Boats, trains and automobiles

Got more intimately acquainted with Vermont today, from the northwest corner up by Canada to the capital region mid-state to Southern Vermont, where I’m staying now (this room is sweeeet! They upgraded me to an oversized room, so for my $95 I’m getting a massive, well-appointed room with two double beds, a fridge and microwave, coffemaker and hair dryer (ha! like I need that…..). Nice place. If the internet connection worked better, it’d be perfect.

Started the day by heading north to the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour (complete with cow puns…. moooooove to the front of the room….) I was struck by how small the facility was, compared to my expectations. I thought it would me massive. They can crank out 150 pints a minute, but it still looked like a small operation. We got to sample the flavor of the day, Chocowlate, which is vanilla ice cream with chocolate cow pieces. It was good, of course. I picked up a pint for you all, but they were melting in the car so I had to eat them.

From there I drove all the way up to Burlington, about 40 miles south of Canada. Aside from my boat ride (see below), I wanted to visit the small National Guard museum in Colchester, VT for one reason – to see the Merci Train. Let me explain. A coworker of mine is a history buff and lecturer, and he told me about the Merci Train. After WWII, the people of France were starving. The American people sent boxcars full of food and provisions to France to help. The French were so grateful that they returned the favor a year later and sent 49 boxcars – one for each state – filled with gifts to say thank you (“merci”). These boxcars were the same ones that transported troops and horses during the war (they are called 40 & 8s, as they held 40 men or 8 horses). They were built in the late 1800s, and hold strong memories for many servicemen who traveled on them.

Thought they had little to give after the ravages of war, the French people gave whatever they could. The “Merci Train” arrived in New York, and made its way around the country, dropping off a car in each state. Many of these boxcars still exist (check to see if your state’s does. Connecticut’s does not). They don’t contain the gifts anymore, but many have been restored. My coworker, who travels the country, has visited and photographed many of them, but hadn’t seen Vermont’s. I told him I would try to check it out for him and bring back pics (see them on my Facebook page) as it was only ten minutes from where I was already headed. While it may not look too impressive, it’s the sentiment that matters. As my coworker points out, France is the only major world player of the last few hundred years with whom we have never been at war. We have been staunch allies through and through. So why don’t we like each other more now???

Next, I took a hop, skip and jump to the dock on Lake Champlain for my boat ride on the Spirit of Ethan Allen (Ethan is the state hero, much like our Nathan Hale). Lake Champlain lies between New York and Vermont, and runs from Canada halfway down the state to Fort Ticonderoga. It is 120 miles long, and is the biggest lake in the U.S. after the Great Lakes. It flows north, which is very unusual (don’t ask me how or why it does this. I don’t know. I was probably enjoying my turkey wrap when they explained this). The ride on the lake was an hour and a half and very nice, as it was another clear and beautiful day (my whole trip has been this way!) I saw the tallest building in Vermont (eleven stories! whoa….), the Adirondacks of New York, the city of Burlington (the largest city in the state, which is only about the size of Norwich), and the historically famous Valcour Island where Benedict Arnold outsmarted the British, who were busy firing on a rock that they thought was a ship….. (I saw that, too….)

Next I headed south (I’d have gone north to Canada, but my passport is not current). I stopped at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company for their tour, which was fun (it also had puns…. bear left…..). Their bears are nice (and expensive….most were $50!), and are guaranteed for life (most common mishap: dog chewings… hear that Marley?). They have a full-time woman who repairs returned bears, whom we met. The bears’ eyes cannot be pulled out (safety feature), they will not burn (they melt instead), and you can have bears custom made or dressed. Valentine’s Day is the biggest bear-giving occasion, and “will you marry me” the most popular custom embroidery. End of bear trivia.

Continued further south to Montpelier, which I did not have time to check out last night even though I stayed near there. Wanted to visit the state capitol building. I find these buildings fascinating – the architecture is marvelous (esp. true in Connecticut’s case), and I have a gorgeous book with great photographs of every state’s building, inside and out. Most are jaw-dropping in their grandeur and lavishness, yet how many of us have seen them? It is my goal to see as many as possible when I travel (I saw New Hampshire’s a few days ago).

Montpelier was a hoot…. it is so small! (I almost missed the exit as it looked like there was nothing there). It felt kind of like New London, and the capitol building just sits there on the small-town street grid, unassuming yet majestic. I pulled up right in front. It was dusk, and the place was pretty deserted so I felt as though I had it all to myself. I was impressed with the grandeur and size of the building, which stood out all the more so because of its location. The dome is gold and very shiny. The grounds were very nicely landscaped with beautiful mums (see pics). Sadly, I arrived too late to go inside (same problem in NH), but I was glad to have seen the outside.

I like Vermont’s small-scale personality. It is the same size as New Hampshire, yet has half as many people (600,000 vs. 1.2 million. Connecticut has over 3 million and is of course much smaller). Its capital is the smallest in the country, and only one state has fewer people (Wyoming). Frequently on the side roads here, I was the only traveler (I think locals go to bed early). The people have been very friendly. Still, I think I preferred the White Mountain region of New Hampshire. The forest area (which was huge) and mountains there were beautiful and peaceful. Vermont seems to be more about trees, which of course is great in the fall , and skiing (which I‘m not into). I arrived here past peak foliage, but it was still nice. I think trees turned early this year. No problem, I’ll try again next fall.

I’ve driven over 900 miles in the last three days (that’s over 16 hours in the car) and for the most part, didn’t mind any of it (there were a few exceptions, mostly long and twisty backroads, and that notable fiasco the first night in New Hampshire). My vehicle has performed admirably in spite of some abuses (the Mt. Washington climb and the rut-filled trek through the woods come to mind). Twice I came within 10 miles of running out of gas (even on the interstates, the travel services are few and far between), and both times a gas station appeared like an oasis in the desert just in the nick of time (thank you, universe!) And fortunately, it is impossible to lock my keys in my car.

Modern conveniences have made travel so much easier and more pleasurable. GPS is truly amazing and has been indispensable. I love the fact that it shows the speed limit of the road you’re on and how fast you’re going (kept me from getting tickets), I love the very accurate estimate of arrival time (helped me plan my stops), and the instant adjustments to my errant turns (either intentional or not so). It never failed to direct me from here to there and is a remarkable invention. It gave me confidence to go all over the place effortlessly and without worry. It made planning easier (will I arrive in time? Which lane should I be in?) If you don’t have one and travel at all, they’re worth every penny.

Equally great was the new device I got to connect my mp3 player to my car stereo, allowing me hours upon hours of my favorite music playing automatically and randomly, my own private radio station of my favorite tunes. It made the time pass very enjoyably.

Lastly, the ability to get on the Internet from the road is a godsend to an Internet junkie like me. I can’t go a day without it, and many hotels now offer access, as do most McDonalds and other fast food joints (I brought a list of all the McD’s in the area!) Someday, the whole country will be wireless.

I didn’t mind traveling alone, largely thanks to these devices (along with my cell phone and digital camera, more modern marvels). I didn’t feel alone. I felt connected, which engenders confidence and safety. This is not to say that I don’t like traveling with others, because I do. But this was an abruptly planned trip, and I’m not sure that my historical itinerary would have been of interest to those I might have asked to go along. I got to do whatever I wanted to, which was liberating if a bit lonely at times.

I would like to travel more, and certainly have the time now (I work every other week). Mostly area road trips of a day and occasionally more. I like traveling by car (as opposed to plane), it’s so much more convenient to have your own vehicle with you and to be able to take whatever you want with you. I wish I had a bazillion dollars so I could do this more often. I’d travel the whole country and visit every state.