by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – A lot of us who live here have a love-hate relationship with leaf-peepers. On the one hand, their annual migration to look at our autumn leaves brings in millions of dollars, and our tourist bureaus, whose job is to encourage that sort of behavior, bend over backward to facilitate it. Restaurants and hotels are as busy as squirrels in October dealing with – now that the interstates have opened up the hinterlands – the tsunami of peepers from away. Visitors breakfasting in our hotels often sit bent over their cell phones using the app that displays the locations of Vermont “peak color.”
My wife and I were dining one morning in a Concord, N.H., hotel when a Japanese couple, apologizing profusely for interrupting us, asked where they might see “brightest leaves.” Acting as if I knew what I was doing, I directed them to the tourist bureau website. They thanked us as profusely as they’d apologized and hurried out, their phone held before them as if it were a treasure map. When we checked out, we discovered they’d paid for our breakfast.
That sort of pleasant interaction causes even us jaded old settlers to gaze about us with more than our usual mild interest at the leafy spectacle about us. But then we notice that we’re traveling in a long convoy that threatens to close down the highway.
The irony of living in this tourists’ paradise is that, while I can leave it and return fairly easily on holidays (the traffic’s always going in the other direction), it’s difficult to, with a clear conscience, encourage friends or family to come for a visit at those times. Last year, for example, Indigenous People’s Day was cool and clear, a perfect day for a top-down cruise in the little roadster through Smugglers Notch with my girlfriend. But approaching the Waterbury exit on I-89, we found traffic backed up half a mile onto the interstate. There was no way we were even going to dip our toes into that maelstrom. The rest of the day was tied up in looking for a lunch place with less than an hour’s wait. We succeeded, but rather wished we hadn’t.
This year, with that miserable experience in memory, and with a rainy Saturday in the offing, my fertile mind cast about for alternatives. There was one, a good one. A couple of old friends, former teaching colleagues in New York State, were only a week away from heading south for the winter. Bea, my girlfriend, loves boat rides. Saturday’s forecast called for rain, heavy at times. A phone call or two, and we were off up the interstate in Hagar, my watertight hybrid, with Kiki, the terrier, perched between us, eagerly supervising the operation.
As we gaily passed the Waterbury exit headed west, we could see that the pouring rain had had little effect upon visitors’ enthusiasm; the eastbound exit across from us was backed up onto the highway for at least half a mile. At the Richmond exit, we turned off onto a really nice shortcut to the Hinesburg road and made the ferryboat landing just in time to catch the noon boat to New York.
How it poured! It was hard to discern, in that thick cloud on the lake, that the ferry was moving. But it was. After a while the New York shore appeared, and again we nailed the arrival time to meet our friends at the marina and restaurant beside the lake. The deck outside had been roofed and enclosed in plastic and would have been chilly, except for a pair of tall space heaters that made the space pretty cheerful.
The place was crowded, with a big buffet table in the corner. Just by chance we’d managed to hit the restaurant’s seasonal closing day, and the buffet was free – which, of course, explained the happy crowd. The restaurant had posted an invitation on its website, directed to its regular customers, and ending, “If you have to ask directions, you’re not invited.” The clientele ran somewhat to the nautical. A Coast Guard rescue boat was tied up at the dock, its crew briefly ashore for the feast. We spotted a couple of my former high school students, now in their seventies, among the merry band. It was a bit like Old Home Week or a reunion.
Then it was time to try to catch the four o’clock boat across the lake, so we could make it back before dark (an increasingly important goal). The rain had let up a bit, but it was far better to stay in our car on the ferry than climb to the observation deck. With such good company, a girlfriend and a happy terrier, it was a fine crossing. We bade the usual cheery farewell to the thoroughly drenched crew at the landing and pointed Hagar toward the back roads to Richmond, the leaf-peepers, and a dry home.