Unfinished Business: The Last Slice of the Boston to Northampton Trail Epic
Andy “One-Slice”. That’s the nickname my mentor jokingly gave me after noting my habit of ordering a small pizza and then eating all but one slice. The nickname was entirely in jest, but like any good nickname really put a burr under my ass. You see, I hate to start things and then not finish them. So much so, that I will put off starting something I don’t think I can finish right away. On more than one occasion, I’ve developed a plan, then shelved it for another day when I would have enough time – only that “time-free” day never comes. The only thing more annoying than a shelved plan, is the almost-finished one: bookmarks before the last chapter, and stories without endings- like pizza boxes with orphaned slices rattling around inside. And not all pizzas are created equal. Some of the slices ask– no, demand- to be eaten.
This summer’s “one-slice” was the Boston to Northampton Epic. A trail ride to bridge Eastern Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley, I spent countless hours developing the route, and mapping out the course. Then over two hot July days I had ridden nearly 100 miles of trail between downtown Boston and Princeton, Massachusetts. The plan had been to spend the third day connecting Princeton and Northampton, but I bailed on the last section due to a forecasted heat index in triple digits. Summer had faded into fall, and was quickly slipping toward November. As the leaves changed, and days shortened, my desperation grew. Did I really want to be carrying around that box all winter?
And then a weekend opened up in late October with two near perfect days in the forecast. It was my shot at finishing the Epic. But first, a lingering question demanded resolution. The last leg of the route I had mapped out totaled just about eighty miles. Eighty miles on paper doesn’t look like much. Heck, road bikers do centuries every other weekend. But as a mountain biker, eighty miles is a pretty big chunk to try and bite off in one painful sitting. Considering that my longest mountain bike ride- the time I rode the Hampshire 100 (km)– was still about twenty miles short of this amount, I started having doubts about trying to do it all in a day. Granted, a good portion of the route was on paved trails and road. And granted it was basically downhill for the last sixty miles, but it was still eighty miles. And so I went back and forth in my mind: Was I going to do it in one day or split it into two: “fast and light” or “overnight”? The key would be how long the first section, which mostly followed the Midstate Trail, would last. And this, in turn, depended on which Midstate Trail I would encounter. Would it be like the flowy rideable section near the Mud Pond lean-to, or would it be like the sufferfest that beat me up and stole my lunch money near the end of the second day? In the end, with the taste of that epic beatdown still fresh in my mind I opted not to trust the Midstate Trail and packed for an overnight stay in the woods.
Thankfully, the geometry of my Rocky Mountain Sherpa is an exact match to my 2013 Rocky Mountain Element, which meant that the custom frame bag I had bought from Defiant for the Sherpa also fit the Element like a glove. This allowed me to ride the lighter Element with its thinner (and theoretically faster on pavement) 29er wheels. Having not tested the Element with bikepacking gear, it was a bit of a leap of faith. But as I rode through Rock Meadow, and down to the Belmont commuter rail stop, I was able to briefly get a feel for it on every type of terrain I would see that day. I immediately noticed the rear tire rubbing on the saddle bag, but after raising the seat slightly and tightening the bag, the issue was resolved. I jumped on the early morning MBTA train which whisked me out to Wachusett Station, right where I had left off back in July.
I rolled out of the Wachusett Station parking lot and the cool clear October air filled my lungs. Rocketing along the smooth pavement, I soon entered Leominster State Forest where my GPS breadcrumb trail led me off road and up a steep ridge. I pedaled quickly up a narrow ribbon of sandy singletrack until my rear wheel began to spin. Hopping off the bike, I started pushing up onto the Midstate Trail, which picked up right where it had left off on my last leg.
The next section was easily the worst mountain biking I’ve ever suffered through. Where the trail wasn’t too steep to ride, it was blocked by angular rocky shark fins, or intruding brush. What would have been a trial on my lightest bike, became a Sisyphean effort of position, lift, thrust and then repeat. It was Greco-roman-mountain-biking at its finest. When I finally reached the end of the ridge, where I hoped to cruise down to a road crossing, I was dismayed to find a jumble of rocks tumbling nearly straight down. And like that I was a rock climber- except I had the added challenge of a fifty pound bike in my face.
I had conservatively budgeted a half hour for the roughly three miles between the two sections of road on the map. Instead, it took me an hour and half to complete. I was already behind the eight-ball, but I had also already confirmed the wisdom of my decision to split the ride into two days.
After that kick in the nuts, the three mile 6% graded doubletrack climb that ascended Wachusett Mountain felt like a Caribbean vacation. I breezed upwards, trying not to redline- or overexert myself- knowing that I was only eight miles into what was likely a forty mile ride for the day.
Near the top of my climb I stopped at the entrance to the next section of singletrack to chow down, and happened upon a recent retiree who was hiking the area trails. He was considering making the jump into the bikepacking world and so we chatted up the gear and bikes. Despite my start, I was smiling from ear to ear. It was a gorgeous Fall day and I was looking forward to the singletrack that lay ahead.
I dove into the woods, and was rewarded with a three mile section of singletrack that was downright heavenly. Rolling gently through tall hardwoods that surrounded the trail, I eventually emerged onto a doubletrack climb that led back to another short road section.
I hummed along the road, quickly covering the two miles until the next section of trail. The entrance was unassuming, and took me several minutes to locate, despite having a GPS. A grass covered doubletrack climbed up into the wooded Savage Hill Wildlife Management Area. I lumbered upward and eventually into an old pine forest with its soft and quiet needled carpet laid out before me. Leveling off, the terrain rolled forward cruising alongside an old rock wall, and eventually into a hardwood glen where the trail squeezed down into a tight wandering singletrack.
After dumping out into a residential neighborhood, I raced along another three mile stretch of roads until I reached the start of the Mass Central Rail Trail at Glenwood Road. Except for a brief section near Ware, I would be essentially following this corridor all the way to Northampton. Although unpaved, this section of the rail trail was wide and smooth. Over the next ten miles I made good time, helped by the gentle downward pitch. The trail was well-travelled with other bikers, as well as hikers and dog walkers. It eventually entered a switchback down to a flood control dam, and I was back on road near the hamlet of White Valley. I noticed a small restaurant that would have made a good lunch or dinner spot, had my timing been different. Although not visible from the road, also of note in the area is Coldbrook Campground.
After a brief two miles of road I was back onto the rail corridor, this time riding primitive, bumpy doubletrack for three miles. Although it was mostly dry during my ride, this section could be problematic early in the season or after a lot of rain. Another mile of road, and I found myself back on a smooth, developed section of rail corridor that carried me into the town of Gilbertville. I loaded up on supplies at the mini-mart in the center of town, and before leaving I stopped into a small pizza joint that served up a delicious meatball sub.
Now let me tell you, if you haven’t already discovered. There is no better assassin of forward momentum or motivation than a proper meatball sub. So it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that not long after getting back on the rail corridor beyond Gilbertville, I began looking for places to setup camp. I had a couple hours of daylight left, but the next ten miles of my route appeared to run through mostly suburban neighborhoods. I selected a spot that was shielded from the trail by a berm on one side, and with thick trees leading down to the river on the other. I could hear the road in the distance, but couldn’t spot any nearby houses.
I had been forewarned about this section by a group who had ridden the rail corridor in May that there were a lot of ticks. And boy they were not lying. To reach my campsite I had waded through some shin high grass and in that short distance I had picked up FIVE ticks. And just like that they were in my head- all night long. Every little itch was an imagined tick burrowing its way into my arm-leg-neck-back-head-etc.
Almost as soon as I had set up my hammock, I realized that across the river- about 100 yards, there was a summer camp hidden in the woods. Although they couldn’t see me in the fading light, I knew this meant that I couldn’t turn on my lights.
I had forgotten my feedbag at home, and so when I passed through Gilbertville, I picked up supplies for breakfast and dinner, including a can of tuna, a banana, granola, Ramen noodles, milk, a Starbucks cold brew, and a bag of Fritos. Amazingly, this combination did not kill me.
The night was long and full of wildlife. While the sound of a nearby road drowned things out most of the night, in the wee hours of the morning the traffic disappeared and I could suddenly hear the mice scurrying in the underbrush, an animal wading through the river, and the chatter of a distant (but not distant enough) pack of coyotes.
I had checked the forecast briefly while packing the previous night. Unfortunately I had not checked it closely enough- as I had either misread it or typed in the wrong location. I had packed for a 50 degree (F) night, but much to my surprise, it was a 35 degree night. Accordingly, I spent a couple early morning hours curled up in the fetal position listening to an owl and imagining getting a full body massage from the hundreds of ticks that I was sure I had missed in my pre-nightfall tick-check.
Morning couldn’t come soon enough. Hot granola and milk barely thawed me out as I stuffed everything back onto my bike and rolled along the river toward Ware. Thankfully a long climb warmed me enough to survive the chilly descent into the center of Ware. I popped into a convenience store to refill on water and snacks, and sought out the next section of trail.
Descending out of town I turned onto a paved side road that slowly disintegrated into gravel as it wound downward through the pvc pipe skewered grassy knolls of a capped landfill. Weaving through sand pits I emerged onto the unmistakably wide and mildly graded path of a rail corridor. The riding had a definite suburban feel much like my riding in Metrowest Boston, with the back yards of houses stacked up against the corridor, separated only by a thin line of trees. After a few miles it was back onto roads, and a long climb. Suburbia faded to forests, which faded into large stretches of farmland on either side of the road. Near the top of my climb I passed a long beaver pond and stopped to fuel up and catch my breath, before one final push to the top. It was still long before noon, but day was shedding its morning chill and the mist that hung low in the valleys was quickly disappearing. I caught glimpses of an abandoned rail corridor along this section of road, but it had long ago been reclaimed by the forest and was thoroughly blocked with mature trees.
I eventually descended into Bondsville crossing the Swift River on the large bridge in the middle of town. As I started my climb up the other side of the valley and out of town, I passed by an amusingly named package store (Ye Olde Grog Shoppe) before turning onto Route 181. Heading north I cruised along Route 181, thankful for its wide breakdown lane, until I reached the start of another developed section of the rail corridor. The doubletrack of the rail trial climbed, and then rolled slowly toward Belchertown and beyond. Although less “developed” than previous sections of the rail corridor, this stretch provided smooth, consistent riding. Much of the way it paralleled an active rail line, separated by a stand of trees. The hardwoods through this section were ablaze in spectacular color as the trail eventually melted into a rocky singletrack descent to paved road.
My route then took me into some quiet suburban neighborhoods next to Metacomet and Arcadia lakes, until I escaped onto another enjoyable section of singletrack. Just beyond the hamlet of Dwight, a large parking area complete with porta-pottiess and informational kiosk announced the start of the Norwottock Rail Trail. Whereas the section of rail-trail near Belchertown was like riding a quiet Class IV road, the Norwottock was an 11 mile superhighway of wide pavement and activity- Western Mass’s answer to the Minuteman Bikeway. With my head down, I chugged along, pushing toward Northampton. I descended down into the Connecticut River valley and its broad plain, surrounded by farmland on both sides. Mt. Holyoke stood tall in the distance as a few fluffy white clouds dotted the warm mid-day sky. The day couldn’t have been any more beautiful as I crossed the massive span of the pedestrian bridge over the river and into Northampton. Before heading over to the Enterprise car rental office to pick up my ride back to Boston, I knew it was high time for me to grab a beer and some pizza.
And I ate every goddamn slice.
THE PLANNED ROUTE
MY GEAR LIST
Defiant Zipperless Frame Pack (Large) Multi-tool Spare Tire Chain Lube Hand Pump Co2 Cannister Extra Stans Notubes Fluid Light/Battery Rear Flashing Light
Revelate Designs Sweetroll Handlebar Bag (Medium) Shell Jacket Marmot Puffy Down Jacket Waterproof Pants Hoodie Lafuma 30F Sleeping Bag Wool Socks Chamois 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
Granite Gear Dry Bag (Strapped to Handlebar) Hennessy Hammock Radiant Double Bubble Pad