A Day in the Magical Kingdom

Experiencing life in the Northeast Kingdom .

I spent two totally enjoyable days with my friend Mike Kennedy and his wife Kristen in Barnet VT, which is in the Harvey Lake area – in the northeast section of Vermont also known as The Northeast Kingdom. Here’s some of the highlights of my first day visiting this special place.

The beauty of having a friend in a far-away place is that you have a built-in desire (maybe a need) to get there someday. I often thought that a visit to see my old high school friend Mike Kennedy might not happen. Afterall, Vermont is an out-of-the-way place. Its on the way to nowhere. Whereas New Jersey always seems to be in the middle of everywhere. Mike had visited my area several times in the past few years.

With the dual personal opportunities of retirement and long distance bike riding, the idea of me visiting Mike seemed to make a lot of sense. And, if not now while I still am healthy and have the time, then when?

Welcome to Vermont

Mike and Kristen are very kind and open people who easily welcomed me to their home. It was an open-ended plan to just crash there for two days. I arrived the evening of October 1 in pretty bad shape from my long 96-mile ride from Burlington across the state and was looking forward to some recovery and company. My objective was to get to know the area and how life was in the part of the country.

Me with Kristen, MIke and Quokka (aka beloved dog)

Building Takes Craft and Sweat

First, a little background on his place. I believe it was about 15 years ago while living in the area, they bought the property with the idea of building a house. To most people, that would mean getting contractors to do the whole thing. But up here it’s often considering first what can be done on your own.

They decided to clear the land, set up temporary shelter and built a house that would surpass most contractors. This house is tightly insulated, has double-thick walls and has a floor heating system, all of which Mike either designed, contracted or installed himself. More work, pain and inconvenience than anyone could imagine. But it’s their effort and sacrifice that made it happen.

Off to the Lake

Mike amd I started my first day there kayaking on Harvey Lake, which is only a few hundred feet from his house. It’s a beautiful vacation area for many who have large lakefront homes. But the area is remote enough that you still cannot get a cell signal.

Today it seemed nearly deserted. We rowed around the lake and looked for loons who spend a great deal of their time under water catching fish and occasionally popping up, honking or flying away. One of Harvey Lake’s claim to fame is it is where Jaques Cousteau made his first dive in deep water that inspired his career.

Harvey Lake – deep and almost famous

Land of The Rich & Famous

After lunch, Mike and I took a ride to the Mount Washington Hotel in nearby New Hampshire to visit this grand hotel and admire the views.

The Mt. Washington Hotel is consider one of “grand hotels” of the area harkening back to the guilded age where the monied class would spend summers with nature and the priveledged. It is also famed for the Bretton Woods meeting that started the InternationaI Monetary Fund (IMF). It is a unique historical site that seems beautiful but out of place in such a raw environent.

Mike has had a fairly regular gig a few times a year playing his Americana music and storytelling there. It would seem a bit offbeat for this kind of place, but this too is a strange blend of basic Vermont living combined with an upper class lifestyle. This day the top of Mt. Washington (supposedly once marked as having the highest speed wind on the planet) was covered with clouds. Still the White Mountains were beyond impressive.

Tonight’s Show

Going back to Mike’s place in Barnet we bought some prepared food and planned to spend the night catching up and listening to music.

Mike is a born performer with a love of all sorts of music but particularly a folkish blend of old folk ballads, bluegrass, countryish songs with lyrics that tell a story. I’d say somewhere between Woodie Gutherie and Wilco.

Mike dubbed the music he favors as “Americana”. Sometimes it’s music with a message and sometimes music with strange old instruments. He talks of legendary local musicians, special venues and times of simply great music. And, I’ve found that same love and respect of music wherever I have gone in Vermont. Maybe its a holdover from those old hippie days that the rest of us have forgotten.

After a few outstanding local craft beers and a lot of singing we called it a night. Tomorrow was another day in the Kingdom.

For me, Vermont holds on to the past but cares about the future. My stay in Vermont reminded me of what’s important. There’s beauty in this struggle with nature.

My Hippie Friend

How does someone you know change over 50 years? Especially if he was a hippie!

I recently spent 2 days with my friend Mike Kennedy and his wife Kristen in Barnet, VT. Here is one of a couple of memories to share before I move on to my bike ride.

Many years ago, in a different time and place, there once was a guy who I would consider among my closest friends who decided he had had enough of the bullshit of Viet Nam, politics, religion, etc. Back then in 1970 or so you had a new choice of protesting and dropping out or going mainstream. Much of it was based on the draft and extreme politics and social norms of day. Most of us were not motivated or had the courage enough to do something about it. But Mike Kennedy was.

Mike at the guitar playing Americana music. Equally talented on the concertina (squeeze box) and musical saw.

While we had graduated Roselle Catholic High School in 1966 together, he had chosen to go to Wilkes College in PA. The rest of his close friends took various college paths. While we were told college was important, we mostly went to local colleges to stay out of the draft and maybe find a direction for a career.

Mike rebelled with his new college friends. This led him to “Tune-in, turn-on and drop-out”. Or, as we would say “He freaked out!” Most of us lost touch with him and his life was directed more on a set of principles than reality. He hoped to find – or create – the ideal lifestyle in Vermont. And, he was not alone. Like it or not, it was a noble goal at the time.

Some statistics have shown that Vermont was poorly populated at that time with less than a million people when an influx of 70,000 in one year was to come with similar motivations. Imagine this as a 1970’s version of a migrant invasion. It was to change Vermont forever.

Despite the harsh environment of Vermont, Mike strugggled, worked, got married, had a family (wife and 2 sons), continued his personal interest as a musician and evenually became a person familiar to us again. But, with a Vermont flavor. Vermonters are tough, versitile, independent, empathetic, socially conscious and caring individuals that have a problem with authority. It looks like Mike found exactly the place where he belongs.

Mike Kennedy’s beautiful house he built in Barnet / Harvey Lake VT

Over the years, Mike lived in a treehouse, ran a local movie theater, built houses, performed as a musician and story teller, learned carpentry, built his own house and gravitated toward a career in planned housing and environmental engineering. He helped build a regional housing project for seniors still in use today in this remote area of Vermont. What I leaned is that today Mike is not unlike you and me. We have just been in two different orbits that have finally met. Maybe because time is the great equalizer

It seems we both have similar life experiences and wishes for today and the future. We might have been on different planets for a while but we all have landed in the same place. I learned that Vermont is both about living a dream and facing a harsh reality. We still dream of what could be and share the principles of the past.

Clear Across the State

My 96-mile bike journey West to East across Vermont.

After a day of rest in Burlington it was time to tackle what I planned to be the hardest part of this trip – riding across Vermont from west to east near New Hampshire. The train I took from NYC yesterday got me as far north as I needed but now I had to go west to get to Mike Kennedy‘s home in Barnet aka Harvey Lake area. This is just minutes from the NH border and the White Mountains.

Pain or Gain?

As you might know, I’ve been relying on Google Maps / cycling option to help figure out the best route. Mostly. it works but I’ve had lots of problems in their choice of routes too. Everyone I spoke to suggested staying off the main commercial highways like Rt 2 if possible. Google had a 75-route suggestion but a good part highway.

For this trip my son Ethan’s friend Arthur, who live in the Montpelier region, had a recommended alternative 93-mile route which involved more local roads, “dirt” roads, and trails. The problem was what exactly is the condition of those roads and the volume of traffic? There’s a trade-off here in terms of safety vs. extra time needed on dirt or gravel sections. Also, this was a matter 25% more altitude to climb on a bike carrying my extra 40 lbs of baggage.

Anyway, doing a quick analysis I went for the alternate longer route knowing that probably my biggest personal challenge would be how long it would take, how steep the climbs were and if I would have enough daylight and power to keep my bike computer and cell phone going.

On the Road Again

I started out of Burlngton following the pre-set route that appears on my Garmin 1000. It’s a great resource that tells you when to turn but it has problems sometimes with precision and accuracy. It uses GPS so all I had to do was keep it going. No worry about cell signals. As a backup I still had my Google maps which relies on cell if I needed it. The challenge was to keep power going and use backup when needed.

The route started in the reverse order of last night as I headed back to the train station I left last night and then continued northeast. The first 30 miles or so was on typical state roads through small towns like Jericho and Underhill following state highway route 15 a fairly busy road. The payoff was there was lots of beautiful siights along the way in this early Fall.

The Grass is Greener in Vermont

A few hours into the ride I noticed a strange looking farm with plants that grew about 3 feet high into narrow thick bushes lined up almost like tomato plants. Then, I started to smell a vaguely familiar odor and did a double-take of the plants while riding. Two men were placing a black plastic trash bag over one plant. Riding a little close to the edge of the farm I suddenly saw the spiky long narrow leaves. Could this be marijuana? I thought possibly since this was Vermont after all.

I later found out that the latest business craze here was to legally grow hemp which is a close cousin. Hemp has many uses but currently its primary draw is for CBD, which alledgedly has a milder affect and claims to have many benefits. You can only imagine where this might go in the future. The times, they are a changin.

Hemp farm called Valley Dream Farm in Pleasant Valley

All Roads Lead Somewhere

Anyway, up until about a 1/3 rd of the way, it was all asphalt roads. Then, the directions took me to a network of trails. Trails and roads here in Vermont can mean many things. One of the first trails I took was called the “Lendway Trail” which was a straight dirt and gravel shot across numerous farms and fields. Other trails switched to hard packed dirt roads which were almost as good as asphalt but a bit bumpier.

The trails were a great relief from the boredom and danger of riding the roads. Most of the trails were based on old rail lines that no longer existed. One called the Lemoille Trail was probably 20+ miles, some parts currently broken but will evenually be a great long alternate route across a good part of the state.

Captain we’re losing power!

The last third of the ride was dicey. I rode pieces of trails, picked up long dirt roads and sometimes followed the highway, getting slightly lost many times. Around 5 p.m. I started to realize that I was both running out of time and power – and I was already on backup. Luckily, I had a solar panel I could use to continue to power either my bike computer (with directions where I was going) or my cell phone, but not both. On top of that my bike lights were discharged having been used all day. But, I had one extra tailight that I was able to use.

As the sun was going down around, I literally was at low power mode on my iPhone, my bike computer shut down and I had nothing else left but to take a best guess on some roads. Google Maps then says the most beautful words I have heard in a long time, “You have arrived”. I found Mike’s house just in time.

The first and probably the hardest part of this trip was over. It turned out to be over 96 miles and about 11 hours of riding with only a few brief stops. I felt like I was now beginning to appreciate the beauty and vastness of this state. I’d like to say it’s all downhill from here, but we are in Vermont.

https://www.strava.com/activities/2754411546

Riding the Vermonter

Starting a new biking adventure by riding the Vermonter to Burlington.

Greetings fellow virtual travelers. It’s been a while since I posted to this blog but if you are interested in my latest retirement biking journey – The Reunion Tour – Vermont & New England back to NJ read along. I’ll be attempting to post daily my 10 days of stays and cycling adventure (or whatever comes along). This is the first post of the journey. More background on the trip.

I discovered traveling long distances by train can be a great advantage. Yes, it generally takes longer than flying and you will experience numerous inconveniences due to a lack of consideration for bicycles. But once you are onboard the seats are more comfortable, the ride smooth and relaxing, free WiFi and at least for my Amtrak train today – The Vermonter – a simple bike rack storage so you can transport the bike without breaking it apart, as you would need to do for a flight. And, with my current sub-theme of ecology let’s give it up for trains which consume a whole lot less carbon than the other alternatives. All good reasons to promote train transportation, in my mind. 

But, the most convincing argument for a train ride is that a one-way train ticket is a whole lot cheaper at $58 for me, plus $20 for “Silver” my bike. That’s cheaper and easier than flying (need to dis-assemble/re-assemble, pack/unpack), driving there (need to return with the car too) or shipping the bike to a shop and having it re-assembled there.

Planning the trip to  Burlington, VT where I’ll get off was a bit of a challenge. The Vermonter originates at Penn Station NY. So, I needed a way to get me and my bike to NYC to catch the train. I could have literally rode from my house to the Morristown NJ Transit station then to NYC except for the fact that on weekends, bikes need to arrive at Penn NY before 10:00 or they are not permitted! That would have meant leaving very early. Instead Mary Ann drove me at 9:00 a.m. to Newark Penn where I planned on catching the PATH train to Penn NY. My bike weighs about 24 lbs. My panniers and rear bag add about 40 extra unsteady lbs. making it unwieldy.

My first problem was getting my bike and 3 bags up an escalator since the Newark Penn elevator was not working! I saw a bike messenger just taking the escalator up so I followed. Bam! The bike was highly uncooperative and flipped backwards throwing the bags off it. But just then a woman appears watching this and says “I’ll get you up to the platform.” What! She advises taking the 3 bags up while she watches the bike, then walking the bike up the stairs where she instructs me on where to pick up the next PATH train. Beautiful. She was sent from heaven, I’m sure.

The PATH train continues to Journal Square where I transfer to another train. By now, its around 10 am and trains are getting crowded with me and my bike taking up too much room. We finally make it to 33rd St. Now its a matter of finding elevators you never knew about to take you up to the street then back down to Penn Station. After waiting about ½ hour the Vermonter appears on the board. This is the only train to Burlington. Each day it leaves at 11:30 a.m. and arrives 9 hours later 7 miles outside of Burlington in Essex Junction, VT.

Another elevator ride down is requried to the track #8. Then, finally, the conductor needed to figure out what car had the rack where I could put my bike. The Vermonter only allows 3 bikes at a time on the whole train. 

NY Penn Station waiting room.

I’m in Springfield MA as I write this with another 4 hours to go. Then, I need to reset the bike and make my way to my airbnb stay for 2 nights. Looking forward to getting there and concluding today in one piece. All Aboard?

Afterword

Well Amtrak did its best to live up to its reputation and came in 3o minutes late. We departed the train at about 8:50 and the rest was up to Google Maps. I’m a seasoned enough rider to take on a challenge riding in the dark but it was relatively easy to follow the online guidance direct to my stay 7 miles away.

And, a good stay it was at an airbnb at 32 Spruce St. A few convenient blocks from the city activity and close to the lake but far enough to be very calm and peaceful. Starved, I headed out to a corner “Gastro Pub” to get a couple beers and a burger. All was right with the world again.

Local IPA craft brew to bring me back to life.
The neighborhood “Gastro Pub”. A converted candy store with a relaxed feel and plenty of choices of beer and burgers.

A 4,000-mile West Africa Ride

An interesting article on a verrry long bike ride through rough territory.

Ah, brings back old memories of last year. I’m feeling like a poser compared to these riders.

“…most in their 50s and older, many from North America and Europe, and a third of them women.”

“It’s like when you discover something you didn’t know you could do; then it’s so funny to explore how far you can go,” she said.

“Ordinary people doing extraordinary things every day,”

“It really reduces your day to the bare necessities,” she said. “It’s a total reset.”

“I often tell my kids that cycling is very much like life,” Ms. Viviers, 56, a retired telecom consultant, said later. “If you see a hill, it always looks worse than it is. You just take it in small chunks.”

 

Walking with Walt

Learning life lessons from the Ambassador of Forbidden Drive.

It’s not uncommon to meet people along a trail when you are on a walk.  My theory is that there are almost always interesting people there to meet, if you care to engage. Walkers are not alike but we all understand the benefit of a good long walk.

Colleen and Me
Colleen and Me

Fellow FreeWalker, Colleen Griglock, and I, along with a couple dozen other FreeWalkers and EverWalk members were strolling a drop-dead gorgeous trail on a beautiful Fall day this past Saturday. It was  the last few miles of the FreeWalkers (13.1 half) Marathon Walk on the outskirts of Philadelphia.

The trail we were on has ironically been known as “Forbidden Drive” since the 1920s when automobiles were first banned from this gravel road. Now, it’s a popular wide trail that follows Wissahickon Creek Northwest of the city. It was recently named “Trail of Year 2018” by Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources. And, it’s a most inviting trail to pedestrians, cyclists and equestrians with plenty of room for everyone.

Used to be a busy bridle path
Forbidden Drive

We approached a gentleman walking briskly and confidently with a cane and struck up a conversation. There was something about his smile and energy that belied his years. (Hey, I just joined the Septuagenarian club and and am curious when I sense someone has a secret aging process going.) Walt Dinda is an 83 year-young, long time resident of the area and a regular walker on these trails. I would call him the Ambassador of Forbidden Drive.

Walt Dinda
Walt Dinda, the Ambassador of Forbidden Drive

As an attorney, he and his wife raised a family of 6 children which has now grown to 19 grandkids, with the hope of great-grandkids in the near future. I can relate to all this having 6 grandkids myself and looking forward to the possibilities.

Walt is wearing his Penn State hat he says he “borrowed” from his son. Everyone seems to be connected to Penn State here, including most of his family. As Colleen suggests, most fans make the pilgrimage to Happy Valley (Penn State) this time of year. Maybe, one not so big secret here is Pennsylvanians love their communities.

Walt began telling us about the trail and the area before greetings came from others along the way. It seems Walt has been walking Forbidden Drive for years. He even credits this particular walk for much of the good things in his life.

“Walking this trail has taught me more about life than any classroom or degree I ever got. And I continue to learn from it.”

Walt has met hundreds of people of all types on the trail over the years and he has gotten to know and care about them. Walt’s parents were Eastern European immigrants that came to this country and settled in the area. His father initially had a hard time finding work and his mother worked as a domestic for a wealthy family in Philadelphia. Walt goes on,

“I’m basically a conservative guy, but I have learned to accept and embrace others.”

It appears there are many regulars on the trail that he checks in on, or asks about. They are true trail buddies whose lives revolve around the trail.

Making friends along the way.
One of Walt’s buddies asks about the health of an 87 year old mutual friend.

So, the trail is Walt’s extended family. Add a couple dozen of these trail friends to his already large family and the complexity of relationships in his life is astounding. But, I believe it might be the secret to his longevity, or at least his happiness. Walt goes on to say,

“If only the rest of the world had more caring. Caring like we have with friends and family. Most of the problems of the world could be solved or would not exist if we saw each other as part of a family.”

I think it’s fair to say that Walt had a certain personal chemistry that attracted people to him. Or, maybe there was something about walking this particular trail. But, I was fascinated by his story. After talking to him about careers and kids for 15 minutes or so, his daughter in law and grandson showed up giving each other a great big hug. This is what we all want – love and understanding. Walt has earned it in spades and has reminded me how best to grow old.

Tammy, Connor and Walt
Tammy, Connor and Walt on Forbidden Drive

Visiting Trane

A stay in North Philadelphia turns into a visit with John Coltrane.

It’s always a special treat when serendipity pays a visit. Even more so when there’s music involved.

Exploring North Philly Neighborhoods

I needed to drive to Philadelphia and get an overnight place to stay this past Friday night. Having had some interesting, and mostly rewarding, experiences using Airbnb.com, I searched for a place near Fairmount Park where most of our FreeWalkers’ Philadelphia Marathon Walk would be taking place early Saturday morning. Using Google Maps and Airbnb reviews, I found a place in Brewerytown, a section of North Philly I knew nothing about.

The Airbnb photos and reviews were good for a simple, private room on N 32nd St. and plenty of parking. Best of all the cost was only $50 for the night! But, reading into the listing and reviews there appeared to be two items to reconcile. What was this section of town like? And, what did the possibility of hearing CSX trains at night mean? No reviewer seemed particularly put out by either.

Coltrane2018 (3 of 5)
Overlooking power plant and tracks, Brewerytown is in the middle city skyline in the background.

Using Google Maps, locating the place was easy and close to the highway. You could see  signs that this was a distressed section of town, but also signs of new building among old industry. As you might have guessed, this section of town had been home to dozens of breweries in the past due to its proximity to the Schuylkill River and the German population. Today only one exists – Crime and Punishment Brewing which I unfortunately did not get a chance to visit.

The neighborhood seemed similar to the gentrification I saw recently in Brooklyn. My place was a small front room of a new townhouse close to the street, clean and sparse with all the amenities available. The owner, Tyler, was a young friendly guy and highly rated by Airbnb.

Part of my interest in any Airbnb stay is to explore the area once I get checked in. You could see that this might be a challenge because its a mixed use area with old and new residential as well as industry and converted loft space. Parts looked cool. Parts looked threatening. Using Google Maps again, I decided to take a walk. Fairmont Park was close by. And, then I saw a map bubble for The John Coltrane House. Whoa, I had no idea he was from Philadelphia but I needed to know more.

Finding John Coltrane’s House

That CSX train’s tracks literally separated Brewerytown from another part of North Philadelphia across Girard Avenue and just a few blocks away on 33rd St. Even though this was adjacent to the park, it was literally “on the other side of the tracks” and looked badly neglected. Still there were signs for and about John Coltrane there, beckoning me to find out more. I continued walking to see what tribute was there to honor the great jazz legend.

JohnColtranesignI walked about a mile to an old section of row houses needing repair and saw the home and a marker outside. It read “The John Coltrane House” which is designated as a national monument. This place was formidable for his career where he developed his unique style and worked for a time with Miles Davis. The monument on the street did not reflect the place and the place did not reflect the monument.

John Coltrane
John Coltrane

According to the website John Coltrane House…

During the years (1952-58) that Coltrane lived on N. 33 Street, the house was often referred to as Trane’s House by many Philadelphians who were part of the jazz scene and by local fans that frequented the live music bars and clubs… (stories that) Coltrane played his horn on the front porch and in the park across the street are still told by old timers in the neighborhood.

It would appear there was an effort to renew and revitalize the place in 2012. What happened afterwards? Was it a lack of money or organization?

Coltrane had his bout with drugs and alcohol and moved to New York for his final years. He had recovered from his addictions and produced some of his best works inspired by a spiritual recognition before he died at the age of 40 due to liver failure. Some speculate it was from Hepatitis due to his earlier addictions.

It’s All About the Music

You may not be a jazz enthusiast or musician but I challenge anyone who has ever heard a riff by Coltrane to ever forget it. There is something otherworldly about his tenor sax that experts agree was unique and even spiritual. Here’s a sample of “In a Sentimental Mood” with Duke Ellington.

Let me say that I’m not a jazz expert but more a casual fan. There is something that’s palpably different with a saxophone, especially one so sweet and longing as “Trane” played. Coltrane died much too young but the legend lives on. How lucky am I to just step into the legend? It even forced me to review and learn about his life and music for this piece. I began thinking the old building may not make it but at least his music will.

The Legacy: A Love Supreme

Picture of St John ColtraneOf course, there is one piece that even transcends all his other great work and that is “A Love Supreme“, considered to be among the best jazz music ever recorded. Coltrane’s music was so profound that a church was created as Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco that mixes African Orthodox liturgy with Coltrane’s quotes and a heavy dose of his music.

You can learn more about the making of a “A Love Supreme” and the special jazz talent he worked with at the time here with this NPR piece.

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/148148986/147872677

When you begin to see the possibilities of music,
you desire to do something really good for people.” 
-John Coltrane

Bumping into legacy of Coltrane was pure luck…or maybe improvisation? Just as John Coltrane might have played it.

Coltrane2018 (5 of 5).jpg

 

 

 

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