Today’s Vermont: Tempted by the West

Today’s Vermont: Tempted by the West

Colorado is a lot like Vermont, except with bigger cities and bigger mountains. Some would also claim that in addition to being bigger, Colorado is simply a better place to live.

After all, Colorado has outstanding powder skiing, plenty of sunshine, a booming economy, and a much larger population of wild trout. Vermont’s appeal is more subtle, and has a lot to do with the coziness of tight-knit villages and towns that are tucked into a working landscape of rolling hills and river valleys, a sense of place that travel writers often describe using the words “quaint” and “nestled” - two cliche descriptors that I hereby promise never to use in my writing at State 14.

When I lived in Colorado back in 2010, I usually flew home to Vermont on JetBlue, with a connection at JFK. This year, two airlines have launched direct flights from Burlington to Denver. I’m actually typing this edition of Today’s Vermont on a (cheap!) Frontier Airlines flight that provides nonstop service between BTV and DEN three times per week. United also just announced a new direct flight on Saturdays. Flight time is around three and a half hours, about the same amount of time needed to travel by bus from Montpelier to Boston.

Boulder, where I lived before moving home to Vermont, feels a lot like a version of Burlington in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Pearl Street, the main drag in Boulder, is remarkably similar to the Church Street pedestrian mall in Burlington. The University of Colorado, located on a hill above downtown Boulder, no doubt attracts applications from many of the same students who apply to the University of Vermont - smart, athletic young people who love to play in the mountains and whose parents can afford the cost of out-of-state tuition.

Although I now choose to make my home in Vermont, I appreciate the special bond between Vermont and Colorado. Mountains play a large role in shaping the identities of our states, both of which are mostly rural apart from Chittenden County and the cities of Colorado’s front range. Both Vermont and Colorado also have a growing tech industry, and a cultural and economic emphasis on agriculture and outdoor recreation.

Indeed, the consolidation of the ski industry and the rise of multi-resort season passes is now a firm stitch tying Colorado and Vermont together. These ski passes are also a major incentive for airlines to offer direct flights between BTV and DEN. Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which trades under the symbol MTN on the New York Stock Exchange, bought Stowe Mountain Resort in 2017 and Okemo Mountain Resort in 2018. The Epic Pass offered by Vail Resorts provides access to exceptional terrain at Vail, Stowe, and Okemo along with other world class mountain destinations that would be staggeringly expensive for anyone looking to buy a one-day lift ticket.

The BTV + DEN + MTN = $$$ formula may seem simple, but how long ski resorts and airlines can keep making money during the climate emergency is an open question. Both Vermont and Colorado are starting to feel the pain of unpredictable and extreme weather, which won’t be helped by the aforementioned cheap air travel - or the particularly American sort of economy that enables well-heeled people to travel the world with an Epic Pass in search of luxury and deep pow while desperate climate refugees from Guatemela make the long, hazardous journey overland to the southern border.

Driving south from Denver to Pueblo, American power was on full display. I passed miles of military bases, hundreds of fast food restaurants, and thousands of rail cars heaped high with coal. Later that day, on a hike near the small town of Beulah, it was downright eerie to stand in a burned ponderosa forest on the edge of the scrubby high plains and see a massive coal plant to the east.

Water is a scarce commodity in much of Colorado, but sunshine is not. Although Vermont has a long way to go to meet our own renewable energy goals, I was baffled by the scarcity of solar panels in Colorado. Even without taking the high cost of carbon emissions into account, it would actually be cheaper for Coloradans to stop burning coal, and ramp up renewable energy generation. Yet the confounded coal trains roll on.

To my mind, Vermont has an advantage here because the transition to a cleaner energy future  that relies on renewable generation and a distributed energy grid is well underway. The faster we can build out a low-carbon infrastructure with tools like residential solar, electric buses, heat pumps, bike lanes, and local food systems, the more attractive the Green Mountains will be to folks who may be eyeing Colorado tech jobs and Rocky Mountain peaks that stand 14,000 feet tall.

There are a lot of Vermonters living in Colorado, but the Rocky Mountains aren’t the only appealing Western destination for those seeking bigger and possibly better locales for life adventures. Travel to mountain towns in Idaho or Montana, or to Western cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and you’ll find people with ties to Vermont.

Former Essex Junction resident Rob Friesel penned a heartfelt post titled Farewell, Vermont as he and his family prepared to move to Seattle this summer.

“We wouldn’t trade a second of our Vermont experience for anything,” writes Rob. “And in many ways, this place has felt more like home to us than anywhere else we’ve ever lived.”

Last week I experienced first hand how many Vermonters are moving to Seattle. Prior to landing in Denver, I spent a couple of days in Washington, flying in and out of Seattle, exploring The Emerald City, and attending a beautiful wedding in the epic mountains of the North Cascades. While touring Seattle neighborhoods on an electric bike, I ducked into a used outdoor gear store to avoid a sudden rain shower. The place felt like a Western version of Outdoor Gear Exchange on Church Street in Burlington, right down to the friendly fellow working the register in a Common Ground Fair T-shirt.

“Craftsbury!” he exclaimed, as I walked in, with a nod to my super stylish Craftsbury General Store sweatshirt. “I love Craftsbury,” he continued. “I used to train for nordic skiing there.”

Another employee walked up. “Hey man, welcome! I’m from South Burlington. There are a lot of us in the Seattle area. Pretty much anything you want to do outside, you can do at a very high level here.”

The door opened, and another young person walked in. “No way!” exclaimed my ex pat Vermont friends, who recognized the new arrival. “Another Vermonter! How long have YOU lived here?”

After confirming that the new arrival was not departing Vermont journalist Taylor Dobbs, I left the former Vermonters to their happy reunion in the outdoor gear store, and continued my tour of Seattle’s bike lanes, thinking about outmigration from Vermont, and the likelihood of Vermonters who choose to go West someday deciding to return.

Even in an age when we all need to make moral, practical, and economic decisions in light of the climate crisis, I hope to continue to spend time in Colorado and Washington, and invite my friends who live elsewhere to visit Vermont.

Cheap air travel and its horrendous carbon footprint can’t last for long, but we’re getting close to an age when electric powered trains and buses will provide a slow and scenic route west from New England and across the Great Plains. Maybe, someday, we’ll even be able to travel west among herds of buffalo through deep-rooted prairie grasses, and wake up from sleeper bunks to the sight of Pike’s Peak, ready for adventures that await in the snowcapped Rocky Mountain range...

What’s your favorite destination outside of Vermont? Are you planning to buy an Epic Pass? Or an Ikon Pass? Is the act of travel by airplane immoral? Have you considered going solar in Vermont? Think Vermont can compete with states like Colorado? Should we even try?

Join the conversation using social media and the hashtag #todaysvermont, and thanks, as always, for reading.

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