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YONDER JOURNAL: APPALACHIANS, VT

Haunted railroad tunnels, pristine gravel, and the eternal quest for pizza—expect this and more in the latest installment of Yonder Journal.

The East Coast of America is history-rich: Plymouth Rock, the Pilgrims, Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, Dunkin’ Donuts, NASCAR®, and more are combined with an infrastructure that far predates the motor vehicle to create a landscape and riding atmosphere that feels a world apart from the vacant and vast terrain that is a hallmark of the land found west of the Mississippi. Even the mountains are old—in fact, the Appalachian Mountains are regarded as the world’s oldest. Weathered and wrinkled like the face of Father Time, what they lack in the grandiose, they more than make up for with nearly constant dips, rises, descents, and gaps. The mountains here might not scrape the sky, but scraping the sky is only one way to pile on the elevation. We went to the East Coast to have an adventure on our bicycles, we wanted to experience historically-relevant townships, haunted tunnels, anachronistic cultures, and accents that change by the mile. We wanted to ride on the East Coast because, in our opinion, it doesn’t get the attention that it so richly deserves.

In return for our efforts, we were treated to long rides on exceedingly smooth and lightly traveled gravel roads, walled in by a vibrant green of a deciduous summer. We pedaled our way over America’s roots and the culture that grew out of them. We were treated to artisan pizza, delicious barbecue, and ill-advised Mexican food. We rode/crawled over the steepest paved road in North America and went tubing on a river that has spent the past millennia cutting through the world’s oldest mountains. Our routes took us through Vermont, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and while we had specific plans for each location, we allowed ourselves to be flexible, to account for firsthand intel and third-eye vibe. We wanted to make the most out of what each area had to offer. We were a crew of seven, and like any other crack squad of highly-trained and overly-skilled operatives, we did our best. And fortunately for us, our best has a lot to do with riding bikes, cracking jokes, and maybe enjoying a thimble or two of delicious red wine.

DEAD RECKONING

VERMONT

When we told Benedict (aka Bene, aka Ultraromance, aka Poppi, aka Jonti, aka The Cybershark) that we needed him to organize a ride in the Northeast, he told us that without a question, without even an inkling of a doubt, that the ride he’d be organizing would be taking place in Vermont, a state choked with artisanal grocery stores and co-ops, despite its sparse population. These repositories of crafted and curated foods are essential for keeping the body, mind, and spirit in tip-top condition, and there is nothing in the world more important to a Brahman/bohemian/vagabond/aesthete like Mr. Benedict Wheeler than a tip-top bod and all the groupies and fringe benefits that come with it. But Vermont’s excellence isn’t limited to a surfeit of jams made from the crushed matter of hand-coddled berries and gamey ripe yogurt, still warm with the active bustle of a probiotic kingdom. The state has so much more to offer: preternaturally smooth dirt roads, haunted tunnels, and a wealth of wild camping and cabin options are just a few of the amenities that, taken together, will serve to WOW even the most calloused of bike tourists.

Our ride started in Brattleboro, the seven of us stacking up at Mocha Joe’s before heading east and out of town. We were quickly on gravel, and it's worth praising the dirt roads of Vermont once again. They're like riding on nearly dried concrete—roads with just enough give to leave a slight track, but virtually devoid of any irritation. These perfect dirt roads would carry us through the state as we traveled through small hamlets, usually consisting of a few whitewashed buildings and a post office—no stores, no gas stations, and frequently, no people. It isn’t hard to stretch your mind to a place where you begin to believe there's something nefarious and phantasmagorical going on here. This feeling is certainly aided by the ancient cemeteries dotting the landscape, the pocked tombstones old, thin, narrow, sharp, and tilted at odd angles. There are certainly ghosts here, an unavoidable fact given the age of these towns, of which many were settled in the late 1600s and early 1700s. I mean, given enough time, any place is going to accumulate bad (or at least weird) juju. Spice that up with some known witch trial action and you have yourself a terrifying concoction. Fortunately, our crew was able to get out of the trip unharmed and un-haunted. I chalk this up to our good will, but it might be fair to put this to our boneheaded insensitivity, or perhaps a ghastly fear that just couldn’t penetrate our thick skulls. Either way, we made it through the ride without anyone's head spinning around in circles or streams of blood shooting from our eyes.

By the end of the first day we'd arrived at the Hoosac Tunnel in Western Massachusetts. Once the longest tunnel in America, the Hoosac has its own share of bad karma, and Benedict went out of his way to share a good majority of these stories with us before venturing in. In addition, he let it be known that trains pass through this tunnel “only two or three times a day.” Just after our arrival at the tunnel’s mouth, a train passed through. So based on his intel, we had plenty of time to explore its depths. Unfortunately, though, his intel was wrong. A few of us had, based on his advice, ventured deep into the shaft when the breeze’s direction abruptly turned a 180, quickly followed by a low moaning from the black emptiness in front of us, a moan which was rapidly increasing in volume.

Did a few of our crew push and trample other members in order to get out of the tunnel before the train’s arrival? Yes, yes a few of us did. But for those of us who were too deep into the tunnel to escape before the train’s arrival, there were small enclaves were a person could stand to avoid being vaporized by a mile of quick-moving freight. And stand in those enclaves until the train passed is exactly what we did, only to exit the tunnel and find ourselves face to face with a train wreck named Barefoot Brad. Drunk and barefoot, Barefoot Brad explained that he was reveling, and he was eager to share the detail and nuances of his story. In short, he’d had a drug-addled experience in which his was face stolen. By whom he couldn’t say, but it was either a celestial being or one of his former friends, and because of this, he had traveled to Vermont from Ohio to get his face back. Tomorrow he’d return to Ohio. He didn’t say whether or not he had his face back, and we didn’t ask. That night, we camped in a wood not far from the tunnel, and we more than half expecting Brad, or the drunk ghost that was inhabiting Brad, to come tapping on our rain flies in hopes that we might spare a few pulls off our Bota Bag or an extra pair of shoes. It was an uneasy sleep.

The next day was pure country bliss—bucolic as can be while we pedaled our way north. After an evening in Western Mass, we passed through a bit of Northeastern New York before heading back east towards the day’s destination, a previously scouted, and very secluded, cabin set amidst a maple plantation in the Merck Forest. The day of riding was full of short, punchy climbs that sapped our energy while an omnipresent headwind buffeted our spirits. Needless to say, it took us longer than we all expected to reach our destination. Of course, before making our way to our evening abode, we needed to stop in at the Yankee Market in Dorset for supplies. Thankfully, the good folk who run that shop were willing to stay open late, promising us when we called ahead that it wouldn’t be a problem, and it wasn’t. Fully supplied, we climbed a steep five miles to our cabin door, started a fire—because that’s what you do—made dinner, and laid about the place. Later, we were regaled by a long discourse on the fundamentals of Instagram (led by Poppi himself). The oration and discussion that followed without a doubt had a great and wonderful effect on the attitudes and attention of all the riders for the remainder of the trip. (Yonder Journal will have audio insights of the speech available for your listening pleasure.)

And while the first and second day were 50ish and 60ish miles respectively, the third day was our queen stage at just over 90 miles, with the Lincoln Gap—the steepest paved mile in America—coming within 10 miles from the finish. Fortunately, the rain that had chased us the previous two days abated and, though not entirely gone, the incessant headwind significantly reduced its tenor. For the first part of the day we were buried deep in the green room, i.e. our route took us along a rails-to-trails that was shacked in by vegetation—just one long tube man. No hills and easy going, but by 2:00pm we had barely made it halfway and Benedict was starting to worry that we wouldn’t make it to American Flatbread in time. You see, when Benedict was a young lad he went to a mountain bike camp in Vermont that happened to take place near American Flatbread. So in a way, we were making a pilgrimage to the place of his birth, and experiencing the pizza was an integral part of it.

Leaving from lunch I didn’t think we would make it to the pizza mecca. After a half a day of riding we were less than halfway to our destination and we were just going to get into the hills. Three big gaps (“passes" for those of you from west of the Mississippi) lay ahead of us. We had already been taught that, though not high, the roads in Vermont are steep, and today’s route did much to enforce that lesson. We must have been pushed by Pizza Angels, carried on their wings as we flew over one, two, three gaps. Lincoln was a bear—so incredibly steep—and on a loaded, 60-pound bike, riding up it wasn’t what I’d describe as pleasant. Still, we all made it, and and after a blistering descent we pace-lined into pizza. That night we stayed in the artisanal BnB attached to American Flatbread, so after taking down an entire pizza each, we waddled to our rooms where we spread out in comfort upon handstitched quilts and watched a VHS of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hey, if I didn’t believe in Pizza Angels before today, I was now a true believer.

The next day we had 25 miles of riding to take us into Montpellier. So why rush? Besides, the rain had returned. It seemed that having done his/her/its job, our Pizza Angel had abandoned us—off to help the next lost soul in search of a slice. We rode easy, hit up a bakery at the halfway point, and stayed for an hour. Then after being passive aggressively notified that our bikes were blocking the sidewalk out front, we decided to deal with the drizzle and finish the thing out. It wasn’t so bad, and literally, the first thing we saw upon entering Montpellier was a quintet of five older men (think the size and shape of men Gary Larson draws in The Far Side), riding their bikes naked around town. Feel the Bern, am I right?