Called Home to the Country

From where I'm sitting now, in my brother-in-law's dining room, I can hear why we didn't buy that lovely little house across the street. The traffic here on Route 4, the only east-to-west thoroughfare across Vermont, is loud and clear.

The house was appealing - a real estate agent could call it charming and actually mean it - and the village, a tidy collection of white farmhouse-style and brick federal dwellings, is vintage New England, despite the busy road and a tangle of high-tension lines from a power station on the river. But the auditory assault from all those tourists and truckers - well, as my wife has put it more than once, ``That's not why I moved to Vermont.''

Why did we move up here? Why does anyone leave the familiar and convenient surroundings for something that prompts a lot of question marks?

Partly, I suppose, to bring a touch of adventure back into life. Not that marriage and children don't supply their own perpetual kind of suspense. Our wife-husband relationship has never been static and shows little signs of ever being so. And our two sons? Ask any parent. A lot of words could be used to describe the experience of child-rearing, but boring isn't one of them.

Still, we had lived almost 10 years in the same neighborhood and almost 18 years in the same west-of-Boston area. It's a part of the United States that, by and large, gives suburbia a good name. The towns are generally pleasant: Green, wooded spaces abound, and the people are neighborly. But it is, nonetheless, ``metrowest,'' very much in the shadow of a great city. The traffic is relentless - Route 4 to the 10th power, every few miles. The schools are big and a little impersonal. And the malls never stop growing. And....

We know that litany. But our reasons for moving 200 miles to the northwest, to a small town in a small state, went a little deeper than the familiar case against suburban America. Personal history figured in. Both of us wanted to share with our kids something we had experienced years ago and valued. To call it small-town living would be a little trite. The phrase country life is even more trite - especially since it brings to mind magazine titles these days.

What we both cherished, in our recollections, was a sense of space and freedom. I'll never forget my boyhood in rural California, where I could wander through orange groves or roam over foothills. It taught me an appreciation for solitude and quiet. My wife's indelible memory is the contrast between hot, dusty, crowded Houston and leafy Vermont. She and her family moved from Texas just after her freshman year in high school. So she had three years of Green Mountain bliss - lifeguarding in the summer, skiing in the winter - before leaving for college in the Midwest and, later, a job in Boston.

At some level of feeling, she never really moved back to the flatlands. During her first few years in Boston, still single, she'd faithfully return to Vermont every weekend. Now I'm the one making that trek once a week.

How much does it mean to have trails, perhaps right out your back door and certainly not more than a short drive away, that give you a taste, not only of wilderness, but also of what life might have been like a century or two ago?

Up on the ridge above my mother-in-law's house, where we're camped out for a year and a half pending our purchase of the right place, is a grassed-over roadway called the King's Highway. You can almost hear the clatter of surreys and buckboards between the stone walls and ancient maples that line the long-disused avenue. Old cellar pits mark the locations of vanished houses and farms.

How important is it to be able to step outside, take in the prospect (a weightier word than view and part of the lexicon you occasionally still hear up here), and feel refreshed? It doesn't have to be a panoramic stunner, just a bit of stream or pond and some of those jutting tree-napped hills.

For us, right now, such things count a lot, which is why we've waited for a dwelling that seemed a little more in keeping with our dreams - some place a little less infiltrated by the noises of the place we left.

Of course, freedom from the background swoosh of vehicles is hardly an adequate rationale for transporting a household and leaving oneself with a sometimes challenging work-family juggling act.

Neither, I think, is the desire to get away from something - from aggressive drivers, mean hallways at school, or crime.

Vermont, Maine, Montana, Oregon, the Australian outback - it doesn't matter. You're still going to find people that test your patience and your better nature. And good kind people can be found on a city street or on a country path.

When we give it a hard look, our decision to move up here, after years of tossing around the idea, defies any neat explanation. A great place to raise kids? Sure. Lots of wholesome community values? Yes. Peace and quiet? Right at hand. But these things can be had in a city or suburb, too. They have more to do with individuals' inner lives and their spiritual vision than with physical place.

Place, however, often mingles with values, purposes, and goals to shape a feeling of rightness and home. And that interesting chemistry can change and reappear any number of times in the course of a lifetime.

So, we're in our small corner of the country not for one or two reasons, but a convergence of them. It's a pleasant place to be - or even to return to after three or four days in the city. But it's not a place to get away from life's challenges, just a different setting for addressing them.

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