Ghost hunting on the Millstone Trails

I am somewhere in the woods of Barre at a trail intersection and it’s quiet.

It’s way too quiet—even for a Tuesday. I’ve been barreling along single and doubletrack trails for the past three hours and the fact that I haven’t encountered a single other person out here is starting to wear on me.

There are plenty of signs of people; the refuse from last summer’s swimming parties and ruts in the dirt worn by riders before me. Just two minutes ago, I discovered what had been a three-story tree fort constructed of salvaged lumber, now collapsed and covered in moss and pine needles.

All this space and quiet has me feeling uneasy. Alone in the woods, my mind fills the idle time with thoughts that start to turn nonsensical and menacing. My hiking friends call this trail mentality “the monkey mind.”

A crisp September breeze stirs the trees and behind me, I hear branches snap. My head swivels, eyes wide. Contemplating my choice of trails, the sensation is less Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and a little more like the horror movie “The Blair Witch Project.” The breeze rises again and I realize the hair on the back of my neck is standing up. I stand on the pedals and bear right, my tires spitting dirt and pine needles behind me.

I fly down a wide, grassy trail that meanders between massive grout piles and small mountains of discarded granite blocks the size of microwaves or subcompacts. All around me, clues from the area’s mining past are still visible; the towers, concrete footings, derricks and bullwheels lie derelict and wrecked, like some giant had run amok. What had been a bustling industrial quarry operation sprawls in rusted disarray. The air smells like wet leaves and dirt.

As I climb Grand Lookout Trail, I notice carvings in the side of a high wall of stacked stone. There are gargoyle faces, Roman columns, and the outline of a hand—all cut with precision in the solid rock and sandpaper-rough under my fingertips.

I ride to an outcropping of stone that overlooks one of the dozens of flooded mining pits that dot the landscape. I step out onto the ledge and look down. Something in my stomach curls into a hard, acidic fist. My breath catches in my throat.

My feet take an involuntary step back from the gaping maw of the pit some 50 feet below me. Close to the wall below, where the sheer rock face drops through the water’s surface, rays of sunlight glance off a shallow ledge with glints of turquoise. But farther out, the bottom falls away and the impenetrable water’s ominous shades of green and black—shades normally reserved for the bottomless of the ocean—indicate unfathomable depths. The cliff’s edge is just inches from my shoes.

I pull away and hop back on the bike. Not half a mile later, I reach Grand Lookout. To the south I can see Lincoln Peak and Mount Ellen, and to the north Camel’s Hump and at the farthest extent of my visibility, Jay Peak.

The views offer the briefest moment’s introspection before I pull the already-wrinkled map out of my pocket and orient it to a compass. Then I set off for an area marked “Gnome Man’s Land.”

In Gnome Man’s Land’s, the Roller Coaster trail starts with a narrow catwalk of bridges that carry me over a pile of jagged rocks. I clench my teeth and grip the seat with my knees, trying not to notice the 40-foot drop just a few yards to my left. When I’m more securely on solid ground, the trail branches off into forest and the descent begins.

Turns and trees pass in a blur of dirt and thin saplings. Despite the fact that my heart’s pounding somewhere in my throat, I’ve got a smile plastered wide on my face. It’s one of those days where I fully understand my attraction to the sport. In descents and climbs and the moments in between, I derive a sense of control in the midst of an environment that indicates otherwise. When the going gets steep and rooty, and the trail throws you high up banked turns or over gaps, the only thing to do is keep a two-finger grip on the brake levers, drop your weight over the back tire and hope your handlebars don’t clip a sapling. It works like a charm—nearly every time.

Where other trails around the state are carved into topsoil and loam, the advanced trails in Gnome Man’s Land climb and descend by way of the rocky spines that erupt through the thin soil. The Vortex trail is a blender of sharp turns and narrow gaps that whip and toss me tumbling onto rocks into trees.

At the top of the loop, someone placed a small sign: “Spin again?”

You bet, I think and head for another. This time, the bridges, drops curves don’t phase me and I lap Vortex twice before I decide I’d better be getting home.

Descending has me on narrow rock spines that run through tightly spaced spruces. There’s no other line to take and in a situation where I can brake and go over the handlebars or take the drop hope for the best, I choose door number three and opt for the dismount. The solitude means there’s no one to call for backup in case I take a heavy digger and so choose to err on the side of caution.

I pedal back to the Town Forest where I slowly meander on double track, pausing to marvel at immense pools of water far below. With a long drive back to the Champlain Valley ahead of me, I reluctantly turn toward the parking lot.

Millstone had flatly chewed me up and then spit me back out and yet I’m feeling surprisingly good about that. Chewing my sandwich, it occurs that if I didn’t emerge from the woods without sore legs and a few scrapes and bruises, the day might have been so memorable. That’s the attraction, and that’s why I’ll be returning soon.

See also: Weekend Away: Barre’s Millstone Trails

Evan Johnson

Evan Johnson is the staff writer for Vermont Sports Magazine. The native Vermonter enjoys steep and deep skiing and wandering all over the state by Subaru. Find him on Twitter at @evanisathome.