Taconicked: Day One, Vermont to Rhode Island Adventure Ride
How far can you get on trails? That’s the burning question that has motivated my bike adventures for the better part of two years now: The Kingdom Sampler, Boston to Northampton, Southern NH Overnighter, etc. All iterations of the same goal: get as far as I can using as little road as possible.
And then a whole week opened up in late August for me to go walkabout. Five free days. Oh the places I could go! And so I struggled over my plans. They all sounded so fun. Which one should I do? Should I drive around and do each? It soon became obvious what I HAD to do. I had to do them all together. I would ride all my planned routes in one go. Bennington, Vermont to Providence Rhode Island. One big adventure ride.
The first day’s plan was ambitious. I would set south from Bennington, skirting Mt. Anthony on dirt roads and descend into the Hoosic Valley. From there I would climb back up onto the Taconic ridge and head steadily south; following the ridge all the way to Pittsfield. The descent off of the ridge, above Pittsfield, looked especially inviting. While I had never ridden the trails there, they seemed to be well trafficked by bikes. Once in Pittsfield, I would then head back North on the paved rail trail to Adams. When I originally planned the route, I half expected to wind up camping on the Taconic ridge that first night. I knew my route was ambitious- but I had plenty of time, and could improvise as I went along. There was only one thing that could derail my plan: thunderstorms. A high ridge is no place to ride out a mid-summer thunderstorm. So of course that morning I learned there was a threat of severe evening storms with quarter sized hail and torrential rains. I needed to be sure I was off the ridge by nightfall or I was in for a rough night.
As I drove down the long descent into Bennington on Route 9, the blue skies outside Boston that had lifted my hopes of a pleasant sendoff had been replaced by the dark grey reality of a full-bore afternoon mountain thunderstorm. After waiting out a wave of downpours, I dropped off the rental car and finished packing my bike for the journey ahead. When asked where I was going, a blank stare greeted me when I told the rental attendant I was headed to Providence. I added “Rhode Island”, as if that would help matters. Although I felt the need to add “Yes, I realize I’m in Vermont. No, I’m not on meth” when I sensed worry in her face, but I kept this part to myself and just let the attendant wonder. I asked which direction to head for the Bennington Monument, and after explaining that “Yes, I can pedal this up hills.” she directed me onto a wooded road. And it was a good thing I could pedal up hills. Because my day was going to be full of them.
It was August 17th- the day after the annual Battle of Bennington celebration. One hundred forty one years and one day earlier, the Green Mountain Boys under Stark and Warner had sent Burgoyne’s army and their Hessian mercenaries packing back to Saratoga. Interestingly, that battle had been delayed by days of heavy downpours. And like the day of the battle, the rains had paused long enough for me to roll past the monument. The grey mists lingered above, however, making clear that the rain wasn’t finished with me. By the time I reached gravel, the rain had started again. But rather than a blinding downpour, it was a manageable but steady trickle from the sky. I retreated into my rain shell jacket and hunkered over the handlebars.
The route, which I had developed using a mix of Strava and local intel, was still completely untested. And within the first half hour I already needed to backtrack and re-route around a section that had been posted “No Trespassing”. I scrambled up and around Mt. Anthony where I got my first lactic acid sandwich of the day. My legs burned and I teetered upward on steep gravel in the spitting rain. Before long gravity was on my side and I was rolling downward toward the deep Hoosic River valley. As I descended I could see the majestic Taconic Ridge in the distance. It dwarfed the paltry little jaunt up Mt. Anthony. This was going to be tough. But I was full of piss and vinegar. The wet weather and first climb hadn’t taken the fight out of me. At least, not yet.
There was no more “saving my legs”. This was a lactic acid firehose. And although the rain held off as I pushed upward, I was already dripping wet with the effort to reach the ridge. It had taken me just over an hour to cover the first ten miles down to the Hoosic River valley. The next four miles took me three and half hours. The reality was quickly setting in that I was not going to make it to Pittsfield that night. In fact, I was going to be lucky to make it off the ridge before the evening fireworks arrived.
I had hoped that after reaching the ridge, the trail would roll gently along. But, far from a leisurely stroll along the top of the ridge, the trail across the Taconic purposefully and belligerently charged up every peak. This did not make for smooth biking- particularly when lugging a sixty pound companion over every nook and cranny along the way. Less-so given I had barely survived the two thousand foot climb to get on the ridge. Needless to say, I didn’t make good time. As late afternoon settled in the mountains, a low rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. My time was quickly running out, and I summited yet another peak on the Taconic Crest. I set the bike down on a grassy overlook facing west and wolfed down a snack as I spied a road cutting its way through a gap no more than mile and half ahead. I was finally in sight of Petersburg Pass.
When I planned my route, I carefully checked the NY Parks website regarding the Taconic Crest Trail to confirm that bikes weren’t prohibited. Unfortunately, just before Petersburg Pass, the trail dips out of NY and into Massachusetts where the group in charge of conserving this gem have unfortunately decided to prohibit bikes. This, of course, isn’t announced anywhere until you are just about to cross into Massachusetts: a spot where there are no alternative trails or roads to descend off of the ridge. I guess they figure that no-one in their right mind would lug their bike up onto that ridge in the first place. With the sound of thunder approaching, I was compelled to push onward and down to Petersburg Pass. This section was, of course the most enjoyable of the day. Smooth flowing singletrack gave way to a chunky descent on wide doubletrack. I caught up to a family of hikers just before emerging onto the road at Petersburg Pass. They told me about how they had set out early that morning from the Hoosic valley side, and braved the mid-day thunderstorms.
I rolled into the wide parking lot on the far side of the road, and had a decision to make. Should I proceed back up on the ridge on the far side, or descend into Williamstown for the night. I knew this would mean I would miss out on the Pittsfield singletrack, which was a big letdown. With a thunderstorm on top of me, and more severe weather on the way, I opted to retreat into the valley. Thankfully the descent off of Petersburg Pass on the Sarah Tenney trail was mostly a pleasant surprise. I found myself winding downward on bench-cut singletrack, which gave way to wide doubletrack. In my mind, I pictured myself descending all the way into town. My mind was completely unprepared for what happened next. The rain that had been holding off all day finally arrived, and the sky cut loose in a torrent as I hurtled downward on the wide open trail. Thunder boomed and flashes of lightning seared the late afternoon air. As I descended the hills grew on both sides of me and I found myself in a hollow. And then it dawned on me. I was below the road crossing on my map. A good 500 feet below the road crossing. I stopped above an old culvert as water rushed down the doubletrack and into a rocky streambed below. I was at a low point. Completely exhausted, and with expectations of an easy stroll into town now dashed, the “how am I going to..” thought brushed against my mind. And at that very moment, as if to punctuate my despair, a few yards to to my left a large tree thundered through the canopy falling across the stream.
I had no choice but to push onward and upward. By the time I had climbed back to the road the rain had passed and mist was rising from the pavement, leaving the area in a dense fog. I crossed over to the other side of the road, and across a large field. Downward I flew, first along doubletrack and then onto winding singletrack between the trees. The signs announced that I was on the “easy” ski trail. But what is easy to ski, is not necessarily easy to bike. I hunched over the rear tire of the bike, trying to keep my weight back on the bike as I descended an increasingly steep section of trail, finally bottoming out at a rushing stream. Once again I was boxed in by hills on three sides. My map indicated a road just a couple hundred yards ahead if I followed the direction of the streambed, however the high fence of a nearby private home blocked my way.
With nothing left in my legs, I couldn’t bear the thought of climbing back out of the hollow to reach the road on the hill above. I also couldn’t climb back out the way that I had come in. Instead, I convinced myself that the easiest route would be to hug the fenceline and skirt my way around the fenced-in property until I reached the road.
At first my plan seemed to be working. But then I was forced into an open powerline corridor full of raspberry bushes by a set of blowdowns pressed up against the fence. These took a layer of skin off my legs. They also conveniently hid the slippery wet logs lying on the forest floor, which sent me stumbling forward every few steps. As I picked myself up from yet another faceplant into the prickers, I spotted a family in the fenced-off backyard witnessing my follies. I waved sheepishly and yelled out to confirm that the road was ahead. The dad of the family told me “sure, just ahead”. So at least I knew there really was a road.
The raspberry bushes abruptly ended and I entered a hayfever sufferer’s worst nightmare: a football field wide swath of six five foot high goldenrod: challenge accepted. I feebly pushed forwarded, banging the handlebars into the shoulder high stems. I was able to slowly force my way forward, one step at a time, by bending the tall flowers over with my handlebars. The going was painfully slow. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I stumbled into the carefully manicured backyard of another resident, where I rode along the perimeter of their backyard to their driveway and out onto the road. From there the going was easy. I rolled down into Williamstown where I found a room at the local Howard Johnsons.
Soaked to the bone, caked in mud, and oozing blood from my legs, I walked (dripping) up the counter and asked if they had any vacancy. I half expected them to tell me to move along, but I suppose they had pity on me. Later that night I watched the severe weather alerts roll across the motel room tv as the torrential rains poured down and lightning flooded the sky. I had definitely made the right choice. Day one was in the books. Despite travelling less than forty miles, I was pretty exhausted. And soaked. And the weatherman was telling me that day two wouldn’t be as rainy and wet.
Here’s the route as originally planned:
MY GEAR LIST
Osprey Manta 28L Backpack 3L Reservoir Jet Boil Fuel Cannister Collapsible Bowl Set GSI Outdoors Ultralight Coffee Filter Leatherman Lighter Spork Wet Wipes Large Ziplock Bags Backup Battery Headlamp Feed Bag (Granola, Dehydrated Milk, Coffee, Sugar, Soup Mix, Cheese)
Defiant Zipperless Frame Pack (Large) Multi-tool Spare Tire Chain Lube Hand Pump Co2 Cannister Extra Stans Notubes Fluid Rear Flashing Light
Revelate Designs Sweetroll Handlebar Bag (Medium) Black Diamond Liquid Point Shell Jacket Eddie Bauer Stormdown Hooded Jacket Waterproof Pants Eddie Bauer Synthesis Hoodie Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag Wool Socks x 2 Wool Underwear x 2 Convertible Short/Pants Long Sleeve Baselayer Revelate Designs Mountain Feedbags (x2) 1 x Water Bottle filled with Electrolyte Mix Snacks (Almonds, Gels, Waffles, Cliff Bars, Chocolate) Revelate Designs Egress Pocket Wallet Phone Backup Battery Watch Charger Cord Phone Charger Cord Bag Balm
Granite Gear Dry Bag (Strapped to Handlebar) Big Agnes Insulated Sleeping Pad
Anywhere Bicycle Attachment Water Bottle Mount (Front fork) Blackburn Outpost Cargo Cage Nalgene Bottle