Our 2022 Road Trip #17: Bernie and the Bears

Anne with mittens!

What has two thumbs and buys winter wear in summertime? This gal!

Bears. Memes. Bernie-Starred Mitten-ica.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Since 1999 Anne and I have taken one road trip each year to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. After years of contenting ourselves with everyday life in Indianapolis and any surrounding areas that also had comics and toy shops, we chucked some of our self-imposed limitations and resolved as a team to leave the comforts of home for annual chances to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between. We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

For 2022 we wanted the opposite of Yellowstone. Last year’s vacation was an unforgettable experience, but those nine days and 3500 miles were daunting and grueling. Vermont was closer, smaller, greener, cozier, and slightly cooler. Thus we set aside eight days to venture through the four states that separate us from the Green Mountain State, dawdle there for a bit, and backtrack home…

Longtime MCC readers know Anne’s favorite travel souvenir is smashed pennies. Those machines that used to pop up at every single tourist attraction, zoo, and sports stadium nationwide let you make your own memento by inserting a shiny penny into the machine, then hand-cranking it yourself through a series of gears that grind it into an oval and imprint a new picture on the front. You’d think defacing government-issued commerce property would be illegal, yet here we are. As part of our annual vacation research, Anne tracks the ongoing existence and functionality of those machines with the help of a dedicated website that looks like an old high school DOS project yet remains active and regularly updated to this day. Sometimes that site alerts us to the existence of roadside curiosities and businesses that we might otherwise never have noticed if they hadn’t set out bait specifically for Anne and other collectors like her.

I’m pretty sure that’s where we first learned of the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, which began in 1981 as one guy selling teddy bears out of a cart in downtown Burlington. Today their artisan craftsmanship and an endless supply of kids who love furry, huggable toys have helped make them the largest teddy factory in America. We’d never heard of them, possibly because our respective parents typically couldn’t afford to pay artisan prices for singular toys. We therefore had no emotional attachment to the Green Mountain State’s premier source of ursine plushness. I added it to our itinerary anyway because it sounded like a cute diversion and it was conveniently, directly in our path.

Vermont Teddy Bear Museum!

The factory in question, hard to overlook from the road.

topiary bear!

Topiary bear in the lobby.

giant bear and sidekicks!

The largest bear we saw and its li’l friends.

On the day of our visit, we learned a surprising new thing about the place before our arrival. While I was in the restroom at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, Anne flipped through the tourism literature in their waiting area and happened to catch a piece on the factory that revealed their most recently acquired side gig.

Remember that time we had a 2021 Presidential inauguration, an event that’s entirely vanished from America’s collective memory except for a single sight: a masked Senator Bernie Sanders hunkered in a folding chair with his arms crossed and wearing wholly unexpected mittens. Were Joe Biden’s initial minutes as President sufficiently stately on stage? Did he recite poetry? Give everyone high-fives? Juggle chainsaws? Wander around asking if it was time for Judge Wapner? Nobody knows and the world will never remember. But we remember Bernie.

The internet couldn’t help cranking out Bernie memes for days and months afterward. We did our own version here on MCC, which is how you knew it was played out. Meanwhile Jen Ellis, the schoolteacher behind the Vermont Mittens enterprise that had made them long ago, found herself besieged by folks from across state lines dying to buy their own pair of “Bernie mittens” from her. She tried accommodating orders to an extremely limited extent, but ultimately passed that whole kit ‘n’ caboodle on to the good folks at the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory, now the proud custodian of the mitts that made the meme. In keeping with their manufacturing ethos, the current mitten iteration is made from recycled wool sweaters and lined with fleece made of recycled plastic shredded finely enough to feel soft to the touch.

Neither of us are fans of Mr. Sanders’ politics (I’m not a fan of any living politician, period, no exceptions), but we’re not so old that pointless fripperies like this don’t amuse us months after their expiration date. So we were slightly more giggly than we expected to be upon arrival at the factory.

Bernie wall!

The full Bernie wall without Anne blocking it.


Bernie mittens for sale! Cheaper than the bears, but still not cheap.

Bernie standee!

Nearby is a Bernie standee to keep hammering away at the gag.

The company’s primary objective is, of course, all those teddy bears. We were more than happy to go on the official factory tour alongside other visitors from Maine, Rhode Island, Pittsburgh and Long Island. Our guide Dave was an absolute delight, a lighthearted chap quite knowledgeable on their history and day-to-day doings, and no stranger to our Hoosier homeland. Much fun was had by all.

bear cubbyholes!

Cubbyholes at the start of the tour.

ye olde pop-culture reference bears!

A locked cabinet for safekeeping of ye olde pop-culture reference bears.

bear assembly!

Pieces of a work in progress. How the bear sausage gets made, so to speak.

bear stuffing!

An entertaining air chamber filled with bear stuffing, which is made for all their bears each year from at least 1.5 million recycled plastic water bottles.

bears on factory floor!

Bears on the factory floor, where they cut 200 yards of fur a day.

Dave and Make-a-Wish!

Dave extols the virtues of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, frequent patrons who rent an office on-site for, like, a dollar a year because charity.

bears and not-bears!

A selection of bears and not-bears made here.

bacon bear!

Standouts along the walk include this bacon bear.

polar bear!

Coca-Cola doesn’t own the trademark on polar bears.

Sasquatch bear!

Sasquatch bear, not at all blurry in its photo.

wedding dress bear!

A bridal bear with garment sewn from pieces of an actual wedding dress on the occasion of the owner’s 50th wedding anniversary.

teddy bear hospital!

Damaged bears can actually be mailed back to the factory for repairs. Hence the teddy bear hospital, the last stop on the tour.

bear patient on honey IV drip!

A bear patient on a honey IV drip, which seems like the most inefficient way to get honey into a bear.

teddy bear bully!

A photo collection shames some of the parties responsible for all that wanton bear damage.

rainbow bears!

Naturally there’s a gift shop with a wide assortment that includes rainbow bears.

In addition to the assembly-line bears on hand, visitors can also purchase a custom-made build of a bear for $70. We bought a handful of smaller souvenirs, but no actual teddies because we are 50-up, and none of the kids in our closer family circles are of bear-bearing age anymore. For her part, Anne was perfectly pleased with her smashed pennies and her new pair of Bernie mittens, which she’ll be field-testing here in the next few months. Hopefully they don’t make her look as grumpy as Bernie.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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