Tag Archives: Middlebury College

The Wagon Wheel

Last Sunday finally gave me what I was looking for – blue skies, blue wax conditions (for those of you on waxable cross-country skis) and great snow cover – perfect for the first ski posting of the season.   I decided to begin the day’s ski from my home area- the Rikert Ski Touring Center operated by Middlebury College, and make the route a mixture of well-groomed touring center trails and lightly traveled remote paths.  The day’s route began by reversing the route described in one of my posts from last winter, entitled “The Robert Frost Cabin”.  Heading up Craig’s Hill, the beauty of the fresh snow and groomed trail provided all I needed to justify stopping for a picture.

Fresh Snow on Craig's Hill

At the top of the first hill, I took a left on the “Figure 8″ trail, and then followed the signs leading to the Frost Cabin. The lack of any truly bitter cold subzero days this winter have made it so that many of the surface streams are still running, rather than iced over, and in a few spots, I had to chose my path carefully to avoid waterskiing. Around the periphery of the Frost Fields, the 2-3 inches of snow from the previous nights snow on packed trail made for pretty easy skiing, but the snow was up to my knees in the unpacked powder! Joining the trail heading into the woods behind the Frost cabin at the top of the meadow, which by this point in the season was pretty well packed by previous skiers, brought me to the site of the title of this entry – the Wagon Wheel Road.

The Wagon Wheel Road was so named due to the presence of dance hall by that name which operated at the end of the road, where the Rikert Trails meet the road, until about 60 years ago. I wanted to try and find a source of information on this former Ripton hot spot, but found the best information from an unlikely source. A friend told me that a well-done booklet on the history of Ripton was put together by the 5th and 6th grade classes of the Ripton Elementary School back in 1996, and that it might have some information on The Wagon Wheel. Fortunately, I learned that a copy of this book was available on the bookshelves of the Rikert Touring Center. According to this source, the dance hall operated from 1950-1952 with dancing every Saturday night in the summer, and was owned an operated by one Leonard Zeeman. Although the language used to describe this site is appropriately guarded, given the age of the authors, one gets the impression that it was a pretty wild place! They also report that the owner, who was also a contractor, collected enough beer bottles that he used them to build the cellar walls of a home he constructed in Middlebury. The dance hall stood derelict until 1962, when it was torn down, leaving behind just another cellar hole. With all the snow, there was no chance of finding this, but a small clearing at the end of the road appears to be a good place to begin searching for it in the spring.

Possible site of "The Wagon Wheel"

My original plan was to follow the Wagon Wheel Rd as far as I could towards its source in the more civilized parts of Ripton, but was surprised by the fact that the upper reaches of the road were actually plowed. There was enough snow at first, but after about a km, the cover got too thin to ski, so I reversed my path, and headed back to the touring center. When I reached the Frost meadow, I took the upper trail back, which led to the well-groomed tracks on the outer Frost trail. From this high point on the terrain, I descended to the touring center to complete this 11.5 km route.

Once again, I am reverting to the common use of metric measurements when describing nordic ski routes, as is common. Curiously, the only time I have received any “troll comments” on my postings was last winter when one reader took offense at my use of this Unamerican system of measurement!

Google Earth of the route

Altitude Profile

Run like an Egyptian

On long solo runs, the oddest thoughts pass through one’s mind.  For example, on my last run I suddenly realized that the vast majority of my loop runs proceed in a clockwise direction.  I have no idea why this is the case, but set out to rectify the situation with at least an occasional counterclockwise loop!  On this sunny October afternoon, I chose to take on a short section of the Trail Around Middlebury (aka “TAM”) in the counterclockwise direction, and given that I was recovering from a head cold, went for a shorter and slightly less adventurous run than those described on the last few blog entries.  With this in mind, I headed out of town from the college athletic complex passing through the campus and exiting via Weybridge St.  After heading into the surrounding farmland, I passed a small herd of Belted Galloways (or as I prefer to call them, “Cows with Racing Stripes”) which provided irrefutable evidence that standing cows always point north.  OK, maybe I edited out a few recalcitrant data points with my photo editing software, but can I still publish?

North-facing Cows

Shortly thereafter, this run finally started hitting the trails, with a left turn onto the TAM. This short stretch of trail between Weybridge St. and Rt.125 is a very satisfying mix of partially open meadows, mowed fields and forest, and was previously featured (in the opposite direction, of course) on a run described in the post entitled “Muddy Meadows and Poison Parsnips“.  A few minutes later, I passed through the Middlebury College Organic Garden, a quiet and contemplative tract on a knoll just west of campus……which I always just run by.

Organic Garden


By now you must be wondering what the point of the title of this post is – what could an Egyptian possibly have to do with a late autumn run at the outskirts of town? Well, as I was heading back towards town on the dirt road connecting the organic garden with Rt. 125, my iPod, which was set on “shuffle” mode switched to the classic 80′s song by The Bangles entitled “Walk Like an Egyptian“. Taking this as an omen, I thought it would be fun to try and locate the burial site of Middlebury’s most ancient inhabitant, which had been pointed out to me on one occasion several years ago.  Angling through the back of campus on the paved path passing through some dorms behind the tennis courts, I ran around the periphery of the St. Mary’s Cemetery for the last leg of the run.  Passing through the gate into the West Cemetery, and shortly after passing the prominent Battell Family enclosure on the right, if you look carefully to the right you will find the ankh and cross-bearing gravestone of Amun-Her Khepesh-Ef.  In the late 1800′s, Henry Sheldon of Sheldon Museum fame purchased the mummy of the infant Egyptian prince who passed away at the age of two, nearly 4000 years ago.  The mummy was never in good enough condition to be displayed, however, and languished in the Sheldon Museum storage until 1945, when he was cremated and given a proper Christian burial.

The Mummy's Burial Marker

After locating and recording the Mummy’s Marker, a short jog across the street brought me back to the college fitness center, making this an easy 4.25 mile run with only a few easily surmounted climbs.

GPS track of the route

Muddy Meadows and Poison Parsnips

This posting covers the last remaining section of the TAM (Trail Around Middlebury) which has not yet been described in this blog.  Most of this run proceeds through the open meadows to the west of Middlebury College, with a short loop on the Ralph Myhre Golf Course thrown in as a warm-up.  Since my locker is at the college Field House, this made for a good start and finish point for a lunch break run on a warm early summer day.  The first two miles of this run were pretty easy, consisting of the well-trodden two miles around the golf course.  Unlike my earlier description of this section, I chose the clockwise direction, which necessitated entering the trail by the soccer goals behind the artificial turf field on the athletic grounds.  Following the trail around the periphery, carefully dodging errant drives, brought me to the Rt. 30 road crossing at the two mile mark.  Entering the woods on the far side led me to the section of the trail labeled as the “Colin O’Neil Class of 97 Trail”, built by the classmates of a student who passed away in a tragic auto accident when driving while intoxicated during his senior year at Middlebury College.  This heavily wooded segment weaves between the trees while angling downhill, until it reaches the open meadows below and to the west.  Although this has been a drier year than usual, it also passes through the first of several deep muddy puddles, making this a bad run to take the shiny new sneakers on.  Reaching the bottom of the field, I took a left turn and followed the trail which ran at the periphery of several adjoining meadows.  While this section is easy to follow, it can be surprisingly challenging to run, since the light traffic it receives leads to fairly high grass, slowing the running considerably.  I was also careful not to accidentally bump into any of the clusters of the now all-too common weed “Poison Parsnip”, also known as “Wild Parsnip”.  This weed looks much like a slightly larger version of the well-known “Queen Anne’s Lace” but with yellow rather than white blooms.

Poison Parsnip

If you aren’t familiar with this stuff, it is VERY nasty, and should be avoided at all costs – fortunately alert runners can do so on this stretch of trail!  This invasive species came to North America with the first European settlers, and its presence was noted as early as 1630.  It is not apparent why it seems to have become so prevalent along Vermont fields and highways in the last decade or so, but the northern midwest, especially Wisconsin, seems to have been similarly afflicted.  Unlike other better known toxic plants, like poison ivy, which depend on our immune response to cause their discomfort, this plant is just plain corrosive!  When the tissues of this plant are broken open, it releases a family of substances known as “psoralens” which are initially harmless, but quickly react with UV light to take on their corrosive character, causing skin burns and discoloration which can last from weeks to months on human skin.

This nasty weed, like most invasives, has no natural enemies among our local fauna. Its natural predator, the “Parsnip Webworm”, also native to Europe, has found its way to some wild parsnip-infested areas in the US, diminishing the numbers and health of the plant in those locales.  Apparently, the psoralens are not part of the plant’s biochemistry solely to torture humans, but to keep its naturally coevolved predator, the webworm, at bay.  When faced with large populations of webworms, the plants generate higher levels of psoralens, which in turn stunts the plant’s own growth to ensure its survival.  I say bring those webworms to Vermont and let chemical ecology run its course!

Getting back to the run before I get too distracted:  The route crosses over College Street and passes just to the west of the Organic Garden, with excellent views of the Green Mountains, and my place of work, Bicentennial Hall.  The organic garden is worth a trip by itself, with a mix of flowers and vegetables on a quiet knoll in the middle of the field.

Mountain Views

After about a half mile in the open, the trail heads back into some fairly open forest before eventually joining Weybridge Street for the 2 mile return to the locker room and showers at the Fitness Center.   I chose to take the shortcut through campus, entering through the Weybridge St gate, and passing through the dorms.  Even with the shortcut, the run ended up at 6.6 miles, plenty of distance for this runner on a hot day in the early afternoon sun.

Google earth of the route

The Middlebury Maple Run

After a few good long runs last week, I succumbed to temptation and ignored common sense by registering for The Middlebury Maple Run, a half marathon (13.1 miles) which attracted about 200 runners in its inaugural running last year, and filled up with 500 runners this year.  I don’t usually write up road runs for this column, but my hunch is that a lot of the runners who enjoy the trails would also enjoy this event, which draws upon the support of a wide variety of local businesses, and is planned and staffed by many of my friends who are among the town’s diehard runners.

Sunday morning was perfect for a long run – the low front which had threatened the day’s weather stalled to the west, giving us a cool and breezy bluebird day.  I like to arrive at local races like this at least an hour before the start.  This leaves plenty of time to stretch out and chat with running friends and acquaintances prior to the start.  For example, I had the pleasure or meeting a member of  the Long Trail Running Club Meetup group, a group of primarily Chittenden County trail runners with whom I have corresponded but never met.  For many of the racers today, this race was the first time they had ever entered a race of this length, and the opportunity to do a run like this without traveling proved to be just enough inspiration.  While I had not planned to run this race until Monday of this week, I was really looking forward to the opportunity to run on my home turf with 500+ other runners.  While races of this size are common in some parts of the country, Vermont’s miniscule population and plethora of sporting activities usually makes for much smaller fields in most similar athletic events.

Prerace networking

Prerace networking

The race started at 9:00 am sharp at Porter Hospital, and headed down South St., passing cheering spectators on Main St. before cutting through the Marble Works, and heading out towards the Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge.  One of the great pleasures of this race was how it wound through the village and brought out healthy crowds of spectators, and all of the local runners enjoyed the motivation of their friends and/or family calling out their name as they ran by.  The north winds kept my speed (a word very generously applied) in check until the race headed south back into the village along Sheep Farm Rd.

The course then wound through the Middlebury College Campus past another high concentration of cheering spectators at the half way point on Old Chapel Rd., before leaving campus back towards Porter Hospital.  The last section of the course was made even more interesting due to the fact that while heading out past Porter on South St., the race leaders were doubling back in the opposite direction towards the finish line.  It is always inspiring to see stronger runners, and as I approached the turnaround point, I could see the runners just ahead of me who might just be catchable.   Reversing direction back  into the final few miles to the finish, it became apparent why the the previous few miles had been relatively fast and easy – what was once a stiff tailwind became a much more challenging headwind.  While this initially seemed a setback, the cool wind in my face actually was refreshing, and helped make the finish more attainable rather than less, just a little slower!

After surviving the last challenge of the race – Middlebury’s version of “heartbreak hill” at mile 12, it was time to put my head down and finish this event.   Thinking it was easy sailing from this point on, I slowed my pace almost imperceptibly as I entered the home stretch into the Porter parking lot.  As luck would have it, another gentleman in my age group (the full head of gray hair was a giveaway) caught me with my guard down and streaked by just a few yards from the finish line.

As I sit back writing this blog on Sunday night, rigor mortis is definitely creeping into my legs.  Nonetheless, this proved to be a very well run and friendly race on a near-perfect day, and I look forward to running it again next year.  I have a hunch that this race will soon become a regional favorite, especially if it proves feasible to further increase the size of the field.  Thanks to all the organizers and volunteers – it is events like this which make Middlebury a special place to live!

Google Earth of Race Route

Google Earth of Race Route