Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Latest from Middlebury

The big news in town was last Tuesday’s train derailment . A single track runs directly through the center of town, and, most days, a pair of freight trains run up to Burlington. The one cargo they always carry is gasoline -- this one was carrying 200,000 gallons, plus a few cars full of road salt. The train derailed and a small fire broke out. Things were a bit troubling, to say the least. Yvonne was working in the pottery studio at Frog Hollow at the time. She and everyone else within the center of town were told to evacuate. All traffic was rerouted around town. Things were a mess! Fortunately for us our apartment building was beyond the evacuation zone. Folks who live in the center of town ended up quartered at the VFW hall for the night.

Fortunately the HazMat team response was outstanding. Some gasoline spilled onto the ground and thence into Otter Creek, but most of it was contained. And most fortunately, none of the petrol caught fire. A specialized HazMat team from Pennsylvania arrived on Wednesday to help drain the gasoline and set the cars back on the rails. It wasn’t until Thursday that traffic was back to near normal conditions. The last of the street closings ended yesterday, though you can still smell gasoline as you walk through town.

In other news, we met the fellow who played Officer Friendly on the Mr. Rogers Show. He is Francois Clemmons and is on staff here at Middlebury College . We met him at church a few weeks ago! All this and celebrities too!

Next week we’re going back out to the Finger Lakes to look over some more properties. We have half a dozen places to review, and we’re going to reexamine three that we’ve seen before. It feels like things are beginning to come into focus for us. Here’s hoping! It will be great to have all our things in one place again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Otter Creek Falls

For my boating buddies, here's a shot of the falls mentioned in the previous post. I estimate the drop at 20', but it might well be closer to 25'. The line folks run is far river right. The whole creek is pretty shallow, so I think a creek boat is absolutely required to avoid penciling in too deeply. The good news is that there are no issues setting up for the drop -- the water above is pretty slack; no hairy ferries or other complications, apart from needing to nail that boof stroke on the lip.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Search for Land

As you might guess we’ve been pretty actively engaged in searching for suitable land and a home. Our business plan calls for purchasing a small place outright, so our “unfair advantage” (in the parlance of Joel Salatin) will be that we don’t have to pay a mortgage. That will take a good deal of the pressure off, particularly the first year of operations. But at the same time we’d like a place that is immediately livable, even if it eventually requires some measure of work.

We’ve looked at about a dozen properties here in Vermont. And while we’ve found places that would work, they often include too much upfront work -- either the house needs extensive reconstruction or the land needs to be cleared, or the soil maps report the place is mostly rock and we’d be looking at raised beds (and much $$). We’re casting a fairly wide net: we’ve been looking here around Middlebury, “across the mountain” (as they say around here when they mean the Montpelier area) as well as the Finger Lakes region of NY.

So how did the Finger Lakes get in that list? Our friends Robert and Elaine similarly emigrated from DC now live in the country outside of Kingston, NY. They encouraged us to consider upstate New York in our quest. A little googling and I found some very interesting prospects around Ithaca. So we took a trip out that way back in September. We looked at three properties on that trip, and one small farm in Berkshire, NY had about 80% of what we were looking for and was very affordable. We also took some time out to sample some local wines and chanced upon the Thirsty Owl Winery . We met the owner at the wine tasting and he was very excited about our mission. “Oh, you need to be here “ were his exact words, and he was able to tell us about the large number of Amish farmers who are relocating to Seneca county. Hmm, we thought. Amish folks make great neighbors and we stand learn plenty from them. We also visited the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca to get a sense of that community. And we checked out the very excellent Ithaca farmers market. All the way around things looked pretty good.

Two weeks ago we mounted a second expedition out that way and in a whirlwind we looked at 12 properties in 2 days. It was tough keeping things straight in hour heads, but we took lots of notes. In the end we were most impressed with the first place we looked at, naturally. We plan a third trip in early November.

One thing I didn’t appreciate until we actually started walking around properties was the real difference in land prices between Vermont and New York. I knew Vermont was home to many vacation properties and expected that to translate to higher land/housing costs. But the equally exotic Finger Lakes region (with better wine) -- are cheaper by a factor of 3 or 4. Yikes!

So I’m not saying it’s New York for us just yet. But it’s beginning to look that way.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Hello From Middlebury, VT!

Hello from Middlebury, Vermont!

For those that haven't heard from us, we arrived here in Middlebury on September 5, and we’ve been enjoying the small town New England scene ever since.

So why Middlebury?

Our friends, Chris and Susan, moved from New Jersey to Cornwall, VT about a year ago. Cornwall is about 3 miles south of Middlebury. Chris and Susan have an empty pole barn on their property, and they very kindly offered us some storage space therein. That has been very helpful -- thanks guys!

So it made sense to find a place to set up base camp near where some of our goods would be. Middlebury is home to Middlebury College , and some short term housing is available for visiting faculty and parents. I trolled craigslist and found a furnished efficiency for short term rent right. “Furnished” in this case meant complete down to cloth napkins and broadband internet access. A furnished place made packing much easier -- we only needed clothes and essential personal effects -- everything else went into storage in Hyattsville (also big thanks to Bones & Andrea for storing some of the more delicate items -- thanks muchly guys!).

A second reason for being here in Middlebury is the land itself. Middlebury is located near the center of the Champlain Valley, which is home to 80% of the arable land in Vermont. Since we aspire to farm, quality land is, well, important.

We are well. Yvonne has found work on the prep staff of a local 4 star French restaurant, Christophes on the Green . I’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue to work part time for the same National Weather Service office (via SAIC) for which I worked for over 10 years down in DC. They have kindly given me a very interesting project to tackle.

Our apartment is right on the edge of the college campus, and we’ve been using their cross country course for our morning runs. The college students are generally quite pleasant, much more so than I remember them being when I was one. The college also offers some arts and entertainment, which we hope to take advantage of in the coming months.

The town of Middlebury is small, maybe 8,000 people, or roughly the size of town I grew up in back in Pennsylvania. Middlebury has much better restaurants though. Middlebury is a valley town, sitting astride a river named Otter Creek. Right down town Otter Creek has a beautiful 20’ water fall, which was harnessed to power industry in the 19th century. The ruins of some of that infrastructure still stand, and yes, boaters run that drop in kayaks. I saw a couple of guys in creek boats doing that yesterday, in fact. My day for that may come, but first I’ll have to figure out where my dry suit is. Probably need a creeker tool; my RPM is a bit too pointy for gnar like that.

One other claim to Middlebury fame is John Deere, the namesake of the company that still produces farm machinery today. Mr. Deere came to Middlebury as a teen to learn blacksmithing, then went to the Midwest and invented “the plow that broke the prairie”, aka the moldboard plow.

Middlebury is an agricultural hub -- the county stock yards are just 2 miles southeast of town. From our apartment we can smell the local dairy farms on every south wind, which some folks might not think much of, but to me it’s a wonderful accompaniment to a savory meal and a glass of earthy, red wine. Milk trucks the size of fuel tankers roll through town most daylight hours, and occasionally tractors haul loads of proto-silage or livestock past our apartment.

We’ve begun making contacts with people here in town. Our landlords, Bud and Deb, are wonderful folks, who take it upon themselves to help us out frequently. It’s handy that they know pretty much everybody in town. Bud also buys fair-trade, organic coffee beans (green) and roasts them in the garage out back. Most mornings the area smells of roasting coffee, which is different from brewing coffee, but it’s still very pleasant. His Indonesian brew is my favorite.

We’ve been attending the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society (CVUUS) here in Middlebury. Turns out CVUUS is the second largest UU congregation in Vermont, though Middlebury is nowhere near the 2nd largest city/town in the state. It’s been a very good experience thus far, and it often reminds me of our time at UUCSS (UU Church of Silver Spring, MD). As an aside, here in Vermont the UU congregations tend to call themselves “Societies” rather than “Churches”. In due course I hope to learn what drove that naming convention.