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.