Celebrating love in verdant Vermont

In July 2018, on the eve of our second wedding anniversary, Ian told me he was whisking me away for a weekend. The destination, he said, was a surprise.

I was thrilled — I love a well planned surprise, especially when it involves exploring beautiful New England in my favorite season with my favorite person.

(That said — have you ever tried packing for a trip to an undisclosed location? I’m here to tell you it ain’t easy.)

42678033074_3793767af6_o

When we hit the road on Friday evening, I started narrowing down possible destinations in my head. I thought we might be headed to the Berkshires, which in the summer boasts not only natural beauty but also world-class culture: think classical music at Tanglewood and contemporary art at Mass MoCA. I also considered the possibility that we were on our way to the Hudson Valley, home of magnificent wineries, charming sleepy towns and an NYC-caliber restaurant scene.

But I was most convinced we were bound for Vermont, a state we both couldn’t wait to visit. On paper, Vermont seemed like exactly our kind of place: it had crunchy hippie roots, beautiful mountain scenery, a plethora of outdoor activity possibilities, and most importantly a lot of maple syrup and cheese.

As we crossed into the southeastern corner of Vermont — suspicion confirmed! — I was excited to see if the state would measure up to my Mt. Mansfield-high expectations.

Folks, it was love at first sight — literally. Within the first half hour, we hit this magnificent viewpoint:

42525753475_fec8f68310_o

All at once, I realized why winter in Rhode Island felt so lackluster and why I missed Boulder so dang much: Because Rhode Island is as flat as a pancake! This was the first time I’d seen a mountain vista in six months. It was glorious.

As dusk descended, we pulled into the adorable town of Wilmington, where we’d be based for the next two days. “Town” is perhaps a generous descriptor of pint-sized Wilmington — it’s really not much more than a half-mile stretch of highway with a handful of restaurants, shops and adventure outfitters. Yet it has everything a discerning weekender could possibly want, including great food, an impressive roster of concerts and shows, and an amazing variety of handmade gifts to take home. Most importantly, it’s got that New England je-ne-sais-quoi about it — that woodsy, cozy quaintness I wasn’t sure existed beyond the pages of Yankee Magazine.

42698144254_4600155668_o

After dropping our luggage inside the adorable Airbnb, Ian and I walked “across town” (read: two blocks away) for an uncharacteristically lavish dinner at Cask & Kiln, a relatively new restaurant housed in a historic brick building that had been ravaged by river flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. This place is as much about romantic atmosphere as it is about food, all low lights and leather tufted seats and Art Deco details. I loved that everything about the restaurant, including the decor, the menu and even the outfits of the servers, managed to feel at once contemporary and nostalgic, simultaneously casual and celebratory. The least classy thing about the place? Us — we had mostly packed outdoor adventure clothes and were easily the most underdressed people there!

The next morning, I woke up early to get the lay of the land. With a cup of coffee in one hand and a blanket around my shoulders, I read up on the area’s parks, attractions and seasonal events and consulted a map of the area. Soon I was fired up for a day of scenic hiking, kayaking, farmer’s markets and covered bridge peeping (it’s a real hobby!) — and I was already plotting return trips in the fall and winter, when the area appears equally gorgeous.

We kicked off Saturday morning with a Cajun-inspired breakfast at Jezebel’s Eatery and a brief tour through some of the town shops. Sometimes I feel like the same 50 books are on display in every bookstore, so I was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic and locally-focused displays at Bartleby’s Books. I think our visit here inspired about half of my holiday gifts in 2018!

After grabbing some local honey at a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town, we pulled into Molly Stark State Park — where we were stunned to discover we were one of just a handful of visitors that morning. After consulting a ranger and a trail map, we followed signs to the Mt. Olga Fire Tower, which promised sweeping views of the Green Mountains. Promise delivered.

46619265032_f75d48b9f1_o

One thing I love about New England is its plethora of easy and moderate hikes. Many people who live in the West, particularly those in Colorado, approach hiking with a “no pain, no gain” philosophy and believe the best views can only be found by enduring grueling climbs. This 1.7-mile jaunt proves all those hiking snobs wrong.

46619265422_218b10d911_o

After Molly Stark, we reversed course, heading west on the state’s main southern highway with no particular destination in mind. Google Maps first led us to Woodford State Park, where we found a few-mile trail circumnavigating Adams Reservoir. Some families were paddling their kayaks and canoes on the calm waters, and we dreamed of returning here in the fall to do the same.

After relaxing for a while at the reservoir’s picnic area, we continued west and grabbed lunch at a bohemian coffee shop in Bennington. Wondering where to go next, we pored over the local tourism guides for inspiration. Almost immediately, we zeroed in on Bennington College — the alma mater of several big literary names, including Donna Tartt. We’d both recently read “The Secret History,” which was based on her time there, and we were intrigued to see if the place felt as mysterious as it had been portrayed in her novel.

The campus was beautiful, austere and almost disturbingly quiet in the middle of summer. We spent a pleasant couple of hours imagining spots where Tartt’s characters might have held their bacchanal or crossed the quad for Greek lessons.

29540920518_c526b0d84b_o

Back in Wilmington, we hit up Red Fox Shop, a local wine, cheese and gift store, to assemble our own ploughman’s dinner. The place was so unexpectedly delightful that we stayed almost an hour chatting with the owner, browsing funky cheeses and shopping for gifts. Then, we took our finds back to the Airbnb and lounged on the riverbank until the mosquitoes chased us inside.

On Sunday morning, we weren’t quite ready to return to the real world — so we took the scenic route home. Our first stop was a charming covered bridge near Brattleboro, the first one I’d ever seen on the East Coast.

After crossing into Massachusetts, Ian suddenly remembered one of his favorite area destinations from a previous trip here. Drawing largely from memory, he navigated us to the Montague Bookmill, a former 19th-century grist mill that is now home to a sprawling complex of used books, cafes, food stalls and local artists’ pop-up shops.

We had another three hours of driving ahead of us, otherwise I might have spent the entire day here. I loved everything about this spot — the sun-soaked reading nooks, the unpretentious vibe, the vibrant art, the friendly and talkative people.

41622231720_c8aab4d981_o41622231510_4ac24d1d73_o

Needless to say, this weekend confirmed my assumptions that I’d love Vermont. Despite never having visited before, the Green Mountain State felt familiar to me. Maybe it’s because Vermonters seem so much like Santa Cruzans, filled to the brim with local pride and refreshingly far removed from the career-focused hustle of the I-95 corridor. Or maybe it’s that they spend so much more of their time outside, even in the depths of winter, like in our previous home of Boulder. Whatever it was, I know one thing: I’ll be back soon.

46619264792_7eeafd25e8_o

READ NEXT: Two years in Rhode Island

The new and improved AP test

A New York Times article today reminded me of a time when the AP was more than a national news wire service to me.

The advanced placement test was one of the greatest banes of my high school existence, second only to the college application process. From what I remember, the entire experience, which I withstood three (almost four!) times, consisted of three steps: receive a giant 1,000-page tome, memorize everything in it, and sit an exam whose questions in no way relate to the hundreds of pages of facts you memorized.

The first test I sat was for U.S. history. Just before the test, I remember going over the succession of presidents with a friend’s flashcards, trying desperately to remember which state ratified the Constitution first and telling my friend to stop playing his ukulele so I could concentrate. The test was far more difficult than any of us imagined and covered material we hadn’t had time to touch on in class. We didn’t do as well as we’d hoped.

The second test I sat was for English literature. Since most questions had more to do with reading comprehension than with memorization, I felt prepared after years of reading classic books and writing critical essays. I walked in confident and walked out tired but still sure I’d done well. I’d used knowledge from a wide range of books I had read, in school and at home, to answer the essay questions, and I had even drawn on past choir repertoire to answer questions about Latin roots of English words–further proving my belief that academic well-roundedness is still valuable.

The third and final test I sat was for calculus. Advanced calculus, no less. I don’t talk about that test, except to say that poetry was involved when it shouldn’t have been.

While I studied and prepared for these tests, I couldn’t help but think–why can’t they all be more like the literature test? That exam, rather than asking me to rattle off authors and book titles robotically, tested my ability to think critically and organize my thoughts coherently.

Why do tests in history, math and science focus so intently on students’ memory of names and places? Shouldn’t we demonstrate our comprehension of a subject by discussing broader concepts? What’s more important: that we know which days the Civil War began and ended or that we know what caused the war and how the war affected Americans?

Finally, the College Board agrees. The Times says:

A preview of the changes shows that the board will slash the amount of material students need to know for the tests and provide, for the first time, a curriculum framework for what courses should look like. The goal is to clear students’ minds to focus on bigger concepts and stimulate more analytic thinking.

Not only is it impossible for students to memorize every fact, figure and formula without a photographic memory, it’s also beside the point–and I’m glad the test writers finally get that.