If ever there was an “all American” place, it is Vermont. That is not to say it’s the most “all American” or only “all American” place, but it certainly qualifies for the list. Vermont was the home of the great American poet, Robert Frost, and that most American of illustrators, Norman Rockwell. It was the birthplace of two American Presidents, Chester A. Arthur and Calvin Coolidge.
Vermont was the inspiration for the jazz classic, “Moonlight In Vermont,” the location for the fictional Bing Crosby - Rosemary Clooney film “White Christmas,” and the real-life home of the Von Trapp family of “The Sound Of Music” fame, who re-located to Stowe, Vermont after escaping Nazi-controlled Austria. It’s easy to see why they settled there. Stowe is about as close as one can get to an Austrian landscape without a passport.
Vermont is a place of uncommon beauty; in summer, every leaf seems to glisten in the sun; in fall, it’s green hills turn fiery red, orange and gold with quite possibly the most spectacular autumn foliage in the world; in winter, it is a wonderland worthy of an old-fashioned Christmas card. In spring, Vermont awakens to the birth of new life, in flora and fauna, as snow-driven streams rush to fill summer rivers, where local kids jump into their favorite swimming hole, then stretch out in the sun on granite boulders; ancient stone reminders of a day when retreating glaciers carved the valleys.
Vermont truly is the “Green State” in every sense of the word. The area was first dubbed “Vermont” (“Green Mountain”) by the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, in 1609, when he claimed Vermont as part of New France. The Green Mountains occupy a significant portion of the state, which is thickly forested. It’s rolling hills are dotted with dairy farms with picturesque red barns and grain silos, producing some of the finest milk, cheese, and ice cream anywhere. Not surprisingly, Waterbury, Vermont is the home of “Ben and Jerry’s,” a company that embodies at once the state’s dairy history, as well as it’s fun, progressive, innovative side. Entrepreneurship is alive and well in Vermont; a sign on a Brattleboro storefront reads “We support people who do what they love.”
In winter, when the sap is running, Vermont is the largest producer of maple syrup in the U.S. For my wife Marion and me, a New England winter would not be complete without a trip to the “Sugar House” to stock up on enough syrup for the year. It’s a prime ingredient in Marion’s famous “Walmsley Granola.”
The “Green State” appellation extends to Vermont’s environmental record as well. In 2015, Burlington became the first city in the nation to run entirely on renewable energy. Solar, wind, even “cow” power - fuel derived from cow manure - are in wide-spread use here. Hey, wide-spread…manure… not bad, huh? Okay, never mind. In Vermont, even the license plates are green.
Marion and I spent the first half of August here as part of this year’s “Walmsley New England Summer Sojourn.” We arrived in our trusty camper, “Rocinante,” with our faithful, feathered companions, Charlie and Sissi (see the earlier blog, “Travels With Charlie and Sissi”). We always refer to the Vermont leg of the trip as the “Beer and Cheese Tour” as there are so many craft breweries, farms and creameries to visit that we barely manage to make a dent. That’s probably a good thing, too. If it weren’t for all the swimming, hiking, and cycling we’ve been doing, by now we’d be too fat to fit through the camper door.
About ten days ago, Marion and I visited the idyllic hamlet of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, birthplace of Calvin Coolidge. This picture postcard town consists of a handful of white clapboard buildings built in the 1800’s - a post office and general store (once owned and run by Coolidge’s father) with a cabin - Coolidge’s birthplace - attached at the rear; a large barn, a restaurant, a cheese store, and, opposite the cabin, the Coolidge homestead, where President Coolidge continued to spend summers until the end of his life. This particular day, we were running late. We still planned to stop at the old Coolidge family graveyard around the corner, but had neglected to eat lunch, so we stopped at the restaurant and ordered a couple of ice cream cones to go. I’m always interested to meet people, especially when we travel, and I often try to learn something about them. People who work at tourist sights, in particular, tend to ask us where we are visiting from. We tell them we live in Maine; that we moved there a couple of years ago from Southern California. That usually gets the conversation rolling. Many people have stories about California, and often they’re curious why we left there for New England. The ice cream lady was no exception.
“I was in California, in the Navy,” she said, “stationed in San Diego.”
“That was the first place my family lived when we moved from England,” I replied.
“Where did you live?” she asked, packing two scoops of raspberry-vanilla into a waffle cone.
“A bunch of places. First, Mission Bay, up the hill from the beach.”
“I was stationed in Coronado,” she continued. “Then I lived in Chula Vista, then we moved to North Park”
(I knew North Park a little. It’s an artsy, diverse, eclectic neighborhood with turn-of-the-century Craftsman Bungalows, coffee-houses, cafes, boutiques, craft breweries, and a second-hand clothes store - a great area to hang out in, I thought).
“We didn’t know we moved in next to a crack house.”
“Oh… that’s too bad.”
“Yeah. It was the eighties. Of course, then we had the faggots, the gooks and the beaners.”
I almost dropped my ice cream.
“I guess I shouldn’t say that. But that’s what it was…” she drifted off.
It wasn’t just her words that repulsed me. It was the offhand, casual ease with which they slithered from her mouth.
Over the course of the next few days, I couldn’t get the conversation with the ice cream lady out of my head. I regretted that I hadn’t confronted her. I wondered if it would have done any good. I thought about some of my friends back in California - gay, Asian, Mexican-American and others. How would this have made them feel? A few days later, a white - supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in violence and a young woman was killed. I wondered what the ice cream lady would have said about that.
As we continued our trip through the lush countryside, Marion and I often made detours onto the smaller roads. Many times, the pavement ended, and we continued on hard-packed dirt and gravel. On one mountain road, I made a joke about hearing banjos. It was a stupid joke, but it turned out to be prophetic. Coming down the mountain, we came into a small town. I began to see crude, hand-painted signs on run-down houses. “Take Back Vermont,” said one. “Our town - still Muslimfree,” read another. We didn’t stop for ice cream.
It would be foolish to think of these experiences as a reflection on Vermont or Vermonters as a whole, just as it would be foolish to think of the Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville as a reflection on America as a whole. This is a time when America will be judged by it’s ability to stand on it’s convictions in upholding the ideals it was founded on; a time for leaders in politics and big business to call out hate, prejudice, bigotry, and violence when it occurs, without regard for votes or profit. Years from now, hindsight will show who stood on the right side of history. One thing’s for certain: racism in America is an issue that isn’t going to go away any time soon. It’s just a damn shame that, in 2017, it has to be an issue at all.
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Older blog posts include:
The Making of 'Goin' To Clarksdale'