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Running the Lost Highways of the NEK, by Heidi Caldwell

(From the July/August 2019 edition of New England Runner magazine)

 

Running the Lost Highways of the NEK

 

by Heidi Caldwell

 

The winding network of New England roads connect us to our region’s deep historic roots. Etched into the rolling landscape, roadways offer a window into the ebbs and flows of development from the first colonial settlers to modern day transplants.

 

Every town hosts its own web of circuitous highways and seemingly illogical dead ends. The further North you venture, the less developed and wilder a town’s road network is likely to become. Grass pokes up through the scarce pavement, the dirt is rougher, and the framing foliage grows more dense.

Photo: Curious cows are commonplace in the “NEK.” Photo courtesy of John Lazenby

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom—fondly referred to as the “NEK” or “the Kingdom”—is a pocket of small towns in the northeast corner of the state. In the remote NEK, paved roads are few and far between, with most paved roads reserved to major state highways. In the state of Vermont, dirt roads boast a majority over paved roads, with 8,650 miles of dirt to 7,151 miles paved.

 

In a town like Craftsbury, this ratio becomes even more disparate, with dirt roads in Craftsbury topping pavement an impressive 51 miles to 19 miles. In runner speak: the towns of the NEK are running paradise! Most long distance runners will agree dirt roads are the holy grail of training surfaces. With softer footing, quieter traffic, and more scenic vistas than a typical paved road, dirt roads are an exceptional perk to life as a runner in northern Vermont.

 

Photo: Running through the rolling hills and farm country of Greensboro, Craftsbury’s neighbor to the east. Photo courtesy of Jen Forbes

 

A year into my life in the Kingdom, I am still blown away by the area’s spectacular running country. A recent transplant to Craftsbury, I pinch myself on morning runs to assure myself I have not died and gone to running heaven.

 

Though I have lived in New England all my life, the sheer abundance of uninterrupted dirt road and off-road running opportunities feels unique to the Northeast Kingdom. Spoiled by the daily cornucopia of roads and trails out my front door, dirt road cruises have started to feel ordinary.

 

In my state of bliss, I find myself miffed when more than three cars pass me during a given run. Trails are, of course, a terrific alternative and serve as a complete change of pace from road running. However, pure trail running can often necessitate a drive or a trail fee—hard terms to accept for those of us accustomed to backyard adventuring.

 

Enter:The “lost highways” of the Northeast Kingdom. Officially categorized as “class IV” roads in Vermont, these roads are so seldom traveled that they have been abandoned by local road crews and are no longer maintained. Class IV roads are legally established town highways and open to public travel but, for the most part, are not passable by passenger vehicles. In short, these roads are the untouched, ‘untrafficked’ Mecca of off-road running.

 

Photo: Racing on a class IV road during the “Craftsbury Beer Run” point to point zero-pavement half marathon from the Craftsbury Outdoor Center to Hill Farmstead Brewery. Photo courtesy of John Lazenby

 

This spring, map-hunting had become my new favorite pass-time. Finding those class IV gems is like mining—you find a vein and suddenly the woods open up. A few months in, I am chipping away at my list of lost highways to travel. And, thanks to my new hobby, the list is only growing longer.

 

At its core, class IV running is about learning a place. For me in Craftsbury, it’s about better understanding and appreciating the place I live. When I think of adventure running, my mind quickly jumps to high mountain ridges or distant desert canyons, often a plane ride or long drive away. Why don’t we turn to the home around us?

 

Photo: The King Farm Road in Craftsbury. Photo by Heidi Caldwell

 

There is always more to unearth, see, and discover. A run on class IV roads may take you by abandoned cellar holes, overgrown orchards, or fragmented stone walls, each landmark hinting of old farmsteads built and fruitful days lived. In these moments you learn to read the landscape through the lens of local history.

 

The same run may also take you to a maple sugar shack or a small Mom & Pop shop still in operation. And, of course, most every run brings you by a herd of cows trotting alongside you for a few yards. In every moment there is local knowledge to engage with and take in.

 

These old farming and logging roads fold together into a maze of mystery and intrigue. Because class IV roads are now so seldom traveled—on foot or otherwise—it can be difficult to find current records or reports of the roads’ conditions. As a result, each road I check off my list has brought the unexpected.

 

On an adventure-run through Glover, Craftsbury’s neighbor to the northeast, I came across a beaver pond swelling across the roadway of Perron Hill, one of the town’s many class IV roads. The pond dominated the road to such an extent that the road itself looked out of place. Later on that same run, I climbed a class IV section of old tractor road up through acres of open fields with sweeping views of the Willoughby Gap mountains—simply awe-inspiring!

 

 

The adventure is heightened by the absence of signage on class IV roads. The roads are marked on maps yes, but there are no road signs to guide you on your journey. Though I have navigated many successful outings sans-signage, I offer a word of caution here: there are limits to exploring at will. Even adventures with the best intentions can go awry.

 

I recently set out to hit another class IV road on my list of lost highways. That morning, I charted my course and made mental notes of the turns and climbs and landmarks to expect. As I made the turn up the class IV road serving as the loop’s key connector, I found it abruptly ended.

 

After poking around the shrubbery a bit, it was clear the road no longer continued. Particularly eager to conquer unfamiliar roads that day, I backtracked and continued on. The unknown road ahead of me winded aimlessly with no sign of a turn back towards home. As the miles clicked away on my watch, I remained stubbornly determined to make a loop out of the run.

 

Now lost, I eventually returned to familiar roads, only to find I was much further from home than I had hoped. Days removed from the run, I can view it as a happy accident. I cruised over beautiful open hills as wild flowers bloomed on a bluebird day. But I also acknowledge I was lucky and learned critical lessons: always bring a map, arm yourself with back-up routes, and be prepared to forfeit the adventure when necessary.

 

 

Beyond the promise of local exploration, running class IV roads also has practical, sound training benefits. Class IV roads are the elusive sweet-spot of off-road terrain. Not too technical but not too easy, class IV roads speak to the GoldiLocks in each of us, offering the “just right” balance of rugged and stable.

 

Class IV roads in the NEK vary greatly in the amount of seasonal washout and loose gravel, but are typically not as technically challenging as the rocky, rooty, and twisty singletrack typical of New England.

 

In this way, running on the varied footing class IV roads works stabilizing muscles while minimizing the risk of a twisted ankle or yard-sale trail fall. Similarly, class IV road running necessitates a welcomed slowed pace in order to navigate the uneven terrain, but not to the extreme of most trail running. This allows you to cover longer distances while still extending time on your feet with a slightly slower pace.

 

To venture on lost highways is to discover the heart of the Kingdom’s mystical character and inexplicable allure. There’s something perfectly unsettling about heading out on a road once-traveled, now seldom-traveled, not knowing where it leads. You may suddenly emerge in an open meadow or happen upon a charming farm stand, all seemingly in the middle of nowhere and known by no one but you.

 

This precisely captures the magic of the Kingdom: bursting with beauty, art, and adventure, yet never overrun or over-picked. Whether a visitor or a local to the NEK, I encourage you to stray off the dirt roads and onto lost highways. Take to the maps, mark your course, and get running! And don’t forget to greet the cows always gracing the hillside pastures of the NEK.

 

In the spirit of local adventure, the Craftsbury Outdoor Center is launching a running challenge this summer, “Every Road: Craftsbury.” Inspired by Salomon’s “Every Single Street” video, this project will challenge community members and visitors alike to run every mile of road in the town of Craftsbury during the month of July. Craftsbury is home to approximately 70 miles of passable road, including a smattering of class IV sections. We hope this project will inspire residents to get to know their home better and to engage more purposefully in the local landscape.

 

Heidi Caldwell is the Running Director at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury Common, VT. Tucked away in the remote Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, the Outdoor Center is a four season sporting resort and elite training center grounded in a commitment to promoting lifelong participation in outdoor sport, environmental stewardship, and sustainability. Be sure to check out Heidi’s new blog segment, “Local Dirt,” for more adventure run reports from the Kingdom!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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