BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — The first question many Vermont foliage seekers ask about the color-packed Molly Stark Trail is not for routing information or the name of a good restaurant. No, it's "Who was Molly Stark?" followed by, "And why was a trail named for her?"
Molly's husband put her name into the local limelight. In August, 1777, Gen. John Stark, hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, was called upon to lead American troops against Gen. John Burgoyne's soldiers during the Battle of Bennington, one of the last important northern engagements during the American Revolution.
On the morning before the battle (which the Colonists would ultimately win), Stark was said to exclaim, "There stand the Redcoats and they are ours, or this night, Molly Stark sleeps a widow."
And so the road leading to Bennington had a nickname.
A Main Road
The Molly Stark Trail, also known unromantically as Vermont 9, is by Vermont standards a main road. For 39 miles this two-lane byway winds, climbs and curves, bisecting the southern tier of the state and linking New Hampshire and Upstate New York.
But during those 39 miles the trail is interrupted only once by a traffic light. It traverses hills and glens, skirts the edges of streams and ponds and is bordered almost its entire length by sugar maples, birches, elms and other foliage trees. After driving this road, people know why "autumn in Vermont" has become as magical as "April in Paris."
Regardless of whether you begin the trail from the east or west, you'll start in one of Vermont's bigger towns. Historic Bennington sits at the trail's western terminus about two miles from the New York state border. Brattleboro, a sophisticated little community of 12,000, is at the eastern end, just across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire.
If you're driving the trail on any day but Sunday, when most Brattleboro stores are closed, you might want to start your jaunt on the streets of this town for some good shopping.
But before looking in even one storefront window, take in the view of majestic Wantastiquet Mountain, forming a tree-studded backdrop to Main Street. Then walk down Elliot Street with its electrified reproductions of Victorian-era gaslights; you can examine the goods in shops such as Swe-Den-Nor (Scandinavian imports) and L. J. Serkin (exquisite hand weavings).
A stroll up Main in Brattleboro will acquaint you with additional worthy places for browsing or buying. The list includes A Candle in the Night (imports ranging from Peruvian rugs to clothing from India), Green Mountain Bookstore (a substantial selection relating to Vermont and country life) and the Vermont Gift Shop (stoneware, glassware and items of local color you can take home to the neighbor watching your cat or taking in your mail).
You'll probably be understandably anxious to see the best of fall's bounty that overwhelms trail travelers. But before you have time to unfold the map as you drive west on the trail, you'll pass an especially notable sight. The stoplight-red Creamery Covered Bridge, well kept and brightly painted in a way that belies its 1879 construction date, is the only covered bridge within eyeshot of the trail.
Molly Stark Park
Molly Stark State Park in Marlboro, about 15 miles west of Brattleboro, is a fine place to park your car and see the foliage up close. It's also a pleasant spot to unwrap the red-checkered tablecloth and take advantage of one of the many picnic tables. There is a small charge for admission to the park, which closes the Tuesday after Columbus Day.
Wilmington, base village for Mt. Snow, one of New England's major ski areas, is the midway point of the trail. It's one of those localities where you can stay five minutes or five hours. Or overnight.
Those who first saw Bing Crosby sing "White Christmas" in "Holiday Inn" years ago and always yearned for a chance to stay in a New England inn will find no better place to realize that dream than in Wilmington.
Most elegant is the Inn at Sawmill Farm--once part of an operating farm, but today it couldn't be less barn-like. Owners Rodney and Ione Williams (he formerly an architect, she an ex-interior decorator) have designed all rooms differently--yours can be Colonial while your neighbor down the hall may have a room with a Victorian motif. Rates per room range between $160 and $220; breakfast and dinner are included.
The Nutmeg Inn and the White House both sit directly on the trail. Nutmeg Inn owners Del and Charlotte Lawrence are transplants from the Washington, D.C. area who recently bought the inn and have expanded it. They offer 11 rooms, all with private bath and breakfast, starting at $60 per double room, up to $101 for a two-room suite.
The White House is the refurbished summer home of a wealthy Bostonian who lived here when Woodrow Wilson occupied the other more famous White House. It sits atop a hillside overlooking the trail and looks as luscious as a grand white frosted wedding cake.