A few years ago, Chef David and I stopped in to a small retail store in Manchester, Vermont, just one town removed from our own at the time. Manchester is picturesque and off the beaten path, nestled in the shadows of the breathtaking Taconic Mountains in western Vermont, a town known for its high-end shopping and dining outlets. You’d also call it historic, but that term describes every town in the state. Like other resort towns of its ilk (Highlands, North Carolina comes to mind), it’s a playground of sorts for the well-to-do, but it’s also home to year-round permanent residents, most of them more solidly middle class than the denizens who open up their massive and beautiful second homes for the summer and during the holidays. For many, the attraction of Manchester in the winter is skiing on the mountains nearby. Outside of ski season, people come for the foliage in the fall, and the fly fishing (the Orvis flagship store is in Manchester, along with the Orvis Fishing School, the American Museum of Fly Fishing, and the Charles Orvis Inn) and other outdoor avocations any time the weather cooperates; and there is always the shopping and dining to mollify the soul on miserable, grey days.
Anyway, as I was saying, when we stopped in to say hey to David’s friend, the store’s proprietor, he lamented to us the closing of Chef David’s longtime restaurant in nearby Arlington after the building it occupied was snapped up by a particular national discount retail chain, one that markets primarily to folks with sharply limited resources. (The Chef’s business, like others in the area, had also experienced attrition in its final years, owing mainly to a decline in tourism since its heyday couple of decades ago, and an ensuing shift in demographics. This is the landscape he was facing the month the two of us met. But that is a story for another day.) This ‘small box’ chain retailer is not especially beloved or celebrated for much, in fact, except the dirt-cheap inventory lining its shelves. As Chef David’s friend so astutely observed to us that afternoon, whenever you see that store in a town, or on a street corner anywhere—and you will have seen many of them—it’s as good as a cry for help: “We’re hurting here,” as David’s friend said. That one sentiment so beautifully summed up an ugly truth, I thought.
I’ve been in Vermont now, incredibly, for seven years. I’m not sure in my heart of hearts I imagined I would live here this long…I’m on the wrong side of a decade now, you might say. But the landscape for me, and for the Chef, has changed for the better during those years. It hasn’t been an instant ‘ta-dah!’ kind of change, but one borne of hard work and diligence with a fair amount of struggle thrown in for good measure. We each enjoy the benefits of reasonably good health, a generally optimistic outlook, and a set of marketable skills between us. Things can always be better, but we’re keenly aware they might be considerably worse. And speaking only for myself, I didn’t expect to enjoy membership in that coveted club called ‘homeowners’ again in my life. And yet here we are.
But we don’t live in Manchester: We live in a small southwestern Vermont town called Bennington that has struggled mightily in recent decades, has seen its fair share of vanishing employment opportunities (in the manufacturing sector, for example), and continues to struggle in key areas—the demographic in the place we call home bears little resemblance to the one in Manchester, or even in rural Arlington whence we came. In recent years our town has experienced a rise in opioid crisis-related problems (in fact, it was recently cited among the top four communities in Vermont where the statewide opioid epidemic is worst, although the situation in our town is not the worst). This past spring, one of the small independent colleges that dot the New England landscape shuttered its operations in the face of economic hardship, a problem seen around the state of Vermont; the school had been struggling to make ends meet for a while. If you were to drive through our town center, you’d note the kinds of historic structures that give New England hamlets so much charm and appeal, but in varying states of decline and renewal. You’d see some lovingly maintained businesses (my favorite by far is our local bookseller, where Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever is welcome to come inside with me while I browse the stacks), but also some vacant storefronts, a few utterly bizarre retail concepts, at least one organization that caters to addiction recovery, and at least one building that was formerly a church and is now something else.
A few blocks away from the town center in any direction you’d find a mashup of beautifully restored historic homes situated among a few more in a state of utter and pitiable decline (and lots of single-family dwellings subdivided over time into apartment units, almost exclusively to their detriment), but also homes like ours with lots of charm and character and possibilities, that made or are making a turnaround for the better. In these neighborhoods you’ll also find a widely diverse fabric of people, from the down-on-their luck, addicted, unemployed, and homeless, to a shrinking cadre of middle-class older folk who’ve occupied the same home for decades, to artists and musicians and other creative types, and a few folks like the Chef and myself, who decided to take a chance on this scrappy town that can feel surprisingly urban in spite of its quaintness, small size, and proximity to the mountains: Somehow we seem to coexist more or less peaceably living cheek to jowl. (With one notable asterisk: Our former next-door neighbors were dealing heroin from their home all hours of the day and night. They are gone, gone, gone, and we were glad to see them go.)
The schools here…I know little of the schools, because I don’t have a child enrolled in one. What I do know is the local high school produced several of the smart folks I’m privileged to call my colleagues, but also serves the town kids who are not college bound, and there are plenty, with its vocational training program. There are parochial and independent schools in the area. But if you’re an advocate for the public schools, and you have children, they will go to school with children of every imaginable ilk, and somehow that seems to work here (I suspect the outcome for any individual child depends upon many of the same ingredients it does anywhere, including parent involvement). Should you wish to opt out, you’ll have to homeschool or move to another town. The Chef coaches track at our local high school in the spring and works with whoever shows up; some are talented athletes, others not so much. He seems to dig this short-term gig enough that he continues to throw his hat into the ring.
We like to think this town is coming back, and hang our hopes on that. At the four corners—the main intersection downtown—a block of historic structures is finally being rehabilitated after a long wait, transformed into fancy new housing above and retail space at the street level. We’ll soon enjoy some new public spaces outdoors, thanks to creative visionaries and a handful of benefactors (one of them failed to launch, we heard, because the contractor hired to do the job made a mess of it; now it’ll be next year, but the space already looks better than it did before). We’ve enjoyed town-wide improvements in infrastructure, ambitious projects ongoing for all of our brief tenure here.
Yesterday the Chef and I went down to Pittsfield, MA, as we are wont to do when our bread supply is thin (we are food snobs, it’s true, and buy our bread at the Berkshire Mountain Bakery, featured in the acclaimed Michael Pollan series, Cooked.) While we were there, we patronized a couple of other retailers we don’t have up this way. And at one of them in particular, the Chef assumed something akin to the demeanor of one of Picasso’s Cubist portraits: downright giddiness smooshed right together with crestfallen dismay at the notion we must drive so far afield to find food so beautiful, the balance of the time settling for substandard produce and unimpressive offerings at our local supermarkets.
For the moment, though, we’re champions of Bennington, Vermont. It’s our home, our community, and for one of us anyway, a place for industry and professional development. We love us a good dinner of fish and chips at a local eatery from time to time (one where the Chef-owner goes way back with Chef David), we’re not too proud to walk to the end of the block for Domino’s pizza when we’re tuckered out and nobody wants to cook, and the bagel shop on the corner makes a good breakfast sammich to go with its exceptionally good cuppa Joe. The Chef and I have settled into our separate city running routines, I’ve found a church home at the Episcopal church an easy walking distance from our house and serve on the vestry there, and once in a while we knock on a neighbor’s door and hand them a pie; we even have new neighbors from Alabama, so I can get my Southern mojo on from time to time.
I had this epiphany on the ride home from Pittsfield yesterday: I am content in my life as it looks now. This is not a claim I could make when I first arrived in Vermont.
A person I know lamented recently she wished life could be more like it once was, but this of course can never be. And the reality for us, for me and the Chef, is that greener grass exists for us in another place. We’ll recognize the right moment, and the opportunity, when we see it, and then we shall take our leave of the Green Mountain State. But for now, the pair of us, and Scout, will be content with life as we know it here, improving our house and the landscape a little at a time, and finally leaving it, we hope, a little better than we found it.