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It takes a village

I PULLED INTO WHITE River Junction in July anticipating a born-again Vermont town crackling with artistic energy and a glam organic vibe. Instead, I found a tidy, nearly deserted village and nary a hint of cool. So much for Internet intelligence -- or so I thought.

White River Junction's facade served as an ideal ruse for this unsuspecting traveler. I quickly discovered that the village exults in its persona as an arts hub masquerading as a sleepy way station to elsewhere.

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That anyone would stumble into town expecting instant coolness only escalates the amusement of residents such as Kim Souza, who abides by the village's unofficial motto: "Make your own fun."

Actually, the unincorporated Vermont village in the town of Hartford has three unofficial mottos, Souza says. The other two are: "White River Junction -- It's not so bad" and "Keep expectations low."

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Thanks to Souza and a band of merry pranksters, my expectations hovered far above "low" during a day's stay. Souza is the proprietor of Revolution, a White River Junction boutique with a cosmopolitan ambience worthy of Montreal or New York.

Crammed with vintage, recycled and "eco-chic" clothing and jewelry, Revolution doubles as a cafe. When Souza and her staff aren't peddling boots, baubles or homespun couture, they're rural baristas, dispensing double espressos from a Euro-sleek machine behind the sales counter.

In White River Junction, "There's a real sense of community and a real independent feel to it, and it's really 'very Vermont,'" says Souza, referring to the state's storied disdain for lock-step thinking. Sure enough, within hours, a host of surprising places and peculiar artifacts would proclaim the village's audacious mix of insularity and idiosyncrasy.

I came to White River Junction by chance, after enrolling in a class at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in nearby Norwich. With its confirmation, King Arthur had mailed a list of discounted lodging available to baking-class participants, including the Hotel Coolidge, a former inn for railroad travelers on White River Junction's Main Street.

With cost and convenience in mind, I booked a room at the hotel. An online scan of White River Junction-related sites depicted a town steeped in history and primed for reinvention as an artistic stronghold. It was just enough information to trust in serendipity and plan a visit to the village where the Connecticut and White rivers converge. As autumn travelers plot their own excursions during foliage season, they may also consider a stay in a place close to the wealth of museums, historic landmarks and hiking and river expeditions found throughout the Upper Connecticut River Valley.

Arriving in Vermont, I dallied en route to White River Junction. Crossing the state's southern border after driving from Bradley International Airport outside of Hartford, Conn., I cheered for the state where I attended college and later lived. Off of Interstate 91, I wound my way to Route 4, eventually crossing Quechee Gorge, a 165-foot chasm along the Ottauquechee River known as Vermont's Little Grand Canyon.

I aimed for lunch at the Farmers Diner, a restaurant that showcases food grown and processed in Vermont. With its flavorful motto -- "Food From Here" -- the diner draws a steady clientele lured to its location in Queechee Gorge Village, a kind of Vermont theme park, complete with a blacksmith shop, country store and crafts emporium.

Despite the restaurant's "motor coach meets maple syrup" ambience, I had an authentically wholesome meal while perched at the counter in the portion of the restaurant that is a restored diner. Before lunch arrived, I flicked open my napkin, a paisley bandanna, and read an excerpt printed on the menu from "Mad Farmer Liberation Front," a 1973 poem by Wendell Berry that reveals a prescient dread of corporate agriculture.

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Lunch was a "classic New York reuben" modestly stuffed with turkey and sauteed sauerkraut, served on rye bread made by La Panciata bakery in Northfield. The Harpoon IPA root beer I sipped was described on the menu as a "highly hopped copper-colored ale with a floral aroma and crisp, refreshing finish." Admirable verbiage for a beverage without a lick of alcohol.

After a serving of coconut-almond ice cream from Stratford Organic Creamery, it was time to turn east again for the brief drive to White River Junction. The village's stately 19th-century architecture hasn't changed markedly from its heyday as a crossroads for five railroads. But the pace of village life slowed to a crawl when the interstate overpowered train travel. Today, Amtrak's Vermonter is the only passenger train to stop in White River Junction, an event several locomotive buffs watched from folding chairs outside the station on the day of my visit.

Unnerved by the village's initial quiet, I went straight to Revolution and combed through a reassuring array of whimsical clothing. My spirits revived at the sight of a piquant Betsey Johnson frock, a paisley halter pant ensemble worthy of early Cher, and designer Marion Settle's inspired reconstruction of old skirts, blouses and dresses.

Employee Angela Emery, a lithe, 28-year-old poet, commanded the counter. "I never thought I'd want to be around here," she said of White River Junction. Then why did she stay? The people, the community, and the blend of natural beauty and creative offerings found in the Upper Valley area, Emery replied.

Adhering to White River Junction's motto No. 1, Souza, Emery and friends are resourceful playmates who keep the village (population 2,500) jumping with amateur burlesque and fashion shows, drumming circles, poetry nights, Halloween festivities and other events, most of which are open to the public.

The women also pointed to a wonder not to be missed: the Main Street Museum, no longer on Main Street but just around the corner. Founder David Fairbanks Ford had moved his trove of curiosities several times and was poised to leave for a Tennessee commune when the village's former fire station became available.

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There, Ford, a compulsive collector, found a permanent home for his willy-nilly compilation of all things strange and weird.

Among the artifacts are Elvis Presley's gallstones, pressed poppy blossoms from Napoleon's grave, an egg cup salvaged from a San Francisco hotel in the Great Fire of 1907, and a miniature red bat (in actuality, a bat of the baseball variety). When the remains of Baltimore's defunct American Dime Museum went on the block this year, Ford snared a faux Elgin marble, now prominently displayed in his own museum.

A curatorial trickster, Ford is fascinated with the mutable meaning of objects, both rare and prosaic. As various antique clocks chimed the hour, he offered an abbreviated version of his philosophy of "things." Depending on who owns them, objects are charged with meaning and relative value, he said.

Ford's discourse ended with a tribute to his New England village. Like the Main Street Museum, itself, where an Elvis impersonator and punk-rock band have performed, White River Junction thrives on its eclectic vitality, Ford said. "Everyone is throwing it together, young and old, gay and straight, conservative and liberal."

Back on Main Street proper, I checked into the Hotel Coolidge. Renamed in 1924 for President Calvin Coolidge's father, the Hotel Coolidge was called the Junction House when actress Lillian Gish and director D.W. Griffith stayed there. They came to shoot the ice-

flow scenes for the 1920 classic Way Down East. Today, the hotel also offers extended stay lodging and serves as a hostel.

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An upstairs sign suggests the rumpus that can result: "Please whisper in the hallways." Downstairs, the hotel cafe, Inky's Place, becomes a coffee house Thursday nights, where that evening I caught the quavery strains of Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" as sung by an area folkie.

It's all very Twin Peaks, says desk clerk Josie Whitmore, comparing the village and its denizens to the small Western town depicted in the cult television classic. A Baltimore native, Whitmore was among the first class to graduate from the Center for Cartoon Studies in the former Colodny Surprise Department Store on Main Street.

Founded in 2005, the center offers a master of fine arts program,

as well as summer courses for kids. Around the village, students' work animates storefronts, bulletin boards and other public spaces. On Oct. 22, Doonesbury author Garry Trudeau will appear at the school.

I spent the remainder of the day ambling through White River Junction's small commercial center, pausing at the Tip Top Media and Arts Building, a warren of artists' studios in a former bakery. The Briggs Opera House was dark, but this fall, its occupant, Northern Stage, will present Doubt, How the Other Half Lives and Disney's Beauty and the Beast. I peeked into Elixir, a bustling restaurant and lounge where bottled water is peddled like wine and small plates boast names such as "Spears of Ecstasy" (asparagus wrapped in pasta) and "Great Balls of Fire" (risotto and buffalo-mozzarella fritters.)

Outside White River Junction's train station stood Old 494, a restored engine that operated from 1892 to 1938. In summer and fall, the White River Flyer, a historic train, features weekend excursions from the village's station. The New England Transportation Museum there is filled with transportation memorabilia.

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That evening at the Tip Top Cafe, I dined well on portabella mushroom and basmati rice seasoned with lemon grass, jalapeno and ginger sauce ($14.95), then retired to the pleasantly dated hotel.

The next morning, sustained by a flaky croissant and coffee from the Bakers Studio, I meandered through Vermont Salvage, a cavernous space filled with old doors, cornices, mantles, transoms, school desks, commodes and other recyclable treasures. It could have served as the Main Street Museum annex.

There was time before the 1 p.m. King Arthur class to tour Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, a Woodstock, Vt., mansion owned in succession by three notable families with a prescient commitment to environmental conservation. It is the only national park "to tell the story of conservation history," according to a brochure.

Landscapes by Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole, Edward Moran, Albert Bierstadt and a Tiffany window illustrating the concept of stewardship called "Passing the Torch" emphasize the mansion's legacy of environmental diligence. Such artifacts stood in noble contrast to some of the domestic effects left behind by Laurence Rockefeller and his family, including cassette tapes by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and a loud, plaid carpet.

The adjoining Billings Farm & Museum, where Billings' visionary conservation techniques still sustain a working farm, would have to wait. It was time to scoot to King Arthur for my baking lesson, Beauty & the Baguette.

A capacity crowd of 16 students, including a young girl, her dad and grandmother, turned out for the $80 class. Participants came from as far as California and ranged from baking neophytes to accomplished amateurs. Nevertheless, a certain amount of performance anxiety permeated the classroom when instructor Sharon O'Leary called baguettes "the pinnacle of bread baking."

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With lots of hands-on help and repeated instructions from O'Leary and assistant Susan Miller, the class, attired in freshly laundered aprons, mixed and kneaded and folded its way through the afternoon. As students worked, the aura of anxiety dissolved. The class called to mind a kindergarten project, reconfigured for a slightly older set.

We began with a "poolish," a bubbly starter prepared 18 hours earlier by King Arthur bakers. To that, we added flour, water, yeast and salt to create our own baguettes that we would shepherd to completion.

Working under a mirror that enabled the class to watch unhindered, O'Leary and Miller demonstrated techniques and discussed fine points, such as the importance of filling the oven with steam to achieve a crusty loaf.

While stressing the science behind a beautiful baguette, O'Leary and Smith also encouraged students to go by "looks and feel" as they determined how much water, yeast and salt to use. Their inclusive teaching style kept everyone on the same page throughout the four-hour class.

After our loaves had proofed, we slashed them to allow air to escape. O'Leary also showed the class how to snip the bread so that it would look like a golden wheat sheaf when done.

It was a fun, fragrant, delicious class. When it came out of King Arthur's giant French oven, my baguette looked more like a centipede than a wheat sheaf. But it tasted gorgeous.

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stephanie.shapiro@baltsun.com

ONLINE See Stephanie Shapiro's photos of her trip to Vermont at baltimoresun.com / vermont

If you go

GETTING THERE

Southwest Airlines flies to Hartford, Conn., and Manchester, N.H. From Hartford, it takes about 2 1/2 hours to drive to White River Junction. It's about an 1 1/2 hour drive from Manchester.

LODGING

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White River Junction offers several moderately priced options:

Hotel Coolidge

-- The historic hotel features evocative murals and a quirky, antique aura. (Rates $119-$139 during foliage season; 800-622-1124 or hotelcoolidge.com)

DINING

Tip Top Cafe

-- 85 N. Main St., White River Junction. A breezy bistro with innovative entrees, a full bar and vegan options. 802-295-3312; tiptopcafevt.com.

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The Bakers Studio

-- 25 S. Main St., White River Junction. An array of fresh-baked pastries, bagels and sandwiches. 802-296-7201; thebakersstudio@valley.net.

Farmers Diner

-- Quechee Gorge Village on Route 4. Enjoy Vermont's bounty of homegrown food. 802-295-4600; farmersdiner.com.

ACTIVITIES

King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center

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-- King Arthur Flour offers a variety of baking classes for all levels throughout the year. 800-652-3334; kingarthurflour.com.

Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park and the Billings Farm & Museum

-- Bask in fall colors while learning about important figures in the conservation movement at these Woodstock landmarks. Historical park: 802-457-3368; nps.gov/mabi. Farm & Museum: 802-457-2355; billingsfarm.org

Main Street Museum

-- The Main Street Museum is a strange and wondrous place. 802-356-2776; mainstreetmuseum.org.

Hiking and scenic drives

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-- These are plentiful in the Upper Connecticut River Valley. Sources that will get you started include the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing. 802-828-0528; vermontvacation.com.

INFORMATION

Ctrivertravel.net

-- Connecticut River Byway is the name of this Web site that has a wealth of suggestions for outdoor adventures.

VermontToday.com

-- A useful Web page for Vermont residents and visitors.

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Trails.com:

-- Includes details about a bounty of trails in Vermont and New Hampshire, including suggested paths for hikes with dogs.

[STEPHANIE SHAPIRO]


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