“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When you cross the border into Vermont from any of the three states and one country that surround it, you’ll notice something peculiar: no billboards.
Where giant advertisements typically loom along the highway, you’ll see only towering sugar maples and an indefinite repetition of peaks and valleys as you make your way up, up, up into the high places of the Green Mountain State. “Flatlanders,” as true Vermonters call those from away, are understandably enchanted by the place’s virgin beauty. They arrive in droves each fall to watch the leaves turn from emerald green to the hues of a flickering flame. They come for the quaintness quotient: the maple syrup, the fresh-pressed apple cider, and the corn mazes.
But there are bizarre pockets to be found in this autumnal haven. Everywhere we went, we kept bumping into the idea of failure. It was not, however, something to be feared. Instead, the mindset was as Irish playwright Samuel Beckett once said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When we visited the Mad River Valley— which includes the towns of Warren, Waitsfield, Moretown, Fayston, and Duxbury—we found grown men who loiter outside the local general store like furtive minors, sheepishly asking inbound customers if they’d be willing to help them circumvent the three-bottle limit on the impossible-to-find Sip of Sunshine double IPA from Lawson’s Finest Liquids. We shared drinks with backwoods boys, each with a quirky approach to extreme sports: kayaking raging rivers, big-air huck fests in sleds, and cliff-jumping at near-suicidal heights. We met a man who builds houses in the trees for the disabled youth of the Mad River Valley (p. 100). We found a woman who forges artful kitchen knives out of old horse-hoof rasps from her father’s blacksmith operation. We ran into a socialist German refugee whose politically charged puppet shows in the fields of the Northeast Kingdom draw thousands.
And of course there were the architects. By some estimates, there are more architects per capita in Warren, Vermont, than anywhere else in the United States. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, these freewheeling designers hacked together zany, experimental constructions on Prickly Mountain, heralding the arrival of the design/build movement.
Of all the hard-to-get-to spots in the Union, Vermont’s remoteness comes as a surprise in New England’s backyard. It’s a place that must be sought out. But for those Flatlanders willing to do so, the state’s outré charms are unavoidable.
We came to draw back the veil.