Friday, May 24, was Lennie Waltrip Day at Silver Lake in Leicester, but it came as a surprise to him.
For three months of the year, Lennie is lord of a domain that is the antithesis of the 21st-century world. Silver Lake, a mile-long jewel of the Green Mountains, lies 600 feet above popular Lake Dunmore. Surrounded on all sides by forests, broken only by a grassy picnic area on the northern end, Silver Lake seems a place apart, a little miracle of solitude, even as it graciously hosts those who seek it out.
The particular magic of Silver Lake, which lies within the Green Mountain National Forest and the Moosalamoo National Recreation Area, has been proclaimed for more than a century.
“This is one of Creation’s quiet retreats,” said the Brandon Union newspaper in 1886. Rev. Edward Davies of Reading, Mass., who wrote an early history of the lake at about the same time, was of the same mind: “You will find the air so pure and bracing and the place so quiet, that your health will begin to improve at once.”
In fact, its owner in the late 1800s, one Frank Chandler, was so moved when he inherited the land that includes Silver Lake that he considered it a particular beneficence of the Almighty. He resolved to repay his good fortune by building a hotel on the shores of the lake and holding camp revival meetings there. The camp meetings, which also featured lectures, poetry readings and music, went on for 30 years; in one weekend alone, some 3,000 people drove their horses and buggies up the new road through Leicester Hollow to attend.
(For the colorful history of Silver Lake, the writer is entirely indebted to William J. Powers Jr., whose sparkling history, “Silver Lake: Beyond the Myths,” was published in 2000.)
Even in 2013, the lake weaves its spell. The picnic area overlooks a little beach that affords a quiet view down the length of the lake, where you can sometimes see a group of young people catch the sun on a rocky outcrop.
Silver Lake’s only other concession to civilization is a series of rustic campgrounds strung along the northwest shore, close to the lake but invisible from the beach. Lennie Waltrip is campground host at Silver Lake, and lives for the summer with his wife of 59 years, Connie Waltrip, in a couple of tents — a “cook shack” and a sleeping tent — a few hundred yards from the lake itself.
A Middlebury resident who grew up in West Rochester, he’s been host at Silver Lake for eight years, and before that he spent six years as a volunteer with the Forest Service. He’s available every day, and every night, too.
“If somebody comes in after dark and I know there’s just one campsite open,” he explained, “I don’t want them rummaging through the other sites, waking people up, so I take them to the open one.”
He’s 83 years old. And he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“This is my cathedral,” he told a visitor recently at the picnic table in front of his tent.
He still remembers vividly his first visit to the lake in 1958. “I stayed a week,” he said. “Came back for a week the next year, too.”
Lennie (nobody calls him anything else) is the first person that hikers meet when they arrive at the lake, and the last they see when they start to hike down. Many stop to chat.
“I like to talk to people,” he confirmed. “They come here from all over the world, and I say ‘hello’ to them all.”
He remembers a “guy from Hong Kong” who visited every September, a month in which he also sees lots of English visitors. Opera singers performing in Middlebury dropped by, too — and invited him to a performance.
Lennie’s outgoing nature has endeared him to hundreds of visitors, and this year the Forest Service took notice. Friday, May 24, was the annual cleanup of the lake and campsite grounds, and a dozen workers from the Green Mountain National Forest ranger stations in Rochester and Middlebury participated, including Christopher Mattrick, the district ranger for the Rochester and Middlebury ranger districts.
Suddenly, at 11 a.m., they dropped their chain saws and rakes, showed up in front of Lennie Waltrip’s tent and called him over.
First there was a plaque, presented by Trails and Recreation Coordinator Holly Knox: “For your steadfast dedication to the public and your outstanding work at Silver Lake. Your devotion and spirit of service will long be appreciated.”
But that wasn’t the half of it.
Knox then led the group to an informal trail that has been stamped out over the years by enterprising hikers, leading to a spectacular view of Lake Dunmore, the Champlain Valley, and the Adirondacks beyond. Now, she explained, the trail would be an official Forest Service trail. Indeed, a new wooden sign revealed the new name of the viewpoint.
“Lennie’s Lookout,” it proclaimed.
Lennie’s face broke out in a smile of surprise and delight.
“I’m gonna hold onto this job,” he grinned.
The National Forest folks then accompanied Lennie on the quarter-mile hike to his Lookout, atop a ridge of granite. In truth, there wasn’t much to be seen that day, as fog hung over the valley. But Lennie Waltrip had been there too many times to count, so he could see the view anyhow.
“Oh god, it’s beautiful here,” he breathed.
The group turned around and in 10 minutes, all were back at Silver Lake.
It was beautiful there, too.
M. Dickey Drysdale has been editor and publisher of the Herald of Randolphsince 1971.