14 – Is It Just Me, or Has It Smelled like Putrid Cow Shit for the Last, like, Ten Miles? - Travels with Walter - CycleBlaze

June 12, 2015

14 – Is It Just Me, or Has It Smelled like Putrid Cow Shit for the Last, like, Ten Miles?

It's morning in Vermont, which means it's no surprise when less than two miles after returning to the road we start a long climb up toward a mountain pass. Soon the front of my shirt turns from light blue to dark from all the sweat, I start to spit into the brush beyond the edge of the road, and sing to myself terrible pop songs I'll never admit to anyone that I know the words for. It's not like this stuff is strange at all now. It's just life; as normal as putting in my contact lenses, reading shallow articles on the internet, or avoiding eye contact with the apartment manager who likes to talk about strip clubs would be back home.

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It's a humid, windless morning and we stop a lot to rest. We eat wraps and cookies and bananas by the side of the road. We pull into turnouts and work on the stay and come commands with Walter using chunks of tortilla and blueberry jam as a reward. We say normal things in the unnerving automated voice of the guy we met back in Rochester last night and laugh like it's the greatest thing we've ever come up with.

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And then we get there. We always get there. With one last super-steep push we reach the 2,200-foot peak of Brandon Gap. We manage to make it with a minimum of bitching, despite the fact that our legs ache from all of the steep climbs that came before. And any thought of complaining goes away when we see the yellow warning signs with a truck balanced on a wedge of cheese and labels that read 12% and Next 4 Miles. I'm so happy we're headed west instead of east.

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On the way down we see the distant outlines of the Adirondacks through breaks in the thick forest that surrounds us. New York is so close. I also hit forty miles per hour on a loaded cargo bike. Even though it's smooth and stable, I know that any kind of crash would mean the end of this trip and also the ability to control my drooling or form complete sentences. It turns my focus sharp and narrow, sets my adrenaline loose, and causes my asshole to clench so tight I might as well be wearing a seatbelt.

That pup.
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Beyond the foothills we travel along quiet one-lane back roads. Most of them don't have any pavement or traffic. And so we decide to let Walter out the trailer, put him on his leash, and let him run alongside me as I pedal at five or six miles per hour. We've never done it before; we have no idea what will happen or if it'll even work.

Well, I'm not sure I've ever seen a happier dog in my life. Walter runs with such joy that he's all but bouncing with each step, grunting out of happiness, charging ahead and falling back and shooting forward again. A look of motivation and purpose stretch across his face. The huge amount of energy that built up over the long night's sleep disappears in the tiny dust clouds kicked up by the furious pounding of four little paws. Kristen and I can't help from smiling and laughing and sharing in that joy the entire time. We only let him go for about half a mile, but it's enough time for us to know that we've found his new favorite thing in the world.

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We pedal through an area unlike any other on this trip so far. It's a world of grain elevators, farm supply stores, old barns with peeling red paint, curious but wary cows, small farms selling maple syrup, and a lone herd of goats laying in the sun on top of a house-sized rock left behind by a glacier a few million years ago. We yield to red-colored Case tractors and rest next to cemeteries with headstones that date back to the 1830s. When I look over my shoulder at the mountains we just crossed over, it feels for the first time like we're getting somewhere serious, like we're making real progress, like we're riding across a continent and if we just keep going one day we're going to hit salt water again.

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Heading down a long hill I see up ahead thirty of what look like big plastic dog houses. When I get closer I notice that each one has wire fencing placed in a semi-circle a few feet beyond the entrance. I have no idea what they're for. And then Kristen tells me: they aren't for dogs but for calves — calves whose purpose is to become veal. The farmers isolate them in what amount to cages to keep the calves from building muscle, so that their meat stays tender until they're slaughtered. A few of them stare at us as we pass, bored and alone and defeated. What we see of them from the seat of our bikes isn't some short-term thing either; it's the long and short of their sad and hollow lives. I've only had veal once in my life. After seeing where it comes from I never will again.

Their older brothers and sisters and cousins distant and near fill the valleys around us. At one point Kristen turns to me and asks, "Is it just me, or has it smelled like putrid cow shit for the last, like, ten miles?"

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Beyond the shit and the heartbreak sits Lake Champlain and the ferry that will take us across it to the shores of New York. On the ten-minute ride we wave goodbye to the rugged mountains, the dense national forests, the guarded hellos, the drivers who charged toward oncoming traffic while passing us, and all of the dudes with thick beards that made Vermont and it's jealous younger brother New Hampshire what they were. It was beautiful country. We hope we have a chance to come back some day soon and experience more of it.

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We want to take a day off in Ticonderoga. The hard climbing and long days of the last week were already wearing us down, but the ups and downs of today have taken away whatever reserve of strength we had left. We're hungry and dehydrated and tired. We want to give our legs and shoulders and hands a chance to rest before setting out into the hills and mountains of New York. But in Ticonderoga we face an enemy we never could have imagined, one that we could never hope to understand, one that we're powerless to fight against: a bass fishing tournament. There's one happening on the lake this weekend and the motels in town that allow dogs — the ones where you won't catch an STD just by laying on the bed — are booked.

But it might be a good thing. We had this vision of Ticonderoga as a quaint small town, like the ones we saw so often on the coast in Maine. It's on Lake Champlain. It has an awesome historic fort. You have to take an adorable little ferry across a lake with a beautiful-sounding French name to get there, for God's sake. But what we find is a place where the downtown is fading because bigger, newer stores exist near the highway. More than half the people we see look like they've got a drug or alcohol problem or maybe both. One construction worker talks to us but everyone else just stares. It feels like the kind of place where dreams are built on Olde English 800 and lottery scratch tickets.

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We end up at a low-end campground several miles outside of town. We choose our site based on which one will lower the chance of a car running over us in the middle of night. All we hear is weed whacking and lawn mowing until a thunderstorm and heavy rains show up. As I set up the tent I think about how it's good to have Kristen and Walter with me on days like this. They're like a couple of well-calibrated perspective correction machines that help remind me what matters in life. It isn't about the height of the hills I climb or the number of miles I ride. It's not about the amount of burning I feel whenever I clench tight the muscles in my thighs. What I want isn't all that's important.

Me too, buddy.
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Or at least that's what I try to tell myself. Most of the time I just lay back on the sleeping pad and think about how tired I feel, how much I want a break from the hard cycling, and how I know that with the more remote lands ahead of us there's almost no chance of that break coming soon.

Today's ride: 40 miles (64 km)
Total: 475 miles (764 km)

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