September 06, 2021
The last few weeks and weekends have been busy. We:
It's been rad. But it hasn't been vacation. More "long-awaited family visits." This weekend, Meg and I finally got back into the grind of just-us vacation. Also known as the gravel grind.
Our journey began from the Syracuse area on Friday. The route on major highways was pretty inefficient, so we cut the hypoteneuse through the Adirondacks for our drive to Vermont, a nice break from our many hours of highway driving on the CO -> VA -> NY route. Many deer sightings, farm stands, cute diners, and slow drivers later, we arrived at our first destination: Ranch Camp. (In case this link ever breaks, their slogan is "Bikes. Beers. Burritos.") After a craft beer from New England and a burrito with maple verde salsa, we were ready for the last leg of our journey: less than an hour of beautiful driving through northern Vermont.
For a second stop, we chose Hill Farmstead Brewery, one of the best craft breweries in... the world, I guess? It did not disappoint. We grabbed a draft pour, split a bottle, and then picked up an outrageous amount of cans and bottles to bring home and drink during our upcoming bike ride. I don't think I can do Hill Farmstead justice with any words I write in this post, so just know that if you love beer, it's worth visiting. Everything is well executed, even styles of beer that you don't like are worth tasting, and it's beautiful to boot. If you can pull off an IPA aged in white wine barrels, you can pull off damn near anything.
After Hill Farmstead, our campsite was a very, very short drive away. Special thanks to HipCamp for hooking us up with a guaranteed campsite that has a dedicated outhouse for a reasonable price. The land around our campsite was especially lumpy, presenting a bit of a challenge for finding a flat tenting spot, but after we found a flat enough spot I really appreciated the views of the nearby cemetary, rolling hills, and the cute farm animals. We dropped the car off there, I swapped out my awful Onyx brake pads for some aftermarket Kool-Stop upgrades, and we set off on the bikes in search of dinner.
Our bike ride to dinner turned out amazing. Turns out that unlike other Northeast states (New York, specifically), Vermont is chock full of low-traffic dirt roads with low speed limits. That's pretty great for bike rides. But the hills made me very glad to have upgraded my brake pads. Eventually we made it to dinner at Blackbird Bistro. My review, in short: good food. Solid poutine with sweet/creamy cheese curd. Fries should not come with every sandwich, because two sandwiches + poutine + fries for each sandwich was altogether too many potatoes. After this meal I was thoroughly potatoed out. The beer selection was unusually good.
After dinner, we took a slightly-less-hilly route back to the farm camping site. Avoided a passing shower by sheltering under some trees on the side of the road. Saw (and photographed) an impressive double rainbow during a spectacular sunset after the passing shower. Made it back to the campsite just before sunset, and shared a couple of Hill Farmstead beers as we watched the sun set and the stars came out.
The next morning, we woke up before the goats. about 7 AM. Drove across the remainder of Vermont and a good chunk of New Hampshire to Gorham to have breakfast sandwiches at a combination coffee shop/bookstore.
Does a coffee shop/bookstore combo make Gorham sound quaint? Don't be fooled. Turns out, the city is fake-outdoorsy side-by-side hell with lots of fast food and motorcycles. Woof.
After a good deal of sadness and really loud rumbling from the many passing side-by-sides, we got some coffee and sandwiches in our systems and were ready to start our ride. After a brief stop at the local Dollar General to pick up some ramen, toothbrushes (you always forget one item on a trip like this), and a bowl, we got all of our gear in the panniers and onto the bikes. We were all ready to set out. Then we experienced a once-in-a-lifetime event: a visit from the local crazy bicyclist. TOM (The Orange Man) was very friendly, and supposedly a philosopher, and very into "living life in the now." We politely listened to his thoughts on life and compliments of our orange shirt choices and car. Then we headed out as quickly as we could to avoid another 40-minute lecture.
After our first impressions of Gorham, we were really afraid that our bike ride would be totally ruined by side-by-sides and ATVs. Fortunately, our bike ride quickly took us out of town on New Hampshire's Presidential Rail Trail, which let us enjoy the countryside far away from the noises of cars and ATVs. In our 18 miles of riding, we saw miles of rocky mountain creeks, cute former-rail bridges, bald mountain views, a wildlife sanctuary, one or two people riding bicycles... and at least a dozen e-bikes, mostly rentals. I guess New Hampshirians find pedaling a bicycle challenging enough to need assistance most of the time.
After riding the entire length of the rail trail, we set out on some rural roads to find dispersed camping. The journey began with a long, plodding ascent of a poorly maintained paved road, continued with a speedy hill descent down the Owl's Head Highway, and culminated with a long, steep climb up a hill leading into White Mountain National Forest.
Our search for dispersed camping at 4 PM on Saturday of Labor Day weekend went better than expected. After quite a few occupied campsites, most of which were suspiciously devoid of humans, we found a campsite with no tent set up, a plastic bag over the site marker, and a Ford F-150 parked across from the campsite parking spot. Since there were only two more campsites, both of which we figured were occupied, we parked the bikes and settled in, prepared to ask the owner of the truck if we could camp in a corner of his site when he returned. The owner never ended up camping in the site, and someone finally stopped by to pick up the truck around 8:30 PM, well after dark. Which just makes me more curious why anybody would leave their truck parked in a national forest next to a campsite they don't intend to use. But on the plus side, we got a campsite!
The campsite was largely uneventful, except for one thing: at 9PM, for a good half hour, the air exploded. BANG BANG BANG, one after another, for thirty minutes straight. Woke me right up and kept me up until it ended. I still don't know for sure what it was, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't fireworks because I didn't hear any telltale fireworks noises, so my only conclusion is that somebody illegally used the national forest as their personal shooting range. Such is life in the US, I guess.
We were also woken up around 10PM by somebody shining a flashlight around our campsite to see if it was occupied, which leads to yet more questions. Who is still looking for a campsite at 10PM when the sun sets at 7:15? How am I supposed to signal that my campsite is occupied when I don't have a vehicle to park outside of it? The world may never know.
After the flashlight, F150, and explosions, the night was uneventful. Meg and I woke up in the morning, made some coffee and oatmeal, and packed up the gear. Once I was 100% sure we were ready to go, Meg noticed that I had a flat tire. I took a chance and pumped it full of air, and since it seemed to hold, we continued on our ride, eying the formerly-flat tire suspiciously.
The day started off well, with a quick mile descent on the dirt road to a gas station. We nabbed a lemon poppyseed muffin and some water, hit the bathroom, and headed on our way down another paved road to the next stage of the ride, a long hill ascent to Jefferson Notch, the highest point along any public road in New Hampshire.
This hill climb was long, but a lot easier than the climb to our campsite the previous day due to the rolling nature of the hills and the fact that we hadn't already spent hours slowly pedaling uphill along a rail trail. After the hill climb, we were rewarded with an exhilarating 6 mile downhill ride back to the rail trail, which took us right back to Gorham. A quick stop for some poutine in Littleton later, we headed back to New York State, overcast skies, and rain.
New England impressed me. I spent a good deal of time in the Adirondacks and upstate New York in general growing up, so I had some preconceived notions of what Vermont and New Hampshire would be like for late summer outdoor activities. Turns out, Vermont has a hugely different feel from New York, which is hugely different from New Hampshire. The low speed limits, dirt roads, liveable small towns, and farm stands really impressed me. And the maple creamees really impressed Meg, our resident soft serve ice cream fan.