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Backstory: Most Intriguing Drive-By

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Published December 29, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 29, 2021 at 2:17 p.m.


South end of Lake Willoughby - PAULA ROUTLY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Paula Routly ©️ Seven Days
  • South end of Lake Willoughby

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.


I love reporting and writing stories but don't do it very often these days; running this newspaper is more than a full-time job. Whenever I do get out, though, I talk to people, learn things and almost always return with a long list of potential story ideas to pursue. Although they're hard to swing, these forays always make me happy. That's why our special publications manager, Carolyn Fox, suggested that I take a plum assignment for the July edition of Staytripper: exploring the Northeast Kingdom area around Lake Willoughby and writing about it. Better yet, my research would involve staying overnight. It was the closest I got over the summer to a real vacation.

I wanted a friend to join me, and my longtime pal Lauren-Glenn Davitian was game. Well suited, too. A skilled interviewer who runs Burlington's CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, she's even more extroverted than I am. Who makes the giant muffins at the Willoughby Lake Store? You can bet Lauren-Glenn and I will find out. In our shared view, questions are for asking, and no one is too shy to chat up.

But we were surprised to find so many Amish people, who in recent years have been buying land and settling near Willoughby. Driving east on Route 58 — L-G behind the wheel; me, taking notes — we carefully passed a horse and buggy. Later, checking into the WilloughVale Inn and Cottages, we noticed a flyer advertising a benefit dinner to raise money for a local Amish family whose child was born with a life-threatening heart defect. Proceeds from these monthly community gatherings through the end of the summer would help pay for the surgery required to fix it.

I made a mental note.

On the way home, we turned off the main road in Brownington in search of Amish farms and farmstands and found one pretty easily. A man stood in the drive, but he did not approach when we pulled over. Adhering to tradition — an Amish man should not speak to "English" females — he gestured to the house, and a young barefoot woman came out to help us. We admired her pickles and noted that her old-fashioned frock was held together with straight pins. She was reluctant to talk at first but quickly warmed up. She told us she came to Vermont to be a second wife — her new husband's first wife had died. Another Amish family was building a house across the road. We looked over and saw shoeless men in button-down shirts wielding axes.

Laden with fresh berries and jam, we left even more intrigued. What drew the Amish to Vermont? How did they get along with their neighbors? Under what conditions would they accept medical treatment?

The plan was to convince another Seven Days reporter to find out.

We came close. Chelsea Edgar found the same farmstand on a trip to Burke. But the coronavirus and a number of other obstacles kept us from attending any of the three dinners. I really wanted Seven Days to do an in-depth story on the Christian group, and that urge — to be first — is a big part of what drives us journalists. I think I yelled out loud when I heard a teaser on Vermont Public Radio for a "Brave Little State" episode entitled "How's Vermont's Amish Community Doing?" I had been looking forward to answering that question.

Instead, all I got was an Amish icon at the bottom of the geographically correct watercolor map that Lauren-Glenn created to document our trip. We used her amazing art to illustrate my piece on Willoughby, which, like every story, was, in the end, incomplete.