Monday, February 20, 2006

Small Town Story (Vermont)

There are stories littered across the landscape, in every tree trunk, signpost and highway memorial. Digging them out is just a matter of getting to know a place and paying attention long enough to decipher the hidden meaning embedded in objects and buried in the gaps of conversation. Sometimes, the story of an apparently mundane object can tell you more about the character of a place than a whole history book.

Switching hemispheres from my usual tales of Asia, the following story is about a sign on the dead-end dirt road where I grew up, in a rural corner of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. It's called Town Highway Sixteen.

Town Highway Sixteen

Craftsbury Common is a collection of white clapboard houses, a white clapboard church, a white clapboard school, a white clapboard post office, a white clapboard library, a white clapboard Inn and Sterling College, which is having budget problems and whose clapboard buildings need a paint job. All this whiteness encircles a large open field, or Common, which has a baseball field at one end and a white clapboard gazebo at the other. Every spring, husbands of Village Improvement Society members give the wooden fence surrounding the Common a fresh coat of white paint. The effect is quite picturesque. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, airports around the world advertised flights to New England with a poster of our Common in the fall, when the maples turn orange. Mist is rising from the grass, so the photo must have been taken on a cold October morning, the kind of day with clean air and no clouds, good for partridge hunting.

The Common sits on top of a hill, as befits the pretensions of the people who live there. Most are wealthy Protestants, except for the Slaters, who rent the place across from the school and whose large satellite dish infuriates the elderly matrons of the Village Improvement Society. Postcards, maps and the Vermont Tourist Bureau would give you the impression that the Common is the extent of Craftsbury, but in reality the 1,651 people who call this town home are spread across at least five distinct communities that, geographically at least, look up to the shining whiteness on the hill.

Driving up from the south on the way to the Common, you pass through Craftsbury Village, where the Catholics live. Businesses besides Inns are permitted in the Village, in contrast to the Common, where an unspoken ban on commercial activity is as effective as any zoning regulation. The point is largely moot anyway, because apart from a few weeks in October and the prime weekends of ski season, Craftsbury could not support another store. There is already a major rivalry between Ray’s and Kay’s, otherwise known as the Craftsbury General Store and the Historic Craftsbury General Store. The stores are across the street from each other in the Village. Kay has better coffee and relatively fresh food, but Ray has the only gas pump in town and a wider selection of video rentals. When I last came home I learned that Kay has decided to sell her store to newlyweds from Montana, and Ray is hospitalized with terminal cancer. People will adjust.

Collinsville is a cluster of dilapidation west of the Common, strung along the Eden Mountain road that winds up into the foothills of the Lowell Mountains. It is the poorest part of town, populated mainly by French Canadians, who scrape a living from the hills by logging, sugaring, raising cows and selling Christmas trees. Their patriarch is a garrulous grizzly bear of a man named Marcel Leclaire, who teaches hunter education class in the spring time. Marcel’s barn and house burned down five years back, but he recovered splendidly with help from collection jars at Ray’s and Kay’s and several spaghetti suppers. Marcel used the money to buy a herd of goats, and eventually put together enough cash selling their milk to build a new house. His bright roof stands out in this part of town, where most families live in trailers, plastic pulled tight over the windows to hold in heat.

East Craftsbury is home to an odd collection of dairy farmers, witness protection families and middle aged lesbians. The dairy farmers struggle to keep their cows despite regular declines in the price of milk, but the witness protection people always seem to have plenty of money. The lesbians make pottery, and some supplement their income by substitute teaching at Craftsbury Academy. One of the barns out that way has a sign advertising it as a tattoo parlor, but I don’t know who runs the place.

Finally, there is Mill Village, where I live. Way back, this was the busiest part of town, but there hasn’t been a Mill here for a century and the road to East Craftsbury was abandoned years ago when the bridge over the Black River fell in. Every map I’ve seen still has the road confidently marked out in dashed lines, but I have never been able to find so much as a rut past where it dead-ends at Elinor’s Hill. This road, the one I live on, is called Town Highway Sixteen.

About seven years ago last April, every road in town was renamed when the Selectmen decided to switch from a numerical Town Highway system to the names locals had been calling the roads all along – a sweeping reform designed to enable tourists to understand directions when trying to find the Common. Craftsbury tends to have more problems in this regard than most towns in the North Country, in part because there are five distinct villages, but also because of the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a fitness mecca that attracts endorphin junkies to running, sculling, biking and cross-country ski camps. The Center is off in the woods of North Craftsbury, on a little traveled dirt road near the border with Albany. Several times a year a honeymooning couple or exhausted family from out of state will pull up to the gas pump at Ray’s with the dome light on and an unfolded map spread across the dash. After an interval, the husband will sheepishly emerge from the car and walk into the store, where Ray sits perched on his stool behind the register.

“Sorry to bother you, but I’m afraid we’re a little turned around…”
“No problem at all. You trying to get over to the Center?”
The Center! Civilization! Road signs and maybe a McDonalds for the kids!
“Yeah, that’s it. The Center. Can you get me there?
“Oh the Center’s all the way off on the edge of town. Head on up the hill, go through the Common and down the backside to where the road forks off. Take the dirt road, swing around to the right, go past the lake and turn left at the red barn. It gets a little rough at the top of the hill but keep on straight and you can’t miss it.”
“Got it,” the bewildered man lies. “Thanks for the help. Some packs of jerky for the road, please.”
“Comes to six fifty-eight. Have a good day now.”

When the road signs changed that spring, some were named for the family that had lived there the longest and some were named for prominent natural features, but most simply reverted to names that had evolved in the distant past, and were now fixed beyond question in the collective consciousness of our community. Words attach to places slowly in small towns, and linger long past relevance. Since my road had been known as the road to East Craftsbury before the days of the numbering system, it fell to the neighborhood to think up a new name. We held the meeting at my house.

Everybody came to the meeting. Besides my family, there was Tom and Linda Grant, who live in a red horse barn called Rainbow farm, Albert Strong, an ancient hill-farmer who raises calves, hays and buys up property at bank auctions, Albert’s common law wife, a small nervous woman named Barbara and, notably, the Langer family. This was the first and only time I have seen the Langers. They live next door, but way off the road. The two Langer sons were home-schooled and sent to Princeton. Both still live at home, where they shoot guns most afternoons, big semi-automatics that echo off the far side of the Black River valley. The elder Langer boy is writing an epic science fiction novel. His younger brother recently married a woman from Seoul.

There was little small talk. The neighbors peeled off layers, knocked April slush off their boots, settled in around the fire and got down to business. Several factions soon emerged. The Langers presented a well-researched position paper suggesting the name Cedar Trace. A trace, they pointed out, is a right of way used sparingly by both animals and people. I liked their proposal. When the snow is deep, animals use our road instead of plodding through drifts. Most winter days, only a few cars make it as far as my house, but several groups of deer will slowly pick their way past, hollow brown hairs puffed out against the cold. They freeze on edge, steaming, when my dog barks from the window.

My mom smiled appreciatively for Mrs. Langer, but counter-proposed the name Rainbow Road, which flattered the Grants. Carefully arguing her point, she noted that the Grant’s large red barn is a distinctive feature of the neighborhood, while Rainbow Pond is known for swarms of brook trout and the youth fishing derby held there every June. Her hopeful gaze met with silent grumbles and shifting. Although no one said anything, I figured that only my mom was oblivious to the charged symbolism behind her proposal. This was Mill Village, not East Craftsbury. The idea was quietly abandoned.

Albert Strong, who had been silent so far, muttered something in his thick Vermont accent from where he sat propped up by cushions in a corner of the couch. It sounded like “Bull-a-Vahd.” Albert is the only person I know with a real Vermont accent, the kind that people like me sometimes need to strain to understand. His R’s are as hard as those of any Boston strongman, but with none of the mean saltiness of voices from the Back Bay. Instead, his words emerge in a rough lilting voice cured by wood-smoke and infused with smells of manure and sawdust. The ancient hill-farmer gazed stonily across the room and crossed his legs at the ankles. “Albert Strong Boulevard,” he intoned again, and the room fell silent.

The fire popped like one of the Langer boy’s guns. Albert didn’t budge. He only weighed about 100 pounds by then, emaciated from the effects of bypass surgery and years of heavy smoking. He had hayed this past year as usual, but when he got sick the bales were left to rot in heavy bundles during the fall rains.

No one wanted to challenge Albert; he had been driving his tractor up and down this road for 80 years, and the rest of us were, to varying degrees, flatlanders. But no one had moved to Vermont to live on Albert Strong Boulevard.

Mrs. Langer requested a dictionary. This was a wise maneuver. Instead of rejecting Albert’s proposal personally, a book could deliver the news that our two-mile piece of dead-end dirt was not, had never been and could never be a boulevard.

“Boulevard,” she read, in the sweetly patient yet indisputably authoritative voice of a home-schooling parent. “A broad, often landscaped thoroughfare.” For good measure, she threw in the definition of boulevardier, “a frequenter of the Parisian boulevards.” Everyone looked hopefully at Albert, but his expression did not budge, although his eyes began to survey the room without fixing on anything in particular, resolutely ignoring the look of horror on Barbara’s face.

When the new signposts went up in June, ours was made extra long in order to accommodate all the letters. Personally, the length of the name is my only issue with the selectmen’s decision; they could have just left it as TH 16 instead of forcing us to write out Town Highway Sixteen whenever we order a package. My mom has things sent to our PO Box whenever possible. I doubt if Albert Strong orders anything at all.

Mr. Strong is still hanging on up there. Some people thought the controversy might be enough to do him in, he was so worked up about it. After our meeting, he went down to the town hall to lobby for Albert Strong Boulevard, but was stymied when an anonymous neighbor also approached the selectmen in person. Word of the dispute spread over early morning coffee at Ray’s and in hushed tones at meetings of the Village Improvement Society, and given the circumstances, the final decision was probably for the best. No one on our road was happy, but no one said it was unfair, and the rest of town enjoyed a good laugh at our expense. There’s nothing on our road for anyone to want directions to anyway, which is enough of a blessing.

And Albert has his boulevard. He made two signs of his own that June. Both were carefully stenciled in white lettering on square shingles. One said ALBERT STRONG BOULEVARD and was nailed to a sugar maple at the base of his driveway. The other, slightly bigger, was nailed to the telephone pole right below the new Town Highway Sixteen sign. ALBERT STRONG BOULEVARD it announced: Entrance 1.5 miles.

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