Willem Lange: Familiarity Need Not Breed Contempt — or Even Boredom

East Montpelier

Some 50 years ago, my drive to work was anything but humdrum to outsiders’ eyes. Heading north out of Keene Valley along the west bank of the Ausable River, the highway was flanked on the left by the ledges of Porter Mountain and on the right by Spread Eagle. It was a sight that everyone from Teddy Roosevelt to Winslow Homer to Sigmund Freud made pilgrimages north to see. Beyond Keene, the road twisted upward a few miles into Cascade Pass: more cliffs, and the Edmonds Ponds, where the work crew for the bobsled run cut ice for the straightaway walls.

Yet all that scenery had become just a part of my everyday life — except perhaps for the spot I passed twice a day where once a huge boulder had toppled from Pitchoff Mountain and knocked over a town plow truck that Gib Jacques was driving. If I headed home from work before dark, the Great Range filled the southern horizon, its peaks lit by the westering sun. I hardly noticed them. It was time for a bath, supper and, in those days before we had a TV, Scrabble and the CBC.

Those same roads, however, were often cluttered both winter and summer with automobiles from away, pulled over to the side at turnouts to take photographs of cliffs, ponds and peaks that, no matter how lovely, would have to be explained when they were shown back home. For those folks, this was all exotic and awesome; I called them turistas, and wished them out of the way.

Yet put me behind the wheel of the least distinguished French rental sedan and set me, for example, on the road over the hills from Nyons to Dieulefit, an ordinary countryside that — except for its purple fields of lavender and crumbling yellow limestone wine presses, can’t hold a candle to the Adirondacks — induces an experience that’s almost spiritual. Shakespeare, as usual, was here first: “How many things by season seasoned/ Are to their right praise and true perfection!”

Mother and I love to travel. When we were fitter for it, and might have tackled a high hiking route in the Alps, we couldn’t afford it. Now we’re occasionally able to squeeze out enough to go, but the hike would most likely be well out of our comfort zone. So we drive undistinguished French sedans to get to places we’ve dreamed of visiting.

One of my favorite drives is over Mont Ventoux in southern France. Geologically part of the Alps, it nevertheless stands alone; on a clear day, you can see the white peaks of the French Alps far off. There’s a fantastic road over it, which I first became aware of when the guide book I was browsing mentioned that it had been built to test prototype road-racing cars. I failed to share that information with Mother before the first time I tackled it, plowing through a whiteout and blizzard on the summit. Near the top is a memorial to a British Tour de France cyclist (the Tour traverses the mountain every few years) named Tom Simpson, who in 1967, dehydrated and amphetamine-inspired, hallucinated and wobbled just before reaching the summit, fell over, and died. Devotees leave bits of cycling gear all around the stones. Very exotic.

But no more exotic than another, right here at home. The Mount Washington Toll Road is more dramatic than the one traversing Ventoux (you can see the winding squiggles of both on GoogleEarth), and some of its narrow spots with huge, unprotected dropoffs can get your blood racing. It’s also got a memorial near the top — to Lizzie Bourne, a young girl who died of exhaustion and exposure just a bit below the Summit House in 1885. Still, I think of Washington as more a hiker’s mountain. If you hike it, you can stand sweat-soaked and shivering on the summit and justifiably feel superior to the hordes who either drive up or ride the cog railway, and consider their experience very exotic indeed.

On our first trip to Nice, some years ago now, Mother and I decided to walk through the old town at dusk, eat at some funky restaurant, and stroll back through the dark streets to our dinky little hotel. We found a restaurant, dined on salad nicoise and white wine, and wandered for a very long time in the general direction of home, feeling and acting like Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. The next morning Gene and Leslie had a little difficulty walking at all; but the romantic memory lingered on, even though we could have done much the same thing in Providence or Albany.

The other day — a beautiful sunny afternoon — Mother suggested we drive to downtown Montpelier and take a walk. We’re only two miles away, but in the tradition of country folk, do very little practical walking, except from the house to the vehicles and thence into wherever we’re going. So strolling the sidewalks seemed like a nice thing to do: check out shop windows (the city has for the most part retained its downtown), chat with people, look in at the bookstore. Like a Parisian boulevardier, I carried my cane, for leaning on while she checked out store windows or we stopped to talk. As we walked near the Statehouse, we could see the almost-perpetual groups of tourists with their cameras shooting away at the classical portico and golden dome of the beautifully restored building that we drive humdrumly past almost every day.

We stopped for coffee at Capitol Grounds, crowded as usual with conversation, newspapers and laptops. Looked in the window at forbidden chocolates in the sweet shop. Browsed the bookstore; she got a book; I took a look at Coolidge; 35 bucks; not today. We crossed to see what was playing at the Savoy. Then Mother pointed to a café and said, “Listen! Irish!”

She was right. Apparently there’s a regular Saturday afternoon Irish music sit-in at Bagito’s — fiddles, flutes, pipes, even a clogger. The duds were pure central Vermont; but for a few minutes we could imagine ourselves far, far away, sipping Guinness and tapping our toes in a Dublin pub.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.