My 50th State – You Can’t Escape Your Roots!

I finally did it.  I have been to all fifty states.  I don’t know how many ‘Okies’ can say that but I count myself fortunate to be among their ranks.  It was no small feat and it took me quite a long time—47 years, two months, and 26 days to be exact.  As long as it took, and as transcendent as I’d hoped it might be, it just didn’t turn out that way.  Seeing the 50th state felt a lot like many of the other states had—a little more mundane than I’d hoped the experience to be.  Oh, we had a little fun and a few laughs, but we fell way short of transcendence.  The things that jumped out at me during the trip had an everyday observational feel to them, maybe because I live in a beautiful place already.  There were a few high points and a fair amount of humor found along the way. I’ll recount the highs and lows as colorfully as I can muster and you can decide for yourself.

My 21-year army career had taken me all over this continent and a few others, but it took a concerted act of will to get to my 49th and 50th states.  Vermont was the final state for me.  Nevada had been number 49, visited just last November.  I’d been stuck with those two states remaining since 2002, when I’d finally seen New Hampshire and North Dakota.   After seeing Nevada late last year, we decided to build a Vermont and New York City (NYC) trip for this summer.

Vermont is truly a picturesque, mountainous and historic state.  It struck me while driving through it, how difficult this terrain was for the settlers and soldiers of the Colonial era.    This is some difficult terrain on any conveyance, in any era.  I felt a renewed respect for our ancestors and forbearers, who walked in.   They worked hard and did almost everything the hard way.  You had to really “want” it–to claim this mountainous land and run off the indigenous folk, and then fight off all comers for the rights to continue to own it.   Vermont is, and always will be, symbolic of how difficult a place America can be.  The westward view across Lake Champlain still readily illustrates the enormity of some of the obstacles that our pioneers had to overcome.

As a historian by degree, I couldn’t avoid remembering the origins of the names of many of these places—from Fort Ticonderoga to Lake Champlain.   Getting to Vermont involved flying into NYC, renting a car and driving north, upstate past West Point, into the Albany area.  We spent that first night near the Albany airport, at a Holiday Inn in Colonie, NY.  We chose this hotel because it was near an Outback Steakhouse–a favored place to eat during our forays into previously unvisited places.   Nothing shapes an adventure into the unknown like planning our trip so that we can eat off a familiar menu in a predictable setting at the end of a difficult travel day.  Thanks Will Ferrell for capturing our fondness for the Outback Steakhouse!  It is our real world tether when we are on the precipice of the unknown.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast and coffee at a nearby Starbucks (our last final tether), we made our way east on Highway 7 toward Bennington.  After maybe 45 minutes we came across the Welcome to Vermont Sign.  We weren’t the only tourists stopping to capture the moment.  We gave a mom and her college age daughter a minute or so for them to take their own photo, before they yielded the sign to us.  Having recently been with a relative as she first entered a new state, I appreciate the draw of capturing that moment with a picture in front of the sign.  Unfortunately, in this case, and perhaps the first indicator that this was not going to be a transcendent trip, the sign itself was marred by three “Kerry-Edwards” campaign stickers.  Neat!  Many thanks to the New England liberals who cheapened an otherwise significant moment with relics from elections past.

My first steps into Vermont were not spent enjoying the moment.  They were spent contemplating what kind of hypocritical, political zealot would deface a state sign?–and not just once, but three times with the same lame sticker–pronouncing  “A Stronger America.”  I asked myself how did they propose to make for a stronger America? By putting more campaign stickers on state property? You want a stronger America…and you deface signs repeatedly.  Seriously? I’d be willing to bet that even John Kerry would disapprove here.  I’m just saying.

After a few obligatory pics, we made our way east the 8-10 miles into Bennington, where we very quickly noted the relatively steep grade down into town and then a beautifully rustic house with 100 year old trees around it.  And then we saw this beautifully ornate Church.  We passed it before I could get a photo.  So, a block or so past, we pulled in to get gas and use the facilities before backtracking for a few pics.

Vermont thankfully is a state where you can pump your own gas.  Thank God for the small things in life.  I mentally put a checkmark on the positive side of my trip ledger for this important but not universally enjoyed American freedom—while I pumped my own gas.  It almost (but not quite) cancelled out the Kerry-Edwards defacing of the border sign.  After gassing up, I was even more pleasantly surprised that they had a clean restroom.  Nothing seals the deal on a visit to a new state like leaving some bodily wastes for them to remember you by.

My mental tally was back on the positive side as we made our way back a couple of blocks to capture the opulence of late 19th Century Catholics in Vermont.  I’d already concluded, while passing the church the first time, that the Catholics here clearly had money, at least 100 years ago, before the cost of pedophilia became manifest.  Only it turned out that this wasn’t a Catholic church at all, it was St. Thomas Episcopalian Church.  All that Catholic editorializing, mental gymnastics was for nothing.  So, upon realizing my mistake, I quickly surmised that, clearly the Episcopalians had money and felt the need to demonstrate their own opulence in Bennington, at least a hundred years ago, anyway.  All told, I think maybe I ought to slow down with the whole jumping to conclusions thing regarding the connection between beautiful churches and the choice to demonstrate opulence.  For all I know, they were demonstrating their ability to construct a beautiful church.  Point taken.  Don’t judge. Just enjoy the architecture.

We snapped a few photos capturing this Episcopal splendor and turned north toward Burlington.  As we made our way up the scenic portion of Highway 7, we couldn’t avoid the beauty of the mountains in every direction.  As we passed the American Fly Fishing Museum, I wondered how some of my ski buddies who are summertime fishing guides in Northwest Montana might feel about the eastern streams and how they compare to our own trout streams. Why is this museum in Vermont?  The fly fishing movies all seem to be set in Montana. Hmmm.

As we continued north, another Vermont trend began to emerge–an apparent, ongoing paint shortage.  I don’t know what’s at play here, but there seemed to be a disproportionate number of houses/barns that haven’t seen fresh paint since before the Reagan administration.   Beautiful, decades-old edifices without a hint of fresh paint anywhere.  Perhaps Vermonters prefer not to mar the “historic” feel that paint-free buildings exude.  These dilapidated buildings stood in contrast to the beautifully ornate and obvious opulence of the previously observed Episcopal Church.   If we choose not to paint, then we’re just living our “Live Free or Die!” motto. No wait, that’s New Hampshire.  Sorry.  Maybe if I’d spent more than 24 hours in Vermont, I might have sorted it all out.

Vermont is the “Green Mountain State”.  Seeing it in July, you can’t escape why.  It’s definitely green—-and seemingly uphill in every direction almost all the time.  Hence, I derive my renewed respect for Colonial era soldiers.  And we happened to visit during a rare triple digit temperature day—it was 101 degrees in downtown Burlington when we came out of the Vermont Pub and Brewery about 4:30pm. We’d made it into town and to the brewery around 2:30pm, just in time to see the final 30 minutes of a World Cup Soccer match between Spain and Germany.  Surprisingly, the bar was packed full of fans. We sat at the only available seats at the bar and had a few beverages and a light snack.

It was hot enough that day, that as we drove, I consciously looked for and noticed the types of air conditioners that were used.  I noted dozens of window units and not more than a few central/heat pump type units on the houses as we drove up Highway 7’s scenic route and in Burlington itself.  Window units seemed to announce that Vermont doesn’t have a 24/7 need for conditioned air.   I got the idea that Vermonters might really enjoy Montana.  Our skiing is as good or better, we don’t get a slew of outsiders taking over our resorts, and we don’t get temperatures anywhere near that hot during our own summers.

To celebrate the joyous occasion of being in Vermont, we deviated from the predictable familiarity of chain restaurants and pub/breweries and enjoyed a very nice dinner at a local eaterie in Burlington.  My partner’s steak was “to die for.”  It was tender enough to cut with a fork.   The restaurant, the Trattoria Delia, was highly recommended—by all reviewers on Google.  We had thought that we’d try one of the Burlington Steak-houses until multiple, bad online reviews dissuaded us.   The Trattoria Delia had just the opposite buzz, with raves from even the superior-palatted New Yorkers who occasionally grace Burlington and write about it.   And it was a pleasant surprise that, in an Italian restaurant, the most raved about menu item was the filet mignon.   It was magnificent, a fitting tribute to a nice evening, crowning a lifelong accomplishment of seeing all 50 states.

Except that things are never quite that simple and this great meal was no exception. At the adjacent table was a Kansan from Wichita (gleaned by listening to his incessant narrative) who entertained the whole section of the restaurant with his inane banter.  He spoke with great authority on all issues and most of his discussion points aren’t worth mentioning. But, it was when he began prescribing the cure for North Korean isolation—-4G cell towers along the DMZ, with airdrops of i-Pads by the thousand—that I realized that I couldn’t sit still.  I was squirming noticeably, just aching to tell him to “shut the *&#% up”—but I didn’t want to crown my big accomplishment with that kind of Dick Cheney-esque small one.

I come all the way to Vermont to encounter some Wichita-native, with even less world-sense than this verbose Tulsan.  He thinks he can erase decades of isolation with i-Pads? Really?  You can give any number of electronic gadgets to millions of Americans and many would not know how to turn them on, much less use them to embrace new ideas—and American’s have been exposed to gadgetry for decades now.  The poor North Koreans don’t believe South Korean prosperity even after seeing it with their own eyes for years—such is the power of Communist indoctrination.  So, exactly how and why would this principle be erased when undernourished North Koreans encounter air-dropped i-Pads?  Consider that a rhetorical question.

So, I finally saw Vermont, my 50th state, spread across 47 years—only to be reminded that you don’t ever escape your roots.  No matter how many good Trattorias you may eat at, no matter how many states you see, a sole outspoken fool will inevitably continue to fuel the notion that the rest of us from the same area are ignorant.  The New Yorkers and Californian’s listening in can’t help but conclude that they are superior and more qualified to speak for the rest of us— because some of us embarrass ourselves and our brethren whenever we open our mouth.   This Kansan simultaneously annoyed me and made me nostalgic for home at the same time.  I knew that guy—without having ever met him.

In the end, seeing all 50 states wasn’t transcendent.  It was certainly memorable and remarkable—though many of those remarks required censoring.   Seeing Vermont reinforced my sense of how small each of us is in the grand scheme.  You don’t ever escape your roots and you can’t escape the real world where real things happen—like political zealots defacing signs with bumper-stickers or outspoken restaurant guests speaking for their entire region.  I felt obligated to capture it all in writing—lest that iPad wielding Kansan might have the last word for the causes of ignorance, and give fuel to those pesky, superior New Yorkers.  May they continue to ski in Vermont. JDPF

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