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Seven Lengths of Vermont

Bicycle touring: The other side of the range


Published July 11, 2012 at 6:12 a.m.


I offered my name, but he did not reciprocate. I asked if this was private land or a national forest campground, then stood there in my padded Spandex bike shorts, cold and tired and increasingly nervous, waiting for an answer. I asked again. He stared. It was a blank stare — not mean or malicious, just blank. The kind of stare a cinder block would give you if a cinder block had eyes. And if a cinder block were drunk.

I didn’t know that he was drunk. I’d come down one of the big mountain passes and landed at a pond, all silver and smooth and shadowed. It was only the first night of my trip, so I didn’t need a bath, but I did need a place to set up my hammock. I saw a bonfire on the far side of the pond and rode over to it. A little, yappy dog accosted my ankles. A stack of cargo pallets waited beside the stack that was already burning. Rolling Rock tall boy. Cigarette behind the ear. The man stared at the fire, or into it, and then at and into me.

After considerably longer than I felt comfortable with, my toothless host (or Toothless Host, seeing as I never did get his name) said that he owned this land and I could camp here if I liked. His voice had barbed wire in it. Cinder blocks, too. He was maybe 50 years old. Wore big boots. A pretty handsome guy, all things considered.

I knew that whatever I was getting myself into wouldn’t be easy to get out of, should it come to that, but the spot was beautiful, the burning pallets crackly and warm. It wasn’t really the fire that kept me there, though. My goal on this “tour” was to encounter Vermont: not its Essence or Immutable Being or any such nonsense, but its particulars, those people and places and certain slants of light and shadow that, when bundled together in the mind, become the tidy little thing we all call home. If this man was Vermont — or some part of Vermont — then engage him I would.

I thanked T.H. for the invitation — he said, “No doubt” — and parked my bike beside some trees. I set up my hammock and returned to the fire with a smashed-up dinner sandwich. The dog jumped up against my leg, pawing and yapping and begging. I didn’t mind, but T.H. started yelling.

It wasn’t so much that he yelled as how. It was like a chant, like he was entrancing himself to the rhythms of his own anger: Beggar, beggar, beggar. Bad, bad, bad. It was like he’d fallen down some deep black well and was trying to climb out, one word at a time: Bad, bad, bad. Git, git, git. I asked some question, something about the pallets, maybe, and he emerged from the depths for a minute only to fall back to the bottom.

I wolfed the sandwich as fast as I could, hoping to shut the dog up. But I couldn’t eat fast enough, and Toothless Host kept on. Beggar, beggar, beggar, he droned. A firefly blinked past, looking somewhat like a plane. It made me think how far away I was, out here in these mountains of a Vermont I’d hardly known.

The dog yapped louder. I had an overly tight grip on my sandwich.

Bad, bad, bad.

Over the course of a week in early June, I rode approximately 500 miles on a bicycle. This was a new experience for me. Before this trip, I’d never pedaled more than 30 or so miles in a day. A handful of years had seen me on a bike a handful of times.

The route I traveled was designed en route, seat-of-the-Spandex-pants style. I rode from Ferrisburgh all the way to the dirt roads of West Halifax, Green River and Guilford, then zigzagged the east-central side of the state, through Woodstock and South Royalton and Hardwick, and quieter spots I’d never heard of like Simpsonville and Downers (I bypassed a place called Goose Green and have not yet forgiven myself). Once my initial supply of sandwiches ran out, I subsisted on various combinations of couscous, instant Folgers, granola, powdered milk and hot water from gas-station coffee machines. I bought one doughnut. I slept on a floor, in a shelter, on a porch and in the woods. I hit Canada at Derby Line, cruised a gravel path along the edge of Lake Memphremagog and cranked my way south, against driving rain, all the way to my sister’s in Richmond.

By the time I made it back to Ferrisburgh on the seventh day, my body was beat up and broke down and other things, as well. My back and neck ached. My right knee was clicking with the regularity of a metronome. I had that deep bone-bruise sensation in my hands and all through my “keel.” And my legs felt weak and twitchy, like they might accordion out from under me if I were to use them for anything but pedaling.

More impressive than the body, though, was the mind; the bent, twisted scrap heap of a mind that I lived in and with for much of the trip (I’m thinking here of phrases such as “mind bender,” “sick and twisted,” “let’s throw some more junk on that scrap heap”). A friend who has done considerable bike touring informed me ahead of time that I’d probably want something called Chamois Butt’r for chafing and a set of Allen wrenches for tune-ups, and that I should expect all different kinds of pains and small problems. He even lent me the panniers (read: saddlebags) that his mother used on a tour of Europe in the ’70s. It was only my head — what would happen to it after consecutive 80-mile days on the road — that he neglected to mention.

The afternoon that I arrived home I ate a pound of bacon and traced my route on a road map with a blue marker. I looked over the map: 63 village-cities, 33 creek-rivers, 26 lake-pond-reservoirs, 10 counties. I had trouble keeping track of all the roadkill, so instead I counted types: woodchuck, chipmunk, raccoon, garter snake, blue-black butterflies every couple of miles. Estimating the number of red, shirtless, pot-bellied men mowing lawns also proved challenging. I tried breaking it up into RSPBMML per day, but certain difficulties persisted: weed whacking included? What about red, pot-bellied women? Is a farmer mowing a hayfield a totally different category?

I taped the map to the wall beside my desk and wrote my stats in the corner. It wasn’t enough. I scribbled little notes all along the route with arrows pointing to precise spots: fish-delivery truck, dusty creemee stand, hand-size moth, Yankee swankee, lovely views, hell on earth! It still wasn’t enough, so I added more: vile egg water, $15 sunscreen, snapping turtle, Lower Podunk Road, quiet and undisturbed. I could see that I’d covered some ground, made my way through rich towns and poor, soaked in glinting streams, befriended a wonderful, hippieish woman who offered me a cabin to live in for the summer. I could think Vermont’s massiveness and irreducibility. But I couldn’t feel it. Not like I could when I was out there. Not as a scrap heap in my mind. Vermont the Particular was already sliding back into Vermont the Bundle, that comforting, easy myth.

A bicycle covers massive distances quickly — much as a car does — but on a bicycle you are out in the open, senses pricked to everything. This is perhaps obvious. It’s the implications of the observation that I find fascinating, and that my friend neglected to mention.

One cyclist I met up near Lake Willoughby, an endurance freak who has traversed the entire country and often puts down 175-mile days, referred to car travel as “being in the cage.” When biking, you are decidedly free of the cage. Everything from the ants on the highway shoulder to the thunderheads building in the distance; from the smell of lupine to the smell of exhaust; from Brattleboro to Barton — it all comes in.

The result? Nausea. Scrap heap. A kind of trippy, overwhelming, kaleidoscopic experience. Barefoot, tweaked-out addict on the public library steps? Gentle old hunchbacked man arranging garden gnomes in little mulch nests? Child in a red T-shirt swinging on a tire swing with a smartphone in hand? Snapping turtle? Hand-size moth? Are these folks really all neighbors? Am I their neighbor? Or am I just a tourist, just some fool who should get a real job, settle down in one town, stop rambling and observing and forcing myself to “take it all in,” whatever the hell that means?

Bike touring is not a means to answering these questions. Bike touring is disturbing. And it is awesome because it is disturbing. Bike touring is Too Much. Too many beautiful images and too many sad images and too many roads winding toward too many unexpected reversals.

When I finished my sandwich, the dog quieted down and jumped up into Toothless Host’s lap. T.H. was still drunk as a cinder block, but now, instantly, he was tender, petting the dog with the hand not holding the Rolling Rock. We began to talk, and though the conversation veered into incoherence and repetition and long, random pauses, it was indeed a conversation. And not just any conversation, but a good one, a conversation with a man from “the far side of the range,” from one of a million Vermonts I’ve hardly known.

We talked about many things: how long it takes to burn 20 pallets; how you can heat your house through the winter on lumber-mill tailings; how nice the pond and mountains looked; how his 98-year-old dad and 87-year-old mom still live in an old house back near the pass road; how it wasn’t all that challenging to set up “perimeters” in Grenada during “that scuffle.”

“You know, I was in the service five years,” he said, “and there was only one guy I stayed in contact with afterward, a good Irishman, a real good Irishman, my one real friend from all that time. And you know what? He blew his brains out.”

I said nothing, then something genuine and from the heart but completely trite. The stars were out, both in the sky and reflected on the surface of the pond.

“It traumatized me,” T.H. went on. “No, not traumatized, but made me sad. Yeah. It made me sad. And it still does. It makes me sad to talk about it.”

The dog in his lap snuggled down a little deeper. The night was cold enough to see your breath. There was no beer left. The last pallet’s embers were glowing their way into ash. “It makes me sad to talk about it. Even right now.”

One minute you’re climbing a hill, the heat and fatigue and metronomic knee joint conspiring to take you out, finish you for good. The next you’re racing down six miles of smooth new blacktop, your body dissolved in cool wind and wide views. It’s a hilly state, and on a bicycle you can’t help but go up and down, up and down. The transitions between the two — between the up and the down — are often imperceptible. They happen in a flash. This might be the metaphor I’m searching for.

Or maybe this: One minute you’re scared of a man, hyperaware of your differences, your sobriety and his deep black well, your fixed-up teeth and his gaps and spaces. The next you want to put your arm around him, tell him something heartfelt that isn’t trite, or just let him know that you appreciate the invite to camp on his land, and that you’ll be sure to stop in and say hello the next time you’re passing by. He says that’d be fine, and stumbles on home, leaving you alone with the bullfrogs and peepers. The moon is rising, the hammock swaying. The knots holding together Vermont the Bundle are loosening. The fireflies aren’t planes; they’re shooting stars.

This is the fourth in Vermonter Leath Tonino’s “Seven Lengths of Vermont” series, each a different outdoor adventure in which he experiences the natural sights, sounds, smells, seasons and people over the course of a year in his beloved state. His first essay, published in Seven Days on November 30, 2011, was about hiking the length of the Long Trail. His second, in January 11, 2012, was about hitchhiking. In the March 21 issue, it was cross-country skiing.