Rouge Rodeo Clowns

Chronicles of a Wandering Marshmellow, Essay

Site 17 Burke Cottages and Campground, West Burke, Vermont

The blue dot on my phone says the trail is right here, but we can’t find it. I turn in a slow circle, stymied. 

The Kingdom Trails Association (KTA) would not be possible without the hundred or so landowners who allow for the nearly one hundred miles of trails to be built on their land–the trails are used not only for biking, but also for hiking, trail running and horseback riding. Last fall KTA lost some large sections of these trails when some land owners revoked access to mountain bikers. I heard it was because while out horseback riding the owners were berated by some mountain bikers. Our society needs to get its act together, and relearn how to be kind and stop thinking that we are so entitled to everything and that we have the right to accost perfect strangers with our points of view, shouting them down and placing the blame on their shoulders. 

Societal rudeness and the loss of kindness is not the point of this essay though, and I told you that story only to say that though we had lost some of our favorite trails there were some that had recently been reopened and thus I found myself turning in circles in the middle of the woods trying to figure out where we were. Because they were recently opened the trails were not on the paper map I was carrying so I was forced to use the app Ondago to navigate.

It’s a good app, I just hate navigating with my phone when we ride, and clearly it is a bit off as we do not see the trail that is on the screen. We continue in the direction we were going, but decide that the family should turn around and wait at the bottom while I climb up to the top of this trail that is clearly made for going down rather than up and try to get my bearings. At the top I speak with a couple resulting only in more confusion. The only option it seems is to backtrack to the last intersection. 

When we get there Erin and Noah disappear down one trail while Luke and I debate which of the three trails to take. We take a different trail, wrongly assuming that the trail Erin took will link up with the one we take. When we reach another intersection Erin and Noah are not there and I realize the trail they took is not on any map. Leaving Luke munching on cashews and M&Ms I ride back to where we split up and ride down the trail they took, eventually coming to another intersection of three trails. Technology got us into this mess but it also gets us out when I call Erin and figure out where they are. Once we are reunited, the boys take us to their bike camp snack spot along the river. While we’re reclining on the smooth warm rocks listening to the river tumble past munching on our snacks, Luke nonchalantly says. “Sasquatch is just a rodeo clown gone rouge.” Then he goes back to eating his snack. 

By the middle of the week the heat comes back with a vengeance but ever the troupers and now astride new bikes that we luckily found at the Village Sports Shop, the boys are ready to ride. We start in town and ride along trails named Ware’s Davis, White School and Upper Pond Loop. As we ride through a field along the road a honey wagon passes us. These are trucks fitted with tanks that are filled with five hundred gallons of liquid manure that the farmers spread on the fields. The smell is noxious and it drifts through the woods as we ride. Noah and I want to try a trail called Nose Dive and another one called Farm Junk, but the heat has gotten to Luke and Erin so they decide to head back to town via a new trail called New School. A trail that is, I mistakenly tell them, all downhill. Nose Dive is ho-hum but Farm Junk is great and aptly named, given the variety of detritus that litters the sides of the trail. Somehow we miss New School but when I pull out my phone to check the map, I learn this is not such a bad thing. A text from Erin reads: New School Sucks! Flat and in the sun the whole way. The manure scent is growing stronger as the trail leads us into a field where at the far end we see the honey wagon rumbling toward us, spaying its dreadful payload in a several-meter-long arch over the field. I fell in a manure pile as a kid, after making the poor choice of believing I could walk across its crusted top to save time. I ended up sinking up to my waist and my mom made me strip and hose off on the back porch. I have no desire to repeat this especially with the extra potent liquid manure. 

“Pedal hard” I yell over the noise of the truck 

Noah puts the hammer down and we race around the edge of the field keeping one eye peeled for the trail back into the woods and the other on the honey wagon. We stop just inside the tree line breathless and manure free as the honey wagon rumbles past on its way to get another load. 

Reunited with Erin and Luke it is time to go swimming, though we can swim in the river right here in town we decide to drive thirty minutes north to Lake Willoughby. Flanked by two sheer cliffs that reach down to the water’s edge near the center, this five-mile-long lake resembles an Alaskan fjord more than the deepest lake within the borders of Vermont. The northern beach is by far the best, at a half mile long it provides plenty of space to spread out and play in the shallow swimming area. The southern beach, which we go to later in the week because I forgot to get gas for the car, is much smaller with pine trees close to the shore that cause the water to be darker and the lake bottom to be soft and mucky from the decaying pine cones and needles. A path at the far end of this beach leads into the trees and we learn later that it eventually takes you to the nude beach. 

“I am sure glad we did not follow the path all the way there.” Noah says. 

It is not illegal to be nude in public in Vermont; however, it is illegal to undress in public. Talking with Gail, the owner of Burke Cottages and Campground, later that evening, she tells us that she had gotten a call that day from someone asking if clothing was optional at the campground. 

“I’ve never gotten that question before, and I had to tell him no. Can you imagine,” she says with a laugh. 

By Thursday the boys tell us they are done camping. Erin and I are worn out too and ready to move on so we decide to pull up stakes a day early and drive halfway to our next destination. We will stop the Palmyra Golf Course and Campground in Palmyra, Maine for a day so that we can restock our provisions, the boys can swim in the pool and we can do a week’s worth of laundry. With both water and electric hook-ups, it will be pure luxury.

Grandmother Packed a Pistol

Chronicles of a Wandering Marshmellow, Essay

Site 17 Burke Cottages and Campground, West Burke, Vermont

Marshmellow has been parked at site 17 at the Burke Cottages and Campground for the last week. Save for the first few days, we have been the only campers. With the border closed, Kingdom Trails and the surrounding area are devoid of many of the riders who visit in the summer. 

Our first two full days of this trip fell on the weekend, so we spent a day and a half taking advantage of the lift service at the Burke Mountain Bike Park. This means there are no hard climbs for your day of biking, just a relaxing chairlift ride up to the top so that you can hurtle down the mountain on smoothish trails that deposit you right back at the lift so you can do it all over again. For those folks who are not satisfied with just hurtling down the mountain, the designers put in gap jumps, drops, cannons, and other things that will send those with enough hutzpah flying through the air. I am not one of those people. I like my bones the way they are, not broken. Lift service downhill is Luke’s favorite way to ride. Thankfully he is not hucking himself off of any of the aforementioned features, but I am sure it is only a matter of time. He is always out in front, floating down the trail with ease. This should come as no surprise. The first time he got on his strider bike, he went straight into the woods and down the hill on a trail I had made. Noah loves downhill riding too, but he also enjoys the challenge of a good climb and is a bit more cautious on the descents. Erin joined us for the first time and though she learned firsthand why the pedals we all use are called shin-bashers, she kept at it, even getting a little air now and then. She is one cool mama. Not only does she save lives, but she mountain bikes too. 

We’ve had a few spicy moments both with Marshmellow and as a family on this trip. The latter is normal, and any family who tells you they don’t bicker after living a week in a fourteen foot Marshmellow is a liar.  The charging of the battery and the solar are so confounding that Erin and I go in circles trying to figure it all out. At least on this trip we have not run out of power–we wisely got a generator because, surprise, it is not always sunny in Vermont. We did completely drain the battery on our last trip here. That little snafu forced us to go to an RV park, which caused Erin to cry because RV parks are not where we want to stay, no matter how nice the pool is. It poured one night this week, at just the right angle, and one of the windows leaked. One morning in our haste to ride we did not take down the awning and returned to find that the awning and the poles had twisted themselves into a pretzel. The awning is still usable and the water dried so we keep plodding on (KPO).

Grandmother, Uncle Stephen and Sheba

The first drafts of this essay started out talking about my grandmother and how she carried a pistol when she drove across the country. She did not use the expressways nor did she stop at designated campgrounds. She would just pull over along the side of the rode and go to sleep when that time came. She was a fascinating and tenacious woman who did not let the rigid views of society stand in her way. I wanted to tie that and some other observations together to form a message about tenacity, optimism and courage, but that fell apart. I’ve learned not to let that sort of thing derail me too much. It is good to have a plan, but it is better to be able to change that plan when it is clear that is what needs to be done. We are also working hard to live in the moment and to be present, and with that being said, it’s time for another ride. 

Tally Ho!

We Live in a Giant Marshmallow

Chronicles of a Wandering Marshmellow, Essay

We were still in the icy throes of winter when we started making reservations for an August road trip west. That is how we roll; we dream and we plan six or more months in advance. Campgrounds were secured, boondocking (free camping with no facilities. think: truck stop or all that national land we all own) sites scrutinized via Google Earth, and plans were made with friends we’d not seen in nearly ten years, all of it meticulously penciled into the calendar. A cross country road trip with our new travel trailer was the stuff our dreams were made of. Literally, we’ve always dreamed of having a camper, individually and then together. We’ve been known to interrupt camper owners in the middle of their parking lot breakfast to ask questions and cast longing glances at the interior of their vehicle. The dream of the open road, no plans just ambling along embracing the free spirit of the vagabond–we can roll with changes, but who am I kidding, there is no way we would ever amble along without some sort of plan–I added nostalgia to our dreams because my grandmother had an orange VW camper–which on a few occasions she drove, with her German Shepherd, from California to Vermont to visit us–to this day the memory of the camper and visits still set my mind swirling with a thousand different fantasies of adventure.  

Marshmellow arrived in May of this year–we had hired a shipper to get it to this side of the country. It came from Armadillo Trailers in British Columbia, and I jumped through a few hoops to get it over the border since it was and still is closed. The spelling is correct. Marshmellow is spelled with an E not an A because it has a mellow vibe and looks like a giant marshmallow. At fourteen feet, our little travel trailer can sleep all four of us. The dinette turns into a bed and the couch turns into bunk beds. It looks small on the outside but is surprisingly spacious on the inside. When the boys grow to be six feet tall they might feel a little cramped, but by then they can go sleep in a tent. More room for Erin and me!  We have a fridge/freezer that can hold a weeks’ worth of food, a small two burner stove and a quaint sink to pile high with dishes. The inside is actually laid out very much like my grandmother’s camper was. There is a heater for the cool nights and brisk mornings. Big windows allow in plenty of light, and there’s an outdoor shower to clean off after a day of exploring. Ample storage both inside and out allows us to bring all the comforts of home, but not too much. There is even a port-a-potty, for those times when you drink too much tea at a Chinese restaurant and you just can’t hold it–so you make your dad pull over on the side of a busy California Highway so you can pee–but you can’t pee because your older brother is laughing hysterically at you and taunting you by repeating pee tea pee tea over and over. True story. I still have scars from that experience. Come to think of it I should bring the incident up with my therapist. Truly though, Marshmellow does have a little cupboard specially made for the potty and it is a much nicer one than the one my mother suggested I use that time in California. 

We had planned to leave on our epic road trip at the first of this month, but in the waning days of June we accepted the reality that we needed to scuttle the trip. I crossed the plan out in the calendar. Now what to do, we wondered. We certainly did not want to spend three weeks at home, that just sounded painful. Next we figured that we would go to Michigan to see Erin’s parents for a week–something, in normal years, we do every summer– and on the way home we could stop at a state park in western New York–something new for us. I penciled in our plan and booked a campsite. By the first of July we decided that the state park was not such a good idea. Ten days later as entire states along our route began to turn red with COVID we reluctantly gave up on the trip to Michigan altogether. 

The third time’s a charm they say, and tomorrow we will test that saying by hooking up Marshmellow and heading to the much-loved North East Kingdom for a week of mountain biking at Kingdom Trails and Burke Mountain. We also plan to try river tubing, do some star gazing and of course s’mores, because there always have to be s’mores when you are glamping ( camping with comforts such as beds, electricity, and heat). From there we will go east until we run out of road at the most eastern town in the country. It is not the epic western road trip we had planned, but epic is relative, and perfect isn’t fun. To that end and in hopes of bringing a bit of joy to those who read this blog, I am planning on writing from the road for the rest of the month. I am not entirely sure what that means but the Chronicles of a Wandering Marshmellow sure does sound exotic. 

Tally Ho!

Trail Love

Essay

Before I knew about mountain biking or the term singletrack, when BMX was all the rage and I wanted the skills of the kids in RAD, I was building bike trails in the small wooded sections on our property. The trails were short no more than a couple hundred feet in length, and I would connect them by riding across the yard or the road. Building the trail involved little more than raking, clipping and hand sawing, perhaps moving a rock or two. I’d ride laps dreaming I was on a grand adventure or racing around a track.

The mid-July sun beats down on our backs—we are dressed for battle in full military fatigues crawling on our forearms and knees through the field, moving our arms like the feet of an old windup toy to pack down trails in the tall grass. We are creating a labyrinth that will become our base for a week or so before the farmer comes to hay.

A few decades on, I am past Army costumes and my tools now have engines, but I still love to build trails. Which is why, back in 2012, freshly returned to Vermont from the urban west, Erin often found me under my large-brimmed straw hat pushing our mower through the high grass of the field of our rental property or clipping branches in the woods. I was building trails for the boys, I’d tell her. Though perhaps I was just grasping at childhood memories, trying to dull the pain of my father’s death.

For me, building a trail is a creative release. It is a meditation that has meaning beyond the dopamine hit of physical exertion. The creativity and feeling of accomplishment is another way for me to lead the tango with my depression. It is a way to give me something tangible that can break the cycle of the negative self talk.

My favorite trails are narrow and meandering, leading through forests of any kind. The journey is far more important than the destinationa horrid cliché, I know. Trails bring me peace, comfort and challenge; they spark that bottomless wonder that we have as children but seem to lose as we gain in agesociety having subtly beaten it out of us. Each footfall on a trail is a new experience, a chance to reveal something, a mystery to be solved, a new sight to see, an old relic to find, a burbling stream to sit beside or an enchanted land to discover. Trails are all the stories and dreams of my childhood stretching out before me. Here the world comes into sharper focus, thoughts clear, a bird serenades me as I come to the conclusion of a problem, an interesting mushroom or the most brilliant fallen leaf, stopping me mid-stride. On days when the darkness wallops me and on the days when everything is good, a saunter on the meandering trails near our home clears my mind and helps me refocus, allowing me to see what the Lord has given us, a place filled with beauty and wonder–if only we take the time to see it.