Who would have guessed? But, as laid bare before me, Vermont is the sexiest state.
Beyond its partially-trussed shoulders, and sensually curved back, beyond its juicy, succulent berries, Vermont is a place that emanates a pheromone that smells more pine than Axe. And yet it somehow manages to excite in ways unexpected. The favored car is not a Porsche, rather a Subaru. The state color not hot pink, but forest green. It is more Von Trapp family than Marvin Gaye. More Orson Bean, who was born in Burlington, than Jodi Bean. It has one of the highest church-to-bar ratios in the country, and the highest cow count per capita in the continent. There are more covered bridges than gentlemen's clubs; there is more hardwood than neon. Yes, there are a couple of Victoria Secrets in the state, but the wear is more Pendleton than Wendy Glez; the bedcovers more wool than silk.
But then again, what could be sexier than syrup pouring on hot, buttered pancakes?
So, defraying the city's claim, I set out for a summer swirl in Vermont, more for the activities than anything risqué or romantic. But along the way I discover a fixed point in a turning world, a place endlessly suggestive and evocative, where time and the senses seep like sweet liquid from the maple tree.
I begin in Burlington, at the Hotel Vermont on Cherry Street, a reclaimed oak-floored boutique along the lapping shores of Lake Champlain. The hotel hosts a warm, minimalistic design, appointed with paintings and furnishings from local artists and craftsman, giving it a cool, jazzy feel. The restrooms sport Dyson Airblade hand dryers.
I dine at Juniper, the hotel restaurant, and enjoy farm-to-table, grass-fed pot roast with turnips and horseradish, the raciest of foods. Afterwards, I order up a maple martini, with the local Barr Hill gin, and step outside into the velvety folds of the late afternoon.
On the patio deck, by the fire pit, in the radiance of twilight, hypnotized by the cocktail and its glow, it's easy to lose willpower, and surrender to Vermont, like followers of Odysseus to the island of the lotus-eaters. There is a tall woman, with cascades of dark hair, marmoreal skin, and eyes like almonds, sitting on the deck sipping a glass of organic, biodynamic Vermont wine, the liquid Franca of the state. I venture to sit in the chair adjacent. No words are spoken, but the evening shadows become our conversation, the softness of the light and the calm of the lake emotions made tangible. When the light on the lake pools to black, she departs.
Thoreau said "give me a wildness no civilization can endure," and he could have been ordering the Northeast Kingdom, the most remote realm of the state, a domain admired for her refusal to compromise with the contemporary world, a place more Vermont than Vermont. She has, however, become a mountain biking mecca. Lilias Ide, the lavishly tattooed operations manager at Kingdom Trails, describing the trail experience, uses the word "stimulating." She also says the color green, a hue I more associate with Christmas and St. Patrick's Day, is sexy. It seems a suggestion that inhabits some previously uncharted crevice between the glib and the profound.
I think about this aperçu while riding the chairlift to the top of Burke Mountain, where several of the more extreme single-track trails launch. And watching the waves of green undulating beneath me, 50 shades of green, I find myself agreeing with Lilias. The woods transcend the ornamental; raw, wild, exciting and implacable, a lusty, voluptuous stealth of Nature. And then the route down, sinuous as a snake, the perfume of churned earth sparking the nose, the cool wind on the face, the hot pant of sun on the neck, and in front, a pair of toned legs pumping. She is right...this is the velocity of desire.
Next I unwind the road through a landscape mercifully caught in the waiting room of civilization. Destination: Jay Peak, a resort just a romp away from the Canadian border, and which has more moose on the grounds than guests. The summer air surges with first date humidity, and the dull clacking sound of soft young antlers in nervous ritual combat.
You can always judge a mountain resort by its film festival....and there is nothing of the sort here, which is bewitchingly impressive. You experience the thrilling charge of life first hand, not aspirationally, not up on a screen.
A portion of The Long Trail, the oldest long-distance footpath in the United States, stitching 272 miles from the buttocks of Vermont to the head, passes along Jay Peak. An Aerial Tramway hangs from a braided haul cable, hoisting us to heaven, the crest, and from here it's a spectacular rattle along the spine of the Green Mountains. From the summit, four states, and the province of Quebec, unfurl. There's a certain sensation on the skin when hiking beneath the Vermont summer blaze, the alpine air mentholating the senses. The beat of the placed and lifted foot soaks up the atmosphere of the mountain, which is already coiling itself around my being.
After the hike, drenched in sweat, the best après is an elemental natural wonder, a life force. We drink her in every day. She nourishes and refreshes. We bathe, swim and dive in her. She falls, flows, freezes. We slip, slide and skate over her. We love, honor, cherish her. She's sensual; she's fickle. She is water.
And Jay Peak has water in buckets....The Jay Peak Pump House indoor waterpark, at 50,000-square feet, is a city drowned in laughter, a place where the movement of water does more than entertain. It actually moves you. The echoes of voices, made slightly sharper and more diffuse by the effects of the water, bring me back to an unusual afternoon-delight peacefulness that overcame me on my first trip to Vermont, and which is so opposite of my pursuits with purpose. So, just chute me.
The hydraulic cynosure features a tangle of translucent fiberglass slides, the most ardent being the AquaLoop, a twisted version of a roller coaster loop in which you free fall 70' down a red quim-like tube, and are then propelled, at 40 mph, upwards into a near-vertical loop at a force of 2.5 Gs. Finally you are discharged into a long, lazy turquoise river which gracefully curves around the perimeter of the park. It's like floating in the Aegean, bobbing up and down with the waves, an agreeable sensation.
There, in a raft gamboling in front of me, is the raven-haired woman from Burlington, hair dripping, long arms and legs gently sculling. And in the back of her raft...a young boy with a solar flare of blonde hair, convulsed in laughter. As we spill around the far end of the river, her raft spins, and she sees me watching her... and sends back a sly smile, before disappearing around the bend.
The river then contours around a sight not reasonably expected in a landlocked state...a roiling continuous surf, simulating a North Shore experience, complete with skimpy bathing suits and Praxitelean athleticism. Water is passion expressed, and the coy fountains gush here in lodes of plenty.
From Jay Peak I wind the serpentine way over to the WilloughVale Inn on the edge of Lake Willoughby, a deep glacially-carved lake walled between the fente vulvaire cliffs of Mt. Hor on the west, Mt. Pisgah on the east. Between these walls, cyptobiologists say, lives "the Willy Monster," a sexy beast related, it is told, to the supple long-necked Nessie of Lock Ness.
Besides the recherché view, the Inn offers up at least two titillating activities....jumping on a giant, floating trampoline; and gently urging a canoe along the lake. Is there a performance with more erotic torque than a clean paddle stroke? I used to compete in canoe races, and once, after a capsize during a slalom on the Potomac, I crossed the finish line naked, and ended up in a photo in the Washington Post, my paddle blade strategically positioned. Paddling is practically a religion in Vermont, and a place to perfect the smooth, steady rhythm of the efficient stroke, a movement that accentuates a prowess that must almost certainly translate to more terrestrial delights.
As I paddle down the lake I pass another canoe, only a few yards away, and within its gunwales is the dark-haired woman, who sends a swift and percipient glance my way, a look with enough sublimation to power a motorboat. Her paddle then catches the light as she turns the vessel towards shore, leaving me in her wake.
As the skin of the day sheds into the lake, I order a WhistlePig on the lawn of the hotel, a spirit bottled on a farm in rural Vermont that is, according to many critics, the best rye whiskey in the world. I sip unhurriedly, savoring its good, earthy, bread-like flavor, with the caramel-rich mouth feel of well-aged whiskies. And I chat with Roy Clark, the Innkeeper, who tells me he came to Vermont in 1970, and never left. That's the seductive spell, he says, the state can cast. After the sun is gone, the only movement is the lazy turning of my own hedonistic thoughts.
"All happiness depends upon a leisurely breakfast," said John Gunther, and so late the morning next I trundle to the southwestern end of the lake, where, in a bright cove there is a buoyant nude beach. The naked truth is that public nudity is legal in Vermont, which may or may not be sexy, depending upon the participants and the beholders. But Vermonters are active and fit, and at least the partakers qualify here.
I whisper down the road to Woodstock, passing tall, imposing silos, and copses of ithyphallic trees through a corridor of savage beauty. Flocks of ducks blow like rocket chaff across the blue sky. I check into the fabled Woodstock Inn, Laurence Rockefeller's haunt, with a lobby fireplace the size of Scotland. In the rooms are wood-beam bed frames, exquisite linens, organic bath products, and quaint landlines. It's a place you could check in and never leave.
From the Inn it's a short steer, through a covered bridge (a Freudian construct if ever one), to Quechee, and a broad green field where I meet Gary Lovell, owner of Balloons Over New England. With tremulous anticipation I watch as Gary and his crew inflate the balloon, using flames to grow the long, flaccid silk dangle to something of size and splendor, and when swollen to full, we jump into the airship, and off we sail, over the unretouched treetops, the light twinkling through the branches. This is the ineluctable sensation of being unhinged. We float along the impatient Ottauquechee River, towards the border with New Hampshire, our bodies eggs in a flying basket. With the burner at our center, the breeze is a cool, feminine hand over a throbbing forehead, the earth below curving to the horizon in tier upon tier of green, the trees looking elusive and crushable, like rare exotic blooms.
At one point I look down and there is the dark-haired woman, hair billowing around her head like crimped silk, and next to her, the blonde boy. The hairs on the back of my neck quill up. She waves up to us, and then vanishes into the trees.
After a delicious hour inhaling the treacly light of late afternoon, we watch the land grow closer, and drop into a private fenced pen, where two horses, nervous with the approach, prance about the perimeters as though gone feral. One is a China white mare, like a hornless unicorn, muscled and fine-looking as the beasts in fantasy renderings.
As the evening tips towards darkness I stop in at nearby Simon Pearce, a tony restaurant which perches over a frothing waterfall, a roaring, misting diadem of plunging water, another of Sigmund's expressive images. But it is the downstairs pre-meal tour that unfreezes my flesh. Simon has set up a glass-blowing factory, and there amidst the forges, the fires and tools, a passel of sweaty men and women are blowing bowls and vases, wine glasses and decanters, pitchers and carafes, candle holders and hurricanes, and all manner of immaculate confections in exhibitions of voluptuous shapes and sizes.
Dawn climbs inchmeal, the sky suffused with light so extravagant it seems stolen. I take a ramble down a path through the nearby Quechee Gorge, a burled, narrow cleft of granite through which shoots a white current. The steps are slightly bowed from generations of traffic, the edges rounded down like a pouting lip.
A good hike allows the lambent atmospherics of intimacy with Nature, and I step deeper into the Gorge's embrace for a long meander by the bracing river under a sky of unnatural depth. There, again, just a short ways down the trail, is the dark-haired woman, camera to eye photographing the blonde boy skylarking with a stick. She drops the camera from her face and tosses a playful grin, the size of a hammock, my way. It's near the end of a hot day, but the temperature seems to rise.
Like blotting paper, the dawn swallows up the ink of night, and is soon drowned by it. I can't help but think as I drive the final miles to Smuggs, a busy oasis in the woods, that Vermont is somewhere in between the free-spirited wilderness of centuries ago, and the sleek, hedonism of modern civilization. What if Vermont actually signals the third point of a classic Hegelian dialectical triangle? Deep primeval forests at one point; glistening, neoteric cities at the second; and the third being some subtly unstated "third way" that draws on the tension and contradictory nature of the first two states of being to create a superior third. There is a tantric quality to this thought, and I hold onto it as I turn into Smuggs, short for The Smuggler's Notch Resort, a seemingly treacherous place that bills itself as "America's Family Resort," a tag that seems about as sexy as a bee sting.
But there are so many activities here, it's impossible not to experience something tactile and pleasurable. There is a zipline park at Arbortrek, offering the prelapsarian zing of whooshing through ancient hemlocks, sugar maples and paper birch at speeds and angles from serene to extreme. Step up; snap on; and fly like lightning.
Another activity is Disc Golf, a guilt-free version of the classic linksman game, in that there are no water-sucking fairways, but rather just chain baskets on forest trails into which players try to lance Frisbees. Golf has long been coupled with Freudian imaginings, swinging balls into holes, and this variation expands, as it requires spinning a smooth surfaced- discus into a manacled pocket. It's like Diskobolus of Myron come to life, the fusing of rhythm, harmony, balance, though not quite nude. The famous statue, in a pose each golfer assumes, expresses the moment of stasis just before release, the potential energy just before the outflung, like so many facets of this state. And then, of course, there is the decuman billow of bliss with a hole-in-one.
Next I throw off the usual cautions to indulge in the recklessness of extreme off-roading, but in a new way...on a Segway. Dean Kamen, backed by Jeff Bezos and John Doer of Kleiner Perkins, invented the personal electric balancing scooter, with hopes it would change the way the world moves. The cold fusion pogo stick never took off as envisioned, though when George W. Bush fell off one in 2003, and then Jimi Heselden, who bought the company, died after riding one over a cliff at his estate in Britain in 2010, it earned some notoriety as a bad boy of vehicles. Danger deals, after all, something of the aphrodisiacal. So, with some interior butterflies, and no small measure of exhilaration, I board the fat-tire version, lean forward, and murmur into a dark, sumptuous forest of the senses, heightened with every bump and jounce. After a few turns, I'm overcome by a sort of madness, the impetuosity that comes from being in the belly of Vermont, where the usual demands of behavior are relaxed, combined with the special magic of a place that encourages risks and emotions normally tamped down. I lean forward, put the vehicle into top speed, and head unstoppingly into the unknown, abandoning sanity to the wind.
I survive, and strut back with the splendid frisson that follows a brush with peril.
In the public area in front of Reception a pirate is playing guitar, with a basilisk look in his eye....what could be sexier than Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow channeling Keith Richards? It's "Rockin' Ron, The Friendly Pirate," who wears his eyepatch on his forehead so as not to scare the kids. "How much does a pirate pay for corn?" he asks. "A buck-an-ear."
This is a family resort, America's family resort, nestled at the brink of a pass that once hosted smugglers trafficking booze from Canada, a sexy occupation by some reckonings. Thunder Road, the Robert Mitchum vehicle about running moonshine was the sexiest film of 1958, and it's not hard to imagine the Smuggler's fast and furious life here. But this is a place that cleaves to purity, full of giggles and small running feet, of the animality of innocence. "We're in the exhaustion business," says Bill Stritzler, owner of Smuggs with a smile identical to that of the Dalai Lama. Certainly the grounds are bursting with bouncing kids, of all ages, surrounded by the exquisite symphony of green that is Vermont, suggesting somehow that the moment will continue forever, and there never will be a tomorrow. It's hard, here, to occupy with the concerns of the world, for concerns are always about what will happen in the future, and in Smuggs, the future will never come, and the past will never disappear. It's like being in a different world, where everything fits together, where the play of life is splashing, zipping, tossing, swinging, sliding, in the most uninhibited ways, in a way innocent and wholesome, a way that brings unfiltered pleasure, and that perhaps is the sexiest sensation of all.
Then from the crackling crowd steps the dark-haired Circe, who makes a breezy stroll to my side, takes my hand in hers, and flashes a familiar smile, luminous as a seashell. With the other hand she traces her fingers along my psychic fissures, and then points to the blonde child, a supernal glow on his face, playing excitedly with the pirate. "Thank you so much for this trip," she whispers in my ear. "I've never seen our son so overjoyed."