It’s Middlebury, Vt., vs. Bar Harbor, Maine, and it’s neck and neck.
The race is all about the sense of place and the stakes, as is usually the case in competition, is about … well, let’s just put it out there — it’s about pride and ego, and a bit of self-serving capitalism. OK, so we’re not out to save the world today. We’re not even appealing to our better selves. Rather, we’d just like to win.
Still, the satisfaction would be sweet and the stakes, while small, are suddenly worthwhile.
The contest is Outside Magazine’s “Best Town Ever” online extravaganza that in 2014 drew 1.5 million votes. It’s set up in a March Madness bracket system with 64 towns making the original list. Middlebury is competing in the East Coast division and making it to the “final four” would be sweet.
It’s possible. Middlebury knocked off New York City in the first round of 64; then bested Providence, R.I. That pitted us against Lake Placid, N.Y., in the round of 16, which we beat out by a few hundred votes, and now we’re up against Bar Harbor — home to Acadia National Park, the ocean, and some pretty amazing coastal scenery — and with a day or two left in the voting it’s a very tight race.
Normally, we scoff at these “Best Of” online popularity contests. We know they’re more about building traffic for the host site than they are about pinpointing which town may actually be the “best” by any objective standard. But we have to hand it to Outside Magazine — they’ve done a good job with this promotion. The final 16 towns get profiled and stay up on Outside’s website for the year. If you’re looking to live in a town that has great recreational and cultural opportunities, these top 16 towns just may provide the perfect match.
It’s even worth going online and taking a look. One thing you learn is what other great towns are doing that make young people, and old, love to be there. Duluth took top honors last year, and there’s a well-written overview of the progressive actions that community is taking to become the best town it can be. It’s impressive — and instructive.
But that was last year. It’s 2015, and for the sake of all Vermont towns, let’s rally around this beautiful state of ours and cast a vote for Middlebury, the Green Mountains, Lake Champlain, our fertile farm lands and all the amazing natural and cultural resources that make this area such a terrific place to live, work and play. A vote for Middlebury is a vote for Vermont, and it takes about two minutes; just log onto https://www.outsideonline.com/1972941/best-towns-2015. (It’s anonymous and they don’t capture your email.)
More than just a contest, however, it’s also an opportunity for Middlebury-area residents to look anew at their backyard and take stock of the amenities, such as:
- The TAM, or Trail Around Middlebury, is a 16-mile circumferential trail that offers diverse running, hiking and mountain biking that’s accessible within a few blocks of almost any place in town. The scenery ranges from spectacular river gorges along the Otter Creek (with great trout fishing in spots), to vast vistas looking out to the Adirondacks and Green Mountains, to a run along the edge of Middlebury College’s stunning campus and past its 18-hole golf course, to pastoral runs through open farm fields.
- Middlebury College itself is a huge asset with its athletic facilities that host many town events and provide a recreational fan base for its nationally ranked hockey, lacrosse, cross country, Nordic and alpine ski teams, as well as the fan-favorite Panther football team. Paddle tennis courts are shared, the synthetic outdoor oval track is open to the public at appropriate times and the college-owned golf course is also public. Just 20 minutes from the town center is the Middlebury College Snow Bowl — a jewel of a family ski resort — and the Rikert Nordic Center with its recently installed $800,000 snowmaking system that has made it among the best in the Northeast.
- Kayakers and paddlers ply the Otter Creek as it snakes its way through Middlebury cascading in a crescendo in the middle of the downtown with a 15-foot drop over Middlebury Falls — a playground for whitewater kayakers and thrill-seekers. At any time in the spring, summer and fall, grab a fly rod, or hop in a kayak or canoe and enjoy an escape into what can seem like an outdoor paradise just a few minutes from your downtown office.
- Running and biking are favorite pastimes for many in this town of 8,000, encouraged by the presence of 2,250 Middlebury College students, who make it seem like the entire community is in exercise mode on any sunny spring, summer or fall day; and dressed to play in the snow on any winter day.
- Middlebury has also become host to several major athletic events: Middlebury’s Sweetest Half draws about 800 people each May for a half marathon that has been described as one of the most scenic and best organized races in the region; two ultra-endurance runs are held just outside of town in the Moosalamoo National Recreational Area in the summer, plus the toughest 10K in New England — the Goshen Gallop — is held each July just a few miles away; the Gran Fondo, now in its second year, is a 104-mile road bike that climbs four of the toughest gaps in the state and starts at the Middlebury Gap; the Kelly Brush Century Ride draws 700-plus riders each September, and numerous smaller runs, Nordic races, plus a ski bum alpine racing league runs through the winter.
- The Moosalamoo National Recreational Area is one of two designated NRAs in Vermont and features spectacular scenery, including Lake Dunmore and the Branbury State Park and campgrounds just on its edge, and Silver Lake in its midst. With Lake Dunmore’s 3.5-mile expanse and 100-foot depth, the area offers some of the best fishing in the state as well as a hiking, trail running, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing and waterskiing mecca — all just 12 miles from Middlebury center.
- Finally, there’s nearby Lake Champlain, the nation’s “sixth Great Lake,” with its 100-mile length and spectacular scenery, making it a haven for sailing, motorboating, kitesurfing, windsurfing, ice-boating and fishing (as well as scuba diving and stand-up paddleboarding). It’s as close as you might come to the ocean without being saltwater and tidal.
There’s also skydiving in nearby Addison, sculling on Lake Dunmore, numerous team sports and our vibrant fitness centers, yoga studios and other fitness outlets; not to mention the four other major Vermont ski resorts — Sugarbush, Mad River Glen, Pico and Killington — that are all within 34 miles of Middlebury. Add in the town’s two microbrews (Drop-in Brewing and Otter Creek, aka Long Trail), plus Woodchuck Cider’s $30 million home base and tasting room, several distilleries and a winery, and a vibrant art and theater scene, and it’s a wonder we have time to work.
Is Middlebury one of Outside Magazine’s Best Towns Ever? It certainly could be. Like many Vermont towns, we have an abundance of resources that come so naturally we almost forget they are here. It’s that awareness — and the chance to tell our story — that is the real prize in Outside’s contest.
Still, we’d like to win — so cast a vote for Middlebury, and if we make it to the Final Four, vote again!