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Leigh LaFountaine: I’ve lived In Vermont my entire life. Last week, I left.

This commentary is by Keith LaFountaine, a horror writer who grew up in Burlington.

Years ago, I found a YouTube video where Stephen King espoused 10 pieces of advice to the University of Maine’s graduating class of 2005. The closing piece of this advice was quite simple: Stay in Maine.

I admire this fervent defense of one’s homeland. As a kid, my eyes were always set elsewhere, over these Green Mountains. Maybe I’d visit LA and bask in the warmth and the city’s hubbub. Or maybe I’d live in another country — “The Truman Show” convinced me Fiji was worth the 20-hour flight.

But around the time I graduated college, I had to admit something to myself. I love this little state. I have for a long time.

When I was a kid, I would pop into the Borders downtown (where CVS now stands) and I’d sit in a big, comfortable chair and read whatever book I had on my person while smelling roasted coffee beans from the café inside. I’d do that while waiting for the CCTA bus that would take me from Cherry Street to the South End, where I’d pass all assortments of sculptures and street art — particularly if Art Hop was approaching.

When I grew up and took that winding road down Politics Ave, I found myself appreciating Vermont’s confident progressivism and its tendency to split tickets (my dad loved Jim Douglas, and I have more than an inkling that he’s fond of Phil Scott, even while he helps send Bernie to the Senate).

But about a year ago, I stared a harsh truth in the face.

It is not easy to stay in Vermont.

The state has bled young people as long as I can remember. That’s nothing new. But I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of that migration until I was in the midst of my own.

Skyrocketing rent, stagnant wages, few long-term career opportunities, landlords’ ironclad grip on the renting market, housing prices that cost about two livers and half a kidney to afford (and that’s just the down payment), and a big old pit sitting in the center of the city, like a pimple that was dug out of a pockmarked face with a rusty tack. 

And let’s not forget a state college system that is chronically underfunded and underappreciated, or how Burlington’s mayor loves to tout his Habitat for Humanity credentials while pursuing plans to add yet another luxury hotel to the map instead of affordable housing.

These are not new observations, and they are not unique ones, either. These are issues that have dogged our small state for decades. They are issues I’ve heard grumbled about at the dinner table. They’re issues I’ve groused about with friends. They almost feel like a rite of passage to becoming a Vermonter — to complain about taxes, or to complain about this landlord or that piece of news. 

It’s a noxious brew, and one I drank greedily, particularly as my rent bumped up and up, and my paycheck remained stubbornly static.

Before moving, we considered buying a house (hence how I came to my astute kidney and liver equation). But even as I got a new job with a beefier salary, I realized that our housing costs, coupled with other cost-of-living expenses, made it so that we would always be just above water to afford our lives, but never ascendent enough to plan our wedding, or to afford a house, or to grow a family. Not comfortably, at least.

So, we started to look elsewhere. And, last week, we made a trek across the country to a new city.

That move was painful for me. My horror writer mind conjured an image the morning we left: that of me crawling up those Green Mountains, burying a knife in my chest, pulling my steaming heart free, and burying it up there, in the dirt, in the trees. I can see the dark blood and the wet soil under my fingernails. I can feel the emptiness in my chest.

All I ever wanted to do was stay in Vermont. Even now, I write stories about our state. The Northeast Kingdom makes frequent appearances, my personal Castle Rock, where ragged strangers come to town, hiding their brimstone odors with headache-inducing aftershave or perfume; where crimson-eyed bears linger outside ramshackle diners; where winter threatens to blacken appendages; where monstrous spiders wait, mandibles dripping, legs writhing.

But Vermont is not easy to stay in.

As we moved out of our apartment, I learned that my landlords bumped the price of our old apartment up another $100. And they sold it, seemingly without issue. Because in Vermont, when an apartment goes on the market, you have about 24 hours to get an application in before it’s going, going, gone.

I don’t know whether we will stay in this new city, or if we will travel around. Remote work has changed the landscape in that regard. But I desperately want Vermont to address these gangrenous issues because, I think, deep down, I one day want to be able to feasibly give the following advice. To myself and to others:

Stay in Vermont.

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