(Host) Our annual crush of fall tourists has begun, and commentator Tom Slayton notes that it is a phenomenon with deeper roots than you might at first think.
(Slayton) We are likely to think of our annual influx of tourists as a contemporary phenomenon – something that just happened in the last 50 years. But as poet Hayden Carruth has noted, Vermont has long been a land of passage. For more than 300 years people have traveled through these hills and valleys, come to explore, come to visit, or come to stay.
From the earliest of their writings, a recognizable Vermont emerges — different, but not totally dissimilar to the one we know today.
Back in 1609, there was the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who sailed down a long, beautiful northern lake surrounded by mountains. He described that lake in glowing terms and, with little modesty but unerring judgement, named it after himself.
More than 150 years later, Ira Allen passed through, saw the economic potential of the piney terraces above Burlington Bay and speculated in hundred-acre lots on the site.
In 1784, Elias Smith, a boy whose family had struggled through the wilderness to Woodstock, wrote about having to subsist on flour and milk, and working all day in the fields into the bargain. If they only had a few potatoes, Smith thought, life would have been comparatively rich.
He later wrote ironically that Vermont had been represented to him as resembling the Land of Canaan: “a land of hills and valleys, flowing with milk and honey. The first part,” Smith wrote, “I found true.”
Another early traveler through Vermont was the Reverend Nathan Perkins, a cultured down-country minister who recoiled “in pious horror” upon seeing the grave of that “awful Deist, Ethan Allen,” and missed his comfortable Hartford, Connecticut home. Perkins simply could not understand the happiness of the rough-living independent landholders of Vermont.
That was in 1789. Two years later, John Lincklaen, a traveling businessman interested in maple sugar, visited then-Governor Thomas Chittenden and sampled his informal hospitality. He found the Vermont governor “destitute of all education,” but wise, friendly, and hospitable: “He offers heartily a glass of grog, potatoes and bacon to anyone who wishes to come see him,” Lincklaen wrote.
In 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne visited Burlington, and saw there a mix of people that contemporary visitors to Church Street might recognize. Francis Parkman came through in 1842, and in 1850 Henry David Thoreau visited Brattleboro and Mount Holly, making the unremarkable observation that in fall the Green Mountains turn red!
Outsiders continued to come to Vermont, and after 1900, they came in increasing numbers. They are still coming today.
The editor of “Outsiders inside Vermont,” a book detailing the history of travel to Vermont, was the late Thomas Basset of Burlington, and he wrote: “In the long run, it doesn’t really matter whether you start from inside or outside a place. In this world, there are transients, there are people who just moved in, and there are the rest of us wayfaring strangers.”
Inside or outside, that sounds like Vermont.
Tom Slayton is the editor of Vermont Life magazine. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.