We have been away for a few weeks, neglecting the blog and visiting friends in Vermont, and the trip only reinforced for me one simple fact about the state. That is:
There are two Vermonts.
The first is populated by carpenters, insurance salesmen, teachers, store owners and truck drivers. It is spread out over the whole state in well-lived-in homes. The people go to work in the morning and come home to their families in the evening. They worry about money, about the kids, whether the alternator on the Ford needs replacing and if it’s going to be a hard winter. (It is).
They live in one of the nation’s most beautiful states, covered with green trees on green mountains. Water rolls down rocks and courses through rivers. In the fall, it flames out like a bonfire.
But there is that other Vermont, too. And you run into it too often. It is concentrated in a few congested areas. It is a Vermont of shopping for souvenirs, a Vermont of “Old Country Stores” and “Village Inns.” It is a simulacrum of a Vermont that some people like to pretend once existed: It is now made manifest and you can buy maple syrup there, and cheese wheels — or miniature wheels, anyway, since no one really wants 10 or 20 pounds of cheddar stinking up the trunk of their car.
This second Vermont is a designer Vermont and they take Visa. You can see it in towns like Woodstock and Queechee, where parking is the first concern of town planning. The buildings all have glossy new coats of paint and you have to look close to see if it isn’t really vinyl siding.
This is a Disneyland version of New England: There is the tall-steepled church in the center of town, the old post office, town meeting hall and the old country store: Usually a half dozen of them, with large parking lots.
A sure indication you should avoid them: Stay away from anything with the words “old” and “country” blazoned on its front. Like the Old-Tyme Country Frozen Yogurt stand.
Take my word for it, no old-line Vermonter is going to do his shopping in a store where, when you open the front door, you are asphyxiated with the odor of potpourri.
The Vermont Country Store in Weston is a wonderful place to spend money, if that is your idea of fun. But it is about as close to the community stores of Vermont’s past as the computer is to the abacus. It pretends to be one of those village dry goods stores, but inside, it spreads out the size of a Walmart. There are toys, candles, maple syrup in bottles shaped like maple leaves; there are sweaters, watch caps, rubber boots, all emblazoned with the logo of the store, or the iconic maple leaf, or something cute, like “Mom and Dad went to Vermont and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
And, of course, the “world’s greatest dad” coffee mug.
And everything for at least twice the price you could buy it elsewhere, if you even had the bad taste to want to buy such stuff.
And then, there are the shopping malls, with their factory outlet shops. I know when I want gourmet kitchen tools, Vermont is the first thing that pops into my mind. You can’t leave without an air-operated wine corker or a stainless-steel spaghetti spoon.
The great difference between the first and second Vermonts is that the first is nearly empty. You can drive for miles without bumping into any traffic more intense than a farm tractor pulling a hayrick into a field or a propane delivery truck pulling out of its lot.
But in the second Vermont, it is bumper to bumper with Volvos and Lexuses (or is that Lexi?) People leave their teeming cities behind for a relaxing vacation in rural villages teeming with city dwellers. There are kids with ice cream dripping on their Nikes, wives looking for the perfect butter mold — as if they ever made butter in their lives — and husbands trying on “I (heart) Vermont” ballcaps.
Those tourist towns want to pretend they are a remnant of a lost time. A time when all grandmothers made gingerbread and all schools had just one room; a time when life was simpler and boys pulled girls’ pigtails. And every bit of it a lie.
I’m reminded of this once again, as we traveled to Vermont this month to visit friends who grew up there on what was once a farm but is now a group of sublots with new houses on them. She complains of the traffic on the gravel road in front of her house, when cars go by on the average of once every 35 minutes or so.
And it is autumn, and the hill opposite her house is electrified by birches and maples turned neon. And there is a dry, cold bite to the air. And we cannot help but think, this is as close to paradise as you can get on this planet. As long as you avoid the tourists.