SAXONS RIVER, Vt. — I've always marveled at those people who turn their vacations into tests of physical endurance. For me, a good holiday is synonymous with passivity. Exertion is too much like work. Leave that hiking and rafting stuff to the sweaty health-nut folks.
My idea of a rugged seagoing adventure is an Atlantic crossing on the Queen Elizabeth 2. Sure, I've done an African safari--first class, in tents with running water and tea served bedside every morning.
The last time I went to Hawaii I read eight books and avoided every amenity the hotel offered, from snorkels and flippers to those crazy one-man windsurfer boards. This may make me a bit of a dullard, but I always return from a vacation rested and refreshed, a few pounds overweight and with not a sore muscle in my body.
My criterion has stood the test of time: Stay away from any place that doesn't offer dry martinis in the evening and a newspaper at your door in the morning.
Having established that point, I want to admit that I have blown all my cardinal rules. I have climbed aboard a 12-speed bicycle and discovered the back roads of Vermont, the country inns and the little villages that I thought existed only in the visions of Norman Rockwell.
I am neither sore nor deprived; I am exhilarated. My vacations may never be the same again, for what I have just learned is that life in the slow lane can be one of the most beautiful of journeys.
Biking tours in New England have become increasingly popular in recent years, and I was pleased that the company that put my trip together--Bike Vermont (P.O. Box 207, Woodstock, Vt. 05091)--lets you bike at your own pace, offers daily itineraries of varying mileage and has found such cordial country inns that I am sure I will never be happy again in one of the chain hotel high-rises in the city.
Prices, including accommodations and two meals daily, range from $170 for a weekend tour to $495 for a Sunday-through-Friday tour.
My wife Sandy and I checked into the 83-year-old Saxtons River Inn on a Friday. The next morning, with nine other neophyte bicyclists, we set out west on Vermont 121. The company guide with us, Claudette Bourque, has biked almost 2,000 miles this year and she gave each of us a road map with suggested routes highlighted in red.
Sandy and I chose the one that covered 25 miles, a trip that can be peddled fairly easily in three hours, even though Vermont is a state that's built on the side of a hill.
But biking isn't for deadlines; it's for dawdling. The road wanders through farmland and over rolling, forested ridges, past homes of white clapboard and barns of red, and along rushing streams.
To think that just a few days earlier I had been driving the freeways of Los Angeles was unfathomable. The silence of the woods was loud and reassuring and, with the others in our group out of sight, either ahead or behind, it was just the two of us slipping quietly through a soft, green world, unhurried and as free as the autumn breezes.
There were antique stores to be explored and general stores that demanded attention. In every little town there seemed to be a yard sale or two, and at one I bought a wonderful old portable typewriter for $2 that I intend to have restored for display in my living room. Soon after my prized purchase, Claudette appeared in the Bike Vermont van and carried the typewriter back to the Saxtons River Inn for me, seemingly as pleased with my good fortune as was I.
No one rides through a town on a bicycle as you would in a car. Instead, you stop. Always. Indeed, the fun of biking is getting there, not being there. You have lunch at an inn on the village green in Chester--a town that held its first town meeting in 1765 and voted for independence in 1774.
You poke through the Vermont Country Store just past the Pleasant Valley Road turnoff near Bartonsville. You visit The Old Tavern in Grafton, an elegant inn that nearly 200 years ago was a stagecoach stop on the post road from Boston and Albany. Sitting on the porch, you can hear the clang of Hilton Dier's hammer as the blacksmith works in his shop a horseshoe toss away.
Grafton deserves special mention because after the stagecoaches stopped, the wool industry collapsed under pressures of Australian competition. Farmers moved west to escape New England's harsh winters, and the town fell into neglect. By the early 1960s all that remained of the once-thriving commercial sector were the inn, a sawmill and a store. Grafton, like so many other farming towns in the northeast, was dying.
In 1963 Dean Mathey, a wealthy New Jersey banker with long family ties to Grafton, set up the Windham Foundation to restore Grafton's buildings and economic vitality. He succeeded nicely, and today Grafton is alive and well and in better shape than many of the bikers who pass its way.
Our weekend tour ended Sunday afternoon, back where it had begun, at the Saxtons River Inn. Usually after a vacation I am filled with thoughts of how good it will be to get home again. But on this Sunday, finishing a final cup of coffee on the inn's porch, I could think only of what other quiet back roads lay out there. And what about those other biking tours I had read about through the wine country of Northern California and in the countryside of Ireland and France?
Oh, dear. I may have taken the last of my passive vacations. But at least I have not sacrificed all my values. When the miles have been pedaled, the inn reached and the bike stored for the night, I will still insist that my reward for no longer being a dullard is a very chilled and very dry martini.