Vermonting: Socially Conscious Art, Shopping and History in Brattleboro | Vermonting | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermonting: Socially Conscious Art, Shopping and History in Brattleboro

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Installation view of "552,830" by Steven Kinder - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Installation view of "552,830" by Steven Kinder

Brattleboro, situated at the nexus of the West and Connecticut rivers in southeastern Vermont, has a unique and dramatic topography. The downtown bears some resemblance to a ladder: a steep angle up Main Street with perpendicular streets forming flat rungs at different levels. And always, to the east, New Hampshire shoulders its way into view.

Hello, Vermonting

Even as Vermont gradually opens up from the pandemic shutdown, Gov. Phil Scott still encourages residents to stay home as much as possible. And so this summer is a good time to explore our home state. Its diminutive size makes a multitude of short trips accessible, whether for a few hours, an overnight or a longer getaway.

This series, running weekly through mid-October, presents curated excursions in every corner of Vermont, based on the experiences of Seven Days reporters. The idea is to patronize the state's restaurants, retailers, attractions and outdoor adventures — after all, we want them to still be there when the pandemic is finally over. Happy traveling, and stay safe.

At a height of some 1,000 feet, forest-covered Mount Wantastiquet looms over Brattleboro in the way that massive cruise ships temporarily dominate island ports. To a visitor from Burlington, accustomed to distant views across Lake Champlain, this permanent presence is almost unnerving — the geographical analogue of a stranger walking behind you.

According to tourist info, a short drive across the Connecticut River and a climb to the mountaintop afford an expansive aerial look at this Windham County town of about 12,000 souls. But my objectives for this overnight excursion were earthbound: looking at art, visiting friends and poking around the inviting cluster of downtown shops. After that, I would take a scenic route home, visiting a couple of historic sites and gawking at fall foliage along the way.

I arrived too early to check into my room at the venerable Latchis Hotel, whose pandemic-era concierge services run 3 to 10 p.m. So I parked in the hotel lot and walked a block to the Brattleboro Food Co-op for a snack, pausing to admire the seasonal display of weird squashes outside.

The 14,580-square-foot downtown anchor encourages one-way traffic in and out; its café is currently closed. I made my way to a picnic table behind the parking lot to consume my lunch of kale salad and pomegranate juice, wondering why I hadn't purchased something made of chocolate.

My next destination, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, lay just across a converging pair of streets, one of which doubles as Route 5. Pro tip: The town's bossy pedestrian signals must be obeyed.

One of my favorite art venues in the state, the BMAC is located in a rescued former train station. Two new exhibits opened there just as the coronavirus occasioned a monthslong shutdown. While some of the works can be seen online, I was glad the shows were extended through October 12 for in-person viewing.

In the museum's front gallery, Steven Kinder's large-scale portraits of unsheltered individuals hang suspended from the ceiling on canvases the size of bedsheets. The subjects are rendered in neutral hues, as if to denote their remove from more privileged society. But the strategic installation of Kinder's paintings requires viewers to look up to these humans. As a museum brochure states, "He simply asks us to see them." In turn, their direct gaze is aimed back at us.

The title of the exhibit, "552,830," refers to the number of Americans who experienced homelessness in 2018.

Alison Wright's color photographs, in an adjacent gallery, depict female laborers in developing countries around the world. "Grit and Grace, Women at Work" documents deprivation, but more importantly the resilience, ingenuity and strength of this global sisterhood. Both exhibits are powerful and affecting.

Having returned to the Latchis to check in, I was still contemplating injustice and privilege when Biff diverted me with a wet snout. The resident Weimaraner and apparent official greeter took two seconds to OK my entrance and then leaned against me, insisting on head pats. This lasted until the next person arrived. Biff is affectionate but easily distracted.

Political signs in a Brattleboro storefront - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Political signs in a Brattleboro storefront

I was given a "Mountain View" room, which sounds lovely. But it must be said that the mountain could only be viewed through dusty windows and was foregrounded by a pink Chinese massage establishment across the street. And, as I would discover in the nighttime, the soundtrack was of trucks lumbering down Route 5. Perhaps that's why my room was equipped with a turntable and Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, and Peter, Paul and Mary on vinyl?

I had researched food options in advance and considered takeout from T.J. Buckley's — alas, it was closed the night I was in town — or dining indoors at Duo Restaurant. Instead, my friends Tracy and John treated me to a pasta dinner and rosé at their home just up the street. (Conveniently, everything is "just up the street" in Brattleboro.)

Sheep tableau at a Brattleboro residence - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Sheep tableau at a Brattleboro residence

The next morning, I grabbed a superlative latte at Mocha Joe's and sat on the stoop of a still-closed boutique to caffeinate. I rang up Tracy, who met me at the Works Bakery Café so we could carb up on breakfast sandwiches. Then she led me on a long, often steep walk around town, past a cavorting-sheep yard display and residents decorating their homes for Halloween, out to the Harris Hill Ski Jump and back again.

Wait, a ski jump in Brattleboro? Who knew? Well, the athletes and spectators who've shown up for annual jumping competitions for nearly a century knew, to name thousands.

Local institutions that I did know about include the famous Brattleboro Retreat — a psychiatric and addiction hospital — the New England Center for Circus Arts, the Estey Organ Museum, the Vermont Center for Photography and the newish arts center in a former church, Epsilon Spires. The first I hope never to enter; the others I'll catch next visit.

Harris Hill Ski Jump - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Harris Hill Ski Jump

Instead, I indulged in a bit of shopping. I've always been overwhelmed by the massive collection of gear at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters, though one item has tempted me — a cunning, life-size molded raccoon that is technically a decoy. This time, I zeroed in on a New Hampshire/Vermont gazetteer, to help me navigate future rambles, and a thermal shoulder bag for future picnics.

Since the stacks of unread books in my house — many purchased during the shutdown — are approaching hoarder levels, I avoided the temptation of Brattleboro's bookstores. I cannot say the same of Penelope Wurr. Named after its charismatic and chatty owner, this small shop is pleasantly crammed with glass and ceramic works, textiles, clothing, cards, gift wrap, jewelry, and more. A selection of imported specialty foods indicates Wurr's British heritage, as does her accent.

Penelope Wurr - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Penelope Wurr

Like many other people stuck at home since mid-March, I've done my share of paring down and donating stuff to charities. But I'm bored with my furniture. So I bought a couple of colorful pillows to pep up the living room, along with a jaunty on-sale hat for a friend.

It was time for my acquisitions and me to hit the road. I'd zipped down interstates 89 and 91 to Brattleboro, but for the return I chose pokier routes: 5 to 30 to 100. I sought out Rudyard Kipling's former home, Naulakha, in nearby Dummerston, but the property was gated.

Poster of president Calvin Coolidge - PAMELA POLSTON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Pamela Polston ©️ Seven Days
  • Poster of president Calvin Coolidge

Farther north, in Plymouth Notch, the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site was open, mostly. While the pandemic has closed some of the buildings on the grounds, the museum and a video about America's 30th president are more than worth the price of admission ($8). It was here, at his boyhood home, that vice president Coolidge learned of the death of president Warren Harding. Col. John Coolidge, a notary public, administered the presidential oath of office to his son.

The homestead lives on, preserved in the amber of 1923 by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. I departed with visions of "Silent Cal" in a milieu of flirty flappers and nascent American jazz.

Dozens of miles and zillions of pretty leaves later, I crossed over the Lincoln Gap to Route 116. Moments afterward, in Bristol, a police officer clocked me going 41 in a 30 mph zone. (This would take $110 from my bank account and two points from my driver's license. Gah.)

I had to stop at Lantman's Market in Hinesburg for consolation: Molasses cookies and apple cider almost did the trick.

In the area:

The original print version of this article was headlined "Mountain Hi | Socially conscious art, shopping and history in Brattleboro"

Vermont Vacation logoFind more information on Vermont day trips and adventures from the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing at vermontvacation.com/staytripper.