I’m often asked how we wound up in Vermont. It’s a good story, one I enjoy telling if given enough time. At the same time, it occurs to me that if one owns one’s own website (now there’s a tongue twister) then one can use it to store oft told stories and send folks off to “read about it on my blog.” Such a delicious freedom.
And so today, in honor of our recent 14th anniversary of being a certifiable Vermont Flatlander, I’ll tell you the story of How We Found Our Way To Vermont. (A Flatlander, for those of you not lucky enough to live in Vermont, is a person who lives here but was not actually born here. Or was born here but their parents weren’t. You get the idea.)
Like many, I like to believe that the major decisions in my life have been the result of careful cost – benefit analysis. However, upon reflection, I seem not to work that way. And so it was with our move to Vermont.
It starts with my son Jon and his wife Jenna.
No it doesn’t.
It starts in Chincoteague, Virginia, the weekend get-a-way log house we bought in 2000 and renovated over the next year, then lived in for 17 months before we left for Peace Corps, then rented for the two years we were overseas. It’s the house we would return to when we came home, eventually.
Or, the story could actually begin as I sat at our dining room table in Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan.
You tell me.
Peace Corps service is 27 months and has been since its start in 1962. Except the year they sent us all home early. In true Peace Corps fashion (not a criticism, mind you, just an observation) they decided to send us English teachers home at the end of the school year, two months early. The official story had something to do with a visa paperwork glitch. But I had a rival hypothesis.
We were the last cadre of English teachers to begin our 27 month stint in June. Those of us in the KAZ15 cohort would finish our work assignments when schools emptied in early June and be free to travel on saved up vacation time until departure for home in mid August, all on the Peace Corps’ dime. If Peace Corps sent us home two months early, they’d save quite a bit of money.
That’s my theory, anyway.
Whatever the reason, we left Kazakhstan on June 2, 2006 heading for our home on Chincoteague Island, except that it was filled with renters until the end of August.
What to do?
After considering various options, we settled on a nomadic summer. Woody had a brother in Ontario, Canada and a son in Florida; my sons and their families were both in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time, and my mother was in eastern Pennsylvania. If we timed it right, we could have free food and lodging for two months while we visited with the family we hadn’t seen for two years.
We’d sold our cars before heading into Peace Corps so, sitting in our living room in Zhezkazgan, I ordered my first Prius off the Internet (Toyota makes it very easy.) to be delivered at the Toyota dealer I once frequented when I lived in Philly. We spent our first night in Philly at the Omni Hotel, squarely in the middle of all the good movie theaters and took in An Inconvenient Truth. In the morning, we met a former neighbor for breakfast who delivered the check my mom had mailed her from our account. (That one cannot purchase a car with a credit card was surprising.) After breakfast and an all-too-quick visit, we hopped the Walnut St. bus to the Toyota dealer in West Philly. They gave us a quick tour of our brand new bright red Prius (Who knew about keyless entry back then?) and we headed south to Florida.
Email being what it is, I was in contact with my sons throughout and, while visiting with Woody’s son Brian in Tampa, learned that my son Jon hoped we’d spend a few days in Asheville, NC on our way from Florida to Ohio, picking up real estate information for them and “scoping out the vibe.” He and his wife really wanted out of Cincinnati. They had two places in mind: Asheville, NC, where Jon’s wife Jenna had gone to college, and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
Asheville was crowded with yuppies and stiflingly hot and humid in June. The area felt rushed and not a little frenzied. We diligently collected the requisite real estate information and left eagerly after one night.
Arriving in Cincinnati, we settled in at Jon’s house, which had more room. But what’s pertinent to this story is the conversation I had with Jon’s wife, Jenna, one evening while talking about their desire to get out of Cincinnati.
“I want a family compound,” Jenna said clearly. I’d never quite seen me in a Walton-family-type compound but she quickly set me straight. “Everyone has their own house,” she advised. “But we all live near each other.” Even her mother, Jenna assured me, was on board to move.
I found the idea immediately appealing. Jon wanted land, I knew; he wanted to live close to nature and channel Thoreau, I thought. Jenna was a nurse, about to become a nurse practitioner, something she knew she could do anywhere.
“Could you swing through Vermont on your trip ?” Jon asked. He knew I was now adept at gathering real estate information.
Of course we could! We’d just hang a left somewhere as we drove out of Canada on our way to my mom’s place in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Fast forward through our Canada visit, where we’d fallen victim to an unexpected heat wave. We left early and found a room in a Bed and Breakfast on an island in the middle of Lake Champlain with delightfully cool breezes wafting off the lake. What a relief! The lot next door was for sale and when I inquired the price, we discovered it was listed for half what it would go for on Chincoteague Island. We could afford Vermont! And my daughter-in-law wanted a family compound. The seed was planted and after a delightful few nights, we settled in at the Comfort Inn in St. Johnsbury, the largest town in this “Northeast Kingdom” area.
A friendly attendant at one of the many gift shop/gas stations that dot the Vermont countryside introduced us to a publication called Picket Fences — a “For Sale by Owner” magazine — and I was perusing it one night over dinner when a photo of a stone house caught my eye. Back in the hotel, I emailed the owner who emailed me back immediately. Off we went first thing in the morning to a town called Danville to see it.
We first saw the house in summer.
I loved how the road wound its way up the mountain, then past a three story barn where we parked before walking to the tiny stone house. It was the smallest house I’d ever lived in but I was done raising my kids; they had their own houses. It had two guest rooms; that’s what really mattered.
The house had an unheated airlock at the back door; how efficient, I thought. It was my first; I didn’t yet know it was called a mud room, or even why, exactly; I’d learn that first spring. When they ushered us into the house through that back door, I could only think, how quaint. Vermont could do no wrong.
We liked the cozy, immaculate house. The ancient wood burning kitchen stove complete with oven and six burners and the fact that the owner had built the house himself from materials gathered over five years from the property added to its appeal. It was the property that we fell in love with: thirty acres, surely enough for a few extended family houses.
We walked around as much as we could — most of the old logging roads and paths were long since overgrown and impassable — and Woody and I quickly began to feel called to this land; it needed us. The idea of stewardship took root.
There were a few acres of clearcut including a depressed area that would surely hold a pond (I’d have that written into the contract) and another that took us to the highest point on the property. As we reached the top and I turned around, I gasped aloud. The view was spectacular. I could see what I’d later learn was the Mad River Valley and we were hooked. Yet, I knew I had to proceed with caution. Just because I fell in love with a property did not mean I was going to live there.
We exchanged contact information with the owners and continued on our nomadic summer, visiting my mom and picking up our dog Merlin, who’d been in foster care those two years. So much to do when first getting home. We knew better than to make such a decision impulsively. The head ruled, at least for those first few months.
September came and we’d continued talking about this land. It was time to show it to Jon. He flew into Burlington and we drove the nearly eight hours north from Chincoteague, picked him up and drove across the state to settle into our rooms at the quaint three-story Victorian Danville Inn that overlooked the quintessentially New England Danville Green.
The next day, we hiked the property again. Jon scrambled with the owner into some much overgrown corners to find the marked stakes and took photos of one clear cut meadow he thought would make a good spot for a house. He was eager to show Jenna. We made an offer that day, contingent on selling our Chincoteague home by June. It was accepted. Nine months to sell our beach front property. What could go wrong?
It was going so well.
We had a recent assessment of the house for over half a million dollars, but every realtor I spoke with about listing would only ask a bit over half of that. So, we listed it ourselves By Owner. Yes, this was early 2007.
Without a single nibble on the house, I drove back to Vermont that March to take in the annual Town Meeting and see just how bad winter could be. The first Tuesday in March turned out to be bright with the sun glistening off the snow that had fallen in the blizzard the night before where I’d been safely cocooned in my room at The Danville Inn once again, this time listening to an interview on the history of Town Meetings throughout New England. I loved the sense of direct democracy that these town meetings embraced. I think, looking back, I was already hooked.
To top it off, when town meeting broke for lunch, who did I wind up sitting with at the table but the couple who lived next door to what we hoped to buy. I took that as an omen.
I drove back again in May with my mom, also eagerly expecting to be closer to her growing family. We identified a place to park her motor home for the summer of 2008 and, still without a single nibble on the house, we all began to envision a future there.
We naively didn’t know anything about the housing bubble that had formed while we were away and was in full bloom when we had our Chincoteague house assessed. We just assumed we’d gotten quite lucky. In hindsight, the bubble must have burst the week before we first tried to list the property. Such is the power of wishful thinking.
But omens being what they are, we moved our little log house onto the rental listings, easy to do in a tourist area like Chincoteague, Virginia. This property in Vermont was calling to us and that was all we could hear. It was actually all we wanted to hear. The idea of living within arms’ reach of my son and his family, particularly my (now two) granddaughters, was a delightful extra benefit.
My older son, Dave, I should mention, was firmly rooted in Cincinnati. Actually, his wife was firmly rooted, and he was quite attached to her. But the idea of skiing in Vermont winters and summer swims in the many swimming holes was tantalizing. He said, “go for it” and so we did, closing on July 19, 2007. We had ten years to sell our Chincoteague house and would rent it easily in the meantime. Surely prices would come back up by then, we thought. Again, the power of wishful thinking.
(Wo)Man Plans; God Laughs
Unfortunately, Jenna soon heard a different call — from her brother who had decided to relocate his family (with kids the same ages as Mikah and Isabella) to the Cleveland suburbs, four hours north of Cincinnati. Jon and Jenna, thinking the two sets of cousins ought to get to know each other over the three years — Jenna assured me — the brother planned to work before moving his family to Australia (a story for another day).
As with many well-laid plans, three years turned into six and by the time the brother and his family finally left for the land down under, Jenna had an established family practice and the two older kids were firmly entrenched in schools they loved. They simply no longer felt the pull they had once felt seven years before. But there would always be visits, we assured each other.
Woody and I were on our own in the Green Mountains of Vermont, along with my very active 78 year old mom who, we appreciated, was in better shape that summer than we were. Woody had just had shoulder surgery and I was limping along for some long forgotten reason. We needed my mom to do the heavy lifting that first summer.
Funny the cards life deals us, the curves you don’t anticipate. We choose, I think, to find them serendipitous or not. I doubt we’d have ever driven through Vermont were it not for Jon’s request to gather information for them. And, we’d surely never have considered living here ourselves, so far from our children, had Jenna not mentioned her dream of a family compound.
But happiness comes from wanting what we already have, not yearning for what we don’t. So, while our original expectations have’t come to pass, we find life here on our little farm to be just right for us, even at this age, when so many of our friends are moving into condos or retirement homes.
We’re not crazy about the 12 hour drive to visit Jon in Ohio, or the additional four hours to visit with Dave — nor are they — but we cherish our visits, here or there.
We’re not thrilled when winter hangs on through April, but come July, I’d not want to be anywhere else.
We love the deep connection to nature that we must have to survive here: the way we harvest our heat, raise our food, and share the bounty that is this land we love. And we are reminded nearly every day that we can do so much more than we think we can, particularly when we find we must.
Where do you live and how did you get there?