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  • What Lies Beneath

    Any Vermont town that has facing mountains named Swearing Hill and Minister Hill must have an interesting past. I just didn't know how interesting when my family built a small cabin up on Southeast Corners Road in 1955 on 20 acres that were part of the old Ford farm. My sister and I slept in the loft along with the mice, we watched summer storms blow in over the Woodcock place, and I spent hours trying to catch crawfish in Tidd Brook and shoot partridge with a .22-- my single-shot 12-gauge just about knocked me down every time I pulled the trigger.

    It's hard to ignore the past when you come across abandoned farms at the tops of mountains where snowshoe hares and bobcats live, stone walls at 3,000 feet where you least expect them, and cellar holes on top of Egg Mountain, where Colonel Shea hid out in the 1780s. Like West Virginia, the town is full of hollows and ridges, so there are plenty of places to hide. Perhaps that is why there are dark stories about our town. I've heard tales of bodies buried up in Beartown, the story of how the hanging tree got its name, and rumors of influenza epidemics so bad that victims were laid out by the side of the road like cordwood, ready to be picked up in wagons for mass burial. And don't think for a minute that the woods still don't hold other secrets-- moonshine, jacked deer, and ghosts.

    It's true enough that many of our town's outlaws are gone, along with the Woodcocks' doghouse (the one with the TV antenna on top). On Tuesday nights, the town hall is used for yoga classes (T-shirts and cut-offs for the ladies), and someone organized a feminist drumming group that is part girls' night out and part encounter group. You can now buy a cappuccino down at the country store, although "No Trespassing" signs are still posted for liberals and real estate agents. And, yes, Doug Wright just sold the only filling station in town, taking with him the secret to his success, a photo album of topless biker women from Daytona. He went down every year to update his collection.

    But some things never change. Every year we have a Buck Board, in which all the hunters ante up a dollar in a pool for the season's biggest deer (which weighed in at 198 pounds last year), the Fourth of July parade is still horse-drawn, and the Christmas party is given in the town hall, complete with Santa Claus, vegetarian lasagna, and frosted sheet cake. Last summer, I rode by my neighbors' place in midafternoon and found the two of them sitting buck naked by the side of the road, cooling off after a sauna and waving to traffic. Although many of the houses are now freshly painted (one neighbor still has tar paper on the front of his house to get a lower tax assessment), up in the hollows and in the camps you'll find a place that couldn't care less about the march of time. That's why so many of us love this town. It just never really took to civilization.

    So, last summer, I went searching for the town's last great mystery, the monks. Rumors abound about the Carthusians, a small group of monks who built a monastery on top of Red Mountain. They are a silent order, wear brown habits, and have no contact with the town other than to ask for advice on sugaring or farming through a hired man. I set out with a rough set of directions ("turn by the waterfall and stay to your right"), a sandwich, and a pair of good boots.

    After a couple hours of hiking and two dead ends, I came to a small pasture, where I stopped for lunch. I ate my sandwich and apple in a sea of timothy and rye peppered with ochre Indian paintbrushes and black-eyed Susans. I walked some more and then, as the afternoon grew long, I heard bells coming from a grove of ash and birch. It sounded like a call to prayer. Suddenly, monks appeared from the woods in pairs, older men walking with younger acolytes. They wore coarse, wide-brimmed hats, the sort found, I would guess, in the Middle Ages. They smiled but didn't speak. They walked slowly down into the grove and disappeared.

     

    I stood and listened to the last of the bells, the pine woods transformed into a shrine, the light filtering down onto a carpet of leaves and needles and speckled, hoary tree trunks. I slowly turned and headed home, back past the small swamps, the bear sign, the thatches of blackberry bushes, and the stands of young birches.

    When I walked in the door, my oldest daughter asked, "Did you find them, Daddy?"

    I thought for a minute about the monks who had appeared suddenly out of the woods, called to prayer by unseen bells. Then I wondered about the bodies in Beartown and the murder committed at the hanging tree.

    "No, just went for a hike," I replied.

    Let my children grow up where the hollows are haunted, the woods bury their dead, and an afternoon walk might end high above the valley in a place where ghosts still walk side by side in a silent grove. It's a privilege, I thought, to live in the last town in America that knows how to keep its secrets.

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