look too closely.

Robby and Alex at Singleton's
Robby and Alex at Singleton's

Later in the day in Woodstock we had our first maple creemees of the trip (four days in! I don’t know what we were thinking) and took a dip in the Ottauqueechee River under the Elm Street bridge, where there are nice little stone steps down to the water and where it is deep enough to swim and clear enough to count your toes. In New York they’d put up razor wire around something like this. In Vermont there never seems to be any question that water is public space (even in Woodstock! a playground for Rockefellers, and by far the bougiest place I have been in the state, or maybe anywhere).

Brad on the climb out of Woodstock

It rained a bit and we waited it out over dinner; then another climb up to the Amity Pond Natural Area, our destination for the night. I had not been here on previous trips and I don’t recommend it. The pond in question is green with algae; the lean-to we’d hoped to camp at is in a low spot next to a stagnant black pool of water a couple dozen feet across and maybe a foot deep; no good for swimming or drinking but very congenial to breeding mosquitos in vast swarms. We camped a little ways away on higher ground where the mosquito pressure was merely annoying. The most interesting thing about Amity Pond is the deed restriction forbidding the use of radios–a rule that is hard to honor in 2024 when every gadget carries several.

Unsettled weather

In the morning we descended to Sharon (I got lost and ended up following a network of woods roads down through an extensive maple-sugaring operation), where a Maplefields (chain gas station) has taken over an old general store, like The Thing infecting a human host. In 2022 Alex E and I holed up here after a cold and rainy descent; this time, on the last day of our ride, we had breakfast and met a local who rode a fat bike around the country last year and claimed to have averaged 18mph.

From Sharon it was (of course) uphill. More beautiful gravel roads brought us through Chelsea (a charming town where I had my second creemee of the trip) and past Washington, after which we left the VTXL route to head toward Montpelier.

I passed through Montpelier twice last year. The first time was in August, on my Eastern Divide ride, shortly after the flood in July. At that time almost nothing was open downtown; I stayed in an AirBNB above a bar but the bar was closed while the first floor of the building was being gutted and rebuilt, like every other storefront nearby. The second time was at Thanksgiving, by car, after camping two nights in the snow; that time I was able to visit the reopened Three Penny Taproom. And that’s where we ended this trip: Brad made it in first, then the rest of us trickled in over the next half hour, eating prodigiously and enjoying the novelty of drinking beer mid-day without having to ride another 10 or 20 or 30 miles after.

Finally done
Finally done

I stayed in the same AirBNB as last August; this time the bar was alive and a band was playing when I went back after dinner. I thought about stopping in to listen but I was too tired; I worried the music would keep me up but I was asleep within moments.

Cycling for me is about exploration, and I use to track how many new miles I cover and how much I’ve seen of each state and county. After this ride I’ve cycled 4.99% of the bikable roads in Vermont. Let’s call it five percent–a bit over a thousand miles. I hope I get to keep going back, that I get to see another thousand miles of new roads but also that I keep getting to see these old favorite roads again and again, and that they continue to feel new each time.

June 23, 2024