Most vacation spots consist of a specific destination. Typically, when we tell people that we are going away, it means we are going to some place like Myrtle Beach, or the Grand Canyon, or Disney World. However, could a state be in and of itself a destination? Well, it would have to be a very small state. A state where the feel, culture, look, and attractions are fairly universal throughout the entire state. Is there such a destination? Surely you’ve heard of Vermont, haven’t you? The great state of Vermont in its entirety is in essence, a destination, as well as a state of mind. No, Billy Joel will never sing her praises, and Sinatra will never belt out the sentiment that if he could make it there, well then gosh-darn it, he could most likely make it anywhere. It will never linger on Ray Charles’ mind like Georgia, and Elvis will never swivel his hips to Viva Vermont. (If he did, he would be wearing a checkered red and green thermal shirt and a “Cat Power” hat). Despite the fact that it has never been celebrated in song, one need only proclaim, “We’re going to Vermont,” and a dozen images appear in our minds…most of them involving foliage.
Some destinations are made for certain holidays. For example, New York City is made for Christmas. Where else but the Vatican would you want to be for Easter? New Orleans literally exists to host Mardi Gras. I’m not sure if they celebrate Arbor Day in Sequoia National Park, but they really should. What of Columbus Day however? Does this paen to the great or perhaps not so great Italian explorer have a home where all its observers can gather? It would appear that those who appreciate Columbus Day can “feel the Bern” in nearby Vermont.
Columbus Day is like Christmas, New Years Eve, and Kwanza wrapped up into one red and gold package in Vermont. Vermont is literally made for Columbus Day. We are fortunate that we live in the Capital Region, and are less than 40 minutes from “The Green Mountain State.” My wife swears that the mountains are bigger and better as soon as you cross into the home of Ethan Allen from our beloved New York State. She may be on to something. Vermont makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do. If my wife approached me 51 weekends out of the year and said to me, “Do you want to go take a drive and maybe do some antiquing?” I would answer with all of the enthusiasm of one looking forward to a colonoscopy. But tell me that we’re going to do the same thing in Vermont on Columbus Day weekend, and all of sudden I’m frolicking through the Vermont countryside looking for Benny Goodman 78 RPM records, lunch boxes from the 1960s, and a victrola that may or may not have belonged to Calvin Coolidge, as well as 600 varieties of scented candles. (I won’t be satisfied until I find one that’s nacho cheese scented.)
While there is great uniformity to the state of Vermont, there are a few subtle differences that separate the Bennington part of Vermont versus the Burlington area. While both have farmland, milk, cheese, cows, apples, microbrewed beer, and fun dining experiences, only Bennington has the remains of Robert Frost. For those who are interested, he’s buried in Old Bennington Cemetery. Bennington also possesses the tallest man-made structure in the entire state, the Bennington Battle Monument. Standing a majestic 306 feet high, it resembles to some extent the Washington Monument.
Burlington seems to out-quaint Bennington, and this is most likely due to the fact that it is a college town, with the University of Vermont situated within its realm. (Although it is true that Bennington is the home of Bennington College, the most expensive school in the United States.) In addition to all of its bars, restaurants, and seemingly endless microbreweries, Burlington is the home of both Cabot cheese, as well as one of the greatest businesses in the history of corporate America, Ben & Jerry’s. These fine companies provide their patrons with a quality product. They also give back to their respective communities, and are known for being environmentally conscious. However, I would be remiss if I also didn’t acknowledge that if you visit their headquarters, you can enjoy a lot of free samples, perhaps the greatest act of philanthropy that a corporation can be recognized for. Lactose intolerant people beware. This is no place for you. You weirdos might want to go to the soy capital of the world, Iowa. I’ll be thinking of you while I inhale my Cherry Garcia ice cream, before washing it down with a little smoked gouda.
Bennington has its charms as well, including tons of places to get fudge, antiques, apples, cheese, and if you’re still hungry after all of that, the Blue Benn diner. The Blue Benn is a classic old-school train-car diner where you have to almost always wait for a table since it’s not only really good, but it’s really small. People have to go by the honor system in order to get a table. In other words, it’s first come first serve. The waitress will come out to the very small waiting area, and ask “Who’s next?” Somehow, honesty rules the day, and the next in line will usually get the next table without much acrimony. With all of the partisan bickering, tribalism, and other assorted contentious behavior that permeates our society in 2018, the honor seating system at the Blue Benn might just be the last outpost of civility left in the United States. Oh, and their sweet potato fries are to die for.
I’m sure a lot of people see Vermont as a winter skiing wonderland. But since I can’t ski, I think that people who think that way are stupid. No my friends, it’s about the fall, and fall is all about Columbus Day. No weekend celebrates the idea of bright colored leaves, apples, apple cider, apple cider donuts, hard cider, Cider House Rules etc…more than Columbus Day. I think Christopher Columbus would be proud that people still remember his historic voyage by embarking on leaf-peeping tours of Vermont, as well as hard to resist sales in all of the nation’s retail stores. In a way, you could argue that Vermont has softened the image of Columbus. Not unlike Muhammad Ali and Elvis, Columbus has had his reputation rise and fall and sort of rise again like few in world history.
When I was in school, Columbus was one of the three mythical gods of American history along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. You couldn’t challenge the myths surrounding these three historical giants, even though Columbus never even set foot in North America. In elementary school we were taught that Columbus was a beacon of light in an otherwise dark and ignorant world. He was the one man who believed despite the cynics and doubters who made up the majority, that in fact. the world was round instead of flat.
By the time I became a teacher in 1989, Columbus was a villain, a bringer of death to the new world who knowingly spread disease and slavery. The man had been reduced to a 15th century Hitler with a blonde Buster Brown haircut. (It should be noted that despite the many portraits that exist of Columbus, not one of them were painted while he was alive, so for all we know he could look like “Mario” from “Mario Brothers,” he was Italian after-all) Revisionist historians love to point out that the Western Hemisphere was populated with 25 million Indigenous people, but in less than 100 years that number had dropped to barely over one million. Columbus’ “Q” rating took a nasty dip after this factoid began to circulate around the elite halls of our learning institutions. In fairness, many historians dispute this fact and one noted scholar, no less an authority on almost everything, the one and only *Rush Limbaugh, is on record claiming that the “Injuns” were asking for it by walking around with compromised immune systems. Limbaugh was also quick to point out that the Indians were so lame, that despite discovering and contributing the cocoa bean and the subsequent chocolate drink that emanates from it, it took the white Europeans to add sugar to the drink and therefore make it “Yummy for my tummy.”
* (Editors note – Limbaugh never said this to the best of my knowledge, but in my head, it seems like something he would say.)
Vermont has been indispensable in the resurrection of Columbus’ reputation. A trip to Vermont means maple syrup, fudge, (All driving vacations include fudge on some level. Visitors to our country must be perplexed that any trip in the car more than 40 minutes seems to require all Americans to stop and “fudge up!”) cheese, Ben & Jerry’s, micro-brewed beer, and apples. How can a holiday that includes all of that be bad? However, considering all of the carnage that took place either directly or indirectly as a result of the Columbian voyages, perhaps we could celebrate all of that with a more benign holiday such as Arbor Day?
Technically, Columbus is completely innocent, after-all, he thought he was in the East-Indies. In fact, since he believed he was literally on the other side of the world, and was convinced that he was invading and killing somebody totally different, he’s actually blameless in this boondoggle that was the coming together of the Old World and the New. In other words, the annihilation of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas was strictly business, nothing personal. (Not to stereotype, but Columbus was Italian, and unless every episode of the “Sopranos” was somehow inaccurate, it would seem that this was nothing more than a business transaction.)
While it may seem trite and insensitive to spend Columbus Day shopping and consuming items such as cheese and beer, it’s actually the most legitimate way to celebrate one of the biggest events of the past 500+ years. While we can all debate whether Columbus was a naïve, and ultimately innocent and inspired genius, or the man who perpetrated the greatest genocide in history, one thing that nobody can argue with is the impact of his voyage, particularly in the realm of trade. If the world is built upon the bedrock known as the exchange of goods and services, then Columbus is owed a debt of gratitude. Consider for a moment the wide swath of items that the New World introduced to the Old and vice versa. Some of these cross-Atlantic contributions might surprise you.
Items brought over by the Europeans to the Americas
- Coffee Beans – I always said that Juan Valdez was a phony.
- Onions – I’m guessing the first thing the natives said when they met the Europeans was, “Hmm, boy does their breath stink!”
- Citrus Fruit – The Europeans were notably racist when they came over, no wonder they chose Anita Bryant as their spokesperson.
- Sugar Cane – This belies the claim put out by the Cuban media that Fidel Castro invented sugar cane.
- Wheat – If this is true, then we can at least blame the Europeans for Wonder Bread.
- Cattle – This is shockingly disappointing. What’s more Americana than sticking your head out the window on an all-American vacation than yelling “Moo!” when you spot a herd of cows?
- Horse – This is even more upsetting. Literally the horse is associated with not only the American cowboy, but the gaucho down in Argentina. When was the last time anybody saw a picture of Charles Boyer or Winston Churchill on a horse? Now, Ronald Reagan, that guy embodied the American cowboy spirit.
- Smallpox – There’s some debate over whether the Spanish purposely sold blankets to the Natives riddled with the smallpox virus. Whether accidentally or on purpose, smallpox alone practically wiped out the Indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere.
- Slavery – In fairness, the Europeans attempted to enslave the Native population, but when it appeared that they were working the Natives to death, when they weren’t killing them with disease, then and only then did they begin to import slaves from Africa. So really, whose fault was this? (Relax, the Spanish are at fault.)
- Venereal Disease – Listen, these men of the Mediterranean are quite viral, and those journeys across the Atlantic were long and boring. I would say more, but this is a family-friendly blog.
Items brought back by the Europeans from America
- Pumpkins – Honestly, how many European foods can you carve scary faces into? Have you ever tried to carve a face into an olive?
- Corn – Every American as well as European immigrant to this part of the world knows at least one Native American word, Maize, it means corn. The Natives also invented popcorn, or “pop maize.”
- Avocado – This fruit/vegetable/spread began as a fringe food at best. Now we use it on anything and everything, and if Trump ever puts a tariff on them, he’s going to have a revolution on his hands.
- Peanut – What would George Washington Carver had studied if not for the peanut? (Not for nothing, but I believe that Prof. Carver’s reputation was greatly enhanced by having “George Washington” in his name. Anybody remember Willie Mays Aikens on the Kansas City Royals. Yeah, the name helps. That’s why I named my kid “Keith Moon Hoffman.”) What would we eat at a baseball game if not for the peanut? What would we throw on the floor if we didn’t have peanut shells?
- Tomato – Don’t even pretend that you knew this. Everybody thinks that tomatoes are Italian, but they’re American. Although, I’ve never tried Native American tomato sauce, so I’ll have to reserve judgement.
- Turkey – The food that makes Thanksgiving work. The country of Turkey gave the turkey the greatest honor a bird could have by naming its country after this delectable fowl. The city of Eagleton, Colorado of course merits special mention as well.
- Cocoa Bean – Like the tomato, we tend to think of European chocolate, and not American unless it’s Hersey’s. The problem was that since the Natives didn’t have sugar to sweeten it, the cocoa bean had all of the flavor of mud until it met its good friend, sugar cane.
- Vanilla – So the Natives also turned the Europeans on to vanilla That means the New World had vanilla and chocolate. You see, the Natives were truly color blind. They allowed both flavors to exist in harmony, oblivious to their racial divide.
- Potato – The tuber, as the Europeans called it, was considered by some in the Old World as the only real contribution made by the New World upon the Old. For the people of Ireland, it’s been a mixed blessing. For everybody else, it’s morphed into french fries and potato chips, and quite frankly, when you’re munching on either treat, the history seems a lot less important.
- Tobacco – How do you gain revenge upon a people who brought you small pox, syphilis, diphtheria, and God knows what else? You do it one hacking cough at a time. “Here you go White Devil, why don’t you share our peace pipe?”
Let’s face it, we may hate Columbus, but none of us are turning down the day off in commemoration of his “accomplishment.” More importantly, without Columbus, the Western Hemisphere wouldn’t have coffee, sugar, tomatoes, cows, sheep, pigs, horses, small pox or STD’s. All the Americas had were cocoa, potatoes, and tobacco. I guess you could say that tobacco has done its share of damage to the Old World. Does emphysema for syphilis seem like a fair trade? I don’t know, but this all seems too controversial for me. All I want to do is leaf-peep, and throw back a pint at the Man of Kent Tavern, which is technically in New York State, but it feels like Vermont. For that I’m thankful.