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Faith in Vermont: Vermont Country

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Posted on February 10, 2015 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



As a Christmas gift this year, my husband sent me away.

I mean that in the best sense: Aware that I could use a solid chunk of quiet and solitude (that's a euphemism for "escaping the children"), my husband booked me a two-night stay at St. Joseph's Dwelling Place, a retreat center just outside of Ludlow, Vermont.

St. Joseph's Dwelling Place offers guided and unguided retreats. I chose the unguided option, which meant I had a comfortable room all to myself in a large, quiet house set on six acres at the foot of Okemo Mountain. There was only one other guest at the house the weekend I was there, and I never saw her. I read (E. B. White's book of essays, One Man's Meat, which was excellent company), I wrote, I took two cross-country ski jaunts, and I luxuriated in the peace and quiet.

But this is not about my time in the retreat center, restorative as it was; this is about what happened when Ileft the retreat center.

St. Joseph's Dwelling Place does not provide meals, so it was necessary for me to leave at least a couple times each day if I wanted to eat. My initial foraging missions took me three miles north, to the town of Ludlow.

I'd been to Ludlow once before. When I learned that my retreat center was within the Ludlow town limits, this struck me as odd; my memory of Ludlow was anything but quiet and peaceful.

Although Ludlow is much smaller than my home base of Middlebury, it feels larger, its pace of life more frenetic. This is because Ludlow is home to the aforementioned Okemo Mountain, which in turn is home to the Okemo Mountain Resort. The Okemo Mountain Resort offers activities all four seasons -- but this time of year, the draw is alpine skiing. Okemo is a modest mountain, with a summit of 3,344 feet, but it's the third largest ski resort in Vermont in terms of open acreage, and it's also one of Vermont's southernmost resorts, which makes it attractive to skiers from Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

It's the influx of these skiers from surrounding states that makes Ludlow seem like a large, fast-paced town. Everywhere one goes there are SUVs with Thule roof racks and out-of-state license plates. The people one sees tend to be wearing ski pants and parkas with lift tickets attached. The entire town is set up to accommodate these ski tourists; its one main street is lined with ski shops, real estate companies advertising condominium rentals, gift stores, restaurants, and hotels.

The contrast between my time in the retreat center and my forays into Ludlow was jarring: Within minutes of entering the town, I went from a person filled with peace and elevated thoughts to a person who judged the character of others based on the provenance of their license plates. Rightly or no, if their vehicle was registered anywhere other than Vermont, I assumed their moral inferiority.

In some cases this was justified, as with the Porsche SUV (A Porsche SUV! I don't even know where to start!) with New Jersey plates, which was left unoccupied and idling, lights on, in the Shaw's supermarket parking lot.

In any event, after one breakfast in a Ludlow bakery during which I was subjected to a loud conversation among other diners about their connections to Republican party luminaries in Darien, I decided to try another town.

Three miles south of St. Joseph's Dwelling Place, along scenic Route 100, is the town of Weston. Weston is perhaps best known as the home of the original Vermont Country Store. That sounded promising, so the next time I deemed it necessary to leave my room at the retreat center, I drove to Weston.

Weston is a quaint little village -- almost aggressively quaint  -- nestled among the Green Mountains. I later learned that its forefathers, in an attempt to preserve it, had the entire town put on the National Register of Historic Places.

The sun was shining in my eyes as I drove into Weston, so I pulled into a parking space in front of what looked like a general store, assuming it must be the Vermont Country Store. When my eyes adjusted, I learned that I had been mistaken; in front of me was the Weston Village Store, which, its sign advertised as if issuing a challenge, was "Weston's Original Country Store, since 1891."

The Vermont Country Store, it turned out, was across the street, with no parking out front. At first it looked like nothing much was happening over there, until I walked around back to where the enormous parking lot was hidden, with signs instructing tour buses to turn off their engines while waiting.

Perhaps this wouldn't be such an escape from Ludlow, after all.

The Vermont Country Store began when Vrest and Ellen Orton started a mail-order catalogue business in 1945. The store was added in 1946 to complement their flourishing mail-order trade. Today, the Orton family continues to run the Vermont Country Store empire, which encompasses a catalogue, the Weston store (including the retail store, Mildred's Dairy Bar, and the Bryant House Restaurant), and a second store in Rockingham.

I was predisposed to be cynical, but the store won me over with its insidious charm. Acres of charm; the Vermont Country Store is the Wal-Mart of general stores. In the food section, shoppers grazed samples of Vermont crackers, cheeses, and jams, and purchased canned preserves like "Pickled Fiddleheads." The candy corner featured "Actual Penny Candy!" Ball jars and cast iron cookware were on prominent display in kitchenwares, and in the women's clothing department I saw more flannel Lanz of Salzburg nightgowns than I had since the 1980s. Over in the health and beauty section, you can buy a bottle of "Vim & Vigor All Natural Herbal Supplement" (ingredients include apple cider vinegar, grape juice, star anise, black cohosh, and licorice) for $24.95. The children's toy area featured antique Fisher-Price toys and (unfortunately) a child-sized accordion available for testing. In the home goods department, a little boy with a voice just like Elmo shouted "Hi, Mommy! Hi, Mommy!" over and over, while both parents ignored him in their deliberations over which hooked rug to purchase. And sprinkled in among this merchandise were displays of historical items from the store's past, like the "Vermont Scale Museum, 1830-1950," and "Toasters of Yesteryear."

It was overwhelming, but I was focused: I wanted to buy our family the pseudo-surgical game "Operation;” I'd enjoyed this game as a child, and it had come up in conversation recently with my daughters. Surely the Vermont Country Store would have "Operation" tucked in among the boxes of "Classic Sorry! Game" and "Monopoly 1935 Deluxe Edition."

As it turned out, they didn't; in all their thousands of goods, the Vermont Country Store does not carry "Operation."

I bought a discount copy of a book about Vermont dairy farming, and called it a day.

On my way back to the car, I thought I'd stop in at the Weston Village Store; after all, I'd occupied their parking space for the better part of an hour. But when I arrived, the clerks were locking up. The store closed at 5:00; it was 4:59. This struck me as infinitely more Vermont than the Vermont Country Store, which is open until 6:00 during the winter months.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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