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Mountain Magic in Central Vermont

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Photo: David Nicolas

Barnes arrives, and we head outside to his pickup. A stocky man, he has a graying ponytail and callused hands. Raised in Barnard by his grandmother, he started trapping mink and muskrat at six years old. Now, Barnes works part-time as a wilderness guide, specializing in animal tracking. We drive to a trailhead for Nyes Swamp, where Barnes straps on an old pair of sinew-and-ash bentwood snowshoes that are easily three times bigger than my dinky aluminum Tubbs. "These don't trap snow or slush the way new ones can," Barnes says, crunching along a logging road as a pack of snowmobilers zooms past. We quickly leave the joyriders behind by dropping into a steep vale. Drifts well around gray birches that rustle drily. Barnes indicates scarring on the trees where black bear have marked their territory. (Luckily, they hibernate.) Moose tracks cluster around browsed balsam fir. We climb over fallen logs to look for a porcupine den, and wind up in a frozen fen dammed by beaver. The woods are so still, I can hear falling snow crystals as they begin to fill our own tracks. We turn back toward the logging road, and Barnes points out a ruin. "Farmers way back in places like this scratched out a living. Sometimes, the 'overseer of the poor' would come around with food and check on them." (New England towns would elect this official, whose title originated in the Elizabethan era, to supervise a 19th-century form of welfare known as "outdoor relief," a euphemism for the poorhouse system.) Frugal Vermonters were generally reluctant to participate.

On the way to Woodstock, I catch up with Jean and Albert Conklin, friends who own a farm in nearby Pomfret. It once belonged to her parents; the couple took it over in 1952. Both in their eighties, they would never consider moving south. I note how certain older Vermonters seem to thrive in the cold. "Every hundred years we get a new batch of people here," Albert remarks. Despite his long residence, some of his neighbors still consider him a flatlander. "Once in a while," he smiles, "I'm mistaken for a Vermonter."

Just opposite the Conklins' farm is the site of America's first rope tow, erected by Wallace "Bunny" Bertram on Gilbert's Hill in 1934. (Two years later, he opened another lift on adjacent Hill Number Six, which later became known as the Suicide Six ski area.) Operated with an old Model T Ford engine, it hauled skiers up a gentle slope. When I ask Jean whether she rode it as a girl, she replies, "I never did. It cost too much. We skied hills around the farm, but we had to trudge up."

Perhaps the best-known hill farm in central Vermont is the Billings Farm & Museum, on Route 12 outside Wood­stock. During early winter, it's open only on weekends, but the chance to get up close and personal with a working herd of Jersey cows is tempting to those who don't regularly walk around in pastures wearing muck boots. Of course, not every Vermont hill farm has the late Laurance Rockefeller as its patron saint. He was married to Mary Billings French, whose family bought the property in 1871. The original owner, George Perkins Marsh, wrote a startlingly prescient ecological diatribe in 1864 titled Man and Nature and is considered to be America's first environmentalist. The Billings-Rockefeller land stewardship now extends beyond the farm to an adjoining 550-acre tract on Mount Tom with 20 miles of groomed trails.

Walking along the streets that radiate from Woodstock's village green, it's impossible to separate the greater landscape from the munificent influence of Laurance Rockefeller's local foundation, which also oversees the Suicide Six ski resort and the Woodstock Inn. The town is unquestionably a primer on architectural preservation. Federal, Greek Revival, and late-Georgian houses (mostly painted white) stand elbow to elbow. The library has stained-glass windows designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany; hanging in several church steeples (also all white) stand bells most likely forged by Paul Revere and his progeny. On Elm Street, F. H. Gillingham & Sons stocks plaid woolen Johnson Mills hunting pants, wooden train whistles, and sleigh bells. The Town Crier blackboard announces community sup­pers and sing-alongs. A covered wooden bridge crosses the Ottauquechee River. Vermont senator Jacob Collamer, a friend of Abraham Lincoln, once said, "The good people of Woodstock have less incentive than others to yearn for heaven." Damned right.

I detour through the village of Warren and duck up Common Road, which is lined with old sugar maples that already bear galvanized tap buckets on their trunks. To the west looms Mount Ellen, slightly over 4,000 feet in elevation. Anyone spoiled by heli-skiing in the Rockies might not give it a second glance. That would be a mistake.

John Egan has the scorched cheeks and chapped lips of one who has been exposed to harsh conditions too long, his official title is chief recreation officer at Sugarbush. Essentially, he is in charge of "all things snow" for the resort's adventure learning center. During the off-season, he occasionally leads extreme ski expeditions to Greenland and Patagonia.

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