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Dirt Church and Kingdom come: The Mid South’s Bobby Wintle reflects on Rasputitsa

Wintle and other race organizers traveled to Vermont to experience the iconic race's unique vibes.

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I’ve never been to the Kingdom before. As a matter of fact, I’ve never been to any Kingdom. However, all those familiar with the majestic beauty in northeast Vermont are fully aware of what the Kingdom is and why it’s so holy.

I had been close to visiting the Kingdom in 2019 when Crystal and our kids Emory and Elliott and I drove all the way from Oklahoma up to Richmond, Vermont for Laura and Ted King’s inaugural Rooted Vermont. Now, it was time to venture further north, to East Burke and Burke Mountain. I was going to Rasputitsa, the spring classic gravel event held in the Kingdom.

Read also: The resurrection of Rasputitsa

Burke Mountain Ski is the host space for Rasputitsa, nestled up high just a few miles up a gorgeous road from the town of East Burke. The facilities there are fantastic, complete with a restaurant and a fully functioning bar that will serve you a maple Old Fashioned.

rasputitsa
(Photo: JP Clifford Photography )

It had been two years since Rasputitsa race owners/creators/masterminds Heidi Myers and Anthony Moccia stood at the start line of the event they created in 2013. Many things changed over the course of two years for all of us involved in event planning. A lot of things were hard. Not everything that changed was bad, though. One thing that changed for Rasputitsa was the opening of a new business on the 70 and 100k routes of the race.

Welcome to Dirt Church, address: the Kingdom.

On Aug 14th, 2021 after many months of planning, learning, demo, and construction, Anna Cronin and Bruce Lindsay officially opened the doors to Dirt Church Brewing Co, the only brewery in Essex County in northeastern Vermont.

“My partner Bruce purchased the Standard Mission Style Methodist Church property in 2019,” Cronin told me. “The original idea was preservation of the church as an event space. A place to gather. The church was built in 1857 and the property came with just under an acre of land. Think Norman Rockwell 2022, iconography of New England, white church, rolling green hills, red barn in the background, it’s all here. It originally started with the preservation of the church. We were drawn to it because of its role as a community center, a place to gather. This is a very rural and isolated area of the world and the church used to be this gathering place regardless of your religious or personal beliefs. It was where the community came together. And we wanted to preserve that.”

By the time the pandemic hit in 2020, Cronin and Lindsay moved to Vermont to start construction on the brewery building with a new post and beam structure next to the church in the lot where they tore down an old existing structure. They built the brewery building by hand, themselves, with just a little help from a few bottles of Tin Cup. You can see the bottles yourself if you visit the brewery — they’re the light fixtures hanging above the main bar.

rasputitsa
(Photo: JP Clifford Photography )

“Recreation, celebration, preservation.Those are our core values behind Dirt Church.”

Cronin had previously been a professional triathlete and coach and Lindsay an arborist. They met while riding bikes. The idea of their new business not only being a part of Rasputitsa but actually on course was something everyone involved was ecstatic about.

“I fucking love Heidi, for the record,” Cronin said.

I came to learn that there is a sense of vetting that goes on up in the Kingdom. In a protective way. It seems as if people are searching for whether or not your intentions are pure.

If that’s the case, Cronin said, “if you have shared values, you’re in.”

In, as in as part of the family. When Dirt Church Brewing opened, East Haven, VT went from population 290 to 292.

The night before this year’s Rasputitsa, Cronin claims she barely slept. She wanted the experience of the brewery oasis stop on the 70k and 100k routes to be absolutely perfect for the participants, the volunteers, her employees and any spectators just coming to see the event.

Dirt Church brewed the signature beer for Rasputitsa this year called “Rule No. 1 Lager,” and I am sure all of you can guess what the only rule at Rasputitsa is. The Mid South event manager Sally Turner, Truffle Shuffle race director Clare Paniccia, Grounded NE co-founders Susan Cronin and Cait Dumas-Hein, and myself were posted up at Dirt Church for event day. A food truck was on site offering free tiny poutine cups with absolutely delicious local Vermont cheese curds on top. Riders could roll up and grab a Rule No 1. beer for $5 to help them wrap their head around the final 10 miles of the day back up to the ski base to where Heidi was waiting with the infamous “Hells Bell” for finishers to ring.

Dirt Church is at the bottom of an almost three mile dirt descent, and the smiles were big on all the faces coming into the brewery. Cronin and Lindsay had lots of AC/DC jams pumping from the outdoor bar that Bruce tells me was actually built as an “accident.” What a fine accident indeed. A big outdoor gathering space is in the backyard of the brewery with lots of seating and a big bonfire pit hosted riders not worried about a finish time. Cheering and high fives and encouragement and photos all went down throughout the afternoon. Not a single bummer of a moment was had, as far as our crew could tell.

rasputitsa
(Photo: JP Clifford Photography )

The weather was uncharacteristically beautiful for the event and the roads were primo. Hero dirt, if you will. When the sun peeked out from behind the clouds it felt like the day couldn’t be more perfect, especially for April in Vermont. I had visions of insane conditions, rain, snow, wild mud and people coming in with wild stories of everything they’d been through on course that day in the future at the brewery stop.

The impact of positivity that Rasputitsa fills the Kingdom and East Burke and East Haven, VT with seemed deeper than ever from both hope and a financial perspective.

“This was a really tough mud season and we’ve come off a really slow time frame through Covid winters,” Cronin said.

The influx of 2000 or more riders was felt at Dirt Church and also at the local coffee and breakfast joint Cafe Lotti. “This is the weekend where it all turns on. We go from almost zero to completely packed overnight and Rasputitsa is the start of the cycling tourism season,” said the cafe’s co-owners Johnny and Linda Lotti.

The Sunday after Rasputitsa was the official opening date of a handful of the Kingdom Trails singletrack sections in the area. In the summertime, the Kingdom can expect upwards of 1000 visitors/riders per day thanks to the 100+ miles of singletrack in the system.

Gathering. It’s a word I keep coming back to this year. Gathering. When gathering happens with like minded individuals who understand the value and have a shared vision of what life can and should look like, something very very beautiful happens. The pretense of life gets pushed to the side and individuals are allowed to be fully themselves. Celebration at its most pure level is possible.

rasputitsa
(Photo: JP Clifford Photography )

Anna Cronin and Bruce Lindsay are currently building a dream of a space where anyone can gather. Anyone is welcome. Anyone can celebrate. This most certainly is in direct alignment with the ethos and love that Heidi and Anthony have created and continue to sustain Rasputitsa. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Together we are heavy. Together we are beautiful. Together we can help each other remember just exactly why this life is so damn beautiful and worth living and exploring. Rasputitsa and Dirt Church are giving us a reason to push ourselves physically and giving us a place to gather and celebrate. There isn’t much more that I need in this life. It was an honor to be invited to the Kingdom, to help with Rasputitsa, and to visit the Dirt Church. These are the gatherings I always want to attend.