As storied Vermont institutions go, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream is one of the most beloved and possibly the Vermont-iest of them all. Their factory in Waterbury offers free tours and ranked high on our to-do list the moment we’d chosen Vermont as this year’s destination. Thanks to the pandemic, it very nearly didn’t happen for us.
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…
As you’d expect from a socially conscious company that holds itself to standards a few orders of magnitude above its peers’, they canceled tours for two years straight due to pandemic, and kept them canceled long after most other businesses had begun loosening up, for better or worse. We designed much of this vacation with Ben & Jerry’s as the centerpiece. When their site announced the tours would be restarting soon sans exact date, Anne checked back again and again as our trip drew near, then kept checking while we were on the road. We purposefully chose a hotel down the street from the factory for value-added convenience. We kept our Day Five schedule flexible in case tours resumed in the nick of time.
Our hopes dwindled until the gamble paid off Monday night. As we enjoyed our Vermont Burgers at McGillicuddy’s Pub, less than 40 hours before we were scheduled to leave Vermont and begrudgingly begin driving back home, Anne refreshed yet again and learned tours had indeed resumed. She successfully reserved us spots for one of the last tours available Tuesday night. We then judiciously divvied up that day’s first half between Quechee Gorge and Montpelier, and managed to leave ourselves an hour to rest back at the hotel before our appointment. We love it when a plan comes together.
The first of two hitches presented itself right at takeoff. The factory was three blocks north of our hotel on a fairly busy and curvy street . We would’ve been happy to walk there, but: (a) we were exhausted from all the walking we’d already put in; (b) the way was entirely, sharply, mountainously uphill; and (c) most unbelievably in Ben-&-Jerry-Town, of all places, there was no sidewalk. The narrow gap between the winding road and the bushy terrain looked too unsafe to risk. So we drove the tiny distance.
With nonstop evening rush-hour traffic against us, a simple left turn out of the lot took a lousy ten minutes to find an opening. Yes, I counted. Fortunately our rental SUV was one of those newer models designed with a special feature that shuts off the engine whenever the gearshift is in Drive but the car has braked to a stop. Ostensibly this maneuver saves a few seconds’ worth of gas and climate damage at each red light, stop sign, city gridlock, or cattle crossing. As a maniac driver who prides himself on obeying every stoplight the exact nanosecond they turn green, that feature had been aggravating me several times daily ever since we left the Avis hub back in Indy. With concentrated effort I’d mastered the timing so I could release the brake early and goad the ignition into restarting one second before the green light. Here in the hotel lot, waiting on the entire city of Waterbury to get out of our way, that feature may have saved us up to ten cents’ worth of gas and as many as one (1) plant or animal life. I like to think Ben and/or Jerry would’ve been proud.
(Later in the week, I found the option within the voluminous dashboard menu that would deactivate the auto stop-start feature, but I left it alone. It wasn’t our car to modify, and future renters might find it more endearing than I did.)
We reached the factory lot with time to spare before our tour. We found plenty of amusement and/or sensible B&J flourishes to keep us occupied, in addition to picking up a few souvenirs at their gift shop.
(As of this writing, the official page for the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 confirms it passed the House in August 2021, but seems to have been stuck somewhere ever since.)
Bad news for You, The Viewers at Home: photos were forbidden on most of the tour. We were happy to comply and kept our gadgets holstered until our guides gave us the all-clear signal. Over a dozen of us tourists started with an introductory video in a small theater, introducing us to the company, their views on social responsibility, and their self-aware sense of humor. We were then herded through a series of observation rooms overlooking various assembly lines within the factory area — a complex of pipes, tubes, dials, tanks, and a handful of employees. Among the few still on the clock, one guy’s task was to inspect completed pints as they came down a chute and slap away any that were missing lids. Cow puns abounded everywhere, decoratively and verbally. Chick-fil-A is a few decades older, but their cow-pun game’s got nothing on Ben and Jerry’s own.
The final room of the tour was the one all the kids had anxiously been waiting for: the one where everyone got free ice cream samples.
At this point the tourists revolted and began breaking stuff. An elderly lady from Peoria smashed the guide’s nose with her purse. Two teens set the tables on fire. One cruel mother forced a spoonful of the bilious freebie down her toddler’s throat, who cried and howled and spewed bits of it back in her face. Other adult couples whipped picket signs out of their backpacks, stormed outside and began shouting orders to fellow recruits in their newfound revolution. Folks who’d been waiting to pay for ice cream rushed inside and began smashing windows and chugging pure cream straight from severed factory pipes. The riot went viral on Twitter for hours afterward with a delightfully perfunctory performative uproar as the walls crumbled to ash and those sinister billionaires Benjamin and Jerrington cowered as they watched from the faraway safety of their respective coal-powered money bins.
Wait, no, none of that happened. After the kids made lots of “Ewwww!” sounds, our guide took down the fake-out sign and revealed our free samples would actually be Triple Caramel Chunk. And all was right with the world.
Well, almost right with the world. After the tour came the second of our two hitches. We hunted around for the smashed penny machine that was supposed to be somewhere on the grounds according to Anne’s online source. As always, smashed pennies are her favorite form of vacation souvenir. We sought it here, we sought it there, we sought that contraption everywhere. Alas, no such machine was anywhere in sight. Anne even asked a couple of employees about it in vain.
In an unrelated consumer decision, we also chose not to buy any ice cream beyond the free samples. The factory and tour are exclusive to Vermont, but we can find their products in our grocers’ freezer anytime back home, and we’d just had gelato earlier in Montpelier. We were good.
We did run across one last source of informative amusement before we left, a special exhibit that merits a separate photo gallery all its own…
To be continued!
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