What Is Vermont? | Burlington, VT


Vermont is the only New England state without a coastline. It is the second whitest state in America. It is also the second least populous state. Its most populous city is Burlington, which has about 42,000 residents and no train station. Burlington is the least populous most populous city in the country.

When I was 18, I attended a summer drama program in Burlington. It was essentially a continuation of the demanding courses I’d been taking as an Acting major in New York, designed to fit between Freshman and Sophomore year, and transported to a vacation-y, summer-camp-like setting. I have oddly specific memories from this time. I remember my friends who told me they’d give me a ride up to Burlington but didn’t tell me until the night before we were meant to leave that they wouldn’t. I remember wearing stiff denim and sheer florals and clunky canvas sneakers, and desperately trying too hard to fit myself into a 90s fantasy where girls were sassy free spirits and women were sleekly powerful and I was neither. I remember the dining hall offered a vast array of free desserts, like giant brownies and Rice Krispies Treats, that I would wrap in napkins to eat after dinner. (I may have been the only college student in history to gain 15 pounds immediately after Freshman year.) I remember having to do Sun Salutations each morning, and hating it. I remember exact feedback I got from acting teachers and minute details of complex exercises we did in class. But I remember almost nothing about Vermont.

I have virtually no memory of what Burlington looked like, or how it felt, physically, to be there. Visually, in my mind, there is a six- or eight- or who-knows-how-many-week blank. My brain has recorded the setting of a theoretically intense and formative experience, in which I was removed from the familiarity of New York City to a place more rural and insular than any I’d been before, as a featureless blank.

I now usually think of Vermont as a sort of sanctimonious bubble full of skiing, whiteness, and things that seem like good ideas for a minute but eventually make you feel ill, like maple syrup and Bernie Sanders. But though my perception of the Green Mountain State is admittedly one-dimensional, I realize that if I went back now, I might end up loving it. After all, though I was generally miserable that summer, I couldn’t have despised the place itself – if I had, I would have remembered it.

And so I decide to return to Burlington, like a movie character with amnesia who goes on a quest to find the one crucial detail that will bring everything back, and comes to some profound conclusion.

Since I don’t remember Vermont, driving here is like going someplace entirely new. The highway is a straight line with few cars on it. Driving students on their first lesson could easily manage it. Blindfolded people could, possibly, easily manage it. There are three road signs on the highway, which alternate. One is MOOSE STAY ALERT, which they spring on you as soon as you cross the border, as if to prove how Vermont-y it is here. Another is BEAR CROSSING. The last is BRIDGES FREEZE BEFORE ROAD, which of course happens everywhere, but Vermont really doesn’t want you to forget it.

I stop at the Vermont Welcome Center just over the state line. It is all wood, somehow rustic yet shiny at the same time, tastefully plain in a humblebrag-y way. It is superior to your state’s rest stops. It looks like the dream house Fitz builds for Olivia on Scandal.

The simplicity of the landscape is not without beauty. There is a comforting minimalist quality to is, as if all that is not necessary to signal “Northern New England” has been removed, and what remains is just a black horse standing in a field, a red barn, and the bare branches of spring trees.

Then everything becomes more dramatic. The smooth highway now cuts through rock formations shaped like prehistoric spines. A fourth road sign is introduced: a graphic of stone chunks tumbling down a cliff in a little avalanche. The air becomes clearer as blue layers of mountains rise into view in the distance.

To this day, my mom quotes 18-year-old me complaining that Vermont was “too green.” Now I realize what I meant. The state is not greener than any other place in New England, but the colors are warmer here. Elsewhere, leaves come in shades of mint and jade and emerald; here, they are closer to olive and lime. The browns are more copper than coffee. Even the sky is like a baby blue paint that has yellowed with age. It’s as if someone applied a red-tinged filter over a photo, and unless I focus on those distant mountains, the effect is unpleasant and strangely oppressive.

When I get to Burlington, I see why the highways were so empty: every car in Vermont is here. Nothing looks familiar. There must have been a drugstore I went to regularly, a grocery store, a Post Office, a bank, but I see nothing that jolts my mind into remembrance. I find a parking garage and walk to Church Street Marketplace, Burlington’s famed pedestrian-only street. It is one of the few places I have retained a hazy image of. It’s less bohemian and more shopping-mall-like than I was expecting; I spot a Lululemon, a Banana Republic, and many other stores you could find in any upper-middle-class American suburb.

Contented-looking white people amble down the brick street past a few tables staffed by advocates of vaguely political causes. Back in my mostly-forgotten summer, a Tarot card reader was stationed here. You could ask her about one of a set of topics. Being 18, I asked her about love, and was told that I would meet the one, eventually, but my dating life would get worse before it got better, and that my eventual boyfriend would be as unattractive as I was, only in a different way. She gave me a specific example of what his unfortunate feature might be; I think it was bad teeth.

Beyond Church Street, the street grid predictably arranges itself into a generic New England college town. Sturdy old commercial buildings with subtle architectural flourishes that hint at former grandeur coexist with newer, less pretty commercial buildings. A few shabby corners are devoted to necessities, like gas stations, and I see some homeless people seated on sidewalks, but for the most part, the grungier touches feel like aesthetic choices. I keep turning at right angles, trying to get lost, trying to find meaning in something. I stumble upon the bar we went to most nights, which I only notice because its name has stuck with me. I don’t remember it looking like it does, or being where it is. I can’t conjure up an image of the layout or decor. I do remember what the older girls drank: Cape Cods, which seemed terribly sophisticated.

Wandering farther, I see bookstores and coffee shops. Why did I never go to one? I see the stately City Hall building, set behind a little town green of a park, on which small groups of people are hanging out. Why did I never hang out there? I see a Ben & Jerry’s, but although we went there often, the brick storefront doesn’t look at all familiar. (Later, after I get home, I find a few photos from that summer. There is one of a different Ben & Jerry’s store, located in an old white house. In front of the house is a USA TODAY vending machine, as if the store is trying to pose with the daily paper to prove it was alive.)

As I wander, I see a lot of older men, dressed with the sloppy confidence of people who don’t have to care, and a few older women, dressed subtly in organic fabrics. The younger people wear either short, puffy jackets with fitted pants or workout clothes that strike me as insufficiently warm for this icy April day. The few people I talk to are friendly, in a glazed sort of way. “Hey, how’s it going?” says a barefoot hipster digging in a dirt patch on Main Street. A Bernie Sanders symbol, spray-painted on a wall, watches me stroll past through its eyeless glasses.

I head down the hill that slopes towards the lakefront. Here I find a park, one of those local gems that cities brag about. A paved biking path winds through a grassy strip. Along a boardwalk, adults coach children to venture out on the rocks that descend into the water. Lake Champlain stretches, blue and cold, toward those distant layered mountains. In a chill wind, I walk past people sitting on benches and gliding back and forth, alone or in pairs, on large swings that creak as they move. Was this park here then? Even if it wasn’t, there still must have been a lakefront, and a pristine view. Why did I not do what I would have done at home in Manhattan, find a city map and walk towards the solitude of the water?

I trudge up the hill again, past Church Street, then past the towering, classically collegiate buildings of the University of Vermont. The small college where my program was housed closed soon after my time there, and its campus was absorbed by UVM. I find the area thanks not to a sudden rush of memories, but to a directional sign. I stare at the walking paths, the emergency call boxes, the drab brick and glass buildings, the parking lots. I remember none of it. This is the scene in the movie where the audience wonders, impatiently, “Why doesn’t she recognize anything?” I feel as if I was never here.

I never find the one little detail that brings it all back. I remember being overdressed for weekend parties where people sipped wine coolers on lawns, and underdressed for warm weeknights when the other girls impressed the older guys who only noticed me when they needed someone sober to drive their cars home from the bar. I remember the teacher who told me I was the least athletic person she had ever met, and that someone said that teacher had claimed that she could levitate. I remember the other teacher who told me, in the nicest way possible, that I might not be pretty enough for this career, and that I later found out he was sleeping with a girl in the program, a girl who was confidently quiet in a way that I envied. I remember a conversation about how few truly normal people there were in the world, and another about philosophy that I hovered on the periphery of, trying repeatedly to get in, like a moth. But I still don’t remember Vermont.

Could it be, I asked myself as I drove home, that Vermont isn’t interesting enough to remember? Or that Vermont is a magical land of forgetting? That might explain why the people seem so glazed and contented, and why Fitz on Scandal thinks that ski lodge of a house will solve everyone’s problems, and why Bernie Sanders chose this state as the place to abandon his ethnicity and turn himself blissfully, ignorantly white. But probably, unsatisfactorily, my forgetting had to do with me, and not with Vermont at all.

Later, I Google the program I attended and find that it still exists. It’s shorter now, and the classes are different, and worth less credit. It is called “Vermont.” The FAQ section of the studio’s website asks, “What is Vermont?” It’s a fair question, I think. And I still don’t know the answer.

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