Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Miles of Metacomet: Day Three, Vermont to Rhode Island Adventure Ride

Despite it being part of New England, I’ve never looked at Connecticut with the same respect or admiration as I do to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and yes, even Rhode Island.
It has vast tracts of wildlands, hard flowing rivers, and abundant trail networks, and yet I always felt like the state was one large suburban neighborhood for New York City.  I always pictured busy ten lane highways with jersey barriers, dirty highway rest areas, pretentious manicured “towne” centers, and traffic choked suburban hell. That’s because I was prejudiced against Connecticut.  There, I said it out loud. And like any ill-informed opinion, the cure was experience.  It was time for Connecticut and I to spend some quality time together: and what better place than on the Metacomet Trail.

I was on the third day of my adventure ride along the backroads and trails from Bennington, Vermont to Providence, Rhode Island. I had taken my licks on the Taconic ridge, and been soaked to the bone while traversing western Massachusetts. It was time for me to move my rolling bike party south through Hartford and onto points east.

A glorious rain-free morning greeted me in Westfield, and I hopped on the Southwick Rail Trail
headed south.  It was a Saturday and so the trail was busy with joggers and other cyclists as I rolled along smooth pavement admiring the flat terrain on both sides.  The trail continued south into Connecticut as the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, which I could have ridden all the way to just west of Hartford. But I wasn’t hauling a full suspension mountain bike around New England to spend all day on pavement. Rocky singletrack beckoned from a wooded ridge in the distance. And so I jumped off the comforts of the rail trail and headed up a slow road climb to find the Metacomet trail.  Just east of Granby I slipped into the woods and onto a sliver of dirt that wound upward onto a thin wooded ridge above.

The trail was steep, but rideable, and only required a brief hike-a-bike to gain the top of the ridge.  I rolled along the edge of steep cliffs, popping briefly out of the woods to spy the valley below.  A fast and fun descent took me down to road, and then back up again on the other side.

Another wooded spine drew me due south, and as I descended again, the woods were thick with history. First an enormous tree- nearly six feet across- guarded the trail and then, not much further along, I stumbled into a recently restored smallpox cemetery. I stopped to read the inscriptions, which told the story of an 18th century family who lost their elder and four young children to a disease that today we only read about in books.

I continued my descent into a broad river valley where I wound along sandy singletrack next to the Farmington River.  A paved road led me across a wide bridge and into the small hamlet of Tariffville, where I was greeted with a vibrant farmer’s market on the town green. With my day’s journey just beginning, I resisted the urge to stretch out on the green grass or melt into the crowd of people filling their bags with vegetables and baked goods. Instead, I climbed slowly out of the valley through a quiet neighborhood.

I was happy to get back into the woods as the mid-day sun was beginning to show its teeth.   An old access road wound back to the crest of the ridge, and I followed it, eventually finding more singletrack high above.  For the next five miles I rolled south along rocky singletrack, zig-zagging across the top of the ridge in thick woods.  Signs aggressively announcing the town lines seemed ridiculously out of place.  Somebody obviously felt the need to let me know exactly which town I was in every step of the way.  Like that mattered. I was in Connecticut. I was in the woods.I was on singletrack.  I was home.

The scenery continued to amaze as my journey wound south.  I ventured through tall pine forests, slowly climbing up alongside looming bands of steep rock, and then descending into a busy parking lot for a municipal park full of joggers, dog walkers and others just out to enjoy the sunny weather.

Across the road rogue trails cut into the woods away from a powerline, and I found myself alone again, rolling along the edge of a steep bank hemmed in by a chain link fence that wandered closer and closer to the edge of the precipice.  With nothing for reference, I couldn’t really tell if I was inside or outside the fence. Or if it mattered.  After an awkward section where the fence finally kissed the edge of the ravine and I had to rock climb around a corner with the bike over my head, the trail finally migrated away from the edge and freed me to wander.  I emerged through a pine thicket to the shores of a large reservoir and was again surrounded by others enjoying the beautifully sunny August day.

After crossing the busy four lane Highway 44, I was again following a powerline, and again on singletrack in the woods.  Some of the best riding of the day followed as I reached the height of land.  For the next hour and half I was descending: first through the thick woods, then in a tall pine forest, then on rocky doubletrack. A steep descent on the wooded doubletrack dumped me out onto a paved park trail where I eventually rolled out onto road. The road led me into the heart of Hartford.  At first, I rolled safely along in a wide breakdown lane until suddenly it was gone. I was left to sprint through the heart of a busy commercial section, trying to keep pace and anticipate cars as they ducked and weaved through buzzing traffic.

I found my way to the Capitol grounds, and wider roads where I was able to relax and enjoy the sights.  I wandered past the capitol building and through the quiet downtown to a large bridge spanning the Connecticut River. It was now late afternoon and I zipped along the paved trail on the far side of the river heading south. I had hoped to cut through the campus of a large factory, but had to improvise when I found a guarded gatehouse blocking my intended way.  Eventually I worked my way over to Interstate 84, where I linked up with the Charter Oak Greenway.

Originally my plan had been to follow the Greenway to Case Mountain Park and find a spot to camp for the night, but my tired legs ran out of gas as I approached Manchester.  I cringed at the thought of the climb needed to get to the park.

Waving the white flag, I rolled into Manchester for the night and setup camp in another cheap motel.  I found a gem of a spot. And by gem, I mean it was the worst place I’ve ever stayed.  I’m convinced that the person who last stayed in my room died of tuberculosis, but managed to give it to the person next door before leaving in a bag.  It was the kind of place that smelled like a frat house bathroom mat had been placed over the broken air conditioner.  Imagine sleeping in a dirty sock.
In short, it was the kind of place that will forever make me think twice about giving up a night in the hammock for a night in a motel.  Forever.

It is not, however, what I think of when I think of Connecticut.
I think of the Metacomet.  The miles and miles of wild Metacomet.

And my love affair with Connecticut bikeways was only just beginning.

Read about Day One here: Taconicked: Day One of the VT to RI Adventure Ride

Read about Day Two here: Seven Levels of Wet: Day Two of the VT to RI Adventure Ride

Here's the map for the third day's route: