On Thursday September 21st I used Ride with GPS to plan a route in Franklin County. I was going to take my road bike but in the event I chose to use my gravel bike instead. My route included a stretch of the Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail. I did more or less the same ride last year in late September and I remembered that the rail trail was not well maintained. My road bike has narrow tires and is not happy on rough ground.
On Friday morning I got up at 5 AM and after eating a bagel I got ready to go. In September it is cool in the morning but by the afternoon it can be quite warm. It was in the upper forties that morning. I wore gloves, a wool hat, a lightweight wool neck warmer and leg warmers. Leg warmers are nice because they are easy to put on and take off, but because I have skinny legs they often slip down. I use rubber bands to keep them up but that doesn’t work all that well. Every once in a while I have to pull them up. For me they are an imperfect technology but I use them anyway. The benefits outweigh the inconvenience. I brought along my usual long ride snacks - peanuts and raisins, figs, dates and dried mango. I caught the 6:45 AM commuter bus to Saint Albans from Winooski.
In Saint Albans I headed out on the rail trail and soon I was cold. It was a sunny day and I knew it would get warmer but for the first two hours of the ride I felt quite chilly. The rail trail is mostly in the shade so I didn’t get much warmth directly from the sun. My hands and feet get cold easily, and that is where I felt the coldest. I had on a windbreaker over a wool bike sweater which I wore over a lightweight wool shirt. Even with those three layers my core was chilled. It was a fine morning and I was happy to be out riding. It is possible to enjoy a ride even if you are uncomfortable. I was glad that I took my gravel bike, the trail was rough in places.
I rode to Sheldon and then headed south on Main Street. Many years ago I did a storytelling residency at the Sheldon Elementary School. At lunch time I had a break and I walked through the woods near the school. One afternoon I was walking with my hands behind my back on a footpath that was visible from the school. By the time I returned there was a rumor that I had been arrested and was handcuffed with my hands behind my back! Luckily I was soon able to dispel that rumor. Even out in the countryside walkers are sometimes viewed with suspicion. A few years later I was in Highgate teaching an evening class. I parked my car in the school lot and went for a walk. When I got back I was greeted by a border patrol officer. He said, “You are not from around here are you.” I wondered what about my appearance made him think I was a stranger. I explained my reason for being there and he let me go.
To return to my travel narrative - so far I was on the route I had planned the day before. I stopped at Paradee Road for a snack and some water. My hands started to warm up but my feet were still cold. Main Street turned into North Road. There was some morning traffic but it was not bad. I want to be on roads with no cars at all but that is not a realistic desire.
I crossed Route 36 in Fairfield and stopped at the Bent Northrop Memorial Library. It is a nice new library with lots of space and light. I used the bathroom and got some water. I also looked at the bulletin board to see what kind of events were happening in town. There was a raffle to support the library and a yoga class.
After Fairfield, North Road turned into South Road. My plan was to take Buck Hollow Road into Fairfax but there was no road sign and so I passed Buck Hollow Road and kept on going on South Road. South Road had a series of hills that I had to climb. For most of the summer I had been riding my road bike which is lighter than my gravel bike. I had also been doing less hilly routes. By the time I got to Will George Road I was feeling the effects of all that climbing. My legs were shaky. It was also getting warmer. At Will George Road I took off my windbreaker and my warm hat. I checked my map and realized I had overshot Buck Hollow Road so I adjusted my route. Next time I take that ride I will not make the same mistake.
At Will George Road I talked briefly with a man who was working on a house. He asked me if I was out for the day or for multiple days. I told him that it was a day trip and he wished me a good ride.
I took Ellsworth Road which turned into Wilkins Road. Both roads were dirt and there were very few cars. Much to my relief these roads were mostly downhill. It was nice to take a break from climbing. I turned right on Fletcher Road and went into the center of Fairfax. I was hungry by that time and I wanted to take a long break. My plan was to stop at Saint Luke’s Cemetery but there was someone working in the cemetery so I decided to keep on going. I stopped at a storage center and sat in the sun next to one of the buildings.
After my break I took Sandhill Road into Westford. There is a short but very steep hill on Sandhill Road. I used my lowest gear to get to the top. The Westford Library was not open so I was not able to get more water, but I had enough for the rest of my ride. I sat under the gazebo in the Westford Common and had a snack. A woman rode up who had come in on Route 128 from Essex. She was going back to Essex and I suggested taking Brookside Road back. I showed her the route on my phone. In my original plan I was going to take 128 back but with my gravel bike the Brookside route was more attractive. Brookside road is dirt.
I stopped on Maple Tree Lane to take a photo of the road dappled with sunshine. As I got out my phone a brown dog rushed up to the fence next to the road and started barking at me. I was startled, I did not see the dog coming. Eventually the dog stopped barking and just looked at me balefully.
I turned onto Woods Hollow Road and did my last steep hill for the day. It was a relief! I thought about the woman who I had advised to take he same route and I hoped that the hill would not be too much for her. It is hard to judge someone’s fitness unless you ride with them. I stopped on Old Stage Road for my last snack and the last of my water. I started down Chapin Road but soon ran into fresh gravel. It was impossible to ride on, so I had to turn back and take Old Stage Road instead. I turned onto Lost Nation Road which lets me avoid Route 15. It took me to Route 2A where I stopped at Simon’s store. By this time it was quite warm and I had shed most of my outerwear and my leg warmers.
I was very tired and so I had to be extra careful riding the rest of the way home. Fatigue is mental as well as physical so it is easier to make mistakes when you are tired. After I got home I took a shower and then iced my right knee. Later in the day I used a heating pad. The next day I felt a little sore but the day after I felt fine.
As I got ready to ride on Sunday, September 24, I thought about taking pictures of the Asters I would see along the way. Asters are a special flower for me, they represent the end of summer and the beginning of fall. I appreciate how beautiful they are but I also feel sad because my long rides are coming to an end. I had taken a ride two days earlier and had seen lots of Asters but not taken any photos of them. For some reason I had in my mind that Asters are purple, but when I actually started looking at them during the ride they were more of a dark pink than a purple. I decided to wear a purple bike jersey as part of my riding ensemble anyway. Purple and dark pink are adjacent colors. I also wore a pair of three-quarter length merino wool tights and some red and white striped wool socks that cover most of my calf.
My plan was to catch the bike ferry and ride the islands. I left my house at 8:30. It takes me about an hour and a half to get to the bike ferry dock from Winooski. The first ferry leaves at 10, and I wanted to catch that one. It was late in the season and I didn’t think the ferry would be too crowded, but by being there early I guaranteed myself a seat.
It was a gray day, and the leaves were starting to fall from the trees. Even though it was not sunny, I found myself loving the day just as it was. All weather brings gifts with it.
I was riding my road bike with narrow tires because my entire route, except for the causeway, was paved. The causeway is a smooth gravel surface which is easy to ride with a road bike. After a long ride two days earlier, on a heavier steel bike, my titanium/carbon bike felt very easy to pedal.
I arrived in plenty of time at the ferry dock and saw my old friend Frank, who has been working the ferry for many years. It was the first time I saw him this year. He lives in California and I was not sure if he had made it to Vermont to crew the ferry. It was good to see him. I boarded the ferry with five people who were speaking French. I understood some of what they were saying, but most of it was lost on me. I think it was the first bike ferry ride I have ever taken with more French speakers on board than English speakers.
I started on my usual clockwise route of South Hero and Grande Isle. It is a ride I have taken many times but there is always something new to see.
My first stop was White’s Beach where I took a photo of two trees and two boats and two dinghies. I had my snack sitting on a swing facing the lake. Usually I listen to an audiobook while I snack but on this day I read New Yorker articles on my phone instead.
As I headed up West Shore Road I hit a newly paved stretch of road and started up a little hill. I was feeling strong and it was joyful sensing the smooth road, the lightness of my bike and the ease I felt in climbing.
I started looking for Asters and saw them everywhere. I keep my phone in an inner pocket of my hip pack, and it takes a few seconds to get to it. I decided to slide the phone into a more accessible side pocket. The next time I saw an Aster I wanted to photograph I discovered that I had put the hip pack on upside down! I was lucky that my phone did not slip out. I was also lucky to find two shades of Asters next to each other.
I stopped again at a boat access area on West Shore Road. There were still mostly gray skies. I regretted not bringing along my clear riding glasses. I didn’t need sunglasses. On many rides I forget to bring something along in spite of having a ride checklist.
I headed east on Moccasin Road until I got to Route 2. I stopped at DonnaSue Shaw’s Pie stand. It was closed but I was still able to buy an energy bar and get some water. I also took a photo of her geese. The pie stand has an honor system. People can use Venmo or pay cash. Almost all of the Island farm stands use the same kind of honor system. This time of year you can get nice tomatoes at a farm stand and if you bring along some salt, tomatoes make a good ride snack.
I rode north to East Shore Road. East Shore Road loops south by the lake and then back to Route 2. I stopped at Emmons’s Grocery Store. I sat on a bench next to the porta potties and ate the snack I bought from the pie stand along with some green grapes. In the porta potty I changed out of my merino tights. I took a photo of some graffiti on a bench. The figure looks human but seems to have circles instead of hands and feet. It is some kind of bike/human hybrid.
I took Route 2 south to the next East Shore Road loop. As I rode East I thought about the song ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’ I had sung it the week before at the Family Room Garden where I lead a story hour every week during the summer. I used the song as an awareness exercise. I focused on each part of the body mentioned in the song. I was conscious of what I was seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. Also how my head, shoulders, knees and toes were feeling. On a ride what I see overshadows what I hear and smell. It is good to focus on other senses. I passed a woman who was talking through the window of a horse van. She said, ”We’re going for a ride now. We will be there soon”. She spoke in exactly the same tone you would use for a small child.
I got back to Route 2 and went South to South Street. I stopped at The Congregational Church of South Hero. Usual I am alone there, but on this day there was a woman and a man guarding a table of refreshments. I asked if I could take a break on the church porch and they said that I could. The man asked me where I was from and I said “Winooski.” “No,” he said “What country?” He thought I had a German accent. It was a great opportunity to become a different person, someone who grew up in Germany and then moved to Vermont, but instead I told him I was an American, born in New Jersey and raised in Providence, Rhode Island. He seemed a little disappointed but offered me refreshments anyway. I gladly accepted a cider donut and some cider. The man was a native Vermonter and clearly loved telling stories about his life. I learned about his work as a volunteer firefighter in Fairfax. He told me that during urban renewal in Burlington there were a number of suspicious fires, especially at churches. The buildings that burned were in the way of development. The refreshments I had just eaten were for a crop walk and after I left the church I saw the walkers.
I rode back to the ferry and sat next to a child with multi-colored socks. The ferry was full. One of the passengers said, “I love your socks.” I thought she was talking to me because I had on nice striped socks but the child’s socks were clearly superior. In a long career as a performer I have learned to never try to upstage a child. During a quiet moment on the voyage Frank said to me, “Where did you ride Peter?” I was a bit taken aback at first and I said, “Do I have to tell everyone?” Then I laughed and told him where I had been.
I rode to Airport Park for my last snack and then took Biscayne Heights toward the bike path. Two teenage boys were riding on the other side of the road. One of them crossed the road and headed straight for me, veering off at the last moment. I yelled, “Don’t be an asshole!” He laughed and kept on riding. In the past I have had a hard time letting that kind of thing go. I engage in revenge fantasies and obsess about the incident. This time I was better about just getting on with my ride. I didn’t think about it much on the rest of the way home.
About the author:
Peter Burns is a long-time bike enthusiast, and one of the original year-round bike riders in Burlington. He writes amazing monthly blogs and teaches a variety of Everyday Biking workshops. In addition to his work at Local Motion, he also works at a group home for people with Psychiatric disabilities, teaches classes for the Vermont Humanities Council, teaches swimming at the Burlington YMCA, and is a regular host of Storytelling VT. You can contact Peter at [email protected].