Yay, Cairo's famous! Read about her in the LATimes: (if you are prompted to login, email@example.com, password=latimes):
When N. Todd Pritsky got up the other day, the thermometer was stuck at 11 degrees below zero. Pritsky thought: What a great day for an outing!
Then he added in the windchill factor, making the air more like minus 41. Hmm, he considered, maybe I should bring a hat.
So Pritsky, wife Stefanie Otterson and their dog Cairo piled into their black Subaru Forester and drove north [ed. note: it's actually south of us, but LATimes readers won't know that!] toward this unincorporated community on a frozen mountainside.
First, they chugged into Jericho, where the town hall is housed in a barn, next to the nation's only snowflake museum. Both were shut tight. Click. Pritsky shot a family photo. They meandered into Richmond, where "Closed Til Spring" signs hung in darkened storefronts. Click. Pritsky photographed the three of them outside the town's round church.
They hurried back to the car, two towns closer to their goal of visiting every community in Vermont. Pritsky and Otterson are new to the 251 Club, an organization founded 50 years ago to encourage Vermonters to get to know their beautiful — and conveniently small — state. Vermont is the only state that claims a club devoted exclusively to exploring every city, town, village, gore and grant (the last two, forms of self-governance that in other states would be considered nongovernance).
Their stops in Jericho and Richmond brought their tally to 11, with 240 to go. For extra credit — and bragging rights among club members — Pritsky and Otterson headed to one of the state's three gores.
They passed fields filled with farm animals, standing still as statues. Too cold to move, speculated Otterson. They saw houses with chimneys puffing as they drew close to Buels Gore — pop. 12, according to the 2000 census. They encountered stalactite icicles gripping the green schist boulders that form the Green Mountains.
Pritsky parked on the lip of the mountain, with not one of the gore's six residences (and none of its residents) in sight. Otterson and Cairo were shivering as Pritsky adjusted his tripod in knee-deep snow. "Hurry up and take the picture," Otterson called out, as Pritsky clomped into the family photo. The instant the camera clicked, all three sped back to the car.
"The discovery of things like that is what it is all about," said Otterson, 36. "Like, what is a gore? Why do we have gores? Do other states have gores?"
The answer is no. Gores are unincorporated communities with limited self-government. Vermont also has the country's sole grant, a settlement with no governing body at all.
The 251 Club is as quirky as the state it celebrates: an association based entirely on curiosity, trust and an excuse to get out of the house. The club is noncompetitive; it has no rules or bylaws. Members just have to have a desire to visit all the inhabited places in Vermont, sometime in a lifetime.
By traveling to the 251 official communities, club members like Otterson and Pritsky take in more than mere geography. They see beyond the quaint church spires and into a way of life they fear is fast changing as development speeds up, threatening the rural tranquillity that long has been Vermont's hallmark.
Vermont has 619,000 residents. The largest city, Burlington, has 35,000 people. Montpelier (pop. 7,500) boasts that it is the country's smallest state capital — and the only one without a McDonald's.
But malls and other signs of homogenization have been moving in.
"We're seeing more 'islands' of wilderness in the sea of development. Not to the same scale as a Central Park in New York City, but similar in some ways," said Pritsky, 35.
"But walk or drive a few minutes away from where you are, and you will find yourself in another world," he said. "Lots of trees, dirt roads, no street signs, lights or any landmarks that could help you find your way. So Vermont is very much like an old-fashioned quilt, with patches of this and that all sewn together."
The 251 Club was suggested in a Vermont Life magazine article by historian Arthur Wallace Peach. His idea of starting an organization whose members pledge to visit every occupied outpost was aimed at promoting local pride.
The 251 Club provided structured, goal-oriented activities in a state where watching salamanders cross a road at daybreak is a major spring event. It gave club members a reason to poke around.
"Some people would think it is goofy," said William Rockford Jr., who has run the club for the last 20 years. "Others think it is a challenge. Me, I just think it's fun." Rockford and his wife long ago completed the 251 circuit. Now the Montpelier couple are on their second go-round, comparing how places have changed — or stayed the same — over the last 35 years.
Rockford said he saw the most dramatic change in Williston, about 10 miles south of Burlington.
"Thirty years ago when you got off the interstate, Williston was literally cow pastures — just nothing," he said. "Now it is full of Wal-Marts and Home Depots and even a Starbucks. It is just overrun with chains and big-box stores. I don't know if there are even any operating farms there anymore. It's kind of sad, really."
Lacking official guidelines, many members invent their own rules. Pritsky and Otterson try to strike up a conversation with a resident of every town they visit. They also photograph themselves in each place, and post the pictures on a Web log they maintain from their home in Fletcher, north of Burlington.
Rockford kept a photo album during the six years it took his family to see all 251 communities. The album became a coveted keepsake because the pictures showed his son growing from a little boy to a young man as the family explored the state.
With no system of enforcement, no consequences for deception and no grand prize for attaining the goal, Rockford said, he marvels that "some people will go to extremes to see that last one, when all they had to do was say they had been there."
A member who visits all the towns earns a "plus" status. The honor includes a distinctive car decal — for 50 cents.
That was the cost of a year's dues in 1954, when the 251 Club was founded. Dues have soared to $5. An extra $16.75 each buys lunch (choice of chicken or ham steak) for several hundred members who attend the annual meeting held midsummer in a different place each year. Some members stay in touch through a tri-annual newsletter, by e-mail, and increasingly, via Web log. But the club is less of a social institution than an organization of members dedicated to the same goal.
The club has 4,100 members scattered in 39 states and five countries: Vermonters, former Vermonters, travelers who fell in love with the state when they visited and relatives of residents. Of those, 445 have aced the 251. Many have honorary status, such as former Gov. Howard Dean. His successor, Gov. Jim Douglas, is an avid 251-er — as members sometimes call themselves. Douglas is two towns shy of plus status. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), also a club member, said he thought he had visited almost all 251 towns, but he wasn't sure.
In southern Vermont, in the small town of Arlington, Father George H. Dupuis became a 251-er the year the club started up. At the time Dupuis was a young Catholic priest from Massachusetts, newly assigned to the state. He sent in 50 cents and became a charter member.
For the next five decades, Dupuis, 81, made a point of diverting to a new town when he attended church-related meetings. He keeps a map of Vermont in his office, checking off the towns as he visits them. His personal touch is to go to at least one church in each town.
"I think I've got about eight or nine yet to visit," Dupuis said, "up in the Northeast Kingdom," the state's most remote region, near the Canadian border.
"I've driven thousands and thousands of miles around this state," piloting Chryslers and Pontiacs and Plymouths provided by the church, he said. "It is very interesting — and no matter where it is in Vermont, it is beautiful."
Dorothy "Dot" Myer of South Burlington was 65 when she joined the club 12 years ago. Recently retired as a researcher at the University of Vermont, "I thought I might as well have some goal," Myer said.
She decided to see the state by bicycle, a feat she accomplished in about nine years. The biggest challenges for Myer were harsh weather and steep hills — and the time a bear crossed a washed-out road at the same moment Myer was wheeling up it.
Myer dodged her bike to avoid the bear, and blessedly the animal ran away. The encounter did not stop her from reaching her destination of Lewis, a village at the end of a steep logging road.
Otterson, a Web designer for Vermont Public Radio, heard about the 251 Club soon after she moved from Minnesota eight years ago to live with Pritsky. She and Pritsky, a technical instructor for colleges and corporations, started their Vermont odyssey last summer.
Otterson wanted to get to know her adopted state, whereas Pritsky wanted to record what he considered a fragile moment for Vermont, where he has lived since his early 20s. In some areas, the rural nature remains intact. But in other parts of the state, small towns are turning to suburbs, with town houses and drive-through espresso bars.
Pritsky takes his camera on every 251 expedition. "Because the character of the state is changing," he explained, "I feel compelled to record what life is like here at the turn of the 21st century."
He pointed out that as recently as the 1930s, almost two-thirds of Vermont was barren, with trees deliberately cut down — either for lumber, farmland or open space. Most of the state has since been reforested, providing the vibrant foliage — not to mention the maple syrup — that has become synonymous with Vermont.
"So I wonder what Vermont will look like in 100 years," Pritsky said. "And the only way we'll know what has changed is by documenting it now."
Occasionally Pritsky, Otterson and Cairo wander into villages where they feel out of place, where front yards are cluttered with rusting hulks of cars and tattered signs that read "Take Back Vermont," remnants of the state's debate five years ago over same-sex marriage.
"More often than not, you meet friendly people and find neat little nooks that make the trip worthwhile," Pritsky said.
Otterson's passion involves regional architectural eccentricities. She is "obsessed" with doorknobs, and studies them wherever she goes. Vermont to date has yielded little in doorknob lore, but in the process of examining home entrances, Otterson also has become fascinated by "little square windows that people put over their doorways" in certain parts of the state.
The small windows are set in the exterior walls of a house, above the doors.
The windows serve no obvious function, Otterson said, and she has yet to figure out why they're so prevalent.
"They are set on the diagonal, so if you look at them from the outside, they look like a diamond," she said, adding that she and Pritsky also like to study Vermont's weather vanes.
"They have a purpose, but stylistically they have evolved," she said. "The different farming communities have different emblems and symbols — and so many of them have been stolen these days that you really want to stop and take a look when you see one."
At Buels Gore, the couple agreed that the view of the valley 2,500 feet below was worth the frigid expedition.
They also considered it an accomplishment not to have frozen to death while photographing themselves.
Pritsky said his work life usually kept him away from Vermont. His business travel is frenetic.
"With this, we can kind of just hang," he said. "We can go somewhere and enjoy it, just for the sake of being there."
That was Arthur Peach's objective 50 years ago: giving Vermonters a purpose to their destination, and a reason to celebrate all of its towns and cities, gores and grant.
PS--For posterity's sake, I've published the entire article with accompanying photos. I figure it falls under fair use. Both pictures are copyright Alden Pellet.