Bike Touring In Vermont: Why West Is Not Best

A Loop Around The Green Mountains With Harris

“West is best, bro,” smirks your buddy as he brags about the raver-chick he hooked up with in Las Vegas during his frat-brother’s bachelor party.

“West is b-e-e-e-st!” croons your free-spirited, Lululemon-yoga-pants-wearing friend after her first visit to San Francisco last week, her carefully disheveled hair arranged with a single, thin dreadlock.

Are you sick of it yet, this whole West is best thing? Well, I sure am. If another Californian reminds me that their state is the world’s fifth largest economy or another Coloradan raves about the fresh pow in the Rockies then I’m going to blow a gasket. Seriously, enough with this West is best crap.

In all honesty, there’s no factual basis for it. You bet me a Tupac? Well, then, I will raise you a Biggie. Oh, you think Hollywood is the cultural capital of the World? Well, then, I’ll point you to New York city, home to nearly every major U.S. broadcast television network and seven of the world’s eight largest ad agencies. Wait, the two richest guys in the world have their corporate headquarters in Seattle? Yeah, well, arguably the most powerful guy in the world lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, and the second most powerful one lives just up Mass Ave.

I was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Maryland, love New York and think that Miami Beach is heaven on Earth. There is no way in hell that I will admit to the West being superior to the East in any way, shape or form. I won’t do it, the East in me just won’t allow it.

*Well, what about the outdoors?*

WHO SAID THAT?

Okay, so, yeah, there is some natural beauty out West. I mean, the anthropomorphic saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert, plentiful like trees in a forest, are kind of cool. And, sure, the jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons are the most awe-inspiring forms I’ve ever seen on the North America continent. And, fine, I’ll admit that the thought of watching an Orca whale spout its mist into the Puget Sound beneath the watchful eye of snowy Mount Rainier nearly brings a tear to my eye…

Oh, damnit. It’s true. The natural beauty of the American West is unparalleled. I don’t think there’s any statistic or figure I could produce to even try and disprove that. I mean, look at Forbes’ list of the 10 best ski resorts in North America; Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, British Columbia; those are all definitely in the West. How about our National Parks? Since the country’s first National Park, Yellowstone, was established in 1872, 58 more have sprung up, and only 11 of those are East of the Mississippi. And everything on the Pacific side is just so much bigger. Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak in the Appalachian range, doesn’t even break 7,000 feet. That’s less than half the elevation of Mount Elbert, the tallest Rocky Mountain precipice at 14,400 feet.

It’s true: when it comes to nature, West is best.

So, when my buddy, Harris, invited me to tour Vermont by bike, I was reluctant. After cycling cross country last year, I figured that the Green Mountains of Vermont would be a cheap thrill when compared to the 14ers of Colorado. Vermont has the second smallest population and sixth smallest area of any U.S. state and its tallest peak, Mount Mansfield, is just shy of 4,400 feet. I don’t mean to belittle the place before even going there, but, for chrissake, there are parts of Western Kansas that almost reach as high as Mansfield. After conferring with my girlfriend, a graduate of the Bernie-loving University of Vermont and an evangelist of the Maple Syrup state, I decided to jump on the green bandwagon: I was headed to Vermont.

But before Vermont, I had to get to Boston. That’s where I would meet Harris, a guy who I quickly bonded with because, out of all of our DC-buddies, we were the only ones who were really into cycling. Once at his home in the Bostonian ‘burbs, we frantically got to packing our panniers.

“Sleeping mat?”

“Check.”

“Two-person tent?”

“Check.”

“Route map?”

“Check.”

Our shit was scattered all over the place, but somehow we managed to pull it together before nightfall. While packing our bags, Harris cued me in to the restless journey he had been on over the past five weeks. Road trip through Utah, camping in Steamboat Springs, kayaking by the Tetons, moving the entirety of his possessions back East from Colorado, his home for the past few years; I looked at him as I would look at a functional VCR in 2017—How the hell are you still working? I thought to myself.

Showing no signs of fatigue, Harris was up first the next morning and made quick work of the 2-hour drive from Boston to Royalton, the point of departure for our bike tour. The drive, as brief as it was, was rather disconcerting. First, I had never been to Boston before, so was not privy to the reality that people drive like maniacs up there. Second, we briefly ventured through Southern New Hampshire where we were greeted by the least welcoming welcome sign I’d ever seen in my life: New Hampshire – Live Free or Die.

Ooooookay…

Green Mountains Loop from Royalton

Anyways, we made it to Royalton and quickly geared up. Our rough plan was to follow the Adventure Cycling Association’s Green Mountain Loop, a 400-mile route spanning Lake Champlain, nearing the Canadian border, straddling the Connecticut River by New Hampshire and ultimately traversing Central Vermont back to the Lake.

I had a strong preference for sticking to the Adventure Cycling map, but Harris really wanted to diverge from the route to pay a visit to Hill Farmstead Brewery in North-Central Vermont. To say that Harris likes beer is an understatement, and I would soon discover that his journey to these breweries was akin to a millennial’s pilgrimage.

So, we hit the road. Green-covered mountains were sandwiched between the grey of pavement and low-lying clouds. I’d never seen such a variety of interspersed foliage as on the escarpment of these mountains, it was really something. By mile five of the ride my mind was pulled away from the verdant scenery because the rigors of our first climb were beginning to hit. Harris, accustomed to riding Rocky Mountain foothills, steadily scooted up to Rochester Gap. I, having done a very poor job of training for this tour (e.g. I didn’t train at all), had to dismount my bike as the grade became as steep as 15%.

Steep climb to Middlebury Gap in Vermont

Despite having ridden my bike cross-country, I had never ridden an incline as absurdly steep as 15%. Brutal grades like these are far more common out East than West, and the reason is historical—the East was developed to accommodate horse-and-buggies, whereas the West was developed to accommodate trains. The former could handle steep, the latter could not, so as a result, you’ll find more treacherously steep roads out East. I’m not sure if that makes the East better for riding than the West, but, hell, it certainly was a challenge, if that’s what you’re looking for.

Sunset Adirondacks and Lake Champlaign

But I wasn’t.

We got over Rochester Gap and then Middlebury Gap, as steep as 16% at points, then ultimately wound up at a host’s home outside of Middlebury where we watched the sunset over the Adirondacks from a set of…well…Adirondack chairs. Seriously!

The next day we were up and out with the sun, weaving through corn fields and blazing past bucolic scenes of red-painted barns with their single, domed silos. At the town of Vergennes, we stopped at a convenience store.

“Man, have you noticed that every general store we stop at is a local, mom-and-pop-style country store? I haven’t seen a single 7-11 or commercial chain since we crossed the state line,” Harris commented, and he was totally right. He reflected on his four-day slog, driving from Colorado to Massachusetts, where big-box stores and strip malls, combined with their sprawling parking lots, sadly comprised most of what he saw.

Well, that certainly was not the case here in Vermont.

I would later learn that Harris’ observation was not a fluke, but rather a conscious decision by Vermonters. State laws and zoning rules actually grant authority to regional boards to refuse commercial developments based on economic and/or environmental grounds and to preserve the New England charm.

Back on the saddle, tailwinds off the great Lake Champlain (note, Champlain is a great lake, not a Great Lake) blew us clear up to Burlington and across the nimble Colchester Causeway and pleasantly flat Grand Isles. We rode and rode and rode through these islands, the scenery become more reminiscent of sandy Cape Cod than Vermont as Burlington and the Green Mountains faded behind us. Around the 97th mile of the day we sought shelter at the home of a Warm Showers host for the evening.

Colchester Causeway panorama

Our host was Scott, a down-to-Earth lawyer and part-time Hockey Dad. We spent all night drinking beers and exchanging stories of our adventures. Scott told us of a time when, in the middle of Winter, he decided to ice skate five miles on the Lake to the convenience store, but just happened to crack the ice and fall in at his third mile. Well, this was no skin off of Scott’s back, he just casually pulled himself from the freeze-ass-cold-middle-of-winter waters and skated home. Why not?! In addition to his hilarious blunder, he told us about some of the adventures he’s embarked on through New England and Eastern Canada and shared his desire to ride through the beautiful peninsula of Gaspé.

Gaspé, I thought to myself, I don’t know even know what the hell that is! As Scott elaborated on his desired journey, I realized that there was much more to this whole East thing than I was really even aware of. Scott opened my mind to a whole new region.

Cycling Up Jays Peak

The following day was light riding, but on the next we scaled a mountain pass just North of Jay’s Peak. Over seven miles we climbed about 1,500 feet to arrive at a peak elevation of 2,100 feet. You know, we weren’t exactly sky-high, like if we had summitted Colorado’s Loveland Pass at 12,000 feet or something, but, honestly, we didn’t need to be. The climb was of comparable intensity and gave us the sensation of being on top of the world.

Summitting Jay’s Peak, I was able to let out a sigh of relief: Ahhh. See, size doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t, right?

Anyways, we blazed into Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, where rolling pastures and distant Green Mountains, some with the pale etchings of ski resorts, met the crisp blue sky at the horizon. A delightful ride guided us past the Northeast Kingdom International Airport, its only “international” flight I’m sure being a single daily charter to nearby Montreal. This was the storied destination of Phish’s somber, depressing and damp breakup concert. I thanked my lucky stars that today’s conditions were nothing like that misguided 2004 concert’s.

Crystal Lake Vermont

That evening we camped out at Crystal Lake where we enjoyed the glass-smooth waters at sunset then made some buddies around the campfire. You know, East or West, some things just rock.

Camping by Crystal Lake in Vermont

The following day, parked outside of a general store where there was a moose standing in line for the Post Office, Harris offered another insight, surely gleaned from his time spent over the past five weeks slogging about in his SUV. “I haven’t seen a billboard since we arrived in this state.” Again, he was right. There were no billboards in Vermont, at least not over the past 236 miles we had covered. Despite the lack of billboards in the state, my mind was still disturbed by that unnecessarily intense sign outside of New Hampshire.

Cycling to Hill Farmstead Brewery

Live Free or Die.

Ugh.

Yeah, so, this was the day that Harris would complete his pilgrimage to Hill Farmstead brewery. We meandered on some residential dirt roads up a hill and somewhere in the middle of the road was an unassuming home adjoined by a two-story shop and taproom. This ignorable lot was the location of Hill Farmstead brewery. As we waited with a crowd for the brewery to open, I felt the sun beaming upon me from the cloudless sky, searing the exposed skin atop my knees and forearms and drying out my throat. I didn’t care what kind of beer they had, I just wanted one.

The doors opened and we broke into the kegs. Harris pointed out this scruffy looking fellow behind the counter who looked like he had just rolled out of bed. This was Sean Hill, founder of the brewery. This guy’s obsession with beer and meticulous attention to detail led to his beers becoming some of the most sought-after in the World.

There he was, a brewing legend, and he didn’t give a fuck what he looked like. Just the beer.

Harris went on to explain that this property had been owned by the family for centuries, and that this brewery, along with the Alchemist and a few others, were the reason that Vermont was garnering international attention for its beers, much like Napa Valley does with its wines. But, to put things in perspective, Hill Farmstead only produces about 3,000 barrels a year, whereas revered California brewer, Sierra Nevada, produces nearly a million annually.

Feverishly gulping down a fresh, cold can of the Hill Farmstead’s limited batch of Walden beers, I was sure that I had consumed many Sierra Nevada beers in my life, but that none of them would stick with me as long as this one. It was amazing.

Hill Farmstead Brewery

After indulging in a few brews, I took a nap (no, I did not pass out) on the well-kempt lawn of the brewery as children performed cartwheels and a mélange of voices speaking both English and French exhausted their linguistic capabilities to describe the flavor of these hoppy beverages.

Once I awoke and screwed my head back on, we continued our journey through the Northeast Kingdom, being taken aback at each turn by some unknown lake with a densely forested island or rambling brook providing a natural symphony.

Little Elligo Pond in Vermont

The next day we comfortably zipped across the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail. On either side of us were neck-high stalks of corn, and in the distance were more of those Green Mountains, proudly thrusting forth from the fields. The trail carried us to Jeffersonville where we began another lengthy ascent, this time up Mount Mansfield. The mountain pass itself was like nothing I had ever seen before. The serpentine road narrowed to one-lane and was flanked by parked cars on either side. Young people from all over drove up on this bright Sunday to hike and rock climb, it was like a natural playground for adults. Harris and I sped over Smugglers Notch and dropped in to the opposite face of Mansfield, zooming downhill and passing beneath the gondola of the trendy Stowe ski resort. This place was truly one-of-a-kind.

Heady Topper beers

In Stowe, we suffered a major setback: the Alchemist brewery was closed on Sunday. Frantically scouring our surroundings, we jetted next door to the Sunset Grill & Tap Room. "Do you have Heady Topper?" I asked in a panicked tone. The woman retrieved two tall cans of the liquid gold and very possibly saved the day.

The last day had finally arrived. We had some 55 miles along route 100 to get to the car and it was one of the most pleasant rides of my life. Paralleling the spine of the mountain range, it was as though I was progressing between rooms of green mountains, each connected by densely forested tunnels. There was always a new ridge to appreciate, an interesting tree top jutting up from the bunch, an endless blue sky with ice-cube clouds floating by. I had felt such a sense of belonging atop my saddle in this state. Over the past seven days, not a single car honked at me or came uncomfortably close. Vermont was made for cyclists.

Cycling route 100 in Vermont

As I put on the final miles, I came to realize how bogus my constant comparisons to the West were. Vermont will never size up to anything on the West Coast. And you know what? It doesn’t have to. Vermont just is what it is. It’s a small state with humble mountains, good beer, lots of blueberries, and a bunch of people who believe in community first and don’t seem to mind sharing the road with cyclists. Looking up at the ever-present green that I had grown so fond of over the past week, I realized that the it was only temporary. In a few short months these hills would be set ablaze by the red, yellow, orange and brown colors of an Atlantic fall.

In Vermont, there was no need for comparison. It just was.