The most crashy-crash thing
And then I had nowhere to go.
It was the end of the first week of September, just about three weeks into my travels, and I was in the 1000 Islands, the last planned stop on my Facebook circuit until I could get to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where some friends from the island were waiting to receive me. But if you don’t know how far apart the two places are from one another, this should give you an idea: my Toronto friends were telling me that from there, it would be a 24-hour drive. Consider also, however, that they told me it would be a two- or three-hour drive from Toronto to the 1000 Islands and it actually took me about five, because, well, Roxie, Rennie and I travel at a slightly different pace than everyone else. So, basically, to get to Halifax from Marty & Linda’s was not going to be a quick jaunt up the road. It was going to be more like The Joads go to the North Pole.
That said, I was not too worried about it. I mean, I felt a slight twinge of loneliness at the thought of all those state parks and blinding views that I was going to be sharing with no one in particular (besides Rennie, of course) but I had always wanted to see Maine, so my excitement at seeing that part of the country was greater than my apprehension at doing it alone.
Not to worry, at any rate. My friends had my back. First, Marty decided to call his friend, Stephen Kiernan, a writer living outside Burlington, VT. It was arranged that I would call Stephen when I got close to his place, so I drove Roxie onto one of the car ferries that cuts across Lake Champlain from New York to Vermont, and parked her first in line behind the rope separating us from open water.
I dialed the number I had been given and after a brief introduction of who I was exactly, we got down to business. He figured that from where I was calling, I would probably arrive to his place at about 6 o’ clock. I should plan to eat dinner with them, he said, because I didn’t know anyone in town, and also because he was already making a meal for his 16 year-old son’s birthday that had been the day before, and his 14 year-old son would be there, too, and his brother and his sister-in-law with their two teenage daughters.
So, that was settled and then I didn’t even have a chance to get out of the car and take any photos, because almost as soon as we’d set off from one side of the lake, we had already crossed to the other. I took a few shots from the shore, once we had docked and driven off the boat.
But Rennie has a limited amount of patience for these photo errands, because every time I stop and turn the engine off, he gets excited, thinking that we’re getting out and going somewhere, until he sees me reach for the camera and then he does this thing, where he still half-heartedly tries to follow me out the door, even though he knows he’s not coming, and then just stares after me. So when I looked up from photographing the lake and could see he was doing his very best impression of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, I figured we’d better get moving.
I found Route 2, which would take us into Burlington, except it was just too pretty to fly by, so I had to park and get out at least one more time, before it started getting less rural.
A quick aside, before we get to Burlington: I had always thought it was just an industrial city. I don’t know; maybe it was because Burlington Coat Factory had burned an image of assembly lines and large department stores in my mind from the early age of about 6, when my mom first took me to such a store in our suburban Florida shopping complex and we chose an outer layer sturdy enough to handle a few Christmas & Easter visits to see my grandparents in Washington, D.C. Whatever it was, I certainly did not expect what I saw.
We passed through Winooski, VT, and I just pretty much fell in love right there, thinking it was this cute little unheard of town— only to find out that it was actually the foyer to Burlington and that a few turns later, the landscape only got a fraction bigger but no less quaint, so that my antiquated, drab image of black factory stacks and twisting piles of overpasses and underpasses crashed and burned. It might be the largest city in Vermont but it’s also the smallest U.S. city to be the largest in its state, meaning you can drive your 16-foot RV right through the urban streets and find a free parking lot on a Sunday afternoon, and you can also walk your dog right through the pedestrian-only center street, and see about a dozen other dog owners doing the same thing, and a microbrew costs just $5 for a pint.
We next passed through Shelburne, a little sprawl of a place with some upscale shopping complexes, which eventually led to a meandering country road that dipped up and down and over and back, before we turned onto a dirt lane, so that I thought at one point that I was going to an apple orchard, because all signs were leading to an apple orchard, but when the blinking, blue dot on my Google Maps screen finally connected with the green dot of my final destination, I found myself on top of a hill, overlooking valleys of trees and pastures, with a straight view to Camel’s Hump on the somewhat distant horizon.
A little after 6 p.m., as predicted, I parked and walked to the front, still not entirely sure if I was in the right place, because the address was peeling off the side of mailbox in droopy fragments of illegible numbers (not at all an indicator of the house itself), but I heard someone say something from inside, so I hesitantly opened the glass door and stuck my head around the corner, at which point a young man bounded into the room to stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Noah.”
“Hi, I’m Margaret. Did I make it?”
He offered me a beer and told me it was fine to let Rennie run around outside, and then he went and got a Frisbee and his older brother, Will, and the two boys entertained Rennie on the lower lawn, while Stephen came out and introduced himself, and we took a seat, perched above it all on two, bright blue Adirondack chairs, shucking corn, while I listened to the skinny on Vermont, home to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Cabot cheese.
When I opened my e-mail later, I had a message from my mom, in which she said: “You know that Vermont has a reputation for harboring eccentric people, right? Vermonters do things their own way and rarely follow the mainstream in anything.”
But Stephen had already confessed so much long ago on the lawn. The people were not known for being “nice,” he said, and “for six weeks, the answer is always No.” Whether it’s a phone line you want put in or mail delivery to your home, the answer is negative. Then you go through your first winter, and you’re one of them, he said, to which I responded: “The winters must be really tough then.” Because I reasoned that if it only takes one of them to earn you your passport to acceptance, well, it must be one hell of a test.
There is also a degree of self-righteousness, he said, because people living in Vermont are generally there by choice, so they have this attitude like, “Hey, this is Vermont.” (Insert rooster jutting out its head in a gesture of self-assertion.) Of course, that can be a good and a bad thing, he said, but I got the impression that it was generally more of the former, less of the latter.
And just so you know: Sen. Patrick Leahy apparently got his political start after making a public statement, more or less in favor of skinny-dipping in public.
But I wanted to know more about the winters, because I was so enamored of the place during its Indian Summer, I needed someone to tell me how awful the winters were. Basically, what he and a number of other people told me was this: November is tough, because it’s cold but not yet cold enough to do anything, like winter sports, and the hunters are all out making noise and obviously, for a number of other reasons, you don’t want to be out there at the same time as them, so it’s just all cold and gray and frustrating; March is also tough, because it’s still really cold but you’re sick of it and it’s starting to warm up but it’s not yet warm, meaning the snow is starting to get slushy, so you can’t play in it but it’s not gone, either, so you can’t do other fun outdoor stuff.
And that was probably good enough to make me not want to live there. That, and it was barely mid-September but it already got cold, cold, cold as soon as the sun went down. So, we moved inside and I put on one of the two sweaters I owned, and then his family started arriving: first his sister-in-law, with hilarious tales of having taken her two teenage daughters to the Justin Bieber concert; then came his brother with said teenage girls. And if anyone wanted to ask who on Earth I was and/or why the hell I was there, no one did. I was just accepted and allowed to observe and be a part of their pack.
Stephen grilled some pork and we all sat at the dining room table and one of my favorite musicians kept working his way onto the stereo and conversation bounced around from teens to adults, everyone earning as much talk time as the other, and then there was homemade sorbet, before we all moved to the living room to play this name game that I had never heard of but that basically involved the taking-on of a new identity, so that you not only had to remember what your own, new name was but you had to remember the new name of everyone else in the room, your teammates especially, because the object was for your team to outnumber the other team on the sofa, and when it was your turn to move someone from one spot to another, you could only do so by using that person’s temporary moniker. It was like Memory meets Chess, I guess, and each round got harder, because you were getting a new name every single time and so was everyone else, so you were trying to forget past games and stick to the present ones, but there were inevitable times where you were trying to move one of your teammates and you moved the opposing team, instead, or vice versa. Of course the adults did noticeably more horribly than the kids, as in: we lost every single time. But, well, who was drinking wine?
In the end, I stayed in the guest room downstairs. I could have stayed in Roxanne but I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities for that over the next 40-odd weeks, and so I accepted Stephen’s offer to make up the bed down there and I gathered Rennie’s things from the camper and carried them down to the room, where Rennie was standing, looking around and doing his standard “Huh?” that he does whenever we are in a new place and about to make camp for the night but he has nothing to latch onto yet for familiarity. It doesn’t matter where we are, though; as soon as he sees his stuff, he comes over and starts smelling it all intently and he can hardly wait for me to put it on the floor and then, before I can even make a nest out of it, he is already stepping all over it and trying to get on and curl up. And curl up he did.
The next morning, as promised, the sun came blazing through the window at 6 a.m.
And after photographing it and traipsing up to see if there was any coffee, I found a sleeping house and with great relief, went back down to sleep another hour myself— because a girl can’t work without caffeine. The second time up, I found Stephen and some joe, so we poured ourselves each a mug and stood there talking about writing. He is in a totally different place from me in that he has already been successfully published twice but he is in a perhaps similar place in that he suddenly has to market himself a little more than he has had to do in awhile, because he is working on manuscripts that have yet to be sold and also because he said his last book did not sell quite as much as he had hoped, which brought up the reality for me that a writer might end up spending just as much time, if not more, promoting himself, than he does actually creating sentences. In his case, he said he is speaking in public right now more than he is writing.
“I was thinking about it,” he said, turning the talk to me, “and you’re going into your fifth year of disconnect.”
Which is true, if you consider that I spent two years in Spain and then two and a half in Mexico and now, I am going to be rambling through the States for a year, so he wanted to know where my connections were: good friends, sweethearts, all of what a more settled person generally has in one spot. And the condensed answer was: all over, but mostly in the places that I’ve lived in the last four years.
“Is this a shopping trip?” he wanted to know.
“Maybe,” I said. “I think I’m looking for roots and I don’t know how much of this is about that, how much of it is about writing, how much of it is just curiosity about the country.”
After coffee and breakfast and some writing, it was time for us all to get on with our days. Stephen and his sons were going to the farmer’s market and then water skiing before Will’s birthday party with friends that night, and I was going to explore a little, before holing up at a campground on the other side of Burlington for the night. First, Stephen and Noah had to play with Rennie one last time.
And then Rennie and I set out to see the area.
And Rennie found the biggest stick yet to play with:
And then I drove us back into Burlington to have a wander and get a bite to eat and buy some sundries for camp. As I was looking for a restaurant to have a late-lunch-early-dinner, I called my sister, because we had been playing phone tag for the last day or so.
After hearing what I had been up to the night before, and how I had just found myself in this full-on family affair of strangers, and how well-adjusted the teenagers were, and how I didn’t remember being that cool when I was that age, and how they had just participated in the adults’ conversation so naturally, and how everyone had been so welcoming to me, in general, she asked: “Was that the most crashy-crash thing you’ve done so far?”
To which I replied: “That’s the most crashy-crash thing I’ve done so far.”