by Lindsay Warner
Freelance journalist, editor and copywriter. She writes about art, design, travel and outdoor adventures in #VT.
It’s embarrassing enough to run face-first into a revolving door, thinking it’s time to exit for the lobby. But it’s far worse to do so while wielding a heavy duffle bag and pushing your mountain bike. Lucky for me, the hotel staff at Burke Mountain Lodge tactfully looks away, pretending not to notice. But that doesn’t stop my friend Kimberley, wheeling her own bike through the door behind me, from dissolving into laughter at the nose and tire-prints I leave behind me on the glass.
“I thought you were going to stop in time!” she says, rolling her bike up as we walk over to the check-in desk. Uh, nope. I was definitely committed. The two of us can’t stop cracking up during check-in, despite the concierge who whisks us through the process with an absolutely straight face. Then again, she didn’t blink an eye at our two full-suspension mountain bikes now propped up in the luxurious timber-frame lobby of the brand-new resort hotel, either.
Welcome to East Burke, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. I think I’m going to like it here.
Kim and I made the 90-minute drive up from Burlington for the promise of one last fall getaway filled with bikes and friends at Kingdom Trails before the autumn leaves dropped. When we ratchet open the curtains to the balcony of our suite the next morning, we realize we’ve nailed it. The day is chilly — mid-40s — but clear and sunny. The sun reflects brightly off the sharp profile of a peak in the nearby Victory State Forest as we load up our mountain bikes, get kitted up in our mountain bike shorts, and head to the Kingdom Trails office via Caffe Lotti.
"It’s going to be a great day."
While we purchase Kingdom Trails day passes ($15, unless you buy a yearly pass for $75), one of our friends chats up the staff member behind the counter for a little trail recon. I’ve never ridden Kingdom Trails but Kim, a competitive downhill and cross-country rider for Team Bicycle Express, knows the trail system well, as do several of the other friends we’re meeting. As a road- and cyclocross rider who’s relatively new to mountain biking, the blue trails (intermediate) look like a great place to start to me. But, of course, we head straight for the black diamonds.
As we leave the sunny meadow behind and dip into the trees at the start of Troll Stroll, I’m feeling a little nervous, but pretty quickly realize that the trails I’m used to riding at home in Hinesburg — rooty, rocky, old-school rake-and-ride — are nothing like riding in the Kingdom.
Here, you can ride 100 miles of fast, fun, swoopy trails sculpted out by an ambitious trail crew, with berms, drops, jumps and bridges (more on those in a minute) to spare. While I can’t bank my turns with the same speed or style as the rest of our group, it doesn’t take long before I start loosening up in the saddle, and even letting out a few whoops of joy as the trees flash past on either side of us. Where I am generally used to unclipping and dismounting a fair amount, here, the mountain bike shoes stay connected to the pedals almost the entire time.
After zipping around on Troll Stroll and Tap & Die (which has some awesome S-turns to get limbered up on), we cruise down a few other blue and black trails in the area before heading to lunch. I’d assumed that we’d need to go back down to East Burke for food, considering that we’re currently on the side of a mountain, but “Chief”— Peter Tomcyzk, an area local — has other ideas. For the past few years, the satellite outpost of Pete’s family’s bike shop in nearby Lyndonville (Village Sport Shop) has been offering a trailside pub/bike shop high up on Darling Hill, casually known as “The Hub.” It’s only noon, but we’re happy to grab brews and a hot bowl of chili from the bar and head outside to the fire pit — which has epic views out over the trails that spider-web the surrounding hills.
I don’t realize how much I’ll need that liquid courage as we throw legs over our saddles and head out after lunch. After a quick exploratory loop around Heaven’s Bench area (appropriately named; all of Caledonia county stretches out in front of you, and it’s absolutely breathtaking), we head toward The Chapel of the Holy Family. While smack-dab in the middle of mountain-biking paradise is an incongruous spot for a place of worship, the chapel itself is a quiet and restful place.
Getting there and back again — for me, at least — is not easy. As we fly down a few more black-diamonds (Ridge, Sugar Hill, then onto Maxilla) toward the chapel, I’m hanging onto the back of the pack fairly well. Once we hit the many bridges that characterize the double-black-diamond Jaw trail though, I’m definitely off the back. Or, in roadie speak: I get dropped. Big time. Same thing when we reverse our route to head back to town in time for my friend Dave and I to hit the road for a weekend of cyclocross racing. Dropped. And this time I also manage to wobble myself off a bridge or two. (In all fairness, they’re pretty narrow. Especially if you make the mistake of looking down).
But who cares, when you’re swooping down through mega-banked turns, rattling across bridges, or winging through red and gold leaves? I’m not sure I’m achieving that state of moving meditation that some of my friends talk about reaching while riding — but while carving through the final banked turns of Kitchell, I’m in my happy place. And since I foresee many more trips up to Kingdom Trails in the future, I’m pretty sure I can reach that state of elevated meditation soon enough. But until then, I might steer clear of Jaws. At least for now.