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Foliage in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom

Foliage in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom
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The Northeast Kingdom is a world apart, crowned by color-filled autumn vistas, historic byways, and secluded mountain lakes.

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.

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