The hour-long ride across Lake Champlain was perfect: long distance views, smooth water, the city of Burlington glowing in the afternoon sun. And then there was the look backward, with a stunning panorama of the High Peaks, which during most of my Vermont visits have been obscured by fog or rain – but this time were as clear in detail as an etching.
A classic college town defined by the ever-expanding University of Vermont and a very progressive local government, Burlington is a great place to visit – and you’d want to live there, too. Several blocks of a downtown arterial have been turned into a pedestrian mall, similar to what’s found in Ithaca, except in Burlington there are more sidewalk cafes, clubs, and crowds. And the “City Market,” an immense co-op that actually functions as a downtown supermarket (though, to judge by my several visits at different times of day, not with as inclusive a shopper demographic as we’d want). The city is also well-equipped with bike shops, high-end and otherwise; I dropped in at one to get a new frame pump to replace the inefficient one I’d been carrying (don’t’ leave home without a good pump, a spare tube, a tool kit, and just as important, some basic maintenance and repair skills), plus a replacement rear tire that I hoped would make the tube and tools unnecessary.
Also like Ithaca, Burlington has long had something that most American cities can only dream of: incipient democracy, where a little power has been taken from the usual business interests and vested in the majority. The current mayor, Bob Kiss, is a member of the Progressive Party, the support structure for former Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders, now an independent socialist US Senator. The Burlington Progressives also have four members on the city council, counterweighted by some Democrats and Republicans. I don’t want to romanticize Burlington and the “People’s Republic of Vermont,” nor will I ignore the damage that standard capitalistic growth patterns are doing to this and other parts of the state. (Cf. the Route 7 corridor south of Burlington, a late example of standard-issue suburbanization.) But some good stuff is happening in Burlington and all of Vermont that we New Yorkers should envy – and emulate.
Burlington’s got a great interlocking system of bike trials, which run along the lakeshore, by rail yards, through old industrial zones, and out into the burbs and countryside. You can make a whole vacation of exploring this system and stopping along the way at parks, pubs, etc. Don’t look for an Erie Canal or Genesee Valley Greenway type of extended touring trail, however. I checked the maps, and I also consulted with knowledgeable staff at a non-motorized transportation advocacy group called Local Motion, which has an trailside office at the harbor, and I couldn’t find any long distance off-road routes anywhere in Vermont.
Of course, Vermont has many scenic highways and back roads. But they look a little different from behind the handlebars than through a windshield. More about that in the next installment, where I’ll cover my circuit through the highs and lows of Central Vermont and the Green Mountains.