The Land of Inns and Maple

I am usually an over packer.  This weekend was not a particular exception.  The problem was – I packed for a warm Mid Atlantic spring, and found myself in a cool, muddy, New England…almost-spring.  And I was wearing strappy flat sandals.

I hadn’t been up to Middlebury, Vermont in 20 years (for once, not a hyperbole).  The last time I went up there, it was the summer before high school.  My father and I drove there from Martha’s Vineyard to go visit old dear friends.  I don’t recall how long we stayed, or much of what we did.  I recall two things: A bookstore downtown, and our friend taking me for a ride in his new car, a sporty red Saab – and how excited he was about taking me over the country lanes.  And their dog – a Mastiff named Cleo, who was almost my height at her shoulder – the textbook definition of a gentle giant. It would have been summer in Vermont, with its verdant greens and clear blue skies.

This past weekend was not that, weather wise.

Maybe I also remember a feeling – that feeling of visiting your grandparents over the summer, and catching up, in the best way possible.  (I never knew my own grandparents.)

I hadn’t been back to Middlebury in 20 years.  I think I would have seen these friends in the interim, the next time they came down to D.C. a few years later.  But I hadn’t been back to Vermont in 20 years until this past weekend.  We went up for his memorial service.  His wife completed her life a handful of years ago; my father completed his a while after.  Our dear friend was the last holdout.

But this is not a post to particularly philosophize about life and death; rather, our return to Middlebury.

It is, at heart, a college town.  I had forgotten – or had not appreciated – how many inns, churches, and greens there are in Middlebury.  We stayed in the Inn on the Green (the name is not false advertising), a bed and breakfast next to the Baptist church – and across from the Episcopal church.  The eponymous Middlebury Inn was a few steps further across the green, to the right; a few steps further down the hill, to the left, lies Main Street, with a handful of vintage shops and the Vermont Bookshop – the one I had stopped in 20 years earlier to pick up the second half of Maus by Art Spiegelman.  A few doors down from there is the sports apparel store, which supplies weekenders with their Middlebury gear – as the campus bookstore is not open on weekends.  A few steps further took us over a bridge across Otter Creek, at its “wildest” part.  I had only very vague memories of walking this route previously.

Restaurants and cafes abound, but we ate predominantly at…other inns.  On Friday night, we thought about ambling over to the Middlebury Inn for dinner, but decided to take our own innkeeper’s advice and headed over to Jessica’s at the Swift House Inn.  We ended up waiting at the bar until the kitchen had enough bandwidth to serve one last table.  Serve us they did – and very well.  The bartender had a natural humor about her – she would have easily fit into Bukowski’s poem.

We had a delightfully New England meal – a cheese plate (the smoked Gouda was our favorite); Belgian duck-fat fries; rack of lamb with ramp, asparagus, and mashed potatoes; and duck two ways (also with asparagus and mashed potatoes).  We couldn’t resist dessert – maple creme brûlée and, my favorite, house-made salted caramel ice cream.  There was a lot of laughing in between bites.

Our other main meal – aside from a luncheon at the Middlebury Inn after the service – was, you guessed it, at another inn.  We went over to the Waybury Inn over in East Middlebury to join the after-hours family celebration of life.  We were all spread out across two long tables; I ended up with a group of younger (ish) cousins.  There were too many delights on the menu for us to choose, so we ordered many entrees to share; we had a mushroom wellington, scallops with linguine, New York strip steak, filet mignon, and and faro cake special (shared between 6 of us).  We generally got our own desserts – the consensus favorite seemed to be the maple mascarpone cheesecake, a light and fluffy delight.  But this time, there was probably too much laughter to really remember what we ate – except that it was so good.

These meals, in these inns, brought back to mind the memories I’d had of Middlebury, as fuzzy as they might be: Full of shared bites, shared stories, shared memories, shared laughter.  And this is exactly how I remember our dear friend, and how I like to imagine he wants to be remembered.

I came away from this nostalgic weekend with a few takeaways: Family is always family, whether by blood or by choice; Middlebury is a quaint, walkable, delightful New England town, with a lot of good food; always, always pack socks (although I suppose Adams’ towel would serve well); and when in doubt, be enthusiastic.  And maybe, just maybe, learn a sea shanty or two along the road.

And yes, we came home with real maple syrup.

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