Brigadoon, USA

A visit to an archetypal Vermont town

Vermont is my birthright. People there are happy and content. They belong to themselves, live within their income, and fear no man. —Calvin Coolidge

The town of Grafton, not far from the Connecticut River in southeastern Vermont, makes you wish you possessed a lexicon of "charm." A visitor trying to sum Grafton up is left helpless before the task of distinguishing between views equally lovely, antique houses equally graceful, church steeples equally eloquent against the star-shot night sky. Grafton is something of a handsome cliché, an archetype of the New England village. Yet it is no lavish fossil, like Williamsburg, Virginia. Real life goes on in Grafton. Real people live there (some 600 of them). Their ancestors are buried in the cemetery at one end of the village, and are remembered on the war memorial—which covers all the wars that this country has fought, from the Revolution to Vietnam—at the other. In between is The Old Tavern, a carefully restored early-nineteenth-century stagecoach inn that features a fine restaurant, charming (that word again) period-style rooms, and long verandas lined with green-wicker rocking chairs. There my wife and I fetched up, at the start of a recent visit, to lay plans about what to do in Grafton.

The Old Tavern (whose rates are $50-$120 for rooms in the main building and $105-$320 for entire houses nearby) makes provision for riding, biking, billiards, tennis, table tennis, platform tennis, hiking, swimming, shuffleboard, sledding, and (at its ski-touring center on the outskirts of town) cross-country skiing. Nine ski resorts are within an hour's drive. Chess and checkers are available against emergency. Yet this menu of distractions, rich and varied as it is, is somehow not the point of Grafton. "People who come up here asking what they can do are probably in the wrong place," one longtime resident told me. Grafton is a place to be. In the last two weeks of September and the first two weeks of October, the densely and deciduously wooded hills surrounding Grafton do their ineffable best to exceed the limits of the lexicon of beauty. While the eye feasts on the scene, the ear rests. There are only three paved roads in and out of Grafton—the others are gravel—and so there is little street noise. A dog barks, a screen door yawns open and shut, an old man on a wicker rocker sighs in his nap, and the quiet framed by these sounds is, to quote a townswoman, "as balm to the soul."

Our first evening in Grafton we liberally soothed our souls in the ambient balm. It worked wonders, and its effect was not a whit diminished by the generous dinner (a chutney spread and crackers, a delicious soup made of Grafton cheddar cheese, a superior pheasant, and a delicately sugared wedge of apple pie) and the several samples of the excellent local ale (Catamount, made in White River Junction) that we enjoyed under a copy of Reynolds's portrait of Samuel Johnson in the large dining room of the inn. After dinner we took a walk on the gas-lamp-lit main street, and it occurred to me that the people in the houses we passed must grow tired of the sight of middle-aged couples, the women in high heels, the men in city shoes, walking by their doorways holding hands. But romance is the subtext of Vermont, after all, and perhaps the locals take the general air of connubial contentment as recompense for winter. We got back from our walk just in time to hear one of the innkeepers give a recital of Renaissance lute music on his bulbous, beautiful instrument. It was exquisite, and the setting—the restored raw-timbered barn that, replete with a giant fireplace and a cozy bar, functions as the lounge—had a spectral, candle-lit appeal of its own.

The next morning we rented two wide-tire, soft-seat bikes and set off up Route 35 to the neighboring town of Chester, seven Vermont miles away. Grafton being in the cleft made by the narrow Saxtons River, the road out of town was steep going at first, but soon it leveled off, and for much of the remaining way we were in fact going downhill, sometimes at a speed that seemed to rival that of the rare passing car, which more often than not was a Saab, the state car of Vermont. The road is smooth, for the most part, and lined on either side with lush forests, rolling fields, and the purgatorial pastures—stump-riddled, rock-bordered—of the Vermont farmer. At the bottom of one very long hill we saw a dirt road off to the right. We pedaled up the road until a dog barked, and beheld a red-brick colonial farmhouse that, along with its pastoral setting, has probably not changed in two hundred years. It was an admirable example of what one writer has called "the social museum that is rural Vermont."

Chester boasts several art galleries, a large bookstore, a row of grand old houses, and a number of inns. With rain clouds threatening our progress, and the memory of Catamount ale still fresh on my lips, we decided to stop for lunch at the Inn at Long Last, which sits right in the center of town, just behind the narrow village green. The food—roast-chicken and fried-vegetable sandwiches—was delicious, the ale sustained the burgeoning reputation of Catamount, and the coffee was exceptionally flavorsome. The cavernous lobby of the inn was a good place to sit and read and listen to piped-in classical music while waiting for the rain to stop. It was in the lobby that we met the inn's most interesting feature—its owner, Jack Coleman.

Even if his name does not immediately ring a bell, you probably remember him. Fifteen years ago, when he was the president of Haverford College, he achieved minor celebrity for spending a sabbatical in a variety of blue-collar jobs and then writing a book about his experiences. At Haverford, Coleman became a Quaker, and ever since, it seems, he has been taking on the most unlikely roles—prison inmate, homeless person, foundation director—in search of a way of life in accord with the deep-rooted idealism of his nature. He and Vermont were made for each other.

Though he is high-minded, behind his village-elder gray beard Coleman can be a droll fellow. He regaled us with stories about the few memorably inappropriate guests he has had in his three years at the inn—people, he explained, "who really belonged in the Ramada Inn." He told us, "One man wrote me a letter of complaint. 'You may not be aware of it, Mr. Coleman, but your rooms have no telephones, no televisions, the floors squeak, and all the furniture is old.' I wrote him back saying I was sorry but the furniture was as old as I could afford."

Also in Chester is a mammoth book barn and junk store, on Route 103 just west of the center. Some books have been in its musty rooms so long that history has played tricks on them, turning yesterday's remainder into today's camp classic. Take You and Your Congressman, a 1965 book by Jim Wright, the former speaker of the House. "Every now and then," he writes,

in visiting among my constituents or on my occasional trips to other parts of the country, I'll be called off to the side by some concerned citizen. With wrinkled brow, he'll look at me earnestly and ask in a confidential tone: "Tell me, Jim, is Congress really as bad as they say?"

His answer, given in a closing chapter with that question as its title, is no. "Frankly, I have no pat solution for this human propensity to defame public officials," he concludes.

Back in my green-wicker rocking chair on the veranda of The Old Tavern I would have read more of these improving reflections, but I had to tear myself away to explore Grafton.

Biking around Grafton, over a covered bridge across the Saxtons River, and up a dirt track canopied by trees for much of the way, I came upon one of the largest and lushest groves of birch trees that I had ever seen. Being there in fall is like entering the mind of color. It is a spectacular sight, and I would have stayed longer if I had not been told about the coyotes (the rumor is true; they've come back to Vermont) and the bear (who never left).

I biked up Route 121, which runs past The Old Tavern, with a destination in mind. Past the inn the road takes an achingly inviting right-angle turn at the big white church and soon turns to gravel. The sights here include the Saxtons River, which runs alongside the road, the occasional tradesman's house with its rustic sign (NOJOB TO BIG OR TO SMALL), the Grafton Village Apple Company, and a former one-room red schoolhouse with a bright white gazebo in the clearing adjacent to it. Between the apple company and the schoolhouse is a turnoff on the right, which leads to a miniature lagoon nestled in the narrow river. Made by an overhang of boulders and trees, and featuring a five-foot stretch of sandy beach, it would be the ideal spot to punctuate a picnic (they put up box lunches at the inn) with a discreet dip.

But I pressed on, taking a left at the dirt road just past the schoolhouse, pausing long enough to admire the meadow ahead on Route 121, and then climbing a steep hill that soon took me past a brick farmhouse. Framed by tall trees and sloping "mowings," as meadows are called in Vermont, it is inexpressibly graceful. In a town of parts that stand for the whole (Vermont, New England, your pastoral dreams), it is an architectural quintessence. Farther along up the hill, past curious horses eating their way across a mowing the size of a city block, and around a hairpin turn, I started up the long driveway that leads to the 200-acre kingdom of the Gabriels. They—Anne and Frank Gabriel—bought the oldest house in Grafton (1789) after Frank retired from the army, about twenty-five years ago, and converted it into the Inn at Woodchuck Hill Farm.

The accommodations at Woodchuck Hill Farm are gorgeous, with skylit rooms, Mexican-tile baths, and a huge covered porch with views to Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire. There is, in addition, a swimming pond stocked with bold trout. In the back of a converted old barn is a large multi-level apartment, complete with kitchen (this goes for $110 a night for two, while other rooms go for $65-$95 a night; all rates include breakfast). At the opposite end of this barn is the Gabriels' antique shop. The Gabriels run the inn from May through October; the rest of the time they divide between Florida and traveling the world looking for fine things to put in their shop. For $30 I bought my wife a wool Victorian shawl that was exquisitely made, also warm, and also very beautiful. The Gabriels' barn is crammed with country treasures selected by people of rare taste.

The Gabriels serve a hearty breakfast to the guests at their inn—homemade pastries and eggs laid by their own hens—but they no longer offer dinner, or do so only rarely. Anne Gabriel got tired of all the work. Besides, people don't want to eat at the same place every night, she told me. Now she and Frank generally confine themselves to recommending restaurants. To me they urged the merits of the Four Column Inn, in Newfane; the Three Clock Inn, in South Londonderry; and, with an appetite-kindling enthusiasm, the Inn at Sawmill Farm, in West Dover, about thirty miles from Grafton.

The Inn at Sawmill Farm is one of only fifteen establishments in the United States bearing the distinguished imprimatur of The Relais & Chateaux. This collection of independent hotels with premium-quality restaurants is to ordinary hostelries as filet mignon is to hamburger. Served in an old barn that has been refashioned into an opulently rustic restaurant, the inn's food overmatches my power to render tastes in words. From the delicately flavored cream soup to the beer-batter-dipped shrimp to the succulent veal chop to the Michael S. Dukakis memorial salad (made of Belgian endive, which Dukakis once urged on hard-pressed Iowa farmers as an alternative to their messy old corn and hogs) to the low-bush-blueberry pie, it was a girth-stretching meal that had me puffed out like an alderman. The rooms at Sawmill Farm are luxurious; many have private fireplaces, and all seem to have been decorated by the hotel industry's Edith Head—they are so gaudily bedecked and caparisoned that I appreciated anew the firm good taste of the Gabriels and the prim Yankee charm of The Old Tavern. Prices are high (just over $300 for a room, dinner, and breakfast for two), but the food alone would almost be worth it.

Vermont is a state that depends crucially on tourists. Its people, though, retain the independence and dignity that Calvin Coolidge prized in them. It's easy for us tourists to forget, but it isn't only nature that brings us the long-running production Vermont; necessary, too, are the care, the self-interest, and often the self-sacrifice of Vermonters.

I was reminded of the people behind the scenery last winter on a visit to The Old Tavern. It was well below zero that evening; the windows were thickly covered by embroideries of frost. We had had a large, delicious dinner, had sat by the hearth watching the logs spark and glow, had had our brandies, and were snug in our beds when we were awakened by the wail of a siren. We rushed to the windows but could see nothing; apparently there was a fire in a nearby village. Our feet freezing against the cold floor, we scurried back to bed. Next day—a bright, clear morning; temperature zero—I was taking a post-breakfast walk around town when I spotted the fire engine returning to the firehouse. It was 9:00 A.M.; the siren had gone off at two. The men on the engine were covered with pitch and ice—ice in their hair, ice in their nostrils, ice caked on their gloves and boots. They were volunteer firemen, and now they would have to clean themselves up and go on to their day's work. They had spent the night fighting a fire in the town of Saxtons River. If there had been a fire in Grafton, volunteers from Saxtons River would have come to fight it. Mutual aid is the ethic these villages live by.

And somehow, knowing that our safety rested in the hands of those who live out a pre-modern ethic, protecting life and property on stinging winter nights—somehow, that deepens the pleasure I take in Grafton, giving character to its charm.