• The Next Town Over

    I came back to town 10 years after my mother sold the family farm. Looking for a piece of land, I stopped by the Wayside Country Store and asked after Junior Bentley, the dairy farmer I had worked for as a kid. I was told that Junior could be in only one of three places, none of them farther afield than “the next town over.” I finally found him haying by the Battenkill, and he directed me to an old dairy farm turned cornfield over on the west side.

    Years later, it occurred to me that very few locals ever traveled farther than the next town over. Our village has limits: the edge of Mike Lourie’s dairy farm as it butts up toward New York State and the town of Hebron. The steep run of mountains over to the east side, referred to as “The Oven.” The Congregational church to the northwest, which has a good supper the first Saturday of every month. To the north, the high peaks of Merck Forest with its wild, rolling landscapes. And then the cornfields to the south, stretching out toward the flatlands of New York.

    There are stories of neighbors who have ventured farther afield. Two years ago, Axel Blomberg went lake fishing in Maine and was shook up when a bear swam toward his canoe. Fifteen years ago a bar a few towns away hosted a Saturday a.m. lingerie show; some of the local carpenters and plumbers didn’t get home until late afternoon. And, of course, locals do venture out in August and September for their once-a-year outing. They attend a country fair—the one up in Rutland, the Bondville Fair, or the famous Tunbridge World’s Fair with the pig races and the giant pumpkin weigh-in—or they head to the drive-in in Hoosick Falls, setting up lawn chairs in the backs of pickups and eating double portions of the thick homemade French fries from the cement-block commissary. The only neighbors who really do travel are the horse people—they trailer their horses for gymkhana competitions. The rest of us might take in one rodeo every few years, perhaps heading up to Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton or driving over to Ballston Spa south of Saratoga, New York. (One or two neighbors have been known to take the bus down to Mohegan Sun to play blackjack, but that’s hush-hush.)

    But for the most part, folks in our town don’t travel much. They show up at exactly the same time every morning at Sherman’s Country Store for coffee and doughnuts. (My neighbor Doug is there at 6:30 a.m. like clockwork.) Mike Lourie and his family are tending to their dairy herd 24/7, growing and storing silage, milking, and fixing equipment. There is always someone around at the fire department. Saturdays are busy at the historic town library. Jed is either baking sourdough (his Rupert Rising bread is world-class) or delivering it, and either Kelli or Dan (who both run Sherman’s Store) is always at the counter with a quip and ready change. Improbably, our tiny town has two post offices and three churches—you can always run into neighbors there. During the summer, Skip Wilson’s brood is always out and about running riding mowers and weedwacking until dark like some highly trained circus act. They do my lawn in 10 minutes flat.

    So the question arises: What does one know about life if one hasn’t seen Kevin Spacey on Broadway or ordered steak frites and a cheap bottle of Côtes du Rhône at a small café on Rue du Bac in Paris? Outsiders who drive through our town see a collection of old Vermont houses, almost all of them white clapboard, most neat and well cared for, but more than a few veterans of prior renovations, some thoughtful and some not. It just doesn’t look special, unlike a tour of hill towns of Italy or a trip to the Dalmatian Coast. But when you spend time there, put down roots, you discover something unexpected.

    What that is, exactly, I can’t quite figure. I have walked through the Sahara Desert, I have visited the Hmong people in northern Vietnam, I have fished in Patagonia, and I have driven a Land Rover through the Mountains of the Moon in the Congo, but none of those adventures brought back wisdom. But a cup of coffee at Sherman’s often leaves me happier and slightly more knowledgeable regarding the human condition.

    Maybe small towns are unconnected to the march of history. I have yet to see a neighbor using any sort of portable electronic device other than a GPS hung around the neck of a hunting dog. Instead, I am invited to a viewing of the monster buck shot by Skip’s wife last November, hanging skinned and headless in the small shed by his father’s house. Or I stop by Axel’s in late summer to get his report on that season’s fishing—fewer than 100 brook trout is a bad year. Or I get a strong whiff of liquid manure spread by the honey truck on the cornfield out behind my house as I drink my morning coffee. Little things loom large—the gift of a slow cooker, a slice of well-made apple pie, a sunny day after a stretch of subzero weather, and a can of Labatt Blue after a long day haying or digging potatoes.

    It’s not idyllic. It’s not romantic. People die unexpectedly, some by their own hand after a bad diagnosis, others due to accidents with chain saws or falling trees. Alcohol takes its toll as do hard times.

    But life in our town isn’t missing anything. It’s not digital; it’s personal. And in this day and age, that’s saying something.

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