“Vermont to the Core”
The Salvation of Balance
She immediately stood out as the silent one.
For study abroad orientation in Bali, fourteen women lived in a defunct palace without Wifi, cell phones, or anything familiar. We ate our meals of thick chicken satay, sticky white rice, and rough snake fruit on small wicker plates covered in wax paper. These meals quickly became story-time. The other Zoey, with a fake rhinestone stud protruding from her upper-lip, would regale us with outlandish tales of mushroom trips during high school, the time she got married on a boat while extremely intoxicated, and her hopes to get her labia pierced. Other girls joined in with similar stories of imagining falling through storybooks while tripping on acid, strapping water bottles of vodka to their inner thighs to sneak through concert security, or wishfully planning their intricate Balinese tattoos.
Makenzie Brown rarely conveyed any stories, let alone any interest in participating. She passively consumed the conversation as she picked at her plate of unknown vegetables and rice. Even in class, she seemed less than enthused. Her tanned, muscular legs stuck out from her body as she doubled over, perpetually doodling in class and largely ignoring the speaker. Her large Mason jar at her side, she incessantly studied flashcards during our breaks from five hours of Bahasa Indonesia language instruction. Her body language screamed disengaged as if she dared us to approach her with a ten-foot pole.
I first met Makenzie on campus in the previous May when I learned another Middlebury College student would be attending my rarely visited program in Indonesia. I immediately arranged a coffee date. Entering Proctor Lounge a few minutes late, I found a dirty blonde braid hunched over the recent issue of The Campus.
“Are you Makenzie?”
She looked at me from the paper, her sharp nose and blue eyes immediately taking in my huge ice cream cone and sundress.
We had the quickest coffee date of my life. Yes, she was involved on campus as an Alpine skier. No, she wasn’t an economics major; she majored in Studio Art. Yes, she was a Sophomore Feb. No, she wasn’t nervous about living with a homestay. Yes, she planned on doing her independent project with a fashion designer she knew in Bali. Of course, she had traveled extensively before for ski competitions. She was a Vermonter, and her parents owned the Cold Hollow Cider Mill further upstate.
Throughout the entire conversation, she looked up from her paper twice. Not until later, I realized she was furiously doodling. Within fifteen minutes, I left, convinced this girl and I shared nothing in common, except perhaps our need to get as far away from Middlebury as possible.
After three days of energy-sucking humidity, belly-churning meals, and frenetic story telling, I felt myself closing in. I had received no responses from my parents or my boyfriend to the text messages I sent from my 10-year-old black-and-white prepaid phone. As the competitive stories about just plain stupid antics piled up, my certainty about the program dwindled. The other girls returned from the town with fermented palm liquor, arak, with the intention of raising hell in the grand, ancient palace we currently resided in. I was not interested.
As the “party” began in earnest, I noticed Makenzie again leaned against a pillar, uninterested in the buzzing around her.
“How are you doing, Makenzie?”
A simple question opened the floodgates. Once she remembered I majored in Psychology, she told me her story. Within weeks of beginning as a freshman at Middlebury College, she experienced a manic episode. She had been institutionalized at Fletcher Allen Hospital after she stopped attending classes, drunkenly drove a teammate to McDonalds at three in morning, and started believing she was playing “the game.” In her mind, the game consisted of outwitting the nurses, refusing to take medication, and speaking only in fluent French, which she hadn’t spoken in years. She wasn’t a true “Feb” seeing as she spent her mandated gap semester at home seeing a therapist, a psychologist, and idling away the hours at her parents’ Cider Mill. But she no longer took medication; she regulated her body with meditation, movement and mindful eating.
After Bali, she had no intentions of returning to Middlebury College. She had attended RISD in the summer and finally shed the shackles of skiing to pursue her passion for art. The ski world required her full attention—balance was practically a four-letter word at Burke Ski Academy where she attended high school. The school crammed a years worth of academic material in the combined four months before and after ski season so the racers could be fully committed to their sport. For Makenzie, this culture of lopsidedness continued when she started at Middlebury College: the inability to exist both in the ski world and the art world, the disordered eating and prevalent body issues surrounding women on campus, and the hyped competition over grades, course loads, and extra-curriculars.
The noise of the group fell away as we talked. Her honesty in the face of stigma and her authenticity in the wake of group pressure shone through her story. Amongst the showmanship and bravado of the group, maybe, just maybe, I had found a friend.
After our initial conversation, Makenzie disappeared into another hole. She purposefully positioned herself at the back of the classroom, and she never answered questions in language class despite clearly excelling at Bahasa Indonesia. She frequently left after class without acknowledging the group on her way out. When the other girls made plans to get Western food in the hippy-town down the road, she made no attempt to participate. A few days before our two-week journey to a nearby island, she abruptly approached me after class. Tears matted her eyelashes, and tumult choked her voice. We slipped away to a private classroom.
Bali had tipped her off-kilter. The greasy food and lack of fresh vegetables stoppered her stomach and cramped her muscles. She wanted recipes from her Vermont home cooked with the products from her parents’ Cider Mill: apple and goat-cheese pizza, cilantro lamb meatballs and turkey stew. The inescapable humidity and dry terrain of Bali quenched and flattened her spirit; she craved the hiking of Green Mountains, the biking of the Appalachian Trail, and the kite surfing on Lake Champaign. She missed her cozy home, tucked away up a dirt road with an unobstructed view of both Mad River Glen and Sugarbush Resort through her kitchen window. Her blood craved the adrenaline from her Vermont lifestyle. As someone who regulates her emotional equilibrium through her body, her total lack of control in this foreign country had overwhelmed her. She had called her mother at 2am Vermont time, whose immediate thoughts flew to another manic episode in a country 10,000 miles away. Presently, the Cider Mill approached its busiest season of the year, and the business consumed all of her parents’ energy. Makenzie missed the banal comfort of bottling honey, designing labels for the business and just being comfortable at the Cider Mill.
Makenzie’s fear shone through her glassy eyes as she let the words out in a breathless staccato. I listened as she cried. This conversation wasn’t for problem solving or forward steps. She simply needed to let the balloon of emotions deflate. As the words fell from her mouth, her breathing evened and her chest leveled. I understood her longing for the mountains, and I promised her we would find some soon. After forty-five minutes, her exhaustion hit her, and she returned to her homestay for the night.
She returned the next day to the same program center, with the same rowdy girls and the same fatty food. Yet, something had changed; her perspective realigned. She dove back into art, and her drawing pad absorbed all of her trapped energy as the ink seeped from her pens. Vivid in both color and content, the images reflected our meandering days: a grinning Buddha hanging ten, a topless Balinese grandma with a gas mask, and a bird draped over a television as its feathers spelled “fuck the noise.” We started going on thirty-minute walks, dodging screeching motorbikes, large sidewalk gaps, and trash fires. Even if we only walked for half hour, for that half hour, we were in control. We stretched our legs, slurped down guava juice boxes, and reinstituted some agency in the foreign maze of the village. She continued to stay removed from the group drama as members began outwardly disagreeing, forming distinct cliques, and ignoring our teachers. Makenzie felt beholden to no one, and she decidedly lived life on her own terms.
However, she truly came alive when we finally found those mountains. In Bali, the mountains actually consisted of a string of active volcanoes with intermittent hills. But we would take what we could get. We left behind the sunshine and the beaches to explore the coldest place we could find on the island. The lush, dark-green hills soared above Lake Buyan with a view of the temple Pura Ulun Danu Bratan; we found our own slice of Vermont home in the fresh breeze and dense woods. Makenzie’s creativity exploded. Overlooking the botanical gardens of our hotel, she spent hours at the bar in the restaurant as the monsters escaped from her pens. Hundreds of little monsters. Teal, magenta, and tangerine, these monsters multiplied of their own accord. Spongebob Squarepants sprouted into minions who morphed into aliens. The little guys comprised a name-plate of sorts: KENZ spelled in a letter appropriate shape of miniature mutants.
These monsters occupied her idle hands, and I could almost see a hologram of the world inside her head filled with these scuttling and shaking creatures.
When she wasn’t doodling, she meditated and practiced yoga in the designated bungalow next to ours. As we began to count the remaining days of the semester on our fingers, we started to reminisce about home. I missed my father’s cooking, my sister’s giggle, and my boyfriend’s long hands. Makenzie mostly missed the family dog, aptly named Seamore Butts. But she also missed Cold Hollow Cider Mill, her parent’s business in Waterbury, Vermont. She craved their fresh homemade bread, thick pulpy cider, and creamy apple butter. Slowly, she began fantasizing about creating her own space above the back offices at home. She’d take over one of the rooms, create her own Zen-art space, and paint a massive mural. The monsters danced above the conversation as she described her new place at home.
Within a few days of being back on campus, I journeyed up to Mill to see the envisioned Zen space. It was perfect. Makenzie’s signature panting, green-and-blue doggie peered across the wall toward the morphing monsters on the other side of her mural. The little guys from her sketchbook pages in Bali found life on the walls of an empty room in Waterbury, Vermont. Periwinkle and gold Batik-printed cloth from Bali upholstered the well-worn couch in the corner; an orange yoga mat and cushion splayed on the other side of the room. Makenzie hooked up her iPhone to recycled speakers as she settled into her long awaited space.
In 1974, nearly forty years before Makenzie furnished her new studio, the Chittenden family purchased the 1800s farmhouse that would become the Cold Hollow Cider Mill. As descendants of the first Governor of Vermont, the Chittendens wanted to provide tourists with the ultimate Vermont experience and began exploring how to bottle the essence of the state. The farmhouse had the perfect location to create their vision: Route 100, the busiest tourist highway in the state. It’s rumored that the Ben and Jerry’s factory set up shop on the same road due to the booming success of the Cider Mill; to this day, the Mill services nearly 350,000 visitors a year. Considered the top producer of apple cider in New England today, the Cider Mill’s one million galloons of cider are still processed on an authentic 1920s rack and cloth press. For twenty-five years, the Chittendens cultivated their business and raised their family all under the same roof, steeping their business with their own family values.
After nearly twenty years in the ski industry, Makenzie’s father Paul lost his job as Sugarbush’s ski school manager during the mountain’s turnover to Summit Ventures. Fed up with the slow-to-change, corporate world of skiing, Paul and Gayle decided to make the leap into small business ownership. They looked for a business that could easily adaptable to their winter ski needs; they wanted to be fully in control, makers of their own destiny. Their children grown and out of the house, the Chittendens looked to sell the property. Without any business training, the Browns approached seven banks before they finally secured a loan. In 2000, the Cider Mill shifted ownership from the Chittendens to Paul and Gayle Brown, along with six-year-old Makenzie and four-year-old Griffin.
Even after fourteen years of ownership, Paul and Gayle still consider the business an adventure. Paul clued me in to a saying around the mill: “Cold Hollow Clumping.” Paul explained that when things go wrong, they usually go astray in a series of three. For example, after just a year at the Mill, their retail manager just wasn’t performing at the standard required during the fall, their busiest time of the year. Paul took the manager up into his old office to fire her. In the middle of the firing, Paul received a call from his production manager, Mark, known for his pranks and practical jokes. Mark informs Paul he’s having a heart attack, but Paul wrote off the whole incident as another one of Mark’s hijinks. But apparently, Mark was in fact having a heart attack. Paul rushed down stairs just as an unexpected tour bus full of senior citizens pulled into the parking lot. Behind the chaos of the bus, the ambulance screeched into the parking lot. Mistakenly thinking one of the octogenarians had suffered the heartache, the EMTs rushed onto the bus to the scared confusion of the tourist. In the end, Mark lived, the bus tour got plenty of cider donuts, and the retail manager ultimately left. Problems always find solutions at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill.
This moving-parts lifestyle fits with the Brown family’s true passion: skiing. Together, the members of the family have accumulated over one hundred years in the ski world. Gayle attended Burke Ski Academy in East Burke, Vermont before Alpine ski racing Divison I for University of Vermont. Paul also skied at Bates College before disappearing into the Maine woods and working seasonally at Sugarloaf Mountain. The sport of ski racing inherently forces its competitors to face unexpected conditions: variable snow and weather, unpredictable course changes and even unanticipated participants. Makenzie comments that she felt satisfied with only one in ten races she had in her successful career, including winning Junior Olympics at age 15. The ski race world requires its participants to be flexible, let go of unimportant details, and focus on the larger picture.
These characteristics proved important in the fall of 2011. Makenzie enrolled at Middlebury College with the hopes continuing her successful career at a Division I college. However, she hardly experienced a typical freshman fall. At the end of September, Paul found his daughter Makenzie, always healthy and active, chained to a desk at Fletcher Allen hospital and slapped with the diagnosis of manic-depression or Bi-polar II. While mental health awareness in the United States has increased dramatically over the last couple of decades, misunderstanding and subsequent stigmas still make some diagnoses inaccessible to the general public. Bi-polar disorder manifests itself through intense mood swings between mania and depression. Manic episodes can include sleeplessness, unrealistic beliefs in one’s ability, and impulsive behavior. Makenzie’s behavior in the first few weeks of the semester seemed textbook for the diagnosis. In order to soften the inevitable drop into depression—feelings of emptiness, loss of interest in activities, and even suicidal thoughts—the doctor prescribed Lithium for Makenzie, an intense drug with intense side effects like confusion, vertigo, and nausea.
Unable to return to campus until the subsequent term, Makenzie sat at home dazed on medication and flat. She felt no spark to create art, and the lithium dulled the edges of her world. Gone were her mischievous monsters. Unsure what to do, Paul and Gayle brought Makenzie to the Cider Mill with the hopes that the stimulation would boost her energy. Makenzie’s manic episode occurred at the height of the Cider Mill’s business; in the forty-five days between mid-September and the end of October, the Cider Mill makes forty-five percent of its revenue. The Cider Mill produces fifteen thousand donuts a day during those weeks. However, Paul and Gayle didn’t allow Makenzie anywhere near the donut machine or the paying customers. Makenzie jokes that she was an absolute monster that season, sullenly labeling and bottling honey behind closed doors. While Makenzie’s work remained away from customers, her family openly discussed her recent diagnosis. The results amazed Gayle and Paul. Everyone came out of the woodwork who had a brother, an aunt or a co-worker who had gone through the same experience. The support from the community overwhelmed the family. Combined community and familial support with a psychiatrist, psychologist and wellness doctor, Makenzie no longer relies on medication to control her fickle brain chemistry.
This attitude of familial authenticity and openness permeates through the business model at the Cider Mill. Gayle explains stories of mishap with equal liberty as stories of triumph. She informs me that their bookkeeper embezzled $120,000, including money taken from the Harwood Youth Hockey Association, from the Cold Hollow Cider Mill during the entirety of the Browns ownership. With outward dismay but steely determination, she commiserates with Jamie, a business manager, about the potential end of the relationship with their fudge supplier. Gayle recently learned that this supplier uses corn syrup in their fudge base; she simply refuses to have any corn syrup products on the premises as she’s staunchly anti-GMO and anti-corn. Jamie found a recipe for fudge that uses honey, and Gayle simply doesn’t care if it’s less cost effective, she will not stand for corn syrup. In the corner of the store, Gayle has stationed real honeybees behind glass in what she calls “a political statement.” She lovingly discusses the bees and the honey, checking on them twice during our hour tour. Despite the sweetness in the air, nothing is sugar coated here.
After a harrowing journey through the Appalachian Gap to the Brown house, I arrived at the beacon at the top of the hill. As soon as I walked in their front door, Gayle apologized for the Christmas decorations still adorning the house. It was January 20th, and Makenzie had told me that the decorations didn’t even actually go up until December 26th. Makenzie cooked dinner, bouncing around the kitchen in a puffy jacket-esque skirt beneath her baggy sweater. “I picked it up in Park City. I’m starting a new fashion trend,” she remarked after I poked fun at her ridiculous outfit. She cooked butternut squash with cinnamon and lime-chili dressing, a beet and spinach salad, and something of her own invention: a strata like dish with black beans, sweet potato, and tomatoes. Gayle, Paul, Makenzie and I happily ate while the family regaled me with stories from the ski world. Everyone had ridiculous names. Arch, Gayle’s old classmate from Burke Ski Academy, approached Makenzie at a tent in Park City and informed her that her mother was a good kisser. “Don’t worry! We didn’t do anything else,” he quipped to an ashen-faced Makenzie. Elsa, Makenzie’s own old roommate from her respective days at Burke, and Makenzie spent a twenty minute ski lift ride recounting all their connections with the all the other skiers in the lift: one boy was the older brother of Makenzie’s classmate from elementary school, another knew Elsa from the ski circuit.
After Makenzie pulled the palieo-diet banana bread from the oven, the conversation turned to Bali. She placed apple butter and cider jelly from the Mill on the table to cut the dryness of the bread as I recounted stories for her parents. We talked about week two on the island when the fourteen girls of the program scaled the face of a mountain dressed in traditional Balinese prayer outfits: a sarong secured by a corset and sandals. We reveled in the view from the top, the entirety of the island falling beneath us. Our cheeks pinched from the laughter as we recounted tales of hilarious woe: fried tempeh everyday, snarky comments about girls cheating on their boyfriends, and the general lethargy of Balinese culture.
But mostly, we reminisced about the lack of urgency we felt while abroad. We spoke of her uninterrupted drawing sessions and my nighty thousand-word journal entries. While we experienced massive shifts abroad, everything appeared the same at home. We updated each other on which friends hardly ever resurfaced from the Middlebury College library, what friend planned to take time off after a severe mental breakdown, and general façade of the “okay-ness” we exude in the dining hall. The balancing act of attempting to carry all this weight underneath a seamless surface. Gayle chimed in with a mother’s perspective of Makenzie’s own burnout from the ski world. She remembered Makenzie always complaining that she didn’t have the energy or the patience for art while she was sucked into the training at Burke. The ski life allowed for no distractions, healthy or otherwise. Makenzie doesn’t regret for a singular moment leaving the unstable ski world.
Makenzie’s impending art school applications joined the conversation as the three of us attempted to weave together Makenzie’s story: ski expert gone rogue for the salvation of art. We skimmed through her recently updated tumblr page, which included red and green monsters devouring Christmas, an eight-legged purple chipmunk reminding us to “stretch,” and a custom designed iPhone case vomiting “Griff” for her brother’s birthday. Her energy and passion shone through the funky images. After we wrapped up our stories, Gayle proceeded to bed. She kissed Makenzie on the forehead, and then she came over to me to do the same, whispering “Goodnight, sweetheart.”
A few days later, our study abroad Facebook message was all-aflutter with comments from the inner circle of our friends. I struggled with transitioning back to Middlebury College; the environment didn’t stimulate me or challenge me on a moment-to-moment basis in way Bali used to consume me. I craved more, but the time felt empty and disconnected. Our three other close friends, in Massachusetts, Oregon and Ohio, echoed my concerns. We exchanged lengthy responses filled with anxiety, stress, and general unhappiness. Always the quiet one, Makenzie rarely responds to our lengthy monologues. She lives too deep inside her artist’s mind with her little minions to advise us on boyfriends and roommates. But on that day, she chimed in.
“It all comes back to Bali and it all comes back to yourself. I think I’ve gained such an appreciation for kindness, relationships and good vibes that everything that makes up ME is more than just my own thoughts and emotions. I’m affected by the interactions I have with other humans daily and the way the mountains and snow and weather affect my mood and the things I see and read and talk about… Sometimes our visions get clouded with unnecessary shiz but the first step is realizing that there’s a sun beyond those clouds… I can’t wait for our reunion. Love xoxoxoxooxoxxo Kenz”
She reminded me why I found her as my stable light in the perpetual chaos of Bali.