Vermont's True Colors

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By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2000

It didn't take much more than an hour after pulling our dusty Ford behind the bright green John Deere tractor at Vermont's Liberty Hill Farm for my sister and me to settle in. She snuggled up on the living room couch with a mug of peppermint tea, swapping girlhood stories with Beth Kennett, the inn's co-owner. I ambled out to the cow barn, past the stalls where Pansy, Rosy and 56 other Holsteins were bracing for the evening milking, and stood for the longest time beholding Wisdom and her newborn calf taking a late-afternoon nap.

Never mind that we were half a continent away from Tulsa, Okla., and the two-story house where we'd grown up. Luck (and a good recommendation) had brought Lilla and me to a place that felt remarkably like home.

At first I thought it was the heavy resemblance to our grandparents' cotton and peanut plantation in Oklahoma that made this dairy farm-cum-guest house in the northern Vermont town of Rochester seem so familiar--right down to the lemon-colored chrysanthemums in the yard and the plowing tools rusting in front of the rickety shed.

But after a week of floating like an autumn leaf through Vermont--after a gray kitten scampered out of nowhere into my lap on a front porch in Burlington, a telephone operator called me by my first name in Bennington and a bed-and-breakfast hostess hugged Lilla good morning in Shelburne--I learned that Liberty Hill didn't have a monopoly on that down-home feeling. Vermont, especially in the fall, oozes with it.

Depicted to outsiders as mostly a destination for leaf-watching, skiing or observing farmers transform sap to maple syrup, the state offers much more than those hoary stereotypes. Its real charm is the way locals open their doors and arrange their tables to make a place for strangers. Fully expecting to encounter the stony-faced bunch of Vermonters Mark Twain lampooned, I instead met warm-hearted folks who were eager to while away their afternoons with a pair of travelers from "down South."

We rented a car and, in six days, zigzagged from Burlington in the northwest corner to Arlington in the south, to Woodstock near the eastern border with New Hampshire and back north to Shelburne--534 miles in all. Even though the beloved leaf season is scheduled to peak here by mid-October, there should be at another month to sample other prime attractions without having your eyelashes freeze together. Vermont's mitten- and heavy-coat-wearing season doesn't usually settle in until mid-November.

Our accommodations and dining choices ranged wide. One night at the intimate, nine-room Heart of the Village Inn in Shelburne, another at the palatial Woodstock Inn. Here we picnicked on fresh-baked wheat bread and goat cheese laced with salmon. There we tucked away lobster and shrimp bisque and grilled Chilean sea bass.

Belying their aloof, tight-lipped image, we met genuinely kind Vermonters at just about every corner we turned. When we drove up to Vermont Butter & Cheese Co., a small pea green factory in the hamlet of Websterville that churns out goat cheese so refined that French gourmands would swoon, co-owner Allison Hooper showed us around the place as if we were first cousins. "If people go through the trouble of finding us, they automatically become our guests of honor," she told me.

When I stopped in to admire the vast collection of patchwork quilts in the Shelburne Museum, 91-year-old Lucille Patrick, the guide, admonished me as only a grandmother could for taking in an unseasonably cool morning without a sweater.

"We get a lot of the kinds of visitors who check their laptops every 15 minutes for e-mail messages," said Paula Maynard, who fled the harried life of a Connecticut schoolteacher for a job as a publicist for Arlington's West Mountain Inn, where we stayed one night. Perched aside a mountain, it's a poetic place where chocolate chip cookies and cocoa are left out all day, rooms come equipped with fireplaces instead of televisions or clocks, and guests are encouraged to take home a memento of African violets. "We try to provide a space where they can feel comfortable catching their breath."

I began my journey in Burlington (Lilla joined me a bit later), which hugs the shore of Lake Champlain. Although the 45,000 inhabitants constitute the biggest concentration of Vermonters in one place, it has the distinct air of a village. One reason is the heavy presence of baseball-cap-wearing students attending the University of Vermont and Champlain College. Another is the Church Street mall, a pedestrian zone lined with boutiques and cafes that dominates the center of town. Every Burlingtonian seems to show up there at least once a day.

But it is local personalities like Bob Conlon who really make Burlington folksy. For more than a decade, the churlish impresario has been manager, bartender and indeed the life of Luenig's Bistro, a popular restaurant on Church Street serving everything from tuna salad to trout almondine. When the announcement came a couple of weeks ago that the restaurant would no longer be offering breakfast, it was front-page news in the Burlington Free Press. "In this town, that's like saying there's not gonna be sunshine on a January morning," one regular said. "I'm staging a hunger strike to protest."


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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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