The Greenest Mountains: Burlington and a Big Red Bus

Jeffersonville, VT: June, 2021

It wasn’t far after crossing the Champlain Bridge that I began to notice signs in both English and French and saw Vermont’s namesake mountains paralleling the lake shore. It could have been self-manifesting confirmation bias but the trees really did look greener, as if they permanently retained the squint-inducing electric lime of the first weeks of May. Farm and forest alternated over the rolling foothills like a gingham picnic blanked draped over tufts of summer grass, the former nearly always accompanied by a long wooden building with a painted advertisement for eggs or syrup. It was already a world away from the interstate and I hadn’t yet entered the mountains.

Unless you count taking a five mile bite out of the northwestern corner during a childhood ride back home from Canada, Vermont was the last state I had yet to properly visit east of the Mississippi. This time, I would cross the state in a crescent-shape, stopping first in Burlington before spending some time in the Green Mountains, staying in a converted bus on a homestead near Jeffersonville. After some hikes on the Long Trail, the plan was to drive back roads through Stowe and Montpelier and then exit stage east into New Hampshire.

The only landlocked New England state, it was also the last section of the colonial realm to join the United States, existing from 1777 to 1791 as the independent Vermont Republic that wished to neither be part of Quebec or New York. The semi-recognized nation, whose Green Mountain Boys allied with the other colonists during the American Revolution, waved a Kelly green flag with a blue upper-right quadrant containing thirteen stars which is still used as the symbol of the state’s National Guard. Progressive from the get go, the republic outlawed slavery at a time where it remained legal in even the northernmost of US States, and in 2000, Vermont was the first to legalize same sex marriage.

I arrived in Burlington, itself specifically known as a progressive haven whose unofficial symbols of cleverly named ice cream flavors and Bernie Sanders easily supplant the official state ones of brook trout and milk. With less than fifty thousand people in the city proper, Burlington is the ‘smallest largest city’ in the US, just behind not-so-bustling Cheyenne, Wyoming. The city rises uphill from the shore of Lake Champlain and the entire metro is wedged between mountain and water. I left my car at the waterfront park and wandered around the docks past stationary sailboats, lakeside restaurants, and a statue dedicated to Champ, Nessie’s lesser known sea-serpent cousin who is said to lurk these waters. A heavy fish smell wafted from both shallows and skillet and reminded me that I needed dinner.

The busyness of the lakeside was easily outdone by the crowd in which I found myself while walking up the relatively steep hill into the main business district. I couldn’t imagine what was going on other than the fact that it was one of the first Saturday nights since nearly all pandemic-related restrictions had been eased as well as an absolutely beautiful evening. I soon found my answer in the form of a free weekend-long jazz festival centered in City Hall Park. A stage was set up on a charmingly prototypical New England style common, surrounded by healthy maples and etched by walkways at acute angles. The tall, white spire of city hall looked out over tents offering food and drink and art. One tent was dedicated to free walk-up vaccines for the few Vermonters who had yet to do so. Families arrived on tandem bikes or lounged on blankets on the green while a bop-era combo played a tune that could have emanated from Kerouac’s turntable.

I took a walk up Church Street, a pedestrian-only brick throughway lined with sidewalk cafes and outdoor shops. Strands of triangular rainbow flags draped over the promenade as the ribbon of red climbed its way upwards toward a hilltop chapel. The blocks in between bustled with footsteps and food trucks while the sounds of servers uncorking bottles and freeform saxophonists made their way through the streetside chatter as the festival spread out from the park. I stopped in a few shops and then took care of the dinner business via a crepe truck and some maple-glazed pork. I enjoyed the dinner crepe back on the main common, sitting in the grass as the jazz festival moved on by and listening to the halcyon sounds of an early summer night.

I had a bus to catch. As I drove eastward, the Champlain Valley morphed into the proper Green Mountains, a forested land dotted with little towns, each with a one or two block main street highlighted by a black and white New England church spire and a stretch of fresh markets and maple bakeries. Whenever I passed through one I made sure to keep my eyes out for witch windows. Vermont’s architectural oddity, witch windows are built on the second floor of colonial homes and angled roughly 45 degrees so that they are parallel to the pitch of the roof. The legend is that witches couldn’t fly their broomsticks through slanted windows as easily as their upright counterparts, but some people who are no fun dispute this claim. Regardless of the reason for these wonky windows, I made it a mission to find at least one while driving through the state, but by the time I reached Jeffersonville I had still come up empty. In the state’s less puritanical modern days, it appears that wooden siding and red metal roofs had replaced witch windows as the ubiquitous architectural trait of northern Vermont.

Jeffersonville had a main block with a few brick and mortar farmers’ markets, a general store, a yoga studio, and a bike shop interspersed with homes that looked to be from the Monroe years. Like its counterparts I had driven through since arriving in the state, Jeffersonville appeared to be of another era, one before many American small towns that didn’t have a college or a tourism industry hollowed out and shuttered their main streets. Vermont, it appeared, had done something differently than the other 49, skipping over the second half of the twentieth century and throwing a mountain-sized wrench into the modern urban/rural divide. A bike trail connected it to Stowe and beyond, yet many residents were small plot farmers, and the nearest chain grocery store was nearly an hour away in Burlington. Making a note to come back and peruse the general store for hiking snacks and maple candy, I turned just north of town to go up a steep rock driveway, as per my hosts’ directions.

The red bus was tucked into a forest of maples on the far side of the homestead. Her name, Magdalena, was printed in yellow near the door, and a brightly painted picnic table sat in a cleared rocky area to her right side. Caleigh, who had lived in the bus with her partner before building the adjacent house, had said to just let myself in if they were out. They were, and I did. The driver’s seat was still there, covered in a macrame seat protector and around the windshield were draped Christmas lights. There were two couches flanking the aisle where the front few seats used to be, followed by the kitchen section, then a wood-burning fireplace, and finally the bedroom. The ‘rooms’ were separated by what looked to be tye-dyed silk sarongs with cleverly sewn-in magnets that stuck to the metal roof of the bus and could be moved around as needed. There was a painting of a finch on one wall and a sticker above the sink that read ‘I Really Appreciate You.’

I really appreciated the bed, tucked into the back of the bus and extending from wall to wall, a nook inside a nook that I immediately fell onto after nearly a day behind the wheel of my much smaller craft. The wifi was spotty, thank God, and I sifted through the stack of magazines on the shelf near the bed. According to Vermont Quarterly, a group at UVM have developed an algorithm, called the Hedometer, which assigns a happiness value to all words in the English language, and use it via people’s social media postings to keep tabs on the nation’s mood. According to their research, this had unsurprisingly soured the last couple of years. I then looked at the date of the issue, May 2018, and realized that the poor Hedometer hadn’t seen anything yet. More upbeat was Mother Earth Magazine where I learned how to make Peach Verbina Granita, which is sort of like a healthy snow cone.

Dusk was beginning to fall and I grabbed a book about the history of coffee and one of the beers I bought in Burlington and went to sit on the picnic table. Suddenly the chickens I barely noticed before were in a tizzy in their pen, clucking and running around, heads bobbing like a wind-up toy and wings back in panic. The culprit was Sage, a black lab whose name I learned the same way I did that of the bus, who ran towards me holding a Frisbee, making no notice of the frightened birds. I grabbed the Frisbee and she thrashed her head like dogs do and treated it as a pull toy instead of a fetching one. Eventually I wiggled it free and flung it toward the chickens and she picked it up, shook it around some more and returned anew. After a few rounds she grew weary of the game and trotted off, leaving me to read about caffeine while sipping its deliciously hoppy opposite.

Caleigh and Mark arrived in a pickup truck with four or five bicycles in the back in various stages of usability. As we talked about hiking and whatever else, I realized I had not been alone after all, as two older women appeared, one from the house and one from the back of a van parked near the garage. The one who was sleeping in the van looked like an aged-to-today Melanie Safka.

“I thought I heard somebody in the skoolie” she said. “I usually sleep in the house, but it’s just so pleasant out today I wanted to be out in the van.”

 “We don’t get many cool nights like this at home in the summer” I said, and meant it.

“We desperately need some rain though, it’s been weeks” Mark said. He was an exceptionally tall man with a beard and man bun and methodically lifted each bike out of the back and wheeled it over to another of the several cars in the drive.

Caleigh rocked the baby that was in her arms who had a nature-y name. “You’ll probably wake up to the rain dance in the morning.

“You all do a rain dance?” I was excited to see and/or take part.

“Well she does?” Caleigh said smiling, indicating Melanie.

“Maybe I brought some with me, anything to help of course.” It had most definitely not been a dry summer so far at home. I had seen that a major storm was expected to roll through the day after next, but I was enjoying the dry so much that I secretly hoped it would wait until I left.

The stars came out, and from what I could see from beneath the deep-green partial canopy, they were infinite and of varying degrees of brightness, the kind of nighttime tapestry you only get far from home that looks like the Milky Way poster I had as a kid. Unfortunately the bugs followed suit in equal number, overwhelming the dusk in a similar dotted façade, but unlike the stars took nowhere near light years to reach me. It had been years since I was this far north in early summer and I had neglected to bring bug spray. This drove me back into the bus, where I spent a relaxing evening on the couch behind the driver’s seat before returning to the bed nook. It was all for the best as I had some hiking to do.

Continued here: The Tallest Mountain: Mt. Mansfield and the Long Trail

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