You Can’t Get There from Here: Brattleboro, Vermont Shamrock Tour

Originally published in RoadRUNNER MagazineI’ve logged a lot of motorcycle miles with my wife, Meredith, riding pillion, but I’ve never seen this before: she’s back there snapping photos of a straight, four-lane interstate, as if we’re riding god’s own highway.

“What’s up?” I ask her. “Well,” she says, “It’s the most amazing thing. I’m looking in front, and behind, but cars keep not appearing.”

She’s right. Where we come from, in California’s Bay Area, four-lane superslab is a form of purgatory. There’ve been moments that I would have been tempted to insert my finger in the accessory outlet of my BMW and terminate the whole affair, if it delivered sufficient voltage. Don’t get me wrong: California is a beautiful place, but it’s continually exceeding its carrying capacity. There are just too many muggles.

But here, we have the road to ourselves much of the time. To the east, the Connecticut River spreads out before us, dotted with occasional kayakers towing tiny barges of beer. To the west, we catch glimpses of the many ski areas along the spine of the Green Mountains. It’s important that we stay alert—but in this case, it’s for “swamp donkeys” (moose), not cars. On the rare occasions when we do see autos, the passengers wave. No one’s given me the finger for a week. Maybe they don’t know about the finger here. I sure don’t miss it.

Northern New England has had ample centuries of civilization to become as mad as California, but somehow it hasn’t. The roads are barely more frenetic than when Meredith and I lived here, in Brattleboro and Newfane, 30-plus years ago. Maybe four feet of winter snow creates a self-limiting population. Whatever the reason, I’m thankful for it.

On the first morning, we leave the Four Columns Inn in Newfane (15 minutes north of Brattleboro; see sidebar) and head directly for two old favorites: the neighboring towns of Woodstock and Quechee. The latter is the home of the Simon Pearce ceramics gallery and restaurant, places that Meredith loves and which have an uncanny knack of appearing on our credit card bill, with lots of digits on the wrong side of the decimal point.

Vermont is a place accustomed to harsh weather, but in 2011, Hurricane Irene redefined the phrase, taking out the historic covered bridge next to the restaurant. The side of the building is discolored at flood level, and it strains credulity to think it ever got that high. In late August of 2011, you’d have needed scuba gear to visit the ceramics furnace on the ground floor. The storm hit southern Vermont with laser-like efficiency—and devastation. The town of Wilmington, farther south, was so isolated by the flood that it had to be supplied via helicopter. You know what they say: Don’t mess with your mother…..

We head north on Route 12 to Barnard and a favorite swim spot: Silver Lake, where there’s also a fine deli, directly across the street from a public beach. It’s an amazing place to don goggles and cap and swim to the far side, but today it also looks like a great day to be electrocuted and sink to the bottom in a charred mass. So we retreat to the porch, and sure enough, the skies illuminate and the light show begins. I’m glad to be operating at normal voltage levels and enjoying a coffee under cover.

Turns out, this is a theme that will run throughout our trip: porch sitting. Almost daily, we find ourselves seeking shelter under the covered porches of grange halls and general stores throughout New England, waiting for storms to pass. (It also occurs to me that the immense, 900-pound Indian Roadmaster would make a superlative lightning rod.) Fortunately, it’s a piece of serendipity that pays big dividends, in the form of conversations with locals, where we learn of roads, attractions, and, most important, the location of the best ice cream stands. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in decades of motorcycle travel, it’s this: It pays to stop and yak.

Pretty soon, people are coming over to chat about the Indian Roadmaster. I have to admit, I’m learning to like the relative celebrity that comes from this vast ocean liner of a motorcycle. Things like this just don’t happen on your average Wee Strom. There is a certain regal affectation that comes from the giant, valanced fenders, pushrod tubes as fat as your fist, and a glowing Warbonnet cutting through the fog. When you roll up to Suzie’s Soft Serve in the middle of Vermont on this thing, heads turn.

Our trip may be suffused with a desire for beautiful country, but, in an ironic twist, we are applying a cultural bent. And there is plenty to satisfy the need. Over the course of the journey we’ll visit three historic homes, two museums, and attend two concerts. This is not for cultural bragging rights; quite the contrary—it supplies the perfect foil to the natural world of northern New England. Done right, this place feeds all the senses.

Today we detour to visit the birthplace and childhood home of Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president, in Plymouth Notch. I have a special affection for this place, which speaks of a time when a president could be raised miles from civilization, at the crossing of two dirt roads, and become the world’s most powerful man through the forces of intelligence and conviction (and the unfortunate passing of Warren Harding). I won’t tweak your brain with politics, but this one thought does occur to me: Maybe we’d be better off as a country if our presidents came from a place where you read books by kerosene lamp and had to rise at 4 a.m. to milk a cow or two every day.

At this point we spy another storm on the horizon. I encourage Meredith to gear up, and we make a break down Interstate 91 for the Four Columns Inn. What follows is the perfect scenario: a fiery orange sky that portends the coming storm, but no actual rain. No sooner are we inside the door than a huge thunderclap heralds our arrival to safety, and the rain is pounding down. By that time, we’re inside with stem glasses containing fermented grape juice, and eating crackers topped with local Grafton Village cheese. It’s all quite perfect.

On the second day we ascend Route 9 to Hogback Mountain, passing Marlboro, home to the famed Marlboro Music Festival. Just as quickly, we’re in low river valleys among expansive farms and fields. Every 20 minutes or so, we roll into a town, marked by 30-mph signs, and just as quickly are back in open terrain. These are the essential elements of Vermont. It’s perfect motorcycling.

The persistent cliché is that Vermont is home to more dairy cows than people. It’s not actually true, but it seems like it could be. While I take pictures of mountains, for Meredith, it’s all about the cows. She’s snapping shots of fat cows, skinny cows, cows at the trough, cows in the hills, cows in the valleys. I’m wondering: maybe she’d find me more interesting if I knew how to moo?

Continuing our literary theme, we stop in South Shaftsbury at Robert Frost’s Stone House. As the story goes, this was where he wrote one of his most famous poems, “Snowy Evening,” on a hot June morning. The house and museum are seemingly run on a shoestring, but it’s nonetheless a fascinating glimpse into the life of what turns out to be a deeply troubled man. You can’t help but feel sorry for the dowdy poet. Despite the apparent optimism of some of his poems, and having won Pulitzer Prizes and read at the inaugural for John F. Kennedy, he led a rather sad life in which most of his children and his wife preceded him in death. He would surely be disappointed by the steady stream of trucks that now pass on Route 7A within yards of his home. But one can still sense the bucolic inspiration that occurred when he lived here and did his most important work in the ‘20s.

In Dorset, we continue to refine the fine art of porch sitting, completely upending the day’s plans by spending an hour talking to a few locals on the front steps of the Dorset Union Store. We also befriend their twin labs, which look as healthy as only Vermont dogs can be, having spent a lifetime plying the woods and streams of the Green Mountains. If that’s a dog’s life, I’ll take it….

We head down famed Route 100, which traces the spine of the Green Mountains, to the Vermont Country Store in Weston. Every tourist within 100 miles visits this cavernous place, opened in 1946, but with good reason. It’s retained its charm through the years, with ample tastings. (Do you know the difference between light, amber, and dark maple syrup? You can find out here.) It’s great fun to amble up and down the crooked, heaving, wide-board floors and explore the enormous warren of rooms offering food, hardware, clothing, toys, and a million other things that we thankfully can’t carry on a motorcycle, even one of the Indian’s size and girth.

It’s a meditative ride back to the Four Columns Inn, on small roads devoid of traffic, including the lovely and vertiginous Dover Road. The rapid, boulder-strewn rivers remind me of California’s Sierra; these mountains may be old, but they’re young in their veins.

It’s early July, and there’s no lack of patriotism in the tiny towns along our route. Banners and bunting are hung from every light pole, in seemingly every town. Out here in the New England countryside, there’s no mistaking what country we’re in. It’s nice to see.

As we make our way north from Peterborough, New Hampshire, the Indian’s fuel gauge starts gently scolding us. We panic a little because I’m not yet accustomed to the range offered up on the LCD of the big bike, and haven’t developed the necessary faith to press on. The display urgently and repeatedly asks: “Navigate to Gas Station?” We put our trust in the computer, and head for a station it tells us is just a few miles south, off of our planned route. This turns out to be an abandoned propane dealership. No joy.

I’m trying to cultivate an attitude of serendipity, where running out of gas actually produces unique adventures. Sometimes this doesn’t work, and you just run out of gas. And sometimes, as now, you take roads you wouldn’t otherwise—and you don’t run out of gas. We pull down a driveway where a family is enjoying a holiday lunch outdoors, and they happily quiz us about our trip, where we’re from, and inevitably, proffer a story about some distant relative “that once had an Indian, and by the way, are they still making those?” After a bit more chitchat, our new friends direct us toward Alstead, 12 miles distant. We got the impression they would have found a red gas can in the garage if we’d truly been in trouble, and sloshed the contents into the Indian’s tank.

As with most such things, the misfortune is fortuitous, and we’re treated to lovely roads around Lake Warren and get ice cream in Charlestown, where a rider on a Harley-Davidson insists it would be worthwhile to further alter our route and go north, to the home of the famed sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The Harley rider lives nearby, has been there dozens of times, and has yet to tire of it. I consider this the best kind of recommendation; if you live next door to a tourist destination for 25 years, but you still go, it must be good.

We take scenic Route 12A, which traces the broad Connecticut River, and eventually turn up the gentle drive to the beautiful, sprawling premises of the famed sculptor, which is a National Historic Site. We arrive just before closing, and due to the late hour, the attendant waves us through with no admission fee, and we have the place very nearly to ourselves, wandering around as if we’re Saint-Gauden’s own guests on the verdant grounds.

The feature this day is the 12-foot “Standing Lincoln,” newly cast to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and 50th anniversary of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. I happen to be an Abe aficionado, so this larger-than-life depiction of the great man fascinates me. Saint-Gaudens’ fame came from his work in the late-1800s, depicting the gravitas and tragedy of the Civil War, which claimed more lives than any other in U.S. history. Meredith and I walk around in seeming isolation, snapping photos of the grounds, with 3,100-foot Mount Ascutney prominent in the distance. Clearly this was the case of an inspired artist, working in inspiring conditions.

On our way south, we go through the famed Cornish-Windsor Covered Bridge. It’s the longest wooden covered bridge in the world, at 449 feet, and a sign overhead cautions us: “Walk Your Horses or Pay Two Dollars Fine.” We go blithely forward without incident.

On this, the final day of our tour, we repeat the short section of Route 9 over Hogback Mountain, and trace beautiful Route 112 along the North River, to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, site of the famed Bridge of Flowers. I’ve done this road many times, and it’s a popular tourist destination, so I’m worried that today, on a Fourth of July weekend, it will be thickly packed with cars. But for some inexplicable reason, there are no cars in front, or behind, and we enjoy a ride over the Berkshire Mountains and down to the town of North Adams, with Mount Greylock—the highest point in Massachusetts—in the distance.

Our plan is to visit the newly expanded Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, better known as MASS MoCA. The museum has offered a renaissance, and a lifeline, to this long-suffering mill town, and the juxtaposition couldn’t be more perfect. We amble through the many galleries, occasionally looking out the vast windows to the moat-like river outside. Every piece of it is art—the galleries, the building, and the ramshackle town—and that’s what makes it beautiful. And besides, on this humid, 94-degree day, it’s air-conditioned. Several more fully loaded touring bikes are in the parking lot, apparently with the same idea…

We have no fewer than four GPS devices onboard, but Meredith still prefers a paper map, and I’m okay with that. Today, she’s an artist back there, taking us down a few roads I didn’t know existed, to the tiny “town” of Leyden. From there, we cross back into Vermont, at Weatherhead Hollow, where a long, thin lake and boat launch appears like an apparition.

It’s still damn hot, so I pull over, strip down to my cycling shorts, and contemplate diving in. As I vacillate, balancing on the boat ramp, the decision is suddenly made for me when my feet slide out on the moss-covered surface. Okay, I guess I’m swimming now!

For the rest of the ride, Meredith provides a near-constant narration through the Sena 20S, noting farm stands, grange halls, and particular concentrations of cows. I know from experience that the pace and volume of the banter coming from the back of the bike can mean one of two things: extreme comfort, or good scenery.

In this case, it’s both. You know what they say: happy wife, happy life. I could get used to this. We both could….

SIDEBAR: Brattleboro

Meredith and I have fond memories of living and working in downtown Brattleboro decades ago, and let’s just say it’s acquired even more “character” since then. It’s a town known for its irreverent mix of hippies, environmentalists, dairy farmers, and loggers, creating an amalgamation that’s a little bit like northern California crossed with Oregon logging country. You never quite know which part you’ll see, or when, but if it’s quirkiness you want, you’ll find it here. Years ago, it was known for a regular profusion of naked people down Main Street. These days it’s better known for a cow parade, called the Strolling of the Heifers, which is so successful it’s spawned an eponymous nonprofit devoted to local foods and farmers. Brattleboro has a lot to offer, including a top-notch food store (the Brattleboro Food Co-op), a unique vintage motorcycle repair shop (Lynde Motorsports), and a renowned outdoor store, known simply as “Sam’s.” Nearby you can swim in the West River or boat on the Connecticut, have easy access to the Long Trail and Green Mountains; or simply go for a lovely walk on the myriad dirt roads just outside of town. Unfortunately Brattleboro has also acquired a commuting hour, as traffic clogs each morning and evening at the notorious Malfunction Junction, where five roads and a train track all converge in a giant knot overseen by a cluster of signs and flashing lights that help not one bit. Still, this is a wonderful town, with abundant restaurants and lodging, that conveys the essence of Vermont—in all its eclectic glory.


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