Travel Tales: Old Route Five

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(HOST) All this week VPR commentators have been recalling some of their favorite travel experiences. And today, to conclude our series of Travel Tales, Willem Lange takes a trip up one of Vermont’s oldest roads.

(LANGE) Old US Route 5 enters Vermont in Guilford, a few miles south of Brattleboro, travels the entire length of the state, and ends at the Canadian border in Derby Line. The architecture along the way reprises the history of New England: big Colonials in the south, giving way to Grecian Revivals and American farmhouses as you ascend the river; gingerbread Victorians around St. Johnsbury; and finally, as it strikes out northwestward toward Lake Memphremagog, a flavoring of French-Canadian.

The road’s route follows an ancient Indian trail up the Connecticut River; then up the Passumpsic to the height of land; and finally down the Barton River. It’s the trail that Rogers’ Rangers followed south on the retreat from their attack on Odanak in Quebec in 1759. That attack presaged the end of the French & Indian War and opened the valley. Settlers from Connecticut swarmed northward and chartered new towns all through the 1760s.

You can see the patterns today. Route 5 follows the contours of the river bank. Wherever it crosses a tributary, it swings left, upstream, and there’s a village. Before the days of steam power, villages invariably grew up around sources of water power. Well the streams are still there, and the remains of the dams, but the old mills are long gone.

Farther north, the road winds through rich intervales around Newbury, including the famous Oxbow, where the Abenakis farmed for centuries till the English settlers pushed them out. The river is quiet now, thanks to the series of hydroelectric dams along its entire length. But you still can visualize it as it used to be, when the great log drives came down from the north, with hundreds of soaking-wet, half-frozen men armed with peavies and pikes, teams of horses, and floating cook rafts and bateaux. As the drive came to each town, it lit it up like a Christmas tree for a few days, while parents hid their daughters and preachers thundered against the perils of demon rum.

The drive up the Passumpsic is pretty quiet. It has to include a stop at the Miss Lyndonville Diner for apple pie with melted cheddar on top. After that, it’s up and over into the headwaters of the north-flowing Barton River. There’s a wonderfully whimsical Carpenter Gothic hotel right in the middle of Barton.

Derby Line is a geopolitical mess, thanks to a long-ago surveying error that caused our northern border to wander whimsically along the 45th parallel. The opera house straddles the border. Some years ago the Beatles were coming to America to discuss some business, but they couldn’t enter the United States because one of them was persona non grata on a marijuana charge. So they planned a concert in Derby Line. They’d be on the stage in Canada, and the audience in the United States.

The concert never came off. But as you drive back down from Derby Line on old Route 5, you come to a roadside sign. “Long Winding Road,” it says. And you can’t help but wonder…

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire. I gotta get back to work.

You can find this and all of VPR’s Summer Travel Tales on line at

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