Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"White River Junction: It's Not That Bad!"

So read the very modest town motto displayed on the municipal website. But what an understatement it was. In fact:

I am proud to announce that I am awarding the 2010, "Underrated Railroad Town of the Year" Award to White River Junction, population 2,059. Congratulations, Vermont, for this enviable achievement.

We took a bus* to the outskirts of the city, which is actually made up of five distinct hamlets that have all banded together for support and more interesting parties, and were immediately scooped up by their free municipal transit system, which dropped us off on Main Street, around the corner from the glorious monument to the railroad era that is the Hotel Coolidge. The huge brick structure was built in 1849, about ten steps from the railroad depot, and originally served as a railroad hotel. Now, it retains the stateliness of the bygone era, but with a multipurpose use and a healthy dose of loneliness and dreamy nostalgia**. The Coolidge is part hotel, part Hostelling International affiliated hostel, and part student housing for the nearby Center for Comic Studies***.

(Be Still My Beating Heart)

I really do not think that I can express passionately enough my love for this place, you really need to go there and experience it. The staff was extremely helpful and sweet, the kitchen and bathroom facilities were spotless and well-stocked****, the room was toasty, the beds soft, and the lights were controlled with dangling chains that you pull to turn them on and off, which were so much fun! There are beautiful portraits of trains on the walls, and the creaky wooden floors and long hallways give the whole place an ancient, mysterious feel that inspires one to go hunting for friendly but misunderstood ghosts of train conductors and loggers and barmaids.

We set out to exploring right away, with our first stop being Revolution, a boutique-cum-espresso bar that sells beautiful vintage things as well as the work of local designers. Continuing our snowy wandering, we came to a bright workshop full of the most beautiful fabrics and crafts and butterflies and fantastic creatures, and we were drawn toward it like moths to the flame. Inside we met an amazing matriarchal family led by Rubina, a super-feminist genius artist, who has been working for over a decade designing custom wedding dresses and constructing costumes for operas and ballets from Montreal to London. She told us her wedding dress philosophy, explaining why she refuses to design gowns that are white or strapless in a valiant attempt to work against the established wedding dress industry.

The family invited us to have dinner with them after we sifted through their labyrinth of period costumes, and then they made a call to the proprietor of the Main Street Museum, and he agreed to open his trove of curiosities to us for a private, late-night viewing. This is why it pays to get to know the locals. In the cavernous, dimly-lit space were exhibits of tiny shoes, embalmed cats, old dolls, and a horrifying, pig-like swamp creature in a glass case. There were also tributes to train hobos, examples of essentially every animal that one can stuff and mount on a wall, and a research area where visitors can select books from the proprietor's vast library***** and read and take notes on them at their leisure. The Main Street Museum is certainly, as they say, a "Must-See."

(Note the helpful equation at the top left)

Before racing to the southbound Vermonter the next morning we also had a chance to buy organic, grade B Vermont maple syrup at the tiny, adorable food co-op, and have gingerbread lattes at the trendy new cafe in town, the Tuckerbox Café.

(The co-op offers free fruit to kids, which is a great idea, but caused me to have an epic moral debacle regarding my questionable status as a child)

Before I can finish this post though, I just want to reiterate the glories of this place, rated one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America by Budget Travel, a legitimate travel publication.


*Yes, I know I swore I would not take any more buses this year, but the 1.5 hour drive through snowy forests with my dear friend was really quite cozy, as the three other passengers were all sleepy skiers and not strung out axe murderers as per usual.

**Which are to me like food and water to most other humans.

***The college is obviously an important, thriving part of the community, and comics and zines are proudly displayed in all of the local businesses in town.

****Towels, washcloths, shampoo, fabric detergent, or anyone? How about free hummus in the fridge and and blender and French press at your disposal? Don't mind if I do!

*****When I asked him how he had developed his impressive collection, he said that every book on public display had at one time been attributed with changing the life of either himself or someone he knew. Obviously this man is a genius.

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