Leaf-Peeping, After Deluge



By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  
October 11, 2011

BRIDGEWATER, Vt. - Facing a broad panorama of the Green Mountains, Doug Parchman aimed his camera below the tree line, toward what has become a more compelling tourist attraction than peeping at leaves, usually ablaze with color at this time of year.
In the distance, a battered old Cadillac sat atop a pile of boulders in a tributary of the Ottauquechee River, a lingering testament to the destructive power of Tropical Storm Irene, which six weeks ago swelled rivers throughout the region and carried away homes and stores, roads and bridges.
``We came up to see the foliage, but this is what's really unbelievable to see,'' said Parchman, 53, who traveled with his wife from Dallas and stopped along this bend in Route 4 with other camera-toting tourists.
With all the rain and strong winds, the palette of color in this year's autumn spectacle has been muted, with the remaining leaves looking more like rust than fire, ocher rather than crimson.
Instead of admiring the trees, the throngs of tourists who typically crowd this area on Columbus Day weekend were gawking at the backhoes mending the scarred roads, covered bridges leading to nowhere, detritus yet to be cleared.
Sheryl Trainor, who owns the Quechee Mobil station at the eastern entrance of Route 4, calls it ``disaster porn.''
``It's a good thing, because with all the drab colors, this may be one of the worst falls I've ever seen,'' Trainor said.
The morbid fascination as well as the massive effort to repair the damage, however, has combined to boost business. ``Ironically, Irene really helped us,'' she said. ``As a business, we'll take what we can get.''
Many of the people who have trekked to the Green Mountains said that although they were less than impressed with the fall foliage, they were leaving inspired.
Joanne Belliveau, her daughter, and son-in-law drove seven hours to Bridgewater from Rochester, N.Y.
``The rains had a big impact,'' said Belliveau, 81. ``The whole scene is not quite as brilliant as I remember.''
But her daughter Linda Graci said she was amazed how quickly the region seems to have bounced back, with many of the roads repaired and open to traffic.
``We've never seen this kind of damage before,'' she said as her family prepared to head home. ``It's devastating, but it's amazing to see how so many people have come together.''
When Suzanne Salemi arrived this weekend from Colchester, Conn., she was disappointed by what she described as ``the burnt and brown color'' of the foliage. Like many other visitors, her family found the destruction more affecting.
``It's a sight to take in - all this damage, and all the people still cleaning out their homes,'' said Salemi, 36.
At one of the many country stores that line Route 4, Bill Curley, 39, who drove up from Duxbury, said he took his family to explore the beauty of a gorge, but they came away more fascinated by what looked like the aftermath of a volcanic eruption, with river runoff still marring many of the trees.
``The debris was everywhere,'' he said.
In Woodstock, Paul Mason, who for the past six years has escorted tourists around the area on a large bus, said he has heard the camera clicks more often this weekend when passing disaster zones than the speckled peaks.
``There's an awe that people have for watching this work get done,'' he said.
Along Route 4 between Quechee and Mendon, the road is slow, with flaggers directing traffic around front loaders and other heavy equipment. Downed trees still line riverbanks. And the remnants of destroyed property are in every town along the winding road.
Amelia Rappaport, an owner of the Woodstock Farmers' Market, which had been submerged in more than six feet of water during the storm, partially reopened for the first time this weekend to take advantage of all the tourists.
An estimated 3.6 million people visit Vermont each autumn, generating about $332 million for the state.
She was selling mainly what she had left from before the storm: T-shirts, salad dressing, wine, anything that did not get destroyed.
She tired of waiting for a check to arrive from her insurance company, so she came up with a novel idea: She offered her regular customers a discount on future supplies if they paid in advance.
The idea was so popular that she raised $250,000 in three weeks.
Like many in the area, she has gotten used to the idea of disaster tourism. More people have stopped to take pictures of the flood damage at her store than she can count.
She has even seen cars crash as they stop in front to rubberneck.
``If the leaves are crappy this year,'' she said, ``at least there's something to look at.''

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com