Ted King leaned in and whispered, conspiratorially. “Don’t be obvious, but I’m pretty sure that’s Mike Powers.”
I turned, as discreetly as I could, and scanned the other patrons in the bakery, where we’d met Ted for some coffee, breakfast, and a chat.
For a quiet town consisting of little more than three storefronts on a corner, it was getting busy. People were lining up behind us, or tucking themselves into corners to avoid blocking the door. Young. Old. Single. Couples. Families. Everyone fashionable enough that we could have easily been in a bustling cafe in a vibrant city. Instead of this sleepy traffic light next to a river.
The smell of coffee and bread was strong and good. Flaky pastries crusted with slivered almonds and what looked to be the perfect amount of gloriously hardened icing stared at us from the glass case. Young men and women bustled about in back, baking things that I desperately wanted to eat.
I inspected everyone carefully, hoping that something in a pair of eyes, crooked mouth, or sunburned nose would stand out. And while there were dull chimes of familiarity in a few faces, nothing was ringing an actual bell… as to who the eff this “Mike Powers” might be. The name sounded familiar. But I couldn’t place it. Was he a racer? A builder? Some legend of the cycling world that, if I was really half as invested in the sport as I pretend to be, would be instantly recognizable? A “Holy shit, you’re right! That IS Mike Powers!” kind of moment. But I had nothing.
Pretending to Know
So what I did was… I totally pretended to know who Ted was talking about. Hoping that by playing out this charade I could fake my way to some eventual clarity on the matter. Or at least stall until I could google it in the restroom in a few minutes. “Hmmm. Maybe?” I murmured back. Vague. Neutral. Safe. Dorothy leaned in between us and quietly whispered. “You… mean Mike Myers?”
I’d been looking forward to Rooted Vermont for a while. Ever since I saw the first hints of it on social media. Not long ago, I’d gotten in my van and traveled up to New England to finally ride Kingdom Trails and explore the area. I’d returned home wanting more of everything the region had to offer.
My partner, Dorothy, had grown up in New York and split her time as an undergrad between Scotland and Amherst, MA. Spending the time she wasn’t studying tromping around in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Paddling its rivers. Drinking its craft beers. Always telling me about how much she missed it and how much I would love it. I knew I would.
No, it’s not the vast red rock desert that I dream about… all the time. But it is, for lack of a better description… fucking magical. It is. It just… is. It’s green. Beautiful. Quiet. Quaint. And more than that, it was everything I needed at the moment.
It was mountains. Rivers. Wildflowers. Barns. Ferns. Sunshine. It was cool mornings. Brilliant evenings. It was that bizarre spectacle of grown ass adults wandering past perfectly good bars to order maple flavored soft serve. It was quiet roads. Hidden trails. Swimming holes. And did I mention rivers? The kind with sun-warmed rocks and cold waterfalls. Where you can pull off on the side of the road and jump in without reservation.
Struggling with Place
But more than anything… it was away. It’s no secret… that I struggle with place. Specifically, I struggle with feeling at home in a place. Any place, really, but particularly with the place I currently am. A not-so-small city smack in the middle of North Carolina.
I struggle to feel motivated. Moved. Positive. Content. Alive. I struggle… to feel pretty much anything that isn’t a mounting panic at the possibility that instead of the pit-stop it was always supposed to be, this might very well be where I inadvertently spend my last days on earth.
What was supposed to be a glossed-over backstory became a setting. A minor anecdote became the plot. And what should have been a footnote became the entire theme of a book that I hadn’t intended to write. Not here, anyway.
I needed to get away. And feel something. It had been too long. As with any event more than seven hours away, we decided to make the trip into a week long adventure, driving just a few hours a day and finding recreation at various trailheads and rivers and dive-bars along the way. Ideally, we’d have taken more time, but that was hard to justify. My mom had been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation in the weeks leading up to the event and things weren’t going well. Additionally, it meant that the shop would be largely unattended during my absence. Leaving seemed ill-advised… And selfish.
It wasn’t until we were somewhere north of our second state line that I felt anything inside me start to relax. We worked our way north slowly… trying to clear our heads with rides and runs during the day… and playing the ever popular game of “I wonder who else is having sex in this Wal-Mart Parking lot” at night. Turns out, everyone.
We arrived at Cochran Ski Area early Friday afternoon. Found a decent place to park for the night. Said hi to Ted and Laura. Met the Mike from SRAM who I’d been corresponding with regarding a bike. And rode immediately over to HATCHET for a beer.
There we talked with some riders, avoided others, and basked in the idea of living somewhere like Richmond. From there we went with our new friend Joe to Stone Corral Brewing, just down the road, decided we wanted to drink more beers from HATCHET… and finally rode home in the dark… comfortably full. Sipping rye whiskey in the van and reading Zadie Smith before drifting off to sleep.
New England was putting on gravel events before “gravel” was even a word people used with a straight face. Multi-surface randonnees that wound through hills and farmland. Past the omnipresent rock walls bisecting a time before. Pavement turning to dirt turning to a path before turning back to pavement.
People showed up on their 26 inch rigid mountain bikes. Road bikes with 700×23 tires and caliper brakes. Or bridging that gap with their cross bike. It was less a transformative soul-searching adventure that purified the riders and left them basking in the afterglow of some entitled bravery… and more just a really hard day on the bike that everyone relished.
Rooted was going to continue that tradition… and also open Vermont up to a whole new cross section of riders just now discovering the beauty of the road less traveled. There would be two routes, 48 or 82 miles. Each under the umbrella of #1 on the “Rules” page. “Mullet protocol.” Business in Front, Party in Back. My own mullet instinctively wanted in.
Back in the spring, I’d been fortunate enough to help interview Ted and Laura for the GravelBikes Podcast. We talked about the event and its origins. What to expect. And what had motivated them to ultimately put it on. All of which circled very much back to that idea of “place.”
Aside from being a play on the terrain, on the ubiquitous roots that characterize much of the landscape and trails, the name “Rooted” was very much about this notion of feeling at home. Of feeling willfully bound to a place.
Ted had grown up in the area and as much time as he spent away during his pro-racing career, he could still feel that in his blood. Laura… was coming around. Originally form Washington, she’d spent the last number of years in California. I asked her about an article I’d read where she had mentioned a particularly hard moment she’d experienced returning from a trip to SoCal. How they’d landed in Burlington to snow and bitter cold, and how she’d been unable to stop the tears of panic and sadness that overwhelmed her. Could she handle this…