Riding Vermont Historic Route 7A
Many of Vermont’s roads were built a couple of centuries ago when oxen pulled wagons. Now merely covered by asphalt, these narrow serpentine roads still undulate across the landscape through the moist shade of forests and fields bordered by stone walls. It’s motorcycle-riding paradise.
In the cool hours of early morning, I crossed the state from the Connecticut River to the New York border by way of town roads—Westminster, Dummerston and South Newfane—to reach State Route 9 in Wilmington. During this short journey I crossed two covered bridges, went through several villages most tourists don’t even know exist and leaned through countless tight corners until it became a rhythm rather than
However, my story begins in Bennington, the first town charted (1749) in what was a frontier wilderness known as “The Grants.” Located just a few miles north of Massachusetts and on the border with New York, this is now a major crossroads, and a majority of riders coming to Vermont pass through here.
On West Main Street (Route 9) I pulled my trusty BMW K 1200 into the Hemmings Sunoco. This is more than just a gas station—next door, in the basement of a converted factory building, is the Hemming Motor News museum, which is jammed packed with vintage and antique vehicles, but alas, no motorcycles.
Old Bennington holds some of Vermont’s earliest history. Old First Church (circa 1805) is considered to be one of the finest Federal-style churches in New England, and in the Old Burying Ground, headstone markers date back to the 1770s. Yet it is the 306-foot high monument of gray dolomite that commands attention. The Battle of Bennington, the turning point of the Revolutionary War, actually took place in nearby Hoosic, New York, but this marks the site of the critical storage of militia supplies that the British intended to capture.
Today I simply looped around the monolith and headed for North Bennington, crossing the elegant, red-painted Silk Covered Bridge (circa 1840) over the Walloomsac River. Covered bridges—like old stone walls, giant sugar maples and Federal-style buildings—are often evidence that one is riding on an original 19th century road.
Modern U.S. Route 7 is cut into the western slope of the Green Mountains, but the original highway, now designated Historic Route 7A, follows the narrow Valley of Vermont. At one point in the distant geological past, a cataclysmic event sheared off the lofty top of the southern Green Mountains and moved them slightly to the west, creating the Taconic Mountains and this narrow passageway north.
History in this region resonates even at relatively insignificant landmarks. It was a rather hot day and I pulled the bike off the highway to splash cool spring water on my head from the old iron kettle. I have no idea when the massive kettle was first put into place for watering horses and oxen as they pulled their loads up the hill, but I’d like to believe that it dates back to the 1790s when this was a center for iron production.
The highway undulates across a landscape of vivid green while, in the distance, the lush deciduous forest creates a distant blue haze of oxygen-rich humidity. This bucolic valley has inspired artists, writers and visitors for more than a century. Robert Frost, Norman Rockwell, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Pearl S. Buck called it home—John Irving still does. The Ira Allen House (circa 1779) was the home of Ethan and Ira Allen, two of Vermont’s founding fathers, and where Ethan finished writing the (then) heretical Reason: The Only Oracle of Man. Designated a state historical site, staying at this bed and breakfast is like going back in time.
Route 7A is scenic, but doesn’t offer a challenge. Almost hidden among a cluster of tourist attractions is the tollhouse entrance to Skyline Drive. This sinuous road has the most radically banked hairpin turns of any paved road east of the Rockies. I was informed that there were no cars on the toll road and so, in third gear, was able to safely lean into the carnival-ride corners. At the new observation building on the summit of Mount Equinox, I met up with members of a Triumph touring club and we gazed across mountains that faded from green to indistinct blue on the far horizons.
Approaching Manchester Center, I made a right turn onto the long driveway that leads to Hildene. This 1904 Georgian-style mansion was built by Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, and remained in the family until 1975. Completely furnished with the family’s possessions and some surviving documents written in the President’s hand, it is now held in trust and open to the public. However, I didn’t stop for more history, but simply to buy some of the incredible chèvre cheese produced on this estate.
Hildene marks the southern end of what I call “Mansion Mile” that brought me to the Equinox Resort. The hotel with its stately columns, and the yellow-brick county courthouse, define the center of this small village. Established in 1769 as The Marsh Tavern, the resort now comprises several structures, including the original Orvis homestead (circa 1832), the 1811 House and the Charles Orvis Inn (circa 1812).
Route 7A continues into Manchester Center where it intersects State Route 30. Coupled with turning traffic, this village has earned the nickname “Malfunction Junction.” However, to avoid this traffic congestion, I veered left by the Equinox onto West Road to reach Route 30.
The beautiful Mettawee Valley cuts through the Taconic Range from Manchester Center to Granville, New York. The country’s first marble quarry was established at the foot of Dorset Mountain in 1785; the “fence” of marble blocks and a historic site marker make it easy to spot this popular swimming hole when entering the village of Dorset.
The smell of burgers cooking caused me to make a U-turn. The Dorset Union Store (circa 1816) is an appropriate lunch stop any day of the week, but Thursday is “Slider’s Day” where small cheeseburgers—made from local, grass-fed beef—and hot dogs cooked on the outside grill are only a dollar. General stores are a fixture in Vermont and most offer locally sourced foods as well as deli counters and essentials.
Two miles beyond Dorset, I turned west onto State Route 315 and then north from Rupert on State Route 153. The Taconics are almost a secret in the motorcycle-touring community. Great twisting local roads with elevation changes, tiny settlements and farms and almost no traffic make this one of my favorite places in the state to ride. The pavement was in decent shape, so I gently cruised along in fifth gear simply enjoying summer in rural Vermont.
West Pawlet is situated right on the New York border, and this is the beginning of the “slate belt.” Slate is used for roof and floor tiles and comes in red, purple, green and gray. Most of the slate used in the U.S. comes from the small quarries situated along the western edge of the Taconics and several can be seen from the road.
In North Pawlet, I turned and rode south on Route 30 for four miles before turning north on State Route 133 and climbing back into the mountains. Leisurely twisting pavement took me past farms, rural residences and through cool forest shade to Middletown Springs.
Riding these local roads can be a dream-like experience. On fresh pavement the dips and rises made it seem like I was floating, and the big Beemer has a vibration that seems to echo the summer sound of cicadas. There’s always something to catch the eye and prevent me from slipping into a Zen-like trance while gliding through these mountains.
Bearing east on State Route 140, then south on Tinmouth Road, I looped back to Route 7 in Danby through countryside that seemed almost too perfect to be true— and I hadn’t seen a single car since leaving Middletown Springs.
Danby marks the narrowest part of the Valley of Vermont. It’s also where man has tunneled deep into Dorset Mountain, creating caverns 20-acres in extent to reach some of the world’s finest marble carved from the heart of the mountain. In the village, this stone has been used to construct buildings, sidewalks, foundations and even fence posts.
U.S. Route 7 is a wide, relatively straight highway—more like a long, green hallway as it cuts through the Green Mountain National Forest—and almost anywhere else in the eastern U.S. it would be considered a choice motorcycle cruising road.
After a left turn and crossing the railroad tracks into East Dorset, I made a quick photo-stop at the Wilson House. Bill Wilson was born behind the bar in his grandfather’s hotel, but conversely would gain fame as the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. It still operates as an inn, and the gravesites of Bill and his wife are less than a mile away.
A right turn off the main highway put me onto the last five miles of Historic Route 7A. Less expensive, classic motels from the post-WWII era still thrive on this stretch of road just north of Manchester Center even while retaining a rural feel to the countryside.
Gliding into downtown and maneuvering around the recently constructed—and still controversial—roundabouts completed my Taconic loop. Turning the Beemer east, I began the long climb up Bromley Mountain on combined State Routes 30 and 11. My sights were set on what lies on the other side of these mountains—the most popular motorcycle-touring road in Vermont, State Route 100.
(This article A Trip Back In Time was published in the September 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)