Since January I’ve been working as a freelancer. Sometimes this means I have days of nothing to do, other times this means I am really busy. And on Monday it meant getting a call that said “Can you drive to Vermont to work on a project for the rest of May?”
And so Tuesday is spent rushing around, packing things, getting anything I need done in Toronto, and then picking up a car to drive there. For once I’m excited to see that one of the only cars available is a small SUV as my bike will fit nicely in the back.
I leave on Wednesday and head east through Ontario making a few stops along the way – mostly for coffee but with one exception.
I cross the border into Vermont. This state is unique – and I’m not just saying that because I grew up here. People here are progressive socially and politically, most are laid back and because there is so much beautiful nature here, people find lots of ways to get out and enjoy it. And so it only seems appropriate that this week’s adventure involves the outdoors in some manner.
Growing up here, my preferred way to spend time outdoors was exploring the woods. I lived in a sparsely populated area down a dirt road. Within 5 minutes in nearly any direction from my house I could walk into the woods and explore for hours. With almost no dangerous animals other than someone’s off-leash dog, it was a pretty safe prospect for me even as young as 10. If the weather was good, the only worry I had was getting lost and having to walk an uncomfortable distance home. Even then I would be happy because I always brought my dog Cindy with me. She adored walking so much that we eventually came up with a game to play. I would leave and ask my mom to give me a ten minute head start. Then she’d let Cindy out and say “Go find Todd!” No matter where I went, she would catch up to me.
I had a bike growing up and would ride it to school sometimes and even had a ten speed but that wasn’t used for anything other than visiting friends. Once I got a car, my time outdoors shrank. I would explore back roads by car instead of the woods on foot – and I never rode my bike again – until my late 30’s when I rediscovered cycling.
Today I decide I will give myself a big cycling challenge. In 2017 when Daegan and I passed through this area we tried to go up Smuggler’s Notch. We made it a short distance up until our legs gave out and we had to turn back and take an easier route to our destination. This was HARD. Today I am going to do it.
The start point for the ride is about a 30 minute drive from where I’m staying. On the way, driving down a road I have been down dozens of times going back and forth between university and home, an odd sensation strikes me. I’m hugely aware of all of the different lives I could have led that converge here.
If I step a little to the left I’ll have been able to finish university, work in the university doing cell biology research and live in the mountains – maybe with a family maybe without.
Step to the right and Sage and I never left New England. We settled in with a mortgage on a small country home and Daegan went to a school nearby and is now going to the same university I went to.
And in another, after living in the yurt, Sage and I decided to head back to New England and live here now.
These other lives seem so close I can almost touch them.
I find myself wishing that like the book Replay by Kenneth Grimwood, I could have the chance to try out all of the different possibilities and see what they were like. I want to know!
I record a video by the side of the road to tell about my plan: a 70 km loop, up the notch and down then a flat run back to the car.
I start off down the trail and within 5 minutes I see a couple in their 30’s. I hear the man say what might be “Hi Todd!” but he doesn’t look familiar so I just say hi and continue.
There are trees everywhere and the air is perfect for cycling with just shorts and a light jacket on. A few others are out with bikes or on foot with dogs (or biking with dogs). People are incredibly friendly and when I stop to let a family go by with a toddler wandering obliviously in the middle of the trail, the toddler’s older brother, about 5 comes up to me.
“WHAT’S YOUR NAME?!?” he shouts. I tell him, and he reluctantly tells me he is Jonathan. The toddler wobbles toward my bike and I’m glad I stopped. She’s very new at this sharing space with others thing. We wish each other good day and move on.
As I ride I’m distracted: This morning I tried on a pair of bike shorts and they were too tight. I’ve gained a good ten pounds since the last time I rode regularly. I’ve trained some indoors but not with much intensity. I catch myself already planning for failure before the first hill even hits. The further I go the more I’m sure I’m in terrible shape and will fail miserably. Will I have to hitchhike back to the car? That’ll be humiliating. But the point of this project is to face those sorts of thoughts head on, not to turn back when things get uncomfortable so I go on.
Soon the trail ends and I’m dumped on a small narrow road.
This small road puts me on to Route 108 – the road up through Smuggler’s Notch. Signs state that it isn’t recommended for buses or RVs and that tractor trailer trucks are prohibited. It’s too steep for them and the switchbacks at the top are such that they are likely to get stuck.
I go about a mile and the first hill hits.
And it’s barely a hill but the incline plus a bit of a headwind has me working hard. Before long my legs are burning and my heart rate is at 183 – 95% of my maximum. This is great fuel for my inner voice which now is using logic to tell me to turn back. “If you’re in this state without even hitting a real hill, how will you possibly manage the big hills you know are coming?”
We all have our inner critic: the one who tells us what we can’t do, how we’re not really as good as we and others think we might be, or worse. I’m lucky in that I also have an inner advocate. And my inner advocate just asks me a simple question: “Have I tried hard enough?”
And the answer to that comes quickly and is so motivating: No, I haven’t tried hard enough yet. My legs are still doing OK, I’ve done bike races at home where my heart rate stayed this high for an hour or more. And I know in my heart that were I to turn back now I would give my inner critic that much more fuel for next time. And so I resolve that if I do turn back, I will only do so at a point where I’m proud of how hard I have worked. I am going to continue until I get to the top or can’t go any further.
And up I go. I stop sometimes to catch my breath or have my breath taken away by a view.
And though it’s getting noticeably cooler as I go up, I am so hot and sweaty that I have to take off my coat and tie it around my waist. It is about 10 degrees outside and I am in shorts and a short sleeved jersey – and I’m comfortable.
I’m rewarded a few times by breaks, places where I get a short downhill before turning back uphill again. These little downhills recharge me by reminding me that what goes up must come down. Eventually I will have a long downhill to go down. And as the hills get steeper, my mood surprisingly improves. I’m managing to get up them and my heart rate is not at 150%.
As I ride most drivers give me more than enough space, going into the entirely opposite lane as they pass. I remember my dad teaching me the same thing when I learned to drive and as a cyclist now I really appreciate it.
An illuminated construction sign says “Smuggler’s Notch Now Open For Season” and soon after I reach a large open gate. This same gate gets locked every winter as this road becomes impassible due to snow and ice. As I see this I get nervous. The ride has been tough so far but this gate must mean that the real trouble is coming. My inner critic asks if I will be able to hitchhike with a bike or will I need to just abandon it on the side of the road. So far I’ve seen about four other cyclists coming down and I am sure they’re all much more fit than I am.
The road does, indeed get steeper, and as I get closer to the low clouds, it gets colder and darker. I put my coat back on.
But it is not without a positive effect: the views also get even more beautiful. I take my time, stopping here and there to enjoy the scenery. This is not a race, after all. The views now are literally distracting me from my own worries about not finishing. And they’re motivating me. I really want to make it to the top now because if I don’t what great views will I miss?
I can tell I’m getting closer to the top because now there are switchbacks with giant boulders in between. The road is so curvy that drivers often have to stop and toot their horn before turning the corner. This makes it quite comfortable as a cyclist even as the road gets steeper.
I have been in my lowest gear now for a long time and am pushing hard on these hills. Sometimes I pull over to let cars go by and take a minute or two extra to recover. The last hill is so steep that I am afraid to stop. I won’t be able to unclip from the pedals fast enough to avoid falling over. And as I pedal I have to lean forward because each pedal stroke lifts my front tire from the road and I risk not just pulling a wheelie but going over backwards.
I’m breathing hard as I reach the top but I’ve managed it. I am pleased and stop at the top. I’ve driven through here a couple of times but there is so much more to appreciate taking it as slow as one does on a bike and knowing you got here all on your own power.
As I stand there a car pulls over and a guy hops out of the passenger seat and runs up to me.
“HAVE YOU SEEN THIS? ARE YOU LOOKING AT THIS PLACE?!” he shouts excitedly. He tells me he’s never been here though he grew up in the southern part of the state. The others in the car had been here lots of times and took it for granted but he was just amazed. He asks me where I’m from and I tell him I grew up here but this is the first time I’ve biked up here before.
“Wait, you biked all the way up here? You’re amazing!” he shouts and I begin to feel like yes, perhaps I am a little bit. I am, at least a lot more amazing than I thought I was when I left this morning.
I’m now 15 kilometres in to the ride and have climbed 480 metres. That’s taller than the tip of the Empire State building. It’s almost as tall as four of our apartment buildings stacked one on top of the other.
As I stand at the top I realize my legs are tired after a nearly 15 km (9 mile) climb. If I continue with the loop as planned I’ll have a 15 km descent and then 40 km of flat riding to get back to the car. I ask myself the question one more time: “Have I tried hard enough?” I answer “Yes” and there’s not a peep from my inner critic. I turn the bike around and come face to face with a sign:
It’s going to be a fast and fun descent, yes, but it also reminds me again of what I’ve done. A 16% grade is very steep. I start off and within seconds the wind is roaring loudly in my ears. A minute or so later I hear a honking car horn over the roar of air. Soon a car is passing me and an arm reaches out of the passenger side window. My friend from the top of the pass is giving me a big thumbs up.
Soon I am freezing cold. My jacket is on but almost completely unzipped. Not only is it letting air in, it’s acting like a parachute, slowing me down. I pull to the side to zip up my coat and take in the view.
With the coat zipped I’m able to ride even more quickly. I average about 40 km/hr with a peak of 65 km/hr (30-40 mph). When I travel at that speed I get very focused. There is no time to worry about yesterday’s work, or tonight’s dinner. There is only time to watch the road, braking when necessary.
The small downhills that buoyed me on the way up come up and slow me down a little bit. I pedal up them a little and have time to think. As I rode up this hill it seemed like a short climb that were I in better shape would have been easier for me. On the way down, I’m amazed. It is steep enough that I am flying down the hill and it is taking over 20 minutes to get to the bottom. Inclines that I thought weren’t that steep on the way up feel like a race course going down. Clearly I had done a lot of hard work that up until now I didn’t give myself any credit for. And I had done it all despite having a mantra of “You won’t be able to do it,” in my mind most of the time. And I did it because of one thing. I asked myself “Have I tried hard enough?”
As I drive back to the hotel I ask myself: Where else in my life can I use that question?
And what about you?
Have an idea for an adventure? Let Sage know with the form below and she’ll take me on a surprise adventure to do something I’ve never done.