Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Keeping It Weird in Vermont

Coming soon to a car near you, the latest in bumper stickers:

"Keep Vermont Weird."

It's a sign of how different Vermont really is -- and how disturbingly homogenized the rest of the country is getting -- that some of us have to proclaim the need to protect our uniqueness.

How weird is Vermont?

Some of the obvious differentiators are gay marriage, a socialist U.S. senator and locally, a spectacularly wrongheaded campaign to construct a monument in the middle of the new Middlebury roundabout. The two of these make Vermont delightfully different, and the third is just plain weird.

Beyond the obvious, though, sometimes you have to look a little harder to find true weirdness in the Green Mountain State.

Yet after a couple of weeks out of town on vacation, I can assure you that we are obviously quite different from our brethren and sister-en in other New England states.
My group’s travels late last month across northern New England began with an eight-hour trek to Mount Desert and the island country around Acadia National Park -- relieved only by a yuppie-style stop for overpriced premium food items at the Portland Whole Foods.

We arrived on Mount Desert the same day as the Obamas flew in for their brief weekend respite. Their casual drop-in at The Club was all the locals could talk about.
I confess I was a bit disappointed that neither POTUS nor the First Missus dropped by our place to say hello.

But perhaps it's just as well. Every time I have to deal with the Secret Service, they seem to dig up even more embarrassing information about my youthful indiscretions.
And because most of the Secret Service agents are a lot younger than I am, it takes a long time to explain to them that back then, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll were considered normal rather than aberrational.

Once the Obama's went back to World Domination and Saving the U.S. Congress for Democrats, we settled in for some serious relaxing.

Coastal Maine has to be one of the prettiest places on the planet. But it's vacation-spiffed exterior lacks any of Vermont's weird soulfulness. Everything but the lobster pounds is too squeaky clean. Top-Sider boat shoes and pink Bermuda shorts seem to be de rigueur even in the smallest towns.

Our group of 10 escaped the vacationing masses by sticking close to our waterfront abode, where the teenage girls in our party posed for photos and the sub-teenage boys played "War" by shooting plastic pellets at each other with disturbingly lifelike toy guns.
When those activities paled, we took to climbing some of the local mountains. We capped these trips by stopping for lobster rolls at dockside restaurants redolent with the smell of rotting crustaceans, punctuated by the buzz of flies and the roar of lobster boat motors.

The sun shone, the lobster was fresh. We were beer-buzzed and happy.

A truly gigantic bald eagle made several appearances in the little bay where our rental house was perched. One evening, two Windjammer schooners in the middle distance made their way toward Pretty Marsh Harbor.

But as Vermonters who are accustomed to a more off-kilter daily existence, we felt all too normal in Maine. Our house rental at an end, four of us exited for eastern Vermont, to spend a week house-sitting for a friend in her high mountain perch above the Connecticut River Valley.

The eastern edge of the state is one I've rarely seen, and it does contain some wonderful weirdness.

Perhaps the best part was the Tea Party activist farmer who has gone to a great deal of effort to spread his maniacal messages on the Route 25 exit of Interstate 91. The general import of his handpainted signs is that the Democrats in Washington are hogs and it’s time to get their snouts out of the trough.

The pièce de résistance were the 14 white plastic manure containers that he had spray-painted, each with an individual letter on it, to spell out, "Thank You Arizona."

Apparently illegal immigration on the Mexican border, 2,200 miles away, is a much greater threat to Vermont than most of us had realized.

Or one might simply conclude that this message of gratitude to Arizona was just an exterior reflection of what was inside the manure containers.

From our mountain vacation spot, our daytime excursions included spending way too much for blue jeans at a nifty dress shop in Montpelier, plus a foray into Live Free or Die Country, across the river in Hanover, N.H.

It says all you need to know about Hanover today, that the former home of the chabby-chic Peter Christian’s Tavern is now occupied by a burrito fast-food chain.

Descending those steps into the basement that once held that magnificently stylish dive bar – which in its time was second only to The Alibi in Middlebury -- I felt a pang of sadness at the passing of a Hanover institution.

But I was hungry, so I had a burrito anyway.

Hanover itself seems to have become the opposite of weird, such a bizarre facsimile of normal that it's become weird again.

You get the sense that Hanover residents who fail to cut their deeply green lawns at least once a week will be carted off to Preppie Jail, with their release contingent upon making a large donation to Dartmouth College.

At day’s end, I was relieved to make it back across the state line from Hanover into Vermont, to visit the general store in Fairlee where two black cats rule the roost of a creaky wooden porch.

The store’s used-book section has old Kurt Vonnegut novels for 50 cents, down the aisle from a slowly deteriorating stuffed bobcat and other replicas of dead creatures.

Just the kind of weird juxtaposition to make a Vermonter feel at home again.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just visited Vermont and found it weird too. I am used to being able to buy liquor after 8:00 pm and to eat dinner after 7:00. Really, even the major tourist sites close at 5:00 or 5:30, if they are really pushing it. Stayed in a small town, right on a lake. Deathly quiet after 9:00. Heard one dog bark in 2 weeks and not one insect made a sound. How do you teach the frogs not to croak and the crickets not to chirp? Most all the houses went black as soon as the sun went down and the sound of even a car was rare. Was very glad to get back to my country house in Michigan, that was alive with night sounds and being able to feel that the world doesn't end at 9:00. Even the stupid yapping poodles, across my stretch of woods was a welcome relief.

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