Essay: A Flatlander's Application to Join Vermont | Essay | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Essay: A Flatlander's Application to Join Vermont 

click to enlarge © TATSIANA TSYHANOVA | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • © Tatsiana Tsyhanova | Dreamstime.com

We will always be flatlanders. I get that. But nevertheless, we'd like to join your Vermont.

My wife and I moved to Middlebury this summer, and not because of COVID-19. It was just a coincidence that the pandemic hit and, three months later, we found ourselves in the safest state in the land. She was hired as an assistant professor at the college, and I found a job at the library.

To be honest, I was a little apprehensive about moving here. In case you didn't know, Vermonters have a bit of a reputation for being stubborn, direct, aloof, smart and knowledgeable (which can mean formidable). I expected some squawking, or hazing, or a cold shoulder, and, sure enough, we got all three — from the birds, who won't touch the cracked corn and black oil sunflower seeds we put out. They just don't trust us yet. What do we have to do?

People, on the other hand, have been friendly, or at least chatty. Always, within the first 25 words or so, I am asked, "So, where are you from?" I think that's friendly. Or is it scrutinizing?

We moved here from Portland, Ore. And, no, contrary to what you might have heard, there weren't "riots" all over town this year. Not a single building has burned down. The media — Fox in particular — has wildly exaggerated the situation. Most Portlanders wouldn't know there were protests if they didn't see them on the news.

As for the people, Oregon is full of underpaid, overeducated, non-churchy people with strong opinions. It has lots of bitter ex-hippies and whimsical atheists who spend all winter making artisanal beers and handicrafts, as well as an underpublicized but vocal minority of BIG TRUCK DUDES who work in construction. So, I could be wrong, but I don't think Vermonters are going to be that hard to figure out.

The weather will be interesting, because Oregon doesn't have any. No lightning, no blizzards, no humidity and no bugs (that last part's cool); just relentless overcast and drizzle. There's not even wind. You can't fly a kite in Portland without running, which is probably why Nike is headquartered there.

We're getting ready for our first real winter, but, honestly, I'm not too worried. Old-timers keep telling me, "Ah, global warming, it never goes 30 below for a solid month anymore." Still, seeing 200 bags of salt piled up at Aubuchon Hardware in August was a bit sobering.

I'm actually excited to live in a place with real storms, lots of wind, cold, sunny days and even the odd remnant of a tropical storm. And whatever the sky brews up, I'm sure our neighbors will help us get through it (even if they're laughing at us as they do). Maybe they'll even tell me what the birds want to eat.

My new neighbors have given me tons of good advice about drainage, firewood, and the surprising controversy over whether or not to have gutters (because snow and ice might tear them down). In Oregon, where it rains at least a little bit on roughly 270 days per year, not having gutters would be absurd, like knocking out all your windowpanes because you want more fresh air.

I'm amusing the guys at R.K. Miles, a building materials supplier, with my attempt at laying in a French drain. ("You still working on that thing? O-o-o-kay. See you tomorrow!")

Folks are great about clueing me in to the essentials (Outdoor Gear Exchange, layers, roof rakes) as I prepare for my first real winter. "You should buy your wife some Darn Tough lingerie!" one guy told me. "It's hard to find, so you'll have to ask at a lot of stores."

He also taught me how to pronounce local towns, always a key to fitting in. I was so grateful to find out that Montpelier is not pronounced with a French accent (it's "Mount Pliers"), but Brattleboro is Frenchified ("Brought Le Borough"). He even made me repeat them several times while he filmed me, until I got them right.

But then I wondered if he was yanking my chain when he told me that Barre is pronounced "Barry," like Barry Manilow. I mean, how stupid do I look? Now I'm suspicious about his advice to tie turnips to my shoelaces when it gets below zero.

It's a big adjustment, moving across a country. I thought I was a pretty relaxed guy in Portland, but in the Champlain Valley I've had to downshift a couple more gears. Literally. I've driven around the U.S. a lot, and everywhere else the question is, "How many miles over the speed limit can you go? Is it a plus nine or a plus four?" In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming there are long stretches of interstate where the speed limit is 80 — and it's still a plus four.

In Vermont, though, at least on Route 7, the speed limit is 50 at best, and I was stunned to see people driving at or below that limit. For a month I wanted to yell, "GO! Just ... GO!!" Now it feels normal, just like the quarantine rules. But when we were stuck inside those first two weeks, it was really slow. You'd be amazed how many times a day the mail doesn't come. Almost every time I checked.

Sometimes people here seem a little defensive. Vermont Public Radio has a listener-generated series called "Brave Little State." Seriously? This state punches way above its weight, and public broadcasting here is kicking ass. I think they oughta get cocky, like a heavy metal station: "This is VPR — THE VIPER."

The really striking difference between Oregon and Vermont is the tight weave of personal relationships here — inevitable, I suppose, in a kingdom of small villages where the fierce climate requires cooperation. This is the first time I've lived in a place smaller than Portland (2.4 million in the metro area), and the connections can border on creepy. I bought a rug from a guy in the Champlain Islands, 60 miles away, and it turns out he's a close friend of my boss. Everybody seems to know everybody, and I'm a smart-ass standup comedian with a big mouth. What could go wrong?

It's not just the people, either. Those small-town church bells sound magical at first — until the day you're a little bit late getting to work, kind of fast-walking with only a block to go, and suddenly, BONG BONKLE BLANGALANG, right on the hour. I'm like, "Hey, ding-dong! Snitches get stitches."

But these connections also keep you honest. I'm frankly astonished at the culture of sharing, especially on Front Porch Forum: people helping each other out and just giving away things they don't need. In a sometimes harsh environment, it's a model of mutual abundance, and it's intoxicating.

This is going to sound weird, but I've never lived in a place with more interesting obituaries, and I've never seen regular obits in an altweekly like Seven Days. Every issue, I read about some warm, wise, funny person, a real "character" who led an interesting, off-kilter life, had lots of friends and contributed to the community. Their passing is news because readers know them and will miss them. May memories of their best moments flutter down like snowflakes on these ancient hills.

I've never been that drawn by money (as my wife will sadly tell you). Fame and celebrity? Clearly that ship has sailed without me, and just as well. It looks annoying at best.

Now I have a new life goal: to spend the rest of my days earning, in the end, one of those wonderful obituaries that makes friends bite their lip and brings a fond smile or head shake to acquaintances. To be remembered as a "character," a good guy without any operatic moral flaws, who took care of his responsibilities.

That would be a life well spent, even if I have to call my soft-serve cone a creemee.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Breaking In | An application to join Vermont"

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About The Author

Mark Saltveit

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