Wednesday, June 10, 2009


In which we see a teacher
working on relaxation

The Felix Chronicles, #34

“Fellow Citizens, we cannot escape history,” Abraham Lincoln once told us. But that’s never stopped us from trying. Not even me.

By any measure—meteorological, solar, the annual calendar or the academic one—we are entering the heart of summer, and it’s time for our family vacation. This is a trip we’ve been looking forward to for months. The six of us—my wife and four kids, ranging from ages seven to fifteen—of us pack up our minivan, pop a David Sedaris audio book into the stereo and drive into bliss, gas prices be damned. We’re headed to Smuggler’s Notch resort in northern Vermont, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.

The resort sits on over 1000 acres of ski trails, though the principal draw for us is the 70 acre village at the base of three mountains. We’ve sublet various condominiums for the last few years, some of them as part of a family reunion with my in-laws, with whom I’m happy to say I get along well. Within an hour of arrival, our bags are unpacked, and within a day we visit three of the resort’s pools (all of which feature water slides), play miniature golf, go to the arcade, get some ice cream at the Ben & Jerry’s concession, and (thanks to cousins and other relatives who take the kids off our hands) nap on the couch. Within 48 hours, I’ve polished off a mystery novel.

And by the (Monday) morning of the third day, I’m getting restless. I now remember the thought I had last year that as glad as I am to have come up here, I’ll be really glad to go. And I wonder: Will I be able to make it through the work week like this?

So when I spot an entry in a resort brochure about a guided “wike”—that’s a cross between a hike and a walk that’s just about my speed—focusing on local history, I’m chomping at the bit to go. Fortified by a tuna melt and my wife’s blessing, I put on my running shoes and head for village, where I encounter a motley crew of other tourists, all of whom are better equipped than I am. My own preparation has been virtual: I’ve spent some time googling to get a better feel of where I am and what I’ll see.

I quickly learn that the most obvious form of history here in Jeffersonville, Vermont is geologic: massive continental plates pushing, bulging, pressing gigantic formations above and below the ground, only to have solid rock whittled away by chemicals in the air over millions of years. The more recent rhythm of natural history is literally glacial—a set of ice ages dragging tundra to spawn the rolling waves of green that give the state its (Francophone) name. Over the course of day, that green will be enveloped in clouds of gray that turn pink as the sun sets, blurring the line between earth and sky, reminding me of just how small the human presence on the face of the planet can be.

For much of the past half-millennium, Vermont has been liminal space, a border between the Iroquois Mohican and Algonquin Abenaki, who were then forced to share it with the British and French. When, at the conclusion of the Seven Years War in 1763, the territory presumably became British, only to have its sovereignty fought over between New York and New Hampshire, each of which chartered towns in the hope of collecting patronage and taxes. By the time the local militia of Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys were performing terrorist/freedom fighter acts against New York officials and declaring an independent republic, the American Revolution was getting underway—which of course is why their insubordination was possible in the first place. Vermont wrote a constitution, abolished slavery, named ambassadors, and flirted with union with Canada before becoming part of the Union in 1791, part of a broader deal that allowed Kentucky in as a (balancing) slave state.

The region I hiked today is part of the township of Cambridge, founded in 1781, when the Revolution was still raging. The center of Cambridge incorporated itself as Jeffersonville in a town meeting in 1827 in honor of Thomas Jefferson, who had died the year before (so had John Adams, but apparently “Adamsville” was never in the works, which is a bit surprising since flinty New England was Adams family turf). I was amused to read that Jefferson at the time was popular “in some parts of the state,” the implication clearly being that in others he wasn’t—not surprising, since Jefferson had wrecked the New England economy with his deeply unpopular Embargo Act in 1807, part of the run-up to the War of 1812 that choked the region’s access to international markets and led to talk of the region seceding from the Union. A gap in the mountains nearby became a secret passageway for illegal goods traveling back and forth between Canada; hence the name “Smuggler’s Notch.” It would later be a transit point in the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves, and for illegal liquor during Prohibition.

Such excitement notwithstanding, Vermont had peaked economically and demographically by the start of the Civil War, its ambitious young natives (like Abraham Lincoln’s great rival Stephen A. Douglas) long having scattered to the west. The site of the terrain I traverse includes the property of a saw mill owner in the late nineteenth century. The mill actually had an electric generator, so the Industrial Revolution really did touch here. But Vermont nevertheless remained a backwater, where land could be acquired for a few dollars an acre well into the 20th century.

It was only in the 1960s that Vermont’s population began to reverse a century of demographic decline (though one still hears now inaccurate assertions that there are more cows than people). The engine of its reemergence was automotive. Smuggler’s Notch was established by a group of skiers in 1956, the same year President Eisenhower signed the bill creating the interstate highway system. In the sixties, it was discovered by IBM executive Thomas Watson, who developed the village, demonstrating the long reach of corporate power to transform the hinterland at the height of the American century. (He divested his interest in the project following a heart attack.) For decades now, Vermont has had a reputation as a bucolic haven from urban civilization, yet this reputation, and the state’s prosperity, would have been impossible to establish without successive waves of technological innovation. Lord knows without them I’d never be here.

I come back from the wike refreshed and ready for family action that includes a trip to the pool and a meal with the extended family. But when everyone, including my early bird wife, has gone to bed, I grab my laptop and head for the livelier of the resort’s two bars. What the hell: Nerd’s night out. The house entertainer, “Good-Time Charlie,” is taking a break from his performing duties to show classic videos from the seventies and eighties. (I’m dazzled, and saddened, to see the prodigiously gifted Michael Jackson, who looks so damn uncomfortable trying to pass himself off as a regular heterosexual.) This is not exactly a hot club scene; “Smuggs”—doesn’t that aggressively-marketed nickname give anyone pause?—is a family resort and last call comes dismayingly soon after 11 pm. By then I’ve restocked my glass with another Jack Daniels on the rocks and have begun writing the prose that you’re now reading. I know: I’m one of the more ridiculous features in this tiny human landscape. But it’s no joke when I tell you that this is what happiness feels like.