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At first coffee on the morning of September 11, 2001 I was in the New York offices of Outward Bound, serving as president of the non-profit that promotes the merits of character development and self-discovery through outdoor challenges and adventure. By mid-morning I had asked the staff to go home to be with families and to find some time to be outdoors. I stayed and worked for the next several days and weeks, to sort out the confusion that enveloped every organization and household during that spell.
Come November it was time to steal out, to seek some personal clarity and reflection, and so I turned north, to Vermont, the most rural state in the nation. I spent a week between the clean lines of Killington and Stowe, and came back renewed and recharged, and with new resolve. Boy, did I feel good. I quit Outward Bound a few weeks later, and moved back west to be close to the earth of family and friends. The Vermont afterglow lasted for some time and fueled a raft of agreeable life choices.
Not long ago, in the wake of Sandy and Newtown; of Lance and Pink Slime; of the agitations in Egypt, Mali and Algeria, I confessed to a friend, a brain scientist, that I was feeling a bit unnerved. Living in Los Angeles I felt a poverty of the senses; the stifling of authentic exposure. I shared my experiences of a dozen years ago in Vermont, and how I wished I could recapture that sense of calm and brightness.
“You’re suffering from Vermont Deficit Disorder,” he explained. “But there is a cure.”
VIDEO: Vermont Deficit Disorder
A few days later I land in Burlington, ready for another week-long dose of Vitamin V.
At the baggage carousel I sense some stress swelling as I jab around futilely for change to rent a luggage cart, until a stranger offers one up… “They’re free,” she smiles. As are the rocking chairs overlooking the runway and the Wi-Fi. There’s even a yoga room in the terminal. I could be happy just vacationing in the airport.
There’s always some anxiety in choosing a place to stay when traveling, but a friend recommended a new B&B called Made INN Vermont, a quirkily restored 1881 Victorian mansion, just up the hill from downtown. Linda, the owner, bounds down the stairs, and offers up a spiked hot chocolate and decanters of personal warmth. She’s eclectic as the appointments, shelves of out-of-print art books, vintage games and puzzles, kitschy toys and bibelots, two plump and fuzzy resident cats (Cutie Kitty and Casey Boy), cascades of Vermont-made maple candies, cookies, syrups, ciders, popcorn, cheesecake, even cotton candy and an endless mix of re-purposed, antique and modern tchotchkes, though mercifully no potpourri or lace doilies in sight. The swarming walls remind me of the scene in “The Usual Suspects” when Dave Kujan, the U.S. Customs agent, scans the walls and sees that Verbal Kint concocted his elaborate story from the adorning items. One could concoct a film festival here.
Linda tours me about, including the widow’s walk, a room with a view of Lake Champlain, where she cryptidly claims you can occasionally spot Champ, the giant serpentine monster, cousin to Loch Ness, reported since the Iroquois and the Abenaki relaxed along these waters.
My room, 905, sprawls like an overstuffed armchair, offering up a working record player with a selection of vinyl LPs from my high-school years (Stan Getz; Soundtrack to Easy Rider, Little Feat), nightstands fashioned from djembe drums and colored disco lights under the bed. Yes, I am seeking restoration, dialing back to perhaps a simpler era, and this may be my hot tub time machine.
After settling in I decide to walk to town for some nourishment, and Linda recommends the locally-made flatbread. The Vermont night air is brisk, crisp and bracing. On the tree-lined stroll I feel the tension scurrying up and out of me. Shoulders unclench. The restorative power of Vermont is kicking in. I’d worked not long ago for Microsoft and Yahoo, and felt the noose of technology tighten; but here, now, it is looping away. The best antidote to too much electronic immersion is an increase in Vermont body contact, unplugged from devices, but plugged into the deep time of the Green Mountain State. It is for some a scandalous idea: the more high-tech we become, the more we need Vermont.
The morning next, after a breakfast of Vermont eggs, local cheese, maple bacon and cinnamon raisin French toast, I pack the car and ready for the trip.
One of my goals is to drive the mythic Route 100, from the foot of Vermont to the top, so from Burlington, in the northwest, I make a leisurely jaunt south towards the starting block. I don’t get far, though, before pulling into one of Vermont’s tourist lodestones, Ben & Jerry’s, outside of Waterbury. For ice cream lovers, this is a pilgrimage and an inspiration. Who could not be encouraged by the story of two hippies who paid $5 for an extension course on how to make ice cream, then set up shop in an abandoned gas station and soon after were making dollops of money — and headlines as a socially conscious corporation that supported everything from small dairy farms in Vermont to Brazil nut crops in the Amazon rain forest.
Unilever now owns the company, purchased from the founders in 2000, but it still donates seven-and-a-half cents of every dollar earned to charity. And the ice cream is still mischievously good… Even though it’s snowing hard outside, practically a DQ Blizzard, I order a scoop of Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream, which lives up to its promo, “the sweet taste of liberty in your mouth.” For all its elegant contours, this piece of Vermont is marbled with camp.
VIDEO: Vermont Winter Vacation: Top 11 Things to do!
Then I wend south, first along Interstate 89, and then southeast over State Route 4. In the liquid late afternoon light I can’t shake a feeling that there is something about the highway that seems wrong. For miles, as I scan the unfettered view on all sides, I feel like something is missing. And then at last I see, or rather don’t, as I live along the xeric flats of LA, where streets are lined in forests of billboards, and the condition driving these roads has been called “continuous partial attention.”
Here there are no billboards; it turns out they are illegal in the state. The roadway views are non-synthetic, of trees, wild rivers, green mountains and cows. There have been studies of late that indicate that uncluttered window views of natural landscapes can hasten patient recovery in hospitals, learning in classrooms and productivity in the workplace. So, I figure, the same must hold true for windshield views. I feel better already.
At last I repair into the Mount Snow Valley, reaching Wilmington towards the seam of the day, and through a fog that seeps like Sleepy Hollow, check into the haunted mansion on the hill called The White House Inn. Built in 1915 by lumber baron Martin Brown who wanted a grand place to entertain guests in style, it looks as though he hasn’t left. It rambles about with balconies, columns, wainscoting, layers of crown molding, bluestone terraces, antique furniture, silk mural wallpapers and grand fireplaces burning with logs of birch.
There is a growing recognition that exposure to Vermont enhances health, improves cognitive functioning and nurtures the spirit, or spirits in the case of The White House. Kat, the inn-keeper, greets me with a maple martini in the sunken bar, so wickedly sweet it should be illegal, and then offers a tour of some of the ghostly features, such as a secret staircase behind a mantle, replete with cobwebs and an iron bank vault door in the dungeon-like downstairs that creaks like a sound effect. Kat says that both staff and guests have reported unaccountable cold spots, disembodied footsteps, doors that open by themselves and apparitions, like the ghosts in our own genetic attics who whisper that the nature of the past is prologue to our future.
To postpone ghost protocols, I step outside into the night air and make a circumambulation around the manor. It’s quiet and dark outside; the decibels and light turned down and the senses turned on. I know that research suggests that exposure to the Vermont air stimulates our ability to pay attention, think clearly and be more creative and so I return eager to sit down and compose a cantata to The White House and its milieu, even though I don’t play an instrument.
The sky lightens slowly the next morning, and time seems to pour like syrup as I linger over the blueberry coffee. Afterwards, Kat walks me over to a steep snowy slope, equips me with specially-designed inner tube and points to the bottom. “It’s the most extreme tubing in Vermont,” she gushes. Down I plunge, flying over bumps, freedom in my face, before I finally crash into a field of low brush at the bottom. After trudging back up the hill, resistance is futile, so down again I zoom, self-medicating by sucking in the lozenge of the cold, sharp Vermont air all the way.
After a few unregulated plummets I pack the car and head down the mound to the center of Wilmington, which is so idyllic-looking it seems a Norman Rockwell canvas come to life (which makes sense, as he lived and painted in Southern Vermont). From here I begin the drive up Route 100, called the most scenic in New England, and the ” Skiers’ Highway,” since it links Vermont’s sheeny legends — Snow, Killington, Sugarbush, Stowe — like pearls in a necklace.
This is the anti-interstate, a coiling, slender, obscenely picturesque path that cuts up the backbone of the state, meandering along racing rivers and through time-smoothed mountain bowls. It’s a fidgety, dithering motorway, ever on the verge of the linear, only to turn its mind in a mile.
The road is a visible manifestation of inward grace, seemingly blue-screened with covered bridges, snow-covered apple orchids and contented cows. It sheeplegs into a landscape pointy with churches and 18th-century brick houses behind fences that seem born to the earth. There are Norwegian pine forests and hemlock stands, paper birches, beeches and sugar maples, and high passes strewn with massive, mossy boulders. On either side rises Vermont’s Green Mountains, the misty peaks that set its citizens apart from “flatlanders,” as Vermonters call anyone — tourist or resident — who hails from across state lines.
Every few miles there is a bright yellow sign with a hulking, horned silhouette that signals a moose crossing. The danger has increased as the state’s moose population has risen, from a mere 200 in 1980 to more than 4,000 today. Their prime predator is the four-wheeled variety. When an animal is struck by a car, the impact often sends the creature — an 800-pound cow or a 1,000-pound bull — through the windshield. At least one driver is killed and many more injured every year.
I pass through Londonderry, where the legendary Jake Burton invented modern snowboarding, shredding the long traditions of binding about on split-rail fences. And then, about midday, I pull into Weston, a chocolate-box town centered on a village green justly famous for the Vermont Country Store, “purveyors of the practical and hard-to-find since 1946.” Like an old-time general store, it’s crammed to the rafters with the trappings of an era before the anonymity and blandness of Wal-Mart, everything from apothecary to woodstoves, homespun clothing, boutique sodas, hand-tooled toys, nightgowns, bedspreads, music boxes, perfumes, handicrafts and free samples of cookies, jams, crackers, cheese and popcorn. Abbie Hoffman, who wrote “Steal this Book,” about how to live and eat free, might call this Mecca.
A little further up the road I roll into Bridgewater Corners, and park alongside the Ottauquechee River. It’s a hop to The Long Trail Brewery, named after the 273-mile footpath that runs along the main ridge of the Green Mountains, paralleled for most of its length by Route 100. Built between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail anteceded — and inspired — the Appalachian Trail, with which it merges for about 100 miles in southern Vermont. Both can work up a mighty thirst.
So, I belly in for a draft of the eponymous beer and a self-guided tour on a catwalk above the pub. I instantly love the place, as it offers up free popcorn, a broken canoe, like many I have wasted, hanging from the ceiling, and a big wall map of the world pinned with the hometowns of hundreds of patrons. I order up a flight of beers, their sampler, lined up in a muffin tin, and, once sated, head outside for a nippy walk along the river. In a recent study researchers reported the health outcomes from outdoor exercise in Vermont: boosting of mood, memory and empathy and reduction of anger, confusion, depression and blood pressure. I’m not sure if it’s the beer, or the hike or perhaps the combination, but I feel pretty damn fine.
This is the first in a two-part series about the restorative powers of Vermont.