We pulled onto our lane. It was a dirt road that ended at our new life. The house in Vermont, which we had been thinking about and talking about every day for eight months was finally ours, and we were moving in. We had left our old life a thousand miles behind on an urban boulevard lined with majestic old Victorians and a strip of park where you were not supposed to walk your dog or let your kids hunt for Easter eggs. Now we’d picked a new one deep in the countryside, surrounded by the mountains of old New England.
Our family had lived our whole lives in the Midwest. And they were good lives too. Our days were full; and if the joy came often in the repetition – kid’s games, favorite restaurants, favorite theater — it was still joy.
But we longed to live in a beautiful place. As our economics improved, we traveled more and more. Three or four holidays every year was the rule. When we returned home, one of us would inevitably feel let down; so we’d immediately begin planning the next trip. Wherever we visited, we played the ‘what if we lived here’ game. And it was on one of those trips, an unforgettable month in Italy, when we wondered what it would be like to live in those old hills. We imagined grocery shopping at the open markets and trudging back and forth up the hill.
Our daughter, then about twelve, wondered out loud if we really could, in fact, live anywhere we wished. Good question. After lots more talk we decided, in fact, the answer was ‘yes.’ Then we considered whether or not St. Louis was a place any of us would choose if we lived somewhere ‘with intention’ rather than ‘by habit.’ That answer came fast too. It was ‘no.’ Some of us would choose mountains or a beach. We loved cities like San Francisco and New York. We also loved the Cape. But the place that consistently came up on everyone’s list was Vermont. There, we would have our rural mountain idyll and still be a morning’s drive from both the sea and NYC.
Next came the inevitable question, “If we could live anywhere, why didn’t we?” Yes, why indeed? This was a question for the grownups. As luck would have it, John and I were the grownups. The two of us had some thinking to do. What, after all, did we value? Why did we continue to live in a place that we left every time we had a bit of time or money?
Years earlier we’d taken long romantic weekend in New England – the first time John and I had ever gone off alone. What we didn’t realize at the time was that the romantic holiday in 1994 would amount to a scouting trip for our family.
We flew out late in the day and landed in Burlington, Vermont. It was the first week of October and I was yearning for my first peek at the famous autumn foliage, being that I was an autumn kind of girl. The fast flash, followed by a sad, windblown ending always appealed to my need for drama. I loved the sexy, bawdy nature of fall. Even boring little parks in the Midwest were transformed by the riot of color. For one or two brief weeks the humidity faded and was replaced by temperatures that favored cozy sweaters, just before the freeze. St Louis is supposedly a town with seasons. In fact, there are two — summer and winter. Summer lasts from April until October; winter from November through March. Spring comes for a day or two; then back comes the famous humidity. But there was always that brief interlude called ‘fall’ when all was right with the world.
Vermont had practically invented the whole autumn vibe on the tourism calendar – sweet, rolling mountains, sugar maples blazing with red, yellow, orange and even purple; boutique farmers at roadside stands selling cheese, bread, bunches of beets and hot apple cider; wildflowers displayed in old jelly jars; and countless fairs exhibiting everything from antiques to merino sheep. If you truly loved autumn, Vermont was where you wanted to be. Of course that season only accounts for about three weeks out of the year — not quite long enough to fill up one’s life, no matter how much you might love it.
During the flight, I must have said to my husband dozens of times, “I hope it’s still light when we get there. Do you think it will still be light when we get there?” It wasn’t. We drove two hours to our inn in Killington in the dark. I began to panic.
“I don’t think the leaves have turned yet. We’re too early. Find a radio station with the foliage report. I think the mountains look green. Do the mountains look green to you?
“They look black,” he said. “It’s nine o’clock.”
I fell asleep at the inn almost let down. John woke me in the morning and called that I had to come outside at once. I wondered if he’d seen a bear. Then he shouted that I should get my cape. My wool cape wrapped around my nightgown, I walked out into the spectacular splendor that is a Vermont autumn. The colors even smelled different. There was a heady cold snap in the air and the scent of pine everywhere. I was giddy. It was love at first sight. I had the sense of the world shifting under me, similar to the feeling of giving birth to my children. Sometimes there are moments when you know that your old life no longer fits, and you must expand to make room for the one that is coming. From that moment, I had to live in this place, which, for a few weeks each year, is the most beautiful spot on earth. The rest of the time it is merely one of the most beautiful. I’d read Heidi as a little girl and longed for fresh goat milk in the morning with hunks of cheese and bread, and a life just like hers. These Green Mountains were smaller and rounder than her Swiss ones, but somehow more comforting and nurturing all at once. I felt like I’d come home.
When we hear, on TV shows or in movies, couples who talk about having fallen in love “all over again” with each other, we think they sound sweet or even silly. But, sitting on the hood of our rental car at a roadside farmstand in the cold sunshine, feeding each other maple pickles, with Vermont cheddar, sourdough bread and apple cider, necking and giggling like teenagers, John and I fell in love “all over again.”
That was also the moment our big move to Vermont was decided, even though we had not admitted it, and even though it would take us another nine years to actually get here.
The questions kept revealing themselves, one by one, for the next several years as we made another baby, bought a business and finally sold it to start this new life. Where would we live? How would we make a living? What about schools for the kids? And one by one we answered them as only city people romanticizing from a thousand miles away can. There were lots of trips to the Northeast in between, and the kids became as enamored as we were. Hannah’s question a few years later in Italy merely sealed the deal.
So our family had gone shopping at the “life store” and chosen rolling mountains, roadside streams and wooded knolls. We wanted to gaze at the sky and see the stars this time around. We had our fill of really good and equally cheap Thai food in our old neighborhood and aimed instead to have our supper next to a waterfall. Instead of becoming winded from jogging beside bus fumes, we had decided we wanted to be exhausted from an uphill climb through evergreens. We wanted to wake up to birdsong instead of the rattle of the garbage trucks.
We chose Vermont — a little blue state known for its hippie ice cream, beautiful views and liberal politics. A rural state with few people, Vermont ‘boasts’ only three malls, and two of them are up north in Burlington. They were the last state to allow a Wal-Mart. There are no roadside billboards. And there are way more cows than people living up here.
Then we only had to choose the “where.” We meandered through little towns looking for the ones that seemed prettiest and most livable. My husband and I required a good bookstore. The Internet has solved shopping, and books can be had overnight; but for browsing there is nothing like a friendly bookstore with cushy chairs, frothing lattes, and stacks and stacks of new books. We are fiction lovers, and nobody reviews the new authors much or markets them either. They are bought in onesies and you have to study the shelves to find the ones you want to try. We found a town with one of the nation’s great independent bookstores, and an Italian grocery nearby with good pasta and a case full of cheese. When the time arrived to locate schools, we found one of the best in the state about ten minutes from the fabulous bookstore. Exciting teaching and lots of choice, they even offered law beginning in ninth grade, which would perfectly suit our daughter. We had romanticized the town’s public grade school, thinking “New England; small villages; friendly, welcoming, joyous, sophisticated – kind of like a high-end ‘Little House on the Prairie’ schoolhouse experience.” It wasn’t exactly, and that was how we became first reluctant, then completely converted homeschoolers with Eli.
Bizarrely, we managed to choose the one Republican town in an otherwise extremely liberal blue state. The grade schools in the small towns were all considering mergers because they couldn’t sustain themselves financially. And nobody makes an easy living in Vermont…or hardly anybody anyway. You either made it somewhere else and tried to hang onto it once you got here, or you worked several jobs to keep body and soul together. Lots of people commute to New York or Boston; or, like us, buy a local business, lose a whole bunch of money and wait for some other unsuspecting tourist to want their own piece of the romantic Vermont dream.
In our case it was a country store. We could walk to work. We’d buy big fat glass jars and create an old fashioned candy counter (gross profit not considered into the fantasy) We’d hire a chef and do take-home suppers. Maybe we’d teach cooking classes over the long winter, and people would gather in our kitchen where we’d all drink wine, tell funny stories, and make chicken potpies infused with Moroccan spicy chocolate. We poured over the gourmet catalogs, choosing wonderful things we’d always wanted for ourselves. Unfortunately, the locals just wanted us to carry gravy — in a jar. Pistachio paste was not something they’d ever needed before, and they didn’t plan to anytime soon either. So instead we went broke. It happens faster than you might imagine. Pretty soon there was no pistachio cream on the shelves and no gas in the pumps either. We couldn’t pay our bills, and we were afraid to answer the phone. It was like when you buy your kid an aquarium and wake up to a new dead fish every day. At the Horrible Quaint Country Store (THQCS), a few more fish died every day. It was a very public deathwatch.
And the sweet antique building with the two centuries-old date carved in the floor was literally falling apart. Only we didn’t have any money to fix it. The five-degree Fahrenheit evening one of the employees called to say that … er … um … there was a little water in the basement and my husband (Remember him? The one from the romantic public spectacle by the side of the road?) drove down (walking have long since lost its appeal) and found three feet of water and pipes spewing more of it by the gallon and called the boiler guys. They just started pumping it into the street, which fast became an ice skating rink which didn’t further endear us to the neighbors … This was, unfortunately, just one of a string of low points.
We sold “The Alamo” last summer and only added to our loss by a few hundred thousand dollars. That actually seemed auspicious, like maybe our luck was turning. We still love the mountains and feel lucky every night when we look up at the sky and see the stars. We are enjoying the healing solace of time as we let the lessons bubble up. Meanwhile we are trying to tell it to ourselves as a funny story. And it was, sometimes even when it was happening.
“Remember the time the tourist fell through the floorboards by the dairy?” “How about the time the lady drove away from the brand new gas pump without unhooking the nozzle and pulled the whole thing out of the ground and flooded the street with gasoline? Boy, those were the days.”
Anyone who has ever seen the movie ‘Baby Boom’ knows the ending. I am waiting for that baby food company to come along and make us rich. Meanwhile, I can say that getting rich is a lot more fun than going broke. But what I can also say is that the pleasures of living here in this beautiful place have touched my soul and raised me higher than even the best of all those vacations ever did.