Riding Across Central New England on an Electra Glide
The Ultra and I are on top of Lincoln Gap, some 2,500 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, which lies about 120 miles to the east. Maybe if there were a tower and a telescope I could see the ocean, but in reality we are surrounded by the thick woods of Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest (by the way, Vermont means “green mountain” in French). The ride to the top has been good, the fat tires on the Harley are not objecting to the dirt road we have taken.
If I wanted to go take a walk, the Long Trail—a 225-mile hiking path—crosses the road right here. No, I did enough hiking in the army, and nowadays I prefer my motosickle. What I am doing is wandering from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Fort Allen in Portland, Maine. Many of us have heard of, if not visited, Fort Ti, but few, outside of the residents around Maine’s Casco Bay, have the foggiest notion where Fort Allen might be.
Is there a connection? You bet. For all you who cut American history class in high school, in 1775 Ethan Allen, leader of the Green Mountain Boys, a militia raised in Vermont, took Fort Ti from the English, put artillery pieces on sleds (too heavy for wheels) and hauled them to Boston, enabling George Washington’s army to break the British siege of the city. Allen died a natural death in 1789. Later, after the War of 1812 started, the feds were building a fort in Portland to defend Casco Bay against the Limey fleet, and decided to honor the Revolutionary War hero.
Fort Ti and Fort Allen are pretty much on the same latitude, about 43 degrees, 40 minutes north. Laying a ruler on the map I noticed these are about 160 seagull-flying miles apart. Since my Ultra does not have wings (it might be an optional accessory in 2010) I would have to stick to roads, which would be 250 miles or more, especially if I zigged and zagged, as I am prone to do.
The best way to get from Fort Ti to Vermont is to take the little $4 ferry that crosses Lake Champlain just north of the La Chute River, a north-flowing waterway that connects large Lake Champlain with little Lake George. In the 18th century this was an important commercial and military route, hence, Fort Ti, whose cannon could blow any ship out of the water.
A dozen Harleys are waiting at the ferry landing. Although ferries have been functioning here since 1759, they’ve seen a bit of modernization in the last 50 years, with a barge and a double-ended tug using cable guidance to make a safe 10-minute crossing. This is a lot more fun than the bridge at Chimney Point, 15 miles north. We all ride the bikes on, put the sidestands down on the steel deck, and have 10 minutes to enjoy the expansive views.
As we approach the landing, the ramp clanks down onto the concrete, and we fire up the engines and ride off. This is fertile country alongside the lake, with topsoil thick and nutritious and all manner of crops grown here. Everything looks green and gorgeous on this late spring day. There is also a very serious winter here, so the citizens have always been a tough lot.
I’m headed northeast across the Champlain Valley, aiming for Middlebury and the Lincoln Gap. Vermont is a beautiful north/south state, physically and geologically, with rivers and mountain chains running in those directions. I like the fact that much of the western border is Lake Champlain, which flows north into the St. Lawrence River, while the eastern state line is the Connecticut River, going south to Long Island Sound. Traveling west/east is a bit more difficult, as the Green Mountains form a low barrier down the middle of the state and all the crossing roads go up and down. At the top is what is called, by Vermonters, a gap.
I haven’t shot gaps in years, not since I lived in New England years ago. I’ve not been over the Lincoln Gap since 1965, when I rode a Triumph Bonneville along this woodsy dirt road. Times change and I find the narrow unnumbered byway paved all the way past the village of Lincoln. Lest you think that this was named after Honest Abe, think again. Back in the 1760s the Earl of Lincoln was sponsoring emigration to the colonies in hopes of getting a good return on his investment through the prosperity of these hard-working men and women. If you want to get a sandwich for a picnic along this trek, try the Lincoln General Store, which has been selling stuff since 1843.
There is some dirt going up the hill, and then more pavement, admittedly aged, at the top. I plummet down the east side and arrive at VT 100, a beautiful north/south ride that runs from Canada to Massachusetts. Going south from here on 100 is gorgeous, running through Granville Gulch and past the Glen Moss waterfall. I get to the village of Hancock and see the signs pointing west along VT 125 to Middlebury Gap. That could be fun. I’m in no great hurry, so off I go over gap number two.
It’s a nice ride, but not a great ride, being smooth two-lane pavement all the way and cresting at 2,149 feet. A sign warns of a 12 percent grade for 2 miles, and while a 40-ton tractor-trailer might worry, the triple discs on the Ultra don’t even get warm. I keep on going to East Middlebury, then south along US 7 to go over my third gap, Brandon, 2,170 feet, on VT 73. Again, a pleasant road, but not too exciting. Now I’m back on VT 100.
Time is passing, and I should think about a bed. I head west towards I-89, presuming a motel or two, but nothing appears until I get to the big town of White River Junction, named conveniently because this is the junction of the White and Connecticut rivers. I find a place within my budget on old US 5, right opposite the VA Medical Center. Next time your congressperson asks what he can do for you, tell him or her that better care for our veterans should be our nation’s top priority.
In the morning we head north along the Connecticut River on US 5, which has little traffic thanks to the parallel I-91. At East Thetford I turn the handlebars to go over the bridge to Lyme, New Hampshire, and continue up the east riverbank on NH 10 to Orford. Then I zig and zag to Warren, where the center of town displays a lovely juxtaposition of the white, clapboard United Methodist Church and a tall Redstone missile. Curious. The Redstone was the first missile to carry nuclear warheads and stayed on line from 1953 until it was supplanted by the Pershing in 1964. But what is one doing on the Warren village green? I ask a passerby, who indeed knows the answer. U.S. Senator Norris Cotton came from Warren and was instrumental in backing the development of the Redstone. This apparently was his retirement gift to his community. Although it is a memorable testament, I cannot help but imagine that some local folks might have preferred an indoor swimming pool.
From Warren we roll up the Sawyer Highway (NH 118), a lovely backroad designed for leisurely Harley work. Clicking through the middle gears, the muted exhaust hardly disturbs the cows. There is not much need for sixth gear on New England backroads. We arrive at Lincoln, New Hampshire, named in 1764, again complimenting the 7th Earl of Lincoln. Here the very beautiful Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) begins and travels up to nearly 3,000 feet. This area was settled 250 years ago, and while farming was hard, the White Mountains offered a lot of lumber, which was needed in the growing cities.
The Pemigewassit River provided a way to get this needed wood to market. The tree cutting was mostly work done by locals until 1892 when an outsider fellow named J. E. Henry bought a whole lot of forest, laid out a railroad, and set up pulp mills for making paper. Henry’s investment brought a lot of money into the area, but after 40 years the Great Depression took its toll on the business. The railroad shut down during World War II, the salvaged iron went to help make munitions, and the mills closed in 1971 due to pollution problems. Now the area relies on people like me—tourism.
On top of the highway is Kancamagus Pass at 2,850 feet. The pass sits under Mount Kancamagus at 3,728 feet. Kancamagus was a local Indian chief who tried to keep peace between his people and the white folk who were spreading north back in the 17th century. Unfortunately he was not too successful. This slight 35-mile through-highway from Lincoln to Conway was not finished until 1959, and has become a major draw for tourists who seek skiing at Loon Mountain or just a fall foliage traffic jam. Do watch out for moose; they are definitely bigger than you are.
Down on the east slope of the mountain Ultra and I detour through the Albany covered bridge, which crosses over the Swift River, and take the little-used parallel road on the north side of the river. This road also ends up in Conway. The Swift runs into the Saco River, which tumbles east to pour out into the Atlantic at Maine’s Old Orchard Beach. Conway was named after a British politician in 1765, but I much prefer the old name, Pigwacket—that has clout.
I could take a walking tour through historic Conway, but I find it is done more rapidly on the Harley. One of the oldest buildings is the 1826 United Methodist church; these Methodists seem to have a good hold on the region. In North Conway is the Conway Scenic Railroad, running both steam and diesel engines on traipses through the woods. In Center Conway are the headquarters of the motorcycle-friendly Whitehorse Press, with a retail shop; www.whitehorsepress.com has a map.
From Conway we rumble eastwards off to the flattish lands of southern Maine, riding by Sebago Lake and picking up ME 25 to go into Portland. Portland is a very fine city where I have been many times, and I like going along the docks and then heading up the hill past the old observatory to the Fort Allen Park. The park is a big grassy expanse overlooking Casco Bay. Heavy guns were set up there in 1775 after British ships pretty much leveled the city—sort of like closing the barn door after the horse is gone. During the War of 1812 more serious earthworks were built, and the Ethan Allen name was given to the fortification.
Fort Ti to Fort Allen, traveling erratically along the 43rd Latitude—that’s American history for you, augmented by the 105-year-old history of the Harley-Davidson name.