A Fine Fall Day in Vermont's Metropolis
How would I describe Burlington? An intriguing mixture of glamour and grit, infused with a progressive, college-town vibe. It's in a neighboring state, but somehow feels very distant from what I'm used to in comparatively stodgier New Hampshire. Not necessarily a bad thing.
Relative to the rest of Vermont, Burlington is an anomaly. A city of 45,000 in many states would be but a blip on the radar*. Its city vibe is very much out of character with the rest of the sumptuously rural Green Mountain State, and yet somehow this city seems destined for success despite its surroundings.
*Of the 50 states' largest cities, Burlington is indeed the smallest of the bunch.
I'd been here thrice before, all in very different chapters of my life. Also, oddly enough, all in September. The purpose of my first visit, way back in 2000, was to check out St. Michael's as a potential college in nearby Colchester. I knew ahead of time that it was likely too tiny and far away (spoiler alert: I'd been right), but far be it from me to turn down a trip with a high school friend and her parents to check out a new city in the far corner of Vermont.
Fast forward eight years to visit #2, a weekend away with my fiancée. In addition to a lovely Lake Champlain boat journey, we added the Ben and Jerry's Tour to our itinerary before lodging at a B&B in nearby Morrisville.
Visit #3 came in 2013 with two-year old Julia in tow. This was actually a work trip with a tiny bit of sightseeing tacked on.
Back to the present: with Alyse and Julia away for the weekend at a baby shower and friends and family unable to join me, I'd be on my own for Burlington visit #4. My 2.5-hour drive north on October 15, 2022 started foggy, but was punctuated by sudden, shockingly bright bursts of sunlight. After 40 years it still amazes me how abruptly opacity can become as clear as a teal Caribbean lagoon.
Stop #1 was a brief visit to the University of Vermont, or UVM. Originally I had wanted to hit the Fleming Art Museum, but it happened to be closed for fall recess (that's a thing?!). While on campus I popped into Gutterson Arena, home of the well-respected UVM Catamounts hockey program.
Then I found myself gliding downhill, illustrious Lake Champlain glistening behind. This elongated lake would be impressive enough by itself, but with New York's rugged Adirondacks looming, it was truly awe-inspiring. This particular day was quintessential autumn in Vermont: 60-65 degrees, golden foliage illuminated by an affable sun. I couldn't wait to get out and explore on foot.
I took a relaxed lakefront jaunt, sharing the rugged beauty with an assortment of families, older couples, and the odd runner or cyclist. The sun's friendly rays sliced invitingly through the gilded canopy creating an immersive, princely ambience that permeated the body and the spirit. Views stretched for ten watery miles west before drawing the eye upward toward the 'Dacks. It was a morning made for lingering, but alas, in typical me fashion I moved on in fairly short order. I had more to do.
Anyone who's been to Burlington is surely familiar with the lovely Church Street Marketplace. Conceived way back in the late 1950s, it has drawn shoppers and strollers since 1981. Vaguely European in its vibe, this four-block, pedestrian-only thoroughfare invites relaxed browsing as well as fun festivals. Today, my destination was a familiar one: the Crow Bookshop, a delightful, creaky-floored indie establishment I'd been to on two of my first three Burlington forays. The day had gotten even warmer and folks were noticing. Though there were greater clusters of humanity, it never felt crowded. Good 'ol Vermont.
After perusing a second bookstore, equally enjoyable despite a more polished veneer, I looped back to the car by way of Main Street. It was time to visit another classic Vermont establishment, the flagship store of Lake Champlain Chocolates.
I enjoyed a free sample of maple vanilla syrup poured over a teensy cup of ice cream. Then, realizing that other than gas and lunch I'd spent a total of $2 all day, I splurged on some extravagantly-priced chocolate for the girls and myself. The cashier was chipper and clearly happy to be in Vermont on this glorious day. Who could blame her?
My day in Burlington wasn't done yet, however. Upon the recommendation of a knowledgeable coworker, I moseyed south to Red Rocks Park (not to be confused with the internationally-known amphitheater in Colorado) to do a spot of hiking.
The surroundings didn't disappoint. Making my way toward more sweeping views of Champlain, the canopies of peak foliage above were simply dazzling. Then, back to the lake. Ahead lay a rippling expanse of inviting water I had all to myself, an outrageous occurrence given how many cars were parked at the entrance to the park.
I descended to a rocky beach, where there was a middle-aged woman, seemingly lost in meditation. I kept my distance, applying the golden rule during these solitude-seeking moments.
Ironically, my final stop in Northwest Vermont was the exact opposite of solitude. Throughout the day I had been hearing the distant roaring of jet engines. Not just American Airlines taking off for Philly, but the deafening rumblings of what sounded like fighter jets. I made my way over to the airport, home base for the 134th Fighter Squadron, a.k.a. the "Green Mountain Boys". For over 30 years starting in 1986, this base was home to a fleet of F-16 Falcons, replaced only three years ago with the incredibly sophisticated and expensive F-35s (At nearly $80 million for a single jet, my chocolate was now looking like a bargain by comparison).
Moments later, perched on the sixth-floor observation area atop the parking garage, my breath was taken away as two of these magnificent aircraft took off right in front of me. In typical fashion I immediately turned back into a 5-year old boy around fast planes; I was completely awestruck by the reverberating thunder. In researching this post a week later, I now realize that these were likely two of the very fighters deployed to assist with air patrols in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
A nearly perfect day now in the rearview, I buckled up and merged onto I-89 south for the lengthy yet scenic trek back to Manchester. Bottom line: I think I love Burlington. Were it not for the fact that it's 2.5 hours from home and has winters even harsher than the ones I already loathe in Southern New Hampshire, I'd even consider living there. For now, though, a day trip will do: an escape to a city that embraces its sometimes lonely status as Vermont's only metropolis. Knowing the independent-mindedness of Vermonters, though, I don't think it could be any other way.