Vermont has roughly 8,700 miles of dirt roads, according to the Vermont Agency of Transportation. That’s roughly 55 percent of our streets, highways, boulevards, courts, dead ends, avenues, and … roads. And this time of the year, that’s 8,700 miles of mud.
How far is 8,700 miles? Imagine driving all the way from Anchorage, Alaska to Key West, Florida … and then, just for fun, driving another 3,500 miles.
Moreover, it is not merely rural Vermont that is asphalt-challenged. Dennis Lutz, public works director for Essex, told me that fully one-third of the roads in Essex are gravel. “We’re in that zone between urban and suburban and very rural,” he explained.
I never thought I would say this, but I can’t wait for mud season. After the brutal cold and snow of this winter, I am actually looking forward to the way parts of Vermont become scenes from old Hollywood horror movies about quicksand. After all, if the dirt roads are starting to thaw, that means spring is coming. Most of us are happy to pay that price.
But mud season demands accommodations. Vaneasa Stearns, owner of the general store here in Lincoln, said that the truck drivers who deliver to both her magical little emporium and the general store in nearby Jerusalem often detour back to Vermont 116 to get there, rather than continue their usual route via the Downingville Road. Any day now, that usual route — a dirt road — may become the sort of car-swallowing slop that eats 18-wheelers for breakfast.
“I totally avoid the dirt roads during mud season,” said Sally Ober, the town clerk in Lincoln. “I know how bad they can be.” She told me that people who live on the dirt roads sometimes park their cars in the parking lot for the town offices. One savvy traveler once parked there during mud season and then walked the two and a half miles to her destination on the dirt road that is Elder Hill.
The fact is, a lot of the world takes asphalt for granted. We don’t here in the Land of the Polar Tomato. I still recall the late Clara Hallock of Lincoln describing for me the way she and her husband, Ken, would stop their car where the Quaker Street pavement ended, pull off to the side of the road, and wrap their tires in chains for the last mile up Bagley Hill to their home.
Ironically, Scott Rogers, Director of Maintenance and Operations for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, only has to worry about one dirt road: Vermont 65 to the Floating Bridge in Brookfield. The other dirt roads are managed by the towns or municipalities. But that doesn’t mean that he is exempt from the madness that is mud season in the Green Mountains. “It’s also pothole season,” he reminded me. “It’s that freeze/thaw pattern that pops the pavement open.” Rogers is an eighth generation Vermonter, and he has seen “potholes so big you could park a car in them. Seriously, you could get all four tires in them.”
I’ve lived in Vermont most of my life now, but I still smile to myself when I hear the expression “frost heaves.” I imagine the poet indisposed in ways that are anything but lyrical. But I also know how damaging frost heaves can be to a vehicle and how dangerous for the passengers. After all, a frost heave can appear out of nowhere on a paved road while you’re traveling 35 or 40 miles an hour. No one is traveling 35 or 40 miles an hour on a dirt road in the middle of mud season. Not possible.
In any case, all those potholes and all that mud mean that spring is nearing. We’ll have more snow, but the days are long and the sun is high. Moreover, mud and maple are meteorological cousins. At the end of a lot of Vermont’s dirt roads is the ultimate grail: an evaporator rich with maple sap. You know for sure that spring is in the air when you breathe in deeply the steam of a sugarhouse.
So, I raise my glass today to spring – and to our 8,700 miles of mud. Here’s to mud in your eye.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on March 15, 2015. The paperback of “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in May.)