This Isn't Heaven, It's Madison, Wisconsin

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

This Isn't Heaven, It's Madison, Wisconsin
By Mike Steere

Raise high the roof beam--Mr. Paradise is among us. My own verdigris awe is talking. Bill Birnn himself makes no effort to be grand. But this man, fortyish and trim and glowing from off-hours outdoorsiness, is a sign from above: We don't have to die to get to heaven. We can reach it the way he did, with planning and hard work. In jeans and hiking boots, seated in the conference room of Birnn Chocolates of Vermont, the booming national chocolate-truffle business he launched, Birnn dazzles like the Green Mountains and Lake Champlain, scenic deities of Burlington, Vermont, his chosen paradise. While the rest of us fantasized, this guy went and did it. He saw exactly where he wanted to live, moved exactly there, and made it pay very well.

Chocolate, but not truffles, fed several generations of Birnn's family in his native New Jersey. Research showed him that northwestern Vermont, which he learned to love on ski trips, had everything he needed. With more than 100,000 people, greater Burlington is the state's metropolis, with big-citylike transportation and business support. But he also owes his success to a manufacturing breakthrough. I watch the truffle machinery while Birnn explains, but I can't quite say why his truffles are better and also cheaper. Details are beside the point anyway. In paradise, God lives in the overall concept.

Long hours still give Birnn time for serious cross-country skiing and sailing. He says the 12-mile commute to his new house in the country, through brook-braided hills with a mountain backdrop, is part of the daily perfection. Some people out in the country leave their doors unlocked and don't mind at all if you let yourself in and wait for them to get home. A sudden loss of words ends Birnn's Vermont Rhapsody. "You just have to be here to experience it," he says.

Maybe I do. and now, dammit, I want to. Just 12 hours into a seven-stop tour of dream towns, large and small, that will bounce me off the Pacific Coast and land me in Wisconsin, I believe in what I've tried very hard to forswear--the possibility of perfect living in a perfect place. That means mountains, wilderness, and every kind of nontropical outdoor sport within 90 minutes, but also good bookstores, a Mozart festival, and no career sacrifice.

Did I see Burlington's downtown pedestrian mall? Just like Boulder, isn't it? Did I notice the restored art deco theater? (Yes. Coming soon, the Throat Singers of Tuva.) Do I know we're an hour or less from Stowe, a few miles closer to Mad River Glen? This is a university town and a nationally important haven for lefty/artsy/outdoorsy lifestylers, but Burlington feels authentic. At its core you've got a frowzy old mill town. Housing is solid and cheap, and the big city isn't all that far.

I want it bad. But I want my own Burlington. This one takes itself a little too seriously, like virtual-reality National Public Radio. And it has Murmansk winters. Still, walking around in somebody else's paradise inspires.

Another move would make four. The first was right place, wrong job. I lived year-round on Michigan's North Manitou Island, in 15,000 acres of roadless splendor. But after one fall of guiding big-dollar hunters, I liked the deer we tracked and gutted much better than gun-loving lawyers and executive vice-presidents, one of whom shot my boss in the thigh. Number two involved a writing project in a lovely little house in northeastern Wisconsin, with a raspberry patch in the backyard and a front porch full of sun and Lake Michigan. The rent was only $200 a month, but it might as well have been $2,000 after the book advance ran out. I recovered financially at a newspaper in Ohio, where I also got married. My wife's shot at a promotion in Alaska occasioned the last, and most humbling, attempt. I jumped at Juneau. Instead of thinking, I was watching these Omnimax brain movies--Brother Whale, Sister Grizzly. Our weekends and bush trips were, indeed, lifetime bests. But they couldn't redeem my three years of underemployment and conversing with seals in the Panhandle's suicidal wet and gloom.

When we moved back to Chicago, I swore to give up on living in big outdoors. I'd go out and mess around whenever I could but would never, ever try to move in with the scenery again. The happiest people I knew were paradiseniks, but I decided I was born to live near a major hub airport. Very sensible--except I didn't really mean it. I took shelter from my longings behind an elaborate irony, becoming a dream-town dilettante.

If one of the following towns looks like it could be your own personal/professional Eden, get real before you let yourself get too dreamy. Do your paradise the way Bill Birnn did Burlington. This is the only way grown-ups can do it--unless of course they're rich. The rich can go straight to a place like Durango, buy a ranch with a trout stream, and further inflate real estate prices.

Durango, the ultimate four-season outdoor-rec mecca, gets a double-black-diamond rating for economic challenge. Either bring your own money or face getting by on sports-town leavings, jerking lattes, saying, "Hi, we've got some terrific specials this evening." The rest of our picks offer greater nuts-and-bolts practicality, as well as prime outdoors and all-around good living.

But paradise doesn't need to be perfect. All it needs is to be much better than where you are. Each of our towns represents a strain of perfection with its own fascinations, independent of the great country around it. You might want to live there even without the heavenly outdoors.

But stay out of Spokane--it's mine.

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