Sunday, October 28, 2012

Steel, Rubber and Muscle

Just before I rolled out of the garage yesterday, geared up for a rugged ride up a long, steep dirt road, I said to Mrs. V, "I'm off to do what I want to do. Nothing to do with invoices, leases, clients expecting miracles from me, clients expecting the worst from me, commitments, or forms. Just steel, rubber and muscle."

The simple and elemental nature of biking is often a efficacious remedy for quotidian woes.

It's been a busy couple of weeks, filled with sleepless nights, anxiety, and not a little excitement. I'm taking the next step in establishing my private therapy practice, and, on Wednesday, I signed a lease for a one-day-a-week rental in a lovely, expensive office space. The countless ramifications of this step have been rattling around my brain like steel bearings in a thermos bottle, day and night.

Yesterday's ride was balm to the soul. Long dirt-road foray. Beautiful fall colors. Cushy tires on the Vaya to absorb the endless end-of-season washboarding. I returned a new man.

No pix yesterday; phone was recharging. Kind of nice to be forced to attend directly to the beauty, instead of "capturing" it and thinking, I can enjoy that later.

Instead of illustrations of yesterday's jaunt, I offer these random shots of our lovely farm-centric river valley. With Hurricane Sandy on the way, who knows what these fields will look like in a couple days? The hazards of tilling a rich-soiled flood plain. 

If the flooding isn't too bad, perhaps we also won't lose power for days, like we did in last year's Halloween storm. Wish us luck!

Hadley tree farm, and the Holyokes beyond

 Lovely dirt roads run through the alluringly
named, and oft-flooded, Honeypot neighborhood of Hadley

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fall Treasure in Whately and Conway

A very fine day in the Valley yesterday, one of those that used to get called "indian summer." (Though I'm sure that if I didn't enclose that in quotes, the lunatic-fringe PC warriors from Amherst would firebomb my house. PC folks are so tolerant; they believe you should be and do anything you want, as long as it's just like them.)

Over the river and through the woods, to the funky houses I went today. Folks around here love to 'spress themselves (to paraphrase the Isley Brothers), including and especially in their front yard. This is the upside of living in an alternative-style community: bike riding is like a treasure hunt or gallery walk.

As I climbed out of Northampton on North Farms Road, I caught sight of this familiar fence: 

But then also noticed, for the first time, smaller sculptures on the rock wall in the front:

Further on up the road (I'm going to quit quoting songs sometime soon, here), I turned left onto  Masterson Road in Whately, and visited a sculpture I've taken to calling the Strawberry Queen. She is all carved out of one tree, if you can believe it:

Would a quote from Strawberry Fields go amiss here? Or perhaps from Strawberry Alarm Clock?

The Queen looks as if she's paused, enraptured, in the middle of a royal strawberry gesture (notice the smaller berry in her hand, which she's maybe about to confer on a fruity knight); if you turn around, you can understand why she's eternally distracted:

You can also see how far above the tree-tops I've climbed. There was more to come, some absurdly steep ramps of,  I would guess, about 17 percent grade. The rewards, however, become manifest at the top of Masterson -- a unque view of the Valley, all the way across the Connecticut River and into the Pelham hills, about 15 miles away. How 'bout those fall colors, folks?

The gorgeousity put me in a mood to ramble, so I poked around further uphill. Finally, at the tippy-top of Whately, I discovered a majestic old barn, lately renovated for some mysterious purpose, whether business or residential, who can say (the Strawberry Queen's castle?) but just look at the handsome results:

Riding is never more rewarding than it is at this time of year in Western Mass. If you're out this way, give a shout and we'll ramble together.

Friday, October 12, 2012

You did NOT!

Everytime I think I'm getting bored with the same old road bike, I get reminded: Think different.

If your jaw doesn't drop the first time you see this, I don't know how to help you.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Shelburne Falls: A Fitting End

For a couple years, I've had the goal of riding from our house on the right bank of the Connecticut over the river and way up into Shelburne Falls, in the foothills of the Berkshire range. That idyllic little hamlet is only 25 miles away by back road, but they're some of the most beautiful -- and steep -- miles I know 'round this amazing place called the Pioneer Valley.

A couple weeks ago, I fixed my mind on this quest, and I planned it for Columbus Day weekend, which is when I like to do a wing-ding season closer: long, hard, and with killer views of peak autumnal hues. In this case, I talked my friend Todd into joining me in riding up into Shelburne Falls, where our wives and his daughter would drive up to meet us. We'd all have lunch together, soak in the seasonal colors, and then he and I would ride back home via the route by which we came.

As it turned out, the day was everything I'd hoped for -- and then some. Care to come along and re-live it with me? It's a good tale, this one, and it takes a bit to tell it; you may want to wait 'til you have a cup of coffee and ten minutes to spare.

I started from my place in the chilly, grey morning, and picked Todd up in Sunderland, where we crossed the river and warmed up on the respectable grades of Route 116 leading to Conway.

From there, we took a right on Shelburne Falls Road. A few rolling miles later, the climbing began in earnest, with daunting grades, but delicious brooks running through the forest by the road to keep us refreshed and eager.

As we approached the border of Buckland (the town that makes up well over half of what is locally called Shelburne Falls), the skies cleared, the view opened up nicely, and our hearts soared:

We also spied Quirky New England as we entered town:

We reached McCusker's Market on Conway Street, and waited in the warm sun for the ladies, while the fellow at the next table bragged into his cell phone about being out for a ride in his Corvette, and took a long line of bets on football games. The gals arrived with lunch, which we tore into. Provisions were refreshed at the store, ice cream cones were purchased next door, and we wandered over the Deerfield River via the Bridge of Flowers, a former railroad trestle converted to a charming floral landmark thousands visit every year:

We introduced Todd's family to the waterfall and sculptural glacial potholes on the other side of the river:

Around this time, Todd and I noticed dark clouds moving in, and decided it was time to take our leave. About 300 feet out of town, the derailleur trouble I'd been having all morning blossomed into a full-on drivetrain melt-down. Todd patiently helped me by the side of the road, while storm clouds gathered and winds picked up. As the trouble persisted, he turned a politely deaf ear to my fulminations and conspiracy theories. Finally, I wangled five (mostly) useable gears out of the deal -- unfortunately not including my lowest, which I would have loved to use for climbing the many hills we had flown down during our generally upward ride into town.

Onward we moved, and down came the rain. We donned jacket or vest, bowed our heads, and soldiered on through wind and wet. Each time we passed scenery that had wowed us earlier in the day, it brought into sharp relief the difference between our current mood and the way we felt when we'd first passed that way. 

However, I am something of a bike-duck. I actually like riding in the rain, as long as it's not pouring. The worst of the downpour was brief, and my mood picked up even more as it became apparent I would have enough cooperation from the gear gods to make it all the way home. A long, fast descent toward Conway further boosted my spirits, but little did I know what felicitous fun would finish the cheering up, once we reached that cozy burg: Morris dancers!

This delightful tradition from Olde England is practiced by many a geek from Newer England these days. I knew what they were doing long before they came into focus, because I could hear the merry ching-ching-chinging of the pad of bells wrapped 'round each dancer's shins, and the sound of an ancient tune honking out on an old concertina (a small accordion-like instrument). Then, of course, there are the group shouts, joined by each dancer with full-throated vigor.

Todd, who'd never been exposed to such unrepentant nerdery before, seem somewhat transfixed; a goggle-eyed combination of shock and fascination played across his features. When the tune was done, everyone, including us, roared approval. The rain had lightened but was not altogether gone, and I turned to Todd, saying, "If they can do that in the rain, we have no excuses."

Onward and downward, and across the Connecticut. I dropped him off at his place with many a "well done" exchanged, and soft-pedaled my way home through the gentle rain, taking the long way home to enjoy the back roads and the chance at lingering, once more, in the genuinely great outdoors, on a bicycle, and for the last big hurrah of the season.

As I neared home, I caught sight of an odd shape atop a fence post in my peripheral vision. Turning to see, I was pierced to the core by the fierce stare of an imposing red-tailed hawk. He was not more than nine feet away, perching proud and utterly unafraid.

Thunderstruck, I circled around slowly and approached him again, and, as I did, he gracefully lifted off and winged into the middle distance. It tooke me a few moments to digest what had just happened. The residual feeling was unmistakeable: I'd been given a visit by a totem animal, to remind me of something so important, it can't be conveyed by words, but only by that riveting gaze.

From uplifting camaraderie to a tough solo finish, from warm sun and unmatched scenery to soul-testing slogs through the rain with a semi-functioning bike, this ride included an instance of every reason I ever climb on a bike. The hawk, though... that was grace, a punctuation mark, both fierce exclamation point and and consciousness-raising comma.

May your rides these days be as rewarding. Here's a tip: Go out looking for good stuff and you'll be more likely find it.