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A Journey to New Haven I: The Green Mountains

July 15, 2009

It’s no secret that two of my closest friends, not to say the two closest, are people I met via the internet, and, until last year, people I had never met face to face. I met Ashley last year when I attended her wedding ; Aba, I still had to meet, despite her living in New Haven, me in Beloeil (east of Montreal, a commuter town), a day’s train or bus ride away. Now, of course, with her moving to St Louis within weeks, it was now or never, so “now” became an obvious choice.

Because I also intend to visit her in St Louis at some point (or more accurately, Ashley and her, since Ashley lives only a few hours from there), I also wanted to keep my monies reasonably unhurt, so plane travel was out of the question, and bus lost out to the slower but cheaper train travel. Originally I had planned to meet up with her in New York, but then I found that the quality:price ratio for hotels was far better in New Haven, and taking the Vermonter from Saint Alban to New haven was faster and cheaper, so I settled on visiting her there (and visiting Yale while I was at it).

Follows the first half of an account of my journey from Beloeil to New Haven, and the fascinating and wondrous sights along (part of) the way.

There are no easy way, unfortunately, to get from my home in Beloeil (or anywhere in Quebec) to Saint Alban. It used to be that the Vermonter was the Montrealer, and ran overnight all the way to Montreal, but that ended while I was still a child, so it’s not an option here. I don’t drive, either (because, after going past a red light or tree on my last driving class, I figure I’m just not cut out for it) . My parents, however, are willing to drive me, and we leave home shortly after dawn. The sun is slowly rising. The lighting as we head out of town is magnificent, and I cannot resist a picture of Mount Saint-Hilaire, outlined in stark gray against the golden sky.

Pretty lighting, isn't it?

Pretty lighting, isn't it?

Other than that, the world has a gray feel to it: the sun is still low enough and the shadows so long that it feels like the light is coming from all around, and there are few or no shadows along the way. We follow the Richelieu river for much of our way south: in the morning light, it takes a coppery glow amidst the black trees. Around us, the plains of Montérégie stretch on to near the horizon; the mountains there are pastel etchings against the sky. Closer to us, the handful of hills that give the plain its name are quiet havens. The sky and clouds have taken on a pearl-like coloration.

The Monteregian plains in the early morning

The Monteregian plains in the early morning

My father puts on the radio; a woman is talking about traditional Quebec food (specifically, the gibelotte, a fish stew from around Sorel, about an hour north of Beloeil). Along the roadside, thin, whip-like trees grow: they also divide the numerous fields of the region. At Sabrevois, we pass by an unusual church: all red brick, in a country that is best known for its gray churches. It has the same silver roof they all do, though. Fields of green stalks grow here and there; some dotted by immense, solitary trees, but I could not say what either the trees or the stalks are; not, at least, at the speed at which we’re going.  Some of them must be growing corn, but that is more a guess than observation.

As we close on the American border, and Vermont, the landscape becomes swiftly more rugged. At times, there are low cliffs by the road: probably carved out by the road-builders. Crossing the border proves surprisingly easy (or perhaps I am just afraid of border crossings): “May I have your passport? Where are you going? How long will you be here? Thank you, have a nice day”, and then we’re Stateside. There is no trouble, and little of interest on the road as we make it to Saint Alban, a town of a few thousands between the foothills of the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. One thing I note: the road signs in Saint Alban all have a maple leaf (albeit a green one) painted on them. What do they take themselves for, Canadians?

We make it to the train station well in time. It’s an old building, and one that (much like the railroads of North America) has seen better days. While waiting, I get to chat with an older lady waiting for the train. We jeer at a passing merchandise train (I seem to remember uttering at least one “Moooooo”), asking for our view (…of buildings on the other side of the railroad) back. It’s a particularly noisy train: I’m suddenly afraid ours will be as noisy. Not so, she tells me; but it will be a rough ride through Vermont. Not so much of a surprise: the state name does literally mean “Green Mountains”. We discuss where we are goign, and where we are coming from: she isn’t going as far as I am, but one thing we both agree on is, we could not live far from (plenty of) trees, and wide open spaces.

The name "Vermont" means "It has mountains and trees".

"Vermont" means "Way too many mountains and trees". I like it that way.

A taxi arrives afterward, with our train crew (the merchandise train finally vanishes, putting to rest my lingering fear that it would tip over and crush us where we stood). There is only one word to describe the train conductor: that word is, impressive. He’s a middle-aged man, if not older, heavy-set, with a thick, graying beard and eyebrows. He wears his conductor hat, and, while he wait for the appointed time, draws one of those curved pipe Sherlock Holmes was so known for, a leather pouch full of tobacco, and begin quietly smoking. It is the sort of image you don’t see everyday; you would expect this man to captain a steamer (or perhaps a paddle boat), not so much to drive a train. As we finally board the train, one of the passenger reveals herself to know not a word of english (she is French, from France), and, being far more bilingual than anyone else on the train, I agree to provide an impromptu translation service, allowing the conductor to explain to her that she is to purchase her ticket at a station further south.

All aboard!

All aboard the Vermonter!

Then, at last, the train is off. It’s a slow start at first (I could walk faster where my ankle not sprained), but soon enough we accelerate, headed into the rolling farmlands of the Champlain valley. A grazing horse takes itself for a cow, and stares at us passing by. I quickly find out my earlier discussion partner was not lying: the ride is, indeed, rough. The writing in my notebook at this point bears mute testimony to this: I attempt to write directly on the table from the seat in front of me. My jotted down thoughts from earlier here become a strange, alien alphabet, full of jagged angles that were not meant to be.

We don’t get to see many far landscapes for now: except brief stretches of farmland, we are largely rolling through forests. Not untamed forests, however: at several places, thick logs are piled up by the railroad. Still, the forests are thick and dense: what little light filters through the canopy turns emerald as it reflect off leaves. It’s amazing how tiny some of the buildings are here: through a brief gap in the trees, too brief for my camera, I spy a literal one-window house. To the left of the train, the east, the ground slopes upward. West, however, it slopes down, toward Lake Champlain: we must be rolling along a hill. The shadows of the forest are deep.  On the horizon to the west, toward the lake, pale ghosts of mountains emerge : the massif of the Adirondack mountains. We arrive in Essex Junction: there’s a graveyard right by the railroad. It isn’t an association I’m used to making.

Odd, how many graveyards in the US are right next to the railroad.

Odd, how many graveyards in the US are right next to the railroad.

At Essex Junction, the train fills up significantly: this is the train station for Burlington, the largest town by far we will see before Massachusetts. From three or four people at St Alban, we become a dozen or two; the seats around me, once empty, quickly fills up.  We leave town again; and soon turn to the east-south-east. To the north-east, brief gap through the trees give us glimpses of hills rising slowly. The closests are covered in green trees that give the mountain its name; further away, a second and higher ridge is navy-blue in the graying sky. And, still further, glimpsed between the blue summits, or peeking above them, is a third ridge, pale gray and almost unseen agaisnt the clouds that often wreath their summits. These are the backbone of Vermont, the main ridge of the Green Mountains, with Mount Mansfield at its heart.

The backbone of Vermont (though that's not Mansfield)

The backbone of Vermont (though that's not Mansfield)

We turn to follow the Winooski River. It’s something of a walk down memory lane, though I don’t remember ever being here: when I first began writing a story sets in a land that had turned to immense forests, it was set in the valley of the Winooski. It is just as well I changed (and later abandoned the story): Waterbury would not have done. It is much larger than I had thought.  Great trees along the river have few leaves only, and these centered at the summit. I wish I could take pictures: one of my major frustration of the train drive is that despite crossing the Winooski several times, I didn’t have quite the reflexes to allow me to snap a good picture, always a second too late. Pictures as we roll by the river are impossible as well: there is a thin curtain of tree and high bushes between railroad and river, and any picture I take is a green blur. On the other side, tall hills overlook the track. Motorbikes overtake us along the road, which I believe is Interstate 89.

The towns we drive by have a very late XIXth, early XXth century feel. Others may find something to complain about there; I, however, do not. This is the sort of town I seem to feel most at home in; a sort of town that appears all over Quebec, built between 1850 and 1950. Some of them are so small as to barely be town at all: a graveyard alogn the railroad has ten tombstones, if even that much. Montpelier, the capital, is itself fairly small, and largely unremarkable (or at least, the parts of it that can be seen from the railroad). The same cannot be said of Randolph, which we reach soon afterward: though small, it is bar none the most charming of the towns I see along the way. I take several pictures of it around the train station; it is a place I should love to briefly visit. However, the most striking building we see in all Vermont is a house, or hotel in South Royalton: it looks straight out of a western. You’d expect Lucky Luke or the Dalton brothers to walk out of it any moment. (I missed it both on the way in and on the way out, but you can google image search it: South Royalton House).

Raaaaandolph station! (seriously, that's how the conductor said it).

Raaaaandolph station! (seriously, that's how the conductor said it).

We have left the Winooski behind; now it’s the White River we’re following. A thin wooden bridge crosses one of its streams; a foot bridge, perhaps a horse bridge, because I cannot imagine it bearing the weight of an entire car. Unlike the Winooski, the White is wider, or perhaps I am simply more alert now: I add several pictures of it to my growing collection. Give me high-speed internet, and I could see myself livign somewhere along the river; it is a superb landscape. More mountains rise here, in long ridges, some of them alongside the river.

You know, I could convince myself to live here...

You know, I could convince myself to live here...

In White River Junction, one of our predecessors – an old Green Mountain railroads train – is parked by the train station. We stop there a while, but as my camera is slowly giving up for wants of spare batteries. When it finally give up the ghost, I put it aside to reload a short time: as for myself, my own lack of energy (I slept little the previous night) is getting to me. I soldier on ten, fifteen minutes perhaps, to Claremont, then my eyes fail me, and I doze off.

And, because it’s diner time, and this is a convenient cut-off point in the account, I will call it quit at that, and continue later.

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