Our town’s sporting goods store sells t-shirts, which I’ve seen locals wearing, that read “Keep Vermont Weird.”
This message, although cute, has always confused me. Now, bear in mind that I moved here from Berkeley, California — I KNOW WEIRD. When I think about Vermont, “weird” is not the first description that comes to mind. Vermont is pretty much like you’d imagine: red barns, green mountains, lots of good dairy products and maple syrup, plenty of outdoor romping year-round. Bucolic? Sure. A slow pace of life? Definitely. Like living in a Norman Rockwell painting? Often. Weird?!? Gosh, I dunno.
That is, I didn’t know, until we left Vermont.
Erick had a week off from his teaching duties for Spring Break, so we decided to take a 2-day family vacation. This trip was significant because 1) it was the first vacation we’d taken with three children (moving cross-country does NOT count as a vacation), and 2) with the exception of a 24-hour jaunt that Erick and I took to Montreal for our anniversary in July, it was the first time the girls and I had left Vermont since arriving here 10 months ago.
Our destination was the Six Flags Great Escape Lodge and Indoor Waterpark in Queensbury, NY. This is a massive hotel complex near Lake George that is focused on whipping your children into a state of chlorinated hysteria. Attached to the hotel is a 38,000 square foot indoor water park, featuring water slides, a “river” you can float along in inner tubes, and a kiddie pool with fountains and swings. The scene is Dante-esque: hundreds of people in bathing suits, parents clutching enormous drinks, overstimulated children, noise, humidity, tepid chemical-smelling water. As Erick pointed out, “it’s kind of like Las Vegas for kids” — the water park even has that sense of casino timelessness: artificial light and NO clocks anywhere.
It is the sort of place that seems like a GREAT idea by about mid-March, with four months of housebound winter behind you.
And really, it was a great idea. The kids had fun, family memories were made, and everyone was successfully exhausted after two days of “vacation.”
My point here is not to comment on our vacation; my point is that the moment we left Vermont, we could tell.
This was surprising, because we were traveling a mere two hours from our house, to a region of New York State famed for its rustic scenery: the Adirondack Mountains, Lake George, log cabins. And the scenery as we crossed over the New York border was lovely, really no different from the rolling Vermont farmland we’d just left behind. But then we noticed the increased amount of trash along the highway. Not that Vermont highways are trash-free, but until we drove to New York I hadn’t realized how little trash there is blowing along Vermont roads.
The next thing we noticed were the billboards. I’ve lived here less than a year, but I realized that during that time I’d seen no billboards in Vermont. I’m not talking about signs next to the road — we have those — I’m talking HUGE advertising billboards. This got me wondering about Vermont’s zoning ordinances, so when we returned home, I looked it up. Turns out that, yes, Vermont is one of four states (the others being Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii) to have banned billboards entirely. Vermont’s law was the first to be passed, in 1968.
As we drove further west into New York, the landscape became more and more developed. Suddenly we were in the land of strip malls, big box stores, multiplexes, putt-putt golf, roadside hotel chains, and Drive-Thru Starbucks.
It was shocking.
But when in Rome, right? We ate at Panera Bread and Johnny Rockets, we stocked up on diapers and trash bags at Target. These were the types of things I was sure I’d miss when we left California. Instead, we felt like we needed some fresh-veggie transfusions after two days of chain-restaurant food. And Target? As soon as I walked in, grabbed an enormous cart, and inhaled that familiar powdered-butter-popcorn smell, I felt a sense of panic. There was so much to buy! I should’ve made a list! SURELY I needed ALL of these things!
As we pulled out of the shopping mall parking lot with our meager Target plunder in the trunk, it hit me: Vermont is weird! Because, as far as I can tell, these concrete temples of consumerism, this multiplex-entertainment-land, ARE WHAT IS NORMAL IN THIS COUNTRY. It’s where we used to live, it’s exactly what my hometown and my husband’s hometown now look like. In fact, we could have been just about anywhere in the United States at that very moment. There was nothing weird about it, just normal people doing their normal shopping, eating their normal food, having their normal fun.
What’s weird is that somehow Vermont seems to have kept most of these “normal” things out. Because, you see, Vermont doesn’t have a single Target. Or an Ikea. There are 3 Wal-Marts, one Costco, and four Starbucks in the entire state of Vermont, and to get to any of those I’d need to drive at least one hour. Our movie theater in town has two screens; to get to any other movie theater, I’d also have to drive at least one hour. What we saw at the southern end of beautiful Lake George was a summer vacation honky-tonk paradise, including a tiki hotel, a wax museum, and more putt-putt courses than I’ve ever seen in one place. Vermont has lakes, too, but I’ve never seen anything remotely approaching this kind of commercial development along them; usually the most you get is a deli and a bait store.
Which got me wondering some more about Vermont’s zoning laws. How have they kept so much of this commercial development out of the state? Did Vermont enact some sort of “anti-tacky” legislation?
As it happens, in 2006 the Vermont Senate passed Senate Bill 175, which requires any proposed retail store over 75,000 square feet (about half the size of a typical big box store) t0 pay for an economic and community impact analysis. I’m guessing that’s a lot for large corporations to stomach, especially when they’ll have to get it by a local group of Vermonters.
I’m hoping that this doesn’t come across as judgmental and self-righteous. If I were truly righteous, I wouldn’t ever shop at Target, or order things from Amazon, or (sometimes) crave Chipotle burritos and Starbucks lattes. I’m just saying that the difference between Vermont and what I would classify as a pretty normal, mid-sized American town was dramatic.
A cynical explanation might be: Vermont’s economy depends on tourism, so Vermonters have an economic incentive to keep things charming and pristine, the way tourists expect Vermont to look. Big box stores are about economics, too, and I was willing to be forgiving; surely these stores are great job-creators for a region of New York that is booming over the summer but depressed the rest of the year, right? So I looked it up. Unemployment in Glens Falls, NY (where most of these malls were located) was 9.5 for January 2012; statewide unemployment was 8.3. During the same period, Vermont’s unemployment was 5.0.
Huh. So I don’t know. I’m not an economist, but I do live with one and I hear from him that these things are complicated.
I do know that I was SO HAPPY to get home to Vermont; this was the trip that really made Vermont feel like home to me. On the way home, we stopped by the New England Maple Museum in Pittsford, VT. We were the only people there. We took a self-guided tour that probably hasn’t been updated in 25 years, watched a slide show (just like the ones you used to watch in elementary school) on how maple syrup is made, and sampled some maple-y goodies. The girls had just as much fun as they did swimming in a chlorinated pool under fluorescent lights.
That’s pretty weird, right? Vermont is weird. I think I may have to pick up one of those t-shirts.