By Gale Straub
On a dreary afternoon in June, my boyfriend Jon and I drove not-quite-straight North for a little over two hours. It rained hard and cold, the way it does in New England. The highway swelled with water, but as we crept up the state of New Hampshire, I turned the wipers down and the fog inched out from the trees. A drive always takes us from one place to another. This drive, from a mill town in a state I seldom call home to Burke, Vermont, could have had wings. I’ve rarely seen a landscape change so acutely in 140 miles – or maybe a mountain town simply lifted out of the fog.
We pulled up to the Wildflower Inn just as the sun cracked it all open for us to see: the greenest hills rolling out in a Vermont yawn. I didn’t know it yet, but the inn is at the heart of the Kingdom Trails network, over 100 miles of well-maintained mountain bike trails. It’s also the location of NEMBAfest, an annual celebration of the sport. The next day I would hop on a mountain bike for the first time in 15 years.
This was all new to me. An interconnected network of mountain bike trails? Routes for all skill levels? A bike shop/snack bar in a quaint Vermont barn? And more than all that, my growing awareness for the strong sense of community in the small town hit hardest.
Jon and I planned to be in the East Burke area for 36 hours. It was mid-week and well-scheduled, part of a press trip our friend Karl was nice enough to include us on. He had been trying to get us to make the drive up from our mill town for years now, but you know how plans lose shape. We’d finally made it up to see the magic Karl had hinted at. Our itinerary included mountain biking, lunch at a local cafe, kayaking, dinner on a hilltop, and a hike up Mt. Pisgah the following morning. We also managed to stop at a chocolatier, Burke Mountain Confectionary, on the way to kayak.
In 2010, the village East Burke had a population of 132 full time residents. The whole town of Burke houses approximately 1,700. This is a town where everyone knows each other and, most strikingly, it’s a place where people seem happy to be. My mountain bike instructor had moved there to work at Burke Academy and raise his family. He wanted to live somewhere with snow in the winter and beautiful summers. His wife runs marathons and rides in a local women’s group. He spends his spare time guiding on the trails.
Similarly, Lilias, the marketing manager at Kingdom Trails, had lived in mountain towns out west (think Bend, OR), but moved back east to raise her child and found that Burke had everything she was looking for: skiing, mountain biking, swimming. And the Kingdom Trails facilitate community with stops like taco stands and tiki bars and food trucks.
It’s funny, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this. Similar interests, beautiful vistas, and the benefits of fresh air go a long, long way. Yet, I live in a city with 64x the population and haven’t found common ground with my neighbors. Two years there and we haven’t found community, nor “home.”
I know, I know: utopias don’t exist. Home is complicated. Balancing where you live, the work that you do, and the people you’re with is a delicate ratio. But I was so pleased to find a corner of Vermont where the residents seemed as content as the landscape.
Photos by Jon Gaffney