Monday, September 15, 2014

New England Museum road trip


I built this ten-day vacation around a single bicycle race, the Vermont Overland Grand Prix. After that it was driving, museums, and old friends for eight more days. 


Saturday: Driving, bridges, Killington

I was not excited about the 500 mile mostly I-95 and NYS Throughway drive up to the lodge I had booked at the Killington ski area, and knew that I would need something to break the drive up. The Walkway over the Hudson worked nicely. The foresight of the people who turned an abandoned railway bridge over the Hudson into a pedestrian destination is truly incredible. 
The cantilever bridge, built in 1886 and abandoned after fire in the early 1970s, reopened as a pedestrian walkway in 2009. It's over a mile long and 200 feet above the river. 

Sandra on the Walkway. In the background is the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which I rode across thirty one years earlier on my bike trip from Ithaca to Poughkeepsie.
In 1983 I rode from Ithaca to Poughkeepsie to visit my then-girlfriend at her home. The trip was at the peak of my "planning is an admission of failure" style of bicycle touring. I had no idea where I was staying, how I was going to get across the Hudson, and I didn't have a tent. I rode 110 miles the first day, never out of the bailout gear, and camped at deserted campground on the Pepacton Reservoir that was straight out of a post-apocalyptic zombie film. The caretaker was raving babbling drunk, and I was the only guest in a sea of unused pop-up campers and pull-behind trailers. The trip across the Hudson was unnerving. I navigated the pedestrian (!) walkway, which was just expanded metal grid. Terrible vertigo as I stared down at the Hudson 300 feet below my wheels. The Walkway across the Hudson would have been very helpful then... I arrived in Poughkeepsie a day earlier than expected to find her parents still on vacation. After chatting up the neighbors and letting them in on my plan I bedded down on the Laurendeau's deck. Unfortunately, they also arrived home a day early. Maria's mother got the fright of her life when she came up on the deck at 1AM, and woke me up. Luckily for me they were not armed.
Three decades later in the present, after a stroll over the Hudson we were back on the road to Killington. The Snowed Inn was a completely serviceable ski lodge. I swapped tires in the room, and prepared for racing.

Hotel: Snowed Inn, Killington Vt
Food: Neptune Diner, Newburgh, NY, It was a NY Greek diner. They had gyros. Little Harry's, Rutland, Va. A little overpriced but basically OK.

Sunday: Racing, Randolph, Montpelier

Sunday was mostly given over the Vermont Overland Grand Prix, described elsewhere. Post-race we drove up to Montpelier through Randolph, where Sandra's grandfather had grown up. We ended up at a B&B in Montpelier, just a few blocks from downtown. Of course, as the smallest state capital in the US, almost everywhere is just a few blocks from downtown.

Food:  Melaza Caribbean Bistro, Woodstock, Vt, (pretty good Cubano sandwhich)  Sarducci's Montpelier, VT (Saute'd Kale salad and garlic bread--good value. Nice open porch overhanging the Winooski River)
Lodging: Betsy's B&B. Pleasant enough, if in need of a little airing out.

Monday: Shelburne Museum and Burlington

Sandra and I had been to the Shelburne Museum in 2003, when I raced (disastrously)  the Green Mountain Stage Race in 2003.  The museum is the personal obsession of descendants of a 19th-century robber baron (Vanderbilt) and a sugar baron, who  set out to document New England Americana much in the same way that Henry Mercer built up the the Bucks County Historical Society.
The centerpiece of the museum, or perhaps its greatest oddity, is the Ticonderoga, the last paddle wheel steamship on Lake Champlain, which is now on blocks 2 miles from the lake. 

While we were there, Sandra indulged me with this picture of an authentic Vermont smokehouse. I was obsessed with smokehouses as a child. Quoting from my "Adventure book" from June 28, 1969, when we lived outside DC "We went to Sotterly on a hot day... My favorite thing outside was the smokehouse. I love smokehouses." So here I am pointing at the smokehouse 46 years later. Even though they moved it, the smell remains. mmmmmmmmm
Indulging my childhood obsession with smokehouses and smoked meats. 
Dinner was at Farmhouse Tap and Grill, a combination brewpub and locavore venue in downtown Burlington, recommended by my friend Katherine. Two thumbs up. Made me wish I lived in Burlington. 
After dinner, I left Sandra behind at the B&B and met up with Katherine, who lives basically around the corner, where I got the full story of her fall from my bathroom window while I was in Germany in 1988. It's always great to catch up with old friends. 

Food: Farmhouse Tap and Grill, Burlington, VT One too many craft beers, olive plates, bratwursts. Whew...
Lodging: Richmond Victorian Inn, Richmond Vt; Awesome neighbor cat. 

Tuesday: More Montpelier

In my panic to get all the venues scheduled, I didn't realize that the Vermont Historical Society  was actually closed on Monday, so we were back in Montpelier. The historical society is a little glitzy for my tastes--not enough artifacts in glass cases. But its presentation of Vermont history is reasonably balanced. We learned that for all his calls for liberty, Ethan Allen's motives may not have been as pure as portrayed in fourth-grade history. Turns out that he had 200,000 acres of prime Vermont land with a disputed title. It was very much in his interest to have the colonies independent to secure his clear title to that land. Nothing is ever as it was portrayed in grade school.
Sandra points at the last catamount shot in Vermont, in the 1880s..
We also toured the Vermont state house. Apparently, until the mid 1970s, Vermont had one representative for each town--around 400 of them in a state that only had 400,000 people. Howard Dean has a very casual governor's portrait in his canoe with his flannel shirt and canoe.
After Montpelier we lunched in St. Johnsbury, and then continued on to Concord, Mass. We stayed for two days at Concord's Colonial Inn, in the same room that Queen Noor used. Brush with greatness.

Food: some forgettable place in St Johnsbury on the railroad Tracks.
Lodging: Concord's Colonial Inn, Concord, Ma

Wednesday: Concord, 19th century literature, old friends

The Concord agenda was to do everything that Sandra had missed doing when she worked weekdays in Lexington and that we hadn't done on our "Shot heard round the world" visit a few years ago. That meant we were mostly off technology and on literature.
Stop 1 was the Concord Museum. Very polished, and with the most youthful and attractive docents I've ever encountered.
Sandra points at a shoe  at the Concord Museum
From there, we were off to lunch with one of Sandra's former co-workers, and then to the Louisa May Alcott house. I've never read Little Women, but I remember the names of the books from endless card games of "Authors" as a kid. The other people on the tour were so excited about it. One women kept texting her daughter.
After Louisa May Alcott we hit The Old Manse, which overlooks the bridge from "The shot heard round the world" Ralph Waldo Emerson lived there while writing "Nature" and then rented the house to Nathaniel Hawthorne (also in "Authors, the card game") and his wife. They were later evicted for not paying the rent. And, wonderful tenants that they were, the commemorated their anniversary (?) by scratching a poem into the window glass with a diamond ring. 

Lodging: Concord's Colonial Inn
Food: Concord's Colonial Inn bacon-wrapped figs and cheese, Calimari

Thursday: Lowell, Industrialism and textiles

We went off the schedule for a day, and on a whim went to the Lowell National Historical Park. Initially, I thought it would be something to do for the morning, before heading down to New Bedford, but we spent the whole day.
Lowell was apotheosis of the early American industrial revolution. Industrialists dammed the Merrimack River for the water power to run weaving mills and built canals around the falls. The technology high point for me was the Boott Mills museum, which has an operating weaving mill room, using early 20th century looms. Even though only 10 of the 100+ looms were weaving, the noise was still astounding. I can't imagine being a 12 year tending for or five loops 12 hours a day.

Sandra points at a balance at the Boott Mills Museum.
Weaving mills in operation at the Boott Mill. Only 10 of the 110 mills were running, and the noise was still deafening.
As usual, the park rangers were super-engaged and interesting. We rounded out the trip with a short ride on a trolley car, and then a trip through the locks to the Merrimack.
Lodging in New Bedford was at the  Orchard Street Manor, a bed and breakfast run by a guy who had been adviser to the Moroccan finance minister. The house was built by a whaling captain, and the current owner has assembled a big collection of memorabilia of him, family, and his ship.

Food: some kind of "Mufungo" at a Puerto Rican restaurant, then seafood casserole at Freestone's City Grill in New Bedford Delicious.
Lodging: Orchard Street Manor, New Bedford, Ma

Friday: New Bedford, Whaling, On to Cape Cod

We really short-changed the New Bedford Whaling Museum, since we only had a little more than half a day. My feelings about visiting were a little mixed. The history of whaling is abhorrent, but I love everything about Moby-Dick. Plus we visited the Drake Well last year on our 19th Century Technology Road Trip. Oil pumped from the ground spelled the beginning of the end of commercial whaling, though not, of course, of the widespread slaughter of whales. 

It's easy to think about commercial whaling as a 19th century horror, or perhaps even one that ended in the early 20th century. One glass case of artifacts dispelled that notion: cans of gun oil and "Whale Meat in Curry paste."

We rushed the museum a little to fit in a visit to the Seamen's Bethel, which is featured in Chapters 7 to 9 of Moby-Dick  (and both excellent movie versions.) And then it was off to John and Rachelle's house on Cape Cod for the weekend. 

Sandra points at "Old Nemo" a fur seal purchased from PT Barnum. I'm unsure what he's doing in a whaling museum, though.
Scrimshaw display. The museum has an entire room of glass cases with stuff carved out of teeth and whalebone. Glass-case overload!

Saturday: Cape Cod, Beaches, Stand-up paddleboarding

Finally a day without driving. The day was given over to hanging out on the beach with John and Rachelle. While Sandra read her book and napped, I took Rachelle's board and John and I paddled (wind-aided) north on the inlet. I only fell off every time a boat passed. At the tip we paddled past a herd (flock?) of about forty seals. Amazing.

Sunday: Cape Cod, Telecommunications museums

Rachelle left in the morning for a college-reunion weekend, and we turned back to visiting museum. The history of Cape Cod is more than just whale oil and ocean fishing. It figures significantly in the history of telecommunications as well. 
The first stop was the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, which was one in a series of transmitting and receiving stations that the Marconi Corporation built on Cape Cod to compete with the trans-Atlantic cables, one of which also came ashore on Cape Cod. After WWI, the station was used for Ship-to-shore communications until the 1990s. 
The docents were a creepily eager--like members some kind of techno-religious cult. 
Sandra pointing at some kind of vacuum tube from at the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center
 Museum #2 was a labor of love to memorialize the French undersea cable first laid in the 1870s, and put through to Orleans in 1891. The French Cable Station Museum is a musty collection of artifacts of the trans-atlantic cable technology in dire need of some new labels. Still--lots of period stuff on display. It seems to be run by the descendants of the original station master. The engineers in the group (i.e. us) had a fun discussion on how a wheatstone bridge might be used to detect the location of cable breaks, while the docent/owner declaimed a  technologically-not-very-correct explanation.
Sandra pointing at the only glass case we could find in the Orleans French Cable Station Museum.
Then it was back to John's for dinner.
John, Rachelle, and Sandra on the deck.

Monday: Mystic

We cleared out of Cape Cod around lunchtime on Monday, to try to avoid the inevitable backup, and stayed at our friends Betsy and Dan's vacation house in Mystic Connecticut. We arrived too late in the day to take in the Mystic seaport museum/compound, but we did have a nice walk through downtown Mystic on a lovely summer evening. 
Sandra watching the Mystic drawbridge rising.

Tuesday: Home!

One last stop on the drive home at my college friend Maria's house for lunch. She had spotted my post about the Walkway over the Hudson the week before. We had a quick lunch, played with her adorable Australian cattle dog puppies, and then hit the road again for home. 
Maria Laurendeau and me at her house in Campbell Hall, NY


Museum and Venue Links


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Vermont Overland Grand Prix

Executive Summary

A 51-mile gravel road race that uses five sections of Vermont's "Ancient Roads."  Based on my drive before and after, I'm sure it was achingly scenic, but I only looked at the road ahead of me. Flatted near the finish and lost 35 places, to finish  101st in 3:39:59. The winner took only 2:42:47. 

The Race

Maybe I'm getting blase about these gravel-road races.
The Vermont Overland Grand Prix was epic. The roads, ancient, hard-packed dirt, or modern paved, were all just tremendous. The event vibe was the best of any race I've been to in years.  But no one thing stands out as being mind-searingly memorable. Maybe that's good--no near-death experiences, no blinding rainstorms, no black depression of wanting to drop out and ride back to the car. Yeah, I'll go with that!

Anyway, the first edition of the Vermont Overland Grand Prix ran over a 51-mile single loop, with five (?) sections of Vermont's "Ancient Roads."  Through a quirk in Vermont law, any public right-of-way that ever existed remains in the public until the town formally turns it back to property owners. Some of these roads, known only to the locals, date back to the 18th century. And they are not roads that you're taking your Subaru Forester down, by any stretch of the imagination. 

Amusingly, it turned out I knew the promoter, Peter Vollers, from my Cornell Cycling team days, twenty five years ago. 

Sandra and I drove up from Falls Church the day before, and stayed at a lodge in Killington, about 35 minutes from the start. She indulged my pre-race parking/navigating paranoia, and we pulled into the race parking lot more than two hours before the 9 AM start. 

For a first year event, the more than 300+ entries made for an impressive start line. Unlike Hilly Billy Roubaix and Iron Cross, almost no one was on a mountain bike. The race shut down the main street of Woodstock Vt.  for the entire day. After the national anthem we rolled out, and a mile later we left the pavement behind on a wide, hard-packed dirt road littered with wheel-eating potholes. I watched several guys endo into the ditch almost immediately. Ouch. As soon as the gradient turned up I found myself drifting backwards out of the front group. I may have made a mistake in not going harder early, but it wasn't like others were  impeding my progress, either. Five miles into the race we hit the first ancient road, and I was off the bike pushing. I was overgeared (34x28), and the recent rain made the rocks pretty slick. On the descent, despite the warning signs, a guy a mountain bike nearly creamed me, as I was held up briefly by even slower guys ahead of me. 

The next 40 miles were a blur--pass guys on the road downhills, and then lose ground on the ancient roads. As usual, my back got progressively worse. In the last hour I found my rhythm, and actually started to pass riders until I flatted in a stream crossing with about six miles left. The entire bike was coated with black smelly grit-encrusted mud, and I sprayed down the tire with Gu from my waterbottle to try to clean it. What a  mess. I was running latex tubes with Stans, left over from Hilly Billy Roubaix, but obviously I didn't have enough Stans, since the leak didn't seal. After the repair I was completely paranoid about flatting again.

Minutes later we descended through a hay field, onto the pavement, crossed a covered bridge, and then minutes later i was sprinting though downtown Woodstock. One last steep uphill and I was across the line. My flat cost me 12 minutes and forty places, only good enough for 101st place. I've flatted way too many times in these races recently.
Pissed off just after repairing the flat. The photo shows a rather tame section of an ancient road. Photo credit Ryan Dunn:

Heart rate and speed. The big notch at 190 minutes is the flat tire change.  Averaged about 165bpm 

Enjoying a recovery beverage brewed by the race sponsor at a restaurant on the finishing straightaway.


  • Continental cyclocross speed tires @ 65psi with Vittoria latex tubes and 1/2 a bottle of 2-month-old Stans. Less than ten miles of the course was paved, and even on the smooth hardpacked roads, the tires were not a liability. 
  • 34x28 was not low enough. Some of the "ancient roads" would have been ridable with lower gearing.