There is no better time or place to tour in northern New England than when those fleeting days of Indian summer coincide with the crowning glories of fall foliage.
There's beauty to fog, especially during the transition from night to day. As the sun breaks through, pearlescent tendrils, rising from the dark waters of ponds and lakes, dance and whirl. As I ride along the riverbank, my world is intimate, a circle of limited visibility without the distraction of rolling vistas or distant mountains. It's an intimacy in which individual trees, silhouetted against the shining gray boundary of visibility, take on special meaning. The world unfolds, constantly revealing itself as ethereal veils drop, one after another.
Despite my electric vest and heated handgrips I'm cold. The season's first hard frost lies upon the fields and the morning sun has yet to break its icy grip upon the landscape. I've left the fog at the Vermont border and Mount Washington, dressed in its fall colors, rises ahead of me like a Luminist painting.
Indian summer, that glorious time of year after the first hard frost when the sun shines brightly and the temperature briefly climbs back into the high seventies as a last encore to the summer season, usually lasts only a few days. So, taking advantage of a forecast calling for several days of ideal touring weather, I'm heading east on Route 2 to Farmington, Maine.
Leg 1: The Rangeley Lakes Region
Downtown Farmington is a hopping place this Sunday morning: the restaurants are busy and most of the parking spaces filled. Passing through New Vineyard and New Portland on Route 27, I can see the mountains ahead. After Kingfield the road becomes twisty and I get into the rhythm as I ride up the Carrabassett Valley on Routes 16 and 27. Just outside of Stratton, Route 16 becomes a corridor through the woods and I follow the tortured ribbon of gray asphalt and a succession of dark brown poles holding mile after mile of wires aloft all the way to Rangeley.
The village of Rangeley, situated on a narrow strip of land between the south end of Haley Lake and the northeast shore of Rangeley Lake, is one of the few places where public access to these lakes exists. The Rangeley Region is comprised of lakes, forests, and low, rolling mountains, but little of this is visible as I continue down the highway - it's a case of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
From Oquossoc Route 16 loops north and east around Cupsuptic Lake before angling southeast to round Richardson Pond, then northeast past the southern end of Aziscohos Lake by the Aziscohos Hydroelectric Project. Even in places where the highway approaches these lakes, they remain concealed by dense spruce and scrub woods and I have to be content with tantalizing glimpses seen from the high point of a hill or quick views through openings where the trees are parted by streams.
I enter New Hampshire, pass through Errol, and continue around the southern end of Umbagog Lake and, after only nine miles, pull into a large public boat launch area to enjoy the beautiful view. Crossing the state line back into Maine, I reach the highest elevation of the day - 1,822 feet above sea level - just south of Upton and then begin a leisurely descent toward the Androscoggin Valley.
Once again, the road between Upton and Grafton Notch becomes a long, narrow corridor bordered by a dense wall of thirty-foot trees casting the asphalt into deep shadows. My approach causes a large bird to rise up from a cedar swamp and fly straight down this corridor in an attempt to acquire enough speed to loft above the trees. At first I think it's a blue heron - even in the shadows I can tell it's much too large to be a crow or raven - but as it emerges from the shadows and slips over the treetops, I see that it's a bald eagle. Encounters like this make touring the northern woods so special.
The ride down through Grafton Notch is everything I look forward to when touring: smooth pavement, plenty of corners, and mountain views. Entering the state park, my descent quickens between Old Speck and West Peak. This is an extremely popular hiking destination and there are several turnoffs to scenic areas - Moose Cave Gorge, Mother Walker Falls Gorge, and Screw Auger Falls - but I'm enjoying the rhythm of the ride and continue on.
Route 2 goes through Rumford, following the north side of the river as it makes a hairpin loop. Familiar with this mill town, I avoid the traffic on Rumford's streets with a shortcut. Crossing the Androscoggin River on the steel bridge (Route 108) and riding past the paper mill, I cross the river once again, and hang a right onto Route 2 East.
From Mexico, it's a fast run back to Farmington on Route 2.
Leg 2: The North Woods
It's been a cold night. Stumbling out of my motel room, I discover my UltraGard® bike cover coated with a glistening rime of hoarfrost. I tuck a hand warmer packet into the toe of each boot, turn the thermostatic control to my Widder Lectric Vest on high, and switch on the Beemer's heated hand grips. The sun is a dim presence on the horizon as I set out. The road from Farmington to Anson is rough, its shoulders a very treacherous loose sand, and every time I enter into shadow my windshield fogs.
At Anson, I continue on combined Routes 8 and 201Alternate instead of crossing the river. Above the dam small outcroppings of stones, like those that mark a cache or cairn, appear in the center of the river as if to divide it in half. Fog rises from the olive-black water.
After crossing the river at Solon, the highway becomes wide and smooth, with ample, paved shoulders. This stretch, known as The Old Canada Road and designated a National Scenic Byway, is a joy to ride, and I have the opportunity to sightsee and make good time.