Friday, October 11, 2013

Color touring in the rain, or coming full circle in Vermont

After nearly 12 years of living in the Green Mountain State we left Vermont just about 8 years ago this month, in October of 2005. We put the house on the market, our stuff in storage and our car -- which we would end up selling the following summer -- in the possession of family in Douglas, Massachusetts and off we went.

While we never looked back, we had spent something like a third of our marriage together between Chittenden and Rutland, Vermont.

We had learned so much about ourselves and our expectations, which alone made the journey through those years all the more worthwhile.

Susie eased her way out of medicine at last and was finally able to pursue her love of baking. And now we know where that got her.

As for me, I developed a profound sense of self-expression through photography and the unique and unlimited relationship between the camera and the computer.

So it is with a rather bittersweet edge to my thoughts that I recount the impact of our recent, very short trip back to the wilds of Vermont.

The reason for the trip was, ostensibly, to see the fall colors in the mountains. Buried not too far beneath the surface of that rationalization was a keen desire to reconnect with a past we deeply appreciated but which I didn't always realize.

Sunday just about midday we pulled out of our parking lot and made our way up Route 146 to I-90, the Mass Pike. No sooner had we pulled into the stream of humanity heading west than the colors started popping: a patch here and there at first but by the time we exited at I-91 to head north we were adrift in a sea of oranges, reds, yellows with every hue and shade imaginable.

Exiting at Route 2 in Greenfield, Mass., we pointed ourselves west along the Mohawk Trail. The rain remained our constant companion for pretty much the rest of the day's journey, although it did seem to accentuate the color saturation of all those leaves hovering on the edge of extinction. Life is, as they say, full of tradeoffs.

Our objective that evening was to meander our way north through southern Vermont and spend the night at an inn in Bondville, near Stratton Mountain. Once we reached North Adams we turned back north and found our way up Route 100 to Route 30 which led us right to Stone's Lodge in Bondville.

One of the many adjectives used to describe Vermont, whether it be the people, the weather or anything in between, is quirky, and Stone's Lodge in Bondville fits that to a tee.

Frankly, we chose Stone's Lodge because it was inexpensive; by Vermont standards one might even say it bordered on cheap: A little over a hundred bucks for one night (no minimum) with breakfast. Since we were only blowing through the state on a quick overnighter we opted to keep our costs, as well as our expectations low.

By the time we arrived in Bondville we had been driving through rain broken by the occasional misty fog at the higher elevations of the Berkshires and the southern Greens. We found the lodge to be a rambling inn that has had at least one large addition built onto it by each owner since it was opened God knows when.

At the front desk the old hand bell had been replaced by a cordless phone and a sign informing us to call to be checked in. The phone no sooner started ringing than we could hear it being answered in the room next door. And voila! here appeared before us a tall Ukrainian young woman with an engaging smile and a friendly wit to swipe our credit card, give us our key and show us the room.

Located right off the lobby our room, like the inn itself, appeared tired and worn; it had certainly seen better days or years for that matter. The bed squeaked but was rather comfortable once we got past the stained coverlet. The bathroom was fine with a powerful, roomy shower, although we thought the bath towels were more like bath mats. . .

After we checked in we hopped back in the car and headed over to Route 11 and down the mountain into Manchester. We had a little time to kill before our dinner reservations so drove to the center of town to check out Northshire Books.

One of the region's most favorite hangouts for books Northshire is still an intellectual staple in an area known mostly for high-end outlet shopping and fly fishing (think Orvis).

In fact, with the new rotary having replaced "malfunction junction" and an incredible sculpture right outside the front door, we shouldn't have been surprised by the store's expansion, additions, even a cafe and all the great books tucked in one cranny after another. And the place is still popular. A sign on the window greeted us and at the same time laid down the law: "See it here, buy it here." Take that, Amazon.

After a leisurely stroll browsing books, we got in the car and retraced our steps heading back in the direction of the mountain but stopping just after we left town. It was time for food.

Located near the junction of Routes 7 and 11 the Brasserie L'Ousteau is easy to find. With a number of competitors in the immediate vicinity -- Manchester is a major tourist hub in Southern Vermont -- I'm not sure why we chose this particular restaurant; it was partly the menu I suppose and the idea of a return to France however temporary and fleeting.

The selection of sparkling wines by the glass was the largest and most diverse I've seen in a long, long time and to even think of serving Monsanto by the glass was nothing short of brilliant. Although priced a bit on the high side, just offering such quality wines showed a level of commitment to providing customers with serious and sophisticated selections on a small scale. This quality was evenly matched in their choices of still red and white wines as well.

We started with the cheese plate for an appetizer accompanied by two glasses of a sparkler from the Loire (Marquis de la Tour). The server brought us the cheese menu and we selected three Vermonters: two blues, Lake's Edge and Bayley Hazen and the nutty, deliciously firm Ben Nevis.

For our main course Susie had the pan-seared cod and I had Le Cheeseburger L'Ousteau (on a Brioche bun with hand cut fries don't ya know). We each had a glass of the Sancerre (blanc).

Our server seemed a bit stiff;  his interaction with others around us was rather affected and awkward. But hey, we never complained about the service in France. . . And the baguette was delicious.

After returning from dinner in Manchester we hit the sheets and read for a while until lights out. It was a quiet night in Bondville and, although our sleep was a bit restive (too quiet perhaps?) we didn't really crawl out of bed until we were awakened by the morning sounds of Vermonters standing by their trucks chatting over coffee right outside our window.

Breakfast was made from scratch by our hostess and served in a large dining room that looked like it hadn't seen a crowd of any size for some time, much like the bar in the attached room beyond.

It was in the low 50s and drizzle when we pulled away from Stone's Lodge and headed back toward Manchester. By the time we reached the valley floor the sun was out and the temperature had rocketed to the low 70s. We pulled onto Route 7 heading north.

First stop along our road of rediscovery was Wallingford, about 7 miles south of Rutland. We popped in to see Lena D., one of Susie's close friends from the days in the ER; they became even closer in the pursuit of crafting some of the coolest things you've probably never seen: teddy bears for Susie and fantastic dolls for Lena.

While those two caught up on all the news I drove over to the Wallingford Meat Locker where I loaded up on some of the best meat we've ever had: their own cob-smoked ham and bacon (fresh of course), their dried beef (man oh man!) and lots of other wonderful cuts, including pork london broil!

After packing two coolers full -- fortunately most of the meat was rock-hard frozen just like in the old days -- I swung back to Lena's, picked up Susie and we head into Rutland. Next stop the Rutland Regional Emergency Room. Little had changed there except it was busier (if that's possible). No sooner had Susie walked toward the nurse's station than Janet Tate came scooting around from behind her desk to give her one of the biggest hugs any one person can give another. Hank was there, too, Rob Berrick and one or two others -- but lots of new faces to match all the new patients, I suppose.

From the ER we drove up to the old house on West Ridge Terrace. The first thing I noticed as we drove by was one of the two front porch lights was still burning in the middle of the day; the other clearly burned out. Even though there was an American flag fluttering in the wind and hanging off the side of the garage, upon closer examination the house was empty and, as it turns out, for sale.

From West Ridge Terrace (and Susan Lane) we headed up toward Mendon past familiar haunts that once consumed our daily movements; although Burnham Hollow was long gone the Mendon Country Store was still there. and so was one of our favorite places for breakfast, Sugar and Spice where we stopped for lunch. Susie had scrambled eggs with home fries and I had minced (read chopped) ham and scrambled eggs with the requisite home fries; we split one of their delicious buttermilk pancakes.

Like the ER we saw familiar faces working behind the counter and in the kitchen. Some things in Vermont change at a slower pace than other parts of our world,  but the food was still tasty.

After a filling and fulfilling meal we grabbed a half-gallon of maple syrup, paid the check and headed toward Chittenden.

We had hoped to drive up to the old house but as we turned off of Meadow Lake Drive onto Il Campo Road two things struck us. The first was figurative: the old Il Campo sign was gone although the pole, now weathered and in sore need of paint was still standing upright. The other thing struck us literally: the Mini fell into a sizeable hole in the pavement and the gravel portion of the road hadn't seen a grader for quite some time. So we decided to pass on the experience of witnessing even more neglect of our old space and drove on into and around Chittenden itself, with no particular aim in mind.

near the Baird Farm
We got turned around only once, ending up in Pittsford of all places before finding our way back into  the wilds of Chittenden and Holden before returning to Meadow Lake Drive and Route 4. Although this major east-west artery looked much as we remembered it, as we headed east up the mountain toward Killington, we couldn't help but feel a deep sense of awe by the remnants of Irene's devastation still in evidence, particular along the swaths cut out of the sides of the river beds. In fact, we had seen this phenomenon through much of our journey.

Although much had been repaired in the two years since Vermont had been torn apart by the effects of that hurricane, some of the terror lingered on. As we approached our turn off onto Route 100 south we saw a gas station mini mart complex that laid there like an open wound on the land:

Not long after turning onto Route 100 south we crossed yet another brand-new bridge over a stream that had broken loose from itself and brought down a farm close by. On the tumbled-down building was a large handwritten sign  that began with "We've lost everything. . . ."

What terrible things occurred here to a people poor and proud, to a land at once beautiful and hard, a land that embodies the very essence of New England strength of will and independence amidst a quiet desperation.

While these thoughts would come back to us soon enough, for the next several hours we meandered our way through southern Vermont eventually making our way to Brattleboro and back on I-91 once again. We also found ourselves in the middle of a powerful rainstorm that held us in its thrall for the next two hours or so. Traffic was forced to crawl along at 40 miles an hour, passing through frequent driving sheets of rain and strong winds.

We took another break from the rain at the Ludlow service plaza on I-90 where Susie spelled me at the wheel and drove us home. By the time we reached Route 146 the rain had slackened, the wind had fallen off and we cruised back to Providence relatively stress-free.

We had spent some 36 hours recalling nearly 12 years of our lives. We felt oddly sad about it all.

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