Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Monday, October 20, 2003  

Back from Vermont, and I'm pleased to see that the house had neither been broken into nor burned down. Also, it appears that the government has also weathered the five days I didn't monitor it--no impeachments or lethal duels, it seems. Fancy that.

But let's get right to the important stuff: you're no doubt dying for a report on the foliage. As you may recall, I was dubious about all this foliage business--official reports, breathless news of peak, near-peak, pre-peak, and late peak leaf color, fetishistic fawning (and let us not discuss the noun "peepers"--those who peep at the pre-peak leaf). I mean, a lot of us live in the north; are Vermont's leaves really so hot?

(On the edge of your seat, aren't you?)

I have to punt. We flew into a windstorm buffetting New England last Wednesday, and it shook down most of the leaves. Anyway, that's what locals swore the next day. (The official news was far more positive: "Foresters from Burlington, Middlebury, Rutland, Bennington, Springfield and Brattleboro areas report all low elevations are near or at peak with plenty of locations where the color couldn't possibly be better.") It makes you wonder: Vermont's supposed to have the best leaves and the best maple syrup, and yet it's just a tiny sliver of land surrounded by other states that might make similar claims. Are the leaves in upstate New York inferior? Is New Hampshire maple syrup really less sweet? It led me to conclude, privately (though less so now), that Vermont did indeed excel: at marketing.

But no matter, Vermont does rock, if not for the reasons the tourist board claims. It rocks principally because of its essential nature--and how different that nature is from anything out here in the west.

Age. All right, this is a gimme, right? Of course New England can play the trump card of historical relevance on the west: when Lewis and Clark were huddled out in the rain in Fort Clatsop, most of Vermont's towns had already been inhabited for a half-century or more. But it's not just that the buildings of Vermont are older. They are. In the town I stayed in, most of them dated to between 1810-1850. Rather, it's that all the buildings are old. Drive through a small Oregon town, and there will be a historic downtown with several 100-year-old buildings. This will be surrounded by successive rings of new, trashy construction, which, near the freeway, will become a neon-bright run of fast-food restaurants. Drive south from Burlington along the old highways (100 is a good choice), and you will see nary a fast food restaurant for a hudred miles.

Size. A characteristic all Easterners notice when they arrive in the West (particularly the Intermountain West) is the pioneer spirit. The opposite is true of Vermont. One is immediately aware of being in a small state surrounded by larger, more powerful states. Far from the small towns feeling an inexorable pull toward the cities, Vermont has the feel of cultivated ruralness. Although the mountains are really just hills and the forests have the cultured quality of a Japanese garden, Vermont has encouraged a sense of outdoorsiness. But it's not wild. In Oregon, if you live in Wallowa County in the NE corner of the state, you are three hours from Portland, Boise, and Spokane.

Wealth. Small towns in the West are grindingly poor, or are fake boutique communities surviving on tourism. In neither case do you find residents of wealth or influence. In the west, the only seats of power are cities, and this causes an almost universal imbalance socially and politically. In Vermont you get the sense that's not true. People who earn their fortune in the cities retire to Vermont. Nobody retires in Burns, Oregon. A big part of why there are no McDonald's (I speculate) is that the wealthy who have chosen an 1825 farmhouse next to a dairy farm across the covered bridge from the historic township don't want the gauche yellow of McDonald's destroying their view.

I didn't realize that this kind of America still existed. The foliage was cool, if a bit oversold. The syrup was good, if no better than the Maine syrup favored by my Mainer spouse. But these intact, unsullied small towns, those were something to see.

posted by Jeff | 5:56 PM |
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