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What’s Vermont’s small-town dating scene like?

A picture of a person outside a bar
Anna Van Dine
/
Vermont Public
Silas Olsen, age 21, plays the mandolin, likes running, teaching, bluegrass, and the Grateful Dead. He wants to know: "What is the small-town Vermont dating scene like?"

A question about finding companionship in the Green Mountain State – from wide-eyed hopefuls to frustrated giver-uppers. Plus, a love story.

Brave Little State is Vermont Public's show that answers listener questions about Vermont. In this episode, reporter Anna Van Dine teams up with listener Silas Olsen for some journalistic speed-dating.

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio; for accessibility, we also provide a written version of the episode below.

Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, so you never miss an episode:

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Babes

"I'm already out of matches on Bumble and Tinder. And I moved my age range up and down. I had it set from like 21 to like 27. And now it's like 18 to 30."
Bretton Watts, Woodstock

Silas Olsen and I sat opposite each other in a booth at Cockadoodle Pizza Cafe in Bethel on a hot Friday night in July. We shared a pesto pie, and got to know one another before heading to the bar next door.

Anna Van Dine: I was wondering if by way of a bio for you, we could do, like, a dating profile.

Silas Olsen: Oh, I love that, I love that.

Anna: OK, so can we do like, name, age, height?

Silas: So my name is Silas Olsen. I'm 21 years old, almost 22. I'm 5 feet 10 inches tall on a good day. I’m just a skinny farm boy. That’s me."

Anna: What's your ideal date?

Silas: My ideal date? OK, I'm gonna give two answers. One is basic: It’s just a hike, because I'm basic. And number two is a concert with a shared musician we both like. That's my number two.

Dinner and drinks. I know what this might sound like. But here on Brave Little State, we answer listener questions. And we invite our question-askers to be part of the reporting process. So no, this is very much not a date. However, that’s exactly what Silas asked a winning question about. He wants to know: What is the small-town Vermont dating scene like? Especially for first generation Vermonters?

Anna: By first generation do you mean like newcomers?

Silas: Yeah, like, people who don't have parents or grandparents in Vermont.

Silas grew up in a small town in eastern Connecticut, just graduated from Colby College in Maine, and is planning to start a career as a math teacher. And he’s thinking he might possibly want to end up in a small town in Vermont.

Silas: But I also sort of don't know how I'm going to integrate into a small town if I end up moving there. It can be sort of a closed off place to try to get into socially.

Hence the dating question.

Silas and I figured the best way to find an answer would be to actually go to a small town and talk to people. We needed a place that would be about the same driving distance for both of us. I’m based in Burlington and he’s spending the summer working in New Hampshire. We also needed to find a spot where people congregate. Small-town Vermont doesn’t offer many options, and it didn’t take long for us to land on Bethel.

Bethel’s in central Vermont, about 40 minutes south of Montpelier on I-89, and it's a bonafide small town — though far from one of the smallest. It’s got a population just shy of 2,000.

And, as Silas put it while standing on Main Street: For a town this small, "it's kind of poppin'" on a Friday night.

And it’s poppin' largely thanks to a place called Babes, which is where Silas and I headed post-pizza. It’s a bar that occupies the historic train depot in town, a red brick building with arched windows right in the heart of the village. It’s one of the only spots for miles around, and it’s got the scrappiness of a dive with a cocktail lounge flair.

babes-1-vermontpublic-van-dine-202207XX
Anna Van Dine
/
Vermont Public
Karaoke night at Babes, in Bethel, draws a crowd. People come from all over central Vermont, and some make the trek from as far as Burlington.

It’s welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community, as well as all kinds of people from all over the place who might not otherwise be brought together.

And Babes often hosts special events. The night we visited was karaoke night, which we could hear as we walked up to the door.

Silas: I forgot, it’s karaoke night, you told me that.

Anna: It is karaoke night. What’s your karaoke song?

Silas: I don't have a karaoke song. I really don't.

And in we went.

_

Silas and I made our way through the main room in Babes, echoing with a rendition of "Big Black Horse and a Cherry Tree." It was busy. People come from all over for karaoke night. We stepped out the back door, where there’s outdoor seating by the train tracks. And that’s where we met Will Spain, sitting on the smoking porch. He’s a local.

Will Spain: Born and raised right here in South Royalton, Vermont. All 25 going on 26 years of my life.

And as far as dating goes, Will told us that it’s hard.

Will: Very hard. There's not a high population density. And yeah, I mean, a lot of young people here also leave the state. I mean, more people than I can count on my hands have left for North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, you know, but so far as dating goes, [it’s a] hard, hard path to walk up here.

"Hard" is one word to use. When we put Silas' question to the Vermont subreddit, we also heard that the dating scene in small towns is: "horrible," "impossible," "awful" and "hell."

It seems like if you’re not young and in Burlington, you’re going to have a tough time. And, as one person pointed out, even Burlington can be like a small town.

One Redditor said that online dating "seems necessary." They suggest setting a wide radius and preparing to "lower your standards and settle."

Another wrote to say that if they’d known more about the gay dating scene — or lack thereof — they "honestly may not have moved here."

Someone else, who’s over 60 and lives in Southern Vermont, said the dating scene was "non-existent."

A picture of a phone with two fish
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
When we put Silas’s question to the Vermont subreddit, one Redditor suggests setting a wide radius and preparing to "lower your standards and settle."

At Babes, I told a group of guys we were working on an episode about dating in small towns. They groaned collectively. Then Bretton Watts stepped out.

Bretton Watts: So it's about dating, right?

Anna: It's about dating in Vermont.

Bretton: Yeah, hilarious.

Bretton is 22, and recently moved to Woodstock from Northern Virginia.

Bretton: Fairfax County, which has 1 million people just in the county. I learned that Vermont has 730,000 in the entire state.

(Note: He overestimated by about 100,000.)

Bretton: And I'm already out of matches on Bumble and Tinder. And I moved my age range up and down. I had it set from like 21 to like 27. And now it's like 18 to 30.

Silas: What's your radius? Now? What's your Tinder radius?

Bretton: I don't even know. I mean, I live in Woodstock. But it's just, I mean, it's a small town. It's a small state. It would seem no matter where I go, somebody knows me. Maybe if I was like 40 it'd be easier, but everybody here is either old or non-existent.

Even though Bretton’s relatively new to the state, he feels like he knows everyone already. Which on the one hand is kind of nice, and on the other, kind of lonely. Those are the two sides of Vermont’s smallness: interconnectedness and isolation.

But how many fish are actually in the sea?

Depending on who you are and who you’re looking for, it might not be so much a sea as a pond — or a puddle.

Because Silas studied math, and I am not so hot with numbers, we tag-teamed some statistical analysis.

Anna: So in this state, there are about 643,000 people.

Silas: Mmhmmm.

Anna: And almost 170,000 of them are in Chittenden County. Which is like a quarter.

Silas: Over a quarter, yeah.

According to estimates by the Census Bureau, people aged 20 to 34 make up roughly 18% of Vermont’s population. Silas isn’t super likely to date a 34 year old, so we can narrow it down a little further: People aged 20 to 24 make up just 6.2% of the state’s population.

Silas: The best way to think about this, probably, in a small town is being like, OK, if I'm only looking for people in my town per 1,000 people in my town, how many young people are there going to be, you know what I mean, who are my age who I’d want to date?

The answer: about 62 out of 1,000.

Silas: And of course, they're not all available and single, right.

A cartoon of a green and pink fish, fishing in the state of Vermont
Elodie Reed
/
Vermont Public
So how many fish are in the sea? In Chittenden County, the most populous of the 14, there are close to 18,000 20-24 year olds. Meanwhile in Essex County, the least populous, there’s a grand total of just 234 of them. That’s according to recent estimates by the Census Bureau.

There are other factors to consider, like personality, politics, profession, whether or not someone has kids. If you’re looking for racial diversity, you might not find it. The makeup of most Vermont towns is more than 90% white. And like 90% straight, according to data from the Williams Institute, a research group out of UCLA, LGBTQ+ folks make up 5.2% of the population.

This also varies depending on what part of the state you’re in: In Chittenden County, the most populous of the 14, there are close to 18,000 20-24 year olds. Meanwhile in Essex County, the least populous, there’s a grand total of just 234 of them, according to recent estimates by the Census Bureau. That's right: 234.

In brief: Eligible singles are few and far between, and dating prospects can seem bleak.

So, how do you meet people? Especially if you’re new here?

_

There isn’t a perfect solution. Seven Days singles ads have their charm, but they’re not for everyone. Some people have luck with volunteering, going to community events, or hanging out at the Bethel watering hole. Others find people through mutual friends. Websites like OKCupid can help, or dating apps like Tinder, Hinge, and Bumble. While that hasn’t worked for Bretton (despite moving his age range up and down), it did work for Mallory Figoras and Cassandra LaFontaine, who we met at Babes.

A photo of a crowd of people sitting in wooden chairs at a bar
Anna Van Dine
/
Vermont Public
The local watering hole, Babes, is one spot to meet people. Others have luck with dating sites and apps, or finding a connection through a mutual friend.

Cassandra LaFontaine: When we started dating, we both lived in Vermont. I lived in northern Vermont, and she lived in, like, Central Vermont. And we had no idea each other existed until we met on Tinder.

Mallory Figoras: She was the only person that would actually message back to me.

Cassandra: Yeah, pretty much. Yep. And then our first date was hiking in Vermont.

"Yeah, the first several weeks was a lot of her driving two and a half hours to get to my place."
Mallory Figoras, Rochester

When they got together almost four years ago, Cassandra lived in Enosburg Falls and Mallory lived in Rochester.

Mallory: Yeah, the first several weeks was a lot of her driving two and a half hours to get to my place.

Cassandra: In a snowstorm, on back roads, because you lived in the middle of nowhere, Vermont. And so I couldn't even go on the highway.

Given the demographics of this place, those long drives are pretty common. Vermont has about 70 people per square mile. Compare that to the U.S. average of about 94.

Things are working out so far for Cassandra and Mallory. But for Mike Martell — not so much.

Mike: Are you asking questions or should I just talk about it?

Mike’s 26. He was born and raised in Barnard. He still lives there, and works at a hotel. He’s a grounds and maintenance guy. She was a housekeeper.

Mike: So it was kind of you know, in passing — a little "en passant" — and we started hanging out a lot. And we found out that we have a lot of connections together. And we started, you know, falling in love as people do.

And then … they broke up. As people do. And Mike is back on the dating scene.

Mike: The right person is hard to find around here. I'm a lover. You know, when I find someone, I put my heart into it. So yeah, it's been rough. But that's what it is around here. You got to find someone who connects with you and wants the same things you do. It's difficult.

"At this point in my life, I've spent 26 years in this state. I'm ready for another state."
Mike Martell, Barnard

Anna: Because there aren’t very many fish in the sea?

Mike: In my experience, no. But, I mean, at this point in my life, I've spent 26 years in this state, I'm ready for another state. That's kind of where I'm at in my life. I want to go to heck, I don't even know.

Silas and I bid goodnight to brokenhearted Mike. We headed back through the bar, pulsing with karaoke, and parted ways in the hot summer night.

_

A few days later, I followed up with Silas.

Anna: What do you feel like the answer to your question is?

Silas: I feel like the answer to my question is, at the end of the day, not great.

Anna: I mean, when you think about, like, where you want to go, is Vermont still on the table when you're thinking about jobs and stuff?

Silas: You know? It's on the table long term. And it's on the table if I meet someone, or have someone that I want to move there with, but realistically, it's not on the table if it's just me moving to a small town in Vermont, you know what I mean? That's not realistically an option, even though maybe a year ago, I would have considered it an option.

So, mission accomplished in terms of answering Silas’ question. Even though the answer is kind of a disappointing one.

Anna: Is there anything else that like is on your mind? Or that you are wondering about?

Silas: Not really, no, not really.

But we can’t just end the episode with that. I like a good love story just as much as the next person, and team BLS, well, they’re a bunch of romantic saps.

Lucy and Dan: A love story

Yes, the reality of dating in Vermont is hard — really hard sometimes — but it isn’t impossible. Living proof of that is Lucy Hamel.

Lucy Hamel: I moved to Vermont actually just a couple of years ago, right when the pandemic hit, as a single mom. I've got a six year old boy.

Lucy and her son, Luca, moved to Craftsbury, where she works at a childcare center. There are about 1,300 people in town, and for a while, she didn’t see how she could possibly find anyone.

Lucy: Everyone I met was a parent, you know, through soccer, different activities. And coming into a really small town, you quickly realize like, there's maybe one or two single people in your age group. If that. And everyone kind of knows everybody, by the way. And I did date someone who lived in this town for a bit, which was a great connection, but not the right one.

And then she decided to try online dating, which she hadn’t really done before.

Lucy: I think it was just a feeling of like, how else will I meet somebody? And I'm in a different phase of life to where I'm not necessarily wanting to meet somebody in a bar.

So she downloaded Bumble and made a profile.

Lucy: But then it was like a whole other thing, because here, you know, I hardly have phone reception. And that felt kind of challenging in and of itself. So I ended up going on a couple of dates. And nothing that I felt like oh, I want to see that person again. And kind of shelved it.

One of the people who ended up on the shelf was this guy named Dan Nielsen, who Lucy had connected with near the end of the year. He’s an environmental chemist, and lives in Burlington. They’d been texting, Lucy missed a call from him, didn’t call back, and kind of forgot about him.

Then, in March, Dan reached out to her again.

Lucy: He sent me a message and just said he'd really like to get together with me, thought it was a long shot I'd still be available. And we had a nice chat on the phone and then just hit it off.

So they started seeing each other. He’s 45, she’s 38. They both love the outdoors. He wants kids but doesn’t have any of his own.

Lucy: Yeah, he's just like this incredible, I don't know, really solid guy. Taking care of Luca on my own — I mean, I've had wonderful family support, but I didn't realize what it would feel like to have someone else and he's just stepped in so gracefully into our lives.

And … they fell completely in love.

A picture of two people looking facing forward
Lucy Hamel
/
Courtesy
Lucy Hamel of Craftsbury met her partner Dan Nielsen on the online dating app Bumble. The two are now getting married in September 2022.

Lucy: I feel like I'm walking around with just like this, you know, a smile on my face, all the time and just this feeling of like yeah, like something magical happened and it feels – I don't want to say it feels too good to be true – but I do feel like I was just given this gift you know and it has it's totally changed my life.

The day I talked to Lucy, she’d just picked her mom’s old wedding dress up from the tailor. Because she and Dan, well —

Lucy: We're getting married in September!

September 10! Which is soon!

Lucy: I know! we're scrambling a little bit to get it together. But it's gonna be at my dad’s who has a big meadow and we got a tent rented and, like the basics are coming together.

Dan’s moving to Craftsbury to live with her and Luca, and they’re going to start a life as a family.

Lucy: All of a sudden, you know, my life has kind of turned around in a way that I never imagined. And we're thinking of building a house. And yeah, a whole new phase is starting up.

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Credits

This episode was reported by Anna Van Dine and produced by Josh Crane. Mix and sound design by Josh Crane. Editing and additional production by the Brave Little State team: Angela Evancie, Myra Flynn and Josh Crane. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Owen Daniel-McCarter & the folks at Babes, and Torrey Carl, journalistic matchmaker.

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public. As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Anna is a reporter and co-hosts Vermont Public's daily news podcast, The Frequency, with Henry Epp.
Josh Crane is part of Vermont Public's Engagement Journalism team. He's a reporter and producer for Brave Little State, a podcast about Vermont, our region, and its people, based on questions that have been asked and voted on by our audience.