Greg Dennis

A chronicle of life in Vermont and the issues and foibles of its people.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Between the Lines

[This is a regular column of musings on Vermont life. Here's the latest]:

I’ve spent most of the past 30 years driving in Southern California, where the traffic is thick as a Vermont icicle in January. But because most of San Diego County was built for automobiles rather than people, the traffic flow there does have a certain pleasing logic, when it isn’t undergoing outright atherosclerosis.

So let’s get this out of the way: My qualifications for expounding on Middlebury’s traffic woes are negligible. I've been back often on vacation, but I haven’t spent the past 30 years waiting to turn left across Route 7 traffic outside the Middlebury Inn, as I’m sure some Midd residents must feel they have. My hearing hasn’t dimmed over time as my ears take in the echoing roar of bulk-milk trucks thundering through downtown, their diesel drone echoing off the brick walls of the visually pleasing but traffic-challenged Main Street.

Yet it must be said: While Addison County has become an even finer place to live in the 28 years I was lost in the SoCal wilderness, the one thing that has quite obviously grown worse is the traffic.

It’s especially striking that in a town where civic involvement is regarded as a birthright – and is blessed with an informed and lively body politic –no one even seems to be talking about the traffic these days. There’s virtually no recognition, or at least no current discussion, about how the infrastructure to deal with the seemingly endless parade of vehicles is crumbling right before our eyes, and beneath our tires.

It’s as if the traffic was even more intractable than the weather. At least people still talk about the weather.

A bit of perspective: It’s still, usually, possible to make your way through town in predictable fashion. A stop here to let a parked car out into the flow; easing back on the throttle there to wave another care car out into what would otherwise be an impenetrable intersection for a driver who could wait for 10 minutes before she could turn left. We generally struggle through.

By comparison, a friend of mine who lives north of San Diego reports that it recently took him more than 4 hours to make the trip north to Los Angeles – a journey that’s under 2 hours without traffic -- for a Bob Dylan concert. (Worst of all, they missed Merle Haggard’s opening set).

But I have to say that I’m scratching my head over the fact that the only apparent traffic improvement since 1976 is the addition of a single stoplight on Route 7. and the light wasn't even added where it was obviously needed, in front of the Congo Church where drivers risk dismemberment when they turn from Main Street north onto Route 7.

Instead, the light is north of the Green near the Swift House. Its presence doesn’t do anything to ease the glacier that is Route 7. But it has the signal advantage of making it easier to get back out onto 7 -- after you’ve completely circumvented downtown from the college side (Weybridge Street to Pulp Mill Bridge Road, across the shaky wooden bridge, past Greg’s Market – no relation – and back onto 7 courtesy of the “new” light.

Other than that, it’s the same old tangle. Court Square poses a particularly galling mess as cars and an interminable parade of big trucks (the price of country living) wend slowly around the square, past the inn, splitting and merging around the Green. On busy days for the College, this tangle mixes with the slow-and-go along Main Street across the Battell Bridge and up toward campus. It often takes 10 minutes to cover a stretch you could easily walk in 5.

So what? Everybody’s got traffic problems, right?

True enough. But it is Middlebury’s mark, even more than big-city Burlington’s and certainly more than most other Vermont towns’, that the traffic detracts significantly from what is otherwise an utterly beautiful village.

It’s not just the long trek to cross town. It’s not just the noise or the visual blight of cars backed up halfway to East Middlebury. It’s the sense of humans overwhelming their natural surroundings in a way that separates and alienates us from that environment. That’s a blessedly rare phenomenon here, and therefore all the more ugly when it’s a frequent feature of local life.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who lives here that the real mess is south of Court Square. When the elementary and high schools let out, the mistimed lights, school kids, trucks, shoppers headed for the supermarket, and all manner of other human intercourse combine in one giant, inert worm of vehicles.

The folks who plan local highway “improvements” have also been doing their fair share to worsen the Midd version of Nightmare on Court Street. This spring the highway crews have been repaving Route 7 toward the south. And in their wisdom – recognizing the highway is already too narrow to handle the load to which it is regularly subjected – they’ve gone about *further narrowing* the highway so the traffic will back up even farther.

Are there any solutions out there?

To her credit, Select Board member Peg Martin (who ought to get a crown for all the work she’s done on Middlebury’s behalf over the years) had the guts to say at Town Meeting this year that it really was past time to plan and build another bridge over Otter Creek. Without some serious spending that the town isn’t prepared to undertake, the wooden Pulp Mill Bridge will one day soon be a charming and unusable relic. And the Battell Bridge, the magnificent falls beneath, is
for miles to the north and south the only other way across Vermont’s longest river. Another bridge is an obvious necessity but it’s years away. Necessary but distant.

It used to be that the easiest way to start a fistfight here was to campaign for a Route 7 bypass around Middlebury. Its attraction in terms of (at least short-term) traffic relief is obvious, as Manchester, Vt. residents will tell you. But the options are limited and the political will just isn’t there. Everyone seems to have given up on such a Big Fix.

The College still holds enormous sway here, and to preserve the stunning views from campus, it has bought up much of the land to the west of the campus – geographically the easiest route for a new highway around town. The College won't sell that land for a bypass, and no local Slect Board would condemn it for a highway. To the east, Route 116 is slowly filling in with new homes as the farmland goes fallow and is sold to out-of-staters such as myself. (For the record, we bought a home just west of Route 7, an empty in-fill lot for which no farmland was tortured killed.)

And so we sit here stewing in our own fumes, and the fumes produced by visitors who have come here to get away all the traffic.

[Any thoughts on all this? Please post yours to the blog by clicking the link.]

Notes for a Blogel

What's a blogel? It's a novel in blog form. At least that's the idea. Having no aspirations to write the Great American Novel, I've always thought it would be fun to try to serialize something in novelistic fashion.

Notes on blogel characters:

Gustavo Deadhead -- He once had a promising journalistic career. But he flamed out in his late 30s and has been struggling to find a writing identity ever since. Or just an identity, period. He's hoping that his recent move to Vermont will provide professional inspiration, but most people don't think he still has it him (not that they ever did). A PR hack and generally likable muddlehead. If all else fails, he can always make a living growing Vermont Green.

Ira and Tracy Tantrum -- A former artist, Irate Ira has settled down to a life of curmudgeonly opposition to all things progressive. If a Democrat once advocated it, he's against it. She's moved on from midwifery to growing organic food, but most of their cash comes from mutual funds invested in tobacco companies. The latest advance in their life is indoor plumbing in the old farmhouse where all five of their kids -- and a number of their cows -- were born.

Daniel Dickinson -- Once known as the student at Centerville College most likely to commit three axe murders, 30 years later he's recently returned to town but no one really knows why. He's inclined toward uninvited five-minute rants espousing whenever Rush Limbaugh's latest cause is. Everyone in Centerville is just glad he hasn't committed any murders.

Judd and Anna Meetings -- He went from being an environmental lawyer to a judge appointed by Sen. Layme, Vermont's reigning progressive politician. But now Judd -- yes, he was Judge Judd -- has retired to a farm in Sanctuary, north of Centerville, where he raises sheep and makes smelly cheese that sells in high-end Boston markets, the kind that are patronized by failed presidential candidates' wives from Brookline. Anna spends most of her time supervising a social service agency, where she pretends that she doesn't feel superior to her agency's poverty-stricken and poorly educated clients.

Henri Verlaine -- A third-generation Vermonter whose family came down from Québec rather than starve to death, Henri makes his living picking up odd jobs. He loves Dale Earnhardt Jr. and would much rather be watching NASCAR than actually working. In the winter, his favorite hobby is driving across frozen Lake Champlain to the Wal-Mart on the New York side of the lake.

Harley Hazard -- Previously a network radio executive, he's retired to a farmhouse and small pond up in the hills of the town of Polk (named after one of the nation's several fourth-rate presidents). From Polk he broadcasts down onto an unsuspecting populace using the airwaves of WDRT (slogan:"We Love to Roll around in It"). WDRT features a mix of reggae, rural funk, folk singer types (in Richard Ruane's memorable phrase, "well-meaning folks with guitars"), and obscure discs from the 1920s that sound like one of Harley's goats chewed on them before he put them on the air.

All this and more as life unfolds in and around happy Centerville, Vt.

Be a Local Hero -- Eat Local

The title of this section is inspired by a bumper sticker on the car of my friends Winslow ( and Joanna Colwell ( He's a talented graphic artist. She's the latest in a string of several outstanding yoga teachers from whom I've been lucky enough to take classes.

Once a vegetarian, Joanna has taken the position that, given what is happening to Vermont (being carved up into 10-acre estatelettes as 200 years of agriculture goes down the drain) the responsible environmental and land-use thing is to eat locally. The more we can consume of what's raised and grown here, the more likely we are to keep the beautiful openness that surrounds us, rather than see it turned into Connecticut.

This section is a resource for how to Eat Locally and Digest Globally -- whether it's locally raised lamb and goat cheese, Chris Granstrom's mid-Vermont wine ( ), Bill McKibben's excellent new book, Wandering Home, on walking from Ripton, Vt. to the Adirondack Mountains (, or just the local farmers market.

Here's author and blogger James Howard Kunstler, who lives in upstate eastern New York not far from Vermont, on how even the New Urbanists don't understand the pressing need to grow and eat local, especially as the oil runs out:

"I gave a talk at the closing session of the annual Congress for the New Urbanism in Pasadena on Sunday. My message was one that readers of this blog are familiar with -- namely, that we are sleepwalking into desperate circumstances largely determined by our addiction to oil, our supply of which mostly comes from distant lands full of people who hate us, et cetera. I will not bore you by rehearsing this theme further today. Now, the CNU members have generally been among the most forward-looking citizen-activists on the scene for a decade. They certainly recognize the many deficiencies of our drive-in dystopia, apart from the oil issues, and have been working to remedy it. But they don't really believe what I said to them.

"The sad truth is that they are addicted to the same economic mechanisms as the sprawl-meisters: the production home-builders (so-called), the great mortgage mills of the conglomerate banks, and the real estate "industry" (also so-called.) So they don't want to hear that these "sectors" of our economy are not going to make it. They don't want to hear about the necessity to downscale America anymore than the grifters who develop the WalMart power centers want to hear about it.

"But we are going where circumstances are taking us whether we like it or not. We have to make other arrangements -- and I mean really different from the way we live now, not just tweaking the municipal codes and building slightly better housing subdivisions and squeezing chain stores under the condominiums and hiding the parking lots behind the buildings. I hope the New Urbanists come around. They have a whole lot of very useful knowledge that will allow us to make our derelict towns habitable while we re-assign the remaining countryside for growing the food that we need locally." [more at]

The Meaning of Life

Despite several decades of evidence to the contrary, I persist in the illusion that life has meaning and I can somehow figure it out.

Most of what makes sense to me these days comes from Osho, the crazy-wisdom teacher from India once known as Rajneesh. (In a brilliant feat of spiritual marketing, his followers changed his name shortly after his death. He had received a lot of undeservedly bad media coverage, and there was real danger the enlightening and amusing nature of his teaching would be lost with his death.)

Here's some of what Osho has to say:--

"Life in itself has no meaning. Life is an opportunity to create meaning. Meaning has not to be discovered: It has to be created. You will find meaning only if you create it. It is not lying there somewhere behind the bushes, so you can go when you search a little bit and find it. It is not there like a rock that you will find. It is a poetry to be composed, it is a song to be sung, it is a dance to be danced. Meaning is a dance, not a rock. Meaning is music... Millions of people are living meaningless lives because of this utterly stupid idea that meaning has to be discovered."--

"Life is just blank. It is just an opportunity. You can create meaning, you can create meaningless to. You can create freedom, you can create an imprisonment to. It all depends on you. Your freedom is total."

And this from James Taylor:

"The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
Any fool can do it, there ain't nothing to it.
Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
But since we're on our way down
We might as well enjoy the ride."