Some Kind of Place: Middlebury, Vermont

MiddOn opposite walls in my room on the top floor of Gifford in the fall of 1991: a world map with National Geographic pastel borders and a somewhat pretentious Kandinsky poster.  Between them was a dormered window through which I could crawl out onto the building’s slate roof for a crystalline view of the Adirondacks. The mountains were visible from within the room, too, but I preferred sitting on the roof, sky overhead, feeling the wind move through the valley.

Other transformational places on campus: David Napier’s anthropology class, where we debated the authenticity of Carlos Castaneda’s vision quests, and John Bertolini’s Modern British Drama class, where we lurked at the edge of Beckett’s eternal abyss. Every Tuesday at 3 am I sequestered myself in the WRMC studios for a jazz show featuring Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk, deejaying for (at best) a handful of Addison County insomniacs.

At the top of our hill, with Rt. 125 ribboning off to the east and west, we had Kerouacian amounts of time and space for reflection and introspection. It was as though the breadth and serenity of the valley demanded it. You read To the Lighthouse, and you could linger within Woolf’s consciousness for as long as you wanted and needed—the purple mountains weren’t going to distract you. You read King Lear, and you lived with it in the quiet of those long pathways of the quad. It became harder and harder to hide from a book’s implications. Each book had room to breathe. Sometimes I’d take these ruminations to the Long Trail, whose lush leafiness was only a few miles away.

There were days when I would be walking alone up the hill from Twilight and the face of a classmate or teacher would pop into my mind. Seconds later, that very same person would emerge, in the flesh, from behind Warner or down the steps from the offices in Old Chapel. Initially I was alarmed by this. But then I realized that coincidences like this happen all the time amid the churnings of a small campus.

Mostly, I liked this coziness. For a while my girlfriend and I walked into town every Friday morning for breakfast at Steve’s Park Diner. Each week we invited a different guest. Many of our professors came. Even President McCardell came once, and he chronicled the history of Middlebury football for us.

What we didn’t seem to have, though, was a political culture. My older brother was at Wesleyan, where you couldn’t walk from the library to the dining hall without encountering a sit-in or picket line.
We at Middlebury, on the other hand, seemed mostly subdued and conflict-averse. At the outset of the Gulf War, I witnessed a few dozen students assemble outside Proctor in protest. They marched with banners until someone in Gifford pointed their three-foot Bose speakers out a window, anonymously blaring “Born in the USA.” The protest dwindled, and afterwards, campus was especially quiet.  We lived in such a beautiful, peaceful place, the problems of the world felt remote.

There came a point when I needed a break from this feeling of remove. David Napier had introduced me to an ambitious group of doctors in London who shared a flat and provided free medical care to homeless people throughout the city. I took a term off and lived with them, shadowing them in their clinics. When I returned to Middlebury, I was eager for one last round of intense academic rabbit-holing. This was the perfect time for Elizabeth Napier’s transcendent class on neoclassical and romantic poetry. It helped to have a somewhat more world-wise frame of reference. Exploring the mysteries of Pope and Wordsworth in a high-ceilinged Twilight classroom for 90 minutes felt both luxurious and, if I paid close attention, relevant and essential.

That fall, I lived in a Ripton farmhouse with four friends. The land was adjacent to Forest Service property connected to the Bread Loaf ski trails. There was a pond out back where we swam every day until it froze, and I only went to campus for class and work. Arriving at Middlebury four years earlier, I’d been wary of the school’s pastoral calm. I was worried I’d get bored. That winter, snowstorm after snowstorm, our top priority was to sit by the fire and write our theses, coffeemaker nearby. We shoveled off the roof when necessary. We cherished the quiet, hardly knowing it wouldn’t last.

Lewis Robinson ’93 is the author of the short story collection Officer Friendly, which won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the novel Water Dogs. He is a writer in residence at Phillips Academy in Andover.

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