A reduced version of this essay was published by Bikepacking.com for their roundup report on the 2018 Swift Industries Campout.

A Night in Nutmeg Country

There isn’t anything particular that stands out when thinking of the Old Saybrook train station in Connecticut, nothing that would signal you’re about to enter into the best cyclo-tour riding in the Northeast. It’s your typical modern train station off the Shoreline East line, a train that links New York City to the Eastern reaches of CT. We arrived in Old Saybrook from New Haven after transferring from the brightly lit and crowded cars of Metro North, and instantly felt on our skin the thick salty air of the quintessential New England shoreline breeze, despite the tepid warn that was starting to fall.

Walking down the station ramp—our bicycles having successfully made it with us on the trains—we are greeted by smiling faces and the tanned chests and arms and legs of the Nutmeg Historical Society (NHS), a small but effervescent group of bicycle enthusiasts who excel in offering challenging yet scenic tours of Nutmeg Country to city slickers like myself. These riders and their bikes could easily be seen on the roads of Europe in the early 1900’s—wheelmen/women of the sort that are difficult to come by these days. They know how to live well, have spent the majority of their recent years distorting and penetrating the consciousness of modern cycling culture. Nutmeg—which is a lifestyle as much as it is a place on the map—is a potent vortex of soft and supple times, sucking you in, like a swamp witch lurking in the dark.

When riding your bike through this part of the world, it’s easy to get lost in the feel, in the rawness of the experience. We were here, after all, for the Swift Industries Campout (a globally accepted weekend of bike-camping) that has taken place over the last four years every summer solstice. I’d wanted to participate over the last few years but New York City isn’t the easiest place to organize a mass bike camping weekend retreat. So when Big Janet (aka Popie aka Bené aka Ultraromance) mentioned a last minute decision to do a Glampout in Nutmeg Country, three of us city boys were on a train Saturday morning, grinning and wide eyed and unguarded.

For three days prior we checked the weather. It was going to rain, no doubt about it, all damn weekend. Last July, when a small group of us city folk made a visit, we wore shirts approximately 20% of the time. Cut to this past weekend when we arrived off an 11 am train to what could only be described as a monsoon. We huddled under an awning of a small coffee shop at the train station and waited out the bulk of the storm. We caught up on our most recent personal affairs, admired the subtle changes to our bikes since the last visit, and by 1pm we were rolling, a day-glo blurr of shellac and leather and steel fading off into the fog.

We had a plan of 53 miles over two days—ambitious if you know anything about riding with the NHS.  In the 8 or so hours of daylight we had , 7 of them were spent riding a total of 25 or 30 miles (no one was counting), most being state owned singletrack or doubletrack roads meandering from lake to lake, historical town to historical castle. Of note: Average speed isn’t important here, and gps devices are not frowned upon but also not necessary, as the route is going to change, will change again and again and again. Each day is a game of roulette, except landing on the bullet means you get extended sessions of dirt and singletrack and 3 foot tall fern portals for your riding and viewing pleasure. You actually want to land on the bullet, you want your tour guides to blow you out of the proverbial water, straight into supple cyclo-touring oblivion. You’ve not come all this way to get a tour of the freshly paved tarmac of rural Connecticut (which is also nice), you’ve come for the unexpected, the challenging, the smell of lemongrass bugspary on moist tanned flesh. You’ve come to escape.

What else could I tell you about our trip to rural Connecticut? How about what it’s like to ride some of the most geologically perfect gravel in the world; or about the combination of 80’s era shimano mtb parts that work perfectly with current era Campagnolo and Dura-Ace; about the benefits of burning out your ass over a fire to ward off saddle sores and tick bites; or about trying to procrastinate, for as long as possible, the breakdown of camp because we started to feel like this was a place and a life we could actually get used to being a part of, and because the idea of riding a train back to Manhattan was repugnant to the general philosophy of Nutmegging.

Frivolous Ride Statistics As Interlude: 25-30 miles day one (maybe), rain and 100% humidity all Saturday, multiple (more than 5) “snack” breaks in the woods, 1 package store stop for camp beers, 1 ferry ride that ended up being (unbeknownst to us) the last ferry of the day, 1 special blue-lagoon “snack” break, 1 graveyard rest top where we discussed the underbelly of Fantasy Metal, 1 slashed rear tire, 1 broken shifter and subsequent shifter repair, 2 empty lean-tos for sleeping, 1 large campfire, 20ish miles day two, 5 New Haven style Pizzas, 1 meatball grinder, many Foxon Park soda beverages, 0 tick bites, 6 happy riders.

On the second day we woke to a misty morning along the banks of a lake in Cockaponset State Forest. A small fishing boat coasted past my tent, the plaid-wearing men talking in accents that sounded, oddly, Irish. As others started to rise, we set to making our ritual breakfasts, and brewed more than enough coffee to serve our small team of riders. With the prospect of more singletrack, a possible 1600’s stone house tour, and pizza at the end of the day, spirits were high as we road into the humidity of the morning.

The roads leading back toward Clinton are a meandering amalgamation of dirt and state forest roads and rural county blacktop linking up some of the finest rambling Nutmeg has to offer. We hit some (barely) rideable singletrack that offered the biggest test of the day, and settled in to the longest bout of pavement I’ve ever ridden in this part of the world, roughly 5 miles total.

A few hours into the day we took our lunch near a reservoir on a quaint narrow bridge that several readers will recognize from many NHS town meetings. It was here that we dipped our toes in the water, calmed our bodies with some recreational accoutrement, and refueled on a mix of almonds and almond butter and almond yogurt before heading off, reluctantly, to the train station.

It’s hard not to stay, not to give up your current life doing whatever, wherever, and take off into the woods with your dynamo light guiding the way. This part of the world is a sensory stimulating hidden gem that is on par with some of the best riding this country has to offer. But this lifestyle is not for everyone, this kind of slow jam with a never-ending chord progression fading off into the marshlands. It’s an acquired taste, one that, thankfully, is gaining in popularity as the world of adventure based cycling rapidly changes, takes hold of the status quo.

Only 3 hours from New York City it’s the best kind of weekend getaway, full of all the things you’ve heard of before but never knew to be true. It’s all real. It’s fresh and new yet familiar and broken in, like a tough leather saddle massaged with coconut oil (I’m looking at you Poppie). It was the perfect weekend to celebrate friends and riding bikes and the Swift Campout; a weekend that will linger in memory the way the oddly satisfying smells of deet and campfire and sweat cling to your hair and shirt and skin, a reminder of a self you wish you’d never left behind but trust is always there.

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