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.
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."
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.
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.