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Tuesday, 7 August 2007
Bike trip, 7 - Northern VT and thought processes
Topic: travel

Despite a viewshed that most chambers of commerce would kill for (and probably have killed for, by the usual market mechanisms), the area just east of Burlington is standard Americana. As you approach the suburbs and the postglacial slopes above Lake Champlain grow steeper, you depend physically and psychologically on the gravitational pull to get you quickly through the overdeveloped mess. I happened to hit this zone at rush hour, and believe me, it was no lark. But despite its being Vermont’s version of metropolis, Burlington is really a small town, and you can hold your nose and get through the worst its roadways have to offer. And as I’ve said before, the city center is very bike- and pedestrian-friendly. (City Hall, in fact, runs a pedestrian rights/responsibilities program, with appropriate signage, etc.)

But even the heart of Burlington must cope with the Open Road’s ubiquitous monstrosities. Motorcycles, for example. I can tell you, after a couple thousand miles this summer on roads large and small, various post-adolescent noisemakers have driven me to distraction. These goddamn testosterone-fueled Guymobiles - crotch rockets and choppers, ATVs, and various road-legal “customized” trucks and sedans with aftermarket “tuned” pipes instead of mufflers – were always nuisances, but these days they’ve proliferated so much that, for bystanders, they’re like something prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.

Okay, maybe I shouldn’t make jokes with contexts like that. But some combination of irony and outrage is necessary. I get depressed thinking about how America long ago forfeited the public highways to hyper-individualized modes of destruction. Look at the typical New York or New England town center, with woodframe homes and commercial buildings lined up close to the road, often within 20 feet, sometimes only at arm’s length. Loud, stinking motor traffic has squeezed the value – monetary and quality-of-life – right out of these old structures. The roadway is now the enemy, and building codes with ample setback requirements are the norm. I mean, who in their right mind wants to live next to thundering herd of pollution generators? But the setbacks and other accommodations to what’s deceptively packaged as “modern life” are forms of alienation, literal distancing from the “commons.” And they’re just what the bicyclist and pedestrian can counteract simply by doing their thing.

Well, it might seem that I’m digressing, avoiding the actual experience of my trip – but not so. The bicyclist’s mindscape is part and parcel of the journey; under pedal power, your body drives your thoughts to destinations not attainable by other means. You’re simply much more embedded in your impressions and reactions..

One last thought for this installment, this time from my home base. Last night, when the temperature and humidity were coming down after a near-90-degree afternoon, I got one of my frequent itches to walk up through Highland Park. But when I stepped into the arboretum at the high end of Meigs Street, I saw mountain bike tracks where they don’t belong – and bikes are legally prohibited anywhere in Highland and other county parks. Then sure enough, I saw the biker himself. Not one to be silent in the face of assaults on this beautiful park, even non-motorized ones, I motioned to him (he was plugged into a “personal audio device”) but he blew me off, then did a 20-mph schuss down a steep hill across from the reservoir. Then he pedaled back around to harass me for spoiling his idyllic experience!

You run into these barbarians every day, I know, but that doesn’t make the experience any less maddening. They think they’re harmless, even while they’re literally carving up the park with their knobbies and disturbing the atmosphere that draws so many walkers to the quiet paths. Much of the blame for these intrusions rests with the parks administration and higher up in the junta, though. The Monroe County Parks office is located right next to Highland Park, just off South Avenue; yet there are no patrols, docents, or even proper signs regarding permitted use. I think we need to get rid of two groups: the rogue mountain bikers and other park abusers, on one hand; and the King-Doyle-Brooks generation of politicians, on the other. Enough of budget cuts and looking the other way on a range of violations.

Next time: I rediscover the Lake Champlain Valley, north to south.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 13:44 EDT
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Friday, 3 August 2007
Bike trip, 6 - northern Vermont
Topic: travel

Route 2 across northern Vermont is a major highway, but thankfully not as major (read: horrifically trafficated) as the Interstate it shadows. I caught the old road a bit west of Montpelier, a little more west than planned, actually, since a construction detour took me the long way around. It seems there was a bridge being rebuilt somewhere along Route 100. I asked a cop at the detour barrier if there was any way to walk (or wade) around the construction site; I was thinking back a decade or so, when Rochester bicyclists enjoyed a break from traffic on Clover Street because of a bridge project near Calkins Road. In that case, you could just carry your bike through a piddling stream and then cruise unmolested for a while. But no such luck in Vermont. I talked to a cop who was monitoring traffic at the Route 100 detour; he told me there was no way to bypass the construction, and lacking any firsthand info, I took his word for it and followed the traffic northeast. Thinking back on this, I wish I’d made a secondary detour through the nearby woods and followed Route 100 regardless. Maybe I would have ended up trespassing somewhere, but I surely would have found a way around the mess.

The detour did have one good result. In the little burg of Middlesex, just as I was about to turn onto Route 2, I stopped for a newspaper and a very large coffee at a country gas station – the type of facility that has become by default the nerve-center and business district for many rural communities. As I watched one of the proprietors barbequing some stuff destined for the warming/embalming rotisserie, a young man with a neo-hippie look strolled by. We got to talking. Turns out he was a Montrealer (originally from the Prairies) who was on a long tour of Vermont and New Hampshire; his steed was a 1980s Peugeot he said he’d retrieved from a trash pile and restored. We talked about touring tires, load distribution (his rig was piled high with panniers and assorted gear over the rear wheel but nothing up front – a recipe for wobbling and worse), road conditions, and more. Then up walked a true Vermont hippie (my kind of guy) who was originally from the UK and decades ago settled on a Green Mountain farm. He, too, had plenty of thoughts on biking, roads, the weather, and local politics. The three of us spent maybe half an hour discussing everything under the sun. Then the young guy and I rode west Route 2 as far as the next town, Waterbury – home to that lil’ ol’ backwoods ice cream shop, Unilever, better known by the label Ben & Jerry’s.

Back in the 1980s I’d toured the B&J factory and store here, imbibing much bushwa about “caring capitalism,” the company’s flavor of the month. Now with the explicit corporate transformation, I passed through town without swallowing so much as a microgram of saturated fat.

Strangely, though, as I stood in the shade on Waterbury’s main drag, I remembered that I’d failed in another pilgrimage. Long ago I promised myself that every time I visited Lake Placid, I’d pay my respects and the John Brown Farm, where the madly militant anti-slavery hero and his sons are buried. Yes, it seems like an oddity: Just how did Brown and his family end up in the North Country - specifically, the town of North Elba - after the disaster of Harpers Ferry? It was the aftermath of a plan to create an African-American colony/community in what was then considered a howling wilderness, a very marginal agricultural region that had been largely bypassed by westward migration.

The plan came to naught, of course – and to this day, given historical racism, the failures of transportation, and other factors, Lake Placid is one of whitest areas you’re likely to visit. But when you do visit, go to the Brown Farm; it’s just outside of town, and it’s now a public historical site with original buildings and educational displays. Just try to ignore the nearby Olympic ski-jump tower that looms before you, marring the mountain views.

Next time: Route 2 takes me slowly to the burbs of Burlington.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 11:31 EDT
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Wednesday, 1 August 2007
bike trip, 5 - Vermont ups-and-downs
Topic: travel

Before I continue with a Green Mountain travelogue, let me take a break to praise canoeing by bicycle. I mean, getting your canoe or kayak to water’s edge by bike, solely with human power and with minimal carbon emissions. It’s one of those little ironies: Too many HPVs (human-powered vehicles) get to the starting line aboard or atop a gas guzzler; think of the common ad image of mountain bikes on an SUV, as if they’re jewelry. But you can take another path. Last night, for example, I put my 18 ½ foot Mad River canoe on a second-hand kid trailer and attached the improvised rig to my faithful Dahon folding bike, then I headed over to Corn Hill Landing. It took no effort to get to the dock, then a few minutes to unload, get the boat in the water, fold the bike and trailer and stow them aboard, and set off for a three-mile paddle upstream to Brooks Landing (near the UR campus). Once on the water I was in a different world; near the old railroad bridge a bit south of Ford Street, I saw, and followed, a beaver that was swimming placidly along – at least till he/she realized I wasn’t a big log and submerged with a loud slap of his/her tail. I’d seen muskrats thereabouts before, but a beaver sighting is a personal first. Anyway, there’s something cool about doing the whole canoe “expedition” without resort to horsepower. Try it, you’ll like it.

Back to the Green Mountains. I’d enjoyed small but urbane Burlington, but I was ready for a change of pace, and the mountains of Central Vermont certainly provided that. For one thing, the steep, long inclines slowed me down; I had to walk up some stretches. But of course, even while you’re huffing and puffing, the Vermont scenery is priceless. The epitome came quite literally at Lincoln Gap, where you go up forever and ever, sometimes into the clouds, then descend like mad. It took me hours to get to the high point, where the famed Long Trail crosses the seasonal road. But my descent was slow, too. Turns out the road on the downside is too steep to ride safely (or maybe I was just chicken, though I enjoy a 45-50 mph schuss as much as the next biker), so I ended up walking for a couple miles before the slope got a bit less than lethal. This bit of walking, with 50 or more pounds of bike and gear beside me, straining to pull me along, was the toughest thing I came up against anywhere on the trip.

But maybe I just spoke too soon. Because some of the road conditions in Vermont (as later in other parts of New England) were atrocious. Route 100, a wonderfully old-fashioned two-laner that runs north and south, paralleling the Green Mountains’ spinal column of high peaks and threading its way through traditional rural communities, is a tourist’s delight. But there’s lots of traffic, including heavy trucks and construction vehicles, and there’s very little bikeable area at the edge of the pavement – basically, the road lacks a real shoulder, so you’re squeezed into a narrow strip near the sideline, and the sideline, if it’s visible, often runs atop shattered asphalt.

Then there are the bridges! Normally – that is, as found on the back roads - a tight two-lane bridge is a pleasure, or at least not a problem. But some of the bridges along Route 100 are downright scary; a biker has to watch for pavement hazards while the traffic presses him/her toward a safety railing that hardly exists. The railings I saw were not more than two feet high, and it took no reflection at all to realize that if I got sideswiped, I’d be knocked over the edge. And in these wondrous boulder-strewn mountains, that type of maneuver would involve not a plunge into a deep, cool river but a 10-meter swan dive onto a pile of rocks.

Overall, though, I loved the Green Mountains - and next time I'll write about some good stuff that happened as I completed the round trip back to Burlington. 

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 15:33 EDT
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Monday, 30 July 2007
Bike trip, part 4
Topic: travel

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.

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 15:53 EDT
Updated: Wednesday, 1 August 2007 15:37 EDT
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Friday, 27 July 2007
Bike trip, part 3
Topic: travel

I’m seriously behind in chronicling my big bike trip of 2007 – the last installment ended in the Adirondacks, and since then I’ve hit the shores of Lake Champlain, Burlington (VT), the high points (and low) of the Green Mountains, the Mass. Berkshires, the Pioneer Valley, NE Connecticut, much of Rhode Island, and the budding bicycle magnets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. So let me take these one at a time.

After leaving Lake Placid, I headed down Route 86 through rocky Wilmington Notch, where I had an unusually clear view of Whiteface Mountain. I say unusual because in recent years, if the fog doesn’t obscure the summit, the particulate pollution does. Only we oldtimers recall how long the vistas used to be in these mountains, before the monster smokestacks of the Midwest and eastern Great Lakes sent so much stuff in our direction. Acid rain has infamously struck the Adirondacks, but acid deposition, via particulates, comes in any weather – and the fine particles produce a haze that limits the view. Still, the mountains are compelling. Whenever I pass through the High Peaks region, I get nostalgic. So many backpacking trips with friends and family. So many bracing climbs in all seasons and conditions, so many rainy but wonderful trudges up and down Algonquin, Marcy, Cascade, etc.

All along Route 86 between Placid and Jay, I saw bikers/triathletes in training – dozens of them. Lake Placid is of course a major athletic training center with state-of-the-art facilities, but still I was surprised to see so many pedalers on the road. Jay itself is a quiet hamlet; I took a half-mile side trip to see a covered bridge that’s being reconstructed. (Yes, NY State has a good share of this type of bridge, which through the miracle of marketing has become so closely associated with New England.)

I have to admit that for most of the ride between Jay and the west side of Lake Champlain, I was fixated on getting to the ferry at Port Kent that goes across to Burlington, Vermont. I also had to watch the road surface a good deal, since it wasn’t as smooth and inviting as it had been. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth seeing on that route. Indeed, the edge of the plateau offers scenery with two personalities: over your shoulder there are the mountains receding, darkening as the sun sets; and before you is more open country leading to the expanse of the lake, which since the 1990s has officially been the “sixth Great Lake.” It’s much smaller than the Big Five, of course. By the way: Why is it that Lake Superior is considered the largest of the five? Though this ranking business inevitably involves arbitrary standards and judgments, it’s obvious that Superior, which I dearly love, is much smaller than Michigan-Huron, which has a level connector (the Straits of Mackinac) and by rights should be considered a single lake.

Anyway, Champlain is easily crossed by bike – and I don’t mean pedal-boat. All you need to do is get the Port Kent-Burlington ferry, a traditional and long-successful operation that costs only $4.70 for a walk-on plus a buck for your bike. A lesson for any community that longs for such service. (In a future installment I’ll discuss the equally pleasurable fast ferry service between Providence and Newport, RI – bike-friendly and cheap.)

Posted by jackbradiganspula at 10:06 EDT
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