A Trip to Vermont is Good for the Soul

Not everything that's good for your soul makes sense. That's why, yesterday, we found ourselves heading north through the predawn fog for a 3-½ hour drive to have breakfast at Klinger's, a South Burlington, Vermont bakery. That was followed by a hike in Red Rocks Park, a stroll down Burlington's Church Street Marketplace, a drive to Montpelier to have a late brunch at the New England Culinary Institute, then the southward journey home broken only by a brief peak into Queechee Gorge. That's about it–seven hours driving for a cinnamon meltaway, some lakeside exercise, window-shopping, and brunch. And it was the best thing we've done in months.

I admit to being a total romantic about Vermont. It's little exaggeration to say that we spent the first quarter century of our lives in Pennsylvania, but that we "grew up" in the eight years we lived in northern Vermont. We were there when Ben & Jerry's made ice cream in a refurbished downtown Burlington gas station, when Bernie Sanders was mayor, when IBM ruled Essex Junction, when First Night debuted, when traffic was banned from Church Street, when baseball returned to the Queen City, when you tripped over downtown bookstores, and Woolworth's and Grand Union were the only chain stores in evidence. In Vermont we held the first professional jobs we actually enjoyed, helped run a folk club, ate the first fresh bagels that ever passed our lips, and both played like kids and took on our first adult responsibilities.

But nostalgia isn't why yesterday's back-numbing road trip felt so good. It's because a trip to Vermont is life affirming. There is, of course, its jaw-dropping beauty. If you've forgotten what awe feels like, drive through the Ascutney region as the sun is coming up and the mist is swirling round the base of its peaks like volcanoes being filled from the bottom. Watch patches of distant hillsides emerge from their veils of morning condensation illumined in October glory. Vermonters will tell you that this year hasn't been great for foliage, but they say that every year, and you can just nod your head whilst recalling that one shapely maple you saw–afire in red perfection, a prima donna strutting its stuff among its yellowed neighbors. And there's just not much in this world that compares to walking upon a Lake Champlain peninsula to behold the Green Mountains rising across the blue expanse to the east and the Adirondacks to the west.

Vermont also feels like a place where America still works. It's a state where they grade your civil service exam on the spot, and one where they don't refer problems to some damn city planning board when a road washes out–they just dump loads of gravel on it and complain about it at Town Meeting Day in March, like sensible people should do. You see young women wearing Sorrel boots, not Uggs, because the latter make no friggin' sense. Flannel is a matter of pragmatism, not affectation. You hear people talking politics, but without the self-righteous pretension and humorlessness of neighboring Massachusetts. Vermonters manage to be both crankily insular and civic-minded at the same time. Most of the Vermonters I know don't get lathered up about gay marriage, abortion, and other such nonsense because they think it's nobody's business what others do and that government ought to be there to remind busybodies to MYOB. Come 2016, Vermonters will give a Sorrel boot to both for-profit medicine and Obamacare when they put into place what the rest of America has needed for decades but doesn't have the guts to enact: single-payer health care.

I'm romantic about Vermont, but I'm not blind. It's not Utopia. No place with winters that long and that hard can be Utopia. I know there's way too much poverty up there, that the state has some serious drug problems, and that University of Vermont is one of the most expensive state universities in the nation because Vermont does a lousy job of raising and allocating money for public education. I've seen Corporate Generica erode Burlington's downtown uniqueness and witnessed plagues of Yuppies swarming at every hillside steep enough to support a ski lift. Green Mountain Coffee and Long Trail Beer are undrinkable.

For all its faults, though, I feel my tension levels drop and my spirits rise each time I cross the Vermont line. One bite of a Klinger's meltaway or glimpse of Champlain's cold waters replenishes me. Seven hours driving seems a small price to pay.

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