Saturday March 31, 2012

Sit down to talk with Joe Cook about biking -- about, say, his nearly completed quest to ride his bicycle on every paved road on the Vermont state highway map -- and see if you don’t end up biking along the Danube.

Or across Iowa.

Or from Vancouver to Martha’s Vineyard.

Or breaking a cross-country ski trail through six feet of fresh snow in the Rocky Mountains on a family vacation.

Or hiking the Appalachian Trail (80th person to do so, in 1972) and skiing the Catamount Trail (49th person to do so, in 2012).

Or even taking possibly the cutest spring lamb in all of New England to visit residents at Hilltop House, Thompson House, and Holton Home.

"Oh, and see that picture, there?" Joe, an attorney specializing in estate planning with Corum Mabie Cook Prodan Angell & Secrest in Brattleboro, points to one of four framed photos in a corner of his light, simple office. Behind him, a pert white lamb looks from his desktop computer screen.

"That was one of the times I was in Iowa, a ride sponsored by the Des Moines Register, which started it almost 40 years ago. There were a couple of reporters who decided to bike across the state and they asked, ‘Anyone want to join us?’ More and more did each year, and now there are 12,000 official entrants, around 20,000 total doing the ride, about 70 miles a day. Now, can you imagine the economic impact on all those small towns? What you really come away with, though, is a sense of the genuineness of the people."

He leans over and rummages through a sturdy, rectangular pack that he affectionately calls his "man-purse." In the snapshot he pulls out, he’s wearing a green tie-dyed shirt, bike shorts and helmet, standing next to Lance Armstrong.

"Here’s the picture, too. I was in Iowa. Our team was called Arrested Development. This was before the television show! We saw Lance Armstrong’s bus, and I went up to the people and told them I had a big check for his foundation and asked if he was around. They said, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but he’s going to be here in a minute or two.’ That’s how that happened!"

Joe Cook talks in paragraphs. He talks in gushing, cheerful, curious paragraphs that whir themselves into new territory, report back what they’ve seen, and roll out into the wilderness again.

That’s the same way Joe rides his bike, and hikes, and skis, and grows vegetables, and raises sheep, and generally, it seems, that’s the way he lives.

Growing up in Darien, Conn., Joe wasn’t necessarily destined to be an avid outdoorsman, logging thousands of miles on expeditions all over the world. His father a banker in New York City, his mother running the household, Joe might have easily strolled a smooth suburban route in his adult life.

Time as a Boy Scout (he eventually became an Eagle Scout) and trips to the White Mountains with an uncle turned him toward the outdoors. By the time he and his wife, Debbie, whom he has known since eighth grade, graduated from college in 1975, they knew they wanted to live in Vermont.

A stint as trail workers on Camel’s Hump was nearly followed by a move to Canaan in the far northeast corner of the state, where Debbie had found work as a bilingual teaching assistant.

In 1976, however, just before they moved, Joe landed a job with the Brattleboro branch of First Vermont Bank. In this way, he began walking in his father’s shoes rather than his well-worn hiking boots.

For 18 years, Joe worked as a banker. He skied and hiked and bicycled and raised two sons with Debbie. Then, at the age of 40, he decided he wanted to be a lawyer.

"Oh, and here’s a story. After the first semester at Vermont Law School I got the bill for the second semester, which was due before grades came out. So I’m there with all these bright kids, these Ivy League kids, and I’m thinking, ‘No way, this was the biggest mistake I ever made.’ I went to the registrar and told her I was sure I’d be the first student in the history of VLS to flunk out. I was sure of it. She said, ‘Maybe you did better than you think.’

"So I wrote the check, and took the final exams. What a waste, I thought. Just a waste of money. Well, then I got my grades.

"Top of my class. Made law review. In three years I missed three days, only for job interviews."

Joe smiles. He still looks happy at the memory, and he still looks stunned.

He’s been in his current position since 2002, though no matter where he has worked, he’s ridden his bike from his Dummerston home to work and back as often as possible.

Really, he bikes every day as much as possible, even serving as president of the Putney Bicycle Club.

"Oh, and I found that over the years I’ve led a lot of north-south trips through the state. What about the east-west roads? So I decided to bike every paved road on the Vermont state highway map."

He unfolds a worn map, completed routes marked in yellow, and traces his finger through Windham County, veined with roads, over the Green Mountains to spare Bennington County, skipping up to Essex County, a tract of white ringed with yellow.

"I’ve just got Franklin, Lamoille and Grand Isle left. It’s a race against time, at this point, as I’m 58 years old. I joined the 251 Club -- to be a member you just have to intend to visit all 251 towns in Vermont -- and when I’m done I’ll have visited all but three, which don’t have any paved roads.

He grins.

"So next I’ll do all the unpaved roads!"

He folds the map carefully, talking now about his yearly tradition of bringing a lamb from his flock to visit residents of Brattleboro’s three nursing homes; the lack of progressive care facilities in Windham County; his upcoming month-long trip through Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, and Romania; the bike trip he took from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groat’s in the northeast corner of Scotland, culminating with the first stage of the Tour de France in London; the pleasures of socializing during the Putney Bicycle Club’s Tuesday rides; and his second cousin Howard Dean.

He rests his elbows on his desk. He’s got a conference call in a few minutes to help plan for his and Debbie’s 40th high school reunion in Darien, to which he will probably bike.

"That’s sort of me," he says. And with simple grace, he brings the long ride home:

"I like to talk and I like to ride my bike."