Motorcycle Touring - Vermont's Green Mountains

Boisterous ferns wagged at my bike's tires while white pines swayed drunkenly in the breeze above. The entire roadside was rife with the five-pointed leaves of sugar maples; I could practically smell the sap. I was playing tag with the fully blown New England foliage when a gap appeared in the trees and the horizon opened up like a curtain snatched off its rod. A turnout on the cusp of this verdant hill marked the point where the asphalt peaked before its serpentine descent to the other side. The sign read Appalachian Gap. The view? Boundless blue sky above and a whole lot of valley below.

I was on a "yee-haw!" route through the northern part of Vermont's Green Mountains, winding through "topography that only God could have created, on roads only an engineer could have built," as one local put it.

The drill had gone like this all morning, on different paths: Enter narrow back road. Twist and turn to the top. Dismount, gulp fresh Northeastern air and ride to bottom. Repeat at next pass.

Notch-hopping, they call it. "They" being the locals, who also mentioned that there is no better way to experience the intricacies of Vermont's rolling, rural backdrop. You couldn't have asked for a better postcard-the rushing streams and working farms dotting these valleys were straight out of a prop studio.

I got some other good advice, too, such as basing this zig-zag loop out of Burlington-Vermont's cultural capital, which is easy to navigate and not without its charms. There are plenty of places to lay your head, and among the throngs of Birkenstock-wearing locals, I had no problem finding eateries that rated several cuts above the usual fast-food fare. As a bonus, the Lake Champlain Islands-a string of islets running south from Canada to just shy of Burlington-are a stone's throw to the east, should I require a change of scenery. New York lies on the west side of the lake.

If I was riding to eat, a quick jaunt east on U.S. 2 would land me in Waterbury, where I could stop for a spot of Chunky Monkey at the Ben & Jerry's factory just north of town. I also had the option of heading north from there to Mt. Mansfield, the state's highest point and reportedly a blast to ride.

But I had some notches to bag, so I headed south. From Waterbury, laconic Route 100 travels through the heart of the Green Mountains all the way to Massachusetts. It's one of the state's most popular leaf-peeping routes, but more importantly, Route 100 serves as a perfectly scenic north-south axis, offering access points to several notch roads.

A few minutes down the road was the Mad River Valley, a lush pasture set smack in the middle of the Green Mountain National Forest, and as such, bounded directly to the west and east by green ranges. Here, I'd find a gold mine of Gap roads.

For such a small slice of land, the area is loaded with history-most of the tiny towns in the valley were established in the late 1700s, not too long after this country first became, well, a country. I set up for my first notch just outside of historic Waitsfield, a pretty burg with a clutch of well-maintained colonial homes, white church spires and a bona fide covered bridge set in a narrow canyon by the Mad River. Route 17 veers west out of town as it leads to the Mad River Glen along Mill Brook, growing steep and curvy with every mile. By the time I pulled off at the cleft between Stark and Baby Stark Mountain-the aforementioned "Ap Gap"- I was sold on the whole notch-hopping concept. For one thing, the view, at 2,400 feet, was sublime.

Dropping down sharply from the Gap-1,000 feet in less than two miles -Route 17 curls through cool woodlands for several miles before the landscape opens up and small villages in open fields take up the horizon. The town names even sound rural -Jurusalem, Bristol-and by the time I turned south on 116, the sweet smell of freshly mown hay had completely filled my helmet.

116 is as agricultural as it gets-corn, cows, tractors and the like-which was a bit too relaxed for my mood at the moment. So when the turnoff to the next notch came, I was ready. Route 125, just east of Middlebury, is referred to as the Middlebury Gap and happens to be a designated scenic road, to boot. Heading west back up the lushly forested hills, I came across the Robert Frost Wayside Area and Trail 10 miles later.

Dilemma. Should I stop?

I like Frost all right, but if I hear "The Road Not Taken" blurted out one more time by some smug yahoo at a motorcycle rally, I'll probably take a sharp object to my veins. It's become like "Born to Be Wild"-stripped of all meaning by its endless use in advertisements and on classic-rock radio stations. Still, my curiosity was piqued, so down went the kickstand. The Robert Frost Interpretive Trail winds through eerily quiet fields and woodlands, and plaques along the way bear quotations from Frost's poems. There was even a picnic area, where I pensively munched on a PowerBar and contemplated my many paths through life.

Not really.

In fact, I scarfed down the PowerBar, peed and jumped back on my bike.

There was a road here, and I was going to travel it. End of story.

Bombing east across the Middlebury Gap brought me to a steep descent, a G-rush and finally to Hancock, a town composed of a tiny cemetery, several 200-year-old buildings and the intersection with Route 100. Texas Falls is short hike off the road, and it's a grand spot to cool your heels or splash around in one of the many swimming holes.

I was in the groove, and that meant continuing south onto 100 and the next approach road. Route 73 came up soon enough at sleepy Rochester, and after a right turn, I found myself climbing west, albeit in a more mellow fashion, up to the Brandon Gap. This relatively untraveled road was a lonely blast through shaded curves and nice elevation changes-a cool, green ride where one can be totally alone with his thoughts. At the end of the grade, I hooked up with Route 7 heading north, where my reverie was abruptly broken. Route 7 is a major truck-choked thoroughfare, and after spending most of the day on roads devoid of vehicles, it took some getting used to. Still, it was a change made more tolerable by the fact that Vermont completely bans roadside advertising-there were no billboards to sully the scenery, at least.

Minutes later, I was in Middlebury, a pleasant low-key college town, where I stopped for a stretch and a cup of coffee. The white steeple of the Congregational Church loomed over the Main Street area, which was stocked with pleasant shops and cafes. Leaning back with my java, I thought, it could be worse.

From here, it was back onto 116, which I took north to its junction with Route 17. After all, the notch-hopping wasn't over just yet. There was still the Lincoln Gap to nail...

Trip Bits

Getting There: From Burlington, head down Rte 2A until it merges with 116. When you hit Rte 17, turn left (east) and head over the Ap Gap. You've cut your first notch.

Rent: Bikes can be had at Wilkins Harley Davidson; www.wilkinsharley.com/miscpage_008.asp

Eat: The few locals I talked to recommended the Den in Waitsfield for dinner or Smokejacks in downtown Burlington.

Sleep: The lap of luxury it ain't, but there's something comforting about the Hyde Away Inn. This bar/restaurant/inn is set right off Route 17-on the way to Ap Gap. So even if you're not staying the night, you can grab a burger and a cold drink out on the patio in between notch hops; www.hydeawayinn.com

Roads: Vermont has harsh winters, but the state does a pretty good job of keeping up with cold-weather damage. Dirt roads are graded after the muddy season.

Reference: Create your own tour with suggestions from Moto-Maps Vermont Back Road Touring Guide; www.moto-maps.com. Or go to www.madrivervalley.com for inside info.