EDITORIAL: Vermont and Back Again

by Mike Dunphy

In one significant way, I owe my existence to Montpelier. It was during the construction of the Wrightsville Dam in 1934 that my grandfather—the staff physician for the workers—met my grandmother, who grew up in Montpelier (class of 1933), at a dance. Clearly his mojo was flowing that evening, and the rest, as they say, is history.

My own journey to Montpelier—and The Bridge—was far more circuitous, having moved here directly from Prague (the first person ever to do so?) and before that, decades of travel that began with a year-long study-abroad program through UVM at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.  For a boy who grew up in Vermont, the history, architecture, and cosmopolitan culture (not to mention the accent) of the United Kingdom were undeniably intoxicating, but really it was the complete removal of baggage—emotional, social, spiritual, familial, scholastic—that came from arriving in a place where no one knew me is what hooked me proper to travel. In Canterbury, my proverbial slate was wiped totally clean, and I was free to write any story I wished upon it.

This made the pitch by the Peace Corps representative, who visited my final English class at UVM, all the more attractive—that, and the realization that with graduation and the real world looming, I didn’t really know how to do anything, nor did I see any job adverts asking for employees skilled at feminist, Marxist criticism. Thankfully, my application was successful, and by late 1998, I found myself teaching English at a small school in Kilingi-Nõmme, Estonia—population 2,000.

With Eastern Europe now open to me, I traveled extensively through the former Iron Curtain, eventually discovering Prague, where cupid’s arrow struck me dead center, so much so that I moved there almost immediately, ringing in the new millennium in Old Town Square. Prague also taught me that with a certificate in teaching English as a second language, I essentially had a free ticket to anywhere in the world. I made ample use of it, moving back and forth between the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovenia, and Boston for several years before eventually landing in Istanbul, Turkey, where I taught for four years.

In the twist of all twists, the newly arriving editor of the Istanbul edition of Time Out magazine was a classmate of mine from Rice High School in South Burlington, and he invited me to submit articles to the magazine. I did, and a new career was born, returning me to Boston yet again, where I earned a master’s degree in publishing and writing at Emerson College. From there, I moved to New York City and spent the next four years in journalist boot camp with all the starving-artist fixings.

When my landlady decided to sell my apartment, I had a decision to make: relocate into yet another vermin-infested closet of NYC squalor, move into my parents’ basement in Vermont, or accept a free ticket to Europe and spend the summer in my friend’s empty house in the south of France. It was not a hard decision, and with a job only dependent on Wi-Fi, led to another two-year stint that once more landed me in Prague for a year.

In all of these travels, however, Vermont never left my mind, and over the years, the tiny, boring, rural, and inconsequential state of my youth gradually transformed into a shining beacon of civilization and community, especially in comparison with the many troubled areas of the world I experienced firsthand.

Sure, the little golden dome of Montpelier may pale in grandeur next to the towers of Prague Castle, the minarets of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or the Emerald Buddha of Bangkok, but Vermont’s capital offers substance and sustenance and in ways the others no longer could.

First, Montpelier is community. After years of anonymity and insignificance among metropoles of millions, it’s endlessly gratifying to receive nods of salutation from nearly every person walking past me on the street, whether they know me or not (probably not). Part of what makes that possible is the small town stroll, a challenge for my feet, after so much practice with the Manhattan bullet.

Montpelier is nature, and so much easier on the shins than the jabs of concrete that go for miles in mega cities. It means recapturing a sense of smell, hitherto closed off by concentrations of urban and industrial stink. It means wishing upon stars again, as they are once more visible. Sure, Vermont nature brings cold that burns the ears and nose, but it’s much better than the drought, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and wild fires so common elsewhere. At least with a nor’easter, you know when it’s coming.

Montpelier is space; I can stick my arms out, walk down a street, and not mow down 50 people. Montpelier is quietude, with birds or breezes to wake me up in the morning instead of screeching subways, screaming sirens, and drunken cursing. Montpelier is breath, inhaled more fully and consciously than the just-enough quick gasps of air that keep alive 24-hour digital culture.       

More than anything, Montpelier is home. Without home, life eventually feels like the ring of power on Bilbo Baggins—“thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The glories of travel are indeed many, but taken to excess, they sour and eventually deposit you all alone in a small apartment in Prague, with no mail in the mailbox, no calls on the phone, no pictures on the wall, no fire in the hearth, and no love in the heart.

Montpelier, I am grateful to you for welcoming me back to the family, and I aim to return the same care and attention you gave my grandparents. Fortunately, as managing editor of The Bridge, I am in a position to do just that by supporting and furthering the paper’s mission to publish free, independent, and local journalism of the highest quality.

My door is always open.

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