State of Love

Cal, I couldn’t agree with you more.

President Calvin Coolidge was a native and prodigal son of Vermont, whose affections for the Green Mountain State were as authentic and deep as the granite veins running through Mt. Mansfield.

I, too, fell in love with Vermont, though not quite as far back as the Coolidge administration…but still pretty far in life’s rear-view mirror. We’re taking Ronald-Reagan-, Russia-collapsing-, Replacements-and-Ramones-rear-view mirror.

(You know the life odometer has been turning when CNN airs a docu-series about a decade from your personal past.)

Anyway, as a high school kid in the eighties I started driving to Vermont in my grandfather’s borrowed car, sometimes to ski, sometimes to explore the cool rivers and swimming holes in the summer, and sometimes just to drive. My loaner chariot, a 1972 Buick Electra, looked a lot like this:

Several things stuck with me about those high school road trips.

There was the peeling vinyl roof of the car, which always reminded me of my late grandfather’s sunburned head, since he used to sit on the patio toasting his pate a deep chestnut brown with one of those mylar sun reflectors, long before anyone gave a thought to things like skin cancer or seat belts.

There was the rumble and thrust of the Electra’s V8, which pulled like a luxury locomotive except when it snowed, at which time the car’s 4,000 pound mass and lack of traction made it a runaway death-sled.

And there was the moonlit birch shadows on top of Hawk Mountain the night me and a bunch of friends arrived for our first ever adult-free ski trip, a Buick-load of heady, hyper 17-year olds buzzed on freedom and a smuggled 12 pack of Busch, laughing breath-crystals into the frozen night air while we peed in the snow.

I fell in love with Vermont hard, which is why I decided to apply to and spend my college years at the venerable University of Vermont and State Agricultural College, founded in 1791 to cultivate Studiis et Rebus Honestis.

During my time there I encountered three other lasting loves in my life (four, if you count the Replacements).

1) My wife Emily, the Green Mountain girl of my dreams.

2) The habit and practice of writing, which has been central to my professional life in advertising, with occasional side-hustles as a children’s author and moto-blogger.

3) And riding, thanks to a humble Honda Aero 80 I picked up my senior year in Burlington. That little scoot stoked my exploration-hungry undergraduate soul, turning me into a lifelong two-wheel addict smitten with all the possibilities inherent in a small pair of cylinders, a vinyl saddle, and a three-dollar tank of gas.

All of which explains why—despite all the time and distance separating me from my Vermont college years—I’m still compelled to hop on a bike and venture up there at least once each year to explore, exhale, and slake my thirst for the color green.

Despite Covid and Delta (and what’s seemed like a pandemic of rain), I decided to pack up my bike in July for a little moto-bimble to Calvin’s and my beloved state. The plan was to enjoy some aimless, itinerant backroad cruising, camping, and chilling in the Green Mountains aboard the spiritual successor to my old Honda scoot—my trusty Yamaha Super Ténéré.

I set my sights on the general Manchester area because it’s reasonably close (under 4 hours), has great riding and hiking (hello, Mt. Equinox) and plenty of decent restaurants. Mr. Adventurelounger here doesn’t always have the patience for meal prep/camp-cooking—especially when on a bike—and since this trip was going to be brief, I opted for table service.

Given that it’s also been a summer of monsoons here in New England, I checked the weather obsessively to make sure there’d be some sun and clear skies for the weekend ride. Predictably, in the days leading up to it, the forecast for rain and severe thunderstorms steadily increased. But in a stroke of meteorological kismet, most of the heavy rain seemed to be arriving Thursday night into Friday morning. After that, the weather gods were calling for clearing skies…

So I figured I’d head up Friday AM as the showers were tapering, and after that I’d be high and dry. Here’s your southern New Englander before heading north to VT (down in CT it was glorious).

I didn’t have big plans for the ride, just meandering up Route 8 through Connecticut, then 183 through Sandisfield and western Massachusetts, and swinging over to Route 22 in New York before crossing into Vermont.

No ride through Winsted, CT is ever complete without a pitstop at the tiny Winsted Diner. It’s tiny, somewhat filthy, but frankly delicious. After a drippy egg-and-cheese on a roll, me and the Ténéré were back on a roll, too.

It was perfect riding weather all throughout CT and Massachusetts, but as I neared the VT border, I was clearly riding into low pressure leftovers. I crossed over to New York State around Jiminy Peak, and followed 22 up through Stephentown (“The Only Stephentown in the World!”), Cherry Plain, and Berlin. The skies became leaden, and as I crossed into Vermont, it started misting, then drizzling.

But the wetness was short-lived, and by Bennington the skies were clearing, with patches of blue punctuated by fat, cottonball clouds. A nice welcome to Vermont.

I rolled into Camping on the Battenkill around 2 pm. I’d found the private campsite in Arlington online, and had reserved a spot via Alan, the grounds’ cheeky South African owner.

“So yaw the chap come up on the scootah, eh?” said Alan. “Been a sheet-ton of rain…three fockin’ inches lost night. Hop in the galf caht and let’s see what site’ll work for yah.”

So in I hopped, and went down to the river where my site (#00) was supposed to be. It was a little bit…damp.

As per Alan, the previous night they’d experienced “quoit tha wetha event”—about 3.5 inches of rain. Arlington sits down in a valley about 7 miles southwest of Manchester, and all of the rain that fell on Mt. Equinox, on the surrounding Taconic range, on Stratton and the Green Mountain National Forest, on Dorset and Manchester, Sunderland and Route 7, all of it funneled down into the Battenkill River, normally a renowned and gentle trout brook, which now was transformed into a swollen, muddy Nile.

Many of the campsites that were supposed to be on the banks of the Battenkill were now actually beneath it. The previous night, when the river spilled over its banks, a dozen or more campers apparently had to abandon their sites and head for higher ground.

And while the river had crested by midday, most of what was my reserved site was still under water, or logged with it. I managed to find a small island of reasonably firm ground to pitch camp, which entailed popping open my Eureka! one man micro tent, and hanging my dry bag under a picnic table in case more rain was on the way…

Since I had several hours of daylight yet, I decided to tackle a favorite day hike, and rode up to Mt. Equinox in Manchester.

My trusty All Trails app showed the full hike to the summit to be an ambitious 6.3 mile, four and a half hour trek. Given it was already early afternoon, I doubted I’d get to the top, but started hoofing it anyway.

It was a delightful, sun-dappled climb. The kind that reminded my why I love this darned state so much.

It may not have been Hawk Mountain, but I ran into one anyway.

About two hours in, and I’d only gotten as far as the sharp, upward turn to the summit trail. There was still a reasonable amount of daylight left, but the temperature was already dropping, and I didn’t want to hike/ride back down to Arlington in the dark.

So I took a side path to the Mt. Equinox spring, which was gushing from all the rain. Rinsed my head and hands in the clear, ice-cold water, and then headed back down.

After the hike, I rode the 7 miles back to camp to shower and change, and then headed back up to Manchester for some eats. I settled on the Taconic Hotel since they have an expansive front porch (good for outdoor Covid dining), a nice menu, and cold beer (just one…I’m riding).

Dusk fell on my little dinner revery, so I didn’t linger long. The ride back down to Arlington (not in ATGATT this time, but in shorts, boots and a vest) was bracingly chilly. The forecast called for nighttime lows in the forties. So when I finally got back to my site, I made the requisite campfire to warm up, but it was a struggle as the firewood (scavenged from adjacent sites that had been abandoned the night before) was pretty damp. Like everything else in a fifty mile radius.

But since I was off the bike for the evening, I felt free to toast the day with a tumbler of bourbon. Cheers to you, VT.

Then it was time to crawl into my micro tent and zip myself into my bag. Huddled against the cool valley night air by layers of nylon, fleece and down, and with the sweet taste of Basil Haden still on my breath, I drifted off to a chorus of cicadas and the murmur of the rushing but receding Battenkill, happy to be back in Vermont.

The next morning I was up at dawn. I attempted to re-start the fire (it was barely 50 degrees outside, and the wood was not much drier), fired up my JetBoil, made a hot cup of joe, broke camp, loaded the Ténéré, and headed out before the other campsites even stirred. It was a gloriously cloudless morning, and I wanted to extract maximum riding from the day.

I set out with no destination in mind…just a general direction, north and west. I rode up through Manchester, then Dorset, then west to Rupert, VT and crossed the border into New York (I loosely reconstructed my morning ride via Google Maps, below). From from Rupert to East Hebron and back down to Sandgate, VT, every road was blissfully unpaved. Riding heaven. On my morning gravel travels I managed to see a fox, some wild turkeys, several deer, and what my heart wanted to be a Lynx or Catamount, but was in fact just a fat house cat.

This loop took me essentially back to Arlington, where I waved at Alan and Camping on the Battenkill as I headed south.

Despite all the time I’ve spent in Vermont, I’ve missed a few major waypoints. Bennington is one of them. I’d only really driven around Bennington a couple of times, always skirting the main parts of town. So today, I decided it was time to add its downtown and historic sites to my VT bucket list. I started with the famous Bennington Monument.

If you’ve never seen it, it’s pretty impressive. Not quite on the scale of the Washington Monument, but it’s still undeniably monumental. The limestone obelisk commemorates the Battle of Bennington, when in 1777 colonial General John Stark—aided by Colonel Seth Warner and the famous Green Mountain Boys—repelled a British detachment sent to seize rebel supplies…and thoroughly kicked their asses.

It was a pivotal battle of the Revolutionary War. Apparently, General Stark was thanked with a spanking new uniform, and a commission as Brigadier of the United States Army. You go, John Stark.

Just down the street from the battle monument is a second one marking the site of the former Catamount Tavern, the Revolutionary War-time headquarters of Vermont’s Green Mountain Boys. While I’ve never seen one in the fur, it was cool gazing upon my alma mater’s official mascot—the Catamount— and thus the unofficial mascot of all the other taverns, bars and watering holes in Burlington (there are many).

I followed back roads south into Massachusetts, stopping at another New England landmark that’s somehow escaped me all these years: Stockbridge, MA. On this sunny summer Sunday, Stockbridge was thronged, mostly with retirees in their LL Bean shirts, sun hats, and Rockport walking shoes, and what seemed like their visiting adult kids and grandchildren.

I clomped into the Stockbridge General Store in my riding kit like some alien explore, search for lunch. And I was surprised to learn that it was actually the site of the former Alice’s Restaurant, of sixties Arlo Guthrie/hippydom fame. You indeed can get anything you want at the former Alice’s Restaurant, including an awesome grilled reuben (which I had), as well as lobster rolls, ice cream, smoothies, and a shockingly good cup of coffee.

FWIW, I took meticulous care to dispose of all my trash.

After that, it was a lot of retracing moto-tracks down through the Berkshires and Litchfield hills—always superb summer riding. I even passed the beginning of the Trans Mass Trail, a dirt-and-gravel north/south route through Massachusetts that I’d ridden back in 2014.

I posed my trusty Ténéré on the same spot on Rood Hill Road in Sandisfield where I’d embarked on the Trans Mass seven years earlier. In the interceding time, I’ve added about 10,000 more miles (and a new set of tires) riding around New England and Canada, along with a nice sticker collection for the panniers. That’s included at least one annual pilgrimage back up to the Green Mountain State.

And in a few more hours, I was back home in CT, my thirst for some summer VT green, slaked.

Vermont is a place I love, President Coolidge. Just the same, I always love riding back.

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