One Step Away
Trapping is a vocation that most folks don’t want to hear much about. It seems as out-of-date as sap buckets, divining rods, and two-holers, yet it wasn’t too long ago that many Vermonters made their living in the woods. O.M. Butcher had a trapping supply store just down the valley that attracted customers from all over (the sign just fell down last year). Stan Lincoln, who lived at the four corners, used to check his traps before and after school, making enough money during the Depression to help support his family. He’d get up early, hike up into the mountains to check the trap lines, and be back in time for school. Then he would do it all over again before dinner.
Some neighbors are still at it, so when our friend Tom purchased a piece of land two years back, I wasn’t surprised that it came with a small shed that contained dozens of traps of all sizes plus bottles of scent and wicker baskets used to carry the tools of the trade up into the woods. I never had much stomach for trapping until last summer, when we thought a fox was eating our chickens. After a dozen or so went missing, our neighbor Jean called a trapper, but he came up empty. Turns out it was a red-tailed hawk; I caught him at it one morning as I walked outside with my first cup of coffee.
You can drive through Vermont and miss just about everything worth seeing. You wouldn’t meet the Butler sisters, who have one pair of false teeth between them. (They switch off every Saturday night.) Or the farmer at the country store who, when he gets excited, flaps his large ears like an elephant. You wouldn’t hear the story about the locals who got into a feud that saw the crazier of the two leave a dead cow on the other’s front lawn. Or the bit about the carpenter who was working outside of a woman’s house and happened to glance in the window. She was cleaning up in the kitchen. The next time he looked up, she was standing at the window topless, looking right at him. Or the woman who had her husband buried standing straight up. Or the local who weighed a good 300 pounds and was kindly referred to as “The Little Man.” Or, my favorite, the woman who went to a Halloween party dressed as a front-loading washing machine complete with laundry, a box of detergent on top, and a cord with a plug sticking out the back.
It is said that people in our town are just crazy. If you don’t pay your snowplow bill on time, you’ll get plowed in, not out, when the next storm hits. People build barns and paint the cupola before they close in the roof. When one man came home unexpectedly, he ended up chasing his near-naked wife and next-door neighbor through the woods at night until the state police showed up to restore the peace. Fights have been known to break out at the country store over a casual remark. And any piece of gossip worth its salt will make the rounds thanks to shopping at Wayside and Sherman’s, breakfast at the State Line Diner, or the sometimes not-so-neighborly conversation at coffee hour after church.
The flatlander tourist will have no problem finding relics of the past—the old barns, the tedders and mowers rusting by the side of the road, the farmers who are still milking herds, the smell of liquid manure in April, and the cute country stores with signs that read, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” But they won’t catch the essence of Vermonters, that we are barely a half-step away from who we have always been—a tough, self-reliant breed that Calvin Coolidge considered a reserve wellspring of liberty and independence in the event our national character ever required rebuilding.
Vermonters take pride in bad weather, look forward to a hard day’s work, still think that one’s reputation is worth defending, and cook their food at home—a place where, by the way, they were born and raised. For entertainment, they step outside to hunt, fish, barbecue, change the oil, watch the traffic from the front porch, or boil sap. They know how to tell a story and know that everyone has a story to tell. And if a neighbor needs help, well, you don’t wait for them to ask for it. You just show up and stack the wood, jump-start the generator, fix the roof, cut down the tree, or drop off the casserole. And when someone dies, we don’t talk about it much, because the race is over. There isn’t time for regrets.
The world over, it would appear that life is lived countless miles from where we wish we still were. I know that to be true thanks to modern poets who, when they speak fondly of home, mean some other hallowed ground, either distant or in times past. Here in the mountains, life isn’t always easy, but we are deeply rooted in the center of things, just a quick step away from where we have always wanted to be and the people that we had hoped to become.