Wash Out

A long, wet trip from Vermont to the Adirondacks' highest peak.

May 2, 2011
Outside Magazine

ON THE FIRST OF OCTOBER last year, flights into Burlington, Vermont, were delayed and state employees were sent home from work early due to the rain. It ran down gutters in brown rivers, transformed rivers into flood zones, and blew laterally, battering our ponchos as we pedaled toward the City Market. My friend Chris and I planned to take three days to bike from Burlington to Lake Champlain, canoe across at Charlotte, ride to New York's Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks, hike up, and return: 119 miles, two states, one mountain (at 5,344 feet the biggest we New Yorkers have), and one grumpy body of water.

The weather complicated things, but only slightly. Chris is that friend—the one with whom I snuck first beers, stole street signs, drove to Montana on a whim, and otherwise negotiated the briars of suburban adolescence. We do storms. After loading up our panniers with sesame sticks, bread, and salami, we pedaled south, mid-cataclysm, our socks turning to water balloons.

"What's wrong with you?"

A fair question, posed by the ferry toll collector at Charlotte, a nice lady in a dry-looking booth. Still, we stared out at the lake. We'd spent months plotting our route, scouting a place to stash the canoe (the backyard of an unsuspecting resident), and otherwise reveling in the minutiae of manufactured adventure. Boats—none of them canoes, none of them balancing bikes—rolled on whitecaps. The lake appeared as though it would have been mildly amused to swallow us. The ferry's horn blared. We left the canoe, climbed aboard, and froze in Champlain's spray.

But water crossings have a way of changing things. In New York the roads flattened, the skies softened, we changed shirts. There was a café in the town of Wadhams that served a fierce gumbo, which we followed up with a slow 7.5-mile climb to the lip of the Adirondacks and a whizzing descent to the town of Keene Valley, which included two essential establishments. One was a bike shop that sold brake pads for my squealing ride. The other was a deli that sold beer, which we hauled to the first lean-to on the trail up Marcy.

The next morning, we awoke and started our slog up the trail, which bore a striking resemblance to a river thanks to Friday's hydraulics. In places, it would have made good trout habitat. Still, there was traffic—college students, couples, a guided high school trip. After three wet hours, we were at the top, wringing out our socks in silence, contemplating the red roll of New York, the deep blue of Champlain, and the soft hills of Vermont beyond—geologic evidence of a half-baked idea partly executed.

That moment was, as they say, the point: bad salami and a good view. The quiet, shared recollections of the summer when we were 18 and learned to drive a stick shift in traffic on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, dreaming about the mountains we would find in Montana. The temporary illusion of immunity to the effects of computers and commutes and—"Yeah, dude. I get reception. I'm on Marcy."

We turned: a child with a backward cap, possibly 18, possibly 12, possibly a cyborg, barked into his cell phone.

We laughed, put the water balloons back on our feet, and headed down the trail, hoping no one had stolen our bikes.

EXPENSE REPORT: Bear canister, freeze-dried food, camp fuel, tubes, whiskey, and ponchos: $192. Groceries from City Market (citymarket.coop): $43.50. Two round-trip ferry tickets (ferries.com): $15. Gumbo at Dogwood Bread Company in Wadhams (dogwoodbread.com): $12.50. Brake pads from Leep Off Cycles in Keene Valley (518-576-9581): $13. Beer from Valley Grocery in Keene Valley (518-576-4477): $10. Breakfast at Noon Mark Diner in Keene Valley (noonmarkdiner.com): $21. Total: $307