Champlain Valley

Cyclists venture far afield

By Ethan Rouen

Cyclists enjoy the view of the Adirondack Mountains from West Road in Essex. Photo by Ethan Rouen

Fortunately, the minor disasters that seem to plague most of our outdoor adventures occurred early in our bike trip. We pulled four dusty bicycles out of the garage, and after tightening a few screws, my wife, Kim, our friends Zack and Katie, and I set off on a thirty-five-mile loop through farmlands and rural hamlets in the Champlain Valley.

As described in the wonderfully thorough 25 Bicycle Tours in the Lake Champlain Region, the route begins and ends at the ferry dock in the charming community of Essex, but we started our ride at my mother-in-law’s place just up the road. Moments after pedaling out of the driveway, I heard the sound of dreams deflating, of a ruined day spent back at the house, as air rushed out of the tire tube of my Trek 7000—a great bike back when the first Bush was president. It wasn’t just the tube; the whole tire was shredded.

Still optimistic about a day in which rain was predicted but clouds were absent, I volunteered to walk the bike home, patch the tire with duct tape and a prayer, then meet the group for breakfast at a diner in Willsboro.
I missed the first five miles, a bucolic strip of Middle Road that I’ve ridden dozens of times, but instead of describing it from memory, I’ll let Kim tell this part of the story.

Hi. This is Kim. First off, the Trek 7000 with its aluminum frame and old-fashioned shifters is an outstanding bicycle that is nearly indestructible. Unfortunately, I rode it through two New York City winters without a tune-up before parking it in my mom’s garage a few months ago. So you really can’t blame the bike. After Ethan left, we turned at the church onto a cinder road that meanders past farm fields to Middle Road. We made a right, keeping an eye out for the house with antique tractors parked in its yard “as far as the eye can see.” Sure enough, the attraction was impossible to miss. A rusted tractor was parked on a trailer at the front door of the house, apparently the latest addition to this rustic collection.

Thanks, Kim. As it turned out, I couldn’t find duct tape and no MacGyver-type miracle occurred, so I was forced to abandon the bicycle at the house and start jogging to the Sportsman’s Diner in Willsboro, feeling slightly woozy from lack of food. Just as I was about to collapse from hunger on the side of the road, a pastor at a nearby church stopped his car and picked me up, totally unconcerned that I would sweat all over the leather seats of his Honda. He dropped me in front of the diner where my fellow bikers were waiting, and we rushed in to order.

Zack pedals along a bucolic landscape near Wadhams. Photo by Ethan Rouen

The decision about who would drop out of the bike ride was put on hold until the food arrived. The Sportsman’s is a small cafe that caters to the hunting-and-fishing crowd and seems to go fairly light on the grease while slinging enough eggs and potatoes to feed an entire peloton on less than the cost of a new tube. Zack ordered the Sportsmen’s Breakfast (two eggs, toast, potatoes, bacon, and pancakes) and was nice enough to share the pancakes with the rest of us after we had devoured our omelettes.

The eggs were great, but the pancakes were the real gem, fluffy and delicious and moist enough to eat without condiments.

But the food was sitting uneasy in our stomachs with the decision looming. Kim spoke first, selflessly volunteering to take the day off, drive to a bike shop for repairs, and meet us toward the end of our trip. I was momentarily misty-eyed at this generosity. Then I thought the three of us should hurry onto the bikes before she changed her mind.

We helped her flag down a friendly ride back to the house and headed south out of Willsboro, making a right onto Sunset Drive. According to the book, the road was unmarked, but since its publication, Sunset’s parents must have chosen a name.

The houses grew farther apart as yards gave way to fields and cows modeled in front of sweeping views of the High Peaks. Playing peek-a-boo with the Boquet River, we cruised over gently rolling hills and soon stopped worrying that our other bikes were just as old and beat-up as the one on its way to the emergency room in Plattsburgh. We turned onto West Road and over the next several miles saw more tractors than cars.

It’s a challenging ride, but doable by beginners and even older children. The guidebook promised a “wonderful garden” at a house near mile 11 of the ride, but we either missed it on a downhill or the owner had taken up new hobbies.

After taking a left on Reber Valley Road, we came to the Route 12 intersection, where we had the choice of cutting ten miles from the ride by finishing a shorter loop or continuing west toward Lewis. The sun was shining and our legs still felt fresh, making this an easy decision.

We turned right on Route 12 and soon came to Betty Beaver’s Truck Stop & Diner in Lewis. It was the first place since Willsboro with a public bathroom, but unfortunately, the combination of the “Restrooms are for customers only” sign and no real desire to buy what they were selling sent us on our way.

A mile farther was Vaughan’s Corner Market, a little deli with a walk-up ice cream window. We were tempted, but the eggs were keeping us strong, and I had my eye on the prize: my favorite cookies in the world were only seven miles away.

We pedaled briefly through downtown Lewis, getting a friendly wave from a man holding a Michelob Light in a koozie, then returned to the serenity of lonely roads, heading southeast on Route 10. The solitude of this stretch relaxed us as no yoga studio could; our only concern was that we had no cell-phone service to reach Kim.

Soon after leaving Lewis, we passed the Meadowmount School of Music. I had imagined it as a beautiful campus with neat wooden houses surrounding a band shell. Instead, it looked more like a rustic summer camp where one of those cliché horror stories actually comes true. I suppose the austerity of the place helps students focus.

The view of the mountains here was one of the best of the trip.
Suddenly, a hundred yards down the road, we came across the highlight of the day for the dog-crazy among us: ten puppies playing in four wire pens on a sweeping lawn.

They had been rescued by Throwaway Pups a foster agency that hosts as many as thirty dogs at a time. The owners seemed optimistic that we’d strap one of the pooches to our bikes, but sadly we left empty-handed.

Finally, we arrived at the Dogwood Bread Company (formerly Merrick’s Bakery) in Wadhams. The café is a gathering point in the area and always my first stop on the way to Essex. Besides their amazing cookies, they also serve delicious, inexpensive sandwiches and host pizza nights that are so much fun that it makes me angry they only do it on Friday nights (and Tuesdays during the summer).

After stuffing ourselves with cookies, we took a brief detour to see a waterfall on the Boquet just down the road. The only sight the book leaves out is the fantastic swimming hole on Merriam Forge Road right off Route 22. You can take a short walk along the train tracks (technically, this is trespassing) to a rocky cliff and a sandy beach. We cooled our feet in the water while high-school kids did flips off the cliff into the deep pool.

About two miles east of there, on our home stretch, we finally bumped into Kim riding the bike with a new tire, her bathing suit in hand, ready for a swim. Zack and Katie continued on while I returned with Kim to the swimming hole.

We bore right on Whallon’s Bay Road, passed Jim’s Pretty Good Books, which I’ve never seen open, and hit the long downhill with an inspiring view of Lake Champlain. A brief stint on Lake Shore Road brought us back into downtown Essex. I was ready to get home, but there were plenty of shopping options, including an ice-cream parlor, a lakeside restaurant, and cute consignment shops, as well as the amazing colonial homes that make the town such a fun place to explore and start and end a bike trip.

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