Recently, the editor of the editorial page of the Valley News received a letter from a student named Izzie in “Mrs. B’s Class” at the Langley School of McLean, Virginia. As part of a “state fair” project, his third-grade class had been given an assignment to study various states of the union, each kid taking a different state. Izzie had picked Vermont — an especially felicitous choice — and wanted to know more about the place, especially the good things about it that (assuming they do) make its residents love it. So this is for Izzie and his schoolmates.
Our local newspaper editor has sent me a copy of your fine letter asking for information about “the best things” in our state. Your letter couldn’t have come at a better time, because, as I write, I’m looking out the window at one of them: winter. Yes, I know it’s halfway through March, the spring equinox is upon us, and we’ve already changed to daylight saving time. And I suspect that where you live in McLean, the robins are hunting worms on green lawns and maybe even the magnolias are in bloom. But if I stand outside right now in my yard, there are snowbanks, pushed up by my plow guy, that I still can’t see over, and the wind is blowing hard enough out there to make ripples in the toilets indoors. My dog and I will decide in a couple of hours whether we’re going for our walk in the woods today.
I know; you asked for the best things. Well, winter in Vermont is one of them. Not only does it make our skiers and ski resorts very happy, but it brings us together in warm places like general stores and coffee shops, where we stomp the snow off our boots, unwrap the scarves from around our necks, and just talk — usually about the winter we’re having. The frozen ground beneath our feet gets pretty slippery at times, so we old folks, especially, walk everywhere with a sort of careful shuffle.
This week is also the start of what we call sugar season. It’s later than usual this year because, thanks mainly to the fracture of the frigid polar vortex caused by global warming, it has been icy cold here. But that’s almost over, and within a few days, as the sugar maples begin their annual run of sap, we’ll see all around us little barn-like buildings with clerestory roofs half-hidden in water vapor streaming out from the boiling sap inside. Maple syrup is one of our major crops. Some of the sugar-makers have open houses during boiling season and serve “sugar on snow,” which you’ve got to experience to appreciate.
This is also the season of our annual town meetings, the closest thing to pure democracy anywhere. On a particular day in March, the citizens of each town meet in whatever building is big enough for everybody and elect town officers, discuss budgets, roads, conservation and whatever needs to be decided. The luckiest towns have moderators who know their business and have a great sense of humor. There’s usually a potluck lunch, too; you bring either a dish or $5. It’s a great occasion. Just between us, whenever someone rises to speak and begins by saying, “I’m a sixth-generation Vermonter,” it’s time for me to get a cup of coffee or go to the bathroom. I think, “Whoops! This is going to take a while.”
We’re known as the Green Mountain State, and our name kind of means that. The Green Mountains run down the middle of the state like a spine, and our capital, Montpelier, sits on the only water-level route through the middle of it. It’s the smallest state capital in the nation, and the only one without a McDonald’s. When the original 13 states wouldn’t let us into the Union in 1777, and New Hampshire and New York each claimed they owned us, we declared ourselves an independent republic. We were the first in the world to abolish adult slavery. We instituted universal suffrage; men no longer had to own property to vote. Women didn’t get the vote, thanks to the foot-dragging of the rest of the country, until 1920. We had the first free public education. And to this day, when a new proposal or idea comes up, we sniff at it suspiciously but usually go ahead and try it. We’re a small state, and most of us know each other. So if something doesn’t work, we can repeal it. That’s how we manage so often to be out in front of the pack.
Our ponds and streams stay pretty cool throughout the summer, but we all have favorite swimming holes for the hot days of July, and a river conservancy group is working hard to preserve them. The Green Mountain Club maintains and preserves the Long Trail that runs the length of the state, as well as the shelters where hikers can stay overnight. In the fall, those maple trees that gave us the sap in spring give us a fantastic display of bright-colored leaves. Then comes hunting season and the first of winter.
I’ve mentioned only a few of the reasons we love it here. There are many others. If you want an idea of the way we feel about this place, Google “Vermont is a state I love.” It’s a speech our favorite Vermonter, Calvin Coolidge, gave to the citizens who, before the days of FEMA, were rebuilding the state after the awful Hurricane of 1927. We are, as he says, a “brave little state,” and we love it!
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.