I didn't want to go anywhere. I had been away from home for almost three weeks, teaching and writing, trying to think big thoughts. I wanted to unpack, answer the pile of letters and sort through the magazines that threatened to overwhelm our kitchen table. I would talk to all my children and make plans to see abandoned friends, and by the time I looked up, it would be the following week and I would be gone again, unavailable, no fun and out of reach, for a month. "Don't even unpack," said my girlfriend, Joy. "Vermont," she said. "Lemon meringue pie. Used books. Back roads." Instead of checking e-mail, I could be uncovering first editions of Little Women. I didn't unpack at all, except to toss out the dirty clothes.
At home in central Connecticut, we drive a Saturn. It is a fine car for many things, but it does not say holiday. A Mini Cooper says holiday; it says rally; and, despite its English pedigree, it even says Laissez les bons temps rouler! The nice people at New Country Motor Cars in Hartford rent us a glistening black, corners-on-rails Mini and we zip up I-91, listening to Solomon Burke and accepting admiring glances for the Mini as we pass through Northampton, home of Smith College. Then off the interstate and onto Route 5: at first, it's Anywhere Ugly, U.S.A.—McDonald's, RadioShack, occasional pens of restless RV's.
But things are becoming weirdly lovely as we make our way north, stopping at the Whately Antiquarian Book Center in North Hatfield. It has the necessary mix of hodgepodge, ancient dust, grizzled dog, and doting owner, and everything from a Golden Book on trains to 17 volumes of Patrick O'Brian's 20-book swashbuckling Aubrey/Maturin series with exquisitely decaying Moroccan bindings. I pick up the first two O'Brians, because any series recommended to me, at alternate times, bya self-identified lesbian redneck, a 70-year-old Tory Englishman, and a Reform rabbi is worth checking out.
We pull over at the Yesterdays Antique Center in South Deerfield. Inside are Depression glass, porcelain salt-and-pepper sets shaped like tepees. We realize that there is more of this ahead, so I buy nothing. Joy and I make a pact for the rest of our trip: no antiques, no syrup, no cheese.
As I mutter, "Iced coffee, tuna on rye toast, lemon meringue pie," Joy answers by pulling over at the outstanding Four Leaf Clover Restaurant in Bernardston. The place serves just what I asked for (and much more, including baked haddock Portuguese-style, fried oysters, and seven other kinds of homemade pie). Full and happy, we get back in the Mini and switch over to Jimmy Cliff. Next stop Vermont, and its bookstore epicenter, Brattleboro. There's Everyone's Books, specializing in social justice and the general wish to make the world a better place; Brattleboro Books, 75,000 volumes and an owner who is civility itself (from whom I buy a copy of Kindred, the one-of-a-kind sci-fi book by the one-of-a-kind Octavia E. Butler); and the Book Cellar, for those who prefer new books with covers not even slightly foxed.
Route 9W takes us past stands with maple syrup and cheddar, maple syrup and sheepskin hats—we waver but hold to our vow. We sleep at the pretty (and pretty fancy) Inn at Sawmill Farm, in West Dover. It is a charming restored old barn, withcottages set around two well-groomed ponds. There's wood in the fireplaces and little candles to help start the fire. The 1,325-bottle wine list is extraordinary, the restaurant first-rate.
The next morning we follow Route 100into the eclectic town of Jamaica, which quickly becomes our favorite in Vermont. More real than postcard-perfect Woodstock, more soulful than Manchester (not that that would be hard), it has a palpable air of being home. On Main Street, there is the exceptional Elaine Beckwith Gallery—no reproductions and most of the 30 artists so good that if you saw their work and those prices in SoHo or Taos, you'd have your hand on your wallet. Farther up the road is the lovely Three Mountain Inn, 15 rooms in a beautifully restored 1790 Colonial cottage. Jamaica is old Vermont, with plenty of room for artists, transplanted Brooklynites, poets, printers, the pierced barista in the armchair-filled Jamaica Coffee House, and even an occasional visitor. It is Vermont as one hoped it would be: rough and bumpy, but not hostile; small and content to be itself; not a cheese stand in sight.
We take more Route 100 and then 100A from Plymouth to Route 4. In Quechee, we stop for lunch at Simon Pearce, a restaurant and well-known glass factory housed in an old mill. We could go home now, we say. E-mail, laundry, bills. "Maybe a little city life," I say. "Museums," I say. "Shopping. Martinis."
"Montreal," Joy says. "Allons-y!"
We meet our friends, Gina and Michael, in Quechee. They are, like us, longing for a short vacation from real life. They are also owners of a large, only slightly scary Lexus LX 470S (into which we could put the entire Mini). We switch cars with regret and head west, then north on I-89. Once we cross the Vermont-Canada border, we find ourselves on one of the ugliest, most godforsaken strips of road I've ever seen: Canada's Route 133. This is dun-colored Ethan Frome territory, brightened only by the occasional sagging six-room motel or stripped pickup.
An hour later, we drive into Montreal. The whole city seems cozy, manageable, attractive if not breathtaking, easy to maneuver, and, without being Paris—or even Reims—it gives us great patisseries, big romantic dinners, and nighttime strolls through cobblestoned streets. Montreal also gives us poutine.