According to the calendar, spring in Vermont arrived on a Thursday. While my friends to the south post pictures of purple-green crocus shoots, the snow in our yard melts slowly into sheets of ice and patches of brown, uncovering every stick and ball we threw to the dog over the winter.
The frost heaves far beneath the ground and turns our hard dirt road into a minefield of potholes, ruts, and that legendary Vermont mud. Soon slushy ponds and vernal pools will become raucous amphitheaters playing a chorus of peepers—nature’s replacements for canceled concerts and sporting events—or we could receive a foot of snow to cover and quiet them just a while longer.
Early morning walks still require micro-spikes to keep our footing firm at the end of the driveway where the snow has thawed and froze again overnight. Waiting for the mid-day sun to urge warmer temperatures means switching to waterproof boots and preparing a dishpan of warm soapy water to clean the dog before he’s allowed back in the house. After even the shortest outings in mud season, our yellow lab looks as though he’s been dipped in chocolate, topside coconut creamy, mud-masqued from chest to paw. Wait too long in the day for a walk, though, and a north wind could bring an afternoon snow squall that has us wishing we’d grabbed a fleece and gloves.
In New England, every season is unpredictable and this spring especially so, bringing with it a novel gust of anxiety. My partner, Peter, and I live in a town of 2,000 in the rural part of Vermont, known as the Northeast Kingdom. When we bought this old farmhouse eight years ago, we joked that this was the place everyone would come to in case of a “zombie apocalypse.” Now, we find ourselves socially distancing as much by habit as ethical imperative. Our pantry and freezer are full, as they are all year long because a quick trip to the store takes an hour and means navigating through any combination of snow, ice, and mud.
“Put your foot in it,” Peter tells me from the passenger seat as we climb the steep south-facing hill to town where we’ll pick up dinner curbside from our favorite restaurant. Snowmelt runs in deep rivulets, and frost breaks the road up from below. The trenches of mud feel bottomless. The potholes are so vast that they have potholes of their own. The slippery suede surface pulls the car where it wants, and the wheels are helpless to resist. I drive slowly, plotting a course, trying to outwit the mud. If Peter were behind the wheel, he would drive straight and fast, daring the mud to outwit him.
We manage quite well together, Peter and I, working from home as a matter of course—he in his downstairs office and me upstairs in mine. But now we are distracted by the news and willingly water-board ourselves with information from official agencies and tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorists alike. We try not to offer our opinions or advice because we know we don’t know anything. And that’s part of the problem. Nothing is scarier than uncertainty. On social media, people chide one another. “Don’t be alarmed,” they say. When what they mean is do not be more alarmed or less alarmed than they are, because to be too alarmed is just alarmist and not to be alarmed at all is alarming ill-informed.
I suppose everyone has their way of navigating through the mud, preparing for the uncertainty on the road ahead. Proceed with caution or put your foot in it as you will—until you meet another driver on the road, that is. One of the things I love about living here is what I call the Vermont wave. On country roads, we drive a little slower and always greet one another with a tiny flick of the wrist, fingers just extended above the steering wheel. The gesture says, “I see you. We’re in this together.” When the traveling is particularly hazardous, the wave might be replaced with a nod so that each of us keeps our hands on the wheel, our cars a safe distance apart, thoughtful of one another.
Catherine Palmer lives in Danville and blogs about midlife reinvention and her life in Vermont at asmuchheart.com.