Through New England, Oct. 19-22

c2c4-vermont-new-hampshire-maineOn Sunday the 19th we entered Vermont on State Route 313 at Arlington, then took Route 7A to end up in Manchester that night. Then we climbed the Green Mountains on U.S. Route 11 to the top in Londonderry, and continued to cross the Connecticut River in Springfield. In New Hampshire the route continued on U.S. 11 through Claremont. Se stayed on Lake Sunapee on Monday night and continued Tuesday morning through New London and Franklin, where we switched to state routes 140, 107, and 126, ending up in a motel in Rochester. We finished the ride on Wednesday the 22nd by continuing on routes 108 and 236 to the Maine border, then doing the last 30 miles on state route 9. We dipped our tires in the Atlantic at Wells Beach, near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.

Days 68 & 69: St. Johnsville, NY to Manchester, VT

A campsite at the bottom of the Mohawk Valley isn’t the warmest spot in mid-October. The barge canal was warmer than the air, so it steamed all night and we woke up surrounded by fog with the air temperature in the low 30s. It was well after 9 am when the sun burned the fog away, and even then the temperature was hovering around 40. But we had to go, so we put on every scrap of warm clothing we had and pedaled off. We felt as insulated as deep sea divers.

We turned up state route 67 and rode out of the Mohawk Valley in bright sunshine and brilliant fall color, although it was still way too cold. The strengthening sun pushed the fog higher into the sky and made cumulus clouds out of it. Traffic was light and the road had a good shoulder. Amish and Mennonite farms are common in the deeply rural parts of New York, and we saw men harvesting corn by hand in one field, piling it into shocks. Then we rode past a man driving two mules pulling a flatbed cart. Three girls in plain dress were standing perfectly still along the back rail of the cart. Was it lunchtime already? Were the girls allowed to work? I wanted to ask and take pictures, but I didn’t dare.

In Ephrata we rolled past the Saltzman Hotel, which looks like a place the owners care about and is unlikely to be making much money. After another half-hour we were in Johnstown, the seat of Fulton County, and the home of Jim’s Aunt Fran and Uncle Larry. Larry, who is in his 80s, was off in the woods because it was the opening day of bow-hunting season. The Kerstings are a tough bunch. Fran, her son Bruce, and Bruce’s son Joel met us at a diner for a late breakfast at the Forever Young’s Restaurant, which is owned by two Korean women. One of them sold us a special omelette made with beef marinated in homemade Korean-style sauce. It was tasty, but damn it was a lot of food. We rolled out of there about 12:30 with churning guts and 30 miles to go to Saratoga Springs.

The tangle of highways in Johnstown was too much for us. We took a wrong turn, which meant that we spent an hour or so on rural roads getting back to our route. It was a Saturday afternoon in mid-October and people were doing battle with their leaves – raking them up, blowing them around, mowing them into pulp, burning them in the ditches. Such sacrifices for the sake of a lawn! Where the leaves lay undisturbed, it was like a gold and red carpet in the bright sun.

This was our first day of climbing hills in quite a while — since South Dakota, really. We also were on the edge of Albany sprawl, so the roads were full of urban drivers who did not treat us with much respect. The last two hours were hard for these reasons, and it was with great relief that we pulled into the small hamlet of Rock City Falls, which is just a few houses and an abandoned mill a few miles west of Saratoga Spings. Sara met us there and loaded our bikes onto the truck for an eight-mile drive to the campsite.

After cleaning up we headed into Saratoga to meet my wife Tania and Henry Tepper, an old friend who was our host for the evening. We had a great meal and two hours of riotous fun at the Springwater Bistro, and then Henry drove Tania and I back to his house for a reunion with his wife Jane, daughter Kate, son Miles. Then it got even better: we slept in a heated room. A perfect end to the day.

Day 69: Saratoga Springs to Manchester, VT

We met Jim and Sara at the intersection of highway 29 and the Northway (Interstate 87) and started off around 10:30 am. The road was crowded and the shoulder was small. It was another brilliant fall day, and people were out buying pumpkins and looking at leaves – lots of people. We rode past an apple orchard just north of the site of the Battle of Saratoga, where General Schuyler repelled the British and turned the tide of the Revolutionary War. A large stone obelisk marks the spot where the British surrendered. Shortly thereafter we rode past General Schuyler’s Internet Café in Schuylerville. No wonder he won the battle.

We crossed the Hudson River and rode on to Greenwich. We stopped there for coffee at the Local Market, which specializes in natural foods and local products. We had a great time talking to the proprietor, Margaret Jones, and as a present she gave us a bag of energy bars that are being made from all-natural ingredients in Saratoga Springs. Natural Performance “replenish” bars are made from rolled oats, honey, almonds, and other things you have in your kitchen, not the synthetic stuff packed into other energy bars. They taste good, and they give you the glycogen boost you need at the end of a workout. Thanks, Margaret!

At Greenwich we started following the Battenkill River upstream toward Vermont. To our great relief, the leaf-peepers and other distracted drivers seemed to prefer a different route, and we had a beautiful road to ourselves. We rode past the Shushan Covered Bridge Museum, which was closed, and then missed a turn where we were supposed to cross a bridge that had been closed. We went a few miles out of our way and had turned around when Tania came back to the crucial turn and waited for us. I have no idea how she knew we would miss the turn, but we have been married seven years now. Anyway, she seemed pretty pleased with herself.

We switched to state route 313 and continued up the Battenkill to the state line. The scenery immediately improved, with well-kept Greek Revival homes and big hillsides that still had a lot of color on them. At Arlington we found a back road that would take us to Manchester, which was a big help because north of Manchester are lots of big outlet stores and the traffic was starting up again. But the village center is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, which isn’t surprising: he used to live in Arlington. We switched to Route 11 and began battling our way up the Green Mountains, but only for two miles. Tania saved the day a second time by finding us a great motel, the Toll Road Motor Inn, which had a hot tub and wireless internet and was near good restaurants. Meryl Stark and her husband John, old friends of ours who live nearby, dropped in. Meryl stayed so we could take her out dinner as an early birthday celebration.

Day 70: Manchester VT to Georges Mills, NH

We woke up to a hard frost that did not thaw until after 9am. Riding a bicycle in late October can be just as pleasant as riding one in June, but you only get a few hours a day to enjoy yourself. Tania left to go to work and we set off just before 10 am with 70 miles and the Green Mountains in front of us. We knew the sun would set at 6pm sharp. We would spend the day on Route 11 in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Maybe the months of riding had toughened us, or maybe we had scared ourselves with too much advance information, but the Green Mountains weren’t nearly as challenging as we expected them to be. We climbed for about five miles and the road leveled out and we were soon coasting and climbing, the hills small and manageable. We stopped in Londonderry to talk to John Wright of Taylor Farm (see separate post), then pressed on.

We were hungry by the time we reached the next town, Chester. The big disappointment of the day came when a bakery that we were counting on had closed. In the off-season in tourist areas, people often close on a whim. Just down the road was an old building with an interesting-looking café and two young women behind the counter. We ordered two lunch specials and two hot drinks, sat in two mismatched but interesting chairs, listened to pleasant music featuring a woman singing in a foreign tongue, and wandered around the racks of bulk nuts, vitamin supplements, and stones with words like “imagine” carved into them. Jim got into a conversation with one of the woman, who said that she was from South America, her husband was a shaman, and that every year they went to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to encourage Native Americans to re-connect their ancient memories with the legends of South American tribes, because they were all the same thousands of years ago. Then we paid up: $28.

“That was a fantastic experience,” said Jim, with no trace of irony. “We’ve been Vermonted.” Earlier he had wondered aloud how all these people made a living. The Moon Dog Café gave us our answer. They sell $14 sandwiches to people like us.

We rode over a ridge and down into Springfield, a congested mill town that fortunately had bike lanes and a bike path. Then we crossed the Connecticut River and entered New Hampshire, and the next thirty miles were a slog along a busy highway and a really long commercial strip that ran from well south of Claremont to well beyond Newport. Fortunately route 11 had a wide shoulder, so we never were in danger, but the noise and anxiety of heavy traffic nearby took their toll. Clouds were thickening and the light was failing when we started up the west shore of Lake Sunapee. Sara had found us a two-bedroom cabin with a kitchen, so we ate in, watched satellite TV, and plotted the last two days of the ride. Rain was predicted.

Taylor Farm, Londonderry, VT

Jonathan Wright worked at the Taylor Farm when he was a teenager in the 1970s. When he came back to Vermont in the late 1980s, the farm needed so much work that the Taylor family let him live there just to keep the place going. “Everything was obsolete,” he said. “And after a while I just decided to go with that. Now I’m proudly obsolete.”

In 1996, an investor bought the 500-acre farm from the Taylor family. Instead of making a housing development out of it, the investor sold an easement to the Vermont Land Trust on the pastures and woodlot and sold the remaining 22 acres, including the house and barns, to Wright. “I had had some success with making cheese, and they saw that the farm could work economically,” he said. “The Land Trust also saw that this is the kind of place where people are encouraged to walk around and look at things, and it gives them a good feeling about Vermont agriculture. It is the kind of farm landscape they want to protect.”

Taylor Farm grazes 50 cows on 60 acres of pasture. It is a “farmstead cheese” operation, which means that Wright will not take in milk from other farms to make his cheese, even though it would make him a lot more money. “There are a lot of advantages to staying small,” he says. “For example, when we bring the cows in, all we have to do is wash their udders with a disinfectant. At corporate farms the cows are fed high-protein feed, so they have loose stools and lots more chances to get infected, so you have to bring in all kinds of measures to control that. We don’t have to go there.”

Taylor Farm was one of the Vermont Land Trust’s first forays into agricultural easements, which have since become a major focus of the organization. Over 97% of respondents to a survey completed by the Council on the Future of Vermont said that they value the state’s working landscape and heritage—more respondents agreed on this than any other statement in the survey. When asked about the challenges facing Vermont, over 92% of respondents said that they were concerned about the health and viability of Vermont farms and the agricultural sector—making this the second highest concern of respondents overall.

Wright spends a lot of time on boards and government groups promoting Vermont agriculture, and he has seven full time employees and more who work part time. The farm turns out about 100,000 pounds of cheese a year and is famous for its smoked gouda. “I don’t have to advertise at all,” he said. “And I think we’ll get through the recession pretty well. You might not build a house during a recession, but you can always spend $10 on a wedge of cheese and feel better about yourself.”

Day 71: Georges Mills to Rochester, NH

Our cabin for the night was on Little Sunapee Lake, and we woke up on Tuesday, October 21st to a view of perfectly calm water. The morning weather forecast said the rain wouldn’t start until around nightfall, so we set off at 9am under mostly sunny skies. It turned out to be a beautiful day for a ride – slightly warmer than the last few days, with brilliant sunshine poking through and fall scenery that was still spectacular.

Unfortunately for us, New Hampshire is a densely populated state. A lot of our ride on Tuesday was along busy highways, We were relatively safe because the state has put wide shoulders along most of its roads, but it’s strictly business when you’re riding in highway traffic. I didn’t take many pictures. We rode through New London, Andover, and Tilton, which had a statue in the middle of the highway that was just too weirdly beautiful to ignore. Then we went on to Franklin, where we got off Route 11 and the traffic fell away.

We started toward Rochester on state route 140 and went through Belmont. Jim explored the public library building, and reported that it was really old and that the door made a scary squeaking sound when you opened it, but that the two women inside were very friendly and the bathroom was clean. We ate lunch at the town’s one diner – it was a new place, and they didn’t know if they could make a grilled cheese sandwich. “How can you not know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich?”, asked Jim.

Most of the townships we rode through had welcome signs that gave their founding dates, and most of them were settled well before the Revolutionary War. We rode past the Gilmanton Town Pound, a corral of huge old stones that was used in the early days to safeguard cattle that had wandered off their owner’s property. I hope they still use it sometimes.

A marker told us that the rural road we were following was the “Old Province Road,” one of the first highways in New Hampshire. It was authorized in 1765 to supply northern settlements from the tidewater port of Durham. Many of the houses along the road were from the 18th or early 19th century, and the scenery was probably the same for us as it had been for travelers 200 years ago. We were finishing our ride down the hills toward the coast. At one point we crested a small rise and thirty miles of plains lay in front of us. We probably could have seen the ocean if the clouds hadn’t gotten in the way.

It might have been a 240-year-old highway, but it was also very much in the here and now. New Hampshire was a battleground state in the 2008 Presidential election, and we saw more signs for McCain than for Obama in rural New Hampshire. But the closer we got to the coast, the better Obama showed. More impressive was the profusion of lawn signs for local offices. They really like electing people up here, and they really like lawn signs. Or maybe it’s just that the election was just 13 days away.

We rode through Rochester as the first sprinkles of rain started. We were safe in the motel Sara had found for us by the time the weather got yucky. It was the second 70-mile day in a row and we were beyond exhausted, so we ordered a pizza and zoned out on TV. We noted tomorrow’s forecast: much colder, with a strong north wind. Yet we only had 25 more miles until the end of the trip. At that point, I was so eager to be finished that I would have done it naked.

Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm

Our ride ended at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells Beach, which is located on a preserved 2,200-acre site stitched together from five old coastal farms. Farmers began cultivating this land in the 1670s and kept working it for 300 years. When the last private owner died, local residents formed the Laudholm Trust to buy and manage the properties. The 1910 owners gave the name to the main home and barn complex by combining “laud,” to give praise, with “holm,” a meadow on the shore. The Farm Trust was established in 1982, and the Reserve was dedicated in 1986. The Trust now has about 2,500 members.

Wells is one of 27 National Estuarine Research Reserve sites scattered around the country. State and local sources are the base of support for these sites, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration matches their support with a federal grant 2.3 times the original amount. Wells is the only site that relies on a private not-for-profit organization as the local source (all the others have state funds). The Reserve monitors the health of Maine’s estuaries, which are under increasing pressure from housing development. “We’re trying to show how commercial fishing and community clam beds depend on clean water. People need to understand that degrading those estuaries has an economic impact on the state, “ says Jeremy Miller, a researcher at the lab.

We spoke with Laudholm Trust President Diana Joyner in the Trust’s offices inside the renovated farmhouse. “The reserve is a mixture of things,” she said. “It’s a precious piece of open space for people in Maine. There aren’t many places on the coast where you can hike on seven miles of trails. It’s also a community space where people get married, have parties, and gather in all kinds of ways. And it’s also a research facility. The Trust’s job is to keep the community engaged at a high enough level to make sure the research continues to get the funding it needs.”

Day 72: Rochester to Wells Beach, ME

The rain tapered off and left behind a stiff north wind. Added to an air temperature in the 40s, it meant that our last day was also one of our coldest. We left around 11am after my old friend Jon Crispin, a professional photographer, showed up to record the festivities. We had 25 miles to go before the end of the trail at Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve in Wells Beach, Maine.

Traffic remained heavy but we were sheltered from the wind, and before too long we crossed the state line and turned east on state route 9. The road was flat and before long the buildings thinned out. We rode thorugh a coastal deciduous forest that was being stripped of its leaves in the raw wind. We reached the town of Wells and turned north on US Route 1, picking our way through the cars and broken asphalt and closed fish-fry restaurants until we reached the entrance to the Reserve. It is a beautiful spot, a preserved farm complex on 2,200 acres, and we spent an hour talking with scientists and the President of the Board about its dual mission of research and education (see separate post).

About 2:30 pm we threaded our way down Drakes Island Road to the Preserve’s beach, where we ceremonially dipped our tires in the water. We also unveiled the hat of Al Craig, in whose memory Jim and Sara made the trip, for the last time. Sara brought some bubbly and we had a toast, but it was too cold to stay long. So we went to a nearby restaurant and said our goodbyes over tasty bowls of real clam chowder. Then it was time to disband.

The trip ended well. We finished in good shape physically, and Jim and I still like each other enough to plan more rides together. Not until it warms up, though. The three of us finished up so tired, and with so many unprocessed memories and emotions, that we all felt stunned. In the weeks after the trip ended, some of those memories came bubbling back up in my mind up at odd moments. It made me think of a big pot of soup simmering on the back burner, its flavor changing slowly over time. This trip will be nourishing us for a long, long time.