Long Island Sound to Simsbury, CT and the Farmington

© 2010 by Karl Meyer

May 4, 2010:

I wake up early in Old Saybrook, and spend a good hour writing in my journal.  Then, there’s checking the weather, which is not as straightforward on a multi-channel TV as one might expect.  But the weather looks clearing, and humid, with a few, pop-up “afternoon thundershowers possible for those heading north.”  No big deal.  I shower, and sort through the small pile of maps I’ve accumulated.  Brewing the final motel coffee, I down that, pack my bike, drop my key-card at an empty desk, and finally hit the road at 8:45 a.m.  So, I’m not the early bird.

I get my last looks at the mouth of the river off Rt. 154 in the Otter Creek area, and I’m moving north again on a lovely morning.  I quickly scoot by Essex and head north toward Deep River on the left bank of the Connecticut.  Traffic is light.  I’ve already missed the rush to schools and work.  Orioles and yellow warblers chirp.  I hear my first scarlet tanager and prairie warbler of the season.  There’s also a roadside feeding cottontail, and a cutely-clumsy and confused young chipmunk, surprised by an old guy on a bike.

As I near Deep River I take a chance at an intersection and choose what looks like a promising, old “upper” road, which veers a bit west of Rt. 154.  It allows me to miss Deep River center, and will perhaps show me something new.  This is an old thoroughfare, the 18th century houses telling me it won’t take me far from the river’s reach.  I follow Union Street which eventually merges into to Straits Road.  Along the way I’m treated to one of the startling spectacles of the trip: the disaster eliminating the Easter hemlocks.

I’ve written about this in Sanctuary, even spent a day nearby with Harvard Forest biologist Dr. David Orwig in Killingworth, Ct., documenting the devastation of this plague caused by a tiny insect that we imported from Asia–the woolly adelgid.  Here, in stark contrast to a rocky hillside that spent decades sheltered in the shade and diffuse light of hemlock needles, the bare, rock-bone of this roadside escarpment is baking in mid-morning sun.

Bleached and blown-out trunks of hemlock lay quietly scattered up the hillside, as a once-thick forest duff dries to a dusty consistency in May light.  A whole suite of plants, birds, and amphibians will be lost in this corner—one of many thousands of like corners, the result of our heedless globalization and lust for cheap commodities.  This scene will repeat, again and again as I bike northward, but to a lesser scale.  The adelgid is a cold sensitive insect.  But this hemlock plague is an easy case in point: it is creeping ever further northward as we continue our rapid, seemingly-incremental warming of the planet—on a time scale we pointedly refuse to comprehend.

I snap a few photos of this emblem of a global holocaust, and head on beneath blue May skies.  At one point a woman out for a bike ride passes me, and I ask if the road will take me into Chester.  The question is timely, as I’m at the intersections where I should turn east, Spring Street.  I thank her, and head down a shady, winding lane with a stream that trips along next to me wherever it is not ponded by little, colonial mill dams.  This, I know, will be the same alewife stream that bisects Chester itself.

Three minutes later I’m in town–on a Chester, Monday morning.  It’s just after 9:30 and I’m off my bike and ordering coffee and a thick-looking square of bread pudding at Simon’s Market.  I ask for the cook, and am told to find him out back.  There’s Alan Demick, brother of my buddy Tony.  I’d met him on the ride down.  He sits for a few minutes as I try his bread pudding—quite good.

Alan notes I look a lot better this day, but that’s only because I had a shower two hours back.  He takes me out and shows me the scenario on the deck at the rear of the store where he first met one of the State of Connecticut’s prominent fisheries biologists—and likely its biggest, salmon proponent, walking up that alewife stream looking for signs of a run.  They had a very funny interaction over the failures of the restoration—likely quite the surprise to a biologist who thought he was just talking to the odd chef!

I shake Alan’s hand, get some last minute directions, and remind him to email his brother Tony that I’ll be seeing him fishing below Holyoke dam tomorrow, “Tell him not to leave before noon,” I say.  The continuing run up Rt. 154 is pleasant through mid-morning.  There are some wonderful views of the river, and the bridge and Goodspeed Opera House looking into East Haddam.  Coming into Haddam village I just had to take a picture of the old jail, soberly constructed of slate and granite at the foot of Jail Hill Road, sometime in 1800s.

And then there was the town historic marker, quietly not explaining how the town managed to get a small group of Native Americans, mostly matriarchs, to deed over their lands to these colonists in 1660.  The downstream annihilation of the Pequots by the United Colonies just two decades earlier, and subjugation of the nearby tribal people may have played a small part in those concessions.  That story will not be enshrined on a road marker.  We erase and exclude our own history in the landscape in a way that seems to connect to our environmental miasma as to our real predicament here.  Just across the river, tons of deadly nuclear waste containers sit—stored, and largely forgotten by the public, at the site of a nuclear plant that closed after nearly exposing its core through lax safety checks some 15 years back.  There’s no road sign for that either.

Just up the two-lane I note two cars parked along a siding that leads down to a steep pitch over railroad tracks, and to the riverbank.  There’s a big hoop net in the back of one.  I lean my bike on a post and scramble down.  Two retirement age men are talking quietly, one with a line in the water.  I hover above them, and cough to make my presence less surreptitious.

When they give me a hello I ask how the fishing is going.  They are just getting started, says the one—in what I hear as a Polish accent.  He says no, they are not going for shad, he’s after striped bass, fish that are here for the river herring, and to a much lesser extent, the shad.  No luck this morning just yet, but the do pull them in here.  I thank them and head on, soon into more of an urban landscape, as Rt. 154 finally peters out.  This morphs into a poor biking stretch of old macadam that is Rt. 9, south of Middletown.

Middletown Center is dense, and busy, but the construction that is fouling up Main Street slows everything to little more than at crawl–something cyclists get to glide through.  But, I realize I’m a bit information-challenged, and make my way to the tourist info office, at the Chamber.  There, I pick up a newer state map, and a local street map of Middletown and Cromwell, which hopefully will get me out of town going west—with my destination somewhere near Farmington, so I can eventually see Rainbow Dam fishway on the Farmington River.

I get into a conversation with a black man who likely has just a couple of years on me.  He tells me he used to bicycle regularly, for about three or four years running, but it’s been some time since then.  “You can still get out there,” I tell him.  He smiles.

The route is now uphill and away from the Connecticut.  This will be an afternoon that sometimes finds me in knots, and negotiating seeming dead-ends, faced with busy, four-lane traffic and tiny shoulders to ride on.  Its unpleasant, to say the least, at times, but you just persist—turning back and trying again where things get too dicey.  In the world that exists all around me, people would be traveling without taxing their landscape sense and travel wits at all—a cell phone or GPS readout telling them what to do.  All decisions coming from outside.

I clear the density of Middletown, and head through busy Cromwell on a spider web of roads I’m piecing together.   I crisscross the floodplain of the Mattabassett River, a small artery I’ve written about in my work perhaps a dozen times.  I’ve never seen the river though.   At one point, as I’m trying to find my way across the barrier of Interstate 91, I pick a small side-road called Pasco Hill.  Finally cresting it zipping to the bottom, I cross a little bridge in the midday heat.  I look to my right and there’s a small dam, just upstream of the crossroads of what was once a little industrial section, now somewhat derelict.  There’s something about that dam…

I curve back on my bike, and there’s the picture–one I’ve put captions to: the StanChem Dam on the Mattabessett.  This is a tiny dam that–with a fishway project that is currently in something of a stall and waiting for more funding, “will reopen the entire historic habitat range for American shad on the Mattabesset.“  Those are my own words.  Shad would regain over 16 miles of this river, right to their full, historic range.  Were these fish salmon, Connecticut fisheries would have had this site on the fast track decades ago…

This is a very busy travel corridor, and the biking is somewhat less than satisfying at times.  But seeing the dam site is a bonus, offering a bit of quiet in a hurried landscape.  I get directions from a town DPU guy having an ice cream in front of the locked, StanChem property gate, and head off uphill once more.  Ultimately, I’m at a busy spot in Berlin, trying to find my way along busy Rt. 372, when the Berlin Bike Shop comes into view.  The proprietors–like me, solidly in their fifties, are affable and interested in a bike traveler.  Mike takes the time to give me a couple of maps, and point me in the right direction.

Those directions hold through Berlin, and into a corner of New Britain, but my brain can only keep so much in play, and the maps are still fairly general.  Skies that I mistakenly thought were deep blue, are darkening to more of a powdered coal with banks of clouds.

One bonus though, as I make a small rise, is the red barn of an old siding that reads, “Avery’s Beverages.”  I’ve read about them somewhere by some coincidence, likely National Geographic.  It’s a family soda making and local market operation that’s been in business since 1904.  I have to stop.

What I again find is a couple-of-three guys, near my age, two of them from Avery’s, standing inside the old barn filled with wooden crates of soda, and two genuine, old style refrigerators stocked with cold pop in a rainbow of flavors mixed on the premises.  Again I’m treated with some deference, likely due to white hair and my odd journey.  I’m offered the best new directions that these three can chart in a round-robin discussion.  I try to keep it straight in my head as I suck down a tasty Avery’s orange soda.

Soon, I’m following a thoroughfare past hospitals and housing projects that I thought was one marked route, only to find that the street name has become an unfamiliar one.  The skies are spitting, the wind is picking up.  I’m bouncing around like a confused ping-pong ball.  Finally, an old Latino man in a car gives me a good spin and I’m heading in the right direction.  I few more turns and tries and the rains have come.  I take shelter under the large portico of the Connecticut School of Broadcasting—letting the woman at the front desk know I’m out there, and not homeless.  She smiles.  In a half hour, that downpour is done.  I head out.

More crazy roads and bouncy directions come into play as I try and make my way to Farmington, and the Farmington bikeway.  Finally, after a long, curving downhill, I’m in Farmington itself, facing the well-appointed Miss Porter’s School.  Soon I’m heading down a main drag toward Rt. 10, which should bring me up to the bikeway.  It’s drifted into late afternoon now, with a lot of stops and queries along the way, but I’m finally on the trail.  It’s great being out of traffic.

I think of my old friend Carol Hurst, now gone, who wrote a children’s book, “Through the Lock,” about the canal that was the original thoroughfare this rail trail is built on.  She may have even made me a minor character in that book.  I’m in one of them.  I think too, of Sylvester Judd of Northampton, whose journals I studied for my master’s degree.  Judd was an investor in this ultimately cash-poor and failed canal back in the 1840’s.

The real challenges of the day come in Avon.  Tired, I’m trying to make my way through an incomplete section of the trail which sends you briefly onto streets.  I must’ve mis-heard directions from someone and find myself following busy Rt. 44, a real mess of traffic on a four-lane at rush hour.  And, the rains return.  Determined to not soak my entire rig and take on pounds of water, I stop, jumping into the local D’Angelo’s, and ordering a sandwich—both for sustenance and shelter.  It’s quiet at the moment.  The two middle-aged guys behind the counter offer me a phone book when I ask about motels, but one warns that none will be cheap on this stretch.  How true that proves!

Here, I’m stuck for 45 minutes until the next storm clears.  Then I’m off, but still confused, and heading wrong, ultimately finding myself stymied by a sea of traffic.  I pull of into a mall lot, the acres of pavement offering very little in the way of relief.  Happily, a young woman inside the doors of Barnes & Noble takes a minute, and offers me a course that seems promising.  I have to backtrack through the mess I’ve just finished.

Again, finally back on the rail trail, I’m heading north.  But the skies are darkening once more, and the wind is picking up.  I’m hoping to beat them into Simsbury, but its still a few miles away as the storm bears down.  I turn back, recalling a small shelter at the side of a trail intersection about a mile distant.  Here, at a site bordered by a broad field and tobacco barn to the west, I take cover in a lean-to built by the Avon Rotarians.  I share it with sheltering bumblebees as the storm swirls.  It hits hard–almost all wind.  Dust fills my eyes as I peak around at the clouds.  Trees are bending in gusts that near 50 mph.

I snap a few pictures and wait.  And wait, as the wind rages.  I finally take to my bike after almost an hour, thinking it’s done.  Then, the rains finally come.  I run back.

In another ten minutes, all is over.  Unbeknownst to me, trees are down all along the valley heading north.  I’ll see them all the way home–road and utility companies will be out clearing them right up through Sunderland, MA, and I’ll come across one sprawled over this rail trail at the Massachusetts border in the morning.

I head on.  It’s now after 6:30, damp, and still windy, plus its gotten cool–to say the least.  I have nowhere to stay, but I do have my tent and bag for a damp night in the buggy brush if all fails.  Perhaps this trip is conspiring to have me spend a night camping.  This won’t be pretty–or scenic, though, just ditch camping.  At one juncture the trail moves parallel to Rt. 10, and I take to the road, my best shot at finding a room on the edge of town.  I come across a Marriot someone had mentioned, but when I ask the desk woman about a single rate she quotes me $189.00.  A bit much for a few hours and a shower.  Back on the bike.

Simsbury is another private school town, and my hopes for a reasonably-priced stay quickly go south.  A picture perfect history is manicured into the town’s presentation, though its plaque mentions that Native Americans put the torch to it a couple of times– see the first writing on the wall way back in the first part of the 17th century.  I come upon a bed and breakfast.  What the heck?—I set myself a limit; I’ll offer $90.00, take it or leave it.  No one comes to the bell.

As I near the town’s northern edge there is something looming on the left, a blue-gray building, perhaps 1970’s vintage, three stories tall.  The Iron Horse Inn.  It looks a bit like a low-to-mid priced place you might see in the denser towns of Cape Cod.  But it’s mostly empty at 7:05 p.m., just three cars sit in a large parking lot.  Still, I have nothing to lose.  I walk in to a modestly lit lobby, the other corridors are dark.  No one is at the desk, but there’s a phone, and a sign: for service, pick up the phone.

A young woman answers.  I ask if they have a single rate.  Yes, she says quickly, its $84, including tax.  Despite the thin carpet and sparse presentation, this may be something.  I mostly ignore the air that seems like it could use a good venting by merely leaving the lobby door open.  “Where are you?  Downstairs??” she asks.  They are not used to people walking in, apparently.  “Are you interested?”  Yes.  “I’ll send someone down.”

And down comes Melind, perhaps Indian or Pakistani, in his young thirties, I’d guess.  He too wonders, “How did you find us?”  They are right on Rt. 10, but it seems not a popular stop.  I start to give a tale of biking and wind, but cut it short.  “So, what does $84.00 get me?”  “Would you like to see a room?”  Melind takes me up a flight of stairs, then starts toward another, “Do you have anything on this floor?”  The place is empty, after all.  I figure one car is the woman’s on the phone—likely Melind’s girlfriend, the other is his, and the third…is the killers.  “Well, if you don’t need a king-sized bed I can grab another key.”   He runs back down the stairs.

The room is large, suite-sized—long, with a fridge, stove with two burners, microwave, writing table, etc.  I can’t completely ignore the musty air, the stain in the ceiling tiles.  I ask if the doors open.  They do, onto a deck overlooking a pool that doesn’t look like it’s primed to open this spring.  There’s a TV, “but the cable went out about an hour ago.”  “Sure,” I’m thinking.  I’m also thinking this place may be in receivership.  But the bed looks clean, and the price is right, and Melind seems willing to bend the rules a bit and allow me to bring my bike into the lobby for the night.  I guess they worry about the plush state of the indoor-outdoor carpet throughout.  I tell him we have a deal.

In truth, the TV cable did come back up later.  I got to watch the weather.  Melind sent me to a pizza joint that actually had reasonable prices, and I walked out, dead-tired, with a chicken-pesto sandwich on fancy bread, and a dose of curly fries.  That, and a bottle of beer, conspire make my return to the Iron Horse a minor triumph of bike travel for a white-haired guy.  Surviving a rough day on the road is part of the adventure.

I set aside the beer, eat half the large sandwich, and take a satisfying shower.  The double doors are thrown open to the damp, cool, clearing night.  Wrapped in a towel, I take the only two snapshots I have of myself on the journey—reflected in the long bathroom mirror.  A tired man, but satisfied to have pulled this rabbit out of this hat.  Hotel stalkers, be damned!  I sprawl on the bed, write in my journal for most of an hour and a half; then have that beer and a bunch of cold, curly fries while looking at the weather—along with reports of the thickening oil-spill disaster in the Gulf.  Somewhere toward midnight I switch off the light, coming to life again just before 6:00 a.m.