Flashback, to the middle of last winter. Grimly gazing out the window, I planned a getaway. A trip through small-town America, that would be the thing. See some scenic country. Eat at mom-and-pop diners. Stay in little one-off motels with kitschy decor. Generally speaking, find good roads and avoid the commercialized, chain-restauranted, strip-malled and conglomerated US of A. Yeah, that’d be the thing. And maybe, just maybe, find some California-style cliffside riding while I was at it! Surely those mountains in New England most hold something like that?
Flashback again, to the first week of April. I rolled up to BMW’s headquarters, they signed me out the C650 GT scooter, I tore off down the 407, flurries in the sky everywhere I looked, but thankfully, nothing directly en route as I rode from Toronto to Mark’s place down the highway. Hrm. I when I planned this route, I’d expected temperatures to be a little warmer than this …
Thankfully, the snow was long gone when I crossed into upstate New York the next afternoon, leaving me to watch for other regional hazards: over-eager state police (is upstate New York the most heavily patrolled rural area in the US?) and Amish buggies. Thankfully, the first highway patrolman I spotted grew tired of following me mile after mile at precisely the speed limit, and pulled off in search of a donut store. I was carrying a more generous cruising speed when I met the next two, but one of them already had another car of unfortunates pulled over, and the other was too busy talking on his cell phone to get his radar gun on me. Score one for distracted driving!
Last time I’d been in this area, things had been touch-and-go, with snow everywhere and a barely-running bike. Now I was able to enjoy the surroundings a bit more as I rode. Clearly, this was vacation country, dead in the off-season, with shut-down ice cream parlours and boat rental outfits. Appropriately, Don Henley’s Boys of Summer came over my Sena comm unit’s radio as I rolled up Rt. 12—nobody on the road, nobody on the beach. For once, Google Maps even routed me down some real twisties, which were all the better for not having to share them with tourists. As always, the best time to visit vacation country is when nobody is on vacation, at least if you want good riding.
Still, it was a bit sad here. The farms looked to be in hard shape, and a prevalence of Trump bumper stickers indicated the locals felt abandoned by the establishment. Hillary Clinton might appeal to voters further down the highway, but up here, the cold winter winds seemed to be blowing socialist thoughts further north, across the St. Lawrence River. I’d had mid-winter fantasies about discovering small town America, but now I was here, it seemed they were facing more or less the same glum economic realities as small town Canada.
And I wasn’t helping to make rural America great again, either. I stocked up on some cold medicine at Wal-Mart, not an independent drug store, and because I was in a hurry, I had supper at Sub-Way. Instead of sticking it to The Man, I was putting money right back into his pocket. But all would be right with the world, I reckoned, when I located a small motel outside Plattsburgh. I’d stay here, and inject some money into the local economy. Any place with scads of neon lighting would surely have retro Americana by the truckload, right?
Alas, it seemed the proprietors had spent most of their budget on that neon lighting, and very little of it on housekeeping, with dust bunnies blowing around in the bathroom like tumbleweed on the prairie. They kept the lights blazing all night, and even hanging the tissue-thin comforter in the motel window did little to keep the glare at bay. Eventually, I wrapped my Stanfields long johns around my head to get some shade. So much for the romantic glow of the Atomic Age!
After a grumpy half night’s rest, I rolled out of bed Sunday morning determined to make the best of it, and get this trip back on track. Easy enough, with a diner next door, the good old-fashioned kind with lots of counter stools. Sadly, my quest for an Authentic Vintage American Experience was further derailed when the waitresses started talking about their favourite UFC fighters, and the severe food poisoning they’d suffered at Taco Bell. The diner’s television blared an ad extolling the virtues of working at McDonalds, followed by a huckster selling weight loss products. Hrm …
Flipping through the paper, I saw the local real estate market seemed to be booming, at least judging by the asking prices, but looking around, I didn’t see anyone who could afford to live there. There didn’t seem to be any economic uptick going on; the ice rink across the street had even been closed for years, the waitress told me, but when I asked how things were really going in the area, she didn’t want to say much. In a small town, the wrong person could hear, or I could have been a snarky reporter from VICE, or some other uppity publication looking to run a hit piece on American backwaters. I couldn’t blame her reticence.
But no matter. The riding was good almost as soon as I left the diner; I crossed Lake Champlain on the Cumberland Ferry, into Vermont, and rolled through rural roads surrounded by marshland. In summer, this would be a pretty ride; this time of year, the leaves were still dead, but the road was pleasant enough to ride on, fairly smooth with some decent bends, nothing too tight. After a few minutes, the marshland turned to farmland scenery, and from there, I got onto the old system of river roads, the secondary highways and byways that make up the best riding in New England.
I’m not 100 per cent sure exactly which roads I was on, as I was letting Google Maps do the routing again, but except for a stretch of suburbia that I had to run in order to circumnavigate Montpelier, this was all good stuff. Not the cracking cliffside rides of the west coast, but entertaining. I started pushing the Beemer a little bit harder, seeing just how stable a backroad bomber the C650 GT really was. It didn’t have the suspension for the rougher back roads, but thankfully, in Vermont, there aren’t many of those. After Montpelier I hit the 302, the 2, the 11—all fun stuff, with traffic that was easy to pass, and no police. Apparently Vermont doesn’t share New York’s fanatical obsession with the speed limit.
CHILLY, BUT HAPPY
With my heated seat, heated grips, and heated vest (a battery-powered jobbie, borrowed from Mark), I was a little chilly, but enjoying myself. A proper adventure bike would have been able to go faster, sure, but then I just would have been more cold, and more likely to get a ticket if I actually saw a cop. I settled into a mildly extra-legal speed, and took in the scenery. To be honest, it was still a little yucky, as it was recovering from winter, but the riverside roads through the low mountains would be a real treat in the summer, although traffic would likely be a problem once tourist season started.
Still, it was a happy place to be, even if I wasn’t putting undue pressure on my adrenaline gland. Vermont, as a whole, seems to be a prosperous, pleasant place, with good roads, pretty towns, and … a farm with a giant sign urging us to Take Back Vermont?
Turns out not all the locals were happy with this idyllic setting; intrigued by the sign, I pulled over and asked the elderly farmer why he’d put it up. Simple! It was because “they” were taking away his rights. I pondered this, and figured the best tactic would be to change the conversation, before I got lumped in with “they.” He had other grievances to share, though, including complaints about increased traffic in front of his farmhouse. At this point, I realized I was most definitely one of the guilty parties, and beat a hasty retreat on the Beemer.
NOT SO HAPPY
Not long after, the curves led me into the mountains of New Hampshire, and although I was heading uphill, things were, generally speaking, headed downhill. The temperature dropped to just a hair above the freezing point in the mountains, the heated vest’s battery decided to conk out, and most distressingly, the roads turned to crap.
Everywhere I looked, licence plates and flags told me New Hampshire was the place to Live Free, Or Die. As a person of generally libertarian leanings myself, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the sentiment, but I wished the locals had been willing to shoulder a heavier tax burden in order to keep the roads up. State Route 25 turned decidedly unpleasant, as the DOT had decided signs warning of frost heaves were better than actually fixing the problem.
Dropping back out of the mountains, the scenery turned to the big pines that line the winding back roads of New England. The sun popped out, and while I thought I was getting acclimatized to the cold, I stopped for a muffin and coffee and realized I was actually starting to pick up a real chill.
I’d hoped for much warmer temperatures, and the reality I was facing was a bummer, but even worse, I still wasn’t finding any cliffside riding; I was going up and down the hills, and it was all very pleasant, curvy stuff, but nothing that looked like California.
The cold got to me eventually, and by day’s end in Manchester, New Hampshire, I was glad to pull into a Texas Roadhouse and warm up over a massive scoff of meat. Over supper, the manager came over and was excited to chat about motorcycles, as he was an avid rider himself. I asked him about the riding in the mountains and he told me, “If we want that sort of riding along the edge of a cliff, we go to the Cabot Trail.”
I thought about that the next day, on the ride home. The risk of exploring new country is that you don’t find what you want, and apparently I’d ridden in the wrong direction! I felt like a bit of a dummy, but even less so when I realized that, staying at Econo Lodge the previous night, I’d become just what I was trying to avoid—another bloated consumer on the mad rush to rock bottom. Tired of navigating through disappointment, I’d ended up shunning diners for chain restaurants, mom-and-pop motels for conglomerate hotels. I’d hadn’t re-discovered small town America, I’d made the problem worse, in a small way.
So, I had more work to do down here, in my quest to learn the back roads of New England the same way I learned the back roads of Atlantic Canada. But, as my brain ticked away, and I started going over all the tricks to conserve body heat (tuck in as tightly as possible behind the windshield, stomp my feet on the floorboards, wiggle my toes, ride with one hand to keep my fingers out of the wind), I still felt I’d had a good trip. I’d taken on the cold, I made it home, and I saw new country. That’s as good as you can expect for the first week of April, when only a fool would go touring on two wheels.