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Autumn idyll

A visit to Rockwell's Arlington hometown provides backdrop for total Vermont experience

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Diane E. Foulds
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2003

There are pleasures, and then there are small-town pleasures. The stillness of the evenings, the friendly banter, the accessibility. Everything seems fresher and more authentic, be it acoustic, culinary, or visual. It was the latter that lured me to Arlington, Vt.

Driving through one day in August, I sensed an old-fashioned serenity about the place, a classical beauty in the white-columned homes, rosy hydrangea, and mountain backdrops. Here was a place worth more than an afternoon stopover; it called out for an extended stay, complete with leisurely dinners, late breakfasts, and long stretches of random exploration.

Autumn was the time to go. When a friend and I finally made it there in September, swaying branches of crimson foliage stretched over the roads. Vegetable stands bulged with apples, and the air was brisk and clear, with an occasional scent of wood smoke.

We had a lazy lunch at the South Side Cafe and set out to explore. To start with, there are two covered bridges. The Chiselville, a one-lane antique, straddling the Battenkill River a few miles east. "One Dollar Fine," its sign proclaims, "for driving faster than a walk." Bowing to local tradition, we held our breath and made a wish while driving through, then doubled back. In town again, we followed Route 313 west for 5 miles and spotted the other.

This one opened onto an idyllic green, framed by a white chapel and two Colonial houses, one a bed-and-breakfast. It was an image of perfection, like a scene from a painting. We paused to read a sign on the mailbox, and suddenly it all made sense. This white clapboard home had been Norman Rockwell's Vermont paradise from 1943 to 1953, arguably the most prolific period of his life. His secluded red studio is still out back, recognizable by the 10-foot window where he painted.

We studied the surroundings, imagining what might have inspired him. To the east, horses grazed their way up a hillside meadow, tails swishing. Canadian geese roosted among them in the grass. Maples and birches stood out amid the colorful foliage, and white fences undulated into fields.

This was River Road, the wandering dirt lane that Rockwell adored. We followed it eastward along the Battenkill, past his first house with the studio that he lost in a fire. It twisted past an ever-changing landscape of wildflowers, fields, scarecrows, and woods.

Eventually it led back to town, so we parked and wandered on foot up Main Street.

Opposite the bleached stones of the town cemetery was the Arlington Inn, an elegant cream-colored manse. It was here that Rockwell stayed while his home was being readied. An architectural indulgence, it was built in 1848 by railroad baron Martin Chester Deming. In those days, the house opposite was the local tavern (today it is the Deming House Bed & Breakfast).

The more modest abode on the corner, dating from 1764, was the residence of Thomas Chittenden, Vermont's first governor. Though hard to believe, judging from its present tranquility, there was a time when Arlington was a revolutionary hotbed. It was Vermont's first capital, though that honor passed to Montpelier in 1805. But history still resonates here. Author Dorothy Canfield Fisher spent her summers in an old brick home on Main Street. She hosted dinners for Rockwell and invited Robert Frost, who stayed there as her guest while house hunting (his Shaftsbury home, about 5 miles south on Route 7A, is now a museum).

All three of them thrived. Rockwell's work is on display just down the street at the Arlington Gallery. The Arlington of Rockwell's time is no longer, of course. Modern homes have crept onto the village's secondary streets, and the population is older. The ornate train station sits virtually abandoned, with "keep out" signs tacked to its walls.

But the landscape is the same. On the day we arrived, Mount Equinox towered over the village, a shock of royal blue washed with indigo. To see it up close, we drove north to Skyline Drive, a 5.2-mile climb that dead-ends at Lookout Rock, its 3,848-foot summit.

From up there, the mountain peaks flatten into ever-paler layers of blue. Below us, the valleys spread out like a carpet, lending credibility to what they say about Vermont being 80 percent forested. Views this stunning invite contemplation, so it makes sense that the 7,000 acres belong to the Carthusians, a meditative order of Roman Catholic monks. Their secluded compound, looking every bit like a walled fortress, can be sighted from the "Monastery Overlook" sign halfway up. The monks got Mount Equinox as a gift from Joseph Davidson, a former vice president of Union Carbide who, lacking heirs, figured the Carthusians would preserve its natural beauty.

And they have. We lingered, watching the shadows of clouds move across the mountains, and I pondered how to articulate Arlington's appeal. Later I discovered that Dorothy Canfield Fisher already had.

"Can any words bring home to a reader in New Orleans or Singapore the tang of an upland October morning, the taste of a drink from a cold mountain spring?" she wrote.

''To those of us who live here, it is as familiar and life-giving as air or water."

Diane E. Foulds is a freelance writer who lives in Burlington, Vt.

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