Mud season hits hard this year
Children and pets make their way down Augur Hole Road in Marlboro, one of many miles of dirt roads in town that are virtually impassible this year.

Mud season hits hard this year

With miles of dirt road turned into craters and chasms, area towns and residents cope with an annual Vermont rite of impassage

It's Vermont's fifth season - mud season - and it's in full swing this year like none other.

“The annual mud season in Marlboro is especially bad this year,” resident Adrian Segar wrote on a public Facebook post on Monday in one of innumerable dispatches from residents on the social media platform.

“The town's 60 miles of dirt roads are essentially unpassable,” he continued. “School is canceled today because the school buses can't get through. We got a car out to the paved road this morning when the freezing temperature made our road barely passable and will be walking out to it until the roads get fixed.”

He's not the only one noticing what has escalated to a crisis and even a safety issue throughout the region this year, which the Westminster Highway Department described as “the worst mud season seen in years” in a notice issued on Sunday.

Peggy Tiffany, of Marlboro, has taught in Wilmington, Halifax, and Marlboro.

“I've lived here for almost 40 years, and I don't remember a mud season this bad before,” she said.

Tiffany has seen a lot of mud in her day. She's also heard about even more mud from before her time.

When she moved to town, longtime resident Diana Heiskell, then in her 90s, described mud that was so bad in the 1940s that a horse was stuck in the mud up on Higley Hill Road up to its belly. A tractor with a winch had to come down to save the poor horse's life.

Some Vermonters point out the importance of not losing one's sense of humor when roads seem to have become a bottomless pit of thick, wet mud.

“From where I live, I'm lucky that I can get to Route 30,” said Amanda Matt, of Auger Hole Road in Marlboro. “I have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. That's the only kind of car that's making it out of here, but even with that, some folks still can't get out.”

Matt echoes the consensus: “This is the worst I've seen it in the last 12 years,” she said.

“A neighbor down the road came by today to ask if they could park their Honda Civic in our dooryard so that it can get out. Mud keeps neighbors stuck together,” she said with a laugh.

Her husband, Eric Matt, “drives a big truck, but today he had to take the tractor down to the sugar house,” she said on Sunday. “His truck wouldn't have made it.”

The ambulance gets stuck

Eric Matt is an emergency medical technician and a volunteer for the Marlboro Fire Department. For EMTs and other emergency volunteers, the mud is more than an inconvenience.

When responding to a recent medical emergency out in the far reaches of Marlboro, “We had to take an alternate route because three cars were stuck in the mud on the road we took to the call,” Matt recalled. “It was impassable.”

The Dover ambulance reached the patient first, so Marlboro EMTs proceeded to meet their counterparts on another road.

Suddenly, “The ambulance went a little too far and got stuck,” Matt said. “It wasn't their fault - they did all the right things, but they did need some assistance.”

“We took the winch on our Rescue truck. With the weight of that thing, it was really in there,” he said. “First, we had to pull them forward, then go around to the other side, and then we had to pull them backwards to get them out.”

Matt was crawling around in the mud assisting with the extrication, bringing a surprise to his family upon his return home as he was caked in the stuff.

“Here's some advice,” said Matt with a hearty laugh. “Don't get sick, and don't let your house catch on fire until this dries out.”

“We'll do our very best to get there to help you,” he said. “But man - there's a whole lot of mud out there!”

'You don't know until you try to drive on it'

In Westminster, where Heather Taylor has lived at the end of a dirt road, she has had 33 springtimes of experience dealing with the mud.

“There have been mud seasons where we've had to leave our car 2{1/2} miles down the road to be sure we could get out. That means that when you leave for work in the morning, you must be prepared for when you come back in the evening, and it's pitch black outside. That means carrying a head lamp and a backpack.”

“It hasn't been that bad this year, but we've got our eyes on the road,” said Taylor, describing the mud as a moving target and noting that weather conditions can bring change quickly.

“There are some sections of the road that haven't thawed yet, and there are others that might be bad one week and fine the other,” she pointed out. “But of course, that also means that the section that might have been good before might now be the bad spot.”

“The road can be very different within a quarter mile. You just don't know until you try to drive on it,” she said.

“Mud brings neighbors together,” observed Taylor, who checks in with neighbors to see if anyone needs anything in town whenever she ventures out.

“Of course, you have to have something to carry all those packages in if you get stuck on the way back,” she said, laughing.

'They don't know the roads are so deep'

“I've got 4 feet of mud on my legs right now,” said Craig Green, who works for R.L. Fuller Towing in Wilmington on Sunday.

“I just got in after pulling cars out of the mud all day long,” he said. “I've done 15 calls so far today, and I could do a lot more, but it's been a lot of days of this in a row, so I'm done for today.”

Green had just come back from a vacation at the beginning of mud season.

“I walked in the door at 11 a.m. and was called out to tow some folks out of a muddy road. I didn't come home until 11:30 that night.”

Green, whose father and grandfather were both in the towing business, has been pulling people out of the mud this time of year for the last six years. His 3-year-old son Noah - perhaps the business's fourth generation - joined him for about three hours of calls this past weekend.

“This is probably the worst I've seen it,” says Green. “But Noah loves it.”

“He doesn't get out of the rig with me. He sits in the truck and watches me crawl around in the mud in the rear-view mirror,” says Green with a deep chuckle. “He gets a kick out of it. He's joined me on snow calls, too, but the mud is his favorite.”

Green says that 90 percent of his calls are to assist people who aren't local.

“It's not that the out-of-staters don't know how to drive, it's that they don't know the roads are so deep,” he said. “I had a Vermont Subaru with a belly full of mud out on a road today, and we saw a car with a Connecticut plate trying to get through coming our way. I got him turned around and pulled the Subaru out. Then when I was driving back out, he was stuck about a half mile down the road, so I pulled him out, too.”

“I've seen mud in spots almost 3 feet deep. I saved one fella in a big truck with a snowplow attached to it. The plow itself was buried with a foot of mud on the top of it. Most cars are buried up to the boards. Sometimes it's hard to find something to hook the winch to. You can shovel mud until you're blue in the face. I try to shovel it out or dig it out by hand so that I can sling a nylon rope through to the winch to hook up the car. Mud is like a suction cup with water in it.”

To those who think they might be above getting stuck, Green reminds us, “Everybody is getting stuck this year. This is equal opportunity mud - and it's deep.”

Don Martin of Guilford has been dispatching for Brattleboro Towing and Recovery for 39 years. He's been busy, too. “There are a lot of places where cars are stuck in the same area. We get one call, and by the time we drive out there we might have three or four cars stuck on the same road,” he said in a thick Vermont accent.

Golden Cross Ambulance, based in Westminster, also dispatches for a few towing companies as well, said Jay Sayah, one of the dispatchers.

“I don't remember this many calls for winch outs. It's been a busy season so far,” he says. “We had a call from a family who called from Westminster and we got them out.”

“Later in the evening the same family got caught in the same location,” he recalled. “We went back to get them out again.”

Road work headaches

“The plan is to take the mud spots and push the mud to the side to make it one lane passable,” the Westminster Highway Department wrote to residents. “Keep in mind this won't be pretty, it will be one lane and you will have to go slow.”

“Some of these mud spots are so deep that truck loads of stone won't even make a difference,” the statement continued. “Once all this mud starts to dry out we will bring it back in the road and work on getting things graded. Hopefully, this happens soon.”

The Marlboro Selectboard issued a similar statement to residents on Monday.

“The next several days the nighttime temperatures will be below freezing allowing the Road Crew to get out early and attack the worst areas of the Town's roadways,” the board statement said. “As in past years, planning is important as running the heavy road vehicles over the roads can actually do more harm than good.”

A timeless topic

Vermont mud has always been part of the culture of living here, with the conditions of the local dirt roads making front-page news every spring.

“While the sharp winds and bright sunlight of the past few days have done much to dry up some of the mud in the highways, there are still many places both in town and outside where traveling conditions are slow and hazardous,” The Brattleboro Daily Reformer reported on March 30, 1929.

“The worst part of the Brattleboro Wilmington highway is at the Brattleboro end, where the mud in places is nearly two feet deep and where it is practically impossible for ordinary cars to get through,” the paper continued.

On April 12 of the same year, a correspondent for the paper reported that “North Westminster is in the throes of a revolt over the condition of roads there,” noting that “Rockingham, our neighbor on the north, is aiding and abetting the inhabitants of the North Westminsterites.”

“The annexation of North Westminster to Rockingham is urged,” the writer continued, but ended the dispatch on a less revolutionary note - that “it stands to reason that as 'Nature takes its course' the mud will be a thing of the past soon, all ill feeling will be forgotten, and we'll all live happy the rest of our lives.”

“As for mud! Has any town been free from it?” wrote a pseudonymous columnist, “the Rustic,” in The Brattleboro Daily Reformer on April 24, 1933.

“Shall we keep quiet about it for fear it will repel summer residents?” the Rustic asked. “We do not want to make them think that every Vermont road is almost impassable all spring.”

Mud season is a big deal in Vermont, which has more miles of dirt road (8,593 miles) than paved road (7,172), according to the Agency of Transportation.

For better or worse, dirt roads are part of the Vermont ethos - and with dirt comes mud.

Adrian Segar pointed out the paradox in his Facebook post.

“Perhaps mud season is a Vermont rite of passage that we curse - but of which we are oddly proud,” he wrote.