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A Day in Vermont II: Memories of Green

August 31, 2009

Continued from the previous entry, we now enter Vermont and its green mountains. (Voted most beautiful corner of the planet, except possibly the Saguenay/North Coast area of Quebec, by a poll of all Me)

Unlike my visit to Vermont six weeks ago when I went to Saint Albans, where we crossed the border at the Highgate Springs/Saint-Armand crossing, this time, we cross a dozen miles to the east, at the Frelighsburg/West Berkshire crossing.

This translates into three significant differences. First, we’re in hillier country right off the bat. Second, we’re nowhere near the Interstate network – we’re on a small country lane (and, therefore, a much more scenic road).

The countryside routes of Vermont. Pretty.

Okay, this is rather like any other countryside route. I like it still.

Third, of course, we’re much closer to the actual mountains, and with much better looks at them than I got on my way to the Vermonter (and onboard the Vermonter itself). The entire range of Jay Peak is visible to the east as we speed southward.

Jay Peak to the east.

The Jay mountains to the east (Jay Peak proper is the center-right pointy one).

The first town of any significant we encounter on the Vermont side is Enosburg Falls: officially a village, but a village that has its own opera house (so say Wiki), among other things: not very village-like if you ask me. The first noticeable building in Enosburg Falls, arriving from the north, is a former factory where one of the wonderful miracle cures (read: Snake Oil) of the late nineteenth century was made. In my curiosity, I went through the trouble (not much of it: google is your friend) of locating a sheet from the Daily Evening News of September 20, 1883, that featured lots of advertising for the product in question.

The factory for Kendall's Spavin Cure.

Kendall's Spavin Cure factory. Like most XIXth cent. snake oilers: mercifully out of business.

Village or not, Enosburg is actually a fairly pretty and nice town. It’s a little bit on the worn side, and the fact that the first building one sees coming from the north is all boarded up isn’t really a plus, but the town has a lot of personality. Plus, they are nestled on the shores of a quiet little river (the Missisquoi) as it snakes its way through the woodlands and meadows: one has to like that.

The Missisquoi river just outside Enosburg Falls.

The Missisquoi river just outside Enosburg Falls. Also my mother's glasses, to the left.

The hamlets and farmsteads succeed one another quickly, south of Enosburg Falls. The land become even hillier, and the road consequently bumpier. Much of the land is forest, too, meaning it becomes almost impossible to get good shots of anything while in movement as we are. To make things worse, I line up a great shot at mount Mansfield, looming directly ahead on the road…then a pothole strikes just as I actually take the picture, so I have a wonderful picture of…well, the road. And the lower slopes of Mansfield. And pointedly not the summit.

What should have been my second best shot of Mount Mansfield.

What should have been my second best shot of Mount Mansfield.

The next town of any significance (by a very generous definition of significance) we encounter is Jeffersonville, at the foot of the Sterling Range. It’s a small town in every sense of the word: unlike Enosburg Falls with its opera house, art gallery and malls, this is a town of a handful of businesses scattered across main street.

Jeffersonville: a proper village (unlike Enosburg Falls)

Main Street in Jeffersonville

And then, past Jeffersonville, is when things become…interesting. The road turns to the south-east, toward Stowe, but between Jeffersonville and Stowe are the mountains: the Sterling Range and Mount Mansfield itself. And, between the Sterlings and Mansfield, there’s a narrow gap, just wide enough for a single road: Smuggler’s Notch.

This, of course, is our next destination. Smuggler’s Notch has been fascinating me for years, ever since I started studying the geography of Vermont and New Hampshire for my novel-writing.) It has always struck me as a great place to set stories in: a narrow mountain passage between steep slopes.

Part of the Notch. It's...suitably dramatic.

Part of the Notch. It's...suitably dramatic. Though the picture does the right side no justice.

We stop there, of course. First because it’s an impressive piece of landscape, and second because it’s an overwhelming piece of landscape. I remember being terrified of going through it as a kid (at least I think this was it. There’s a remote possibility I’m mixing up two trips, and that it may instead have been Franconia Notch over in New Hampshire, but I’m firmly confident it was this one.

Honestly, it’s still terrifying. The cliffs looms right above you (literally: hanging rocks are not uncommon), and there are “active rock falls” signs all over the place. Even where it doesn’t, there’s only a sliver of sky above between the mountains and trees. With the way the mountains are set up, sunset probably comes very early here; and without any artificial lighting, or even moonlight for most of the night, it must be horribly dark in here at night.

What the right side really looks like.

What the right side really looks like.

The notch owes its name to the fact that, back in the early years of Vermont, it formed an ideal wilderness passage for smugglers headed toward Canada; the caverns in the notch provided convenient hiding place for the smugglers, too. Though I’m not sure they really are caverns: perhaps more like crevices and holes between the boulders that have fallen off the cliffs. Or maybe I’m wrong.

Smuggler's Cave

Smuggler's Cave

Most of the pictures I have here were taken around Smugglers Cave proper, the best-known of them; most of them from the ledge immediately above the cave itself. It’s probably the most nervous part of the entire day: the ledge is small, narrow, and it towers over the nearest trees, several time my height. It’s the sort of place where you really don’t wan to slip or trip.

Looking back toward the entrance of the notch. Note the ledge.

Looking back toward the entrance of the notch. Note the ledge I'm on.

As one might expect, the road between the two mountains isn’t exactly for the faint of heart either. It snakes its way around the bottom of the pass, The road between the two mountains is narrow, and nervous. For large parts of it, it’s nearly a single-lane road, and often lined with boulders all along the way. You definitely don’t want to go off the road here.

Then, suddenly, the world opens up. The mountains are behind, and ahead, the valley of Stowe is spread out, with the only mountains being on the horizon, miles away, and the sky clear and wide open.

The valley of Stowe, with the Worcester Mountains in the distance.

The valley of Stowe, with the Worcester Mountains in the distance.

Soon enough, we are in Stowe…and honestly, I don’t have much to say of it. The village itself is basically what they had in mind when they invented the word “touristy”: pretty enough, as far as the buildings go, but it lacks this little something, this little spark that makes the difference between enjoying the look of a place, and enjoying the feel of a place. I just ccan’t see myself spending a lot of time here.

We still spend time in town: there’s a nice recreation path starting behind the community church, for one thing.

This is just beautiful.

This is just beautiful.

For another, some distance out of town is a landmark I just can’t avoid visiting. This is, bar none, the one place in the valley of Stowe I’ve spent the most time writing about: a covered bridge (the Gold Brook bridge), built in 1844, today a national historic landmark.

Of course, none of that is what made me pay so much attention to that bridge. No, as far as that goes, it has to do with the other name of the bridge – Emily’s Bridge. Emily being a young woman who, reportedly, hanged herself at the bridge in despair after the man she was to elope with did not show up. Predictably, it is said her spirit still dwells at the bridge. Haunted houses may be a dime a dozen, but a haunted bridge is fairly unusual – and interesting.

Gold Brook Bridge, or Emily's Bridge. Note the speed limit sign.

Gold Brook Bridge, or Emily's Bridge. Note the speed limit.

After Emily’s Bridge, we turn back toward the hilly parts of the valley. The view from up there isn’t anything to spit on, far from it. Of course, the view translates directly into matching tourist spots. (I could make a obvious play on spellings with the name of one of the most famous tourist spots – see picture below -…but nah).

The view from near the Trapp (of Sound of Music fame) family lodge.

The view from near the Trapp (of Sound of Music fame) family lodge.

At that point, we somewhat wisely decides not to try Smuggler’s Notch a second time (particularly in the fading light), and instead to head south, toward the valley of the Winooski river, and Waterbury. Unfortunately, my plan to stop in Waterbury get dashed by a communication error. Ah, well. I’ll have to come back and visit the valley of the Winooski and White rivers at some point anyway (I still want to actually visit Randolph). Soon enough, with one last glimpse, we leave the mountain behind and head back down the Interstate toward the Champlain valley.

Camel's Hump, Vermont's #3 summit, looking over the Winooski valley

Camel's Hump, Vermont's #3 summit, looking over the Winooski valley

All that is soon behind us. I manage to miss yet another picture of the Winooski river (a continuing saga from my Journey to New Haven, where despite crossing the Winooski half a dozen times at least on the way in and out, I never managed a decent picture of it).

Fortunately, that many-times-cursed river’s luck finally runs out at a crossing near Richmond, where I manage to figure out we’ll cross in time to snap a picture. It’s a pretty river, on the whole, but not much beyond that to write home about.

The Winooski at last. As the Bard would say: much ado about nothing.

The Winooski at last. As the Bard would say: much ado about nothing.

It’s not long after (and one unexpected encounter with hot air balloons later), that we leave the wilder side of Vermont behind (okay, not that much wilder. We’re not talkign North-East Kingdom of anything like that), and hit the outskirts of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington. And by largest city, I mean, a university town with a population in the very low six digits, counting the suburbs. So really, not much of a city by most standards.

By my standards, it is, of course, in the perfect range for a city to be in. To make things better, Burlington has beautiful landscapes (Lake Champlain, with a good view on the Adirondacks on the other side, for a start). Still better, while not part of “home” per my usual definition (places I can see Mount Saint-Hilaire from), it’s part of both the Saint Lawrence lowlands and on the shores of Lake Champlain, which becomes the Richelieu river, the other defining feature of my homeland: not home, but the next best thing.

Church street in Burlington. No, not in Stowe, despite the banner.

Church street in Burlington. No, not in Stowe, despite the banner.

And to top it off, it seems to have most of the best elements of New Haven, without all the overbearing, over-ornate Yale buildings (the University of Vermont reminded me much more of the University of Arkansas, really. For those keeping track at home, I vastly prefered UArk to Yale). In short, I love it. And it’s very nice to know there’s such a town only ever a (relatively) cheap bus ride from Montreal.

This, of course, is around when night falls, and though we spend some time in Burlington, wandering the streets (looking for a restaurant with some room available, which we did not find – bad day for it, really; the city was full), I bring back relatively few pictures of it. We eventually set out again, but of the return journey to Beloeil, on the highway in darkness, there’s relatively little to say. It’s hard to watch the world in darkness. We largely spend time playing an identification game (I think of a character or person; you must ask yes/no questions until you identify him/her/it).

Night falls over Lake Champlain, and over this story.

A cloudy evening descends on Lake Champlain, and over this story.

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