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Voices / Essay

Without wheels

Every now and then, our lives can slow down deliciously

Robin MacArthur describes herself as a “writer, mother, and musician who lives on the rock-studded hillside where I was born in Southern Vermont.” This piece originally appeared on her blog; her writing also appears in the current issue of Orion Magazine.

Marlboro

Mud season never ceases to amaze. Or inspire.

I live on a dirt road with two ways out, and this year the ruts leading both north on MacArthur and south on Fox are two feet deep, leaving my car landlocked for five days straight.

We do have a second car for just this reason, a rusty, low-slung four-wheel-drive Subaru, but this week, my husband Ty has needed that car to get to and from work. Which leaves Avah and me, in our small house in Vermont, without wheels.

This is the second time this has happened for an extended period of time this year. The first was after Tropical Storm Irene, which decimated the bottom 300 feet of MacArthur Road. It was impassable for about three weeks, even via Humvee (we know because the National Guard tried, at 3 a.m., futilely, to get through).

If you had four-wheel drive, you could “get out” the other way: Stark to Fox to Ames Hill to Hinesburg to Carpenter Hill, until, 35 minutes later, you would find yourself in Brattleboro at a grocery store, where life seemed relatively normal.

But for those days and weeks after Irene, we mostly chose to stay at home. And found our lives slowed down deliciously.

We lived without electricity, bathing in candlelight and drinking from jugs of borrowed spring water and falling asleep early. We took long walks through the woods to Sweeties, the one gas station/convenience store in town, where we snatched up their last bottles of milk and chunks of cheese.

Then we walked home, another 40 minutes or so, along the Old Mercedes, a logging road that passes the Phelps Cemetery, where our town’s first settlers are buried. We lay down amidst their jutting, tooth-like gravestones and nibbled from our hunks of cheese and ran our fingers along the engraved lines of their names.

Eventually, we made it back to a road and back home. Our legs and our hearts and our spirits swelled: we were actually using our legs to get us somewhere we needed to go! We felt so vigorous, so youthful, so fresh eyed.

* * *

What made these footed journeys equally remarkable is that we passed neighbors along the way.

Route 9, the snakelike, two-lane state highway that curves through our town, is normally a river of semis and out-of-state vehicles racing one another to the nearest ski destination. Most years, there are one or two fatal accidents along its curves, and many more less tragic ones. Though I drive it almost every day, its name and dark pavement equate, in my mind and my body, to a violent streak of too much and too fast. It’s somewhere I don’t want to walk and wouldn’t dare ride a bike.

But after Irene, large chunks of Route 9 were completely washed away, transforming it into a pedestrian walkway.

Neighbors streamed by on bicycles; families were out with strollers and training wheels and bags of fresh-baked scones from Sweeties and, despite the tragedies of the storm, bright smiles on their faces. When had any of us ever walked this road, claimed it as our own, and when would we ever again?

Of course, it didn’t last long.

Tourists found ways to get through, and our governor brought in road crews from around the country to make a miraculously fast fix of the only east-west road through this part of the state.

Soon, there were trucks again, and gape-mouthed tourists, and no one dared bike or stroll their babies along the cracked, black pavement.

And the dirt roads got fixed, one at a time, as well. After a week or so we could get our Subaru out via Stark and Ames Hill, and we did so.

We raced to the grocery store as if we’d been famished, as if our gardens weren’t bursting with potatoes and carrots and squash and kale; as if our cupboards weren’t full of dried beans and our freezers well-stocked. We fled our quiet lives as if they’d kept us captive, as if our deprivation had caused true suffering.

Then the electricity came back on, and we once again streamed movies on Netflix and cruised Facebook voraciously and responded to all our hitherto unanswered emails.

Our 3-year-old daughter Avah asked several times to walk to Sweeties again and we told her, “Yes, let’s do that! That was so fun!” But we never did. The storm passed quickly, and its repercussions passed, on our hill, as well. Life got back to its speedy, over-jived normal.

* * *

Which is why, when mud season comes around each year, I find myself feeling, amidst the frustration and absurdity and logistical challenges, grateful.

This morning Avah and I caught a ride on the elementary school bus to her preschool (with none other than her intrepid Grandma Gail — my mom — at the wheel).

We weren’t the only ones who’d thought of that. Several other neighbors had parked their cars on solid ground and were hitching rides on the bus. My daughter could not have been more ecstatic — the school bus, to school!

And the faces of neighbors were bright as well — bright with ingenuity, and humor, and the communion that takes place when communities face challenges and work together to overcome them.

My daughter and I hopped off the bus in the center of town, and I hitched a ride halfway back home and walked the rest. As I write, I still haven’t figured out how I will pick her up, two hours from now, but I feel sure I’ll be able to. I feel bolstered by the exhilarating jolt of freedom that comes from doing without, and the fun of needing to use ingenuity, or muscles, or both.

Of course, I don’t really want it to be like this forever. I was raised in a house without electricity or indoor plumbing and grew up driving cars that were incessantly breaking down. That upbringing has immunized me from over-romanticizing the simple life.

But the occasional reminder to slow down, and do without, and get creative?

That I’m almost always grateful for.

And so now I’m off to call around for a ride, and if I can’t find one, I’ll get my seven-months-pregnant butt out the door and start walking.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #144 (Wednesday, March 21, 2012).

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