Burlington, Vermont

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1995

Burlington, Vermont

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere

Population: 39,295; Chittenden County 136,773
Gestalt: Paradise with a straight face

This gifted little city fronts 120-mile-long Lake Champlain, 20 miles from the crest of the Green Mountains and 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield, Vermont's apogee. Local heroes are green-tinged entrepreneurs, like the very sixties ice-cream moguls Ben and Jerry. Burlington tends to focus on work and serious issues, rather than play. People here are just hard-core concerned in a way that others are hard-core climbers or cyclists. Having fun outdoors, for the seriously serious, demonstrates care for the planet, like putting nematodes in the garden.

But there's room for irony. Burlington has all sorts of nonutopians, boozed-up college kids, corporate paycheck pullers. And a sense of mission isn't altogether bad. This is, after all, the city that fought back Wal-Mart. If Burlington didn't take itself so seriously, it might look a lot less like paradise.

Out there: Summer is Burlington's mad season, when people with and without wheels throng the eight-mile lakefront trail and use every conceivable kind of watercraft on Lake Champlain. Mountain bikers play on dirt trails in the Intervale, a belt of public land along the Winooski River, and cyclists put together all-day tours using various ferries and roads on both the New York and Vermont shores of the lake. In winter, drive less than an hour to a half-dozen ski resorts--Smuggler's Notch, Bolton, Sugarbush, Mad River Glen, Jay Peak, Stowe. But among antiglamour locals, nordic skiing may be the bigger deal.

Paycheck: IBM, a few hugeish manufacturers such as IDX Systems Corporation (software) and Lockheed Martin, the University of Vermont (with 9,700 students), and the medical center are the mainstays of Burlington's economic life, but they don't offer a lot of hope to many relocatees. This explains the near-frantic emphasis on entrepreneurialism. Locals have a way of making the e-word sound beckoning and free, as if making a go of it in a career of your own invention were the ultimate thrill sport.

Home: A half-mile or so up the South End hill, solid aunt-and-uncle capes and cottages start at $130,000. For more rural digs within commuting distance, $200,000 gets you into no-problems rehab or new housing around Richmond, about 15 miles east.

Neighbors: New Jersey natives on at least one side. On the other, bluegrass virtuoso who does public relations, married to children's book illustrator and caterer--they used to live in the country but moved into town for the sake of school-age kids.

Très Burlington: Have sheep if you own an acre or more; eat gravy-soaked fries at Nectar's, the cafeteria/bar where the band PHISH launched itself; undercut dress-up outfits with hiking boots; wear the state, with Vermont-made Turtle Fur and boots by Merrell; lean left but make unpredictable political fakes to the right.

Please, no more: Freelance graphic designers. For reasons not altogether explicable, Burlington is a flame for desktop moths.

Prices of paradise: Big-city types who want to keep their big-city acts edgy and abrasive don't last in this land of earnestness and right-thinking. And you'd better learn to love winter.

Kindred Spirits: Portland, Maine; Ithaca, New York; Eugene, Oregon.

See also: Find out what readers thought and how Mike Steere responded in our special online forum.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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