Vermont: Second Nature

by Sonya Friedman

We got to Vermont because I hated downhill skiing. My husband, Herman, a natural athlete and skiing enthusiast, had hoped to entice me into the sport, but a chilling start with a mad Austrian trainer who put me on a lift to the top of a mountain, then cursed me and kicked my skis when I couldn’t ski down – well, that was it.

So Herman decided to try “marathon” skiing, now known as cross-country. This seemed to me to be better for our pocketbooks (no slope fees, no expensive equipment rentals) and for our ages: I, now 40, Herman, now 48. We bought new skis, boots and poles, rented a place in New Hampshire near Mount Monadnock, and took a lesson. Soon we were gliding through those gleaming white birch forests and dreaming of a long skiing future. (Teenage kids and their friends had joined us and loved it, too.)

In a Vermont magazine, we discovered the marvelous 12-mile Skyline Trail and skied across steep hills and flat meadows around Woodstock, Vermont. Now for a cabin to use as our vacation skiing base. Herman wanted to buy. Woodstock land was too expensive, so we drifted further north – until we got to the tiny town of Chelsea, Vermont. At our first sight of the looming hills and gorgeous views there, we went to a real estate agent. Quickly, we put down a deposit on 10 acres on a high hill outside Chelsea town with a 360-degree view. We felt giddy. Then a local contractor, Arnold Clark, came to ascertain our needs. In a thick Vermont accent that we barely understood, he muttered that he thought we were crazy; there was no chance of electricity and less chance of water. Arnold could not fathom how a couple could be stupid enough to buy land so inaccessible. Until then, we had understood only that you opened a spigot and water came out.

Discouraged, we trudged down the steep mountain path to encounter a jeep with an old man and a younger one, asking what we were doing on the land. We explained we had just bought it. “Well, that beats it,” said the older man. “I’ve been farming this land for 60 years!” Back we went to the real estate agent, who said, no, that old man didn’t own the land, a different owner did. But if anyone claimed to have farmed that land for 60 years, we wanted no part of it. Later we realized the contractor and the farmer had saved us from disaster.

We soon found another 10 acres nearer Chelsea on a lovely hillside above a dirt town road, with spectacular mountain views and cinematic sunsets. We bought a large tent from L.L. Bean for living and sleeping. For cooking, we dug a hole in the ground, placed firewood in it, and a grill over it. For our cabin, Herman found a small company that manufactured “shelter-kits” and that soon delivered to the bottom of our hill: lumber cut to size, a set of large sliding glass doors, screws, nails, two hammers, two ladders, and two carpenter’s aprons.

Arnold Clark came and told us how to put in a foundation (we had no idea). He dug the four holes for “sauna tubes,” and poured concrete into them; our floor would sit on those. A friend came from New York to help Herman put the cabin up. It was 12 x 12-foot room with 12- foot sliding-glass doors and a 9 x 12-foot deck. Our vacation home. For $2,000.

It would be years before we had running water or electricity, but Arnold dug a well at the bottom of our hill, and got a small but steady stream of water. “Well, it ain’t no golden slipper,” he said, “but it’s better than no shoe at all!”

We carried water up in in jerry cans: summers, driving up our bumpy dirt path, and winters, pulling a toboggan. We installed gas lamps and had a small gas refrigerator. For heat, we bought a Norwegian Jotul stove, and stoked it with wood from our plentiful trees. (Our hill was covered with majestic sugar-maples.) We built a nice outhouse that had a bas-relief, a marble sink (with a removable stainless steel basin), a big pitcher of water, a colorful toilet seat, and a pail full of cleansing lime.

Our son Tim gave us a portable shower: it looked like a large hot water bottle, with a hose and a spray. We put it out in the sun for an hour or two, then had enough warm water to wash both of us. Winters, of course, we had to heat the water over our propane gas two-burner. We just threw the used water out the door until we realized we were freezing the steep wooden stairs we used to climb in and out of the cabin.

Summers were easy entrances. But when we arrived in the winter, the cabin temperature was often below zero. Both of us were on snowshoes and heavily dressed. My job was to get the wood-burning stove going, to set up the sleeping bags, and to unpack. Herman lugged food and other supplies up our steep hill, then went back down to haul up heavy jerry cans of water. When the cabin temperature finally climbed up to 30 degrees, it actually felt pleasant! And after a night’s bundled-up sleep, the next morning the place was cozy in the upper 60’s. Then we enjoyed our beautiful site: our comfort and the deep, deep silence.

Of course, we had to have a telephone; how else could we be in Vermont for a week or more and stay in touch with our New York office? (We were the producers and distributors of educational films.) Washington Electric came to ascertain the situation. They did install a phone and rigged an antenna in a nearby tree. Vermont ingenuity. Almost minutes after the phone had been installed, it rang! It was Mo Foner from the 1199 Hospital Workers Union in New York, asking us to provide films for their children’s festival. We were delighted to support the union and did so, at no charge. We were even more tickled to think that Foner didn’t know that the film execs he was talking to were sitting in a one-room cabin on a remote Vermont hillside with a phone hooked up to a tree.

True to our original purpose, we skied almost every day during winters in all weather and temperature. The exertion of cross-country skiing makes you very hot; it’s important to dress lightly and to pack a sweater for whenever you stop for more than a couple minutes. We found that the best skiing temperatures were between 20 degrees above and 20 below. We just stepped outside our door, put on our skis, picked up our poles, and took off – out over the lovely sloping meadows and rugged hills. We almost never saw another soul. Everything was white – every tree, every branch, every twig, every rooftop. Often hanging icicles gleamed in sunlight, giving a rainbow effect to the forests.

Once while skiing, we passed a simple but handsome house. We knocked on the door, and asked who was the architect. Then we looked him up, borrowed $10,000 from our local bank, and built an adjoining large family room (serving as kitchen, dining and living room) and a small room as a potential future bathroom. The architect had said we didn’t need him for such a modest structure, but I pointed out that while many documentary filmmakers just went out and shot footage, Herman and I, each professional writers, always wrote a script and that it was all to the good. He would be our professional. We were right; for a fee of $800, he designed beautiful high windows, repositioned the glass doors (which had been facing the northwest exposing us to gales such as those on a stormy sea), and placed the wood stove and chimney to take up a minimal amount of space in the new room. Also he designed an ingenious upward-slanted roof that gave height and elegance to the small cabin, all the while withstanding the strain of being frozen, then heating up and quickly defrosting, then freezing again as we came and went throughout the winters.

A friend in Philadelphia was moving and gave us a claw-foot bathtub and a sink. Our son-in-law Jon and Herman wrestled them up our hill.

Herman put a hole in our potential bathroom floor, where the tub drained, and a similar hole under the sink.

A couple of years later, Herman and I were in Vermont working respectively on a script and on film subtitles when a letter arrived: royalties from a children’s book based on an animated film we had produced. We stared at the check: it was for $6,000. “A toilet!” I said. “A vacation,” said Herman. We did both. We installed electricity, and with it a toilet, sink, tub and electric lights. And we went to Greece for a month. You could do a lot with $6,000 in the 60’s.

Sonya Friedman: As a writer/translator, I created subtitles for many foreign-language films (Rossellini, Fellini, Godard, others) and was the innovator of “supertitles” for opera (The Metropolitan Opera Company, New York Opera, Seattle Opera, others). Among the documentary films I directed is “The Masters of Disaster,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, and was broadcast nationally on PBS.