Editor’s note: In excitement for our upcoming issue on Making Do, in your mailboxes and select storefronts soon, here is a story from contributing writer Bryan Chambala on his quest to finish the Green Mountain Gravel Growler. For more stories like this, subscribe now to Dirt Rag by clicking this link, to ensure speedy delivery of issue 208, Making Do.
by Bryan Chambala
When we got to Hill Farmstead I knew I wasn’t going to die, but all I could say to Matt was, “I think I might die.” We leaned the bikes against a wall near the port-o-potties where I could feel piss molecules sinking into my skin like some kind of reverse Lysol, and then we stood in line for a half hour to get beer – the thing to do when you’re going to die but you’re not, really.
We were trying the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, and I wasn’t ready for it. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.
The Gravel Growler starts in Burlington, Vermont, where we found a kickass locals bar called The Other Place (“The OP”) and chatted up the bartender and an off-duty bartender who was trying to get drunk in the three minutes before he had to go to his other job (he had three shots and a beer – success). I was with my friend Matt, who lives in Maine. He’s a strong rider and had been bombing through the wilderness of Millinocket in the months leading up to the trip. I had ridden sporadically that spring; life had intervened in my plans to be in real riding shape, so I had some reservations but was able to wash them down with a few beers at The OP.
This was our first attempt at anything resembling off-road touring and/or bikepacking, and all of the advice on the internet said to lower expectations for daily mileage, test our setups thoroughly before embarking, and expect the trip to be harder than planned. With that in mind, I commuted to work a few times with about 5 lbs. on the bike and installed a new crankset in a sweaty rush the night before I left for the trip. Intellectually, I knew this was bad. But I really wanted to go, and Matt and I exchanged a few thousand giggly texts and bike pics in the months leading up to the trip, so the emotional toll of backing out would have been intolerable.
The next morning we went to Henry’s Diner for breakfast and then headed out. Burlington is a remarkably bike-friendly city full of bike lanes and actual bicycles ranging from cool old Rockhoppers to new 27.5+ mid-fats doubling as delivery bikes to the standard college-town Centurions – but it is a nightmare to ride out of that city. We started on Main Street and went up a giant hill and nearly got doored by one car and then nearly run over by a second person in a Jeep SUV. What followed was a tangle of disappearing shoulders, oh shit it’s over there! bike lanes, and intersections with tighter switchbacks than most singletrack. Eventually, we hit up the Hannafords for some fresh fruit and eco butt wipes and then wound through a few suburban neighborhoods and a schoolyard or two (all on bike trails now), and then – magically and suddenly – we were on dirt.
The first road loped uphill through leafy shadows and then rolled us out into the sun on a dry gravel rutted descent past houses hidden in leaves and dust. It finally felt like we were here. We stretched our legs rolling downhill and heard rocks popping out from under the tires as we let the wind blow the sweat off our faces. We went uphill again through the shadows and out into the sun on the dirt driveway of a horse farm set atop a valley of tremulous green. For the first time, we stopped to eat and drink. There were five horses in the pasture, each a different color of bark-stripped wood. The valley rolled down to another small farmhouse, and the dirt road followed the curve between the two hills. I could smell sweet grass and clover and horses and hay. We hesitated before getting back on the bikes. There’s a little place inside that hurts leaving a place like that.
This whole section of Vermont was stunning: There were scenes of rural life so ordered and inviting – weather-faded white wood siding wrapping tidy farmhouses, cold rivers and creeks winding alongside quiet roads, horses and rough cut board fences marking field borders, guernseys gnawing at phosphorescent grass – we wondered if it was real or if there were rich people hiding around every rustic corner.
We rode to Waterbury and stopped at the first brewery. I’ll skip the reviews: I like beer if I’m lapping it up from a puddle, so I can only share that it was all very good and, eventually, Hill Farmstead was even better, but Waterbury was tidy and brick-clad and fine enough. There at the Prohibition Pig, we met up with two guys who were also riding the Growler. We chatted, ate and tried unsuccessfully to keep a fall-down drunk woman from driving home in her fancy Audi. From there it was a short ride to a campground, and while I was tired and slept cold, all was adventurous but orderly.
The next day, Matt and I left early and ended up walking up a hill we couldn’t have ridden on a horse. We got a little lost riding some ferny singletrack but eventually found our way through the woods and connecting fields and jeep tracks. It started to hurt a little, and the Soma Wolverine – decked out in those Nano 2.1s I’d seen on the Internet – started to feel a little long, largely because I’d mounted the tires on the 29” rims that came with the bike and had to jack the sliding dropouts all the way back to New York.
Matty rolled along on his old-timey SS Karate Monkey and whipped all the turns and flew over rocks and just generally looked like he knew what he was doing while I slowed down for the technical bits and my Carradice bag slapped back and forth behind the seat like a horse’s tail slapping at deer flies. Eventually, I caught him on a wide open downhill, and we ate granola bars at the bottom and laughed about pushing our bikes up that first hill. Out there with the bugs and weeds and sweat it all started to feel a little wild.
The rest of the day was hard. It was hot when we rolled on pavement to Alchemist and met the other two guys and found out Alchemist didn’t have any food, and we couldn’t even buy a full beer. We re-routed and headed up the goddamn Tourmalet through construction to get to a place that had full beers and food. Pretty shortly after, I was dropped. I pulled over to rest and swear and wheeze, and there I got the first real inkling that not only were Matt and the other guys in better shape, I was not even capable of making our daily 50-mile goal. I kept it to myself.
Remounted, I eventually inched up through the construction zone, where the flag lady told me, “the first guy looked in worse shape than you.” I couldn’t breathe enough to talk, so I didn’t tell her that it was Matt on his singlespeed, and I wasn’t going to catch him until he stopped.
We let the younger guys go on without us somewhere in the hills outside Stowe. Our goal was Morrisville and a campground just outside town. We’d made 40 miles the first day. Successful arrival in Morrisville would make 40 on the second.
The Growler is a 250-mile loop. We had five days. Doing 50 miles a day didn’t sound so bad at home, but now we were behind schedule and on track for three 60-mile days after this one, and it was already starting to sink into my legs. I would have felt better had we been able to extend the trip a day or two, but a dance recital awaited me back in Central New York, and a father has priorities.
Up in the hills, I started to fade. The hastily installed crankset wasn’t dialed in and chain rub was creeping in, along with janky shifts. When I had legs, I powered through it, but the hills just kept grinding and grinding. Matt rolled along, checking back for me, sharing water and a granola bar or two when I needed it. If I did 1,000 of these trips, I’d want him on every one.
We took more breaks, and the beauty of the region washed over us again and again. We rolled by functioning small farms, hay fields smelling sweet just after the first cut, country estates nestled in the trees, orderly little towns, and well-restored covered bridges. We rested in the shade in a cemetery where the only sound we heard was the breeze, and then rested again after another climb, propping the bikes against a weathered split rail fence. We couldn’t have known exactly what Vermont was going to look like until we got there, but sitting in the dirt eating parmesan cheese, looking at the waves of wind sliding around the hill and turning up the shimmering backsides of field grass, it all looked pretty good.
We were still a little wary of the seeming bucolic perfection. We were surrounded by immaculate pastures and farmhouses renovated in the “second home” style. The towns near me that look like that are a petri dish of wealth and influence, and while a $45K countertop in an 1880s farmhouse gives some people an endorphin rush, I start having visions of Billy Bragg waving a red flag on the front lawn.
I wouldn’t say we didn’t enjoy it, we just approached it with caution. It was perfect, and someone with the inclination could Instagram the hell right out of it. But we had to wonder, who can afford this?
I started the morning on day three feeling strong and leading up climbs, which was new. The bike was smooth. The legs were free. We had to walk one long climb, but we had already walked one the day before so the pretense was gone, and we just enjoyed walking, talking and wondering what the fuck Joe Cruz was thinking when he came up with this route. Eventually, we came up high in farm country and got the feeling we were just a few turns from the famous Hill Farmstead, which we pictured as a lone tipping shack in a grassy pasture, tended by an old man in overalls. No crowd, we figured: it’s too far up here. No cars. Lots of beer. Big cheeseburgers.
We turned on dirt roads with the same names as the farms on them. We got hot. We walked up a few more dirt hills in the sun. The houses looked a little more like home. We went through one driveway and down a little backyard and over a busted up bridge. A lot of the houses had white wood siding that hadn’t been painted in a few years. It felt comfortable. I figured Hill must be right around the corner. It’ll be a day, I thought. Get a few of the world’s best beers and power through another 40 miles on the groove.
But we just kept turning and turning away from those little houses and trucks with holes in them onto tighter packed dirt roads still wet from the morning dew, up into high-style country again, winding and climbing. I got low on water. Matt gave me half a bottle. We had a granola bar and rolled.
I don’t think there was any one moment, but at some point when we got back in the sun I started to slide into the place with no words. My legs floated and things got narrow. I turned the pedals over and over up the roads but dropped back, weaving; Matt checked on me and must have known I was fading. We kept on. I had a new feeling – a low vibration came up in my chest and poured out soft sheets onto my arms and down along the top of my legs, and I couldn’t feel the heat anymore.
Then my mind wandered. What the hell was I doing up here? I’m not any kind of accomplished cyclist. I don’t race. I haven’t really toured. Sure, I drool over the feeds of bikepacking pros, but I don’t have a thousand Instagram pictures of my unfettered friends doing cool shit on their effortlessly well-appointed vintage mish-mash bikes. I go to work in an airless office like most people. I drive my kids around. I look at the bills and grind my fingers through my hair and look at bikes on eBay for hours. I buy the sandals and tires and bags all the experienced people say won’t fall apart during the four days out of the year I get to use them. But then I overcook myself so I can’t feel my skin. Then I get a fluttering vibration in all of my body.
We made it to Hill Farmstead.
I was hot and hungry, out of joint, relieved but defeated and so very, very tired.
There was no old man in overalls and no shack. There were, however, a lot of people and a nice, new building. There were cars, too, lots of cars. I wandered away from Matt and laid the bike on the first wall I saw, not noticing the latrines but smelling them as soon as I’d gotten off.
The tasting room was hot and stuffy, but I didn’t ask for a water or even sit down. I stood in line like a good boy and waited for my beer. That’s when I knew I wasn’t going to die, but that’s when I also knew I was not going to ride that bike anymore that day.
I couldn’t tell Matt yet, but I suppose he knew. I ordered the “Edward,” named for the Farmstead family’s grandfather, and wandered outside and couldn’t find a seat but eventually settled on the edge of a little platform. We ordered up at the bbq food truck, which was better than cheeseburgers anyway, and I got the pulled pork and some coleslaw and mac and cheese and then stared at my plate for an hour and tried to remember how to breathe like a normal person.
Matt got me a water and asked me if I liked the beer because I had taken only two sips. I told him they were wonderful, vibrant, citrus and cut-grain sips; balanced and tangy, richly layered and satisfying, but I couldn’t drink any more. The heat had come back to my skin and I couldn’t get cooled down. I breathed slowly and tried to take in the whole scene: a mountaintop brewery in high northeast country, a sweet breeze, and achingly beautiful people drinking the world’s best beer with the smell of bbq and hay wafting on the breeze. But what I really wanted was a cold bath and for someone to cut my bike into pieces with a chainsaw so I wouldn’t have to tell Matt I couldn’t do this shit anymore.
That didn’t happen. So I finally told him, “I’m done. I’m sorry.”
Back in Burlington a day later, I had a PBR at The Other Place and we sat by the open window in the rain. The beer was in a Pacifico glass. I don’t like taking pictures, so I took a quick one because I wanted to remember what that beer looked like. The picture is framed poorly and lit flatly, and the phone camera focused on a 4Runner out in the street instead of the beer. I like this picture very much because that is how it looked when I drank that beer. No light-of-Jesus camera work beaming through the glass, no eye-level framing, no filters. Just a beer in the rain in a bar.
I felt better by then. We wound up meeting a retired couple at Hill Farmstead, and the husband was an old mountain biker who said he’d seen our bikes and thought “what kind of jackasses rode those things up here?” Then he saw me not looking too good and knew. That kind of jackass.
They were so nice it hurt – they loaded up our bikes on their rack and drove us down the hill, bought us beers at Lost Nation, and then drove us to Stowe and recommended a good brew pub. We stayed at the same hotel and ran into them at breakfast and said goodbye over pancakes and coffee. Then we rode to Burlington. It was raining and cool. I felt good.
We missed the back third of the trip, skipped Montpelier and some giant climb we heard was coming – and probably 10,000 smaller ones – and missed some breweries too. I kept telling Matt I was sorry, but Matt is a peach so he just smiled and said it was a better story anyway. The mountain biker’s wife had already emailed him – she’s intrigued by the Appalachian Trail, and Katahdin and old Millinocket are at the tail end. Matt will be back, I’m sure; maybe we’ll both be back. Either way, he really wants to finish it on that single speed. One day when I was suffering and looking ahead at Matt on his Surly, one of the younger guys said to me, “that is a curious choice for a bike on this route.” And it was. That’s one reason I like riding with Matt.
We went to bed pretty early that night back in Burlington. It felt good to unload the bike, to know I was headed home. We got up the next morning and went to that diner on the way out, and I think I paid for both of us. I hope I did.