Vermont is the most beautiful place on earth, full stop. Ok, so there is also this fairytale mountain castle:
& this fairytale mossy stream:
& this fairytale beach:
I would love to visit all of these places, especially here:
But not if it meant never seeing Vermont again.
If Vermont is the most beautiful place on earth, the most beautiful place in Vermont is the Northeast Kingdom (NEK). My love affair with the NEK began in college when a book on display in the town's bookshop caught my eye. (Clearly I didn't graduate from college recently. An independent local bookshop: that dates me.) I was drawn to the arrestingly gorgeous cover photo of an autumn morning glowing with the bright colours of fall foliage, mist shrouding a quaint farm in a valley, which encompassed everything I loved about Vermont in one image. The book was called The View from the Kingdom.
I bought it and discovered that the northeast corner of the state of Vermont, comprising three counties, 2,000 sq. miles, and about 64,000 people, was christened the Northeast Kingdom by the state's governor in 1949. White settlers came to the NEK relatively late—it lies outside the Green Mountain range, with a rocky landscape shaped by glaciers and a short growing season due to its northern latitude. The people who live there are hardy, and, to a person, each owns a four-wheel drive pick-up truck, a huge stack of firewood, & little else. A truck is the only way to get around in the winter, other than a sleigh, snowmobile, or skis, and a serious supply of firewood is the only way to survive it. People are poor up there; farming and tourism sustain the local economy, such as it is. Much like the Stockholm archipelago, the NEK is replete with glacial lakes. The View from the Kingdom is divided into four sections, one for each season. Three of them—Summer, Fall, Winter—are achingly beautiful. The fourth, well, the less said about mud season, the better.
Lest you think I am exaggerating about how spectacular the NEK is, Wikipedia, hardly a bastion of effusive hyperbole, has this to say: "In 2006, the National Geographic Society named the Northeast Kingdom as the most desirable place to visit in the country and the ninth most desirable place to visit in the world."
The U.S. has a lot going for it scenically. If the NGS says the NEK is the most desirable place to visit, that's saying something.
In the late 80s, a couple bought 20 acres in Irasburg and built a medieval-style castle on it. It has its own airstrip in a cleared field where you'd expect to find cattle—the husband was a pilot. So, ah, a somewhat unusual mix of old and new. In 2008, they decided it was time to take their aging bones to warmer climes. They hung a For Sale sign from the ramparts and moved to the Southwest. I can't articulate how much I wanted this castle. Any place I buy must have flat land for horses and virtually no piece of property is flat in the NEK. The land used for the airstrip would have been perfect. (And I could remake Ladyhawke in my backyard.) City Boy was a medieval historian and we'd often fantasized about building a castle when we struck it rich. But the NEK is a far too isolated for year-round living—you have to go 100 miles to find an opera and twice that to find a Starbucks. Of course, it was a pipe dream anyway—I could no more afford a castle than kiss a toad and expect him to turn into a prince.
I've never had the money to go on a proper holiday, but I needed an excuse to finally visit the NEK. I found it in a race called the Kingdom Run. It's a multi-distance race, with a choice of 5K, 10K, or half-marathon, following an out-and-back course along a dirt road. It's all uphill both ways—your grandfather's stories were true. The race starts and finishes on the quaint Irasburg common, opposite the wee town library with its armchairs and fireplace that would be so inviting on a dark winter day. All proceeds from entry fees go to the NEK spay/neuter program. Lest you forget the good cause the race is supporting, the mile marker signs have paw prints painted on. The route passes the castle, a local curiosity and landmark, and the race t-shirts feature a line drawing of it.
The first year I ran it, I brought City Boy and my dog. I could only find one dog-friendly place to stay, a motel that seemed to cater to fishermen, with a depressing film noir vibe. (I'm not a motel kind of girl.) But the young couple who had just purchased it planned to fix it up, and it did have a little stream in which the dog could cool his paws. We asked about dog-friendly dinner options (i.e., places with outdoor seating) and were directed to a pizza joint in the middle of nowhere. Following the directions along tiny, winding dirt roads, I could not believe there was going to be a restaurant at the end. But not only was it there, it was packed. You have to bear in mind that everywhere is the middle of nowhere in the NEK, and you never know what you might find (including bears).
Second time I brought a friend and we stayed at a Swedish B&B up in Newport. This little overnight jaunt ended up becoming quite the adventure. On the way up, just as we passed White River Jct., the clutch on my car gave out. It was the original clutch and the car had about 174K miles on it. It had been slipping on occasion and I knew I was going to have to replace it eventually but I didn't know it would suddenly decide to give up the ghost 100 miles from home. I turned around and tried to coax it back down I-91 but it would not stay in any gear so we had to pull over and ring AAA. They only tow within 100 miles and we just squeaked in at about 99.8. We had to endure the drive back in the cab of the tow truck with the ancient toothless driver who, although perfectly nice, talked only about fishing. My Volvo repair guy took pity on me and gave us a loaner car, and we started out all over again, after buying some overpriced hot bar food from Whole Paycheque as we realised everything would be closed by the time we got to Newport. The B&B was quaint and its owner friendly, quite expensive but the Swedish aesthetic made it a must-try for me. Alas, as we chatted with the owner after our very late arrival, and got the grand tour, her little dog discovered my overpriced hot bar dinner and ate it. Ah, well, it was that kind of day. The next morning I had to leave for the race so my friend generously offered to eat my share of the Swedish breakfast. What are friends for, right? I know I can always rely on her that way.
|"All visitors are expected to return to their
country of origin following performances."
After the race, we decided to visit Derby Line, a town that straddles the border, with the Canadian half called Stanstead. I wanted to see the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, built right on the border, and the B&B owner had recommended a bakery to try on the Canadian side. In the Haskell, the audience sits in the U.S. and the stage is in Canada. In the library portion, the circulation desk is in the U.S. but the books are in Canada. There is a line painted on the floor to show the international border. During the Vietnam War, draft dodgers met with their families here. As long as they did not put a toe over the line, they were safe from arrest.
|Yes, that is a horse hitched at a petrol station
convenience store in Derby Line.
Prima facie, the town looked normal, but there was something eerie about it. Pre-9/11, border security was virtually non-existent. Except for major thoroughfares with border patrol for cars, no markings existed along the streets to indicate the border, and pedestrians and cars were free to cross unmolested. The line goes through the middle of residential streets, across parks and backyards, through houses and factories. Oh, also restaurants—I'll leave you to guess what happened during Prohibition. Post 9/11, everything abruptly changed. New border patrol guards were sent to the town as the old ones refused to enforce the new rules on their families, friends and neighbours. There are still no visible markings to show when you cross the border but, if you do, whether inadvertently or on purpose, border security appears out of nowhere, in vehicles, with foghorns or via helicopter. There are cameras everywhere: that eerie feeling turned out to be an (accurate) sense of being watched. Whilst looking for a parking space to walk to the bakery, we accidentally crossed the border four times. Yes, four. And, after having our car searched at length and being treated like potential terrorists (two girls in sundresses, really TSA?), we were really trying not to cross it. We heard a story about a man who lives on the U.S. side across the street from his married daughter on the Canadian side. He used to walk directly across the road to have dinner at her house. But when he tried to do that post-9/11, cameras brought security down on him. He refused to stop until he was repeatedly arrested and fined for violating new rules that require going through an official border crossing with a passport. I shit you not: You cannot walk across the street anymore, even though there is no visible barrier or security personnel. It is surreal.
One final odd anecdote from that bizarre trip was that the woman behind the counter in the bakery (Yes, we eventually parked on the U.S. side and walked there, showing our passports for the 5th time as we crossed on foot at an official border crossing. We noticed that most of the businesses along each side of the border had closed since 9/11 – it was depressing.) claimed not to speak English. My French was adequate to the task but I find it impossible to believe someone living there, although technically in Francophone Quebec but within a mile of the U.S. border, had never learned a word of English.
My recent trip was solo. The clutch was fine this time—this one had better last another 174K miles—but the A/C does not work, something that never bothered me until I tried to take a road trip in 90F+ weather. I can't abide having the windows open at highway speeds, so, by the time I arrived, I could literally wring my clothes out. Also, my CD player hasn't worked since last fall. I tried to tune in radio stations along the way but didn't have much luck. I heard a bizarre story on Vermont's NPR station about a high school basketball game in the South in the early 90s in which a team of two players (the others having been sent off for fouls, which are the equivalent of a red card) somehow beat a team of five players. Not sure why this was news 25 years later but they made it into a weirdly gripping tale for a captive audience.
I love driving I-91 in Vermont because there is almost no traffic. And the further north you go, the more it thins out. Virtually all the plates are from out of state as tourists ascend in all seasons (except spring; no-one goes to Vermont in mud season, with good reason). And everyone drives at least 80mph so you can make decent time. This is partly because the drivers are from states like CT, NY, and NJ, where that's the norm, but mainly because everyone knows Vermont's state trooper has better things to do. Vermont also has the best rest stops, built to look like barns, clean and full of tourist maps and local artefacts.
I always smile at the "MOOSE STAY ALERT" signs. It's so considerate of Vermont to remind the moose to stay alert when crossing the Interstate.
I stopped in White River Jct. for dinner, because I know where to find a bathroom there and it's roughly the halfway point. It's a quiet historic railroad town. At the Co-op I bought organic vegan linguini with organic kale pesto and maple sap to wash it down. It doesn't get much more Vermont than that. If only I'd had some nutritional yeast to sprinkle on top in lieu of parmesan.
My destination was about a half hour outside of a town that I figured must have an ice cream stand. Didn't take me long to find it (I have a reliable homing instinct for ice cream) and I chose a combo of raspberry and dark chocolate gelato. The teen girl behind the counter gushed about how good that sounded. What, like I'd choose a bad ice cream combo?
The final part of the journey was along dirt roads. There is no cell service in most of the NEK so your GPS won't help you -- you have to write down your directions the old-fashioned way. Even if you note the miles between each turn, you will start to wonder if you took a wrong one somewhere, and if you are ever going to reach your destination. Reeve Lindbergh (yes, daughter of Charles and Anne), the writer of The View from the Kingdom, famously tells guests trying to negotiate the dirt roads to reach her farmhouse, "Drive North forever and don't lose heart!"
|Moose are a popular decorating theme in the NEK.
|Did I mention the moose decorating theme?
It was difficult to find a place to stay this time. I had planned the trip before I left my job and could now no longer afford to go. Not that I was going to let that stop me. Because of the early morning race, I couldn't take advantage of the breakfast included in the price of a B&B but I didn't want to stay in a skeevy motel alone. Every place I rang was either fully booked, too expensive, and/or had a check-out time that precluded going back to shower after the race, which was non-negotiable. Luckily, the place I found turned out to be perfect. It was a log cabin-style house with four guest rooms on the ground floor, family living upstairs. The couple that run it had been coming up at weekends for over a decade and finally decided, screw it, we can work remotely, we're staying for good. It was a bit of an adjustment for their two sons, but they are more relaxed and happy now, despite the inns and outs of running a guest house.
|Think I brought enough yarn?
The only drawback was the lack of WiFi, but I was able to get enough cell reception to make calls and check my email on my phone and I took advantage of being untethered from my computer to finish a book and start knitting for my sister's baby (niece Ada Sofia was born last week – I'm a little behind schedule).
They say that athletes should be abstinent the night before a competition or risk their night time performance compromising their performance the next day. But the only way I was going to place in my age group was if I were the only one running in my age group, which, in this particular race, was a real possibility. But as I am single, it was a moot issue.
The drive to Irasburg took me the length of Lake Willoughby, one of the most spectacular of the region's glacial relics. I spotted parking and beaches at both the northern and southern tips and was determined to go jump in the lake, literally, after the race. But it was only in the 60s and the drizzle picked up into a steady rain as the race began. I counted around 20 participants, all of whom left me far behind before we'd even crossed the common. I was only about 4 miles in before the rest of the field passed me on their way back from the turnaround point. We were running on the left side of the dirt road, against "traffic" (I use that term loosely as I saw far more horses, cows, and alpaca than cars), but at about mile 5, a race official in a pick-up truck pulled up alongside me to warn me to cross over to the right for awhile as there was a bees' nest ahead on the left and 5 or 6 runners had been stung. That heads'-up was quite literally the only advantage to being last.
|I didn't take this photo (remember it was pissing down rain)
but this is Lake Willoughby on a nicer day.
The course is peaceful and only the chronic pain in my back, the chilly rain, and the humiliation of being dead last kept me from enjoying it more. I tried to adjust my posture to ease my back but nothing helps. I have tried to accept that I am never going to get to the bottom of what's causing it and to just carry on despite it and not let it circumscribe my life so much. It has cut into my marathon training far too much already and I simply need to suck it up and learn to ignore it. So, I gritted my teeth and did just that.
When I got to the turnaround point, a race official in a pick-up truck collected the signs and cones, and the volunteers, who had been waiting just for me, finally got to get out of the rain. As I made my way back along the course past each water stop and intersection, the truck followed and picked up the race paraphernalia behind me. I apologised to the volunteers at each station, using my "I'm not built for speed" line. But the pick-up truck crawling alongside me was spoiling the tranquillity of the route and I finally asked him not to follow me.
When the rest of the runners passed me on their way back, each shouted the usual encouraging drivel, "You're a champion!", "Lookin' good!", "Keep going, you can do it!", etc. In NYC, I used to give everyone the finger and curse them out volubly when they did this, but I don't want to risk being asked not to return to my favourite race, so I forced myself to ignore them. As I approached the finish line, I was dreading having to run the gauntlet of the remaining crowd's clapping and condescending encouragement. As if it isn't humiliating enough to finish last, the artificially cheery, patronising "Look at you! You did it! You're a winner!" makes one feel like a retard completing an event in the Special Olympics. But I had no choice if I wanted to finish. The finish line was being taken down as I crossed it but cross it I did, and I managed to keep my temper and confine myself to snapping, "There's no glory in last place." One reason I love this race is because there are so few people, and they are so nice, but I will never be able to tolerate that condescending nonsense.
I ran hard for the entire race. I never slowed down and never walked. I don't approve of people walking in races—if you have to walk, you have no business entering. I was never tempted to walk; I can pretty much run forever. The problem is I can't do it fast. My time was 3:01, with an average pace of 13:46. For comparison, the winner finished in 1:18. The winner of the last NY Marathon finished in 2:05. Yes, he ran twice as far in nearly an hour less. I was 6th out of 6 in my age group, with the next-to-last finisher 13 minutes ahead of me. There was one runner in the race older than me, a 68-year-old man who finished in 2 hours.
I used to fret over how slow I am. When I started running in 2001, I test-ran a mile full-out at my absolute limit, in 8:30. My race pace at that time was around 10:15. Since I started running again this spring, I have rarely managed a pace faster than 14:00. They say to predict your marathon time, double your half-marathon time and add 15 minutes. For the NY Marathon, it's now add 30 minutes because they are letting over 40,000 runners in. This means that the first two miles are so tightly packed that you can only shuffle, sardine-like, shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowd. I hate that, but unless you are an elite runner let out at the front, you're stuck. It really drags down times; you simply can't make up for such a slow start. But that calculation would put me at 6:30 and that is simply unacceptable. I finished my first NY Marathon in 5 hours. Granted, I was 14 years younger and 40 lbs thinner, but my goal is to beat that time this November. Somehow, despite my fucking back, in the next 2 ½ months I have to get a heckuva lot faster.
But back to the NEK. I was, alas, soaked to the skin and shivering after running 3 hours in the rain and rather than stop for a dip in Lake Willoughby, I put the heat on in the car and headed back to the guest house for a long, hot shower. Someday, though, I must swim there. I love to swim and have wanted desperately to swim every summer, but there is no place to do so where I live.
I was supposed to drive home at that point but I was so enchanted by the tranquillity and beauty of the landscape that I decided to stay another night. I am supposed to be applying for jobs and taking care of myriad "to do's" but I have felt too burned out, especially since I have had to deal with an unexpected family crisis that occurred, with impeccable timing, the day before my farewell party at work. It's an intractable and frustrating situation, easily solvable with money I don't have, that has piled stress on top of burn out. I couldn't afford to stay but I just could not bring myself to leave. I need a proper vacation, by which I mean significant time away from all problems and stress. But that's not gonna happen.
|Yes, those are onion rings on my
sandwich, with fries on the
side. Because diner.
I went to a cute old-fashioned diner in town for a late lunch, and then more ice cream. The following morning, the guest house owners suggested another breath-taking lake to check out before I headed home. It had finally stopped raining but mist still hung over it. There were only 4 cabins at one end; the rest was forest preserve. A trail beckoned but I would never hike alone due to fear of rapists/murderers/bears. Still, I couldn't resist the lure of that wide old logging road and walked as far as I dared. I tried to take photos but could not capture the look and feel of either the trail or the lake with my phone. I am not exaggerating when I say that lakeside was the most peaceful place I have ever been. It was all I could do to force myself to leave. And I live in a beautiful rural area, a tourist destination in itself. I don't take that for granted. But the NEK speaks to me in a way that nowhere else does.
If I can finagle it financially, I'm going back in the fall foliage season, alone or, preferably, with someone to hike with so I can follow the siren call of those trails without fear.
The View from the Kingdom has travelled the world with me and still resides in a place of honour on my coffee table. Someday, I will own property in the NEK, even if it is a log cabin and not a castle.