Riding to Vermont

Sitting astride my shiny, midnight black 1982 Yamaha XJ650, trying to extricate myself from the sweaty grip of New York City rush hour, I hear someone yell, "Get lost!"

You said it, pal. Because that's just what I have in mind. I'm Vermont-bound, where I'll be welcomed with open roads -- the kind that seem made for motorcycles: flowing over and around the Green Mountains,running by the kinds of scenic keepsakes (sidelong streams, wooded slopes, quaint hamlets) that look just as good at 55mph as 70.

My plan is to head for the relative isolation of Middlebury, an out-of-the-way college town that lies midway up the western edge of the state. East of Middlebury are the Green Mountains and to the north, Burlington -- the only place in the state with a nightlife, so I'm told. In the middle of the state is Montpelier, where I'll meet up with Ken Aiken, a local road expert and amateur historian who'll show me a few choice loops over the mountains.

Leaving New York City behind, I'm up to speed at last on the Taconic Parkway, doing the "tarmac tango" -- the falling, gliding, sweeping gestures of motorcycling that leave me grinning and feeling lucky to be alive. Not for surviving the risk, but because I am flying over the perfect downhill left-hand sweeper into a quick right, riding a line Picasso couldn't have pictured -- pulling in the clutch, blipping up the engine revs, then kicking the gearshift down into third, leaning her over to accelerate easily through the first broad, sweeping curve, then backing off just a touch at the apex and flicking back over to the other side to open her up, coming free of it, heads up and eager for more.


Several hours of this blacktop ballet get me to Route 4, where I am almost -- well, not exactly lost, you understand, just kind of er -- missing? Getting lost is to me what getting hit on the head was to Krazy Kat -- a pleasurable disgrace -- and like that sentimental feline I am long past feeling any shame about it. Especially out here, chasing the horizon astride this powerful black beast of mine. Three tries get me a quaint lake resort, an old shale mine, and pretty wooded roads before I find 22A and finally 125 East.

Traveling along the eastern edge of New York State, the blunt mountain peaks of the Taconic are remote, leaving broad, arable fields -- interspersed with convenience stores that seem to hint at a nearby resort (Lake George). But when I cross the basin of the Champlain Valley -- entering Vermont along the shore of Lake Champlain -- a certain reserve seems to take over the land. The stores and gas stations seem less intrusive, the farms more rustic, sitting along gently rolling, fertile farmland.

The fields prove to be a brief prelude. A high ridge of white rock outcropping heralds the western edge of the Green Mountains, the spine of Vermont. Sitting on top of the marble shelf is Middlebury, my first stopover.

After six buzzy hours in the saddle, the Middlebury College golf course looks as weirdly inviting as a peaceful sanitarium grounds. The calm little semi-private tract is soothing enough to take four strokes off of my typical outward nine; gently skimming the woods and surrounding water, it's a distant carry from the faceless, cookie-cutter golf courses carved out from under ski resorts, like Stowe and Stratton. The mountains present a challenge to golf course designers, the best of whom manage to make their tight, woodlands courses fair while allowing generous portions of mountain scenery.

For wanton idleness, nothing quite compares with nosing a motorcycle around an old northern New England town on a weekday, so the next day I wander in and around Middlebury, which seems layered, like sedimentary rock, with various eras. It's clear that the Depression effectively stalled the mill town's initiative for decades -- until the urban exiles began boosting the economy about 30 years ago. Thanks to an awareness of historic preservation, the mill has reopened as an historical curio.

This sensitivity to old Vermont is part of what makes the place so charming, as becomes clear later in the day as I head up Route 116 and then east on 17, a steep, twisting mountain pass that takes me to one of the more fabled mc arteries of New England, Route 100. Up north here it's less tourist-ready -- homier B&Bs and simple motels instead of the quaint picture-postcard inns of Manchester and Woodstock.

By nightfall I'm outside Montpelier, in the home of Ken Aiken, a jeweler, watchmaker, gemologist -- and my back roads guide. The Aiken family has lived here 200 years, and Ken is a sort of civic booster-cum-amateur historian-cum-map expert who hasn't been altogether corrupted by a great sense of direction. Before we head out for a couple of rides the next day, I ask him how that shelf under Middlebury came about.

The Green Mountains and much of Vermont, he explains, were plowed onto the North American continent 375 million years ago when Africa shoved volcanic islands our way. The islands in turn scraped up lots of junk from the ocean floor and up onto New York -- and voila, Vermont. "Those volcanic islands are the mountains of New Hampshire. The Connecticut River is the old edge of the North American continent. And the marble running from Middlebury south to Rutland was the limestone rock that got liquefied by the great heat of the shearing effect, and then crystallized into marble," Aiken says. "The limestone marble underneath the Champlain Valley is what's made that valley so fertile. Limestone is composed of the remains of seashells, mixed with mud -- in this case, from a shallow sea that was there. That marble shelf that Middlebury was built on is the overthrust from the bulldozing by those volcanic islands."

Gouged by continual glacial intrusions, Vermont eventually became susceptible to floods - which dealt the economy devastating blows in 1927 and again in 1932; one a few years ago in Montpelier wrecked Ken Aiken's jewelry design business and helped precipitate his venture into watches.

If Aiken can't quite say what makes Vermont tick, he can tell you about the times it's had, from mining to maple syrup (which wasn't a popular sweetener until 1904, when an enterprising salesman named George Cary decided to market it) to mechanical marvels invented here ("Vermonters hold more patents than any other state"): sandpaper, the breech-loading rifle, gravel roofing, jointed dolls, the Gatling gun, the kitchen mop and the mop wringer, the steam engine ("Robert Fulton stole it from Samuel Morey, who was a Vermonter, "Aiken explains), the electric motor, the circular saw. . . .

He'll offer that there is also a long-standing tradition of spiritualism in Vermont, from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, to Mary Baker Eddy: it is a search which lives to this day not only in the red brick Jehovah's Witness temples which seems to be springing up over the state in towns like so many prefabricated bunkers for the elect, but of course among the devotees of Eastern and related creeds among ex- hippies and soon-to-be-ex-hippies (not to mention a very attractive young blonde I met in a cafe in Burlington who would not give me her phone number.)

For the better part of two days, Aiken and I circle up, over, and around the Green Mountains with stops for gas, food, and an occasional tour guide lecture: he's working on a book about Vermont roads. In Vershire, he pulls over his BMW K75 -- a watchmaker's bike if there was one -- at a small river, and tells me it was poisoned by the byproducts from copper mining that were dumped into it in the mid-19th century. Even now it cannot sustain life. We stop alongside a hidden cemetery where Aiken retells stories about the Green Mountain Boys reclaiming Vermont from mean New York State during the Revolutionary period.

But discovering is more fun than learning, and so it's on my own that I find the hardy wildflowers of Vermont civilization among the towns, big and hidden alike.

Every one seems to have a striking little library, town hall, or church: like Burlington's old Unitarian church (1816), a monument to Federal elegance; or even the abandoned railroad station in the tough little town of Hardwick, just underneath the lonely Northeast Kingdom -- Hardwick, perennial butt:

Q: What do you call a 350-pound Hardwick girl?

A: Anorexic.

formerly the "Granite Capital of the World" and now a contender for the title in Fetching Storefront Signs (a coiffure salon called "Hairport," a thrift store titled "New to You," a chophouse called "In a Pig's Eye").

I won't even tell you my favorite road. It was an improvised route one afternoon, just the kind that usually gets me in trouble: a road that wasn't on my map. It descended gently for a few miles into hidden woods, the treeline straying back and forth along the rolling asphalt, the grade toying with me, keeping me guessing whether it'd head back uphill after the dip or take me deeper and lower into a wooded valley -- until it rose, sharply, briefly, bringing me alongside a sunny clearing with a half-neglected field, brimming with hay; a wide clearing dotted with a lonely tree here and there, and behind, a pond, a sort of oasis -- hard to believe such a thing could actually belong to anyone, but for that moment, all mine.

Turning my Yamaha back toward New York City, I give Vermont a mental wave, saying goodbye to the idleness and luxury of wandering. Knowing where you're going is almost too simple to enjoy. Getting lost, now that's fun.