As you know from previous posts on this blog, we have a house in a small bump-in-the-road village in Vermont. Actually, there is not even a bump. We tried to get a stop sign, so that logging trucks coming down the mountain would have to at least slow down as they go through the village, but the State Department of Transportation gave us a painted crosswalk instead, which soon was erased by traffic in the summer and snowplows in the winter.
The purpose of this blog entry is to explain to the many people from East Coast city environments who want to move to Vermont what “safe” actually means.
Safe because it’s poor, and thinly populated for the same reason
No doubt, Vermont has few COVID 19 cases. This message from the local hospital 9 miles away in Townshend explains the situation:
So even with the spikes in Londonderry and up on Stratton Mountain, it’s pretty safe. But why? Why is Vermont “safe”? Because this little hospital has great equipment, plenty of ventilators, high-tech doctors, etc? No. (It happens to be the smallest hospital in the United Sates.) Because Vermont has Medicare-for-All? (Not yet. It passed– Act 48 — but the Governor who had signed it, did not fund it.) Vermont is safe because it is poor and thinly populated, and those two are related.
Yes, it is beautiful, as the tourist industry has made sure everyone knows. Summer people love the clean rivers and cool nights. Ski people love the mountains and the snow. In between, people who live there all year round try to make a living off “outsiders” who bring in money. In the meantime, Vermonters do a lot of bartering and helping each other out. Food banks are important. Second hand shops are all over. Please note that the Grace Cottage Hospital link above not only talks reassuringly about the current case situation but also promotes an online auction to raise money. Last year they raised enough money to buy another hospital bed. So the people fleeing the pandemic in New York where nearly 23,000 people have died are coming to a place where the regional hospital holds an auction (of old furniture,mostly — “antiques”) to buy one hospital bed. Think about it.
“Hard to get to” is why it’s so great once you’re there
Our kids always stress out a lot when we try to get them to come to the old family home with its barn, sunny deck, large mowed yard, apple trees, well water, sumptuous fresh vegetables, dirt roads to bike on, quiet lakes, clean rivers, waterfalls, swimming holes with nobody in sight, etc etc. Why do they stress? Because, best case scenario, it is hard to get to. From the Bay Area if you fly Southwest you have to change in Chicago or St. Louis. Because of the time change you have to leave at 4 in the morning or earlier, and BART doesn’t run that early so you have to take a Lyft or a cab which basically adds another $60 to the price of your ticket. Then you sugar up on muffins and coffee at the airport and sit in a cramper and eat those awful pretzels for 5 hours while you pass over some of the most depressing wild deserts imaginable and think about climate change. Then comes Midway, if you’re lucky, because there’s a place at Midway to buy Greek food, but that’s followed by arriving late afternoon at Hartford followed by paying at least $100 to a friend from the village to come pick you up and drive you north another 2 or 3 hours.
That’s right, someone has to pick you up because there are no buses into Vermont from the airport. The only way to get even near by bus is if you fly into Boston on a red-eye and rush to get a once-a-day bus, and that will take you to Keene, New Hampshire and then you’re still nowhere near. Train? You can take a train to Chicago from Berkeley and get a sleeper, which is great, but once you’re in Chicago the train to Boston is grungy, takes surprisingly long, and you’ve still got to find someone to pick you up at the stop at Windsor Falls, near Hartford.
In other words, even Southern Vermont, which is the more civilized part of Vermont, is hard to get to unless you are driving yourself. Going up further north? The Northeast Kingdom might as well be Canada. Getting from our home to Burlington, which isn’t all the way north, takes about 6 hours, the first hour and a half involves going over Putney Mountain, harpin curves and sometimes pulling off the road to let someone else go by the other direction.
But the main question is, what about Internet?
So people from New York and up and down the East Coast, who can drive to Vermont on their own in just a few hours, are thinking, “Fresh air and cheap real estate? Hardly any cases of COVID-19?We work at home anyway, so why not? Let’s just move to Vermont!”
And then they ask about internet. Can they reliably get on zoom and carry out their stock brokering, their retail, their medical practice, their therapy or yoga practice, their international conferencing, etc. just like they could at home in New Jersey??
Along with being wild, full of fresh air, clean rivers, etc., Vermont also does not have a whole lot of people living there year-round. Nor do the people who live there year round use the internet a whole lot. There is talk about the “last mile” projects — getting services out to people who are living in remote farms on dirt roads that see traffic once a week, where the RR Postal Service leaves the mail in a box two or three miles from the house. (Should point out that austerity cuts to the PO have reduced even that service; the PO in our town is now open only very weird hours — like 9 am to 10:30 and then closed for two hours and opening again after lunch, which makes is hard for the postal clerk to plan her day.) “Last mile” service sounds good but the Consolidated Communications is a private business and the cost of ‘last mile” way exceeds the $30 a month or so that someone would be willing to pay for what basically means using Facebook as an email service. Towns, for example, don’t normally have websites. They may have a Facebook page. Some towns get grants from a foundation to have town meetings videoed.
I am getting questions from potential renters about how responsive is Consolidated Communications if you have a problem. ConComm, which is based in Mattoon, Illinois, took over Fairpoint a couple of years ago. CC does actually have customer service people staffing the phones in Vermont, which is great. But they are now being hit by people who suddenly want to move to Vermont and work on line and want hundreds of MBPS bandwidth. This is a shock. CC did not read the news coming out of Wuhan in February and think, “Wow, now everyone in New York is going to want to move to Vermont so we’ve got to staff up.” Yes, fiberoptic was supposedly installed (strung?) along Route 30 a few years ago. This did make a difference for us, at least in certain rooms of the house. I could suddenly use WhatsApp. But despite many books with whole chapters about pandemics and magazine articles about the relationship of climate change to disease vectors, nobody said, “Sheltering in place means working from home means decreased need for proximity to job locations which means moving somewhere safe and cheap which equals VERMONT! which means increased need for internet in Vermont!”
When I started getting VRBO inquiries back in May I called CC to get my internet service upgraded and the earliest date possible was mid-July. A month and a half waiting list. Turns out there is only a total amount of bandwidth available in our part of Vermont. The customer service rep explains it this way: “It’s like a parking lot. When it’s full and there are no more spaces, no one can come in. You have to wait until someone comes out. And no one is coming out these days.”
What about other problems that can happen?
Of course, internet depends on electricity just like our bodies depend on water, and anything involving electricity depends on wires coming from a power station. That means not only your clocks, your lights, and your internet but your well, too. It is likely that there will be a big storm. That’s how water gets here in the summer and snow gets here in the winter. Climate change is bringing bigger and bigger storms, we know that — our village lost four houses right in the village during the Hurricane Irene flood. So in a big storm, think about this. Route 30 sounds like a big highway, right? It’s a two-lane asphalt road overhung with old maples. In a big storm, it’s highly likely that somewhere between Brattleboro and Manchester, the two big towns about 60 miles apart, a tree will fall on the road and take down the telephone poles that carry the wires that bring electricity and other “services” to the village. No, we do not have undergrounded utilities. This is not a nice leafy suburb. Maybe a few years from now, when the property taxes rise to match the new prices that New Yorkers are paying (and they start paying Vermont state income taxes, too), we’ll do some more undergrounding so that the electricity doesn’t go out every times there’s a storm. But for now, a typical windstorm will rip out some ancient maple and smack it down across the road and if you’re lucky, it will not hit your car.
So who responds when a tree falls and the electricity (and your internet) goes out? Eventually, a sheriff will show up with a blinking blue light. After a while, the power company will send a truck and some guys with yellow vests to try to pull the pole back up and string up the wires. They may have to come from New Hampshire or even Massachusetts. Some of their crews are probably busy already elsewhere. They are very competent but they don’t hurry. And they have to come over a mountain which may not be in good shape itself, with more fallen trees.
But the first people on the scene are going to be nearby farmers with tractors and chain saws to get rid of the tree and haul away the logs. Or they might be the next person who comes along, who will probably be (if it’s not some software engineer from New York who is frantically pumping his phone to fin out what’s going on) a local who will have at least an ax in the back of his pickup, and probably a chain to haul things with. These guys all know each other and have done this many times before. But they are not official, they are not tax-funded, and you can’t get mad at them. They are what’s “responsive” in Vermont.
Oh, about cell service
While you’re waiting in your car for these guys (maybe women, too, actually) to clear the road, you may find that you’re in a place between towns (or in some towns, actually ) where there is no cell service so you can’t get on your phone and complain about what’s going on to someone who lives in a less benighted part of the country where they may die of COVID-19 but at least they have cell service. Townshend, for example, does not have cell service, last time I looked. and in our town the only cell service is through Verizon because Verizon rents out the church steeple for a cell tower. That’s a substantial part of the church budget right there.
By the way, “responsive” during Hurricane Irene meant that a couple of guys from the village got into their excavators and basically tore apart the flooded river and built a new road with the water running all over them. There were people stranded on the wrong side of the river during that storm. They appreciated the responsiveness.
Don’t misunderstand me
I am not trying to get people to not come to Vermont. We need the rent money. The town needs the income from people buying pine cone Christmas wreaths, maple syrup, cheese and patchwork aprons. They also need to have all these old farmhouses and village homes that have been on the market for years without selling, to get them sold and fixed up and lived in so that the village can start collecting the property taxes and business license taxes. Maybe someone will buy that old B&B and fix it up! The old fire station that’s been sitting empty for 20 years — wouldn’t that make a great house! Maybe with more money coming in, the village will be able to afford a town municipal water system! That’s right — the village is running on septic tanks; that’s why there aren’t any restaurants right on the main street. No restrooms, no restaurant.
But people who come to Vermont thinking that they are basically moving to a nicer part of their home city, with all the conveniences of a city without the density that means that you’re exposed to COVID — big hospitals, plenty of beds, shopping, internet, a power grid with backups, post offices open all day, actual police officers, a choice of gas stations and shops, etc etc — if we had that, we wouldn’t be someplace you’d want to come.
Black Lives Matter come to Vermont, too
Vermont and Iowa are the two whitest states in the union. (Our significant Abenaki population looks white to people like me; so does our Quebecois population which was not considered white back in the day). Nonetheless, Black Lives Matter has made it to Vermont. Note the reason given in this report from the Digger for not allowing a Black Lives Matter message to be written in chalk on the Route 30 bridge: “We’ve got people in this town who spend a lot of time and energy trying to beautify the town, and trying to keep it looking like a small Vermont town,”
So one of the features of a small Vermont town is no recognition of racism; racism, like good internet, being a feature of cities.