No planning, no training, no route, and no cash… this was the best Century ever!
So, here’s the story of my first Dirt-Century…
At about 8pm on Monday, I found a Google Maps layer called ‘Western Mass Dirt Roads.’ Someone, somewhere had drawn about five squiggly brown lines on Western Massachusetts. I spent the better part of an hour linking these squiggles together on my own map, forming an unpaved route across the state to my old house in North Adams. Then, I hit ‘Back’ on my browser and erased it. Damnit!
So, I packed the bike, and then went back on Google and made the map again. I sent it to myself in an email so I’d have it the next day.
I woke up at 5am, got on the road, and checked my email for the map. Google had automatically edited my map, and re-routed me on the fastest roads. Shit! Whatever, I hate maps.
And so it began.
The ride starts on a little section of dirt called Moodybridge Road, right outside my house. That’s the first picture up at the top. From there, I headed southwest on the Northampton Rail Trail through to Route 66, the longest stretch of pavement I’d see the entire day.
Section I: The Knightsville Dam
The first real unpaved section on the route occurs on the old Army Corp of Engineers access roads near the Knightville Dam. It also happens to be one of the most challenging sections of the route. I was going to have some GoPro footage for you, but I filled my card up with pavement shots by accident.
The Cullen Road access point takes you to the eastern side of the dam, which is considerably less developed than the western side. I followed the path down (which devolves into a streambed at a 25º grade) and stumbled upon the ruins of a massive house, or several houses, abandoned for centuries.
The complex of stone foundations and ancient rusted metal was pretty eerie, especially on an overcast morning in an area of forest that looked like it hadn’t been accessed in a long time. No tire tracks, no footprints, nothing. Of course, there were some signs of recent visitors…
Neatly arranged. Did I say creepy?
I continued feeling unsettled for miles. As I weaved my way along the Army Corp roads, things gradually got better… until they stopped entirely, in a huge clearing that I would later find out was a spillway for the Knightsville Dam.
The spillway had a river running through it with a dirt road on the western side. I was on the eastern side, of course. Ever see The Mummy?
“Hey Benny! Looks like you’re on the wrong side of the river!”
Knowing that the path behind me was a full mile of super-technical climbing, I decided to try and wade across the river. I took off my socks, hiked up my riding tights, and carefully lowered the bike into the river, along with one foot. Both foot and bike immediately sunk into a full foot of quicksand. Whoa!
It took all of my strength to pull the bike back out, thick black mud coating both wheels almost to the hub. My Tevas were completely coated, too. I rinsed them off a little in the water and reluctantly headed back the way I came.
But it wasn’t all bad. The dam was impressive.
Section II: Worthington and Middlefield
After backtracking, I found the other Army Corp. of Engineers road, and followed that all the way to Rt. 112. From there, the trip takes a minor 5-mile pavement interlude over to the dirt roads crisscrossing Worthington, Chester, and Middlefield.
Massachusetts is one of the more history-rich states in the US, with lots of sites dating back 5 centuries or more, right in our backyard. This historic graveyard, with stones from as far back as the 1700’s and some more left unreadable by time and acid rain, isn’t located anywhere in particular. Take two dirt roads away from a random spot on the highway, and you’re transported back in time.
This guy is just about my age. At least it wasn’t overcast anymore, so I wasn’t getting any more bad vibes. It was really interesting exploring this area.
Streams still meandered all over. This one was off of 112. I love seeing stones cut through by hundreds of thousands of years of water movement. It really lends a sense of perspective to the built elements of the landscape, like the guardrail and embankment directly preceding the foreground here.
My route went right back to off-road again pretty immediately, through a combination of dirt roads and snowmobile trails. Hence, the redundant nature of the sign- it’s pretty important in the winter, when snow fills a lot of the gap in that stream and the bridge is invisible.
Everywhere I ride, I am surrounded by Hemlock. Knowing that this tree is set for extirpation from New England thanks to the Wooly Adelgid is a hard pill to swallow. I hope they’re still around in a decade or two, but there are no guarantees. You can treat the trees in your front yard, but it’s cost-prohibitive to treat all of Massachusetts.
Other trees will do just fine. This grove of Maples was tapped for maple syrup production. That little bluish spot in the photo is a pile of plastic tubing.
Gorgeous road, huh? Almost this entire section of Massachusetts is dirt. I was on pavement only for a mile at a time, and only once in a great while. Many of the roads were still closed, thanks to damage from Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy. Some of them were REALLY closed.
This particular section as absurdly steep. There was actually asphalt mixed in later on, but it was so deeply rutted, washed-out, and covered with detritus, I almost didn’t notice. The paved sections were actually the most sketchy, since the gravel and sand over them left me skidding forwards unexpectedly.
The route started moving generally uphill at this point. Then, further and further uphill. I gained a couple thousand feet of elevation in a very short distance. It seemed like the climbing was endless.
At this point, I was starting to run low on water, and I had just finished my fourth CLIF bar in a row. I was ready for a resupply that wouldn’t come. I didn’t even have any cash with me if I did find a place… I’m unprepared!
Section III: Peru State Forest
The last leg of the semi-planned route took me directly through Peru State Forest, but after the town of Middlefield yielded nothing but the usual library and church, I decided to keep moving towards home. Grin and bear it, it’s only 29 more miles!
I asked Google for an alternate route, knowing that the path directly through the State Forest was likely to be tough. Google was not gracious, and put me on an ATV track that was probably much more difficult than the well-graded roads that usually cross state forests. This track was rough as hell, rutted, muddy, covered in debris, and very, very remote. That’s a U.S. Forest Service fire marshal’s Jeep, and it looked really old.
Not wanting to backtrack further, I pressed on. The further I went, the tougher it got.
This route, known only to Google as “S Rd,” was the most wild of the trip so far. I was at a pretty high elevation thanks to the obscene climbing from earlier, and there was a lot of sun filtering in through the sparse canopy. Even though it was pretty slow going, I decided to stay in my higher gear. Maybe thanks to the caffeine in my last CLIF bar, I was feeling a second wind. I wanted to be done with S Rd.
I was moving at a pretty good clip when I hit the section above. Real rough. I rode half of it, and then got off and walked (psychologically, probably because of the stick that pierced my tire last week). I had walked about 100 feet when I heard it.
Just feet away to my back right, I heard a heavy, throaty panting. In the absolute quiet of the forest, too far to hear the sound of trucks and motorcycles, too far to be heard even if I screamed… I heard the unmistakeable pant of a black bear.
I knew enough about black bears from guidebooks and other adventurers to know not to start running. I knew enough to try and scare it off, since black bears are glorified raccoons most of the time. Most of the time.
I kept my walking pace, and started talking AS LOUD AS I COULD. Just talking. I don’t even remember what I said- I think I just described what I was doing, feeling, and thinking in a stream of consciousness. In between syllables, I heard the rustling getting farther and farther behind me. I looked back every five seconds, and saw nothing. After about a quarter mile, I got on my bike and rode like hell. I cooked 500 feet of technical climbing over gravel and loose rock like it wasn’t even there. I must have broken some kind of speed record for the trail, if I wasn’t the first mountain bike to ever traverse it.
Pretty soon, I came to a rickety bridge and what looked like much cleaner trail. That eventually returned me to civilization.
I was pretty relieved to be out of the forest, for once. This dirt road took me straight into Peru, MA, which also had a church and a library. No food! No water! If I was feeling dehydrated (a feeling I unfortunately know very well), I probably would have started knocking on doors, but since every single front gate has three or four “No Tresspassing” signs, I resisted the urge and kept riding. After a brief but emotionally painful climb up to Savoy, MA, I found it… A rest stop!
This was the greatest meal I can remember. My stomach was feeling pretty sick, and was cold to the touch, since I had some 85 miles of mostly off-road riding behind me. All the blood in my body permanently resided in my overtired muscles, rather than my digestive tract. I ate a banana, a plain donut, and downed the entire Gatorade and half the water bottle, and headed for home.
The route had a bit more dirt in store for me. A nice little section just north of Adams, MA doesn’t offer much in the way of thrilling riding, but it does offer a truly magnificent view…
That big peak in the middle is Mount Greylock, the highest peak in Massachusetts. Would I be climbing it on this visit? Hell No! In total, I had put down 103 miles, and did more off-road riding than I had ever done in a week, let alone a day. It was the toughest, most brutal, most awe-inspiring and confidence-boosting ride I have ever done.
There’s a lot of refining to be done on the route. my turnaround point on the first Army Corp of Engineers road may not be the end of the eastern section, and the riding on the Western side of the spillway wasn’t as much fun. Peru State Forest is still untapped, as is Savoy State Forest. I can foresee a second attempt later in the summer. But for now, I have my dirt fix (and some quality alone time with this beautiful, beautiful bicycle).
In total, the trip cost the following:
- 8.5 hours of moving time
- 55 pounds of bike, gear, and supplies
- 4 pounds of lost bodyweight
- 4 CLIF bars
- 6 Liters of water
- Two bagels
- Two bananas
- One donut
- One Fig Newton
- Zero flats, mechanicals, chafe, road rashes, sore wrists, or injuries.
That’s my kind of century!
Keep riding (and riding, and riding),