Saturday, October 8, 2011

Go to Vermont. Bring a Mountain Bike. Right Now.

If you enjoy mountain biking and haven't yet been to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, you should log off this site immediately and plan your trip. Right now. I mean it. Stop. And don't look at the picture.

You looked.

Alright, but plan your trip to Vermont as soon as you're done reading this post. Or just load the bikes in the car and have your passenger use his or her iPhone to find a places to stay and eat on the way up. Promise? Good.

My trip up wasn't too spontaneous: my wife was taking a five day painting workshop (run by the artist Susan Abbott) in Marshfield, Vermont so I tuned and brought two bikes: the recumbent and my homemade mountain bike. I modified the latter with wider 2.35” Ritchey tires thinking I could use better traction than what the 2” ones had been giving me. Putting them on made the bike look bigger and as good as new.

For part of the trip we stayed in Danville at the Emergo Farms Bed & Breakfast, about a half hour drive from the Kingdom Trails.

 And this is the view from the end of the driveway. The place just oozes peacefulness.

When I called to make a reservation, I spoke to one of the co-hosts, Lori, and quickly discovered she's a mountain biker. During our stay, it was great to chat with a New England B&B owner (who makes pretty incredible French toast, incidentally) about something other than leaves. For the record, the leaves in Vermont are beautiful right now...

...but that's all I have to say about that.

So after dropping my wife off at her painting workshop, I doubled back and headed to East Burke, which is home to the Kingdom Trails. These trails are made possible by generous landowners and a committed bunch of people who maintain them. A one-day trail pass is $15 and a season ticket is $150. I know there are free places to ride a mountain bike, but when you are on these trails, you know where the money went.

You only have to ride for a few minutes before you realize there are trails in the Northeast Kingdom that do not exist in nature. Some of these trails exist only in Vermont.

After a scenic drive, I arrived in East Burke and parked my car at East Burke Sports. There are several designated parking areas for the Kingdom Trails, but since I wanted to buy a few things and thus be a customer I thought my car would blend in.

One of the designated parking areas is just across the street from East Burke Sports by the Kingdom Trails office, which is where you go to buy your trail pass (and souvenir socks and a T-shirt, if you like). Just nearby is the Northeast Kingdom Country Store.

Because this area is such a destination, there is an expectation of the clientèle that extends all through East Burke I rather like. For instance, walking into a restaurant after a day of muddy mountain biking would cause many a normal business owner to scowl. Not here. If you walk the country store wearing muddy bike clothes, the staff will smile at you just as brightly as they did that morning when you entered in clean clothes to buy a pre-ride cookie. Or two.

Likewise, if you enter East Burke Sports to buy a new pair of gloves and you have spatters of dirt all over your face, you may share a friendly nod with just about everyone you run into who bears the same filth – much like the scene in Fight Club where the guys with bruises would quietly acknowledge one another. In fact, I'd like to think that if you visited East Burke wearing a nice dress or a tailored business suit, locals would call the police to report a suspicious person.

There's also a resourcefulness of the Kingdom Trails staff that I appreciate. For instance, at some point prior to my visit, a large tree fell on a trail. Instead of removing it, someone thought it would be better to just buzz the upper part of the trunk with a chainsaw and set up a ramp leading to it – thus creating a new part of the course that I didn't have the nerve to try with my homemade (hardtail) mountain bike.

Upon buying my two-day pass I was given a trail map. Upon opening it, I was almost overwhelmed by the size of the place. Over 100 miles of trails altogether, and on the map they are conveniently coded for 'easiest' all the way to 'experts only.' There's also 'expert freeride' if you have a full face covering helmet and wear Mad Max-like body armor. I hadn't even taken the bike out of the car and I was already thinking about my next trip.

The first day I was there it was raining, which isn't ideal. At times it was a drizzle and during two four-minute periods on my first day, it stopped altogether. It wasn't the best time to hit the Kingdom Trails but it was one of only two possible days I could visit, so I put on a waterproof jacket, stretched a hotel showercap over my helmet, and set off from the parking lot of East Burke Sports and headed up the steep East Darling Hill Road to hit some of the trails near The Wildflower Inn, which was where I had taken my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time) for a romantic getaway in the summer of 2004.

Part of the trail network runs through the back of The Wildflower Inn's property. Even though the weather wasn't cooperating, it was still just a beautiful place.

On this wet day, I decided to warm up on some of the easier trails but I kept diverting onto trails that have names like 'Troll Stroll' and 'Coronary.' That can throw you off because I found plenty of trails that had less interesting names that were just extraordinary. I also discovered trails that could have been named differently. I forgot the original name for this one, but I quickly dubbed it 'The Dagobah System' though it may not look that way in nice weather.

 'Check Your Brakes First' would also be a great name for a trail.

Speaking of brakes, after a morning of rainy, muddy riding, my disc brakes that I had installed myself were working perfectly in every way except they wouldn't stop the bike when I squeezed them. Far from my car, I found an abandoned maple syrup building on a trail to get out of the rain so I could investigate the problem.

Of course, I didn't have my newly built folding workstand, so among the debris in the barn (which, for the record, included a worn 26” tire discarded by an earlier trespasser/cyclist in need of a workshop) I had to improvise: I found two sawhorse pieces and two long sections of wood to thread through the bike. The weight of it held it off the ground and I didn't use nails or screws.

While I was making the adjustments, I got hungry so I pulled out a MRE (Meals Ready to Eat) I had brought with me. This came from my 'hurricane preparedness kit' from back home and was months, if not weeks, from its five-year expiration date. It's not the worst trail food you could have, but it would have been much better if I had gotten a sandwich from the Northeast Kingdom Country Store. No matter what you eat or bring on the trail, always, ALWAYS take your garbage out with you.

Once I had the brakes back up to strength, I returned to the trails and had such a fantastic time I didn't want to leave.The bike I had built was in top form.

Even though I was wiping mud from my eyes rather frequently, the place still looked beautiful. I thought that if it looked this good now, imagine what it looks like in nice weather.

An hour after I had finished lunch, the brakes once again started to fail at their official job. To paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson's description of Alfa Romeos, it was clear I had built a mountain bike to be as great as a mountain bike can be – briefly.

I decided that 15 miles was enough and reluctantly stopped for the day to avoid a disaster. I also bought new brake pads at East Burke Sports before leaving.

The next morning, I was thrilled to discover that it wasn't raining, so fueled by a great breakfast I set to work installing the new pads in the driveway of Emergo Farms. The cows showed no interest in what I was doing.

I was relieved to discover that my original pads were badly worn and even more relieved to find the bike stopped on a dime with the new ones on, so I headed back to East Burke, filled with hope. East Burke Sports, bathed in sunlight, looked as though it was full of hope as well.

As I did the day before, I started the ride by heading up East Darling Hill Road in the lowest gear possible. On the way up, I passed a couple mountain biking down. The second rider was an attractive woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, and she responded to my 'good morning' with a smile and: 'you're heading in the wrong direction!'

As she raced down the hill away from me, I smirked at her comment. With hills you have a challenge and a payoff, and my first destination that morning was Heaven's Bench, which is behind The Wildflower Inn. My wife and I hustled up there one morning in the frost (in August, mind you) during our weekend there, and I wanted to see if I could take some pictures now that the sun was out. Trust me: the photos do not do the place much justice.

Since it was sunny and my last day (on this trip) at East Burke, I decided to hit some different trails. To get there I had to return to Darling Hill road near some animals – including a horse who was gazing wistfully in the general direction of the trails as though he were wishing he could go biking. May make a good children's book. Never mind. 

Just past the Inn, I hooked up with the Bemis trail, which runs between Darling Hill Road and most of the trails I had hit the previous day. I found it an easy and scenic singletrack.

Eventually, I hooked back up to Darling Hill Road so I could go to the new trails. Because I had failed to bring my notebook, I had to use other methods of documenting where I had gone and what trails I really liked.

I originally planned a never-the-same-trail-twice day in the Northeast Kingdom, but I did Kitchel twice in a row, which meant at the bottom of my first run I immediately got on East Darling Hill Road so I could do the slow and thigh-burning ride back to the top. I have no photos of the trail whatsoever because I didn't want to stop on this heavenly half-mile to get the camera out. It's a roller coaster in single track form and I'd write a song about it had I the talent. Whoever maintains that and the other trails: thank you.

After the second trip down, I headed on the VAST trail and eventually made it to Sugarhouse Run.

I liked this trail because it intersects with so many others, such as 'Nose' and 'Pines.' Wisely, I stopped for lunch at the Northeast Kingdom Country Store before heading right back out again. Once again, I was faced with a day I didn't want to end.

Unfortunately, it did, and before I knew it I had a very narrow window to leave, head to Emergo Farms for a shower, and drive to Marshfield to pick up my wife so we could go to dinner. Since I was in the vicinity, I headed back to the Heaven's Bench area to take one last picture. On the way, I marveled at the intricate network of tubes that would collect liquid from trees that would eventually be boiled for hours before being poured onto pancakes. Or, if you're lucky, an innkeeper's amazing French toast. 

I soon made it to Heaven's Bench where I took a final triumphant photo.

While riding down, I passed a couple heading up, and by complete coincidence, one was the woman I had seen earlier - who was now walking her bike up the hill.

“Am I there yet?” she asked me jokingly as I approached.

“You're heading in the wrong direction,” I said with a smile as I rolled by.

She threw her head back and laughed so loudly everyone in a three-inn radius probably heard her.

I did a last trip down Sugarhouse Run and a third and final (for this trip) run down Kitchel before getting back to my car. I ended up keeping the Kingdom Trails map in the waterproof pouch for days after the trip was over. You had better believe I'm hanging on to it for the next trip. As for you: plan your trip to the Northeast Kingdom. Now.


  1. wow...beautiful blog site i like it.This looks so delicious and satisfying,but i hope peoples are like it.Thanks .. ration MREs meals ready-to-eat , disaster food aid