The Price of a View in Vermont
I’m afraid I looked blank. I was a newcomer to Vermont, and to New England generally.
“That’s Mount Monadnock,” Dottie explained. Together, we silently contemplated the far-off eminence, I reflecting on its power to add value, Dottie (no doubt) figuring her commission. The next day, my wife and I bought the place, lock, stock, barrel — and Mount Monadnock.
It is one of the oddities of life in our state that for those in its lower-right-hand corner, Vermont’s best-loved piece of the landscape isn’t Vermont’s at all. Mount Monadnock (officially, Grand Monadnock) dwells in New Hampshire, about 30 miles east of my dooryard. Over there, they’re proud of their mountain. Of course they are. For its New Hampshire owners, Mount Monadnock is the geographical focal point of the whole southern half of the state. It’s also a tourist destination and a prime recreational resource. Monadnock, its promoters tell us, is, after Mount Fuji, the most visited, most hiked-over mountain in the world.
For Vermonters, the mountain’s value is comparable but harder to define. Its value is purely emotional. Monadnock may be in our neighbor’s domain, but it’s in our hearts.
Monadnock is a hard-rock cone with wooded flanks and a bald summit. At 3,165 feet, it’s by no means the tallest mountain in these parts; at least three nearby Vermont peaks — Stratton and Glastenbury mountains and Mount Snow — are considerably higher. Monadnock, however, is a solitary mountain, sitting quite by itself on the surrounding landscape. In its isolation, it draws and holds the eye from a distance as the higher mountains do not. They are grand. Monadnock is something better than grand: It is singular.
It’s also, somehow, benign. Over here, that lonely mountain, floating on the visible world’s farthest edge, is a calm, reassuring presence. It rests and restores the eye. As constant, as permanent, as it is, however, it’s also full of pleasing variation. On a clear fall morning, the mountain is a deep royal blue; in a summer haze, it’s pale gray; and on a white day in February, it’s almost no color at all, a distant, glittering palace of ice.
From our hillside, we could see the upper two-thirds of the mountain. Indifferent to that view as I had been, I soon learned to appreciate it. Monadnock was nearly the only thing about our new home that didn’t require large infusions of either labor or cash. The house, a Cape Cod-style farmhouse approaching its 200th birthday, was in a condition not critical but, say, akin to walking wounded. For a couple of years before our arrival, we were told, it had stood empty. We discovered that that was not at all the case. The house had indeed been lived in — by mice, snakes, wasps, bats, squirrels, and also by a larger furbearer that might have been a porcupine, might have been a raccoon.
We swept and scrubbed and painted, and, later and for years to come, we repaired, re-sided, re-silled, re-glazed, re-plastered. We confronted the dilemmas, the painful enigmas, of home improvement. Do you do it yourself, or do you do it right? How come the biggest, most expensive jobs are invariably the ones whose results are the least visible, the least to be enjoyed? How in the world did the builders of the early Federal period manage to produce houses with no right angles in them at all? We shimmed up, shored up, fixed up. We lived and we learned — and always with Monadnock presiding from afar over our education.
Well, time has passed, and after unremitting effort and appalling expense, we have brought matters on this place to a curious pass. We have about stood our little world on its head. The house, which was a ruin, is today quite habitable. The view of Monadnock, however, which was so splendid, is finally no more.
It couldn’t have been otherwise. Robert Frost, who in his lifetime made a fair bid to be the Mount Monadnock of American letters, wrote a famous poem that begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” He might have written, “Something there is that doesn’t love a view.”