400 Years Later and We’re Still Being Discovered

I  love it when tourists visit Vermont, even though we don’t have the world’s largest muskie (Wisconsin), hot dog man (Illinois) or badger (also Wisconsin). We do have the world’s tallest filing cabinet in Burlington and a spider web farm in Williamstown. But people are more likely to come here for our panoramas and vistas. Whether it’s the view from the top of Snake Mountain or the sight of the mist rising from Peacham Pond on a crisp August morning, our state is renowned for its landscapes.

The other day I was savoring one of those views. I was sitting on a boulder at Vermont’s Charlotte beach late in the afternoon, alternately reading a page or two of a novel and trying (and failing) to skip the slender black stones that comprise the shore there across the surface of Lake Champlain. Yup, some beaches have sand. Charlotte has rocks. My sense is it keeps the community humble. In any case, I had been there about 40 minutes when a couple roughly my age arrived with two folding lawn chairs and sat down a dozen yards away to wait for the sunset. After a couple of minutes, the woman called over to me, “Those mountains across the water: Are they in Vermont or Canada?”

For a second I thought she was kidding and considered answering they were the Rocky Mountains and we were in Colorado. But I had a sinking feeling this was an earnest question and said, “Not from around here, eh?”

“Nope. We’re from California. We’re visiting friends.”

And so I put on my Vermont Ambassador hat rather than my snarky, condescending, how-did-these-people-get-drivers-licenses hat and answered, “Actually, those mountains are in New York.”

She nodded wisely and said, “Oh, they’re the Adirondacks. We saw them from the plane.”

“Good chance,” I said. Then: “This is Lake Champlain.”

“Yes, of course. You just had a big party for it. We heard all about it.”

Now, I am freakishly interested in geography. One of my many talents which has served me not at all is the ability to name all 50 states and every nation in pre-World War II Europe. I am well aware that this knowledge is worth less than knowing how to personalize the ring tones on a cell phone. Consequently, I don’t expect visitors to Vermont to know the height of our highest mountain or to pronounce Charlotte or Calais the way we do. But the idea that a pair of grownups could sit on the eastern side of Lake Champlain and wonder whether the mountains on the western side were in Canada or Vermont really drove home the point that most of our nation is seriously map-challenged. In 2006, a Roper poll conducted on behalf of the National Geographic Society indicated that only 1 in 3 Americans between the age of 18 and 24 could spot Iraq on a map. Clearly we wouldn’t do a whole lot better pinpointing Vermont.

And don’t forget that this other couple and I were watching the sun set. That means, the last time I checked, we were facing west. Trust me on this one: If we are ever sitting on the Charlotte beach and watching the sun fall behind Mount Philo, we have much bigger problems than the reality that most Americans have no idea what states are in the next time zone. So, had this pair forgotten that Vermont is south of Canada? Apparently, since they had to know that the sun always sets in the west.

Still, they seemed happy enough. It was only after I was leaving that I realized I should have recommended they drive into Burlington the next day to see the world’s tallest filing cabinet. I could have told them to follow U. S. 7 north into Burlington and then follow the setting sun west down Flynn Avenue.

On the other hand, this pair might have wound up in New Hampshire.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 16, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.