This story appears in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine.
There’s a habit in some of the more remote sections of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. When you drive up to a person’s out-of-the-way home, you honk your horn and wait before exiting your vehicle. So the dogs can gauge your intentions. It’s a form of politesse. It’s also not too dumb an idea.
Locals call it simply the Kingdom. The full title purportedly was bestowed in the 1940s by a politician. But whatever the origin, the place deserves a special label. Even in a state as different, occasionally ornery, and notoriously freethinking as Vermont, the Kingdom stands out.
In the state’s northeast corner, it covers roughly 2,000 square miles, comprises three counties, and contains fewer than 64,000 people. Some 80 percent of it is forest. Distinct from the rest of Vermont in many ways, geologically it’s more Canadian than not, an ancient tectonic collage carved by ice sheets, wedged under often querulous skies.
Counties of the
People in the Northeast Kingdom “do without what they don’t need,” says Archer Mayor. The area is less prosperous than the rest of Vermont; two of its counties have the highest rates of poverty in the state.
Riley D. Champine, NGM Staff
It’s been said that in this cold country, the law has less to do with rules than with personal honor—sometimes one and the same, but not always. The land and climate are hard. The people tend to be frank. They live in the Kingdom because it suits.
Stéphane Lavoué, a French native now living in Brittany, came upon the Kingdom when visiting friends and took it as his project. I recognize the people he photographed—not as individuals or by name but as archetypal subjects of the Kingdom with its mysterious sense of otherness.
These are pragmatists. They make do, and they craft what they can’t afford to buy. Most important, they are not hard-bitten or downtrodden by a harsh environment. The Kingdom is a choice, at once a retreat for the eccentric and a home to the independent.
When my editor asked if I knew what was in the Museum of Everyday Life, I said I did not—but wouldn’t be startled if it were empty, a jest. I’ve since learned that it’s a real museum with a collection reflecting its name, displaying everything from a safety pin to a kitchen match.
Still, it might have been empty, in keeping with the Kingdom’s vaunted quirkiness. Those who dwell here may not have much money, but they’re often rich in irony.
Devoted Vermonter Archer Mayor, a death investigator for the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, is the award-winning author of a series of crime novels starring Vermont detective Joe Gunther.