Saturday, October 10, 2009

Books and Missiles of Grand Isle County, Vermont

A Secret Sort of Place

For some reason, for many years I've had the desire to travel to out-of-the-way places; places that look geographically different and interesting. And one of these places has been the island (or as it actually is, islands) in the middle of Lake Champlain. I'm not certain why, but it has always held a certain mystique for me. So, when I was on the banks of Lake Champlain this summer, I reconsidered the possibility of discovering what was actually on this and other islands in the grand old lake.

Driving north through hilly Burlington, Vermont, first on the Roosevelt Highway, which then turns into Route 2, I wended my way through the ever more rural landscape, passing towns like Colchester and Walnut Ledge, and the lacustrine inlets of Mallett's Bay and Great Back Bay, before crossing the bridge (though, more like a causeway) which brought me onto Grant Isle, and the ever so modest village of South Hero: a name all too evocative in a country that has been at war for nearly a decade. I didn't dig too deeply into this, so I don't have an answer to the questions "what heroes? when? And how did this town get its name?" I must say, this ranks up there with some of my other favorite small town names: Surprise, NY and Triangle, NY (both in rural upstate, not far from Ithaca, NY and Cornell University), or my all time favorite Lower and Upper Economy (located on the north shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia--I couldn't believe that such a place existed when I drove through those little backwaters!) Nonetheless, the "Heroes" are little towns, hamlets in fact, located on the islands here in Lake Champlain. Later I would drive through North Hero, which seemed even smaller than South Hero. Who says the North always gets the better deal? Here I passed by the old general store, which had since lost its mercantilic soul, and was up for sale. I pulled over and took a photo of the old place, and continued onward.

Just as I was crossing onto the island, I saw one of the most extraordinary events I've yet seen on one of these flaneuric passages: an old bearded Vermonter, sitting in the back of his pick-up truck, with the gate down, reading a book! I was driving so fast that I couldn't take a picture of it, but it was so beautiful, wonderful, magical! If only I'd taken it! That image stuck with me for the rest of my trip. So you can't say rural, bearded, woodsmen-like characters don't like books! Of course they do! Two more points for us and biblios!

Anyhow, even after this sighting, things seemed rather quiet and uneventful, and I had been a bit wary that I would not be finding anything worthy of bookishness on this drive around the islands, but my fears were put to rest, as I came upon the local Chamber of Commerce. As it turned out, the Chamber of Commerce building doubled as a mini historical society, with a room dedicated to showing off the wares of local history. And as we all might expect, this local history included books! Not a surprise at all! When I was thinking about how to describe the display cases and the contents of the little museum, it occurred to me that this is precisely the value of books in small town society, in small town America, and elsewhere: the value of the semiotic book, a vestige, a remnant, an artifact of the cultural small town past, which conveys various levels of our understanding of not just that past, but the past in general, the greater past, which continues to be fleeting, in decay, and a lost existence in human memory. The local elders only remember so much, and those memories are always in flux and not to be fully relied upon from the historian's point-of-view.

Nevertheless, it made me fully aware of the possible trauma on society in future generations, when historians and scholars in 100 or 200 years from now will be decrying the paucity of tactile information and archival material for research to be done on; can one imagine if this were the case here, in this Chamber of Commerce, walking in and seeing displayed floppy disks from 1983 or empty husks and skeletal remains of the PS2, antique modems, or Zip drives? Surely, every object in nature has its semiotic value and imprint, but the carriers of the written work, such as books, are far more symbolic, accessible, and ultimately powerful as objects than the trash worthy edifice and facade of mechanical ingenuity, which make up the basic computing system. Much, if not all, of which is basically inaccessible without the amenities of fossil fuel and other consumptive powers continuing to give it life. Surely, the pundits and naysayers will pounce, and declare: "yes, but it took these same energies to MAKE the book that you so tirelessly, and foolishly seem to cling to like a nostalgic gadabout!" Ah, I say, but they miss the point.

It was a truly bucolic place, Grand Isle. As you can see from this next shot, taken from inside of the Chamber of Commerce, looking outside, a patriotic stars and stripes hangs loosely in the morning breeze, a slight haze dances over the lake, and the lawn is freshly cut. The next few photos are from the Chamber as well, and include more images of the display case, some Dry Goods expense booklets from 1893, and the main sign declaring the Chamber of Commerce to all those passing by.

Books and Maps on Grand Isle

Right near the Chamber of Commerce was a fine cafe-bakery-gift and bookshop (I think it was actually called "Hero's Cafe.") It was one of those multi-purpose stores, which sells everything for the happy tourist, because there's nothing else for miles around. And surely they must do quite good business.

There were two floors to this business. In the front was where you'd buy your coffee, bagels, croissants, and sandwiches. In the back was the gift shop, and above that gift shop on the second floor, was this great book and map shop. As you can see from the photo above and the two below, they had a rather wide variety of books and maps. I was so taken by the display, that I craned my neck to see the maps splayed across the slanted ceiling, wishing that I could afford to buy all of them and bring them home to put on my ceiling! When I was a young lad, perhaps in my teens, my brother and I taped all of the National Geographic maps we had (and there were scores of them!) on our bedroom walls and a couple on the ceiling, though, admittedly, the Scotch tape didn't have the strength to hold them up for very long. It was "pretty" while it lasted.

Protecting Them Books...with All the Power You've Got!

Now for you more bellicose readers, or those just intrigued with missile defense systems and wondering "what the heck are you talking about missiles and books together for!?!?"...well, this was a bit of a surprise for me, but figured that it would fit in just nicely to my biblio-narrative.

You see, as the sign reads here, at the very top of the set of islands situated in Lake Champlain, in the town of Alburg, VT, and not a dozen miles from the Canadian border, the US government (specifically the Air Force) built its "first intercontinental ballistic missile site east of the Mississippi River" between 1960-1962. This was, of course, at the height of the Cold War, commenced during the Eisenhower administration and completed during the Kennedy administration. And its location seems rather obvious: a rural, northern, border town, in the right position to aim at the Soviet Union. I guess they figured they could make a decent three-pointer from Grand Isle pretty easily. I drove down the old back road leading up to the site, after visiting another Tourism Center. The woman in the center, who was organizing some travel brochures, told me to drive 100 feet north of the center, turn right, and drive down the graveled road with the giant sign that used to say "No Entry!" I did. The sign had been weathered, and crossed out. A quarter mile down the road was a broken down fence and a couple of weathered quonset huts (real ones!) It looked like the local transportation department had taken over the deactivated missile silos (which were underground, and covered by the quonset huts) for storage of their snow plows. I wasn't sure whether or not to say a silent prayer to Mr. Reagan for saving us from the Soviet apocalypse, or simply go about my usual touring and fill up the car with gas. I did the latter. I'm not that religious.

So that was the end of the road on this little journey. I turned around at the missile site, and headed back south. Any farther north would have brought me to the border patrol and the Canadians. The land seemed to be getting flatter up by Alburg, and the only way to get "back into" the Vermont "mainland" was to go back south. I wanted to see the Alburg Public Library, as that was my main interest in coming so far north, and seeing this gem of rural biblio-Americana. I drove by the darn place three times, missing it each time. It blended in with all the other houses: simple, white siding, usually one-level, with plain windows and little detail. I finally found it. Alburg Public Library (House Number...16?). Green letters announced a "Book Sale," which I was ready to jump out of my car for, but unfortunately, both the library and its book sale were unavailable for my visit: closed for the day. Just my luck: Library--Closed; Book Sale--Closed; Missile Site--Closed. What's a curious biblioholic to do in these parts!? Well, you readers will have to wait a little longer to find out. In the mean time, I'll continue to while away my days wondering who's protecting our national treasures, if not the Alburg missiles. Hmmm.

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