Daybreak on Bronwington’s Prospect Hill reveals red and bronze leaves and still-green field aglow in the warm autumn sunlight.Photo Credit : Hendrickson, Corey
The observatory stands at the crest of a broad, pillowy meadow in the village of Brownington, in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. No, it isn’t that sort of observatory–not a concrete dome with a telescope aimed at the stars. It’s a platform at the top of a flight of wooden stairs, and instead of a view of the heavens, it offers simply a heavenly view.
Look to the north, if you’re not too distracted in the near and middle distances by the autumn colors sneaking across the border from Canada a little bit earlier here. That’s the southern tip of Lake Memphremagog, with the hills of Quebec beyond. Off to the southeast stand the twin pillars of Mount Pisgah and Mount Hor, hemming in the deep glacial gouge of Lake Willoughby. In every other direction, the rumpled terrain of Vermont’s loneliest and loveliest corner sprawls to the horizon.
At the foot of Prospect Hill (whoever named this gently sloping meadow gave it a promotion) stand the ten or so structures, dating from the early years of the 19th century, that amount to almost all there is of Brownington Village. There’s the classic white Congregational church, with its ancient and somnolent graveyard; the Samuel Read Hall House, with its chaste, foursquare Federal-style architecture … and a four-story granite structure as adamantine as any monolith left by receding glaciers: the Old Stone House, built Lord-knows-how in the 1830s by the Rev. Alexander Twilight, America’s first black college graduate, as the dormitory for his Orleans County Grammar School.
To imagine why a village of this size and sleepiness needed such a building, you must climb the observatory stairs again and look down through time as well as distance. Brownington was once a bustling town–a way station on the stage route between Boston and Montreal–and not today’s Yankee Brigadoon. The Old Stone House is now a museum and headquarters of the Orleans County Historical Society, but in a very real sense the village itself is the museum; seven of the ten buildings you see are the Society’s property. It’s the conserved attic of the Northeast Kingdom, and its rooftop is that little wooden observatory, with its transcendent vista over all creation.
Whenever my wife, Kay, and I want to visit Vermont as if we didn’t already live here, we head for the Northeast Kingdom. In a state where landscape and character alike so often seem to have been matted, framed, and hung on the wall for all to admire, the Kingdom just is. It’s a name that fits a world apart, and it comes with a story of its origins. Local newspapermen used it in the early 1940s, but it was Vermont’s legendary Senator George Aiken who first gave “Northeast Kingdom” widespread currency.
As for the region’s true boundaries, who wants to split hairs? Some offer a neat delineation, drawing a line around the three counties of Orleans, Caledonia, and Essex, but the eastern reaches of Franklin and Lamoille counties ought to be tossed in as well. The Northeast Kingdom begins where most people would sooner do their big-ticket shopping in Newport or St. Johnsbury than in Burlington. It is the Vermonter’s Vermont.
Never mind the county borders. The Northeast Kingdom truly begins where you find people like Keith and Lori Sampietro, who found the hilltop of their dreams just outside Montgomery Center and made a home for themselves and 19 Alaskan husky sled dogs there, creating a guide service called Montgomery Adventures.
Even up here, though, winter doesn’t last all year, so the Sampietros have found a way to turn the huskies’ work-is-play attitude to the advantage of autumn travelers in the Kingdom. Keith, who seems like a man who could knit you a stove if you gave him steel wool, fashioned a sled on wheels out of an engineless two-seater go-kart and now offers rides along the nearby Missisquoi Valley Rail Trail and, occasionally, the back roads that lace his hilltop. We watched one day as he hitched 10 of his eager, yelping dogs to the sled, and then we took off for a surprisingly fast ride through the outback.
We’d have loved to enlist the dogs for a run east from Montgomery to Lowell, along Route 58, the Bayley-Hazen Road. Ascending from Montgomery Center to the narrow defile of Hazen’s Notch (in Westfield, near the Lowell border), it’s a remnant of a military road built during the Revolution for a second invasion of Canada that never came off. Today it serves as a back door leading deep into the Kingdom. It’s a door that slams shut when snow flies, as no plow ventures through the Notch, and it’s best traveled during those early weeks of autumn when it tunnels beneath a canopy of color.
Take Route 58 past Lowell, with its brave little bandstand on a vest-pocket common, across the fields of a lofty plateau, and into Irasburg, where the common is bigger than the village around it. Just across I-91–one of the least-traveled sections of America’s Interstate network–head northeast out of Orleans to reach that observatory-crowned meadow in Brownington. When we scan those vistas, the magnetic draw is always toward those sugarloaf peaks, Pisgah and Hor, to the southeast, flanking the far end of Lake Willoughby in Westmore. Even though you can’t see the lake from Prospect Hill–even if you didn’t know there was a lake between those mountains–you’d somehow know that they had to be guarding a secret special place.
The narrow, five-mile-long lake is just that. Once promoted as “the Lucerne of America,” Willoughby long ago did boast excursion steamers and lakeside hotels, but that stab at Swissness faltered in favor of the old Northeast Kingdom character of this landlocked fjord. There’s a beautiful desolateness about Lake Willoughby on a bright early-fall day–after the summer camps along the eastern shore have closed, after the anglers have mostly finished with their pursuit of the big lake trout and salmon that swim its 300-foot depths–fall, when the water is piercingly blue and nearly boatless. Yet it’s still early enough in the year to take out one of the WilloughVale Inn’s kayaks and work up an appetite with a mile-long paddle from the northeast shore toward the big bend in the lake, where Pisgah and Hor loom into view. If we want a heftier appetite, we’ll take on Pisgah itself, via either the North or South Trail leading from Route 5A along the lake–although the gentler South Shore Trail to the base of Mount Hor will usually do just fine.
The Kingdom’s most distinctive trails, though, aren’t about hiking. East Burke, 10 miles south of Lake Willoughby, is the mountain-biking capital of New England. It’s the headquarters of Kingdom Trails, a 100-mile-plus network of old cart and logging roads, meandering country byways, and single-track roller-coaster rides for cyclists. A good number of the trails are on and around Burke Mountain, the peak that dominates this corner of Vermont, well removed from the state’s main cordillera, the Green Mountains farther to the west.
The map of this segment–which also incorporates the ski area that has trained many a U.S. Olympian–is littered with ominous black diamonds. As in skiing, black diamonds are the indicators that say, “Stay away if you don’t really know what you’re doing,” and here there’s even a trail marked by a triple black diamond. Since we weren’t going near the thing, we could afford to laugh at a caveat that read, in part, “… cliffs, drops, and obstacles. Full body armor and helmet with face mask required.”
Yes, well, maybe some other time, when our body armor is out of the shop. For now, we were pleased when Tim Tierney, Kingdom Trails’ executive director, told us that a six- or seven-mile network of relatively easy trails would take us from the village to a viewpoint called Heaven’s Bench, and that East Burke Sports, right across the street, rented bikes and helmets. And Heaven’s Bench? There was a bench, and the view was almost a rival to Brownington’s Prospect Hill: mountains and meadows and lavish lacings of color.
There’s a cliché about the Northeast Kingdom that says that it’s rough, rugged, remote–hardscrabble, even. There are places up here where all of those things hold true. But when you take a slow drive down Darling Hill Road from East Burke, as we did one late afternoon, the sense is of trundling through a very mannered shire indeed.
A century ago, much of this countryside was the property of Elmer A. Darling, a New York hotelier whose Vermont cows put butter on his city guests’ tables, and this stretch still seems a squire’s domain. The Inn at Mountain View Farm incorporates Darling’s one-time creamery; farther south, in Lyndonville, the Stepping Stone Spa offers a menu of massages and even something called a “Vermont Maple Sugar Body Polish”–the perfect finish, no doubt, to one of those days when it feels as though life has put you through a waffle iron.
On meadows behind the spa, Belted Galloway cattle graze beneath the shadow of the ethereally beautiful Chapel of the Holy Family. It was privately built yet is open to all, and on an afternoon when we were the only visitors, hidden speakers filled this small yet soaring space with Gregorian chant. It was as if we’d taken a back road into the Middle Ages, into a kingdom that lay not to the northeast but to a point entirely off the compass.
If our most recent autumn exploration of the Kingdom began with dog-traveled dirt roads in the hills above Montgomery, it ended in a rutted track sloping down to the Connecticut River in the hamlet of Lower Waterford. Overhead, light filtered through the dappled leaves as if through stained glass.
We tarried at the river’s edge, with New Hampshire barely a stone’s skip across the water, then strolled back up to where the great white columns of the Rabbit Hill Inn, our night’s lodging, stood just ahead. This sumptuous property, where travelers have been sheltered since 1795, is a place that belies any rough-edged image that might still stick to the Northeast Kingdom.
But we know better than to think about the Kingdom in terms of its image. It’s just the place where we go, when, as Vermonters, we want to see Vermont.