Happy Trails to You

There’s a world-class playground for mountain bikers here in the Northeast Kingdom. I gotta come back.

I have long thought myself a “roadie” cyclist – meaning my preferred biking is on paved roads with plenty of room to speed and go for miles. Lately, I’m not so sure. It may be a combination of age and looking for new challenges that has got me thinking and behaving differently.

This Reunion Tour I just finished yesterday was a pure solo touring adventure that challenged my endurance, planning, reacting and social skills. It forced me out of my comfort zone for 13 days. And, I totally enjoyed the experience even if it was difficult many times.

On the second day of my visit with my old friend Mike Kennedy in Barnet, VT, he took me to a special area about 25 miles away near the Canadian border that he said was know as a mecca for mountain biking. By far, more people mountain bike in Vermont than road bike.

Burke Mountain is a well know professional skiing area in the winter and is home to Burke Mountain Academy where the best young skiers, like new super star Mikaela Shiffrin, have gone to school while training.

Even with its history and cred as a skiing area its perhaps better know as an elaborate playground for mountain bikers called the Kingdom Trails, a non-profit group that manages the trails. They say that almost every day in the summer and on weekends before the snow comes, thousands come here to ride the trails.

Info center for Kingdom Trails

We went into the information building at the base of Burke and got the basic idea of how this works. You can ride the 60 miles of trail for $15 per day or $75 membership per year. There’s trails of every skill level and the grounds are beautiful. The concept they perfected is to build trails using easements from nearby land owners. So the place is sprawling and everyone is happy.

Panoramic view from lodge at Burke Mountain

Mike and I visited a special bike shop that gets 5 stars from everyone called Village Sports Shop. It’s dedicated to mountain biking and provides a great variety of bikes. It has the greatest panoramic view of the area and is right on the trail. You can rent daily from $40 to $100, from a basic hardtail to a double suspension, carbon fiber, disk brake model. Besides the convenience and great staff there’s a full coffee/kambutcha/beer/wine and food bar right in the store and is probably the most popular place to start and end your ride.

We walked around the area then settled in for a craft brew. We talked with some new friends about biking the trails, jobs in Vermont and local music. I started thinking how great it would be to come back here another time with a group of friends and shred some dirt, enjoy the many local brews and the friendly vibes of Vermont. I’m not a skier these days but I think I could easily be a happy mountain biker in Vermont.

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 Bjurlington.

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. 

Planning the trip to  Burlington, VT where I’ll get off was a bit of achallenge.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 unwieldly.

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.

Another elevator ride down is requried to the track #8. Then finally, the conductor needed to figure out what car to put my bike. The Vermonter only allows 3 bikes at a time on the whole train. Luckily I knew this was an Amtrak train that allowed bikes (for an additional $20) which was well worth the cost. The train ticket was $58 one-way to Burlington. You would be hard pressed to even drive there for that cost. 

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 32 Spruce St. A few convenient blocks from the city activity, 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.