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Summer Journal: A Vermont Bike Ride, by the Book

Random Adventure Has its Merits, But Having a Plan Has Advantages, Too

  • Baba-A-Louis Bakery in Chester.
  • A view from inside the Bartonsville (Vt.) Covered Bridge.
  • The First Universalist Parish of Chester is part of the 19th-century stone village in Chester Depot.
  • A view from Green Mountain Turnpike.
  • Shoppers and volunteers gather at the annual rummage sale at Chester Historical Society.
  • A view from Green Mountain Turnpike
  • Chester is popular with tourists and people who live in the area, like Ansel Gunn (left) and Campion Tillbrook.
  • A Victorian home on Main Street in Chester.
  • Liz and Scott Johnson, of Greenwich Conn., shop for books in Chester, where they own a second home. Their dogs, Lily (the poodle) and Chester, named for the town, came along.
  • People head for the pond at Saxtons River Recreation Area.
  • Matt Atterbury, of Lexington, Mass., adjusts his bike on the green in Chester after riding in the Mt. Ascutney Hill Climb. Atterbury and his wife were in town for the weekend and planned to bicycle through Ludlow the next day.

I’ve always shied away from guidebooks, those glossy, firm-voiced volumes that tell the reader where to eat, sleep, or, in this case, bike. My pigheaded approach has its merits — an adventure is usually guaranteed. But recently, a trip in Windham and Windsor counties following 25 Bicycle Tours in Vermont by John Freidin made me rethink my willfulness.

The 27-mile loop traverses the spiffy historic towns of Chester and Grafton, passing through tiny Cambridgeport, a village in Rockingham. I’ve long wanted to explore the area, having driven through dozens of times on my way to see family in upstate New York.

The ride, which begins on Main Street in Chester, clings to back roads, about 41/2 miles of which are unpaved. Without Freidin’s book, I’d have likely stuck to the obvious, more congested routes and missed out on the chance to cruise the winding, nearly car-free country roads. (I have the third edition, published in 1996. A fourth version, called Backroad Bicycling in Vermont, came out in 2006.)

The rolling tour takes you over railroad tracks, past cornfields, alongside rivers and through two covered bridges. I rode it on a hybrid bike, which worked great on the dirt stretches. By the time I’d reached the 15-mile mark, my water bottle was dry. I bought a soda at the general store in Cambridgeport and guzzled it down at a shaded picnic table outside. (Plan ahead — the store has no public restroom.)

In the parking lot, I met Wayne Whidden, who was born in the village.

It’s a small place, “pretty much what you see here,” said Whidden, who lingered long enough to share some tidbits of town history.

A half-collapsed stone wall on the main street is a remnant of what was once a woolen mill, and later a sawmill, he said, and in his grandmother’s time, a hotel nearby boasted a dance floor suspended by metal cables. “When people square danced, the floor would go up and down,” he said.

Grafton, just a few miles down the road, also has an interesting past, which Freidin covers in his book. Once a thriving soapstone quarry and mill town, its population peaked at almost 1,500 in the 1820s. By the end of the Great Depression, fewer than 400 lived there.

In 1963, the nonprofit Windham Foundation was created to help revitalize Grafton and other rural Vermont communities. The foundation bought and restored many historic buildings, including the Grafton Inn and the general store. It now owns almost half of the buildings in the central village.

Thanks to local efforts, the town, population 649, apparently looks much as it did more than a century ago. The buildings are tidy, often white clapboard with black shutters.

Grafton has no zoning laws, but residents are committed to maintaining its historic look, said Kathy Cray, a volunteer with the town’s historical society. “People are very invested in this community.”

About half of the houses are second homes, said Cray, who helps staff the Grafton History Museum. Current exhibits there include antique quilts, a collection of local soapstone and an exhibit on the life of Daisy Turner. Turner, the daughter of former slaves, lived in Grafton for more than a century. Together, the museum and nearby Turner Hill Wildlife Management Area comprise one of 19 stops along Vermont’s African American Heritage Trail.

Grafton has several places to eat, but the clouds were rolling in, so I pushed on.

A challenging uphill climb leads back to Chester, with its signature Victorian houses painted in Easter egg colors, picturesque green, and a main street cheerfully cluttered with art galleries, funky shops and eateries. If it’s possible for a town to be too adorable, Chester may just have achieved it. But that doesn’t diminish my fascination with it.

Baba-a-Louis Bakery, an airy high-ceilinged building nestled in gardens just off the main drag, is the first place I stopped here. Every time I go home, I drop in for bread, tea and sticky buns that my father-in-law, a sweet roll connoisseur, can’t pass up.

On a recent Saturday, shoppers browsed a rummage sale at the Chester Historical Society, just off the green. The Brookside Cemetery next door contains the graves of more than 50 Revolutionary War soldiers, said Ron Patch, president of the historical society.

The town is popular with local people and all sorts of visitors — leaf peepers, antiquers, skiers and bicyclists, to name a few. And others come just to see the 19th-century stone village in Chester Depot, Patch said.

The Greek Revival buildings, 10 in all, include a church, homes and businesses. “I don’t know of another place like it,” he said.

Aimee Caruso can be reached at acaruso@vnews.com.