For far too long, our days had seemed a cacophony of annoying calls, urgent messages and tedious meetings, punctuated with traffic jams and late-night fast food. It was clearly time—past time—to turn out the office lights and get away from the rhythms of big city living. We called an old school friend living outside Boston and soon enough we had ourselves booked for a week of R and R in a remodeled barn just east of the Green Mountains in southern Vermont. We flew into Albany, left our cell phones on “Airplane Mode,” rented a car and an hour later crossed the New York-Vermont border into a blissfully quiet, late-summer afternoon in God’s country.
Vermont is deliciously rural, characterized by small towns and simple, country living. Cartier and Champlain explored this area (Vert Mont, French for Green Mountain) two hundred years before the American Revolution. The British arrived in the early 1700’s and after the French and Indian War, Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys organized to protect the interests of early Vermont settlers. They then won fame by taking Fort Ticonderoga from the British during the first days of the Revolution. Today, Vermont’s 600,000 people (the second smallest state by population, half the population of Maine or New Hampshire) support a substantial tourism industry, dairy farming and some industrial fabrication. Summer here is short, but with warm days and cool nights among conifers and northern hardwoods, this was an ideal escape for two city folk treading water in the twenty-first century.
Our Boston friends suggested we book as a vacation rental one of the converted and remodeled barns that now populate Vermont. There were many from which to choose, most refurbished with all the conveniences travelers expect, but retaining the feel of country living. We were fortunate to secure a week at the Baby Barn, an architect-designed conversion that on the busiest days for visiting friends, easily accommodated six adults, five kids and a giant sheep dog. Nestled in the hills just east of Green Mountain National Forest between Londonderry and South Londonderry, this beautiful property blended a huge stone fireplace and pegged, wooden joints with massive, mullioned windows, a modern kitchen and internet access. We provisioned at the local market, bounced over a dirt access road for the last half mile or so and “dropped anchor” for a delightful “long week” a million miles away from clients, calls, and well, the accustomed cacophony. Vermont’s summer weather was both less consistent and less predictable than the routine of southern California to which we had grown accustomed. The majority of our vacation days were warm and sunny, likely in the high 80’s or low 90’s with enough humidity to remind me of Midwest summers as a kid, waiting for school to restart. These days were perfect for day trips—we took several—hiking or just lollygagging in the meadows or spending a meditative moment sitting by the rapids of a rushing stream, of which there were several within a short distance. Mornings and evenings were cool, great for sleeping, with ethereal dawn mists that melted away before breakfast. Then there were rainy days that gave us time to read and even gave us a little quiet time for contemplative journal writing or a jigsaw puzzle. One of those rainy afternoons brought an electric show in thick, dark clouds, but left behind a crystalline afternoon perfect to take in the architecture of a square steepled country church, with its white, wood siding washed by the thunderstorm, sparkling against a cloudless, summer sky. The summer rains refreshed us, too, and washed some of the gunk from our cluttered minds.
Part of Vermont’s patrimony are its covered bridges. There are over 100 “authentic” bridges in Vermont, those built with wooden structural members using various forms of trusses (as opposed, say, to stringer construction). Trusses are essentially triangular forms engineered to manage stresses, for example the weight of a horse and carriage crossing a span over a river. Architect Ithiel Town’s patented Town Lattice Truss is seen on many Vermont covered bridges, as is engineer Theodore Burr’s, Burr Arch. Earlier king post and queen post truss construction can also be seen. The cover on the bridges was effective to protect the bridges from the destructive effects of rain and sun; uncovered wooden bridges had a useful life of only ten to fifteen years. Many of Vermont’s covered bridges are well over 100 years old and many are still used to facilitate traffic and commerce.
To start our exploration of these bridges, we planned a route through several classic New England towns. One of the prettiest was Grafton, site of the Kidder Hill Bridge, a modified king post truss bridge with a 67 foot span across the Saxtons River dating from 1870. As we crossed the bridge, an expansive meadow opened to our left and a short hiking trail opened to our right, allowing us to walk in the cool air of the river’s rapids. Just right for a summer day trip. On the south branch of the Saxtons River, we stopped briefly at the Grafton Cheese Factory Bridge, a recently constructed (1967) foot bridge featuring stringer truss design. Here we could enjoy engineering and a snack—aromatic and nuanced artisanal Vermont cheeses.
We drove about thirty miles northeast to Springfield, Vermont, now a town of 10,000 just west of the Connecticut River. A century ago, Yankee ingenuity thrived here with precision manufacturing of tools, gears and telescopes. That economic engine has since departed, replaced in part, by some light electronics assembly businesses. After a pleasant lunch in a neighborhood restaurant on Main Street, we drove to see the 1870 Baltimore Covered Bridge, a 37 foot span that originally crossed the Great Brook north of Springfield. The bridge has been restored and shows off an early version of the Town Lattice Truss style of construction we would see again as we discovered other covered bridges in Southern Vermont from Rockingham to Bennington.
Adjacent to the Baltimore Covered Bridge was the Eureka Schoolhouse, the oldest one-room school house in Vermont. The “Eureka” appellation came from the first school master who was heard to utter the phrase upon his arrival in Springfield after an arduous trek through the then dense forest of the frontier. As restored (1968), the schoolhouse seems rather commodious, but it served to remind visitors of the challenges of frontier living and education in the early days of a growing nation.
Short day trips from our Baby Barn base allowed us to vary our experience, blending a little discovery with a lot of sitting and “vegging.” Locally made maple syrup at the Taylor Farm, locally grown fruits at the Dutton Farm Stand, and dinner at Solo made from locally farmed ingredients (outstanding!!!) were all nearby and allowed us to adjust our rhythms and living to a more relaxed pace. It was heavenly.
On days it rained, we did “inside discovery.” Just north of us at Weston we took cover from the elements at the Vermont Country Store. Indeed, here we found a candy store in life and in metaphor. Owned by the Orton family, Vermont storekeepers for generations, we found dozens of “classic and hard-to-find” products that allowed a fun, romantic and nostalgic look-back at times “remembered.” I recalled visits to an old hardware store with my Dad. A version of my old Schwinn racer was on display. A spot to sit and play checkers and read the local paper took me back to an Americana of the Saturday Evening Post. Lots of locally made fudge, millinery, utensils, and, well, “stuff.” We happily whiled away enough time for the rains to pass, and after a lunch at the Bryant House, sitting next to a classic soda fountain and adjacent to an antique cash register without point-of-sale paraphernalia, we took our leave. And got stuck in a local traffic jam—two 1930’s Fords trying to navigate a one-lane turn.
As the afternoon sun dried the morning’s rain, we stopped at a potter’s studio. I have long been taken by the glass blower and ceramicist’s art—shapes, colors, textures, designs—and Vermont’s byways are dotted with artists who find the pace consistent with their creativity. One such place on the way home was David Lasser’s ceramics studio, where visitors could watch the pottery being crafted, enjoying the etymology of design: from clay, to wheel, to glaze, to kiln. Very organic. Very satisfying.
The time came, of course, to make our way home. We decided to leave a bit early, and take the small roads. Route 7a is one such route. It, too, has a peaceful, romantic nostalgia, perfect for a morning drive. Outside of Shaftsbury, we stopped at the Robert Frost Stone House Museum. We talked with Carole Thompson, the driving force behind this restoration and preservation project. The museum is an elegantly simple small house where Frost lived and worked. It is set somewhat sumptuously on acres of meadows and woods, with a small barn and a stone wall along the walkways. Inside are Frost letters, woodcuts, illustrations and memorabilia. Outside, one can absorb the feelings that make the poems such a moving experience. This stop was a fitting way to end our trip.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
~ Robert Frost