By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
Travel through Vermont in mid-October, and spectacular autumn colors are certain to be the centerpiece and the common thread of the journey.
Nature’s pallet didn’t disappoint on this 2016 tour that ranged from Killington and Woodstock in the heart of the state to Burlington and Stowe at the north end. Many of the vistas were as stunning as the eye could behold.
But every trip is about more than scenery. It is the unexpected encounters and pleasantly quirky treasures that make it memorable.
Such as the tiny shop on Church Street in Burlington selling “Keep Vermont Weird” shirts and artifacts as “a shout out to the eclectic vibe, strong sense of community and ultimately the infectious pride that everyone takes in being a Vermonter.”
That was no better expressed than by the numerous displays of balanced driftwood and rocks on the beach of Burlington Waterfront Park on the shore of Lake Champlain. Call them random acts of creativity.
One impromptu artist was perched on a boulder admiring an intricate arrangement of driftwood he’d spent two hours assembling at the expense of a rip in his sweater. He told us it was a mousetrap, but he was just joshing. It was impressive, though, in the genre of Rube Goldberg.
Why do it? Just because.
Why not add to the eclectic vibe on an unseasonably mild afternoon that had sturdy Vermonters shuffling along the boardwalk in shorts and flip-flops like the displaced Floridians we actually were.
While weirdness may be a sense of pride for some residents, we found Vermont totally true to its reputation as individualistic, independent-thinking and resourceful.
The people were friendly without exception. That included an encounter with the police on the highway – the written warning was much appreciated.
The inherent good-naturedness may have something to do with being the second-least populous state. It doesn’t feel crowded anywhere, even in its largest city, Burlington, which has a population of just over 42,000.
Though known for their sweet tooth as the nation’s largest producer of maple syrup, the No. 1 dining recommendation we received was the pumpkin chowder (roasted pumpkin, apple smoked bacon and sweet corn topped with pumpkin seeds) at Leunig’s Bistro, also on Church Street in Burlington.
Having visited all six New England states, Vermont stood out as different from the others. More practical flannel than the L.L. Bean stylishness found elsewhere.
It has a Colorado feel about it, a western boldness. Yet the home state of John Deere, Carlton Fisk, Rudy Vallee and Brigham Young has a sense of self that is all its own.
One of four states that were once independent republics, Vermont has always blazed its own trails – from being the first to abolish slavery to giving women the right to vote in 1880, decades before the 19th Amendment extended it nationwide.
The more I learn about Vermont’s history and distinctive qualities, the more appealing it becomes. The best way to gain an appreciation, though, is through personal discovery, exploring quaint towns such as Woodstock or natural wonders like Quechee Gorge.
The latter, dubbed Vermont’s Little Grand Canyon, is a spectacular remnant of the ice age 13,000 years ago that is best viewed from the U.S. Route 4 bridge, 165 feet above the Ottauquechee River.
Art synched with nature’s pallet
Start out following the natural beauty and plenty of intriguing distractions present themselves along the way.
Such as the West Branch Gallery and Sculpture Park near Stowe. Techniques applied by artists on display inside the former indoor tennis facility stand up to those we’ve seen in big-city galleries and artsy outposts such as Santa Fe.
The clear standout was Kim Radochia’s Murmurations, which combine painting and sculpture in stunning abstracts that are inspired by patterns in nature, such as water currents, flocking birds and geological formations. The shapes are created by hand-torn pieces of painted paper. Thousands of them meticulously glued to a board to create the flowing designs. At first glance they appear as chips of rock, such as mica.
Outside, the gallery is a collaborative effort between artists and nature.
The impressive array of sculptures scattered through the garden, shaped from various metals and stone medium, seem to beckon as creative tributes to the gods. But they cannot overshadow the natural splendor to be found at the end of an adjacent path through the woods that leads to a picturesque river.
The shore there is a carefully laid out rock arrangement, a work of art shaped by time unimaginable. I couldn’t resist fashioning a couple of impromptu rock sculptures, like the ones in Burlington, as a bow to nature’s handiwork.
The Stowe area is a gem even without considering one of the premier ski resorts in the Northeast. That is underscored by the appeal of the region year round.
Moss Glen Falls, about 3 miles outside town off Route 100 North, is popular with artists and photographers, a major attraction in an obscure locale. It takes some searching – a small parking area on the left is easy to miss – followed by a 10-15 minutes hike along a narrow trail, but well worth the effort. Once in earshot of the falls, there is still a steep climb to make to the overlook opposite the falls, which plummets 125 feet down a progression of cascades.
Stowe’s famous ski slopes are off Route 108, a roadway that measures up with the most scenic drives in New England, particularly the 20-mile stretch between Stowe and Jeffersonville.
Spirits enliven historic pass
The highlight – literally – is the steep, winding white-knuckle traverse through the rocky narrows of Smugglers Notch Pass.
It’s dark, spooky and chilly even when the day is warm and sunny just below the peak. The foreboding mood among the giant boulders is befitting the name which dates to when the pass was a clandestine route to ferry goods during an embargo imposed against Canada by President Thomas Jefferson, and again a century later during Prohibition.
The notch is closed to traffic during the winter, during which it becomes a popular playground of the locals for snowmobiling, snowboarding and hiking.
The latter fact was provided by Patrick Miller, brand ambassador at Smugglers’ Notch Distillery, situated at the foot of pass on the north side at Jeffersonville.
The small-batch distillery is a toast to the end of the bootlegger era. The small father and son operation, by Ron and Jeremy Elliott, has racked up an impressive collection of awards since 2010, including its vodka, made from winter wheat and corn, winning double gold at the San Francisco World Spirits competition.
For $3 you can sample four varieties of Smugglers’ Notch spirits in the tasting room, including the special reserve Dead Buck bourbon whiskey (108 proof, selling for $108 a bottle, only at the distillery on Route 108), which has a warm, uplifting aftertaste and cozy glow to match.
So this is how they keep warm in Vermont when the temperature plummets and the north wind whips through from Canada. Miller confirmed that in noting the numerous distilleries throughout Vermont in the mid-Nineteenth Century, many more than the present-day 18 in the state.
That is dwarfed by the better known Vermont liquid industry centered around about 1,500 maple sugar shacks producing more than 40 percent of the nation’s maple syrup output.
About a mile from the Smugglers’ Notch Distillery another family operation, enduring through seven generations, has been churning out the liquid gold for more than 100 years at the Vermont Maple Outlet, as always one gallon from every 40 gallons of sap collected.
How sweet it is
The maple syrup industry is expanding in Vermont, and 2016 was a banner season. According to the state’s agency of agriculture, it yielded 1.9 million gallons, topping the previous record of 1.48 million gallons from 2013.
There is concern, and a study is ongoing, about how climate change may eventually impact the harvest of the sweet stuff, not only in Vermont but throughout New England. This past winter was the warmest on record, and producers were tapping trees two to three weeks earlier than usual.
On the waterfront in Burlington, we encountered local television meteorologist Torrance Gaucher (Local 22 WVNY, Local 44 WFFF), who was filming a story about what to expect from weather in the upcoming winter. He pointed out that along with an unseasonably warm fall, an extended drought had the level of Lake Champlain about two feet below normal.
It was the third week of October, and temperatures were climbing into the mid-70s during the day and still mild at night. Asked if he expected the trend to continue, Gaucher said there was plenty of reason to anticipate a return to normal winter conditions, that there was no particular correlation to the mild fall.
That was underscored by an abrupt turnabout in the weather. Four days after our drive through Smugglers Notch, Route 108 was closed until further notice due to the region’s first major snowfall, which dumped five or more inches of snow in some parts of Vermont. The development was embraced by meteorologists and skiers alike – and no doubt by snowboarders like Patrick Miller.
For travelers intent on embracing the falls colors, our timing the previous week couldn’t have been better, perfectly in step with poet William Cullen Bryant’s view on the season: “Autumn…the year’s last, loveliest smile.”