The real March madness? Mud season.

Eileen Clemens Granfors, an English teacher, will always be grateful to mud season because one year she was able to use it as a teaching moment.

“I stepped out of the SUV to get the morning paper prior to teaching my 7 a.m. class and I sank into mud past my ankle,” she recalls. “In typical English teacher fashion, I said, ‘Oh, my gracious sakes alive!'”

She wore the muddy shoe to school, but gave up on the sock, causing her students to wonder why she had one bare ankle. “But I did get to use the anecdote to teach interjections. Most of the students would not have used ‘Gracious sakes alive.'”

Mud season is like that: The dirt roads turn to car-swallowing slime and you often have to make a lot of lemonade out of the lemons that come with all that muck. I have had shoes sucked off my feet, too.

My sense is that Kari Andersen feels the same way. “I went with my hubby to the boondocks to sell hearing aids and the GPS took us the wrong way,” she says, and wound up stuck in the melting snow and mud on a dirt road. She and her husband actually tried to dig out their car with a coffee mug, which is sort of like trying to bail out the Titanic with a mixing bowl. Eventually help arrived in the form of a tractor.

I could identify with both Granfors’ and Andersen’s experiences: I have sunk knee deep in sludge in what weeks earlier had been a passable road. I have felt my car yanked into a rut and stall, unable to move, like a woolly mammoth or ground sloth caught in the La Brea Tar Pits. Most of us have if we have lived in rural Vermont for any length of time — or, in the case of Granfors and Andersen, rural California and rural Montana, respectively. Vermont may have a monopoly on phantasmagoric foliage and spectacularly chunky ice cream, but apparently other states have their share of quagmires, too.

And soon enough mud season once more will be upon us all. The sap is running; soon, the dirt roads will grow furrowed. Maple and mud are, of course, meteorological siblings. And the thing about mud season is that while it is inevitable, its effect on our lives can be unpredictable.

Annie DiSpirito Wales lives now in Arizona, but for years she lived in Burlington’s South End, which meant that she wasn’t living on a dirt road. Let’s face it: There aren’t a lot of dirt roads left in Burlington. A few years ago, her son’s family and her four grandchildren, all between the ages of 3 and 8, lived two doors away. Wales’s next-door neighbor also had four children roughly the same age as her grandchildren, plus a dog. One March when the mud in the yard was particularly goopy, she overheard her daughter-in-law and her neighbor shrieking incredulously at their children, “I can’t believe you did that! How could you?”

What had the young ones done? The older kids had learned that they could make a mighty impressive adhesive out of mud and dog poop, and had been trying to glue their younger siblings together. “The smell didn’t deter them in their quest for learning,” Wales remembers.

Indeed, it’s not just the roads that are thawing: It’s everything that hasn’t been paved (The paved roads, obviously, suffer a different sort of indignity: the frost heave).

Nevertheless, it’s the roads we think of first when we think of mud season and the way this time of year seems to exemplify a classic northern New England expression when it comes to travel: “You can’t get there from here.”

Or as my good friend David Wood reminded me, “Why do you think Vermont farmers use their tractors to go everywhere in the spring?”

Enjoy the season. Sure, a road may swallow your socks or shoes or your compact car. But it’s also a sign that summer is not far away.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 14, 2010.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

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