Keelan: A Vermont version of Rip Van Winkle

By Don Keelan

Sometimes I feel I have been asleep for twenty years and awaken only to find how much Vermont has changed. Similarly, Rip van Winkle, about 250 years ago, awoke near the Catskill Mountains of New York.

According to the scribe Washington Irving who wrote about Mr. Winkle, it was unusual. Winkle went off for a walk in the woods, met some fellows, drank their “hooch,” and fell asleep. When he woke up 20 years later, he missed out on America gaining its independence and was unaware that an American President had replaced King George III.

Don Keelan

I must have fallen asleep just after the attack of 911, which I recalled did not directly impact Vermont. Nevertheless, the State has not escaped the fall-out of the attack.

Waking up in 2022, I find so much has changed, most of which is negative. For sure, the State continues to be a significant snow skiing destination in the winter with ever-increasing daily visits. The 2022 winter saw maple sugar production at an all-time high.  The distilling and beer brewing business hardly existed before I went to sleep.

VB Vermont Biz recently reported that the 14 distillers employ over 230 folks joined by 18 brewers, and 307 plus are employed to produce nationally recognized products.

But, negative changes have also taken place since 2002. It seems Vermont has a serious problem with racism, as evidenced by the number of organizations created to deal with it. Organizations–for profit, nonprofit, and government alike–have diversity, inclusion, and equity officers and staff.

Significant changes have occurred in police service organizations throughout the State. There doesn’t appear to be one department that hasn’t engaged outsiders to assist with profound culture, staffing, and leadership issues. What is so noticeable from 20 years ago is the major decline in the ranks of police service personnel and the increasing difficulty of recruitment.  Almost every other economic sector has the same issue.

My 2022 awakening was to read about the frightful number of gun shootings in the State’s cities and towns. Since the year’s beginning, at least six shootings have resulted in death. Most attributed to something almost non-existent in 2002, illegal drug distribution and use in every corner of the State.

Vermont also had two other “killers” invade its borders these past two decades. One was the Covid-19 pandemic, which took the lives of approximately 700 residents. The other is overdose deaths, annually in the hundreds, caused by the consumption of illegal drugs laced with fentanyl.

Before I went to sleep in 2002, Vermont had a stable workforce, child care services, mental health treatment facilities, and abundant residencies for rent or ownership. Today, the homeless population exceeds that of many towns and villages. It is so dire that countless hotels and motels have been converted to provide shelter. Acerbating the housing problem is so many private homes re-purposed as Airbnb to accommodate tourists.

The most noticeable change since my awakening is in civility and the absence of folks attempting to have a civil discourse to discuss the issues before the State.

This is evident when you read the polls and see many Democrats supporting a Republican for governor. What was once the middle ground of the political spectrum has all but disappeared.

The vanishing middle ground first took place at the national level; now, it has overtaken Vermont’s political discussion. One exception: Governor Phil Scott is attempting not to abandon what distinguished Vermont in the days of Senators George Aiken (1892-1984) and Jim Jeffords (1934-2014).

Vermont’s natural physical assets have not changed in 20 years. The State’s political and social fabric has changed for the worse and continues to do so.  Maybe it is time to go back to sleep?

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.

Image courtesy of Public domain