Going West is the wrong way and the right way to cross North America. It’s the right way for us as it was the shortest flight from the UK and also feels more explorer-y to travel the same way as the pioneers and settlers, moving west, finding the Rockies, finding the Pacific. It’s the wrong way because of the prevailing wind, which could make the Midwest in particular very tough indeed. But winds can change, the other things can’t, so we are sticking to the plan.
There are so many wonderful things about visiting the USA. Almost all of them can be summarised to the fact that it does so well at being American. New England could not have been more New England-y. There were towns full of immaculate wooden buildings, white clapboard churches, pristine lawns. Tree covered hills stretched as far as we could see. You can see why people say to visit New England in the fall a the colours must be incredible. For now there were mostly bare trees. The sun shone and we picnicked outside Louisa May Alcott’s house. We even saw a beaver, his lodge and dam.
We had planned in some shorter riding days to get used to having all the kit on the bikes again. This gave us plenty of time for important pastimes like snack stops, surveying the random stuff in the road shoulder (early winner, children’s shoe/NH overtaken by broken homemade banjo/NY), number plate spotting and counting political signs. In Massachusetts Bernie had the most signs. In New Hampshire it was Donald, though the election signs were clearly outnumbered by ‘no pipeline’ boards. That evening there was much celebration at the Fitzwilliam Arms open mic night because it had been confirmed that the new pipeline was not to be. Locals were relieved that a huge volume of woodland would now be left undisturbed.
Short cycling distances also meant we had time for a hike up Gap Mountain before our ride to Brattleboro, VT. The views onwards to Vermont and back to Monadnock were fantastic, but we could see that crossing the green mountains the next day was going to be tough. Even though there is nothing like the height of the Rockies several cyclists had warned us that they had found crossing the Appalachians extremely challenging.
After stocking up on snacks at the excellent Brattleboro food co-op we headed uphill in the rain. As it got heavier we sheltered a couple of times but as it showed no signs of stopping soon decided we would have to get wet to get anywhere.It was the slowest of slow progress. The first 17 miles were all uphill. There at the top of Hogback we had our gourmet food co-op picnic,a fantastic view of three states and worried slightly that it was 2pm and we had only. done about a third of the distance for the day. Other tourists did not reassure us, with much talk of the steepness of the next climb etc. They weren’t wrong, it was at times brutally steep. Often these slower sections coincided with a narrowing of the shoulder bringing us very close to (fortunately considerately driven) trucks.
Handily we found some stray rhubarb and custard sweets in my handlebar bag and powered up the second pass. Apparently in the civil war men dragged cannons up and over that route, probably without dessert-based sweets to help them.
The downhill to Bennington was amazing. The type you don’t really get in Europe where there are far more twists and steep gradients. This was relatively shallow, straight-ish with a wide shoulder and mostly good surface. Plenty of time to enjoy the view and avoid any road hazards (roadkill, clothing items, half a pizza). An often cited benefits of cycling is that you are really in touch with your surroundings, not separated from them as in a car. This is definitely a for better, for worse situation – that green mountains day had it all. Pouring rain, too-close traffic on a narrow road, the air rushing past and great views opening up on a fast descent, the heat and smell of truck brakes as they roll down the hill.
The next day we entered New York State and crossed the Hudson. Cue head filled with songs mentioning the famous river that runs all the way to New York City. Have you got Billy Joel? It was a beautiful day, we rode mainly through farmland aiming for a different waterway, the Erie Canal, which we could follow almost to the Canadian border.
We didn’t make the canal that day, but our camping experience in Bruce and Sandy’s backyard was further demonstration of how kind, welcoming and enthusiastic everyone we had met so far had been. That is the most wonderful thing about being a visitor here, over all of the other things, and it has been my experience every time I have travelled in this giant country. I said earlier that America was good at being American. The overwhelming majority* of people seem to be good Americans too. Oh, and did I mention that Vermont actually smelled of maple syrup?
Thanks to: Julie & John, Hiel & Susan, Dot, Ellen, Bruce & Judy (drinkers of the best beer in the world), Bruce, Sandy and Champ.
*Excluding the guy who shouted F*** Queen Elizabeth at us on her Birthday. She’s a 90 year old Great Grandma, let’s be respectful.