“This place is special,” Michael declared. I drove to Bolton, Vermont to see what he meant.
Driving West along the backroads of Route 25, and across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire to Vermont, a change is immediate:
Vermont smells different.
It’s all cow pies, farmland and pine trees, like it was bottled in a can then freshly cracked open. First sip supernova. Piquant.
Here the land is more maple syrup than metro. More timber-lined ridge than car parked mall. Instead of New Hampshire’s concentrated range, mountains rise and fall away like waves at low tide. Troughs are unfurled rugs of mauve fields barricaded by rounded peaks with a tarmac running through.
The car pulsed along, wind rushing through the open windows. Scott Hutchison’s tiding brogue drifted from the speakers, my lips and tongue moving in synchrony.
302: Past Berlin, Middlesex, Waterbury, continue by a flea market perpetually being set up, then take a sharp right to a steep drive.
There, a black barn.
“You must be the writer,” a hulking man with snow white hair and a braided beard declared.
“Something like that,” I said.
He stood up gingerly and extended his hand, “I’m Kirk. Welcome to paradise.”
Michael Hunter looks a lot like his father, and sounds like him too. All rumbling motor engine and belly laughs.
The Hunters are developing the 37+ acres of the Black Barn Farm into an outdoor hub. In what is likely to be the first bouldering hostel and campground in Vermont, you can sleep right next to the rocks. As it stands, his property has one of the densest concentration of erratics in the state.
When you visit you’re bound to meet friends, family, and people from the community. The place is always open, and it was designed that way.
Michael’s angle is “coming into resonance” with others, a practice he’s cultivated over 15 years as a mental health counselor. On his property, that means creating space for others to enjoy the land.
While I was there I chatted with Michael about his vision and what the hell “allemansrätten” means.
Aaron: What are you creating here?
Michael: We bought the place five and a half years ago, and we decided as a family that we wanted to share this beautiful spot. We’ve been improving the land, figuring out how to steward it the best.
We focused in on the natural resources: Bouldering, there’s steep terrain for backcountry skiing, disc golf, fly fishing—there’s brook trout all along the stream here. We want to create an outdoor recreation hub.
I also like craft beer, and we do beer shares; Sipping barrel aged stouts [things like that], we sit in the barn and talk about the different flavors. (Editors note: He laughs).
What about the boulders?
My friends, [Pete Cudney, Sam Simon, and others] the ones developing the boulders here, tell me that [outside of Smuggler’s Notch] the boulders in Vermont are few and far between.
You’ll have this big boulder, it’s awesome, but then have to walk two miles through the woods to another one, then a half-mile to another after that.
According to them, this is such a high concentration of good quality rock with amazing lines, all in a 300 square foot area.
That’s the wizard boulder (he points to the hunk of rock over my right shoulder), and the first climb that went up: “It’s complicated being a wizard [V5].”
There are other lines: Dharma Bum. Society of Solitude. Ghost in the Sky. All these are beer names from different breweries [in Vermont].
Why steward the land? To share it?
The previous owners [before the last] actually spread glass along the river on the property. They didn’t want people using the land. We thought that was ridiculous.
There’s a Scandinavian word, and actually it’s a law, called allemansrätten, that translates to “the right to roam.” Everyone has the right to walk through, fish, whatever. You can’t camp right behind someone’s house—you have to respect the land and the people on it—but basically this land is for everyone.
[At Black Barn Farm] we share everything. If you’re here and you’re hungry, you’re going to eat. People just kick money in the moonshine jar. I had a hiker that came for one night, stayed for a week. He helped around here, did a bunch of chores, pitched in a couple bucks.
How are you building this out?
In developing this, I’m in conversations with CRAG Vermont, to see how this fits in with their broader initiative of making climbing available to everybody.
The Catamount Trail, which is the cross country ski trail that goes from Jay Peak down to Harriman (300 miles from the border with Canada to Massachusetts), it goes right up here over the back of my property.
There’s a cabin up there called the Bryant Cabin that sells out in minutes each year. We’ve talked with them about building a spur down here and a yurt or a cabin [to offer another option].
We’ve talked with The Vermont Huts Association as well.
We’re dong this slow, starting with primitive camping to get going. The next step is to make this into a small campground: Lean-tos, a couple of teepees, etc.
How did you make your way here?
I grew up in Connecticut and moved to Burlington for grad school. I had worked in residential care for younger kids, and got my Masters in Counseling at UVM. I’ve been a licensed mental health councilor and drug councilor for the past 15 years. So I was living here.
My mom passed away, six years ago. My dad was still living in Connecticut in a three story house. We wanted dad to stay with one of us; Sister lives in California, brother is in Texas. He went out to California for about a month and a half, loved it. He went to Texas for awhile, and Texas sucks (he laughs), so he didn’t want to go there.
Then he came up here. He was coming up here all the time anyways because it’s close.
We had dinner on a Sunday night, and he told us, “Okay, I’m going to sell the house in Connecticut and move in with you.”
On Monday, my friend sent me the listing for this place. It had just come on the market.
“It’s everything you’ve ever wanted,” he said.
Everyone that buys a house has a bucket list of like 30 things, and you maybe get two of them. We had that list and everything was there at this house.
On Monday, I drove past after work. The previous owners were out front moving stuff and packing. They invited me in. I stayed for two hours, told them about my mom, how I grew up jumping in rivers like this, just told them the whole story. By the end of that, they told me, “We want to sell this house to you and your family.”
Two months later, on the Summer Solstice, June 21st, 2013, we closed on the house. And it was ours.
I spent the first night here with my best friend, the one that showed me the listing. And we slept on a couch in the backyard because we didn’t have furniture or anything. (He laughs).
We walked to the upper meadow under a full moon, and the whole meadow was covered in daisies. Daises were my mom’s favorite flower. Growing up, my dad always used to give her daises on anniversaries and her birthdays. I get goose bumps thinking about it now.
The way it all worked out—the way my dad decided, the way that we found it, the way I talked to those people. This place has an energy about it that shit like that happens all the time.
You said the way you grew up—you would jump into rivers, and things like that—was that something you wanted for your own children?
Oh ya, absolutely. My dad used to take us up to the Zealand Campground, near Mt. Washington. That’s the Ammonoosuc River. Every summer we’d go up and stay there, and jump in those pools.
I grew up doing that and I wanted my kids to have that.
When the previous family walked me around, everything in my head was, “My kids are gonna grow up here. They are going to love it!”
The Black Barn Farm is hosting a bouldering competition as part of the first ever Vermont Climbing Festival on Saturday, Sept. 21.
Interested in staying over and checking out the boulders? Message Michael on Facebook.
Feature photo courtesy of Sam Simon.