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.

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