I’ve put off completing my concluding segment of this trip. The first day, riding through the winding roads of Quebec and Vermont, I couldn’t help but think of the past, a past that one could read on the surface and between the lines of the land. Riding through New York, that sensation was even more intense, compounded by the empty factories, abandoned restaurants, and prisons that now compose much of the landscape of rural upstate New York. The introduction of the automobile created the Mo(tor Ho)tels, and the Interstate Highways displaced the circulation of people who once were the life blood of these channels. By the time I reached Brooklyn, I was imaging what the landscape might look like in the future. Would there be a time in the future of this spot in which a sniper would be perched up on that building? Will the city ever endure bombing campaigns, or have ground troops occupying it? After returning recently from another trip in Europe, this sensation, of realizing the realities of the past and how our own sense of stability is just as precarious, has come to dominate my consideration of ‘the future.’ As the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 just passed, this may not seem unusual, but those events are only tangentially related. Life is movement, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that somehow we are different. I’d say this is the calm before the storm, but in truth it hasn’t been so calm. The situation in Europe has done nothing to convince me that we aren’t on the cusp of another shift.
On Thursday 17 June 2010 I set off from my apartment in the Plateau district of Montreal on my Vespa LXV for Park Slope in Brooklyn. My good friend Ghazi lives in Park Slope, though I wasn’t going to see him. Not that I didn’t want to see him, but it was more than visiting a friend that drove me to ride over 500 miles on a motorscooter. I was going to sell the bike. Though really, that was mostly a pretense. I really wanted to make the ride.
I’ve always been an avid traveler. As a child, I explored every inch of the woods around my house, and the second I got a car in high school I began taking road trips all over the north east, not to mention driving on almost every road in Westchester County. But in the summer of 2004 I went to Italy for a study abroad program, and have been hooked on travel ever since, traveling all over North America, Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and China. I had planned a trip to visit friends in Europe this summer, based around giving a talk at an academic conference in London, but my travel grant fell through. As a result, I was feeling even more restless than usual, which contributed to my desire to make the trip. Plus, it’s a beautiful time of year and I had planned to take the scenic route.
But some background first. After moving back to the suburbs of NY from San Francisco in January of 2008, I decided to purchase a Vespa scooter. I’d first become interested in them in Italy (not surprisingly) and SF only reinforced that interest. I had accepted a job at Purchase College, and needed some mode of transportation, since the shuttle from Port Chester was discontinued and the bus takes far too long. Oh, and I didn’t want to waste money on a car/gasoline/insurance, not to mention contributing to carbon emissions. (An aside about insurance: for those of you who don’t live in the NYC metro area, I should add that for a male driver under the age of 25 with any sort of moving violating on their record- all things that applied to me at the time- car insurance is astronomically high. In 2005, for instance, I was paying over $2400/year for basic liability coverage on a ’96 Mazda. Full theft/fire/etc would have been over $3500.) Not only was the Vespa aesthetically appealing, great on gas mileage (70mpg), and cheap to insure ($333/year for full coverage), but it was also very very fun to ride.
I also knew that I’d be applying to graduate school that coming fall. After returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic with my good friend crazy old William English, who owns some property in the mountains along the Haitian border, I finally made the purchase. I went down to Vespa Brooklyn in Clinton Hill, signed the papers, and the next day it was delivered. Right from the start, I wanted a portofino green Vespa LVX- the V is for vintage. It had all sorts of wonderful design flairs- old fashioned split leather seat, naked handle bars, little windshield. My good buddy Lee bough a Triumph at the same time, and we both studied for our motorcycle permits and licences, went down to Harlem to get them together, etc. I wish there was a pic of me and Lee riding together, a Vespa and a motocycle, but there’s not, so heres us as imagined by an ex-gf. (I won’t even try to explain why he’s saying “RALPH!”)
But buying it was a form of wishful thinking that I’d be moving back to the Bay Area to go to Berkeley. As it turns out, I accepted a place at McGill University in Montreal, and stubbornly brought my bike with me. And to be honest, Montreal is a fantastic city for a scooter, so long as the weather is nice. Most of last winter the scooter was under my stairs! I did ride until 1 Dec, and brought it out for good again in mid-March, but still.
So come May I posted some ads on craigslist in Mtl and NY, and after some interest, was able to secure a serious offer from a guy in Park Slope named Isaac. [Note: some addresses and names will be altered.] Part of me knew I should try to find a buyer in Montreal, but most of me was too excited at the prospect of driving the bike down. It was a rainy June, so I had a few false starts, waiting for a few consecutive days when I knew I could avoid the rain. My father was especially nervous, but once the weather cleared up and the buyer was verified, I made the decision.
I packed a bag and readied my bike, cleaned the apartment, and set off. Odometer reading: approx. 3550 miles. My itinerary for the day: take secondary highways and back roads to the border, cross over into VT via the islands on Lake Champlain, stop in Burlington for tea, and crash at my ex-girlfriend Lexy’s farm house in Washington County. Unfortunately by the time I left it was after 4pm, and I hit rush-hour traffic heading south on Papineau towards the Pont Jacques Cartier. Lined up to go over the bridge, I realized it was going to be a long ride. Why secondary highways? I put a lot of thought into the route beforehand, though I left room to explore and deviate, as I always inevitably do (to follow interesting things, to get lost, whatever. You have to be open to life, structure can only take you so far. It’s good to have a plan in mind, but sometimes you gotta ride the dark horse.) For those who don’t know, a 150cc Vespa has a max speed of 65 miles per hour. Of course with me and all my shit on it, it’s more like 60, at best. In anycase, fast enough to ride on the highway. But to be honest: fuck the highways. They’re not pleasant. The point of this ride was to experience the road, something sadly lost in our modern mode of highway/automobile traffic. I should also note that a lot of Quebecois love motorcycles, and I encountered many on my trip through Quebec and Vermont. I’m not the only one who realizes how beautiful these roads are.
I took route 134 Ouest, and probably hit every traffic light until finally reaching route 104. When I finally made that left turn I felt like my trip had begun, like I’d finally gotten beyond Montreal and the first leg of my journey. And the scenery, mostly strip malls as trashy Quebeckers, wasn’t what I’d imagined. Quebec is pretty notorious for their terrible maintenance of roads. Granted the winters are rough here, but the point is the roads are terrible I was surprised, then that most of the cruising I did was entirely pleasant. 217 was wonderful, winding through farmland and seeing hardly a soul in sight. In Saint-Jacques-le-Mineur I stopped at a parking lot at an intersection to drink some water and consult my map before I got too close to the border and had to put my iphone into airplane mode. I did check the map, but ended up diverting my course because of a detour in a quaint little town anyway. I took route 221 straight to the border, and all I can remember are more farms. When I finally saw that little house that passes for a border crossing, I was happy that I was on my way, about to repatriate and enjoy what I knew would be a great adventure.
I’d show you a picture, but when I stopped before the border to take some photos, the officers got suspicious and asked me to erase them. (If only I’d uploaded them to the internet first, I thought.) The two officers were young, maybe younger than me, and were nice guys. I took off my helmet and handed over my passport.
“Where you going?”
“Brooklyn.” Of course this was met with incredulous looks. You’re going to Brooklyn!?
“I guess you don’t get many scooters through here,” I speculated.
“Well, some, but not going all the way to the New York City.”
We went through the rest of the song and dance. No weapons, I’m a student, here’s my visa, blah blah blah. I mentioned I was staying at my friend’s farm in Argyle, and he asked who my friend was. Once all this was settled, he lightened up and told me he was from a town Washington County and used to play them in soccer. Trying to figure out if he knew her, I guess, though I didn’t mention that she was from around me and it was more of a weekend place. So, I bid them goodbye and cruised on. I may have yelled woohoo! I think, echoing in my helmet with the bzzzzzz of my wasp below me. Back in the US! I made a left on route 11, and headed toward Rouses Point. Not much to it, but a really cute town along a main road en route to the Vermont Bridge.
A lot of Americans don’t know much about the history of Vermont. (A lot of Americans don’t know much about a lot of things, though.) The territory of Vermont was originally claimed by Samuel de Champlain (the namesake of the beautiful lake) in 1609 as part of New France. (Vermont comes from Green Mountain in French.) New France was the French colony in North America, at one point encompassing modern day Quebec and everything from Michigan down to Louisiana. You might remember that this was sold by Napoleon to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the first big expansion of the United States. New France basically lasted from the early 16th century until the mid 18th century, not a bad run really, following the French loss in the French-Indian war, in 1763. The territory of Vermont was disputed, however, and British and Dutch trading posts had been established there for a while.
New York state and New Hampshire both claimed the territory, and issued settlers deeds for land. The famous Green Mountains boys fucked up those settlers. Lead by Ethan Allen, now remembered as a patriot, but mostly defending his land and his ale. His story is so interesting that I could probably go on and on about him, and maybe I will later, but long story short, he was a drinker and a fighter, and a great American. He was also an opportunist, as most great Americans are. When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, he lead the charge on Montreal. Quebec can join the rebellion against the British! What?! You don’t want to!? Well, fuck all we’re gonna conquer you then. He lead 110 men to Montreal’s south shore, including some rebels from Quebec, but the backup didn’t arrive and they got captured. Ballsy, you’ve got to admit. Montreal may have been a lightly defended city, but 110 men? Read more about the American Invasion of Canada here. (The invasion of Quebec is even better.) It’s maybe not so surprising that we don’t teach these things in school, since these are somewhat embarrassing incidents. Did you know that in the War of 1812 (which we lost, getting our asses handed to us by the British,) he (accidentally) burned down Toronto? And that’s one reason the British laid waste to DC and burned down the original White House.
In 1777 the independent nation of Vermont was declared, and in 1778 Allen was released from jail. Standing on lake Champlain, I felt with a certainty that I was a Green Mountain boy in a past life. They stayed independent for 14 years, with a unicameral legislature (I think Nebraska still has one,) until becoming the 14th State of the United States in 1791 (14 is a special number in VT.) Along with Texas, Vermont is one of only two states that were there own nation. (I guess Hawai counts, but we kind of conquered them.)
Enough history. The point of all this is to say that VT retains its independent spirit today. And I can see why those drunken militiamen fought to defend it from the encroachment of New Yorkers. I stopped to eat a humus and cheese sandwich at a look out over the lake, saw the wonderful boat yard above, and really enjoyed those islands. The breadth of aromas while riding a scooter through a place like that is hard to describe, but it’s a fantastic thing to experience. I feel so much more connected than driving through in a car.
I even cruised for a long while with 6 Quebeckers on Harleys, all of us stuck behind a slow moving car. I thought I’d head right across so I could make a pit stop in St. Albans to pick up some pot a friend had stashed by a cemetery, but I missed the turn off and continued all the way down route 2. It was for the best, I think. I came out off the islands onto Route 7, and before I knew it was in downtown Burlington. I stopped for gas, and instantly felt the pleasure of being in VT and receiving nice warm friendly smiles. I also stopped at Dobra Tea right around the corner to get something to eat and have some tea. I’d visited Burlington several times in the past, mostly with Lexy to visit our friend Caitlin at University of Vermont. We visited Dobra Tea in 2005 for the first time and fell in love with the place. When I was in Prague in the summer of 2007 I made sure to visit their original branch.
It was starting to get dark, though, so after an hour I saddled up again and cruised on out of town. I tok route 7 straight down, passed the two whale tales. Because most of Vermont is flanked by Lake Champlain, once the sun went down I was pretty cold. I stopped to relieve myself at an intersection and put on some gloves, but otherwise I kept on going until I hit route 22 (missing Middlebury by about 10 miles) and then on to New York state. I finally reached Lexy’s farm in Argyle at around 11pm. I built a fire in the woodburning stove and did some reading. I may have watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica or Cadfile. I can’t remember. I was freezing and exhausted, but totally invigorated and full of life.
Day 2: coming soon.