A Flatlander’s Ode to VT

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I canÕt remember the exact moment I felt I was truly in Vermont.

It could have been when I first approached the rugged Green Mountains, or it could have been when I first gazed over Lake Champlain. Instead, it was more like a growing realization that I was not in the Midwest anymore.

On the surface, it shouldnÕt have taken me long to realize this. I left a land of rolling hills and entered a place with cascading mountaintops.

Before Vermont, I thought Illinois was a pretty bumpy state. It has its fair share of plains, but there were some pretty steep hills. Now, traveling through what feels like a roller coaster ride, I cannot help but label the Illinoisan heartland a flatland.

The stuff of Vermont moves past pure physicality, however. Back in the Land of Lincoln, almost all businesses and vendors were national chains, and the closest thing to organic health food was the nearest Subway.

Sure, if you looked hard enough you could find a farmerÕs stand or an organic food section at a Walmart, but you could count on the price being tripled and the quality usually low.

This wasnÕt necessarily the sellerÕs fault. The market demand was low, and people held on to the belief that organic meant grungy (both of which no one aimed to correct).

Environmentalism was frequently linked to grunginess too, and often when groups tried to rally the community in favor of public recycling, most would automatically discount the idea because it meant they had to separate recyclables before it would be picked up.

Most city governments didnÕt believe recycling was important enough to allocate the funding or manpower to allow citizens to mix recyclables.

There were other small, idiosyncratic cultural differences as well.

Dogs and pets in general were highly scrutinized and looked down upon in Illinoisan public. There was a norm of making conversations abrupt and impersonal when speaking in public, whether it was a loved one, a friend or a stranger. And your financial trouble was the common replacement for weather in small talk, which is starkly opposite in Burlington.

Diversity plays an integral role in establishing the sense of place here in Vermont, too. Though IÕve heard many locals proclaim that their state lacks diversity, IÕd argue that the city of Burlington has more diversity than the entire state of Illinois.

This becomes especially apparent in issues like race, culture, language and belief systems. IÕve seen more religions represented in Burlington than I saw in the entire state of Illinois, even in Chicago.

I recognize that there are cities in Vermont that are not like Burlington, just as much as I know that there are regions in the Midwest that are not like the heartland of Illinois. But no one can argue that the atmosphere of tolerance is largely the same.

IÕll never forget the day that a peer of mine used the N-word in an extremely racist rant during class. In the heartland of Illinois, there exists a stigma attached to correcting intolerance.

In my experience, if a teacher or student were to correct him, to point out the utter racism, offensiveness, and delusion in the argument, he would promptly receive administrative punishment for doing so. This unjust acceptance of intolerance reached to all spectrums, including race, gender, sexuality and heritage.

So, I canÕt say I remember the exact moment I knew I was in Vermont. Maybe it was when I first sampled Vermont maple syrup, or when I saw the leaves of trees just start to color.

But I think, in the end, it was the change of tolerance that did it. It was the fact that racism, sexism and other such items were not tolerated.

People here are free to be themselves and be proud of their home country and their belief systems. With this, I knew I wasnÕt in the heartland of Illinois anymore. I was in Burlington.