Where I Was From: Vermont

In Vermont on June 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 016

Here’s how the conversation usually goes:

“You’re from Vermont?”


“So you make maple syrup?”


“Wait, really?”

“Well, I don’t make it, but my Dad does.”

“Your Dad makes maples syrup?”

“Well, he has in the past. But for the past few years he’s spent maple season in China—”

“Wait, your Dad is in China?”

“Yeah, he teaches English in Inner Mongolia.”

“Is your Mom in China?”

“Oh, no. She stays in Vermont. That’s where she teaches piloting.”

“Hold up. Your Mom’s a pilot? Like a commercial pilot?”

“Oh, heavens, no. She flies prop planes. Cessnas, stuff like that. She’s a piloting instructor, and I think she does tours once in a while. She wanted to pilot for this company in Cape Cod, but from the way she tells it, their instruction was a little confusing, so they parted ways.”

“Wow. Your parents are awesome.”

“I know, right?”

I’m not your typical Vermonter, but then again, nobody really is. Vermont is a peculiar state: It’s rugged and rocky, and so are the people. It’s the “most rural” state in America, and one of the smallest. Vermont was long populated by loggers and quarrymen, every one of them a diehard Republican; and yet Bernie Sanders, the state’s junior U.S. senator, describes himself as a socialist, and the state is now famous for its hippie population. Vermonters are usually quiet and hate crowds, but they’re also shameless self-promoters: They love to show off a new barn door, a souped-up motorcycle, a sprouting herb garden, an extensive DVD collection, anything to wow a guest or friend. Most Vermonters claim to love quiet and the outdoors, but most Vermonters I’ve ever met lead turbulent, dramatic social lives. The peacefulness is relaxing for ex-urbanites, but the boredom can make people stir-crazy. Vermonters pride themselves on open-mindedness and civility — and most folks are pretty open-minded and civil — but there are deep pockets are resentment and cruelty: By far the most racist, homophobic, misogynistic comments I’ve ever heard were spoken in Burlington. And above all, Vermonters are incredibly touchy: They stew over careless words for months and years. Most people end up dying before their grudges do.

These days, I only visit Vermont once or twice a year, and my sojourns are always brief. The house my parents built will always be my one true home, a palace of sloped ceilings and broad windows, surrounded on all sides by acres of forest. Otherwise, I’ve become a kind of tourist in my hometown, where dirt roads I once disdained now look charming and pastoral. I do the things that tourists do: canoe down Otter Creek, bicycle to Fort Ticonderoga, order a pint at the Waybury Inn, where I once waited tables. I wave to my parents’ friends and ask how their grown-up children are. But all my memories are whispers; they seem distant and worn, unexpectedly revived by smells and sights. My adolescence was stiff and inflexible; I didn’t play well with others. As Vermonty as my lifestyle is, my heart is pure Pittsburgh.

But as an experiment, and for the sake of my fellow Flatlanders*, here begins some snapshots of my homeland, the Champlain Valley. Pictures and words may not do it justice, but there are no mosquitoes here, and it’s way cheaper than a New England bed-and-breakfast.


* “Flatlanders” is the slur for anybody who grew up outside of Vermont. Since the state depends on tourism, they’ll never say it to your face. Nor will they call you a “Leaf-Peeper,” the local term for people who visit in autumn and drive very slowly to take in the breathtaking views of changing leaves. Vermont’s economy literally hinges on leaf-peepers, even though natives despise them with a passion.


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