I love Vermont and the state’s recent courageous approval of a GMO labeling requirement has inspired me to write about it and describe why it is a truly unique state.
I live here for about six months a year. My spouse is a native Vermonter and our little house sits across a dirt road from the house where she and her brother grew up. Mountains rise nearby on both the east and the west. So the rising sun doesn’t strike this house until about 9:00 AM, and the sunset, because of high horizon to the west, is always early.
There are trees everywhere. When my spouse points out where the barn and silo, or the “night pasture” or her grandmother’s house used to be, I get very confused because all I see are trees. When you take a walk around Scallop Drive, about two miles of brisk and scenic walking, first north about a half mile, then west uphill for a mile or so, then a turn to the south and finally east downhill back to home, all you see are trees. Yet this is where the hayfields, pastures and cornfields for the Baldwin dairy farm used to be. If you go into the woods directly east of the house, eventually you encounter the rusty skeleton of a manure spreader, the wood plank construction long since rotted away, trees growing up through it, and the rusted frame barely recognizable as the remains of a farm implement. This is the only evidence I have seen of the farm that used to be here.
The area around the house is typical of what you see everywhere in Vermont – Green Mountains. On a drive to anywhere in any direction, you encounter beautiful countryside, gorgeous endless vistas of wooded hills and mountains, prosperous farms and pastures full of contented cattle, always punctuated with very small to small charming towns and villages, each with their requisite display of colonial houses and the single church steeple that typify the New England town or village. And you almost always see a main street with local family owned businesses.
About the weather – it has been said that Vermont has two seasons – winter and July. That’s a bit extreme but it’s to the point. The winters are generally very cold and snowy, spring and fall can be quite cold and the summer here is short. Occasionally, someone’s tomatoes will be killed by an August frost. The day after I arrived in Vermont this spring, April 14, I was greeted by a four inch snowfall. Today, May 31, as I am writing this the temperature is 70 degrees. I think we have had only a half-dozen days this spring that have reached or exceeded this level. Vermont just saw the end to one of its harshest winters in the last decade when all previous records for cold weather in March were broken. There are pleasant days here to be sure, but since they are rare they seem uncommonly and extraordinarily beautiful. At times during the summer the weather can turn uncomfortably hot and humid. The fall, especially October, is probably the best time of the year, with blue skies, crisp mornings and cool nights and colorful leaves. But in October of 2012 it rained for virtually the entire month. The caravans of “leaf peepers”, people from other states visiting Vermont to enjoy the fall color, were stalled in clouds of fog, mist and driving rain. I think there were but three days the entire month that were good for enjoying the beautiful fall color.
Vermont is one of the smallest of the states, actually number 45 in area and 49 in population. It is also one of the whitest states – very few faces of other hues and shades are seen. Its population of African Americans is less than one percent, making it the 49th state in percentage of black population, right before number 50, Montana. When considering all minorities, it is still among the whitest, with 95 percent of its population of 640,000 falling into that category. Vermont also has a very mature population with the second oldest median age in the country, right behind Maine. This is surprising because one would think that Arizona or Florida with all their retirees would rank quite high, but they in fact are far down on the scale. However, this high median age is an indication of a problem the state is trying to address – that young people are leaving the state.
Taxes are high in Vermont. Our little state is the ninth highest in the country, collecting 10.5 percent of average income for both local and state taxes, an average tax burden per capita of $4351. Property taxes vary according to where you live, as do the benefits received from the state or the local government from that tax. Here is Dorset, a high tax town, the bill for our humble little house on an acre of land is well over $4000. And with our own water supply and septic system, and paying a private company to pick up our refuse, our only benefits seem to be having the dirt road graded periodically and the privilege of using a small library in town. Oh, and also the privilege of listing “Dorset” as our address.
One of the useful nuggets of advice offered by my son who spent three years in Vermont going to law school, was, “Dad, never be in a hurry when you are driving somewhere or you will go crazy”. This was great advice, although I have had difficulty heeding it. Speed limits here are a throwback to the past, usually 40 miles per hour, with some (rare) stretches of roadway 50, and usually 30 or 25 through towns and villages, of which there are many, and even on the rare stretches of Interstate Highway, you are limited to 55 or 60. Since most of the roads are two lanes without a shoulder, if someone is turning left, you stop…and wait…and wait. And if you are lucky enough on a trip to town to not encounter this, you may instead find guys in both lanes with signs saying on one side “Stop” and on the other “Slow” who are paid by the phone company or electric company to guide traffic around some repair work, often being done by one person: three people being paid but only one doing any useful work. Or you might see a policeman, an expensive police vehicle, the same two guys directing traffic and only two men filling potholes.
The largest town (or city if you wish) in Vermont is Burlington, population 42,000. If you want to go to the state’s only Costco and only (recently) Trader Joe’s or Guitar Center, you travel to the Burlington area. So from here in Dorset, a shopping trip to Costco and Trader Joe’s, and maybe the Guitar Center, approximately a 200 mile round trip at an average speed of 40 miles per hour, is pretty much a tedious and frustrating all day affair. And simply getting to a Home Depot from here in Dorset requires a 56 mile round trip north to Rutland or a 60 mile round trip to Bennington. Burlington “International” (my quotes) Airport is a sleepy little terminal that claims international status because of a few weekly flights from neighboring Canada. I don’t think that flights from Paris, Berlin or London land at Burlington International.
Vermonters are remarkably community oriented. Church suppers and fire department pancake breakfasts are alive and well in Vermont. After the severe damage caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011, the state of Vermont did not wait for help from the Federal government. Neither did local communities wait for help from the state. Every able bodied person pitched in to rescue stranded neighbors, to repair washed out roads and clean up flooded buildings. Since a major exit on Interstate 89, near Montpelier, the Vermont state capital, was impassable, an enterprising Vermonter, drove off the interstate between exits and created “Exit 11-1/2”, in order to reach his community isolated by the storm damage.
Vermont is a state that values education. For such a little state, it is amazing to find 24 colleges and universities here, from big University of Vermont in Burlington, to distinguished Middlebury College in the middle of the state to small Bennington College in the southern part. Vermont Law School in the little community of South Royalton, which my son attended, is one of the better law schools in the country. Sixty percent of Vermont high school students attend post secondary schools. One third of Vermonters have at least a bachelor’s degree.
As is common in New England, Vermont provides much in the way of culture. Art museums, including our own Southern Vermont Art Center in nearby Manchester, abound and music concerts are plentiful, especially in the summer. Drama is easy to find in Vermont also, again particularly in the summer season – from our very own Dorset Players here at home, to the nearby Weston Playhouse, to the many offerings at Vermont’s many colleges and universities.
Many native Vermonters speak with a distinctive accent that is very difficult to describe or imitate. At times I even had a great deal of difficulty understanding my spouse’s father, his accent was so pronounced. And I was quite embarrassed when, after meeting a spouse’s cousin’s wife in northern Vermont, I afterward asked quite innocently what country was she from. I had a real problem understanding her as well and didn’t realize that she simply had an extraordinarily severe case of the Vermont accent.
Hunting is really important in Vermont. There are an unusual number of hunting seasons: approximately twenty separate seasons, ranging from “Bow and Arrow Deer”, “Deer Muzzleloader”, “Moose” and “Black Bear” to “Gray Squirrel”, “Ruffled Grouse”, “Woodcock” and “Crow”. Don’t expect to get your car repaired, your house re-roofed or your appendix removed during the big one, the 16 day regular deer hunting season, because it seems that every able bodied Vermont man, plus many women, have deserted their posts and are all out hunting or in their “camps” drinking and telling stories.
The state of Vermont’s economy is remarkable. Although manufacturing companies which employed many Vermonters have packed up and left, the state still has an amazing 3.3 percent unemployment rate, second only to booming North Dakota. Maybe this number is artificially lowered up by the fact that many Vermonters may be looking for employment in other states, thus reducing the number of people ranked among the unemployed. But the economy of this mostly rural state is still amazing. Vermont’s dairy industry, despite many small farms being sold, closed or consolidated with others, continues to be healthy. Its cheeses (Cabot) and ice cream (Ben and Jerry’s) are sold throughout the country.
Another noteworthy characteristic of Vermont is its local character. By this I mean that “local” is valued. Local family ownership of motels, restaurants, retail establishments is alive and well in Vermont. Motel chains and fast food chains are not very welcome here. Where other parts of the country are full of Days Inns, McDonalds, Appleby’s, Taco Bells, and Dunkin Donuts, such establishments are relatively rare here. The “Weathervane Motel”, “Ho Hum Motel”, “Mrs. Murphy’s Donuts,” “Little Rooster Café” and “Garlic John’s” are doing fine in Vermont. It is likely that God had to intervene for Costco and Trader Joe’s to set up shop in Vermont.
Related to this “local” value, it is interesting that many companies choose to include the state in their names because “Vermont” seems to connote high quality, sturdiness and tradition. And it works. What do you think of when you hear the names “Vermont Castings”, “Vermont Teddy Bear Company”, “Vermont Sandwich Company”, “Vermont Flannel” or “Vermont Country Store”? Yes, the name “Vermont….” does seem to mean considerably more than just the name of a state.
This little state is amazing politically. Our Governor, Peter Shumlin, is a man whom you know was elected for his brains and leadership – surely not for his looks. Governor Shumlin has been a fine governor, providing outstanding leadership during the Hurricane Irene crisis and leading the state to its legislative accomplishments in other areas. Its small (just one Representative) congressional delegation is quite liberal. Although Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter Welch do the people’s work very well in Congress, the most notable member of the delegation is Senator Bernie Sanders. Serving first as the mayor of Burlington, then elected for three terms to the House of Representatives, and now in his second term in the Senate, Senator Sanders has called himself a socialist and an independent at different times in his political career. He continues to speak up bravely and honestly for the common man and the middle class against the corporations and big money. It is hoped by many that Bernie will run for President. Although his chances for winning would be slim, since he accepts no corporate money and lobbyists have given up on him, the country needs to seriously debate the issues and progressive solutions espoused by Senator Sanders.
The state of Vermont has led the entire country, even progressive California, in several very crucial areas. First, the state is planning to set up the first single payer health care system in the country. Although being fought every inch of the way by health insurance companies and drug companies, it appears the state will succeed. Second, as mentioned earlier, good old Vermont had the courage to pass a law requiring that foods containing genetically modified ingredients say so on the label. Not surprisingly, the state is now being sued by Monsanto, the industrial agriculture giant. Third, Vermonters should be extremely proud of their legislature’s recent mandate for a minimum of 10 hours per week of quality instruction for all three and four year olds in the state. Obviously, little Vermont leads the country in caring for its people.
So there is my own personal description of the Green Mountain State, where I live for six months each year. Even considering the negatives, Vermont is still a great place to live during the late spring, the summer and the early fall. It is served well by its people, graced by its beautiful scenery and strongly led by its responsive and sensible politicians. I am happy to be here.