Mardi Gras on New England’s Left Coast
Story and Photos by Bruce Northam
Video by Bruce Northam & Oktane Media
We’ve all said never say never—and surely, certain hedonistic performances needn’t be rescheduled. Though visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras in 1986 was a personal classic, when I ended up staying in the Big Easy for an additional three feral months, I figured that one Fat Tuesday per lifetime was aplenty. Sometimes, it’s best to peer over your shoulder at memories, but not turn back.
However, 23 years later, Burlington Vermont’s 14th annual February adaptation of Mardi Gras towed me back into its parade splendor…with cooler climes, tastier beer, and a more humane mission. Patriotism, from my perspective, means improving your country. In chorus with that belief, I strive to be a frontline worker in the battle against bad news and boredom. Perfect timing for a weekend of charitable decadence.
Burlington’s wintry spectacle is the Magic Hat Mardi Gras. Created and run by the regional craft brewery, this party with a conscience attracts cabin–feverish locals as well as Magic Hat beer devotees from across America. The undulating train of 30 imaginative floats winds along downtown streets, each one blaring their own upbeat soundtracks. Bead, bauble, and treat–flinging costumed revelers ride upon the floats ranging from “junk monster” to “giant pumpkins” and “bumblebees” to rockin’ live bands or DJs. There’s no shortage of chilly flamboyance. My favorite rig was the stumbling ghoul guy with a worm growing out of his face who towed the “Nightmare on Church Street”.
The Bayou City’s Mardi Gras, the archetypal celebration starting on Ash Wednesday and continuing up to Lent, is synonymous with indulgent excess…they clean the post–parade garbage–strewn streets with bulldozers and have to spray down the streets with a kind of industrial–strength air freshener.
Don’t get me wrong, the Magic Hat Mardi Gras is wild too, but people are bundled up, nobody flashes breasts, the parade’s proceeds help support the Burlington Women’s Rape Crisis Center, and littering is rare. The impromptu 1995 debut version of their parade surprisingly attracted 1,500 people. In 2009, there were over 25,000 witnesses ranging from age 3 to 90; producing enough body heat to melt snow.
The chilly outdoor party rollicked from sublime to silly, with my preferred ilk of beer connoisseurs proudly nosing their brews like wine snobs—minus the extended pinky. The parade is preceded by street bands and people immortalizing the memory in the Magic Hat photo booth…and followed up by after–parties in the dozens of downtown bar bashes, house parties serving Jambalaya, and random on–the–street bonding. There’s live music all over town and many bars within walking distance of each other. Some folks start partying before the 3pm parade, so by midnight, a few attendees didn’t feel the chill, and convinced themselves they were in Louisiana.
How do you define “largest”?
No other state has a largest city as small as Burlington’s 40,000 people. Vermont’s total population of 610,000 ranks it 49th of all 50 states—edging out only Wyoming. Burlington’s climate classification is similar to Fargo, Minsk, and Stockholm…but its groovy ranking is tied with Austin. Members of the seminal jam–band, Phish, which originated at Burlington’s University of Vermont circa 1983, still live in town.
“If Jerry [Garcia] Were Here, I’d Buy Him a Beer” —further bottle cap wisdom
You don’t have to travel south for hospitality, there’s abundant warmth 50 miles south of the Canadian border. Human–wise, a 19th century mix of French Explorers and chatty New Yorkers bursting at the seams with cash has now melded with intellectuals, lithe Yoga types, snowboard bums, and guys wearing miniature wool hats—outside and inside. Are those permanently overgrown–beanie–wearing dudes hiding perennial bad hair, or always cold? I correlate long–term indoor hat wearing with scalp itchiness, not magic. Any hat that doesn’t completely cover your ears is only a fashion statement. Then again, I’m still waiting for Led Zeppelin to tour again.
The billboard–free state’s state mammal is the Morgan horse, which has a compact and muscular build, just like those hearty woodsmen who don’t get shaving. The state bird is the hermit thrush, whose breeding habitat is coniferous or mixed woods, which means that depending upon her mood, couples do it amongst pine cones—or sugar maples. Breeding hermit thrushes make a cup nest on the ground or relatively low in a tree. Rumor has it that consuming a few Circus Boy beers can inspire similar romantic
The Left Coast of New England hugs Lake Champlain, which almost became a Great Lake. The 120–mile long lake is home to prehistoric–looking Sturgeon fish—weighing as much as 200 pounds and living up to 100 years—and possibly swimming alongside another intimidating lake creature, the mythical “Champ” lake monster, a stiff competitor to Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. Pure local water is also a distinctive ingredient in Magic Hat beer.
Local magnificence experts claim that the sun setting behind New York’s Adirondacks Mountains, with eight miles of the lake’s width as forefront, is one of the world’s grandest sunsets. The lake region’s original inhabitants, Abenaki and Iroquois Native Americans, would likely agree; in their story of creation god turned himself into an island in Lake Champlain. These same Indians would probably disagree that the lake was “discovered” 400 years ago.
The Green Mountain State really is green in countless ways, and Magic Hat helps lead the charge by using 100% natural corn–starch–based biodegradable cups for all of their fairs, music festivals and events—including Mardi Gras. Once in the ground, the corny cups compost in two months. [P.S., Beer in corn is much preferred over corn in beer].
Magic Hatfuls of Indulgence
Although Magic Hat’s hand–crafted Lucky Kat can spawn a nuclear buzz, it has nothing to do with Vermont having the highest percentage of nuclear generated power in the nation—74%. One result of this makes Vermont one of only two states without any coal–fired power plants. In a comparable vein, you get the sense that recycling was invented here. Proof positive that progressive energy and true environmentalism can coexist.Alan Newman, Magic Hat’s founder—and parade leader—carries the fanciful (though official) title of Conductor of Cosmic Symphonies. Interviewing him reminded me that it’s easiest to bounce ideas off of flexible surfaces. He’s a quirky, interesting guy; a serial entrepreneur who describes himself as an “unemployable insubordinate.” He wears round, bright yellow glasses, a bushy gray beard, and a shaved head. A character partly defined, even before he gets chatty. He’s started and sold several successful businesses, including Seventh Generation and Gardner’s Supply Company. More telling, he prefers to remains shoeless, year–round.The Magic Hat Brewery tour starts with an information super–hallway with relics from the past, and a cardboard sign brought in by an actual hitchhiker pleading, “Going to Magic Hat Brewing Company, Please Help.” Dimly lit inside to save energy and create ambiance, you can enjoy limited release beer samples while theatrical tour guides won’t bore you with the standard “here’s dah mash tun” run–of–the–mill blather. Welcome to one of the world’s epicenters for craft beer—inside a building that’s a continuous energy efficiency experiment, including “free air” refrigeration, which cools beer naturally all winter long using nothing more than air from the big, natural freezer called Vermont.
”Do You Have What It Takes To Work For Beer? … That means people who not only think outside the box, but have taken the box out behind the barn, pounded it to splinters with a blunt yard implement, doused what’s left in gasoline, and torched the whole thing in an incendiary blaze of non–conformist glory. That means people who will dance to their own drummer while grooving to our company’s own unique communal beat … Send resume and cover letter to: Zookeeper.”
I’m betting that those employment qualifications are a bit different from the ones required to join the Army.
Roaming out of bounds isn’t always a bad thing. Magic Hat’s influence on local culture inspires social causes, including working closely with the music and arts scene. It’s about maintaining an eternal fountain of youth …(remember?) having as much fun as when two elementary school buses pulled alongside each other at a red light. Older and wiser, my Mardi Gras 2.0 foray blended decadence with activism, and tapped both brain lobes.Magic Hat is known for including thought–provoking short phrases on the underside of their bottle caps and on their website. The subject matter of these mini billboards range from humorous to insightful to nonsensical. There are even caps with a phone number that, when called, wins the drinker merchandise. As a Lower East Side New Yorker with severe allergies to horn honking and elitism, the bottle cap suggesting “Find a Solution to Mind Pollution” struck a chord. More evidence that you can fit a lot into a small space.
If I were chosen to invent Burlington’s official tourism slogan, an option would be:
If you don’t fit inside the box, climb on top of it and have a good look around.
But that’s not fitting underneath a bottle cap, so I’m not applying for a job here. Instead, I’m heading 30 minutes east to ski at Bolton Valley. Old–style Led Zeppelin fans don’t snowboard.
“Those who Share are Free of Care.” —bottle cap wisdom