Monday, July 14, 2014

Northeast Kingdom and Kingdom Trails: Bike Heaven

Ever had one of those outdoors trips that leave you pie-eyed, exhausted, and exhilarated by the end of the weekend? Did you return dutifully to home and work, only to end up wandering dreamily about town, replaying glorious memories of days just passed?

Well, friend, I just had me that kind of a weekend.

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Back in February, when I turned 50, I spent a few weeks casting about for a proper way to commemorate the occasion. Fifty years seemed too much of an achievement, too dizzying a precipice, to go without a real humdinger of a celebration.

Many dried-out magic markers and mind-maps later, I settled on cooking up a trip for me and some good friends, people I knew would have the right spirit for such an undertaking. I wanted to keep it within New England so everyone could drive. I wanted it to involve as much biking as possible. And I didn't want to tour; I wanted a beautiful and reliable base camp for us to return to every night, where we could smear ourselves with bear fat, dance in loincloths by the firelight, and tell stories of glory and danger from the hunt.

As the weeks dwindled, one and then another of the three friends I was expecting had to excuse themselves. It was a bit of a let-down to realize that, after all that dreaming and planning, it would just be my friend Todd and me having the actual adventure. However, I've ridden enough with Todd to know that he's a perfect partner for such outings, and I was still pretty darn stoked the week leading up to the trip.

Last Thursday -- four and a half months after my birthday -- I packed up the micro-SUV (my trusty Corolla) with tent, food, sleeping bag, and all the camping accoutrements, strapped the road and mountain bike on the back, pointed it all north, and put a brick on the accelerator. Destination: Vermont's fabled Northeast Kingdom.

Our goal was to ride the famed Kingdom Trails mountain bike park as much as possible, and also to get a couple road rides in the beateous countryside. As it turned out, we did all that and more

I'd booked us a gorgeous campsite at Brighton State Park, a little parcel about 25 minutes north of Burke, home of the Kingdom Trails. When I arrived at the campground, I could hardly believe the beauty.

The sites project out over a beautiful pond, with peaks in the background

A short path from the campsite leads down to water's edge
Todd arrived, and, after setting up camp, we set out on a short ride to get a little dirt road action in before starting the fire for dinner.

Dirt road junkies will find heaven in northeasternVermont
Friday turned out to be a perfect summer day, with cool breezes, temps in the 70s, and blue skies. We were eager to get down to Kingdom Trails and find out what the fuss was all about. The morning was spent on the lower part of Darling Hill, reminding our legs what this mountain biking thing was all about; we enjoyed these trails a lot, and even ended up repeating one of them (Beat Bog) for fun. It was the first time I'd ridden in a purpose-built mountain bike park, and it was strange and wonderful, as if someone had built a candy store in the middle of the woods. So much fun to be had, how do we choose trails? The folks at the check-in office had been very helpful with that.

Around noon, we broke for a sizable lunch, knowing that our bigger challenge lay ahead of us. As we worked on our sandwiches, we struck up a conversation with Bennet and Nathan, two very nice young guys from the West Coast who are traveling the country for nearly five months, going from one infamous adventure site to the next. California, Utah, Colorado, the South -- you name it, they've been there (or are headed there). To top it all off, they're getting college credit for this, since they're majoring in outdoor leadership and have helped to develop their own program. Smart guys, indeed!

As we saddled up for our afternoon ride, they asked for info about our campground and I gave them our site number, assuming we'd never see them again.

Up and up we headed, for the higher trails on the Darling Hill side of the park (the Burke Mountain side is more for the downhill crowd, definitely not our thing). Thence, we dove down the twisty, switchbacky routes that seem to be Kingdom Trails' trademark, my rigid fork registering every lovely root along the way. The registration gal had boasted about how smooth the trails were, but I have to say, even the Pioneer Valley back home in Western Mass has smoother trails than this. Maybe she rides full suspension?

However rooty the trails, they are laid out in such a pleasing manner that we had no complaints. Swoopy, challenging, but not insane, we more than once let out the childish whoops that are the sure sign of a good riding area.

The climb from the river basin on the far side of Darling Hill back up to the peak was brutal, with sections ranging from 15 to even 30 per cent in grade. The reward, however, is so spectacular, it was more than worth the effort: Heaven's Bench.

Burke Mountain from Heaven's Bench
At this point, we'd already far exceeded my record for distance and elevation in the mountains. Since the descent back to town started with a 40% grade (yes, you read that right), I was instantly put on alert that I couldn't let exhaustion blur my nascent skills. I spent the first part of the descent talking out loud to myself, trying to keep sharp. Once we hit Widowmaker, however, the fun took over, and (as happened a few times that day) I suddenly became a better rider, just because the trail was so enjoyable I just had to let go and trust the bike and my body.

We finished the day with 17 miles, no injuries or even dangerous moments, and more joy than I've ever had in one day on a bike.

Ice cream? Of course. A splash in the cold river running behind the town bike shop? You bet! After a stop at camp to shower and change, we headed into Island Pond for burgers. Here are a few shots from this exremely scenic little burg, which is being kept up admirably:

Back at the campground, Todd had just built the fire and I was finishing up a call to Mrs. V., when who should arrive at our virtual doorstep but Nathan and Bennet, in the flesh. We were delighted, and, in response to their shy inquiry, insisted they spend the night at our campsite. We talked into the night of fabulous adventures (no bearfat or dancing about the fire, unfortunately), and Todd and I were deeply impressed with the passion, intelligence, and unstoppable optimism of  these two young fellows. They infused our tired souls with much-needed zest, and we drifted off to sleep with visions of future adventures dancing in our heads.

It was one of the best days of outdoor fun in my life, and I'll remember it forever.

Saturday, the young men left early, and Todd and I struggled to saddle up for a road ride. We were tired from all of Friday's shenanigans! Saddle up we did, however, to head west on Route 105. What looked to be flat-to-rolling on my iPhone, however, turned out to have a few more feet of up and down than expected. However, we were surrounded by miles of low-lying fish and wildlife refuge, which was refreshing and lovely. The hills in the distance were a dramatic border to the picture.

We made it over the New Hampshire line, our stated goal, and searched in vain for decent food in a town so small, one-pony would be the most accurate description.

The best part about North Statford, NH, was the view coming in to town

On the way back, we just about lay down and went to sleep on the side of the road. Only the mosquitoes saved us from being found late in the day, dehydrated and mumbling something about Clif Bars. We got back on the bike, somehow found a rhythm, and formed an efficient paceline of two, actually motoring back to camp in good time. I think I just needed those five mosquito-infested minutes to digest the packaged cheese from the North Stratford Gas Mart.

The rest of the day went quickly, and all too soon, Todd was packed and on his way back to family and home. I stayed Saturday night on my own, reading, resting, and retelling adventures to Mrs. V by phone. Sunday morning, I was up and out early. I stopped in Burke on my way south and got a good breakfast and a bucket-load of coffee. I was envious of all the riders suited up for a day's adventure, and toyed with the idea of one more ride. It wasn't just the fact that -- disappointingly -- there are no public trails in Burke, and I didn't want to pay another $15 for an hour's ride. Over the years, I've learned to make my break early on the final day. Lingering is never as good as it sounds.

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Despite the setback of losing two key guys for the trip, Todd and I managed to have the time of our lives in the Kingdom, and were making plans for a return before the weekend was half-over. I strongly recommend these highly-touted trails and this lovely part of scenic and rugged New England.

More importantly, please don't sit around jealously staring at other people's adventure blogs. Let them be a guide to you, just as Bennet and Nathan inspired us. I had plenty of reasons not to chance such an ambitious trip this year, and other reasons along the way to give up (just four weeks ago, my knees were killing me, but I persisted in my already-long search and, in the nick of time, found an ace physical therapist who got me fixed up in no time). 

Bottom line: I found a way, and you can, too. Do it! These are the stories that will sustain us in our dotage!

My new motto: Own the trail, buy the bumper sticker.

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