Vivid fall foliage in a vibrant Vermont town

As tourists in our own state, we discovered much more than brightly colored leaves.

Sarah Beth Glicksteen/The Christian Science Monitor
Autumn charm: Colorful leaves decorate the front yard of a New England home.

People flock from all over to see the fall foliage in northern Vermont. But most of us who live here are often too busy with work, chores, and the business of living to fully appreciate it. So once a year my husband and I take a day off to be tourists in our own state. This year was serendipitous.

A friend suggested an area we'd never visited before. We hadn't gone more than a few miles before my husband remarked on the brilliant reds and oranges of the maple trees lining the road. "We've probably got some of the best foliage right here," he said.

I laughed. It was as if he'd suddenly given himself permission – now that it was on his schedule – to take notice of the beauty we live with every day. It took us a long time to reach our destination because he kept stopping to take pictures. A hillside blazing with hot colors accentuated by pointed, dark green firs. A single tangerine-colored maple against a Kelly-green field. A dirt road edged with leaves floating down from the fiery limbs arched over our car.

"Wow, look over there!" I'd say.

"Oh, I've got to get a picture of that," he'd say, and stop the car again.

Finally, the trees gave way to fields and a few neat houses sprinkled along the road. As we descended into a valley, white clapboard homes with black shutters gathered closer together, and we found ourselves in a storybook village complete with spired white church, general store, and an 18th-century brick blacksmith shop. Except for the cars – and tourists in bike shorts – I might have thought I'd gone back in time.

The blacksmith shop sported an "open house" banner, so we poked inside along with a group of bikers from Ireland, drawn to the warmth of the fire – and the man tending it. We also visited a museum housed in an 1820 schoolhouse. Artifacts relating to the 19th-century heyday of sheep farming, such as a petticoat hand-knit of merino wool, drew me deeper into the delight I was finding in this town, which happened to be celebrating its annual Fall Foliage Day. It looked like a remarkable effort for a pint-size town – a craft fair at the Town Hall, a book sale and movie at the library, a tour of the cemetery, a scenic bus ride, a harp concert, and a church supper.

Then my eye caught a sandwich board advertising a special luncheon at the elementary school. "Serving at 11:30, 12:30, and 1:30," the sign read. It was 12:29. Not quite sure whether this would be a wise use of time or money, we pulled into the driveway of the diminutive brick school with a single school bus parked outside.

Two boys met us at the door. "Welcome to Peacham School," they said, looking us in the eye and smiling. Inside, children sat at a row of desks leading to the cafeteria. "Would you like to buy a comic book?" said a small boy at the first desk. In front of him lay a couple of penciled "books" – white pages of original, scripted drawings stapled together. "Fifty-cents."

"Sure," I said, "I'd love to buy a comic book." Next came leaf-shaped cookies decorated with colored sugars, linoleum-print notecards, decoupage notecards, and leaf pins. I chose several notecards and handed a 20-dollar bill to a sweet-faced girl. A teacher leaned over her shoulder, coaching her on how to make change.

"Would you like to buy a pin?" the last student said. When I declined, he and his buddy replied with rehearsed politeness, "Thank you, anyway." Maybe I had gone back in time.

In the small cafeteria hung with kids' artwork, a mother volunteer ushered us to a low table. Crayon leaf-rubbings decorated my construction-paper placemat, signed "Halie, age 7." I helped myself to homemade pumpkin bread and a pat of soft butter, and then our waiter came to take our order – a handsome boy who was 11 or 12 years old. Wearing a starched white cook's apron and a pencil behind his ear, he moved gracefully back and forth between the tables and the kitchen's serving window, bringing us bowls of potato-cheese soup, salad, melt-in-your-mouth quiche, and homemade pies.

"Is everything all right?" he asked when he wasn't busy.

"Everything is perfect," I said as a forkful of pumpkin pie slid down my throat. Someone's little sister – a cherub in pink leggings – got into the act, too, playing waitress with pencil and pad of Post-it notes.

Looking up, I noticed the ceiling tiles had been hand-painted, signed, and dated by several years of graduating students. Each one told a story of that student's interests – dirt biking, basketball, art, squirrel hunting.

We asked the local women at our table how long the school had been holding this fundraiser. "Ever since my kids were in school," a grandmother said. "They use the money for skiing and indoor swimming." On the way out I bought more notecards. It was time to head home, and my feet dragged to the car.

Here was a town only an hour away we'd never known about. And it was not only dripping with historic charm, but vibrant with collaborative creativity, vitality, sweetness, and grace. We'd come to see fall foliage, but we drove home inspired by the richness of that little community and its children.

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