A “stranger” goes mobile on a driving tour of Vermont’s northeast corner
Lazy Daze Ranch, in East Albany, Vt., is truly a sight. Carefully arrayed across the wide, crew-cut lawn are a miniature-golf-style windmill, an arrow of lawn lanterns pointing to a painted statue of a rampant lion and a knee-high replica of Stonehenge. Tucked away as it is, on an unpaved road in the least populous part of the state, Lazy Daze is a place you’d never encounter unless you took time to slow down, pull off the main highway and pay attention. I never would have seen it myself, if I hadn’t been following a route recommended on “A Day in the Kingdom,” a “cultural heritage tours” map and audio-cassette package encouraging visitors to do just that.
Produced by Catamount Arts under the leadership of former director Phil Reynolds, with support from the Vermont Arts Council and the Northeast Kingdom Travel and Tourism Association, the “Kingdom” tape touches on aspects of the history, culture and economy of the area around Essex, Orleans and Caledonia counties. Snippets of folk songs and interviews with local personalities are interwoven with narration by Vermont Public Radio’s Steve Delaney, who cheerfully comments on Vermonters’ hard work, tenacity, propensity for plain speech and other similarly original concepts.
The meat sandwiched between the bread of Delaney’s remarks includes Banjo Dan Lindner singing about catamounts; Barnet poet Beth Dugger rhapsodizing about church suppers; and Fred Webster, who collects antique farm implements in Coventry, discussing the dangers of nostalgia.
Unlike traditional museum tapes, which require visitors to follow a prescribed sequence from one artifact to the next, “Kingdom” takes a more have-it-your-way approach. The general overview on the tape can be absorbed before, during or after an actual visit, while the map lays out five 60- to 135-mile thematic routes that can be driven as recommended, or diced and spliced according to personal preference. For Francophiles, the map highlights the Québec-influenced border area. Farm fans can sample a number of notable barns, architecture enthusiasts can take the Victorian View tour, history buffs can trace the route of the Revolution-era Bayley-Hazen Military Road, and tree-huggers can drive through the forests that hug the Kingdom’s far northeastern corner.
“There are a lot of interesting aspects of the Kingdom that people didn’t know about,” states Catamount Arts Director Joseph Gressor. “We wanted to make it possible for visitors to have some experience in a way that wasn’t frustrating, to get them off the beaten track without worrying about getting lost or missing something.”
I entered the Kingdom at Montgomery — on the map, a bead strung on the blue thread of the “Border Culture” tour — and located the Montgomery Historical Society Museum, hoping to gain some insight into the village’s French heritage. According to the map, the museum is open from June to October. But when I arrived, a little before 11 on a Wednesday morning, the door was locked and no hours of operation were posted.
Before striking out for the map’s next point of interest, I took a brief tour of the village. Just past the Montgomery School House factory store — where, if I were a doting grandmother from New Jersey, I might have stopped in to purchase a colorful wooden toy — I steered the station wagon through a white, lattice-covered bridge straddling the Trout River. Then I turned the car around and drove back through the bridge the other way.
Montgomery is clean, cute and quiet. So much so, in fact, that it looks less like an actual, living community than a theme park which, like the Historical Society, isn’t currently open. The theory behind the “Kingdom” project is to present that scrappy sector of Vermont as a sort of naturally occurring tourist attraction. Unlike conventional tourism development — in which someone like Disney might construct a Magic Kingdom in hopes of attracting visitors — cultural-heritage tourism beckons sightseers by construing the existing landscape as if it were a theme park. Cultural tourism, Gressor suggests, “has the advantage of allowing people to see a community the way it is, and to allow people in the community to continue to live their lives the way they are. People come to see what an area has to offer.”
The idea behind that idea is to support local business by encouraging folks to spend more days — and dollars — in the Kingdom. While the map points tourists to the roads less taken, and the tape helps them understand why they’re there, local innkeepers and other hospitality pros are primed to provide detailed what-to-do recommendations. These on-the-ground guides can be located at any of the map’s 13 “Key Sites,” one of which is The Inn on Trout River, which I found in Montgomery Center.
As I pulled into the parking lot, owner Michael Forman stepped outside. Though neither of the inn’s two restaurants serves lunch, Forman welcomed me inside to meet his wife, Lee, who was more than happy to chat. She mentioned the 21 covered bridges within an hour’s circumference of the inn, as well as the area’s numerous antique shops. For more active entertainment, she suggested bathing in the local swimming hole with its triple waterfall, hiking one of several nearby trails, or playing golf for a third of the price I might expect to pay in, say, New Jersey.
When I asked about the “Kingdom” tour, the innkeeper’s tone turned reflective. Forman has distributed the map to scores of tourists, and she offers the tape as a perk on her website. But in the 16 or so months since “Kingdom” was released, she said, it has resulted in only six or seven additional guests actually staying at the inn. Forman ascribes this paucity to poor marketing. Though visitors have no trouble finding the map once they’re already in the Kingdom, she noted, it’s much harder to find elsewhere. I certainly had trouble finding the set in Burlington. After checking Borders, Barnes & Noble, Everyday Book Shop, Apple Mountain and even the state’s official tourism website, I finally got my copy through VPR, which offers “Kingdom” as a pledge premium.
Just past Montgomery Center, the map presented me with a choice. I could either follow the blue “Border Culture” route north toward Jay and Newport, or head south along the unpaved Hazen Notch Road, part of the red “Route Through History.” I took the latter. Besides my car, the only things occupying the road were a few falling leaves, some birds, a lone jogger, one motorcycle and a Caterpillar spreading a fresh layer of dirt over the surface.
Though the map doesn’t point out any official points of interest along this stretch, there’s still plenty to do and see. There’s the Bear Paw Pond conservation area — where, if I were an able-bodied outdoors enthusiast, I might have stopped off for a hike. There’s Zack’s on the Rocks — where I could have ordered a salad doused in purple goddess dressing, if I were a big-city gourmet with an appetite for restaurant kitsch. If I were a bargain hunter from Boise, I could even shop. Just over the notch, where the road begins its descent, there was an unlikely sign for a garage sale.
Out of the woods and back on the blacktop, I flew through open farmland, following a stretch where, on the map, the red of the “Route Through History” jauntily alternates with the green of the “Farms and Barns” tour. Here, bright pumpkins were displayed beside nubbly, gray-blue hubbard squash resembling half-deflated balloons. I might have bought one of these orbs to use as seasonal lawn decor, if I were, say, a proud homeowner from Sherbrooke.
As I rounded a bend, Irasburg appeared in the distance. The cluster of houses nestled around the white-steepled church looks exactly like the cover of Howard Frank Mosher’s A Stranger in the Kingdom, a fictional account of an ugly chapter in this little town’s history. I parked beside the village green, a flat expanse of grass featuring one picnic table, one small bandstand, one tiny set of bleachers, zero trees and zero charm. The edifices strung along the edge of the green look like toy buildings from a discount make-your-own village set: There’s the tiny Leach Public Library with its inscription, “Free to all”; the 1912 Irasburg Town Hall; The United Church of Irasburg; and Ray’s Market — where, as a caffeine-deprived writer from Chittenden County, I stopped in for a 75-cent cup of coffee.
Also stopping in at Ray’s was Anita Shrier, a tourist from Toronto in flashy, multi-colored Spandex and a bicycle helmet. Shrier didn’t know anything about “Kingdom.” She was on an inn-to-inn trek with Bike Vermont, a Woodstock outfit her friend located while surfing the ‘net from her home in Switzerland. “We had heard that Vermont was very nice,” Shrier affirmed, adding that, so far, she wasn’t the least bit disappointed. “I’m very happy,” the pedal-pusher enthused. “The inns have been just great. The people are very friendly. The food has been simple, but very well done. For breakfast this morning, there were apple pancakes, eggs, granola and,” she paused, eyes agleam as she wound up for the punch line, “Green Mountain Coffee!”
Shrier’s itinerary would take her north to Montgomery’s Black Lantern Inn. My route continued south. I exited Irasburg on a narrow road that wanders through the settlement of East Albany. Here, I thought, I had truly entered the heart of the Kingdom. Or maybe I was just getting tired. Whatever the reason, this segment of my trip felt a little strange.
Is it just me, or is there something unusual about an old white church with an American flag painted on the facade above a placard that reads, “Chuck’s Church”? And what’s to be made of the sign that enigmatically identifies an otherwise ordinary-looking home as “Michelle’s Paintbrush”? The perfect little pines at a Christmas tree farm seemed to have descended from outer space, and the cows at the Daniels family farm — some black, some brown, all with wide white “belts” encircling their bellies — looked positively Martian. There was even something surreal about the run-of-the-mill Holsteins at the Lord’s Creek farm, as if they’d ambled straight off a Woody Jackson mouse pad.
When the road turned to dirt, strange turned to sinister. Cheerful pumpkins decorated the posts at the end of a driveway leading to a sagging mobile home with an enormous “No Trespassing” notice nailed across the door. At an old farmhouse with a front porch and white geese patrolling the grounds, a woman’s frowning face materialized menacingly behind the screen door. Not far ahead, I passed the Lazy Daze Ranch with its lion shrine and scaled-down Stonehenge.
It was getting late, and I was anxious to get home to Burlington. A driving tip on the map suggested a right turn on Page Pond Road. But when I arrived there, a highway sign said the bridge was closed, and sent me on a long, winding detour. I passed Ma’s and Pa’s Maple, and Ox Yoke Haven, where a row of meticulous antique vehicles pointed their headlights at the road. In a yard littered with black silhouette figurines, I caught sight of a man with boots and a beard striding out of a genuine outhouse. He must be the guy Gressor meant when he said, “We’re real people. We’re not dressing up in Vermont costumes and pretending to live in Vermont.”
By now, I was convinced the map had accomplished its true objective, and deviously so. Having invited me to the Kingdom, and lured me along its back roads, it now would not release me until I’d spent more than the three puny quarters I’d plunked down for that Irasburg coffee.
But just as I was beginning to lose hope, the detour returned me to the reassuring pavement of Route 14. I did 60 through Albany, barely noticing Kate’s Ceramic and Dance Studio. I cruised through Craftsbury Common, the white-picketed village where Alfred Hitchcock shot The Trouble With Harry. I picked up speed in Craftsbury proper, nearly missing Wright’s Diner and the enormous placard bearing its clever motto: “The Wright Place To Eat.”
With an effort of will, I somehow managed to resist the map’s red and green striped ribbon pulling me toward the village of Greensboro. Instead, I bravely plunged into the non-color-coded territory of the non-Kingdom. Seven miles later, I was in Hardwick, the bosom of civilization. The green-roofed Grand Union was familiar and welcoming. I smiled appreciatively at the orthodontist’s office. But it wasn’t until I spotted the tattoo and body-piercing establishment that I really began to relax.
Delaney calls the Kingdom “the Vermonters’ Vermont” — what you get when you “sugar off the state.” Gressor describes the region as “what’s left of the real Vermont ... a place of real community and ungodly beautiful.” I enjoyed my drive, and I wouldn’t mind going back to explore the other places on the map. Like most Burlingtonians, “I L♥VERMONT” and it’s sweet as spring sap to know the state is such an easy drive from home.