WOODSTOCK, VT. — In the company of fellow leaf-peepers, Blanche Robinson might be considered an entrepreneur. While her well-dressed colleagues with their fancy cameras and comfortable shoes are kicking through piles of leaves searching for the most gorgeous reds and yellows, Mrs. Robinson went straight to the source.
"Actually I swiped some of these off of a tree," says the grinning retiree from California. Showing her loot on a park bench in the village green of Woodstock, Vt., she says, "I figured the lawn was already covered, and I didn't think the owner would notice."
She figured right. Like much of New England, Vermont is jam-packed full of tourists with leaves on their minds. After months of planning and years of hype, these leaf-peepers want to see autumn foliage at its peak. They are willing to pay hundreds of dollars, drive thousands of miles, and even cross oceans to find it.
In dollar terms, the foliage industry has become enormously important in the Green Mountain State, making up the second-largest part of the economy after manufacturing. In four short weeks from late September to mid-October, more than 2 million tourists pass through picture-postcard towns like Woodstock, spending $500 million dollars. And the demand for foliage tours is growing at a steady clip roughly 3 percent a year.
So what is it that brings 54 bus loads a day to Woodstock, population 1,000? Some will tell you it's the opportunity to witness first hand the glorious mixture of trees on copper hillsides with blushing red maples, glowing paper birches, and dark stingy pines holding onto every needle. Others say it's the stale sweet scent of fallen apples or the pathetic bleating of sheep. But perhaps at heart of this journey is a desire to return to something that's increasingly rare, even in traditional rural states: the slower rhythms and bygone days of agricultural America.
"It's everything the storybooks tell you it is," says Harley Renz of Rush Center, Kan., who recently sold his filling station there. "We've looked forward to coming here for three years," says his wife, Rosalie, standing in front of a pricey art gallery.
While the Renzes are touring, others go it alone with a rental car and road map. The Knights and the Marshalls, all hailing from York, England, have been taking turns driving on the back roads. This gives each of them time to ooh and aah. "The fall colors are fantastic, the red maples are really quite stunning," says Hazel Marshall, a homemaker. As for Woodstock itself, and the swirl of tourists posing in front of the local covered bridge, she adds: "We realize it's a bit of a touristy town, but it's pleasant isn't it?"
"New England is literally that, rather than 'American America,'" adds Norman Knight, noting that the windy roads of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine are similar to the roads he is used to in England. "It's easy driving really."
The Schirp family rented a travel trailer in downtown New York after flying in from Frankfurt, Germany. Escaping New York itself was the hard part. "A lot of the people in Manhattan were not friendly, but that should not be a big surprise," laughs Christophe Schirp, while his wife, Maja, swings their 18-month old daughter, Laura. Since then the Schirps have driven up the coast to Cape Cod and then inland to Vermont. "The colors are brighter here. In Germany the leaves turn yellow and fall but there's a special effect here."
But sometimes all this natural beauty makes upright citizens act downright goofy. Take for instance the motorists who parked their cars in the middle of a one-lane covered bridge just off busy state Route 4.
When Diana Brown encountered them, she let her displeasure be known in a forthright, Yankee manner. "I'm pretty sure I didn't use any curse words," says the owner of a bed-and-breakfast in South Woodstock. "They must think it's Disneyland."
Naturally Mrs. Brown is quick to add that foliage tourism is mostly a "blessing." Even so she says, "November is my favorite month because they're all at home with their memories, and I'm at home with the quiet."