Nothing doing

Vacationing in the middle of near to nowhere, unburdened, unwired, unambitious, unstressed

August 15, 2010

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ELMORE — We come here for nothing.

It is precisely because there isn’t much to do in the village of Lake Elmore that we are drawn to this place. The house we rent for a week each summer sits at the edge of the lake for which this hamlet is named, and a mountain is perched at the lake’s far side. The cottage has no television, no Internet access. There’s no cellphone reception in Elmore. There is one store — called, naturally, The Elmore Store — and no traffic signals. All but a half mile of the town’s roads are unpaved. Burlington, an hour and a half away, is the big city to the 849 folks who live in Elmore.

Our week here is gloriously unscheduled. We figure we’ll canoe, and we know we’ll hike up Elmore Mountain at some point. Beyond that, there are no plans. We embrace the unlittered calendar.

Amelia, 8, and twins Aidan and Liam, 11, welcome the change as much as we do. My wife, Kelly, and I had always said we wouldn’t become the kind of parents who overschedule their children, but somehow they have piano lessons, school band, swimming lessons, and soccer practice. Here in Lake Elmore, they have books and swimsuits.

This is not a vacation packed with sightseeing excursions; there are no museums to take in, no restaurants to dine at. So this is not a story loaded with hints about local hot spots and hidden gems. Rather, it is a celebration of the fine art of doing nothing .

After a 240-mile drive, we arrive in late afternoon. We drop our things in the house, head down the boardwalk, and jump in the water. Though we’re in north-central Vermont, the water is warm, and the kids are content to spend their first afternoon hunting for odd-shaped rocks and milfoil, the invasive plant that residents are constantly picking out of the lake.

At sunset, we sit on the dock and marvel at the painted sky. Only after we go inside does the silent electrical storm come. Bright flashes illuminate the sky, and an occasional bolt pierces the dark, but there is no sound. It is too far away.

Twice in the early hours I am awakened by a loon’s haunting cry, as I will be nearly every morning this week. If sleep must be interrupted, the loon is the perfect infiltrator.

Midmorning, Amelia and I walk the three-quarters of a mile to the Elmore Store to buy a couple of newspapers.

“Dad?’’ she says.

“Yes, girl?’’

“What are we gonna do today?’’

“Not much of anything,’’ I tell her. “Hang around the lake. Read. Take a walk. That’s about it.’’

In the afternoon, the kids look for fish off the dock. Using a net, they catch a crayfish and put it in a bucket, carefully observing the creature. A half-hour goes by. Aidan says, “Mom, can I let him go?’’

Light rain doesn’t stop Aidan and me from walking to the store for the morning paper. Our timing is exquisite. As soon we step back in the cottage, the sky opens up and drenches Elmore.

It is another good excuse to read. I finish Jon Clinch’s “Kings of the Earth.’’ Kelly reads a few chapters of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’’ to the kids; reading J.K. Rowling’s series aloud has become a summer-vacation tradition, one that will end, sadly, next year with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.’’

The rain doesn’t let up, so we drive five miles to Morrisville and see “Despicable Me’’ on the sort-of-big screen.

Dinner, back at the cottage, is penne with slow-cooked zucchini and Vidalia onion, topped with kalamata olives and feta. Like everything else we do this week, it is made up on the fly.

Two woodpeckers are going to town on a couple of birches just outside our screened-in porch. A pair of loons cackle at each other on the fog-shrouded lake. A mother duck and her seven ducklings make their way to our dock, as curious about the humans as we are about them. They swim with us for more than an hour, and they will return a few times during the week. Soon after, an injured dragonfly finds Liam, landing on his hand and refusing to leave. Liam abides it; eventually it flies off, and we wonder whether it will survive.

After lunch, we decide to conquer Elmore Mountain (elevation 2,600 feet). The hike is not easy for small legs, and it’s quite vertical at times, but not even Amelia complains. Her fortitude is rewarded at the summit with a stunning view of the lake, nearby farms, and distant mountain ranges. In spite of the inviting beauty, the trail is quiet. We encounter only three other hikers, all on the way down.

Dusk provides a crystal-clear sky. The moon is three-quarters full, and Venus and Mars show themselves early. As we’re about to call it a night, 20 to 30 baby dragonflies flit by us at the end of the dock.

I wade through the water toward our neighbor’s dock and untie his canoe from a tree. The neighbor, Brett, had come by earlier in the week and, out of the blue, offered us the use of his canoe and paddleboat. (We had been planning to rent a canoe from the boathouse on the other side of the lake, but Green Mountain neighborliness would have none of that.) Paddling with three kids sitting on a canoe’s floor is tricky, but we manage. Brett, pulling a waterskier with his powerboat, is the only other person on the lake, and he is careful to avoid creating wakes near us.

Later we drive 10 miles to Moss Glen Falls, a waterfall just north of Stowe. After a half-mile hike, the kids scamper in the boulder-clogged stream and cool off in waist-high pools along the way to the falls.

We figure we might as well drive a few more miles south and walk around Stowe. We find an ice cream shop and order five “maple creamees’’ — vanilla soft serve blended with maple syrup. The sky suddenly darkens, and a downpour commences without the usual warning of drizzle. We watch from the ice cream shop window as hail bounces on the walkway. The power flickers on and off, on and off. The wind grows violent; it’s raining sideways. And then just like that, it’s over.

More wind, more rain. The clouds race by. Fog flattens the mountaintop across the lake.

At exactly noon, the sky becomes bright blue. We walk to the Town Hall, which is next to the Elmore Store and is the place where the Elmore book swap is held three times a week. We drop off a few books; the kids take more than a few and crack them open as soon as we get back to the cottage.

In the evening we return to the Town Hall, which on Thursday nights in summertime hosts the big social event of the week — family bingo night. Admission is $1; cards cost 25 cents apiece. The hall is packed, though that feat doesn’t require more than a few dozen people. The games are for a good cause; the proceeds go to milfoil mitigation. Players donate the prizes — a plate of cookies, a batch of brownies, a dozen eggs. The bingo caller happens to be “Uncle Dave,’’ who owns the cottage we rent and lives next door to it. Kelly, Liam, Aidan, Amelia, and I each play four cards, but we don’t win a thing all night. We don’t mind either.

Loons greet us again at sunrise, announcing that a final empty day is about to unfurl and fill up before us.

More hiking is what we need, we decide. We manage to find Sterling Falls Gorge, which is at the end of too many miles of dirt road and too many steep hills that the car groans about climbing. An easy trail descends into the gorge, along the river, presenting us more familial solitude.

We return to the cottage midafternoon to ensure that we can spend more time at the lake. After more swimming, reading, and another wonderfully improvised meal, we toast the week’s end over the fire pit in the backyard, making s’mores.

First thing tomorrow, we head back home. Soccer practice will start, piano lessons resume. The boxes on the calendar will fill. But we have this week, stored in memory. Funny thing about it, too: Even though we intended to spend it doing nothing, I guess we didn’t quite manage that.

Steve Greenlee can be reached at