Discover the Sky

In the last year of the nineteenth century, a light bulb went off in the governor of New HampshireÕs head and a tourist ploy known as ŅOld Home WeekÓ flickered into being. The event was to be a celebration of the childhood spent in the country, the kind filled with days begun by collecting eggs from the chickens before dawn and spent catching minnows the in creek with the neighbor kids while the dogs chased mischievous gray squirrels up fondly frowning old red maples. Or something. Natives of the state who had migrated off to the complexities of the outside world were invited home, invited to bring their hearts back close to the land and lay their world-weary souls down on the earthy comforts of maple syrup and autumn apples. The Old Home Week festivities spread throughout New England, becoming most popular in little landlocked Vermont. For some twenty years, the wandering sons and daughters of the Green Mountains returned to their hometowns across the state in droves, rediscovering their beautifully pastoral roots and reminding those who still resided in the towns of how fortunate they were to live in the bountiful simplicity of nature every day.

A few towns still celebrate Old Home Week, but Charlotte, Vermont, where I grew up, is not one of them. I have little understanding of my local roots; the townÕs name is pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, and it was only a few years ago that I learned that thatÕs because weÕre named after Queen Charlotta, a wife with whom EnglandÕs George III allegedly enjoyed a happy and faithful marriage. I am glad of the leafless trees and cold afternoon sunlight when I return in the autumn from the city where I now spend most of my time, but I donÕt throw myself into the waiting arms of a loving rural community, and I donÕt sigh with pleasure at the taste of locally produced milk in my English Breakfast tea. My barn contains only old power tools and the battered shell of a defeated red sports car. Years ago I asked Sadie, my only friend whose family kept livestock on its property, if she didnÕt have to go and collect the eggs. Mildly repulsed, she replied: ŅI donÕt collect the eggs. The chickens scare me.Ó

When I return home, I like to sift through the piles of paper in the office, kitchen, and living room until I find the latest copy of the Charlotte News, a publication presumably dedicated to delivering local news to each of the townÕs roughly 3,500 residents. The cover of this most recent issue, dated Thursday, November 15, 2007, features a blurry picture of some partially gray (is it mold? An exotic pattern that the farmers carefully cross-bred?) pumpkins (gourds?) and the Thanksgiving-themed exclamation: ŅCelebrating Food!Ó The contents are varied; I skim over an interview with a man (I canÕt deduce who exactly he is or why a newspaper would think to interview him) about his assorted wine-related escapades, an article about holiday food that inexplicably mentions ŅPegÕs infamous potatoes,Ó another piece ostensibly about food that abruptly ends with references to both Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, and an assortment of glowingly encouraging high school sports recaps.

I donÕt know if IÕm the only one, but I have no idea who Peg is, and I have never met even the older brothers and sisters of the elementary school students whose accolades at art shows are listed in the ŅAround TownÓ section. Restless, I ask my mom if there are any other recent issues around anywhere, and she produces one, published on All SaintsÕ Day. From the cover, a haggard woman dressed as a witch grins up at me, a rubber spider dangling from her hat over her curiously white teeth, her fingers clenched around the shoulder of a small girl whose skin has been painted green a little too convincingly. I should not be surprised that I do not understand. I canÕt remember a time when I ever could understand Charlotte by way of its residents, and since I stopped spending the majority of my time in the town, the distance between us has only grown deeper. I abandoned Charlotte, I know, when I went to boarding school four years ago at age fifteen, and I have not done much living there since. The time I spend in my hometown is amorphous and suspended; from there I plan my life as it will be, rest from it as it is, remember it as it was, but I only barely live it. I feel my own treason, sometimes, but as quick as Charlotte is to quietly tell me that IÕm the one who left, IÕm just as quick to remind her that it was she who failed me in my childhood, who made me despise school so much that I opted to spend nearly five years being homeschooled, the lone student in my big wooden house on the East side of town. For the most part, then, the town and I peacefully ignore each other, like my painfully quiet roommate and I did throughout my sophomore year of high school. I canÕt relate, really, to Charlotters on CharlottersÕ terms and turf; we like each other okay, but we can never be quite sure of each other. So of course I do not understand.

From the information available to me from the links off the town websiteÕs home page, I could register my dog, call the head of the school board, or register my elementary school student for the winter basketball season. This could be any town; I donÕt see myself looking back at me. I was registered for basketball once, I recall, but I donÕt think I went back after the first practice, and since my family doesnÕt have a dog anymore, there is little that the town website has to offer me. But not nothing. On the home page, alongside links to ferry schedules and the most recent Town Plan, there is an enticing instruction: ŅTo see a list of CharlotteÕs biggest trees, click on the document at the bottom of this page.Ó Trees! It had never occurred to me that anyone would think to rank the trees around town, and not according to which was oldest, either, or most historically significant Š just biggest. There was something beautifully meritocratic about that.

I recalled an incident in which my friend Heather and I, both aged about fourteen at the time, had gone for a walk through the woods near her house. We had barely left the yard when she peered eagerly ahead.

ŅWhatÕs that? That, that blue thing in the woodsÉÓ


ŅDonÕt you see it? It looks like a tarp or somethingÉitÕsÉoh, no, wait. ItÕs just the sky.Ó

I would go exploring. I would see if I could lose myself enough that I could rediscover the sky, and then maybe I would begin to understand.

* * *

My carÕs name is Sheba; other than the fact that I named her that, I donÕt know why. It seemed to suit her, I suppose. ShebaÕs color is indeterminate Š in certain lights sheÕll shine a pretty oceany blue, and in others her greenness is obvious. Her make, though, is perfectly defined: she is a 1996 Volvo station wagon, standard transmission, nappy seat covers thatÕll drag loose-fitting skirts or pants to an embarrassingly low point when you try to slide gracefully into the seat. ShebaÕs the kind of car that some might call a Ņsoccer mom car,Ó but sheÕs got sass, and pluck, and she stands by me no matter what. The ideal partner with whom to go exploring.

Our goal is to get lost within the Charlotte town lines. We will let the town consume us, so to speak, and see what it can tell us. No music today Š Jolene the iPod, ShebaÕs and my constant companion, lies dormant in my purse, replaced by the sound of the dry asphalt and crumbled gravel under the tires, and maybe a bird noise or tree rustle that makes its way in through the windows closed against autumn cold. We set off.

I live on Spear Street, which begins humbly a short ways away from my house and continues all the way into the buzzing miniature metropolis of Burlington. I turn right out of my driveway, intent on observation, and primed to absorb all the pretty pictures and philosophical connotations that are so eager to dance off the bare limbs of the deciduous trees and drip from the waxy needles of the evergreens. But IÕm not a tourist, and itÕs hard work. A short ways down the road is a dairy farm, cows inky against the muted gray-green of their wild-grown field, hooves barely making marks on the mud thatÕs probably already stiff with shivering diamonds of frost. A good friend of mine from boarding school also lives in Vermont, and one day in English class (though it might have been Creative Writing) she and I had a spontaneous argument about who really understood what it was like to be from a rural area.

ŅWell,Ó she said imperiously, Ņdo you live down the road from a cow farm?Ó

I thought for a moment and then answered that yes, I did.

She was undaunted. ŅWell, did the cows ever get loose and run down to the mud pond at the end of the road and then get stuck and have to get pulled out by tractors?Ó

While the rest of the class decided whether to look amused or mystified, I had to answer, without much regret, that IÕd never experienced such a thing. IÕm not really a New England farm girl, I know that. I think, though, that if I stopped Sheba and went to the pasture and didnÕt get in trouble with whomever it is that owns these cows and this shaggy land, the cows might be willing to tell me something, or their grass-grown bulks and fireless eyes might. This is a comforting thought.

Ten minutes or so down my same familiar road, I feel that I have observed very little, and I have not come anywhere close to reaching my goal of getting lost. A moment after making the considered decision to be more impulsive, I reach the turn for a dirt road called Carpenter, and because I canÕt recall where it ends up, I go down it. I have been down here in the past; even before Spear Street is out of sight in my rearview mirror, IÕm thinking of how cool the Christmas decorations always are on the house to my right, with this reindeer leaping off the top of the house into the night, trying to reach a giant illuminated star that you can only barely tell is mounted to the top of a giant pine tree. Next time I come home those decorations will be up.

This is a lovely dirt road, the kind thatÕs twisty and a little bit scary to drive on, and this particular road loops down over a narrow bridge that goes across an exceedingly picturesque brook. If the bridge werenÕt metal, and if I werenÕt here, the scene could be from a fairy tale: there are curiously bending pine trees that could be either protective or threatening, banks covered with a botanistÕs grab bag of tough little plants that will probably cure toothaches if asked nicely, and the river itself is a pretty slip of a thing, ladylike enough for white-tailed deer to drink out of but not above harboring greedy trolls if need be. It is at this bridge that I realize that I am still thinking about those Christmas decorations, and about the fact that a bit farther down this road is the house where my sisterÕs childhood best friend lived, the one who sold me an outdated Super Nintendo with five games for only thirty-five dollars. This is a lovely dirt road and IÕm thinking about things that are only enjoyable when you plug them into electrical sockets. Maybe if Sheba were a horse. Maybe if I were on foot. But it is too cold to go on foot today.

Luckily, I think IÕm lost. IÕve ended up on a paved road somehow, and a fairly busy one. It seems to run parallel to Spear Street, but I thought I was pretty familiar with the roads that do that, at least this close to home. The houses are all new, and I see few bricks that look like they have stories. The trees and bushes are landscapersÕ children. I hope this is not my town Š I have been driving for maybe fifteen minutes. I cannot be lost but I think I am. Then I come to a wide expanse of asphalt, presumably the meeting of this road with another, a boulevard of lineless car territory dotted with stop signs. Tall grasses rise up on either side of the road, and I come to a full stop at the sign that tells me to. And then I go. So does another car, one coming down the road and disobeying a stop sign that may or may not exist in the metallic flesh and honking at me, angrily announcing a transgression that I donÕt even know how I made. Sheba is unfazed but I am lost.

Then an intersection. This is Dorset Street. Just two days ago, when my mom and I were on our way back from Barnes and Noble, I asked her to take an interesting way home, and she took precisely the route that I just did, and I witnessed my entire excursion in reverse. I have gotten lost, I have barely left Charlotte, and instead of rediscovering the sky I have almost caused a car accident on a manmade field of subordinated minerals and artificial compounds. I am obviously not focusing on the task at hand. Even though I know how to get there, more or less, I decide to go to the lake. A visual drowning, maybe, is the way to go.

On the way there, past an apple orchard and along more back roads that I really donÕt know the names of, I pass the spot where, in the days immediately after I got my learnerÕs permit, I was driving with my dad when he suddenly exclaimed:

ŅOh, look! Look, thereÕs a fox!Ó

Being a new driver, I was far too nervous to look until I had entirely stopped the car, and I missed the fox. At least, I think I did Š I can either remember or imagine a little brushstroke of orange in the overgrown field. Foxes were my favorite animal for most of my childhood, but outside of zoos, IÕve never actually seen one.

* * *

Since long before the debacle in which it was named a Great Lake and then demoted almost immediately to also-ran, and even before it had the name we call it by now, Lake Champlain has had a monster.

Samuel de Champlain was the first European to report seeing the creature that has been called AmericaÕs Loch Ness Monster, but Native American tribes had spoken of a Ņhorned serpentÓ for decades and even centuries before ChamplainÕs sighting in 1609. There are few photographs or videos that purport to show our Champ, but to those acquainted with him, his allure is just as powerful as that of his Scottish cousin. Across the lake in Port Henry, New York, the residents have erected a statue in honor of the illustrious creature, and local restaurants on both sides of the lake name proudly name sandwiches after him. Hypotheses of ChampÕs biological identity abound Š supernormal sturgeon, modern plesiosaur, mammalian zeuglodon Š but his status as a well-loved regional mascot is certain. From the minor league baseball team called the Lake Monsters to my fourth grade homeroomÕs designation as a member of the Champs team of classes, the amorphous, shadowy, grainily photographed, benevolent and yet menacing creature with the seaweed grin or the rubbery flippers or the prehistorically spiked spine (depending whom you ask) is a revered figure in Charlotte and the surrounding area.

I imagine that Champ would be able to defend himself very well against aggressors, what with his rapier claws and scourge-like tail, but the state legislature seems to think otherwise. Although his existence remains unproven, Champ (and Mrs. Champ, and all their little Champlettes and any other family members they might have) is listed on VermontÕs endangered species list, and so his vaporous possibility is legally protected even before it has taken on a concrete form. Our need for this phantasm, here in Charlotte and all along the Champlain coast, is such that we are prepared well in advance to put you in jail in his defense.

I am standing at the Charlotte Beach. There is no sand here, and what little land there is between the road and the toe-dragging edge of the icy water is covered in jagged, deep gray rocks. I stand on the small strip of grass above the rocks, looking out at the lake and wondering how deep it is. Today there are whitecaps like IÕve only seen on the ocean, and wind that throws itself against the particles in the air so hard that I can see the collisions, chain-reacting in thin white tangling strands. I have a notebook, and a pen, and I am determined to watch and learn. The sky is not a color, and not white Š a drifting, shifting shade that plays its hand close to its chest. The other side of the lake looks so close that even though I cannot imagine that that land is not New York State, it seems impossible that it could be. I am actually not sure if that is New York State. When the geography goes then the geology should press closer, I reason, and so I remain in the cold although it threatens to eat actual holes, like wormholes, through the green felted fabric of my weak, shivering coat. I glance back at Sheba, wonder if I locked the doors, though I am the only human in sight.

The lake is a blue that looks sculpted, as from childrenÕs clay in primary colors, its folds and creases appearing to shadow shifts in the pressure of fingertips. The water churns and gasps; the crests of waves rise up in a desperate way, stretching into clutching arms and slithering back under the surface in a purpled foam; white spangles drip into the sky in an illusion of salinity. That water could be deeper than anything. Home to anything. The shore, the maybe New York mountains, the stoic and stately evergreens that crowd the edges of the parking lot, are all draped in gray watercolor beside the inexorable blue.

ItÕs too hard to hold a pen with clumsy gloves coating my fingers, so this is gloves-off note-taking, the kind that stiffens joints when the blood in them crystallizes. My handwriting is transformed in this environment; it grows unrecognizably slanted and compacted. I want to pen out the waves and record every detail of the grass at my feet, but before IÕve managed to put down even twenty words, the instrument gives out on me, failing to mark the paper altogether. When I get back into the car, I attempt to make a few more notes, and my pen begins to work again. On ShebaÕs dashboard there is a little red light bulb with a snowflake sketched around it, and when I turn the key in the ignition that bulb glows solicitously at me, informing me that it is cold out. In case I didnÕt know. I realize then that the ink in my pen froze out there by the lake, flat out refused its task in the face of the wind and the water and the indefinable sky. When I get home, IÕll have to ask my parents if that really is New York State.

I drive away from the lake, leaving Champ lonely if heÕs the sort of creature who doesnÕt care for solitude. I go over the one-lane covered bridge, another lovely dirt road, and remember the half-submerged tangle of vines and tree stump that I once thought looked just like a sea monster, if sea monsters lived in freshwater lakes. A short way down the road is the house where I went to preschool. ItÕs a big white house, set far back from Lake Road down a winding driveway, the sort of house where I think very nice Christmas parties or wedding receptions could have been held. Halfway along the driveway is a low-slung red barn, the kind thatÕs more like an oversized shed with its front open to the world, and I remember playing house there with the other four-year-olds, making meals in the kitchen and endlessly reassigning roles in our vast family. Often, we found what we called sea glass. It was glass, certainly, bright and colorful, but I canÕt remember now whether the edges had been smoothed down by sands and hours or if really our sea glass was just plain broken glass, pretty but so common as to be dangerous to fleshy young fingers.

Last time I drove down this road I was with the boy I was seeing then, who had come to Charlotte with me for spring break rather than flying all the way back to his home in Texas. At this point on our drive heÕd called home and IÕd listened to him tell his mother how beautiful it was here, how impressed she would be by it and how much his sister would love to draw these landscapes. A whole spring and summer and most of a fall have passed since then, and the terrain is again entering the shallow-frozen mock-hibernation he saw it in then. As with the eyes of an outsider I can acknowledge that it is very beautiful here, and that that rugged little horse in that field could be a wild pony, the way it places its shaggy hooves in all the safest places in its tundra-like field. Then I remember feeding carrots to the horses here when I was very young, accompanied by a wealthy friend whoÕd lived nearby in a big house with a swimming pool. The girl touched her carrot to the electric fence and cried at the shock, and knowing this I canÕt think the pony wild. Although it is very beautiful here.

There is a part of town that I am always conscious of, though I go there so infrequently that I canÕt conjure a plausible picture of it in my mind. The ferry to New York State makes Charlotte famous for an exoticism of comings and goings, and I know generally where its landing is. For a new view of the lake, then, and for another shot at getting lost on the network of dirt roads on the West side of town, I turn right at the intersection that my mother has always called dangerous and follow the signs for the ferry landing.

* * *

From the original oversized sailboats that slipped elegantly across the lake, to the larger horse-powered ferries that arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century, to the glorified population of steamers that slowly began to dot the water like the sedentary, thoughtful water bugs that glower under the leaves at the edges of late summer puddles, the ferry from Charlotte, Vermont to Essex, New York has always been a point of pride for my town. Once famed for being on the cutting-edge of the technological times, and now admired as a quaint and yet useful mode of transportation, the ferry is the sort of thing that always bobs its head up eagerly in conversations in which a Charlotte resident attempts to explain where he or she is from: ŅOh! Oh yeah, I took the ferry from there once!Ó The ice cream over in Essex is apparently quite good, and a nowadays the ferry seems more like a sunny amusement for families and youths on empty summer days than anything else. I read, though, that horse boats fell out of use after one simply split in half out on the water, unable to sustain its load of cattle. Horses and cows swam for it, a new school of maladapted fish, as the famed ferry boat sank sullenly to the bottom.

In 1983, the Champlain Maritime Society released a ŅReport on the Nautical Archaeology of Lake Champlain,Ó in which it detailed its findings on a number of shipwrecks it has investigated all around the lake. The photographs, though presented between pretty covers depicting sailboats fully afloat on a calm and glassy surface, are harrowing: one shows the drowned iron windlass of a boat known only as the Isle LaMotte vessel cozied up to one of the marble cargo blocks that helped drag the ship to its final resting place, and all of the pictures are blurred and garbled at the details, like visions seen through eyelids half-closed. There are no photographs at all to illuminate the SocietyÕs work on the 1983 Shelburne Bay Steamboat Project, whose main objective was to Ņinventory the status and condition of known steamboat wrecks in Shelburne Bay.Ó Shelburne is immediately to the North of Charlotte. Only a series of cheerfully sketched maps and diagrams illustrates these wreckages of sundered wooden beams and shattered nautical skeletons; the penciled lines are unnaturally distinct, suggesting a simplicity to the wrecks that seems impossible. The report includes technical descriptions of the wrecks at hand, accounts of the work done in investigating them, and recommendations for their future treatment and conservation, and all of this information is doubtless very important. I am really only interested in the photographs.

The signs directing me to the ferry landing at McNeilÕs Cove are ubiquitous. IÕm sure IÕve been on the ferry at some point in my life, but IÕm equally sure that I didnÕt pay any attention to what the road was doing on the way there, and the amount of focus that this drive requires now is surprising. I am, after all, only a short ways away from the center of town, from the post office and the library and the prime trick-or-treating neighborhood. This road, though, is new to me, and itÕs the sort of road that likes to take full advantage of that fact. Poor Sheba Š I drag her through my uncertainty of the seemingly endless bends and curves, forcing her to trundle along in third gear when she would really prefer second, banking on the unfounded notion that the road will straighten out in a moment and weÕll be cruising again. We are cruising, then, down a steeply sloping hill that I, of course, did not anticipate, my left foot jittery on the clutch as I try to prepare for whatever might appear at the bottom of this unpaved corkscrew.

I have been here before but I did not remember it. Around the last twist the lake stretches out suddenly, vastly, much closer than it was when I stood on the beach with my face to its wildness. There is no guardrail Š no guardrail! Š around the edge of this skinny, mossy, insubstantial bank, and no parking lot, either Š there is only the sharply inclined patch of gravel that I swing Sheba into in a sudden panic, a sudden need to get out of here, because aside from me and Sheba and whatever bit of solidness is holding us up at the moment, there is only a flat wooden plank of a dock, a landing, whatever it might be called, and a few cartoonishly aimless-looking men prowling it, and beyond that there is only the water.

I donÕt see any ferries, but I donÕt know why I would, either; I donÕt know what I was expecting. Huge, towering white pylons rise from the softly shifting surface of the impossibly huge lake (not a Great Lake? What could ever be greater?), like inanimate creatures that ought to be in a science fiction movie with crackling blue electricity strung between them like tinsel. Instead they just stand, immobile, with their feet planted in the bottom of the lake in condescension to those of us who can never hope to reach those depths. My heart is beating faster than it has any right to, but the truth is that I see, at this moment, a real possibility of tentacles or insanity grabbing me and tugging me inexorably toward the water, and its unclear whether or not I would be able to escape. My eyes will not adjust to those pylons. I have no idea whether the men on the dock have noticed me, or if theyÕre even there anymore or ever were. I want the car to reverse now.

The men who constructed the first railroad in Charlotte discovered, during the course of their work in 1849, a skeleton that the famed naturalist Zadock Thompson eventually identified as that of a whale. Vermont has not always been landlocked. Lake Champlain was once the ocean, brimming with salt and crustaceans and strange stories of mythic battles between giant squids and suction-scarred whales. I think I can still smell the sea breeze, which is crazy. I reverse, leave quickly, donÕt look back. In a matter of seconds fields surround me again, and in a matter of minutes those fields are familiar ones.

Soon IÕm driving back toward the center of town, and on the way I pass a low stone wall in the woods by the marina, right at the bottom of the driveway of the house where my friend Heather used to live. It was right over that wall that Heather stared when she saw the sky in the woods.

* * *

ItÕs getting late now, and if the sun sets, which it will, I donÕt know what IÕm thinking driving around looking for the sudden apparition of rocks with revealing runes drawn on them. As the light begins to thin, I head toward the center of the town, which I can never decide if I enjoy driving through or not; it seems quaint, with its limited collection of small green spaces and small white community buildings, but the frowns on the faces of the women at the post office always tell a different story. My father, who used to be a town selectman, once referred to the town hall as Ņthat shack sinking into the mud.Ó

The Old Brick Store, one of only a handful of establishments in Charlotte where one can purchase food, is a rusted, resigned red, the color of a scrape that takes longer to heal than you expect it to. In photographs from the late eighteen hundreds, when horses and chaises waited outside instead of taupe SUVs, the building looks much as it does now: stolid and yet somehow welcoming, its foundation and walls inflexible in the way that ends up lending stability. It stands at what is known as CharlotteÕs Four Corners, an area that once knew warm-yourself-by- the-fire-weary-traveler taverns and storerooms packed full of sacks of flour and potatoes, and that saw the property around it change hands countless times over the slipping, tumbling years. I would assume that whiskey doused lanterns as punches were thrown in the storeÕs basement, and upstairs wealthy ladies ushered their curly-headed little boys along the candy aisle, adamantly telling them that one piece is enough for today. The bricks did not shiver.

The giant clock that now hangs on the side of the Old Brick Store is doubtless rather heavy, but the walls hold fast. ItÕs one of those clocks that has never had much intention of telling time, at least not in the conventional sense; the spear-like black hands that perform the mundane duty of announcing the hour are something of an afterthought. The hands do move, and have been known to display the correct time, but in general, the clock acts as though it has much better things to think about than what is correct and what is not. The face is a face, lips full and twitched into a mysterious smile, pale blue eyes heavy-lidded, yellowed cream skin marred only by the shadows of barely legible words. Where the numbers would be are objects that someone could have scavenged from the wreckage of the perfect little home: at 5 oÕclock is a black rubber boot with a streak of yellow lighting painted down its side; at four is a tea kettle; seven, a rubber chicken. At ten oÕclock is a very cold frying pan.

The ink is starting to freeze again. From across the parking lot, a shiny yellow dog approaches me, looking healthy aside from having obviously wandered astray from wherever he should have been. I wish I could find out what that sleek golden fur feels like, but I let him go on his way; he pauses only to sniff at my knees and shoes without much interest. Above me, the clock rains down invisible sparks from the electric painted words that twist circuitously around the outside edge of the face: And time shall cease as we approach the speed of light

The clockÕs wings stretch out, a logical extension in wood and gray paint, and if they would only flap then I know that those pouted lips would part in a grin, because this clock believes what it says more than most do. The bricks are only bricks, compacted dirt and nature sculpted into a form that will not let them change. They would be ageless, carrying the skeletons of the insects that once burrowed in the mud the bricks are made of, but they are bolted fast to manmade time, supporting its wings while keeping them forever immobile.

* * *

I thought I might go and look at those rocks, the first ones, the ones on top of the hill behind the elementary school. But even before I pull into the deserted parking lot I know that I will not make it up that hill in this cold, with these hands that canÕt even wear gloves and hold a pen at the same time.

Instead I head for home.

There is a stretch of the road that we in Charlotte call Hinesburg Road (but they in Hinesburg call Charlotte Road) just past the school that I have known for a while is the very prettiest at a certain time of day in the colder months. At the right time in the afternoon on days like this one in November, the sun loses all of its warmth and purifies from yellow into incurably metallic gold, hardening into a rebirth of the morningÕs frost on every strand and stick and crushable blade in the surrounding fields. The sky becomes water. The paint-peeling barns, the hunched and twisted trees, the far away mountains that donÕt ever get any closer, they all toss their images upward, seeming to shimmer above themselves the way pretty faces do upon staring into ponds. If there are clouds, they give themselves up, for once, settling for just filtering the sun instead of pursuing their endless and futile attempts to block it out entirely. The colors, such as they are, agree to compromise, and what would otherwise be contrast melts to a subtle shift from one extreme to the other, with the dark greens of house-shadows and the sharp reds of poisonous shrubsÕ berries inhabiting the landscape hand in hand rather than simply side by side. But that gold is the thing, the thing that makes the afternoon what it is: a portrait of an earth that is open to possibility.

By the time I pull Sheba into my driveway, the light has shifted significantly and is coming very close to failing all together. The sky was lovely this afternoon. I have seen it on my own, watched the waves morph by myself, ignored the men at the ferry landing, and been honked at ferociously in my only interaction with another human this afternoon. I experienced Charlotte and a piece of what it had to show me exactly as I wanted to: free from interlopers and interference, from the people who would create a town when all I want is land. Curiously, what I want most to continue thinking about is the hand-stencilled inscription on the winged clock at the Old Brick Store. I didnÕt intend to go there this afternoon Š every person I know knows that store, and itÕs the kind of place where youÕre likely to run into acquaintances when you least want to. But I was drawn there, though there are no remarkably big trees on its property. Though its history is not what I thought I would call a natural one.

The steps that go up to the front porch of my house are made of stone that my parents got from somewhere else in town Š IÕm not sure where. The slabs vary in height, width, texture, and stability, but the most interesting feature that any of them has to offer is the tiny curlicues, about the size of my pinkie fingernail, that circumscribe the fossilized forms of ancient sea creatures in some of the rocks. Shrimp, maybe, or snails, or even more likely, beings so esoteric that laymen never even knew to come up with generic names for them. Vermont was not always landlocked. Champlain was once the sea.

And time shall cease as we approach the speed of light

I did sit on a rock once, in the woods of Charlotte with my cat nearby, and cry over a fantasy story. It was a rock that I sat on. But mud, sand, shale and clay Š these are the earth as well, and when people take them and make them into bricks, they hold history as well as anything else, positively ooze it. The lake kisses the feet of those terrifying white pylons like a worshipper at the alter of the god who does verily provide for those whom he loves. I imagine that without being inhabited by a creature of manÕs ancient musings the depths of Lake Champlain would be a lonely place. Even I imagine that.

As we approach the speed of light and time shall cease

My family captured these creatures frozen in stone and put them here for me to walk on. The sky was lovely this afternoon.

I walked barefoot in the mud at the edge of my gravel driveway the first time I recognized the smell of spring, and was sad to see the snow pour back out of the ground in clarified rivulets but intrigued to find the process familiar and apparently predictable. The only thing I can say about the horseback riding camp I went to the summer I was eight is that the week ended with natureÕs rebellion during the culminating trail ride; one girl was stung by hoof-angered bees (wasps? Hornets?) something like eight times, and my good friend Amy had a horseshoe-shaped bruise on her chest for days where her horse kicked her after throwing her off, the result of the horse receiving some stings of her own. I only fell peacefully into the bushes at the side of the trail. For years when we were younger, Sadie Š who does not collect the eggs because the chickens scare her Š and I spent all of our free time in a patch of woods surrounding the tiny river that ran by her house. We called it Fairy Land; Evil Land was where, farther down the river, the vines grew denser and the water darker and more trees had fallen near the pile of rough, bone-weary stones that may or may not have been an Indian burial ground. We stayed in Fairy Land with our dragons and princes, and drank the clear, shimmering water that we eventually found out was run-off from U.S. Route 7, carried to us under SadieÕs property through a pipe that we saw but dismissed as unmagical.

The territory does stick to me - and I feel sure that the town knows this, like it is part of a deal we made somewhere along the way. Years ago, I took a walk in the woods near my house with Sparky, my big orange cat, the day after I finished reading The Lord of the Rings for the second time, and I sat on a wet mossy living stone and cried Š because Frodo and Sam had to part ways, I think Š while the wild thing I was lucky enough to have accompany me stalked scents in the camouflage leaves, and then a year later I went away to school, and from that alone I am certain that Charlotte has me, one way or another. The townÕs earth held me up and has never failed to do so, and that is why I sometimes wish that Charlotte had an Old Home Week. If left to our own devices, this land and I could have been best friends, and so I am sorry that teachers, housewives, bickering selectmen have gotten in the way, but they arenÕt the whole story.

Heather was born in Southern California. SadieÕs family has lived in this town for generations. Sparky the cat and his brother Woody were born underneath the crib in which baby Sadie was sleeping at the time. For me, they are each a product of this town, but their histories are their own. I was born in the hospital in Burlington Š a Vermonter by circumstance, not legacy and with parents born in New York, but undeniably a Vermonter. My connection to this place extends just about as far as my own skin and my own earliest memories. Tenuous, maybe, but my oldest and strongest connection nonetheless. When I visit England, I feel the soul-deep pull of an ancestral home, but I donÕt have any friends in England. ThatÕs our deal, then Š I may not understand, and I may not see belonging clinging to me from the eyelashes of my neighbors, but I get to keep what I have: my own sky-soaked sliver of earth.


Albers, Jan. Hands on the Land: A History of the Vermont Landscape. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

Chase, Jack, Arthur B. Cohn, Kevin J. Crisman. A Report on the Nautical Archaeology of Lake Champlain: Results of the 1983 Field Season of the Champlain Maritime Society. Ed. R. Montgomery Fischer. Barre, Vermont: Northlight Studio Press, 1983.

Higbee, William Wallace. Around The Mountains: Historical Essays About Charlotte, Ferrisburg and Monkton. Rutland, Vermont: Academy Books, 1991.

Town of Charlotte website.


Zarzynski, Joseph W. Champ: Beyond the Legend. 2nd ed. Montpelier, Vermont: Capitol City Press, Inc., 1988

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18 January 2008