This is My Youth: A New Englander Reacquaints with Craftsbury – Craftsbury, Vermont, USA
I am a true New Englander. Although I made my official departure over a decade ago, I dignify myself by maintaining those stereotypical qualities of diligence, frugality and resourcefulness that still run through my blood. Raised in Boston, I spent a good part of my most rambunctious youth hunting for trouble in the surrounding states, especially Vermont. So when some friends and I decided to rent a cabin on a lake in Craftsbury, I donned a comfortable disposition of youth and nostalgia, and assumed I knew exactly what I was in for.
I was wrong from the outset. Getting to Vermont was no longer as easy as driving north and hoping to smack into it. Though technically the flight from New York City to Burlington takes about ninety minutes, airport craziness and an anticipated post-arrival car ride were adding up to substantial travel for a weekend jaunt. My swelling travel irritability was officially sidetracked somewhere during the scenic one-and-a-half hour drive from the Burlington airport, where I discovered that we were embarking on an official sculling expedition.
How this escaped me remains as mysterious as the legendary twenty-foot eel in Lake Tomahawk, not too surprising since my friend, Jack, was an avid sculler, having done it all over the world. And he was the trip’s initiator. To the naked eye, sculling and rowing appear to be one and the same. While neither is more hardcore than the other, they do require varied skills and training. Both are aerobic, competitive and/or meditative, depending on the sculler’s fancy. Sculling is generally (though, not exclusively) considered a one-person-per-rig kind of sport. It has its exceptional challenges. For starters, the shells are extremely light, thin and come in two varieties (in layman’s terms) – those that flip over easily, and those that are impossible to balance. Needless to say, the risk of being submerged in Manhattan’s East River – accompanied by an extreme lack of accommodation – was reason enough to have never attempted sculling before. I was a card-carrying novice.
Though New England is not specifically famous for its farmland, Vermont has sprawling green countryside and acres of gently sloping, seemingly virgin hills. The drive was long enough to see that backyard farming – sheep, chickens, horses – were common, the land marked by steeple-topped chapels and modest wooden houses, probably dating back to the 1800’s. All of New England is old and handsome, but I realized that what sets Vermont apart, is its minimalism and straightforwardness. Driving through several towns to get to Craftsbury, even those upscale, maintained a definite lack of pretentiousness, creating a sense of unanimity, principle, insinuating that Vermonters take their motto on the original seal, "Freedom and Unity", to heart.
The second I opened the car door and balanced myself on sturdy Craftsbury soil, I was catapulted back to the days of undiscovered swimming holes and thirty-foot cliff dives – days when my New England sensibility had yet to fully develop. The sterile air was brilliantly intoxicating, enough to inspire anyone to jump off precipices and gamble their existence. We’d now arrived at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, 320 acres of a quaint New England village. It functions year-round as a training center for scullers from all over the globe. It has hosted the British, Canadian and Danish teams in recent years, but it is clearly a haven for runners, hikers, bikers and woodsman. In the winter, it’s known for its cross-country skiing.
As we trekked down a rocky and winding path to Cabin D, Jack informed us that we’d missed the first day of training, otherwise known as “falling in the water day”. This is where you fall out of the boat and into the water, learn how to recover, emotionally and otherwise. At that moment, I was grateful for our flight delay, figuring only non-New Englanders needed lessons on falling into a lake. Stowe Mountain was nearby, where I famously skied off the side of a double diamond in high school (probably should have been my death site). I had time to think of cause and effect, my senses shifted towards the scent of baked blackberries wafting from what seemed to be the Craftsbury heavens.
The charm of the cabin lay in its simplicity and lack of accoutrements. One might even describe it as “charmless” if it wasn’t actually watching over the lake. A bay window exposed a strikingly serene view of still, silver water with a light fog hovering overhead, guarded by green trees of mythical proportions that hung over the lake protectively, like adults looming over a sleeping child. It was hard to believe anything could go wrong at this place. No falling out of sculling shells here.
By the time we’d all finished wrestling with our lack of cell phone signals, we realized we’d missed dinner. We headed over to the dining hall to see if there was a chance for latecomer coffee. Though the climate in Vermont is generally never described as mild, it was unusually cold for August, dropping somewhere down in the low-sixties at night. Still no cell signal, only one outdoor pay phone.
We slipped off to the visitor's center where scullers were watching footage of competing university teams. You could study the work, so to speak, with commentary and discussion. The visitor's center accommodated those hardcore scullers who couldn’t rent cabins, or were flying solo – like a hostel, with private or shared rooms.
While tinkering with the pay phone in the hall, I bumped into an early twenty-ish who attended the University of Colorado, but made the jaunt to Craftsbury to absorb its renowned reputation for his most beloved sport. “Why do you love it?” I asked, genuinely wanting to know. His eyes filled as he described the feeling of peace and satisfaction as you slide through the watercourse, the option of being alone or in a group, the community and the solidarity. Scullers, to him, were people of unique integrity and character. I wondered if they were all as inspiring and inspired as he, while simultaneously worried that I might be getting in over my head before I’d reached the water.
On Saturday morning, we slept through the 7:00 a.m. (first) scull. In fact, we also missed the 9:00 a.m. breakfast. The next round of boats was scheduled for 11:00, I was secretly wishing we’d miss that as well. Apparently, there was some substance to that dreaded Day One training. Now it was Day Two and I realized I’d have to launch with everyone who, even if just theoretically, were more experienced. Not only did I not know how to fall out of the boat, but I also had no idea how to balance, steer or flat out coordinate myself, which I figured out the night before might be an important thing to know. Also, I was starting to remember that for as rambunctious as I’d been in my New England youth, I was never all that athletic. The infamous Stowe incident was looming more as caveat than conquest.
I told my expert-sculling friend, Jack, that I’d be skipping the 11:00 scull, but would catch up with him at the last launch, at 4:00. “What are you going to do?” he asked, just as some married friends were heading down to the “on campus” tennis courts. A father serendipitously walked by with his sulking adolescent son who was complaining that he was bored with Craftsbury and wanted to go home. “What do you see when you look out into the woods?” the father asked the boy, whose response was an adamant, “nothing". “Why does nothing have to be boring?” the father asked wisely, sounding more like Walt Whitman than your average vacationing dad.
Being the daughter of a tree surgeon, I looked at the woods and saw nothing short of enchantment. In days of old, I’d spent a full day with loggers and envied the impossibility of being able to chop, haul, run and split lumber. I’d suddenly remembered when I learned to use a tree belt, hiking myself, mostly unsuccessfully, up the trunk to prune, then too taken by the view to complete the work, which strangely seemed to satisfy my father even more. Immediately I identified some birch trees and almost quivered with thrill thinking that there were sugar maples over a hilly path. I turned to my friend and said, “I’ll be right around here – doing nothing.”
Before I had time to wonder what "nothing" felt like, I was greeted by Frankie, the mud-soaked border collie that I quickly discovered had a obsessive compulsive proclivity for water frisbee. Frankie and I sided up to the lake and watched the scullers head off into the distance. I was mesmerized, if not hypnotized, by the glorious site of the scullers gliding across the water, with the full elegance of a team of wild swans. They’d launched as a group, then dispersed by space and speed. I watched until the very last one disappeared behind the maternally hovering green, when the water was completely still again.
After my Craftsbury safari, I trudged up the hill and met with everyone at lunch. The food was hearty and simple – bean salads, pastas, various fruits in season – clearly geared towards athletes who had worked up a hunger. While sharing our third piece of huckleberry cobbler, we were joined by Russell Spring, a gentle sixty-something who I immediately recognized as not originally from the area, due to his lack of Vermontian dialect. It was only after a shared rapture over a book sale at the nearby library that I discovered Russell actually started the Crafstbury Outdoor Center. I instantly loved him for not telling me this right away. After learning that his son now runs the place, I asked what he was doing with his time. He looked at me with a fever of delight. “I’m building a library. You must come see it. Tomorrow.”
When Russell said he was building a library, I didn’t realize he meant the actual structure. His grandson, apparently, was an expert carpenter, and had constructed the honey-wooded room with a full view of Russell’s side of the lake. He’d found me at dinner the night before and brought me a present, an obscure theatre text about an obscure restoration playwright (we had discussed my love for theatre). This was something else we shared in common, and something Russell was more involved with during his years at Dartmouth, where he met his wife.
Now, in his library, I could see that Russell was interested in nearly everything, and had that other Vermonter John Dewey almost beat with his very own library system. “Tell me what you’re interested in, and I’ll find you a book about it,” he instructed, after confirming that he didn’t have one book on Shakespeare I didn’t own myself. When we tired of the books, we looked through his artifacts – wooden wheels, old stones, strange art tools, terracotta.
Then everything stopped. Russell pulled out his binoculars, handing me his spare. “Look", he said. "They’re back.” And though there was only a dark speck on the water, I inherently knew what he was talking about. “We have two of them. A pair. They belong to our lake.” Loons, of course, perhaps New England’s most beloved birds, known for their gracefulness and calming coos – birds that have been threatened by lead poisoning and other environmental endangerments. A car pulled into the drive and Russell broke our moment of silence with, “My wife’s here. Want to go see the orchid?”
We marched up, past and down again, hurriedly searching for the freshly sprouted orchid, hiding in the dark and winding forest path behind their house. We spotted her, shyly hiding behind a mass of gnarly branches – beautiful, simple, modestly guarding herself from the harshness of the surrounding world. To me, in all her purity, she was a symbol of the state and its people.
Exactly one hour later I found myself in a rowboat, in the middle of the lake. I took one last look around, this time at towering silver granite that blocked the view of my friends’ (a.k.a. the boat owners) farmhouse. I knew I was surrounded again, by thirty-foot cliffs, but this time, instead of being on top of them, I was a part of the landscape. Monet had wished that he’d lost and then regained his sight, so he could experience the world new again. If he were alive, I would assure him, first hand, how his wish would not have been wasted.
The shift of the sun revealed we were at risk of missing our flight if I didn’t haul the rowboat back to shore. I let myself move, surprised at how fast I could go.