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Souvenirs

07/26/06 12:00AM By
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(HOST) Vermont is known for independence in many ways, from politics to local food to creative artists and craftspeople. This summer, commentator Helen Labun Jordan suggests it's time to add another item to that list: our souvenirs.

(LABUN JORDAN) I'm not a great tour guide. When friends visit I just don't have the patience. I find it trying to bring guests to a farm, only to hear them describe the manure pile as "quaint". And I don't want to explain that jeans aren't too casual for the Danville Fair. But where I truly lose patience is with buying souvenirs.

"A postcard?" I'll gasp, all of Vermont condensed to one foliage shot with a twenty four-cent stamp? Other times it's a magnet or a shot glass, maybe a T-shirt and matching baseball cap, and there's never any shortage of bumper stickers . . . in other words a line up of souvenirs identical to what you'd find in every state. Including the state my visitors just came from.

There was a time when I had a much more enthusiastic attitude towards souvenirs. In elementary school I set up my own tourist shop, selling claybabies from my parents' garage.

Claybabies are lumps of clay sculpted naturally over years by running water, and they were central to summer along the Connecticut River. Kids spent hours digging them out of stream banks. I was sure tourists would want to buy some to have their own part of summer in Vermont. I was also sure that claybabies only existed in the streams around my hometown. That may not have been true, but I still haven't seen anywhere else step forward to be claybaby capital of the world, as I intended Newbury to be.

Unfortunately, my plans didn't work out. There just wasn't enough tourist traffic through the garage. But the claybabies were undeniably different - and if my grand scheme had succeeded, they could have been the symbol of a trip to the Upper Valley - much better than plain old postcards.

I'd given up on the fate of our nation's souvenirs until recently, when I visited southern Utah. Southern Utah has what may be America's largest concentration of places selling chunks of melted windshield glass. Salvaged from junked cars, the glass is melted down until it looks like something that could have come from the rocky local landscape. These glass rocks are everywhere - set up on roadside card tables, overflowing in rock shop bins, on windowsills, garden walls, and checkout counters. And they're brilliant. Instead of taking something unique, like a view of peak foliage, and making it into something common, like a key ring, the windshield souvenirs take something common and make it unique.

Here in Vermont we've got dozens of common objects that could be transformed and sold to tourists. Sure there's fall foliage, but what are we doing with this fall's crop of political candidate lawn signs? In spring, what happens to the gardening catalogues we've hoarded all winter? Or winter's wool socks that lost their mates?

There's plenty of room for an entrepreneur to work with the materials at hand. After all, souvenirs are meant to mark visiting a place that's different, now it's time for the souvenir to be different too.

Helen Labun Jordan works at the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

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