Now and Then, We do Have Bluebird Days

courtesy photo
Willem Lange and his pampered Helga take on Smuggler’s Notch.

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Vermont summer days are getting hotter each year, but those of us who’ve taken shelter here reflect often upon how much worse they are in, for example, St. Louis or Charleston or Phoenix. At the coffee shop downtown on pleasant, but warming mornings, we try to sit in the shade on the southern side of the building. As the sun migrates south – as it’s already begun to; my friend Larry on the north coast of Canada just announced the first sunset of his 24-hour summer days – that shade will diminish to a sliver. We can hope that by then the days will have cooled, too.

Still, now and then we do have bluebird days. The heat of the summer sun is tempered by a high-pressure breeze from the north, the thermometer rises to only the seventies, and both the wild flowers in the yard and the distant mountains cry for the brush of a Monet, a Klimt, or a Bierstadt.

On such days, the urge to get going rises like sap in spring. But like the narrator of “A River Runs Through It,” I can’t wade the big rivers anymore; and I won’t again be visiting the lopsided summit of Camels Hump. My boats languish in the barn – old horses, once busy, now waiting to be sold.

It would be easy, considering the diminished opportunities for adventures – cycling becoming running, running becoming hiking, hiking becoming canoeing, canoeing becoming looking for help to load a boat – to lapse into inaction and depression. But there’s life in the old imagination yet, and there’s a vehicle waiting in the barn to exercise it.

Helga’s an elderly BMW roadster. I’d tried to get in and out of all the other marques; no soap, until I met her. Her features were most attractive, and her price was right. I promised her an easy life – summers only – riding together into the sunset at 3,000 rpms avoiding bad weather. So far, so good.

I had weekend company recently, and a bluebird day dawned. Where should we go for the day? We don’t have Niagara Falls here, much less the Grand Canyon or the Great Smokies. But we do have Smugglers Notch (!), a tourist destination as well as an irresistible attraction to semi-literate tractor trailer drivers who, following the prompts of their GPS, manage to jam themselves into the tight, boulder-rimmed curves near the south summit. It was Saturday, so I crossed my fingers for a reasonable amount of traffic, and off we went, avoiding the interstate the whole way.

Smugglers Notch is a perfect example of the futility of government restrictions that fail to consider the needs or habits of the citizens. Prohibition was one; its unintended consequences were severe, and its repeal evoked almost universal happiness. Our current state government attempts to restrict or ban abortion are likewise bootless. The Notch became well-known thanks to the ill-fated Embargo Act of 1807, which restricted trade between the United States and foreign countries. Northern New Englanders, because of their remoteness from southern markets and the nearest federal calaboose, were not about to give up their long-standing trade with Canada. The Notch was a perfect – if wickedly rough and difficult – route for contraband in both directions. The modern paved road is a far cry from that trail of the early days; but when the roadside signs suddenly warn, “No Center Line” and “Be Prepared to Stop,” it’s a good idea to pay close attention. It’s tight!

Helga’s beautifully balanced straight six purred smoothly through the upscale, German-inflected long strip mall north of Stowe, past flashing signs that only an utter optimist could ignore – “Your GPS is wrong! You will not fit!” – and finally into the surprisingly short runup to the rocky pincers near the top. Crowds of hikers and sight-seers popped up all along the way. Cars coming down, their drivers wide-eyed, frustrated my design to demonstrate my inner Phil Hill; but with our top down and the aforementioned north breeze, it was as good a climb as I’m ever likely to have again.

The north side of the notch road, a long downhill coast through completely different country, ends in Jeffersonville, where we dined on the concrete veranda of 158 Main, one of my favorite comfort-food restaurants. After that, with the leftovers safely in the trunk, it was a leisurely run through Johnson, Morrisville, and Elmore back to home base at last, just in time to catch the last of the afternoon nap. When everything works as it’s supposed to, that’s as near to perfect as it gets.