Published: September 2008
Adventure Town: Brattleboro
Brave is the couple willing to trade the "hippest neighborhood in America" for mud season, some unruly nudists, and a shot at the Live + Play dream.
Text by Tom Clynes

It started, as migrations often do, with a late night flutter in the tummy—and a seemingly urgent need for an early pregnancy test. But five years ago our neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had yet to be set upon by 24-hour drugstores. And so my wife, Cathy, set out on an impromptu bodega crawl, ducking into one little store after another, searching for a thin strip of paper that promised to turn pink if our lives were about to change forever.

She came up empty-handed at the first two stores. But at the third, a blue-eyed Central American man looked up from behind the counter and studied Cathy’s eyes. "We no have a test," he said. "But you for sure pregnant. You gonna have a boy."

"Holy s—!" was my rather predictable first thought, after the clerk’s predictions were confirmed by an expensive series of doctors’ visits. My second was: "We’ve got to get out of here."

It wasn’t that we didn’t love New York, or that we didn’t have role models who were raising kids, quite successfully, in the city. But as What to Expect books began to pile up in our apartment, I started to imagine a very different life from the one my wife and I were living in Williamsburg, which a national magazine had recently dubbed the "hippest neighborhood in America." Suddenly, I had dreams (apparently colored by Norman Rockwell) of our lad romping through forests, climbing old oaks, and launching himself off rope swings at backwoods swimming holes. "Pa, I found a whole mess o’ blueberries down by Widow Wilson’s place," he’d say before floating some river on a jury-rigged raft.

But where to? New Zealand’s South Island, where we had honeymooned, crossed our minds, as did Vermont, which is 9,000 miles closer. Cathy and I had never been to the Green Mountain State, but, according to the mythology, it was a small, agricultural territory whose once abandoned hill farms had been re-homesteaded by urban rusticators. Snuggled in forested valleys were white-steepled villages and whitewater rivers, clean air, good schools, progressive politics. Vermont, it seemed, was the place people went to write, or ski, or start up bookstores and vegan restaurants and secessionist movements.

On our first scouting trip that fall, we immersed ourselves in the typical flatlander fare: leaf-peeping and sleeping in B&Bs with overdone Laura Ashley motifs, biking and hiking in the (diminutive) Green Mountains. We ate in little cafés, found good coffee and microbrews, even tracked down a distant relative who had just gotten back into dairy farming—organic, of course.

The beauty of the Vermont autumn took us both by surprise. But we had visited plenty of other places with cows and green fields. What was it about this place that was so different?

It took a while, but then we started to get it. Somehow, against the generic tides that had washed over much of the rest of the country, Vermont still managed to function on a human scale. There were no billboards, and few strip malls or big-box stores. Instead, there were farmers markets and general stores that sold both wine and shotgun shells, where locals gathered to bullshit and share news. It seemed at once anachronistic and progressive—the stuff of quaint clichés and cutting-edge urban policy—but Vermont appeared to have that priceless entity that had gone missing in most other places: community.

"Did you know," a bartender in Waitsfield asked us, after hearing that we were considering a move, "that Vermont has the only state capital without a McDonald’s?"

Heck, I could be proud of living in a state like that. But, the bartender added, you’d better come up during winter before making any rash decisions. And so, in snowy late December, we went up again to experience a real Vermont cold snap, and, stopping in a diner in Bellows Falls on the way back home, we spotted a real estate magazine atop a cigarette machine. "Snug northern house," one listing began, then went on to describe a small, energy-efficient place set on a few acres near the funky art town of Brattleboro, in the southeastern corner of the state.

With Cathy navigating, we trundled along an iced-over dirt road that twisted up a thickly wooded mountain. Approaching the summit, we came up against an earthen barricade and two signs. "Road closed for winter," one read. The other pointed toward a trailhead.

"Might as well have a hike," Cathy said, apparently getting into the Vermont groove. Before I could finish muttering something about the dangers of frostbite during pregnancy and getting back to Brooklyn by midnight, my wife was zipping her coat over her growing belly and reaching for the door handle. We tromped through the snow for a half mile along the flank of a long ridge, until a view opened up to the west, exposing a forested valley with some cleared farm fields and a few houses—one of which must be the one we’d come to see. It sure looked peaceful down there.

Just after sunset, once we’d found our way down the mountain, an agent opened the door and we stepped inside a cozy, cedar-shingled home. Out the west windows we could see a snowed-over beaver pond and a brook. To the east was the mountain we had just hiked. We took a look around and sat down in the breakfast nook, facing each other across the table. As if on the real estate agent’s cue, a full moon popped over the mountain and cast its glow on the breast of the snow-covered meadow that would soon become our vegetable garden.

And so, we gave up Cathy’s job (I’m a freelancer) and our rent-stabilized apartment in Brooklyn and moved to Brookline, Vermont, population 467. In July, a healthy and enthusiastic guy whom we named Charlie came along.

Times were hard those first few months, for the same reasons they’re usually hard for new parents. We had a lot of visiting relatives. Cathy felt isolated. We got on each other’s nerves. But we fell in love with the house, the land, and our boy Charlie. Sometimes, we’d wrap him in a sling and walk the old logging roads that crisscross our property, sitting on ancient stone walls, watching the beavers work and play. Like them, we looked at our land and saw potential: We could put a tree house here, a shed over there—or, if our ship ever came in, a writer’s cottage or guesthouse over there.

At night, lying in bed with the windows open and ticking off our list of problems, we’d hear a barred owl hooting—"Who cooks for you?"—and be struck by the small scale of our worries. Were we to fade away, Cathy said, that owl would be here anyway, keeping someone else awake with its questioning call, questioning nothing.

In the city, we had lived elbow to elbow with people we had never gotten to know. Here, we couldn’t see another house, but our neighbors quickly became our friends. The first few weeks brought gifts of homemade salsa and pickles, invitations to dinner, offers to help.

Our nearest neighbor, an 88-year-old widower named Lester Allbee, born and raised in Brookline, had once owned our land. Later, the property became a buffer zone during a decades-long feud between Lester and his brother, Harlan. The feud finally ended with Lester’s visit to Harlan’s deathbed, the scene of an only-in-Vermont reconciliation.

"Just promise me you’ll keep Jessie in firewood," Harlan said, letting Lester know that whatever had happened between them, Harlan would be needing him now, to make sure his soon-to-be widow had enough wood to survive the winter.

Cathy and I had worried we wouldn’t be accepted, that old-time Vermonters might distrust us newcomers. Indeed, one close neighbor (who had emigrated from Connecticut 20 years earlier) wisely suggested that we wait five years before opening our mouths at Town Meeting, the springtime democracy rite that also marks the start of maple-sugaring season.

But transplants in Vermont are as common as mud; we now make up more than half of the state’s population. Among our friends are a carpenter from Massachusetts, a pair of yoga instructors from New York’s East Village, a lawyer from Washington, a journalist from San Francisco, a landscape painter from Montana—plus plenty more writers, artists, educators, and others scraping out a living in Vermont’s much ballyhooed "creative economy."

With a toddler running the house—and another son, Joe, soon on the way—I rented office space in nearby Brattleboro, a hilly town of 11,740 that sports five independent bookstores, two bike and kayak shops, and one brewpub. The town, which has its own climate protection agency, recently blazed a network of hiking, biking, and skiing trails on more than 400 acres of forest and farmland.

Brattleboro regularly makes national news for its Berkeleyesque politics. Last year, residents voted during Town Meeting to impeach the president and VP; this year they voted to indict them for crimes against the Constitution. (Vermont remains the only state that President Bush hasn’t visited—though it’s not clear whether a pending arrest in one town has had any bearing on his travel plans.)

On working mornings, I bike or drive down along the whitewater West River to the point where it converges with the Connecticut River. From my little work space in Brattleboro I look out over the Connecticut and 1,335-foot Mount Wantastiquet, which Charlie and I recently "summited" on his fourth birthday. On summer afternoons, while listening to the town radio station (formerly pirate, now legit), I might catch a glimpse of antinuclear or pro-impeachment demonstrators—or naked PETA protesters taking advantage of the fact that the town had, until recently, no law against nudity. (After nearly a year of vigorous debate, USA Today announced "KEEP YOUR PANTS ON! . . . Vermont’s infamous naked town bans nudity.")

Brattleboro’s live-and-let-live self-righteousness can be tedious, but it can also be refreshing. A truck driver who leaves his vehicle idling in a loading zone might get a talking-to from a passerby. Then again, a daydreamer at a stoplight is usually allowed a whole cycle before the honking starts.

There’s very little real wilderness in Vermont (the whole state is hardly half the size of a single national park in Alaska). But within a two-hour drive of Brattleboro are dozens of trail systems—including the famed Appalachian Trail and Long Trail, which merge in the southern sections of the Green Mountain National Forest. There are hundreds of miles of low-traffic bike routes, several lakes and reservoirs, and 20 ski areas, although working Vermonters favor Nordic and backcountry routes over pricey resorts.

But one of my first Vermont lessons was that paradise is always in peril—and that if some corners of the country remain livable, it’s because people were willing to fight to keep them that way. Soon after we arrived, the newspaper announced that Home Depot would open a big-box store in Brattleboro. Despite protests and pleas to the town government, there was no stopping them.

But a funny thing happened: Bucking national trends, customers and contractors circled their wagons around the mom-and-pop hardware stores that had been doing business in the community for generations. And this past May, Brattleboro made national news again, with Home Depot’s announcement that they would be leaving town after three years due to poor sales.

They built it, and no one came.

Now, five years into our rural adventure, this land of locavores and Community Supported Agriculture farms doesn’t seem so rural—until friends remind us that we have no broadcast television reception, no cable, no cell phone coverage.

None of which bothers me. Instead of watching TV and playing video games, Charlie and Joe spend most days outside, catching frogs and salamanders, "gardening," checking on baby birds, or, in the winter, sledding and skating on the pond (eat your heart out, Rockwell). Charlie has just added a set of deer antlers to the "museum" he’s set up in the tree house I built for him and Joe. And a few weeks ago, Lester watched a mountain lion walk through his field—the first confirmed sighting of a "catamount" in these parts in more than a hundred years.

Now, five years into our rural adventure, this land of locavores and Community Supported Agriculture farms doesn’t seem so rural—until friends remind us that we have no broadcast television reception, no cable, no cell phone coverage.

None of which bothers me. Instead of watching TV and playing video games, Charlie and Joe spend most days outside, catching frogs and salamanders, "gardening," checking on baby birds, or, in the winter, sledding and skating on the pond (eat your heart out, Rockwell). Charlie has just added a set of deer antlers to the "museum" he’s set up in the tree house I built for him and Joe. And a few weeks ago, Lester watched a mountain lion walk through his field—the first confirmed sighting of a "catamount" in these parts in more than a hundred years.

Do we sometimes miss the city? Oh yeah. We miss the energy and the diversity, we miss our friends—though they come to visit us. We miss the midnight sushi runs and the easy access to music and art. We spend too much time and too much gas in the car. The four main seasons are great, but the lesser known minor ones, early spring "mud season" and late fall "stick season," can be depressing. And, when Lester decided to get into the "recycling" business last year, it took a few weeks to get used to the burgeoning junkyard near the foot of our driveway. But, as the old Vermonters will tell you, it’s his land.

Still, the biggest problem we’ve faced in moving here is the problem anyone faces anywhere: Changing your physical location is the easy part; changing what’s in your head is much tougher. For some reason, I had convinced myself that I’d automatically have more time once I got up here. But I still work too hard, I’m still far too caught up in getting things done. And just as I never took full advantage of New York, I don’t spend enough time biking, hiking—or simply watching the changing world right outside our door.

What I do appreciate, without qualification, are my neighbors. One wintry night, when Charlie was 20 months old, a case of croup got so out of control that his airway closed down, and he began to suffocate. We brought him to the emergency room at the nearby 17-bed hospital, but his condition continued to deteriorate. At 2 a.m. the ER doctor called for a rescue helicopter to rush Charlie to the pediatric intensive care unit at Dartmouth, where he would spend the next three days in critical condition.

Nowadays, when I look back on the episode, I don’t dwell on the memory of our unconscious child, hooked up to a mass of tubes and snoring machinery. What I think about was the moment when he sputtered and began to breathe on his own again. He blinked twice and looked up at the white jackets gathered over him and said: "Uh-oh."

My other enduring memory is that of the firefighters’ pickup trucks in the middle of a snowy hayfield, surrounding the rescue helicopter. It was 3 a.m., and the volunteers had come out to clear and illuminate the landing zone. As the paramedics loaded Charlie into the helicopter, our neighbors were there, circled around our son with their headlights on, lighting the way.