Vermont is one of the wildest and most beautiful of all the US states. Each October, the greenery here explodes into an array of magical autumn colors for a few days. We went on a road trip through the Green Mountain State and fell for it like a ton bricks.
Words and photos by Jonas Henningsson
Halfway across the bridge, under the domed roof, a couple is kissing each other tenderly, gently, slowly. Her head is weightless in his hands. The bridge hovers just as weightlessly over the Pemigewasset River, which is swirling around playfully underneath them. The river is in just as good a mood as we hikers are as it dances along across the stones. Days like this can turn even the most introverted and grouchy of cynics into a smiling ray of sunshine. I’m approaching the end of my journey through the White National Forest.
I’ve mostly been following the Appalachian Trail, but I’ve made a few minor detours like this one along the way. The colors of autumn have erupted all around me during the hike, and today, the leaves seem to have decided to try to set a new world record for color satisfaction in the glaring sunshine. They’re glowing bright red, yellow, purple and blood red. The covered bridge, where the couple is still making out even after I’ve finished my drink break and checked my map, is one of more than 100 of its kind in Vermont. There’s no other state with so many bridges of this kind per square mile. They started building them in 1820, the first one was Pulp Mill Bridge, which crosses Otter Creek in Middlebury, about half an hour’s drive west of here, but most of them weren’t built until after the middle of the century. The bridges soon became popular spots for lovers, who were able to spend more time together there under the roof where nobody could see them. Well, almost nobody, anyway I can see them, of course. Maybe he’s proposing to her, right here, at this very moment?
After the hike, I rinse down several days’ worth of trail dust at the One Love Brewery in Lincoln. A crisp Northern Lights Helles brings my vocal cords back to working order, and a Czech Your Head Pilsner chases the fatigue away. Lincoln, which is a sleepy town, attracts hikers in the summer and skiers in the winter. And, of course, now, in the autumn time- wine lovers! By chance, I find myself at the White Mountain Crush Festival, in which the locals celebrate the wine harvest by crushing grapes under their feet the old-fashioned way, and then gathering to enjoy a long dinner on the terrace of the River Walk Resort at Loon Mountain. When we’re done, and have all made new friends for life, the view of the mountains is gone, and Lincoln is shrouded in the blackness of night. The party carries on in the illuminated pool, under the stars.
The next morning, I rise at dawn at The Mountain Club on Loon, a mountainside hideaway with most appropriate pinewood interiors, which balances on the slope that leads down to the Pemigewasset River. I greet Cecilia at the breakfast service, who I met at the bar last night, and who is also travelling north through Vermont by car. Cecilia, who has driven here from Cape Cod, is going all the way to Canada, and so, she says goodbye and heads off before me. The air is clear, and a handful of downy clouds are dancing elegantly over Mount Osceola when I get into my car and drive north a short while later. I try some cheeses at Cabot Farmer’s Store in Waterbury; the state has 50 or so dairies that make miraculous cheeses out of the goat, sheep, and cow milk that is produced up here. I sample rich moldy cheeses and sharp cheddar, and fill a basket with treasures that I simply have to bring along for the drive. Goat’s cheese from the Lazy Lady Farm, Cheddar from Grafton Village, and sheep’s cheese from Vermont Shepherd.
Highway 100 is one of Vermont’s Scenic Byways, and because it takes you straight to some amazing skiing locations, people often refer to it as Skier’s Highway. I turn the dial to a local station, and my mood becomes even lighter when I hear Whitney’s “No Woman” fill the car. I drive past small farms, and a parade of pickups parked in front of flag- adorned porches. There seem to be eggs, vegetables, honey, or syrup for sale in every house. The houses are all neatly painted white, with horizontal panels. There! An Airstream, polished to a gorgeous sheen by its proud owner. And over there, another white little church, pointing stalwartly at the steel-blue sky. On the meadow, highland cattle stare at me as I pass by – but what else do they have to do? I’m pretty much the only thing going on at the moment.
Doc Pond and the “Chaos Poet” of Stowe
Just when I’m thinking that the scenery couldn’t possibly get any more rural, country, or lush, Stowe appears in front of my eyes. I have to turn the music down (by now, I’ve switched to a station that’s playing the Puerto Rican rapper Residente, who proclaims his love alongside the French singer Stéphanie Sokolinski, or Soko, in “Desencuentro”). They might as well have been singing about Stowe, because Stowe leaves me speechless. I think to myself that “if this is what Vermont is like I never want to leave” as I park my car downtown and look out over the neighborhood. A chalky white church protrudes from a landscape painted in fiery shades (the colors of love, of course), and there are little houses inserted into the dense foliage with the mountains as backdrop and the eternal, pale blue sky as canvas. A small main street, lined with neat wood and stone houses. Close to my motel, I sneak into Doc Ponds, where I am greeted by a wall of vinyl records. The bar is long, and I find a spot and start sampling local brews.
A fresh, citrusy pilsner from Von Trapp, a flowery pale ale from Alchemist, a Mosaic IPA from Lost Nation (which is a little way up the road from here, I know, but it’s still as close to local as you can get). While I enjoy my cheddar burger, I think about Doc Pond. In 1876, the case of The State of Vermont v. One Keg of Lager Beer was put before the court. The issue under consideration was whether the beverage, which was thought to be very weak compared to other drinks, could potentially influence the people who drank it. Many of the witnesses for the defense were medical doctors, one of whom was E. A. Pond. He explained that lager, which only contains 4.6% alcohol, is cleansing, nutritional, and not intoxicating. He ended his statement by claiming that a man can drink 15–20 glasses of it without suffering any effects besides a slight drowsiness and, possibly, minor mental impairment. The body processes the beer before it intoxicates, Doc Pond stated. The keg was acquitted.
While I’ve been thinking, the seat next to me has acquired an occupant: Tom Murphy, a regular customer at this bar. Tom was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, but moved away early in life, leaving coal country for the fresh mountain air of Stowe.
— When I was at college, I really wanted to be a professional freestyle skier. The sport had just begun to develop and grow, and I was doing really well with my aerials. I “moved to Stowe, Vermont” every winter break, and I thought I was going to stay here for good, but there wasn’t much work around, so I went back to school for three years before I finally did move here in 1974.
–We built ramps and soft landing spots by putting bales of hay under the snow, Tom recalls. That was as far as we went in terms of safety precautions. The next year, I began competing on the American Chevrolet Freestyle Skiing Tour, and I finished the first season in sixth place overall. The year after that, when the tour began in Killington, Vermont, one of the top skiers landed very badly, and broke his back. That was all it took for me to reevaluate my decision and find something else to do. At that same time, I’d also begun to find a lot of success with my stage performances, so I ended up dropping out of the tour.
Before long, Tom realized that he wanted to work on stage instead. He founded two comedy troupes, Mountain Mime and Klown Shoes. For the last 30 years, he’s been one of the most respected slapstick performers in the country. He’s also a clown. His résumé reads like a long list of international tours and Broadway shows, and he was awarded the epithet the “chaos poet” by a German critic. But the chaos poet prefers to stay right here in Stowe.
–Stowe is an athlete’s dream, with four very distinct seasons. There’s great skiing in the winters, and during the other seasons, you can swim, run, hike, climb, and go mountain biking. You can even go skydiving! Tom says and takes a sip of his Fiddlehead IPA. After a long chat (and more beers!), Tom asks me if I want to join him for a mountain bike ride early the next day.
–Hey, you didn’t even need to ask! Of course, I’ll join you for a bike ride! I offer in the way of greeting when we meet at dawn of the next day. Tom smiles, loads our bikes onto his car, and drives up into the hills. We leave Vermont, and five minutes later, we’ve arrived in Austria. The houses look just like the ones you see in the alps, the landscape looks just like the mountainous country, and yes, even the cows look like they’ve been beamed over from Europe.
— This place reminded the von Trapps of their home to such an extent that they settled here in 1942, and they still live here to this day, Tom tells me as we unload our bikes at The Trapp Family Lodge. Naturally, most of the visitors who come here want to find out more about the von Trapp family’s escape from the Nazis in Austria. The movie _The Sound of Music_ is based on Maria von Trapp’s autobiography. She was the second wife of Johannes von Trapp, with whom she had three children (Johannes had seven children with his first wife, and they all grew up here).
But the rest of us come here for the nature. There’s Nordic skiing in the wintertime and hiking in the summers. And, of course, MTB in the autumn, like now! We soar through von Trapp’s replica of Austria, complete with wood alpine chalets and cows grazing in the hillsides, mooing happily at us as we pass by. For a moment, it even seems to me that they’re mooing in German, but I dismiss that thought immediately.
The von Trapps may have succeeded completely in creating their own fantasy world, but surely, not even they could have achieved a transformation like that!
— This isn’t so much fun, let’s take the Stepping Stone” trail later, it’s a single track! Tom interrupts my thoughts, but I’m actually having a blast, and I make a point of taking in all the greenery while the biking is still easy. We roll down a slope through a chamber of leaves, where the ground is covered in them, some of them as big as human hands, and where the walls and ceiling are draped in gold.
After our bike ride, we wind down at von Trapp’s brew pub. Johannes Von Trapp couldn’t help noticing that the American beer revolution was very much focused on hoppy beers when it started out 20 years ago. But of course, he wanted to make the clean, crisp beer that you get in Austria. The brewery was ready to open in 2010. For those who prefer to sip wine, they also offer wine on tap – green grape wine, Grüner Veltliner, and blue grape wine, Zweigelt.
The First Snow of the Season
The next morning, a biting, cold wind greets me. The night seems to have convinced an unusual number of leaves to abandon their comfortable perches on the tree branches, because the car is absolutely covered in dinner plate-sized oak leaves when I walk out to stow my bags. But before I’m ready to go back on the road, I’ll be having breakfast at the Colonial Café.
When I get there, Joe is milling around in the kitchen as usual, and gives me a friendly greeting. He actually seems even friendlier than usual this morning. What’s up? I ask.
–The snow is coming, he smiles, and gazes out into the chill of the morning air. Joe is a snowboarder, and he simply can’t wait for the first snow to arrive. It’s mid-October now, and it should already be here.
–We usually walk up the slopes to catch the first snow, it’s so worth it, he beams, and pours me another cup of coffee. I notice that I’m starting to feel rather terrific myself – perhaps it’s the omelet and crispy fried potatoes that I’ve drenched in Sriracha Cha! sauce (on Joe’s recommendation; he insisted that it was the best table sauce ever made the first morning I came here). Or, maybe it’s the coming shift of the seasons. Being a Swede, I’m so used to these shifts that I find it hard to imagine living anywhere that doesn’t have such distinct differences between the various times of the year. Bring on the snow! we exclaim together. Joe lives close to the Canadian border, and he commutes down here, driving back and forth each day, and even finding time to go to his second job before returning home in the evenings. But when the weekend comes, he’s off work, and he has a date with his board, and that’s all there is to say about that.
The Pilgrim’s Trail
I leave Stowe and drive north, past gorgeous, little Morristown, before I take the turn to Wolcott. I decide to stretch my legs for a while before returning to the pilgrim’s trail, and a sign tells me that the church at the center of the village was built back in 1856.
At the end of the road, at the spot where you have no option but to conclude that you must have taken at least one wrong turn along the way, the GPS breaks down, and my mobile can’t catch a signal. That’s where Hill Farmstead, the world’s best brewery, is located. They’ve been a shoe-in for the #1 spot on the most important beer site, Rate Beer, for the last 5 years. On the large lawn in front of the building, there are dogs running around, and groups of people sitting in the sun, taking in the view while sipping a saison or an IPA, and watching the sunlight curl its fingers around the red and gold of the trees. Out in the parking lot, a food truck attracts a line of hungry customers. Most visitors have a long drive to get here, and another long drive to get back home. The trip to Hill Farmstead is a pilgrimage for beer geeks. The brewery’s beer can be hard to find, but here, of course, you can get several of them as fresh as can be, and many different languages can be heard spoken on the lawn outside the brewery.
Of course, mama Hill is there to receive all the visitors. This place and this family mean everything to brew master Shaun Hill, and this is even made plain by the names of the brews: Abner, an Imperial Pale Ale (named after his paternal great grandfather), Anna, a Farmstead Ale (after his paternal grandmother’s aunt), Biere de Norma, a Biére de Mars (after his maternal grandmother), and so on. They are all named after relatives who left their marks on this place in the past, and who live on through it today. The ties to the past are engraved into the labels on the bottles. The significance of the place is obvious even as you drive up here, and it doesn’t take long to realize that this beer could never have been brewed anywhere else. Tradition and home are beyond important – they’re essential! The tap room and the brewery are in the same building, and you can watch the brewers at work through large windows while you sip your beer.
– You have to try our cheeses with the beer, tap room manager Sarah Young suggests. Soon, I’m sitting on the porch, gazing at the hills and squinting at the sun. Context is everything, and right here, right now, this platter of local cheeses and this drink from this very place taste better than anything I have ever tasted before. I load as many beers as I possibly can into my car before I head back out onto the road.
Montpelier in Vermont is the smallest of all the US state capitals, but it also happens to be one of the most charming. The town, which has a pair of main streets both lined with grand, historical buildings, is home to somewhere around 8,000 inhabitants. European settlers arrived in the area in the 17th century, but no permanent settlements were built until 1787, when their construction was supervised by colonel Jacob Davis and general Parley Davis, who came up here from Massachusetts. They chose a location west of the northern branch of the Winooski river, which is where the town remains to this day, and where I sit down on a bench on Main Street on this sunny day in October, some 250 years later. Frank, who hangs out here every day, is probably not giving much thought to the town’s history; he seems to have things under control. So, what do you like best about this place? I ask him out loud, as though he’d been following along with my thoughts the whole time.
-Montpelier is just like it’s always been: there’s not much going on, and that’s good, and I like it, he responds laconically, and fixes his gaze on the street in front of us. Nope, there isn’t much going on here, and I like it too, even though I have to move on now. A few minutes later, I’ve wandered through the downtown area, along State Street and Main Street. The town’s Historic District has 450 well-preserved houses, each with their own particular piece of the town’s history. Vermont State House, Pavilion Building, a stretch of colorful stone buildings along Main Street.
It’s a Family Affair
The road is calling me again, and soon, I’m driving straight through the downtown area of Montpelier. I raise my hand in a wave to Frank, who’s still sitting there on his bench, and continue north on Main Street until it turns into Country Road and the urban buildings give way to a rural landscape again. Soon, I spot the sign that points the way to the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks.
I’m going to meet with a family that knows all about maintaining a connection to your past. The Burr family has never let go of that connection. As I stroll across the courtyard, I’m in the physical presence of history, in the form of objects and things from times gone by. An 80-year-old tractor from the Wisconsin manufacturer Case is on display on a patch of grass. Burr Morse, the family’s patriarch, comes out to greet me. Burr is over the age of 70, but he remains as active as ever. While he’s showing us around the farm, his son Tom arrives to join us. Tom is the heir who will be carrying on the family tradition. We get to witness this continuity first-hand and see the past walk hand in hand with the present, and with the future. Burr tells me:
–We’ve been harvesting maple syrup here for seven generations. My ancestor came here in the late 17th century, he came up from Massachusetts to settle in Cabot, which is just a little way from here. The family originally came from England, and they crossed the ocean in 1635, and then, 107 years later, they found this place. God knows what took them so long! But we’ve been sugaring ever since. My son Tom will be taking over when I’m gone, but then, there are bigger sugaring businesses now, of course, he says modestly, as though he doesn’t want to make too big a deal of his family’s efforts over the centuries.
–My mother’s roots go even deeper. She’s from south Vermont, and her ancestor is what you’d call a woodchuck, a native Vermoner.
The sugaring season lasts up to 5 or 6 weeks during the spring, and it’s a good thing that there aren’t many visitors to the area then.
–It’s a pretty busy time: you work hard, fix machines, toss wrenches, and use language you know you shouldn’t, Burr laughs, and it’s a bit of a relief that not too many come. But now, in the autumn, they’re delighted to receive visitors. When Burr was growing up, they still used buckets to collect the syrup, but today, it’s all plastic tubing. The winters are quieter now, but the lines from the trees stay up all year round, and they do require a certain amount of maintenance, of course.
And this year, we’ve felt the impact of climate change more than ever, Burr claims.
–The weather is playing tricks on us. Normally, we start sometime between the middle of March and the beginning of April, but last year, we had sap weather in mid-February, when many of us hadn’t even finished our work for the winter yet. In any case, Burr doesn’t follow any particular system for knowing when it’s time to start harvesting syrup.
–I don’t go about it to scientifically, and I don’t document what each year is like. All I do is look out the window and see how much water is flowing down the hillsides.
And it’s all about tradition and having done it before. That way, you know when the time comes, Burr explains.
–Analytic or not, scientific or not, Burr still proceeds to give a highly detailed analysis of the impact of new vacuum technology on their productivity over the last few years, and how the technology that they use is also intended to counteract the impact of climate change. Burr shows me trees that have been harvested for sap for more than a century.
The Bridges of Vermont
A fierce rain breaks out just as I’m leaving the Morse family. The road gets so flooded that I can barely make out the yellow lines in the middle. The cows must have found their way to shelter in time, because the meadows are empty by the time I’m driving through the villages, and when the skies open up even more, there’s not a soul in sight.
The rain moves on as I approach Taftsville and drive down to the river Ottauquechee, where I park my car. The river flows on through east Vermont before joining the Connecticut River in Hartland, close to the border with New Hampshire. The village here has one of the most beautiful covered bridges I’ve seen during my travels in Vermont. I stay for a long while at this bright red bridge, following the rushing rapids as they rush around blissfully, seemingly rejuvenated by the rain. No couples show up during the hour I spend here. I think to myself that I’m going to return here with my own love one day. I’m going to come back here, and stand here, under this roof, on this very bridge, with her. Her head will be weightless in my hands, and I will kiss her, and ask her to marry me. And she’ll say yes.
Visit americantrailsmag.com if you want to know more about Vermont.