Montpelier is a tiny blip of a town, just one sign on the freeway; blink on Interstate 89, barreling toward Montreal, and you’ll miss your exit. Its charming brick-façade downtown could fold up and fit in a cardboard box. It maintains all the vitals to a functioning society: a Thai restaurant, a dimly-lit coffee shop, a hip brunch place with bottomless mimosas, a tiny pet store with a trio of dreadlocked Bergamasco sheepdogs that loaf around like sentient low-energy mops. All the Subaru drivers stop for you at crosswalks. All the bars are empty by 10:30. (There is no happy hour.) Montpelier also happens to be the state capital, because state capitals are never in the cities you expect. And it is a fine place to host an MFA program.
The Writing and Publishing Program’s Class of 2019, which started its first class this Tuesday, just contributed 18 more people to Montpelier’s population (7,800).
Some of us came from out west. Some from New York City, which may as well be a different planet. Some came from Africa, Europe, the Middle East. Hey, why not? This is still America, for now. And some of us are coming home, because no matter how hard we try to resist, we tend to come back to where we grew up. Your humble chronicler, who hails from nearby Massachusetts, found himself downsizing across the country, moving to smaller and smaller cities. After two years in this program, who knows? Some of us might even stay in Montpelier.
Most of us arrived on August 21, giving us plenty of time to explore Montpelier. An hour later, we saw everything.
What’s been fascinating about this place is how intimately familiar it all becomes, and how quickly: it is a quiet place, imbued with modesty, all tree-lined neighborhoods and old Victorian buildings facing the streets, along the steep hills, where stray cats come out to greet you for head scratches. I walked past a trio of kids banging on ukuleles and guitars, listlessly shouting and laughing, a bowler hat placed upturned on the ground as a gesture. I walked past my landlady’s two dogs, play-fighting in the street, and petted them. I walked past an old Chevy van with a pair of kayaks on the roof and a back window covered in national parks stickers: Acadia, Yosemite, Zion. An older couple waved from the porch. By now, I already made it to downtown, where the streets were empty. Above the buildings, against the sunset, the golden dome of the State Capitol gleamed.
There are a lot of Bernie Sanders bumper stickers. I expected this.
There are a lot more surfboards mounted to the tops of Subaru wagons. I did not expect this.
Vermont, somewhat famously, if you’re into matters of pub trivia, is the only state that banned billboards. The same might apply to chains: the only chain restaurant in town, for example, is a Subway, which like all Subway franchises perpetually looks like it’s about to go out of business. (This one doesn’t even grant us the satiation of a fresh bread smell.) Drive a bit out and you can get your craving of McDonald’s, and Panera Bread, and KFC—which is good, because you should never underestimate the allure of an 8-Piece Bucket. Still, chains are so scant in this entire state that it puts some things into perspective. The nearest Bank of America ATM, part of the second-largest financial institution in America, is an hour and a half away. The nearest Apple Store is at the Mall of New Hampshire, in another state. The nearest IKEA is in another country.
But nobody yells at you about Vermont Pride, thankfully, since I’ve lived in all of these places that are so self-absorbed, and imbue that into their emigrants. Flags do not hang limply from every lamppost. Lifted Jeeps are devoid of outlines of the state of Vermont, filled in with a gun, and there are no slogans like God Bless Vermont, Don’t Mess With Vermont Women. You Can Go To Hell, And I Will Go To Vermont. I Wasn’t Born In Montpelier, But I Came Here As Fast As I Could. Remember Fort Bennington. SECEDE.
The leaves are already starting to change, splotches of orange and yellow that shout from the green spaces. Already our class is talking excitedly about all what fall will bring: apple cider! Haunted hayrides! Pick your own pumpkin from a pumpkin patch! Maybe a corn maze to get lost in and immediately regret! If writers are the lonesome, introspective sort to always seek out that proverbial cabin in the woods, then Montpelier is essentially that: a series of cabins, surrounded by deep and dark and foreboding woods. And just wait another few weeks, we tell ourselves—the whole forest will be ablaze.
(Photo: Blake Z. Rong)