By KATHRYN FLAGG
STARKSBORO — As the last session of “Camp Common Ground” drew to a close last week, multigenerational campers piled into cars, boarded airplanes and took off for home. With the family camp attracting visitors from 40 states and several different countries, that trips home can, at times, be arduous.
For East Middlebury residents Bryan Carson, Holly Stark and their seven-year-old son Max, the end-of-vacation trek was, instead, a scant 21-mile jaunt down Route 116.
The family’s decision to vacation close to home — to “staycation,” as Carson quipped — is a trend many Vermonters have embraced to reduce vacation stress, take advantage of their own backyards and, in many cases, save time, resources and money.
Though the “staycation” is by no means a new phenomenon, according to Steve Cook, Vermont’s deputy commissioner of tourism and marketing, it has, he said, “been the word of the summer.” The Department of Tourism and Marketing has promoted in-state vacations to Vermonters for the last four years, and now, Cook said, other states are launching similar campaigns. Both New York and Connecticut kicked off their first-ever marketing campaigns for in-state tourism this year.
It’s a trend that seems to be catching on. At Kampersville in Salisbury, owner Jean Wisnowski said she’s never seen so many Vermonters flock to the Lake Dunmore campground.
“It’s unbelievable,” Wisnowski said. “I’ve never in my life seen a summer like it.”
When she asks new campers about where they’re from, she said, she’s increasingly hearing from residents of Burlington, Winooski, and White Hall, N.Y. It’s a notable change of pace for a business that usually attracts visitors from New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.
“They’re staying closer to home,” she said of her new demographic, “and they’re looking for a place where a family can go and one-stop shop.”
Wisnowski is delighted — particularly because business is booming at Salisbury campground despite the summer’s poor weather and high gas prices.
That success has been seen statewide. It’s been a good summer, Cook said, in spite of these negative factors.
“The fuel costs have certainly had an impact on national visitor travel and visitor spending,” he said. “However, it hasn’t hit Vermont as hard as we had anticipated. We’ve always been cautiously optimistic.”
CLOSE TO HOME
Nestled on 700 acres not far from the Starksboro village center, the Common Ground Center feels remarkably remote. The noise from Route 116 is inaudible, and at night, Carson said, the camp gets dark — really dark.
It is Common Ground’s uncommon camping experience — aimed, said co-direct Jim Mendell, at providing something for every member of the family — that draws campers from all over the country and some far-flung corners of the world. One hundred and twenty campers sign up for each weeklong session — though some families stay for multiple weeks.
While campers do travel from all over to attend the summer sessions, the center’s idyllic location and unique set up also draw a fair number of Vermonters, Mendell said. In addition to the Carson/Stark family, campers last week came from Burlington, Barre, Hinesburg, St. George and Williston — among other corners of the state.
“It’s kind of like hippie camp,” Carson said with a chuckle. He’s taken up guitar and drum lessons, while his wife plays tennis and practices yoga. The children’s programming — “Kidsville,” Carson called it, referring to outings, crafts and classes run by counselors every morning — means that Max is equally entertained.
On the last afternoon of the weeklong session, campers enjoyed a lucky spell of sunshine. A crowd enjoyed a chamber music concert put on by three cellists in a lovely old barn, while on a spot of grass near a recycled playground one woman taught a bevy of children to twirl their hula-hoops. A boy kneeling in the grass played his violin while girls spun the hoops over their heads.
The Camp Common Ground experience is by no means an inexpensive one — though Carson said that what he’s paying for is the infrastructure that allows for a relaxing vacation experience. Meals are provided, and the camp provides extensive educational and recreational programming for all ages.
Carson is glad that his family’s decision to vacation in Starksboro is keeping their vacation dollars in the community.
“Everything I do, I think about where is the tax base going and who am I supporting,” said Carson. That desire to “buy local” for his vacation — and an awareness of the carbon footprint and expenses associated with driving and flying long distances — made the Camp Common Ground experience even more palatable.
“I was psyched when I heard about the solar panel,” Carson said, gesturing to three large panels on the other side of the field serving as the camp’s parking lot.
And, for the Carson/Stark family, the most delightful part of the vacation proved in part the welcome change of pace from more stressful vacations they’ve taken in the past.
“This vacation’s three times as a long and about one-tenth of the stress as even a few days in Montreal,” Carson said — and Max is certainly happier at camp than he was trekking through a city. He scampered up with two newfound friends — a nine-year-old girl from Connecticut and a seven-year-old from South Burlington.
His favorite part of their “staycation”? According to Max, the Common Ground hammocks took the cake — though his parents said later that the chance to “run amok” with a “little pack” was probably the highlight
So, despite the proximity to home and work, the family’s week away — just a hop, skip and a jump from Middlebury — proved a relaxing getaway. And both Carson and Stark said they’d recommend their “staycation” to friends and neighbors, particularly those with children.
“It doesn’t matter if it were a thousand miles away or 15 or 20,” said Stark. “It’s very different from our day to day.”