Day 6: Fairlee, VT to Bethel, VT
So this is how it is. I am pushing my bike up a hill on the 132 outside of South Strafford, when something flutters past my sunglasses. Could that be? Yes, a snowflake. I stop for a moment and stare angrily at the flurries, as if that will make them go away, but it doesn’t work. I’m cold and tired and this hill seems to have no end, but there is only one way to go. Forward.
When I set out from the Silver Maple Inn in Fairlee, VT this morning, the weather app on my phone read 36 degrees. I tried to kill some time with a second cup of coffee, hoping that the mercury might rise a couple of degrees, but it didn’t work. It may have been cold, but at least it wasn’t raining. Thank the old gods and the new (and the Lord of Light and the Drowned God and all the rest).
Finally, I reach the top of the hill, hop in the saddle, and speed down towards Sharon, VT. After Sharon, it’s South Royalton, then Royalton, then Bethel. Spring has not quite reached the northeast yet, and the trees are barely budding. I am struck by how much it feels like autumn, with the cold weather and the bare branches. I keep an eye out for wildlife — and in particular, moose, which are abundant in these parts — but see none.
I had planned on trying to ride to Rochester today, but by the time I reach Bethel, it’s 4pm and I’m wiped. There are no campsites listed on my map and it looks like it’s going to be another cold night, so I check the Warmshowers app to see if there are any hosts within a few miles. I find one and send a message, knowing that the chances of them receiving the message in time are slim to none. Can’t hurt to try, though. I decide to give it an hour and a half, after which point I will resign myself to checking in to the local bed and breakfast, and I duck into the Cockadoodle Pizza Cafe to warm up and get a bite to eat. I’m typically a pretty light eater but I know I need to fuel my body in order to ride, so I’ve been trying to eat as much as I can. I order the spaghetti and meatballs, which comes with a side of garlic bread. It’s delicious and I eat as much as I possibly can, but when I am finished, it still looks like I’ve only eaten about half of what was on my plate. Oh well.
It’s nearing the hour and a half mark, so I ask the woman at the counter if she has any suggestions on where I might find a place to stay, but she just directs me to the bed and breakfast. I start heading that way when suddenly my phone buzzes. New voicemail. The Warmshowers hosts I’d messaged called me to let me know that they would be happy to host me. The timing is perfect; I am literally a block from the bed and breakfast when I get the message. I call them back and Julie gives me directions to their place, which is about 5 miles north of Bethel up a gravel road that is currently under construction. The road is full of holes but the dirt is pretty well packed, so I just take it slow and Fang seems to do fine. The sun has finally come out, and I enjoy the view from the saddle. In this light, Vermont is the very picture of the bucolic northeast: all white clapboard churches, ancient farmhouses, tall trees, and hilly meadows covered in dandelions. I am turning into the driveway when I bump into Thatcher who is just heading out for an evening bike ride with his energetic dog, Stanley.
Inside, I meet Julie and their other guest, Mattias, a high school teacher from Germany who is chaperoning a student exchange trip at the school where Thatcher teaches German. Mattias puts on a Nirvana album and we all chat as Julie prepares a delicious supper of pasta, fresh fiddleheads, and salad. After supper there is pumpkin pie and ice cream. I am so grateful to Thatcher and Julie for hosting me so last minute. Their home is gorgeous and modern, with bookcases built in next to the staircase and a brook rushing through the backyard. It reminds me a lot of the houses I used to photograph for UIC actually, except that is in rural Vermont instead of urban St. Louis. Later, I find out that it was designed by an architect who planned to retire there, but things didn’t work out, and so Thatcher and Julie scooped it up.
I sleep on a couch in the loft, happy to be warm and dry.
Day 7: Bethel, VT to Middlebury, VT
The sky is clear and sunny when I set out from Thatcher and Julie’s and the air is slightly warmer, though I am still wearing all the layers I have. Back down the gravel road to Bethel I go and then halfway back through town, where I turn onto the 107. I hope to get to Rochester this morning and then rest up a bit before tackling the Middlebury Gap, which is a steep climb to about 2000ft.
I’m happily spinning along the 107 when I pass a sign for Blackmer Boulevard. I notice it because I think it’s odd that anyone would designate a rural road a “boulevard”; boulevards are supposed to have wide, flat grassy medians, and this road has nothing of the sort. “That’s weird,” I think, and continue down 107, admiring the rocky White River rushing past on my right. About a mile later, I decide to check my map to make sure I’m headed in the right direction and realize that I was supposed to turn on Blackmer Boulevard. D’oh. I turn around and head back the way I came.
About an hour and a half later, I roll into Rochester and stop at the Rochester Cafe. My legs are tired and I’m not sure I’m up to the challenge of the Middlebury Gap, but I think maybe a rest and some food might give me the energy I need for the climb. I sit in the cafe for some time after I’ve finished my food, sipping coffee and wondering how far I will be able to ride today. Finally, I decide it’s time to go. I stop at Green Mountain Bike Shop for an extra tube (I had been carrying only one, which made me nervous, having misplaced my second one somewhere in the mess of packing up my stuff in St. Louis), and the mechanics there tell me not to ride up the 125 to the Middlebury Gap because it is under construction. They provide me with an alternate route up Brandon Gap, and I set off.
My map only shows part of the route the mechanics recommended and most of it is through the Green Mountain National Forest, so I just keep pedaling, hoping that I’m headed in the right direction. The hills are steep and I am forced to push up many of them, but I ride as much as I can. Small waterfalls and brooks abound along the side of the road. Every once and a while I hear a crack from the forest and wonder if maybe it is a moose, but none appear. It’s probably just branches in the wind, anyway.
I reach the top of the gap and fly down the 12% grade, hands on the brakes, taking the switchbacks carefully. I am so happy to be done with the climb. Downhill is immeasurably more fun than uphill, even if the wind makes it cold. As pretty as the mountains are, they are really difficult to maneuver on a loaded touring bike and I’m sick of them. I roll into Brandon but don’t stop, just continue on toward Lake Dunmore and then Middlebury.
By the time I reach Middlebury, I’ve cycled 51 miles, the farthest I’ve biked in one day — ever. I am beat. The one campsite in the area is closed (surprise, surprise) and it is too late in the day to try contacting a Warmshowers host, so I give up and check in to the cheapest motel I can find. Someday I will be better at finding places to camp. Someday. But not this day. Besides, after Brandon Gap and the terrible weather the previous two days, I do kind of feel like I’ve earned this one.
Tomorrow, New York!