Dirt Roads: An Appreciation

pavement ends sign
When the pavement ends, a new kind of fun begins. Photos by the author.

Andy follows me across the border from Massachusetts into Vermont. We’re riding along a dirt road that cuts through dark, deep woods overlooking the Green River. As my Kawasaki hums below, the final stanza of Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” repeats in my head:

These woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep

It’s a warm August morning, not a snowy evening, but Frost’s silken words apply. For two days we are riding through the very landscapes that inspired Frost’s extraordinary descriptions of ordinary things. As the crow flies, Vermont is about 160 miles long north to south, but we’ll cover 321 miles before reaching our destination of North Troy. We’re on the Vermont Puppy Dog Route, which links unpaved roads from the southern border we just crossed all the way to the northern border with Québec, Canada. 

Stowe, Vermont
Your humble scribe stops to take in an early morning view near Stowe, Vermont.

This isn’t off-roading. It’s dirt-roading. Especially in Vermont, roads like these came about because someone had a destination in mind. They follow rivers along a path of least resistance, or hug the edges of pastures and fields, or take the shorter, steeper route up and over the mountains. They have names like Church Hill Road, Rabbit Hollow Road and Elmore Mountain Road. We’re not blazing new trails or attempting to conquer untamed hilltops, we’re just choosing roads no one felt the need to pave. And since they are often the only roads to certain locales, they take us through areas we’d otherwise miss.

Vermont motorcycle ride
Early morning sun begins to burn off the fog over this beaver pond somewhere in southern Vermont.

What my “Vermont Atlas & Gazetteer” depicts as dirt roads can vary in width, surface and state of repair, but these roads are maintained for public use. Some are graded hard pack wide enough for two pickups hauling horse trailers to pass with room to spare. Others are so narrow that one vehicle must give way for another to pass. A few are bumpy, graveled but navigable two-tracks. You might not want to ride your pristine Harley Ultra on these roads, but you don’t need a dedicated dirt bike either. Any scrambler or adventure bike is up to the task.

As we discover, sticking to dirt roads can present snags. In southern Vermont, the route comes to a locked gate, so we find another dirt road that returns us to the route a few miles on. Farther north, a farm road abruptly ends at a single-track trail of deep mud and big rocks. We backtrack and look for another gray line on the map. As Andy likes to say, it’s all part of the adventure.

covered bridge Vermont
Nothing says Vermont like a dirt road and a covered bridge.

On a motorcycle you already feel more involved in your transportation. When you ride long distances on dirt roads your connection runs deeper. There’s a different kind of mental focus than riding on tarmac. Our pace is slower, with posted limits typically just 35, and limited sight distances are the norm. Inclines and declines can be steep. Steering is more labor intensive, traction varies continuously and braking distances are longer. It’s actually a good way to practice braking control at the limit of lockup on my ’08 Kawasaki Versys, which lacks anti-lock brakes.

dirt road underpass
Dirt roads often go under railroads. The underpasses can get mucky.

We also encounter all manner of critters at close range. A bobcat scrutinizes us from its perch atop a stack of firewood. A fisher cat ambles purposefully across our path with its distinctive four-wristed gait. A docile, ungainly porcupine takes one look at us and promptly turns back. A barred owl perches high in a tree that is rooted low in a roadside ravine, making it head-high with me as it suddenly swoops into flight. 

Mid-state we find ourselves riding through horse country with stately manor homes and white-fenced pastures that remind me of Kentucky. Here we share the road with horse-drawn sulkies driven by nattily dressed people enjoying a trail ride event. (Ride slowly past horses…they often get spooked by motorcycles.) 

Vermont Puppy Dog Rout
Mission accomplished: Andy arrives at the northern terminus of the Vermont Puppy Dog Route.

As we near North Troy, Andy points out a gorge and we stop for a look. There are no signs, but the map describes this beautiful place as Big Falls State Park. In a few miles we reach the Canadian border. When we stop to reflect on our ride, Robert Frost again springs to mind. This time it’s the concluding lines of “The Road Not Taken”:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Go enjoy a nice long ride on dirt roads.

Lovejoy Brook Road
Lovejoy Brook Road follows Lovejoy Brook (imagine that) near Andover, Vermont.

3 COMMENTS

  1. I love the Vermont dirt roads. Most are maintained by the state so if you avoid the mud season, you’re good to go. Bring camping gear and just follow them wherever. I’ll check out the puppy dog trail next “late” spring.

    If it wasn’t for Vermont and all its great roads- and passing on double yellow – it would barely be worth riding in NE. Though there are some great northern roads in Manine and NH – RT 16 from Gorham NH to Dover-FoxCroft is a fantastic road, as is Rt 13 off Rt 2 out of Gorham NH.

    And if you take 16 from Dover Foxcroft to Gorham, you can camp in the White mountains and head into the Green Mountains, and VT dirt roads. Or you could camp outside Errol Nh n the Umbagog bird reserve and wake up along a misty river with the loons that sang you to sleep. Oh yes.

    • Hi Pedro. Glad this story spoke to you. New England is filled with great back roads and there’s an excellent resource to find them that I use regularly: http://www.newenglandriders.org

      You’ll want to check out the BONE Roads (Best of the Northeast) which are organized by state.

      Scott ‘Bones’ Williams

  2. Great article! I love dirt roads. We used to have a bunch around here. Sadly, the developers are destroying the land and the city trash is moving in. They hate getting dirty and they cry a lot to the government when things don’t go their way so the dirt roads are disappearing, sadly.

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