Sunrise Over Nutmeg Kingdom
2023 Nutmeg Nor’Easter, 10/21-23
For more than seven years now, once the sugar maple leaves turn a fiery red and the white oaks a rich gold, the residents of eastern Connecticut have become accustomed to the sound of buzzing freehubs as large groups of people ride through on bikes on their quaint country roads. It started off with a smattering of folks who met up under a wooden pavilion by the shoreline, not too far away from a lobster shack—everyone initially connected by someone who knew someone (who knew someone).
After a ferry crossing, a castle, many covered wooden bridges, and innumerable red barns, that ravenous bunch would devour pizza slung from the back of a pickup truck with a wood-burning oven affixed to it on a trailer. The sometimes fierce Long Island Sound wind would do little to dampen spirits, which remained high even when the group later snuck into the local woods to find a place to stealthily pitch their tents and hammocks under the cover of night. Humble beginnings.
Fast forward to 2023, and this yearly gathering has bloomed into a marquee event in the Northeast. Organizers Arya Namdol and Ronnie Romance have settled into the logistically daunting challenge of offering accommodation options, potable water, food for purchase, and restroom facilities for an ever-increasing number of attendees. This is done entirely through grassroots organization without any corporate dollars. There may have been a few moments when the coffee urns ran dry, or the food lines were long, but this year’s event held at the storied Deer Lake Camp was the most organized yet.
Many years ago (but not too many), a young Ronnie rode through the woods of Killingworth’s Deer Lake, explored its trail system, learned how to navigate rock gardens, and developed their techniques for off-road cycling, all the while maybe dreaming of when and how to get friends to join in on the fun.
The land served as a scout camp then, but after the property went up for sale last year, it became a local conservation success story. The community came together and purchased the property under a non-profit to protect the 255-acre woodland from development. Its position as part of the Hammonasset River watershed and the largest forested swaths in the region helps form one of the few remaining major greenway zones in Connecticut.
It was the perfect way of coming full circle to Ronnie’s childhood experience by serving as the venue for this year’s Nutmeg Nor’Easter. The structures on the property were kept and maintained, making the weekend more inclusive for fair-weather-minded campers. Plenty of accommodation options were available: cabins with showers for those seeking summer camp vibes, lean-tos and ground camping for those wanting wilder experiences, and car camping for those driving in already laden with creature comforts.
I’ve always stood by my assertion that rain is a feature, not a bug—an adventure never exists without a little discomfort or challenging weather. Heavy rain was in the forecast this year, but I couldn’t resist taking the train from NYC to New Haven to start the long weekend off with lunch at arguably one of the best pizzerias in America.
Despite the deluge, nearly 500 undeterred cyclists arrived. Those with soggy bottoms took turns drying themselves off by the fireplace in Clifton Hall, a timber frame dining hall that served as the main meeting point. I’m a natural introvert, yet this gathering always has me bubbling with energy. I felt as if I was in constant conversation all three days, perhaps my most social time every year.
After a Tibetan blessing from Arya and her mom on Saturday morning, riders rolled out in staggered groups, some choosing to wait out as much of the rain as possible while others committed to a longer day pressed on. With more than a handful of routes ranging from 10 to 79 miles, people could choose from relatively smooth country roads to unmaintained singletrack. There were occasional deep puddles or hike-a-bikes over disused, boulder-strewn paths on some of the adventurous routes.
Most ride photos and videos likely show the roughest sections, but the bulk of the routes were spent in idylls of contemplation and amiable company. I mostly rode the 55-miler and did my best leapfrogging onto other routes to check in on friends, sprinting ahead to hide in the trees and take photos of the muddy creatures astride their bikes.
Saturday morning’s deluge was over before noon, and many riders returned in time to catch sunshine and fresh pizzas slung by Fire In The Kitchen, a dream of a vendor and regular fixture of the Nutmeg Nor’Easter. Remember that pickup truck with the pizza oven mentioned earlier? Its operation also grew! A total of 440 pizzas were made that evening.
In the spirit of grassroots organization, attendees were invited to host workshops themselves for Saturday night’s sessions; these included a clinic on medicinal plants, the art of spoon carving, and mutual aid mental health. Afterward, Eugene Pak presented Riding Han, a short film he recently directed on processing anti-Asian sentiment and connecting with his brother and childhood best friend on the Tour Divide route. It was a filled cup’s day of warmth, capped off by a dance party, a “borrowed” one-oar rowboat out on the lake, after-hour bonfires with newfound friends, and who knows what other hijinks. We had an unobstructed view of the night sky but were instead treated to a meteor shower of dynamo lights floating through the woods as people rode to or from camp.
After days of rain, sunshine always seems brighter than usual. Unfortunately, I barely have any photos from Sunday due to a defective lens that drained all my camera batteries. There was a speed dating session (I heard there were some sparks!) and the now-classic “scorcher” race, a fixed-gear race around Deer Lake where cheering crowds properly closed out a weekend of community building.
Thank you, Arya and Ron, for helping build such a supportive and vast community. To Pak, for sharing such a personal and vulnerable short film. To MJ, Sal, Molly, Ballz, Jess from Cold Spring Farm, Fire In The Kitchen, and all the other dreamboats who get this dream afloat. The smiles all weekend were testament to the joy felt by all. Another year at Camp Nutmeg can’t come soon enough!