A Yankee Notebook

May 9, 2016


MONTPELIER – We like to take road trips whenever we can, Mother and I. It’s something we can still do together; and my driving must be improving with age, because she spends much less time these days gasping and clutching at the passenger-side grab handles than she used to, and even naps now and then for fairly long stretches at a time. Thus, near the end of a long winter we may head south to the battlefields of Virginia and Maryland for a few days

On special occasions, like Mother’s Day, Mother’s birthday, or our anniversary, we used to take road trips through southern France. We’re less able to do that now; the stress of driving in high-speed convoys with hundreds of crazy men who, unlike me, know where they’re going and specialize in shouted French imprecations like Imbecile! and Idiot! has become a bit heavy. And I haven’t yet gotten over the major faux pas I made on our last trip: filling our little diesel car’s tank with petrol.

So we pretty much stick with domestic safaris – a long weekend in our old home town in the Adirondacks; an overnight run to the coast of Maine, after Labor Day, for lobster; and now and then a foray across the border for a brief bit of French elegance in the Eastern Townships.

We went this past weekend of Mother’s Day to Manoir Hovey, built originally around 1900 as the summer home of Henry Atkinson, a wealthy Atlantan, and now a five-star inn. Its design imitates the colonnaded porch of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Many Southern fortunes survived the American Civil War; but their owners refused afterward to vacation as they had before, in New England, the home of their recent antagonists. So they leapfrogged us and built their often-lavish retreats in Southeastern Quebec. Legend suggests that, as their private railroad cars crossed New England, they had the window shades lowered to blot out the hated sight.

However that was then, the manoir is a lovely place now: wonderful food, elegant ambiance, and an incredibly attentive and solicitous staff – from parking boy to after-lunch coffee guy – who seemed delighted to be of service to the mob of families out for the day and escorting meres and grand-meres of vastly varying ages. We lingered as long as we could and headed once again for the border and our home territory.

I never can drive very far through Vermont without being struck by its diversity – arboreal, geomorphic, and ethnic. It’s different from New Hampshire on its one side and from New York on its other. Near the Canadian border, where the rivers flow north, it opens up into wide-sweeping rounded hills, much like Central New York’s, classic examples of the transforming work of continental ice sheets. Around the state capital, the hills are more sudden and intimate and the valleys more deeply incised. When the streams flood in the Kingdom, they spread out across their flood plains; here in Montpelier, they submerge a downtown parking lot and a major intersection.  If Mother and I drive south on I-91, as we do a few times a year, to visit my old school in the Connecticut Valley, we follow roughly the 400 million-year-old line of the crumple zone between the Eurasian tectonic plate and the Proto-North American. The creamy granite volcanic plug of Mount Ascutney looms above us, and the road cuts glisten with chlorite-green metamorphic schist. It’s got little in common with the White River Valley  or the Battenkill Valley. The same is true of Manchester and Hardwick: Their 05 postal genus is the same, but not their species.

And yet to many people from away, Vermont is a sugarbush – or a ski resort – or a tony shopping center – or a rugged 270-mile hiking trail – or a nest of hippy liberals.  I get that last one a lot from my right-wing Facebook pals, with whom I clash occasionally over their most indigestible comments (strictly for recreation, as nobody’s mind is ever changed). There’s a modicum of truth in all those characterizations of what Calvin Coolidge called “our brave little state.” But it’s a bit frustrating to be thought of as a collection of 600,000 vegan socialists.

Recently I got this sneering bit from a gun-toting pal in southern New York: “I see you’re taking in a few hundred Syrian refugees. Are you going to put them up in your barn?” It would have done no good to respond that Rutland is a long way from Montpelier in more ways than one. Besides, in another way, it isn’t; we’re all in this same little state between two valleys. And an answer citing our humanitarian obligation to comfort the widows and orphans would have elicited scorn, sarcasm, warnings about being slaughtered in our beds, or comments about outrageous taxes and the unmet needs of our own citizens. So I played along with his fantasy of Vermont being a tight little family, and asked why in the world we’d put up refugees in the barn when we’ve a perfectly good bed-sitting room right here in the house. I knew he’d have to look up “bed-sitting room” on Google, which might slow him down a little. Which, apparently, it did.

It would be easy to believe Vermont is often referred to sarcastically because everybody else is envious of us. I wouldn’t blame any of them. Forty-fifth of the states in size (New Hampshire is slightly smaller) and 49th in population (New Hampshire has twice as many people and only Wyoming fewer), we’re free to experiment with solutions to problems as they arise. Politicians who try to frighten us – as some in the current gubernatorial campaign are – have failed to reckon with Vermonters’ distaste for hyperbole. The campaign of Jack McMullen vs. the inimitable late Fred Tuttle springs irresistibly to mind. Our state legislative process is rarely exciting, usually cautious, and often downright dull. But it does “get ‘er done” when it needs to. So on our road trips to Plymouth or Tunbridge, I always silently tip my hat to Calvin and Fred.

Photo by Willem lange