Tuesday, July 27, 2010


When I was a kid, I often imagined that I'd end up living in New Hampshire. There is no particularly good reason for this, and it probably had a lot to do with the fact that by the time of my seventh birthday, I'd only ever stayed overnight in two different states. I guess if I take my net migration up till now, then I have made it halfway there.

Although I only get rare occasions to visit, I have always liked northern New England. It has the right mix of civilization and population, the former of which retains scraps of the notions of self-sufficiency and sometimes overeducated cleverness that makes us homers think we're better than everyone, and the latter is suitably low for my comfort. That emptiness isn't the intolerable openness you might find in other rural localities, but is decently surrounded by old hills and endless trees, interspersed with the occasional farm. I'm most familiar with the Litchfield Hills in western Connecticut, as well as the wooded mountains of the Massachusetts Berkshires (which are the lower part of the Green Mountain range). Proceeding north, the major difference in the landscape is the scale length. The trees are just a hair more sparse up there; and the hills are more spread out and significantly larger. The southern mountains are scrappy rolling affairs, but up in the vert monts, they spread out into majestic peaks, between which roads more calmly wind. Vermont also lacks the industrial towns that are nestled into every one of the Connecticut foothills, suddenly visible around every turn of the highway.

Around the time of American independence, the state spunkily carved out an identity from New York and New Hampshire (and earlier, from Quebec--if we want to go back even further, Vermont appears to have been caught between Iroquois and Algonquin power centers as well). I get a kick out of the comparison. New Hampshire's license plates command us to live free or die, features a self-important conservative rag as the state paper, and even today it attracts these "free state" chuckleheads hoping to turn it into a market utopia. (With hardly any people, libertarianism has a chance of working there if anywhere, although with all that money in that little section near the coast, a tax-free environment where the right to property gets equal billing with life and liberty is going to work out better for some than others. As usual.) Although it had a mind to eventually integrate, Vermont is one of the handful of states that was originally a separate republic. The Green Mountain boys were the ones that actually lived under their neighbor's motto, keeping the Brits down and backing its the New Somethings the hell off. The Vermont constitution is the first new world political document to outlaw slavery, and it didn't limit the vote to property-owners. When it comes to living free, New Hampshire is a fucking poseur.

The original Vermont constitution also provided for public education, and has generally been ahead of the curve (by U.S. standards) for public health care. Also: Bernie Sanders. I don't know if Vermonters feel the government is intrusive--nothing feels very obtrusive in Vermont except maybe tourists in ski season. (My wife came across a brochure advertising that "what happens in Vermont stays in Vermont...although nothing really happens.") Here progressivism, and what with the various farm cooperatives, something maybe approaching mutualism stands a chance as well, also thanks to having hardly any people. Competing notions of freedom.

Thanks to college students I knew, occasional skiing trips when I was that age, and Phish, I think of Vermonters as hippie-ish, and generally easygoing. [Actually, the green mountain state has at least two free state/secessionist/teaparty movements, at least one of which is pushing batshit territory.] Certainly Burlington is like that, with more hemp stores and breweries per population than I've seen anywhere else. I haven't quite worked out the connection, but these kids somehow have to turn into the outdoorsy enflanneled geezers that populate the Vermont of my imagination, but even on last weekend's trip, I saw few people over 40. Maybe they hole up and become recluses when their knees give out, eventually snowboard into a tree (to the extreme!), get beaten to death with lacrosse sticks, or eaten by bears. Vermont has a growing foodie culture, excellent cheese, and, importantly, a fine local beer tradition. The college breakfast joint we stopped at had over five excellent beers on tap, which seems mandatory for about anywhere I breezed by in the state. I should also add that of the New England states, Vermont has the least ridiculous accent, approaching the dialectical perfection of Connecticut English speakers.

For the first six months of its independence, Vermont was called New Connecticut. I like that. I'm more seriously entertaining the idea of changing where I'm from. Since the dump I live in now was so cheap, there's some actual cash flow now that we've entered dual income world. Doubling our mortgage still keeps us under McMansion territory, and the market right now favors picking another one up. Here's the theory: buy now (actually a year from now), and use the upstate place as a vacation home, just in driving distance, for the next ten years. When the kids are done with high school, we'll make it a permanent residence, or, if we change our mind, we can sell it, confident that the housing market will rebound in the longer term. (Or if the whole world goes to hell by then, it's a place where there's a chance to fall back on some hard-lived self-sufficiency.) The goal is to make the fastest possible living exit from the rat race. Flaws in the plan include paying for the kids' college educations (yup, one of the awesome things about overpriced education is extorting parents to stay on the goddamn hamster wheel even longer), and the interim possibility of lost jobs and an extra home we can't sell. What are the odds?

Pound for pound, two states worth of Berkshires are prettier than the Vermont range, but except for the aforementioned difference of characteristic dimensions, the main distinction is that a whole lot more of the northern state is like that. Growing up in Connecticut, I didn't get to live in the beautiful hills. There's a north/south industrial line that runs up the state I landed just opposite. A town west, and there were the rich (dominant now) and the farmers (fewer), and the foothills begin rising up with more earnestness. I've only just now realized that the crappy burg in which I currently reside is at the same point relative to the Massachusetts urban divide. I'll complain about the terrible compromise with any provocation at all. I'd like to live west in either state, or in a quality urban center--anything but in-between--but those settings not only fail to let me off the wheel, I'd need to run a lot harder to not get there.

Do I really need to head north? It's not that southern New England lacks codgers, it's just that you have to inherit the land, or somehow get rich working. Mom and Dad blew it in the first department, and I'm in the wrong field for the second. I fantasize about moving to a low-stress job instead of early retirement (community college professor? follow my wife into clinical lab benchwork?). I mean, I think well on outdoor activities and I like the trees, but only a small commute stops me from being more enthusiastic about that stuff here. I'd like a goat and a few chickens if I had room, but I'm incompetent at growing things. I'd consider taking up hunting and fishing with enough outdoor space, but that's really not my religion. By looks, I am sufficiently hirsute to pass for a hippie or (before too long) a codger, so I'm covered there, and if I'm happy whiling away my weekends cooking, tinkering, reading, blogging, hacking talentlessly on my mando, and being an irritating know-it-all, could I really do it for decades on end? Part of me worries that the answer is no, and the rest worries that it's yes. I fear an easy (or difficult) seasonal drift from the wood stove to summer porch, and eventually dying of existence. Maybe there are worse ways to go. Or maybe that's the way we all go, whatever we pretend.

[some edits]


switters said...

You're baiting me, aren't you? I know it. I just know it. You're baiting me.

The first time I ever saw Vermont was the Christmas/New Year of 1991-92. I think. (I'm sure Tia will be along shortly to confirm/deny this.) Tia invited me home to meet her mom and sister and brother in Craftsbury Common(s). It was the first time I ever saw the Milky Way. I fell in love with the place, and not just because Vermont is featured in White Christmas.

It's an interesting culture. They refer to themselves as part of The North East Kingdom, like it's Araby or some such. It' appeals to me. And it might be The Northeast Kingdom, now that I think about it.

But I have some amendments for your "plan". Make it a 5 year plan (okay, 3 years [months]). Listen, I suspect your dad, like mine, put you through college. My dad started saving for his kids' tuitions before any of us were even born. But you just can't do that anymore. Your kids will have to borrow the money until the system implodes and we have to start all over again. So don't save for college; they'll be fine; they can move in with you after they graduate until they find some "employment" in Burlington. Also, there's a culinary institute in Montpelier, so there.

But seriously, cut it back to 5 years max. The more you think about it, the shorter that time will become. Plus, Tia can get you her wood burning stove for me and we can meet in Pennsylvania for the exchange of it, over a much overdue beer.

Consider this: the winters in Vermont are not as harsh as the winters in west-central Ohio. I can't explain it; maybe it's the wind, or all that underwear. Beats the heck out of me. But it's true.

twif said...

i too love vermont. the green mountains are beautiful (as are the berkshires, though i thought they were part of the appalachians, not the greens), particularly around burlington. cause then you've got the greens, lake champlain and the high peaks of the adirondacks just across the lake.

maple syrup, beer, cheese, cider, ben & jerry's, kind bud...what is there not to like?

bright said...

Nice parenthetical Poochie reference.

switters said...

twif, bookstores. Used bookstores. At least years ago. I got Remembrance(s) Of Things Past, all 7(?) volumes, at this great little shop in Montpelier.

Also, east coast ski(i)ers are superior to Rocky Mountain ski(i)ers because of all the ice. We got spoiled by 460 inches of powder every season.

Also, if I don't quit my job soon, Satan will suck my soul out through my nose while feeding me hot dogs with ketchup on them?!?! Wish me luck.

P.S. Keifus, I'm giving you 3 years. I'll check back.

twif said...

@ switters: i like ketchup.

@ all: also, i'm back here: http://intentionallyblankpage.blogspot.com/

cause the other place broke and i fear if i ask schad to get it fixed, he'll hit me up for cash. [grin]

Keifus said...

Baiting? Nah, I was up there this last weekend. Been turning over these ideas for a while. Going to try and take a good peep at the Northwest (similar in spirit) next month as well, but we couldn't vacation much there. I badly need some kind of positive change; I'm too young to feel this weary. Maybe just a new job would do it.

Parents spotted me tuition and board, and life did nothing worse than throw me a couple softballs to undo their effort and put me in the mountainous student loan camp with the rest of 'em. Though I'm free now: that and the moronic decision to go to grad school has set me back from autonomy a good decade. (Independence of the system is an eternal carrot, and the rationalizations change so the string stays played out forever. Class structure changes less than advertised, intentionally or not. Social mobility is possible, but not encouraged.)

Ten years is the time till (1) current mortgage is dismissed, and (2) younger daughter can expect to say goodbye to her local friends in any case.

Cold theory: trees to cut the wind, and snow can reduce how cold it feels. Especially if you're buried under it.

I never skied a whole lot: quickly gained low/mediocre ability, and then didn't improve (couldn't afford to). Not atypical for me.

twif: See, where else could you have Ben and Jerry's? That's what I'm talking about.

And it's not ketchup that's bad, it just doesn't belong on hot dogs.

Actually, hot dogs shouldn't be eaten with anything. Or at all.

bright: thank god you're here.

Yankee Market said...

We made the 750 mile move to Vermont from Virginia on July 1st. We lost our Virginia house [underwater] to the bank in foreclosure. This was the best damned thing that could have happened to us. Talk about positive cash flow, no more mortgages payments. Also, Vermont has implemented some halfway decent healthcare reform and our self employed $1200 a month Virginia health insurance is now $0. My 4 year old's pre-school was $150 a week in Virginia, now $0. Public school in many Vermont towns starts with Pre-K, and they actually educate the students. So, now I rent for about half my mortgage payment, have no house upkeep issues or property tax, and live in green mountain paradise. My recommendation for anyone thinking of moving here "just do it". Although, I prefer you all just visit, spend some money while your here, and don't litter.

twif said...

hot dogs are delicious. provided you get good ones. natural casing is a must. i recommend mucke's natural casing...i think you can get them in MA.

Keifus said...

I'm a fan of sausage (the food that is, not that there's anything wrong with that) in general, and I'm willing to be proven wrong. My theory is that after a sufficiently high quality point, they call them something other than hot dogs.

Also: yes, beers are long overdue.

You know, what actually does hold me back is a small handful of connections that will fall out of easy driving distance with such a move. That would be tough on me.

Yankee Market: Thanks for the input, and for finding my blog! It's a good advertisement, although July 1st makes the judgement seem a little premature to me.

tia said...

Hey, there. The title of your post caught me eye when I saw it on artandsoul's bloglist, and being a total homer I had to check it out.

So. Vermont. First of all, I'm pretty sure switters's first visit was 92/93, but I could be wrong. It was definitely the first time he saw the Milky Way, and he could scarcely talk about anything else afterward. And the bookstore where he found the Proust closed last year, but there are still four other independent bookstores in my town of 8,000 souls.

The Green Mountains (which is actually just one of five ranges in Vermont, but the name is shorthand for all of the mountains here) are part of the Appalachians (as are all the northeastern US mountain ranges); the Green Mtns and the Berkshires are two names for parts of the same range. Tomato, tomahto.

The three northeastern-most counties in Vermont (Orleans, Essex and Caledonia) are called the Northeast Kingdom, but I don't think the term is all that old. The accent there is unbelievable. Remember Glenn Close's accent in the SNL skit "What's the Best Way" It's kinda like that, only less Katharine Hepburn-y.

The cost of living is high, and out of staters buying second homes have driven up property taxes to such an extent that many native Vermonters can't afford to keep their homes. But the quality of life is even higher. (As is the tuition at UVM and most of the private universities.) I wouldn't live anywhere else. The schools are good, the kids are healthy, it's a safe place to live. All children under the age of 18 have health insurance through the state if their families can't afford their own. And since it can be hard to find a job, that's a huge safety net for families here.

There's one hell of a food movement going on in the Kingdom and throughout the state:

and my brother is co-owner of one of the best beer joints in New England. For reals.

Being hirsute is the default setting for most men (and women for that matter) in the winter; folks tend to save the razors for summertime.

You only need a backyard to raise chickens. At least three families in my neighborhood have modest flocks of 4-8 birds.

There's a huge divide politically in the state. It has a reputation for liberalism now (hello, Bernie), but there's a much, much longer tradition of being a standard bearer for the Republican party. I believe Vermont and Maine are the only two states that didn't go for FDR. The old timers still tend to lean pretty far to the right; the newbies are the ones keeping Bernie in office. Civil unions passed in 2000, and "Take Back Vermont" signs went up throughout the state, and many of them are still hanging ten years later.

Well, you can find all this shit out from more reliable sources than me. Vermont's a damn good place to live, but it's no utopia. For the most part, people are treated fairly here, and most everyone I know has no interest in living anywhere else.

(And hot dogs are a fine food, but it's all in how you treat 'em. Swamp dogs at Fenway or from a NYC street vendor? Sketchy. All-beef dogs from Yacco's in Allentown, PA with their chili sauce and onions and a side of pierogies? Food of the gods.)

Keifus said...

Hi tia, thanks for wandering in. As good a summary as I could imagine, and I really appreciate it.

You give me the impression that the great green north is gentrifying at almost the pace of the Berkshires (sounds a couple decades behind, to hear you describe it), so there goes that theory. I'm already lagging in the rat race. Might as well fail to move a couple towns into western Mass.

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