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Back to the Kingdom

Back to the Kingdom

I have never been entirely sure, despite a certain amount of supporting geologic evidence, that Northern Vermont’s Green Mountains are an extension of the Appalachians. So be it I say, in this contemporary age when facts and proof no longer always walk hand in hand, for mountains like Mansfield, Camel’s Hump, and Sugarloaf. Let them – and all others south – belong to that ancient range worn down through the eons from summits taller than the Hindu Kush. They can join their brethren from the Smokies and lay claim to a heritage as old as any mountains on Earth.

I like to think – again during times when believing may make it so – that the mountains north of Stowe’s ski slopes are only distant relatives. That Jay Peak, Pisgah, Hoar, Irasburg and Lowell are related to the Appalachians no more closely than a Scandinavian is to an Ethiopian. Instead, these peaks trace direct lineage to the younger, wilder, and much less civilized Laurentians of the Canadian Shield.

I suspect any argument to the contrary comes from those who’ve not crossed the Victory Bog and wondered just how in hell they suddenly found themselves in Northern Quebec’s black spruce taiga. Or canoed into Memphremagog’s South Bay and not seen the St. Lawrence delta. Or flushed a spruce grouse from a bed of thick caribou moss in the Wenlock Woods and not pictured a watery Labrador and heard the howls of distant wolves.

And so, with the certain support of my French Canadian Vermont neighbors, by the power vested in me as a Northern Vermont native with a duty to be obstinately independent, I declare the Kingdom’s mountains the southernmost reaches of the Laurentians.

I spent this fall among these mountains, sleeping more nights under a Vermont sky than I’ve slept in over two decades. I watched an autumn marked by record high temperatures descend over a triangle of the world where I spent my youth, reacquainting myself with back roads, tannin-stained streams, thick orchards of wild thorn apple, and high meadows of gone-by goldenrod where monarch butterflies sought the nectar of low-blooming red clover. As snow fell over the Montana mountains where I live, I came back to Vermont to watch its hardwood ridges mimic the colors of its spawning brook trout. I came back to immerse myself not only in the changing seasons but also in what, if I was forced to describe it in a single word, is home. With the luxury of being able to give it a longer moniker, I’d call it by its proper, more widely known name, the Northeast Kingdom.

Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom has always been more than a place. Yes, geographically it has reasonably defined borders, essentially encompassing all points north of the junction of routes 15 and 100 near Morrisville, but in appearance it isn’t all that different from what you find across the eastern bank of the upper Connecticut River in New Hampshire or the little, Adirondack villages west of Lake Champlain. What sets it more apart is its insistence that the wheels of change grinding through New England meet resistance equal to that its farmers encountered from its glacial till and tenacious scrub forests when they first put plow to ground. In the Northeast Kingdom, the 21st Century has not quite been stopped in its tracks, but it has been hobbled. And I love it.

It also breaks my heart. As our world races forward on the rails made from smartphones, digital streaming, IT-based industry and fluency in various keyboard languages, places exactly like the Northeast Kingdom are left standing on the side of the road, thumb out to passing cars which speed by rarely and never stop.

Change is inevitable – I think it all the time when I see marine fossils on top of 10,000-foot peaks in Montana or ground being broken for a new home in Orleans, Vermont. It is a dynamic part of existence, necessary to ward off the stagnancy that leads to extinction. The law of “adapt or die” is as old as the first single-cell organisms which, through some chemical alchemy, moved of their own accord from undersea vents in our Earth’s mantle. We’ve been doing it ever since, with the exception of a few creatures like the dragon fly and nautilus that evidently got it so perfectly right on their first go-round that they are exempt. For the rest of us less-fortunate beings, we’ve been forced to change, quite drastically, in order to continue being part of all that is.

What changes are in store for the Northeast Kingdom, I wondered on a clear October morning when I set out with little more purpose than to see where the day took me? On the common in Irasburg – that mid-village green with one great, white pine, a weather-battered bandstand, and grassy Little League diamond, the backstop still stands. I parked near it and saw myself at ten years old pitching to my dad from a lopsided rubber held in place with rusty, 20-penny nails. No grass grew on those base paths then, I thought, remembering games of whiffle ball my friends and I would play against the backstop screen until summer evenings finally crossed the threshold into night and even the newer balls reserved especially for that time because they were bright white grew too dim to see. We’d go our separate ways on ten-speed bikes then, grudges over bad third strikes and balls hit just fair or foul fading out as the lights from fireflies clicked on. Sitting in my car thirty-five years later, I had the quiet, melancholy sense that change has eliminated all such games from this backstop.

Down School Hill on Route 58 then to where another now-grassy lane kicks off parallel the Black River. I parked near the “Road Closed” sign and walked among still-blooming thistles above the water. The road went through when I was a boy, around the “gool,” we’d say, past a small sawmill and deep holes where all the village boys, myself at the top of the list, believed giant brown trout lurked. If they did, we never caught them, pulling the occasional rainbow, odd perch, sucker, and bullpout from water we flailed to a froth with Zebco rods and reels, hooks baited with snake-like night crawlers plucked from town gardens with the aid of red plastic flashlights and quick hands.

The saw mill is gone now, stories of the beaver that washed into it during spring’s high water and bit a worker on the cheek when he bent to ask it what it was doing there lost to more and more people each year. Change, I thought, noting there’s nothing in the sawmill’s place today.

Next, on to Orleans and up along the Willoughby River past Clay Hill and Evansville to the T at Route 5A. Willoughby Gap, the glacial cut between Pisgah and Hoar, pulls me south a few miles to the beach at the north end of the Northeast Kingdom’s deepest, coldest lake. I park and dip my hand in the fall water. Nothing’s changed here, I think, feeling the bite of the frigid depths where lake trout fin in near total darkness.

So long, cell service. The one bar of 1x blinks away on my phone as I drive south along the lake on a narrow road pinched between deep water and high cliffs. Willoughby is uncharacteristically calm today, and I notice a loon close to shore, ripples from its dive spreading slowly toward white birch whose leaves are still green. Beyond it, somewhere between where it took its plunge and the opposite shore, I sat in an ice shack one January morning with John Curtis and learned about catching lake trout when I was a young boy. I drank strong coffee spiked with exactly one cap-full of strong whiskey and waited for the red flags on our tip-ups to spring skyward.

I wonder if the mossy roof on John’s house, abandoned shortly after his death years ago, made it through last winter? I’ll check sometime while I’m in the Kingdom, but not today. Today, I keep south, driving slowly enough to earn a honk from a Connecticut car behind me. I ease back on the gas and drop my speed another five miles an hour, smiling as the Volvo rockets by in one of only two passing zones along the lake.

At the south end of Willoughby, at another beach looking back through the Gap to the north, debate rages over the state’s proposal for a larger parking lot and recreation area. Today, there are exactly two cars at the trailhead where hikers can jump off on trails. Seems plenty of room I think to myself, happy that people from the Kingdom will still fight – tooth and nail sometimes – many of the proposals coming from Montpelier.

And then I pass a fallen-in farm, hardly the first I’ve seen today, but a stark reminder that the ways of Washington, if not Montpelier, seldom benefit this part of Vermont. Maybe no one anticipated the irreparable harm NAFTA would do the small, Northeast Kingdom diary farmer, allowing subsidized Canadian milk to pour across the border. It was an extinction level event. No other way to describe it. Almost overnight, the little hill farms where generations of head-strong, ingenious, tough-as-nails farmers battled the elements each day to send a few hundred gallons of milk out every week shuttered. Pastures of timothy fell first to red osiers, meadow sweet, and golden rod, then to grey birch and poplar and finally to sugar maple and beech.The Kingdom is still reeling thirty years later, trying like a punch-drunk fighter to find its feet.

Maybe it won’t. I know that’s a possibility, hooking east at Burke to drive up the Passumpsic River toward Island Pond, past more leaning milk barns and overgrown pasture. When I left Vermont for Montana nearly 25 years ago, full of a young man’s certainty that the footing this country would find would be exponential growth, I wanted no part in witnessing that. Now, approaching the edge of Brighton, I wonder if it might have been better – somehow more hopeful – than the continued onslaught against once-vibrant farms by a hungry forest. Change. We can predict with certainty its occurrence, though rarely guess the form in which it will arrive.

The Wenlock Woods between Island Pond and the Connecticut River hasn’t changed much, and in this vast, sub-taiga wilderness I take solace in knowing it won’t, at least on its surface. Preserved now in the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge, the Nulhegan River drainages, once paper company land, are now public acres open to fishing, hunting, camping, and hiking. It’s always been one of my favorite parts of the Northeast Kingdom, a tentacle of places far north, where the scent of spruce and slap of a beaver’s tail mix with dense alders and the deep indentations of moose tracks.

But even here change is at work, I know. Vermont’s warmer winters have ushered in winter ticks that chew the hair from moose and their numbers are falling off a cliff. Far from a Northern Vermont phenomenon, climate change is touching all corners of the globe. Adapt or die, I think again, wondering if trading moose for the tufted titmouse and wild turkey is worthwhile. Not for the moose, I decide at the Connecticut River where I swing south, hoping that along its fertile banks I’ll run into thriving farms again.

I don’t. Not many of them. More dilapidated houses set close to the road, built when getting a sleigh from the barn to the rolled-snow highway was done in as few feet as possible. Broken windows, vine-cloaked front doors, and caved-in roofs. Like fossils from another era. I park in a pull-out and stare across the Connecticut at New Hampshire. Atlantic salmon once swam past this very spot, I know. Catamounts roamed the White Mountains I see on the horizon, and Abenaki Indians paddled birch bark canoes around this same bend in the water. I feel these things like half remembered dreams long after waking and am left with a strange sense of loss I can’t explain. All gone many generations before I was born, I sense their energy still present. Like the moose lost to ticks, the changes that brought about their disappearance were not welcome.

At Concord, I jog west and eventually Route 2 brings me to St. Johnsbury, the largest of the Northeast Kingdom’s towns. I skirt it and jump on I-91 and cruise north, over Sheffield Heights, through the beginning of Northern Vermont’s spectacular fall foliage, getting off in Barton where I make my way over Burton Hill back to Irasburg. In the late afternoon light, I want to walk on Irasburg Mountain, beyond its high hay meadows, in the hardwoods where closed gentian flowers glow purple with light seemingly from within.

It was near there that I shot my first whitetail buck, caught hefty brook trout from beaver ponds where black flies ringed my ears with bites, learned how to properly lead a flying grouse with a single-shot 16 gauge shotgun, and once badly burned my mouth with a streamside brew of wild spearmint tea.

I park near the woods and follow on foot a driveway that turns to logging trace and eventually I know, the other side of the height of land where water drains south toward Albany, a deer trail. And then a man’s voice.

“This isn’t a street,” he barks.

How astute, I think.

“This is private property and you can’t just walk around on it.”

I stare at the cigarette leaking from his mouth and then at him. A fine addition to the Northeast Kingdom from states far to the south.

“What are you doing?” he demands, as if the large, Nikon camera I hold isn’t evidence enough.

Looking at Christmas future for much of Northern Vermont, I think without saying. Seeing a time not that far off when I believe Vermont’s long-standing tradition of access to unposted private land will be a distant memory. Witnessing change.

I start back up the logging trace – enlightened now that it’s no street – and smile to myself. Winters aren’t what they were in the 70s perhaps, but they last a good long while. I hope this man enjoys them up here on his mountain. Like the energy of long-gone cougars and Abenaki, I feel the spirits of hill farmers who homesteaded a mile further out the non-street to the west.

“Christly deep snow this year,” one whispers, a wrinkled, blue eye winking at me. I tip my hat, watch a monarch float over my car, then head down off the mountain toward Irasburg.

The only plan I’ve had for the day, if you can call some vague notion of a mental picture I want to attempt in-camera a plan, involves retracing some of my earlier route at dusk. In evening light, with sugar maple leaves burning jack-o’lantern orange, I wind my way over to Willoughby Lake then up Hinton Hill to Vermont’s tiny Sentinel Rock State Park.

From the time it washed out from beneath a mile of ice as the last glacier trudged northward, the giant, granite erratic has stood guard over the lake, over much of the Northeast Kingdom. I remember climbing on it when I was two years old, a cutting, north wind battling bright sun in a war between winter and spring, matted, brown grass all around, a boyhood joy I could hardly contain propelling me up its jagged edge toward a rounded top from which I believed I could see the entire world.

I set up on the north side of this boulder, watching Northern Vermont slowly melt to night, waiting until the last glow of bronze light remains on the horizon. One picture then, and another an hour after dark from the same spot, this one showing the gassy clouds in the core of our Milky Way galaxy and a few of its billions of stars. Looks more or less the way I imagined it, and since it doesn’t always, I’ll take it.

It’s chilly now, though I wouldn’t say cold, so I’ll stay a while longer. Beacons of huge windmills blink red in the distance, and I watch a car’s headlights worm over the road between Willoughby and Crystal Lake. Mostly though, it’s dark. A barred owl calls, doesn’t get an answer, then calls again. This time, on the edge of earshot, another answers.

I listen, thinking about change. For generations, people from the Northeast Kingdom could do what they wanted. It might be hard – back-breakingly-hard, perhaps – but if a boy wanted to farm or a girl to cut hair from the side room of her home, livings could be eeked out. Bills could be paid, and if they couldn’t banks weren’t bad about waiting a month or so.

What now, I wonder? What do we tell the child born in Brownington Center who sees a field not entirely gone to woods and asks about clearing it? Buying a few milkers? Maybe trying to save the barn where grandpa worked before it falls down?

I’m still thinking about the inability I’d have to answer those questions when I drive into Irasburg, well after 10pm. Not much traffic around the common during the day, and hardly any at this time of night. I pull up on the south side of the backstop, park, and walk to home plate, only it’s not there. I remember the bleachers on both sides where, after adult fast-pitch softball games, my friends and I would search for fallen Coca Cola bottle caps, peeling their grey liners out in hopes of revealing a 10-cent winner. Some are probably still buried there, I think.

I walk slowly from home plate, back through time 35 years to the backstop and large, dirt circle where I’d pitch whiffle balls. Almost unconsciously, I start into a windup and let the bright, white ball I see in my mind sail. Feeling a little foolish right at the end, I leave my arm too high in the follow-through. That’s one my friend, Kevin Ingalls, would have driven high into the screen behind me where, at best, I could argue it was a triple and not a home run.

“Aren’t you a man and a half,” two eleven-year-olds would say back and forth before the wrestling matches that invariably ensued.

God, I can hear it, I think as I stare until focus is lost.

If boys have played here since we did, it’s been more than 20 years, I’m sure. I hope kids still play whiffle ball somewhere, but I wouldn’t bet much on them doing it in Irasburg.

A vehicle rumbles up Route 14 behind me, tires turning fast on pavement. A milk truck, I instantly think, then shoot forward to the present where a boxy recycling truck speeds north toward Newport. I watch its taillights whip out of sight then turn my eye on a dark, hulking Irasburg Mountain. For the first time in several hours, I’m reminded of being put off the property of a man up there. A man and a half, I think to myself, unable to contain a smile.

Turning to my car, I’m startled by the visage of the homesteader who appeared earlier, this time materializing about where our foul pole on the backstop was. He’s looking intently at my faded Red Sox hat, so I begin the conversation.

“We just pissed it away again in the play offs.”

He doesn’t flinch, nor did I expect him to.

“Ain’t had one who could really drive the ball since Williams,” he says.

“Ortiz?” I offer.

He spits on the ground and acknowledges my point with a nod. “Weren’t bad in the clutch,” he agrees.

“How do you like your new neighbor?” I ask.

“That fella,” he says dismissively then locks his eyes on mine. “Ain’t the Appalachians up there, boy.”

“No sir, it ain’t,” I say as he vanishes into the breeze that rustles the maple leaves overhead.


** Enjoy the following photos, pictures of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, taken this fall when, for a few days, Northern Vermont can lay claim to the prettiest place on Earth. They are all, including the feature photo, Willoughby Sky, for sale on this site.

 Fire and Ice

 Black River Covered

Hazen's Notch

Winter Stores

Windless in Albany

Morning Sun

Sugarhouse Road



Last Apple

Shelf Fungus


Vermont Barn

Dewey DNA


A Story Somewhere

Looking Up At First Light

Golden Rod

Edge of the Woods

Macro Mourning

Autumn Grass

Fall At the Gap

Birch Leaf

Leaf Blood


Rainbow Ridge

Character in Color


Cracking the Clouds


  • Mark Linton

    Thank you for sharing.

  • Brett Hoffman

    Sweetly panoramic perspective of the Kingdom—and yeah, ours are the Laurentians, certainement, if only to be a tad ornery about it. :-)

  • Karen Fredenburg

    I’m not finding it easy these days to contemplate change—It’s melancholic for me. But it puts a smile on my face to imagine Jake/Howard gently tapping the brakes in front of the Connecticut driver….

  • Paula

    Love your blogs and look forward to reading what new adventures you’re up to. Thank you for sharing. All the best to you and yours, Paula aka Nhgal03

  • Judy Jarvis

    My husband and I lived in Orleans in early 60’s and 70’s and have many memories of the beautiful NEK. Thanks for the memories. Well done!

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