Four Hooves, Two Tires, and a Savior

Each in Their Saddle, a Montpelier Couple Navigates 26 Miles to Groton State Forest

John Davey is a savior. Not in a spiritual or existential sense—though he certainly, in the end, provided a little bit of both—but in a real, without-him-this-trip-would-have-been-ruined sense.

“The map says we should be able to pick up Silver Lake right here,” Darren said, looking back and forth between Philene, and an obvious dead end. Problem was, even after months of downloading the most detailed maps of every square inch of Central Vermont, we seemed to have missed a whole grid—acres of land, trails and sub-class 4 roads that would have obviously answered the central question of the time: Where the hell were we?

We were about three hours into a crazy journey, one that brought together a woman, her horse, her partner, a GPS, and a mountain bike. A journey that was nearly a year in the making, built up with painstaking research and hours of wine-fueled exploration at the kitchen table staring at maps of the ground we were going to cover.

The trip was supposed to be—according to all available information—a relatively smooth, 26-mile trek that should have taken about six hours or so.

But here we were, after everything went exactly as we expected, with really no godly idea of where to turn next.

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Vermont is a paradise for horse riding and mountain biking. It certainly is one of the best places in the country to break camp. But we were determined to combine the three, marrying these passions into a singular, transcendent trip.

Philene rides her horse at least three days a week in the summer, and almost never goes more than a dozen miles at a time, usually along “major” dirt roads and well-established logging trails in and around Plainfield.

Darren is really a novice at mountain biking, preferring the ethereal thrill of covering 30, 40, or 60 miles in a few hours along paved roads throughout Central Vermont.

But both of us love camping, love the mountains, and love being outdoors. And this trip would give us a chance to spend some time in our various saddles together for a change.

The idea was to map a route, practice a portion of it, then plan for a day’s journey to the campground. Philene and a friend of ours would drive to the campground, and leave behind our car, our food, tent, and supplies, and we would make the return by horse and bike three days later.

Unlike taking a bike ride (mountain or otherwise), there is no network of trails designated for horses. Sure, logging trails, the VAST network, or even the abandoned Central Vermont Railroad right-of-way (part of the Cross-Vermont trail, it is now a wonderland of a recreation trail throughout much of Groton State Forest) can be a start. But it’s more complicated when you throw in a half-ton animal who is more used to short distances—and calling the shots. And used to food and water at will.

So we enlisted the help of a GPS. At first, we thought we might be able to use the built-in features of our smart phones. That might work in suburban America, but not here, where a “major” road might be a two-lane dirt passage that can barely accommodate two cars passing side-by-side at the same time.

We opted for a DeLorme Earthmate PN-30, a sleek, green hand-held device that will set you back at least $300. It doesn’t talk to you, and while it can help you get to the movies or to Montreal, that’s not what it does best.

The Earthmate is full of information useful for athletic endeavors in the backcountry: elevation, distance traveled, speed, types of paths. And with the requisite software and latest maps from Maine-based DeLorme, it’s a treasure-trove of possibilities.

For a mountain-biker, 26 miles is nothing, particularly if the route covers rolling terrain. But for a horse, it’s an all-out day. After the mapping, we had to work up distance over weeks. We started doing 5 miles together; then 10; then almost 15 before we felt confident that ZZB could handle the stress.

We also needed to test for other stresses: how would the horse react to dogs; to cars; to ATVs; and to any number of distractions that, handled incorrectly, could become hazards to her and to Philene.

And then there was dealing with the realization that a horse, over the course of a multi-hour trail ride, averages about 4 miles an hour at the walk—considerably less than the 16 miles an hour or so I’m used to on my road bike.

We mastered all of those variables, and then made sure we had enough food for us and for ZZB; a fairly extensive emergency and first-aid kit, again for the humans and the horse; water for all of us (we knew, however, that we’d encounter plenty of streams for ZZB); and the just-in-cases, like a tarp, flashlight, and matches.

Of course, we already dropped the bulk of our trip’s supplies at New Discovery a day earlier, with the help of a friend. We left the car there, along with a two-person tent, sleeping bags, a stash of food, firewood, magazines and books (the latter two items should be considered essential, particularly if you’re stuck in the tent for an afternoon storm).

The horse camping sites at New Discovery are in the back of the park, around a semi-circle of a field, set off from the other campsites. It’s a great set-up: there are places to fence in the horses adjacent to each campsite.

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But despite all this planning, we found ourselves lost on a dirt road, somewhere between Pigeon Pond Road and the Silver Ledge Trail, with a big body of water and thick forest between the two.

Enter John Davey.

Barreling down the dirt road in a beat-up Ford truck, John looked at us, waved, and continued. A few minutes later, apparently after realizing a couple and their horse stuck in the middle of nowhere merited further investigation, he came back. John promised he would help us find our way from where we were to where we wanted to be: at the New Discovery State Park, the only state campground that allows overnight camping with horses. And there was no obvious way from here to there.

Darren was certainly ready to head back to Breckenridge Farm in Plainfield, a mere 15 miles or so away at this point. He definitely didn’t have much confidence in our American Quarterhorse, Zip Zan Babe (who we call ZZB), my mountain bike, the GPS, and certainly not John Davey.

“I can get you where you want to go,” he said.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Philene said, looking at her exasperated partner and knowing full well that he was no longer in the fun part of the trip.

John pointed straight ahead, at a tangle of trees, underbrush, and, to my and ZZB’s dismay, no obvious trail.

For the next hour or so, we trudged, John Davie leading the way on foot, swatting away branches, jumping over running water, wading through mud and seemingly breaking trail as went.

And then we emerged. This narrow, rutted dirt road—nothing more than an overused logging trail—could have been a multi-lane freeway with marked exits and direction signs, judging by our sense of jubilation of having made it.

We hugged John, promised to send him a BIG thank-you gift, and then gazed at our maps, re-calibrated the GPS, and continued on, grateful that our first-ever horse camping experience was going to end at the campground, and not in the woods of one of the state’s largest forests.

When we arrived at New Discovery, we used a portable electrified fence, and that kept ZZB safely confined when Philene wasn’t on her for an hour or so ride each day.

Be prepared to make fast friends with other horse people. The weekend we camped, the horse sites were reserved by a group of people who all ride, camp, and travel together. At first, we were the sole inhabitants of a tiny tent among large recreational vehicles. We also were the only ones to ride in; the rest of the group brought their mounts in the civilized way: in trailers.

The awkwardness quickly melted away when the “ringleader” of the horse people, Carol, took us under her wing. She and the rest of the group took us in, and there were even several horse spouses, like me, to wonder aloud about the hold equines have over their humans.

The trip back—aided by a several hour trek on the mountain bike and a much closer reading of the GPS I made on the second day at camp—was a much smoother trek. We avoided the John Davey forest, cruised up and around several ridges, and landed back at Breckenridge Farm in a smidge over four hours.

It was a trip of a lifetime. And we can’t wait to do it again.

See related: How to go

Darren Allen and Philene Taormina

Darren Allen, the communications director for Vermont-NEA, and is an avid alpine skier, road cyclist, and runner who has completed three marathons. Philene Taormina is the director of advocacy for AARP-Vermont who, when she is not on her horse, takes yoga and rides her bike; she participated in the 2005 Des Moines Register’s Great Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.