Over Easter weekend, the family and I trekked up to one of my favorite towns, Burlington, Vermont, to stay with some friends. On Saturday, my buddy Paul and I donned our shorts and running shoes, exposing our legs to the chilly northern air, and ran the Unplugged Half Marathon. Much of the course was familiar, as it ran mainly along my old stomping grounds, the Burlington Bike Path, with lovely views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains just beyond. The wind was frigid and even aggressive at times, especially as we made our way in and out of Oak Ledge Park, where Dylan, Alexa, and Paul’s son Nico were waiting with outstretched hands, but in the photos taken by the race photographer, Paul and I are laughing, unfazed. Maybe it was the endorphins, or maybe it was the laughter that comes from shared pain. Or maybe it was the bliss that comes from uninterrupted conversation, a luxury when one has small children. Paul and I shared an office for two years when we were Teaching Fellows at the University of Vermont eight years ago, so we had lots of time for impromptu chats in those days, but since becoming parents, our communication has consisted mainly of email conversations, occasional postcards, messages on Facebook, and two or three brief annual visits.
I tend to think, though, that, more than anything, my smile in the photograph is a direct result of the tension that invariably drains from my neck and shoulders when I cross the border from Massachusetts into Vermont on I-91. Something happens when I see the “Welcome to Vermont” sign. “Keep it Simple” is Vermont’s state motto, and while a number of friends have expressed their frustration over Vermont’s lack of billboards (“How can I find the nearest McDonald’s?”), over the miles and miles between exits, and over the state’s general defiance of convenience, this is what I find most endearing. “Simple, dammit!” the sleepy hamlets and villages seem to snap back at the tourists who bemoan the elusiveness of the Taco Bell. “You want lunch?” Vermont asks. “Come and find it.”
Of course, with small children in tow, one needs to allow for extra travel time in planning a drive through this under-populated state. Once, when Alexa was a colicky infant, we realized, too late, that we had left her pacifier at home. She began to grow desperate and irrational. We pulled off at the nearest exit (which was probably 10 minutes up the road), and then drove for a good 15 or 20 minutes, Alexa practically blue and our nerves completely fried, until we found a general store which, mercifully, had binkies. Whew.
Despite the potential for maddening incidents like this one, I still prefer Vermont’s dogged simplicity to the bustle of the lower New England states. And Paul and Meredith’s house is an extension of this simplicity. Many of Nico’s toys were made by Paul himself: wooden blocks and a playhouse and a makeshift see-saw. The sandbox. The TV is nowhere to be seen, and even if it were, they don’t have cable. The “playscape” in the backyard is a twisted tree trunk laid on its side. Perfect for climbing, and no assembly required. Downtown is a fifteen-minute walk, and though Church Street, with its charming cobblestones and fountains and climbing structures, has succumbed to such chain outfits as Old Navy, Starbucks, and Borders, downtown Burlington is still home to some thriving independent stores and restaurants, including my old favorites: Stone Soup, a cafeteria-style vegetarian café; Outdoor Gear Exchange, where you can find new and consigned gear and clothing for adults AND kids; and Muddy Waters, where a grad student can spend hours sipping coffee and cramming for comps exams, and then finish the night with a microwbrew. And, of course, there is Nectar’s, former home to the band Phish. What I wouldn’t give to be back in Burlington, unplugged.
Like many idyllic cities, Burlington has its drawbacks, of course. For one, it is blindingly white (and not just because of the snow). For a small city, it’s culturally diverse in terms of restaurants, theatre events, and social justice; in terms of ethnic diversity, however, B-town leaves much to be desired.
Still, the sense of community is palpable. I often wonder what my town, Cheshire, would be like if the town would just put in sidewalks. Cheshire has potential: there’s a town green, there are a few shops downtown. But we don’t walk anywhere (or, when we do, we have to say a prayer before and after, because cars are so unused to pedestrians that they can barely swerve out of the way in time to avoid having you plastered on the front of their SUVs), and we’re so busy, running our kids off to one activity after another, promoting structure but inadvertently adding chaos. There’s a sense of immediacy here, especially when it comes to kids: get them involved now, or they might fall behind. And what falls through the cracks in the process? The ability to slow down, to engage in unstructured play, to appreciate the natural playscapes that really do abound here—even from New Haven, there is easy access to trails.
The other problem with Burlington is, of course, that jobs—and houses—are nearly impossible to come by. Whenever I whine and envy Paul and Meredith’s “good fortune,” I remember what they sacrificed to have their House in Burlington. It was in an almost incomprehensible state of disrepair when they purchased it: a former crack house, with barely a roof to speak of. They homesteaded: they took jobs as Resident Managers at Champlain College, living in a dorm while they spent a year building their house (Paul even built the cabinets himself, and recently, he refurbished the second floor, even adding a little window in Nico’s bedroom that allows him to look out over the treetops at Lake Champlain).
It’s no secret that I’ve wanted to move someplace “more simple” for quite some time (not that Connecticut doesn’t have its charms—it does). Recently, though, I decided that for the moment, I need to embrace my surroundings, because living with one foot out the door isn’t productive or enriching. Still, when I return from Vermont, there’s always a bit of a post-Green Mountain-funk that follows. Hence this rant. Thanks for listening.