John Wordsworth, a Washington, D.C., resident, was going to hike the Long Trail with three friends. He planned on flying into Burlington and taking a cab from the airport to Rutland, where the foursome would rendezvous and hit the trail.
John had been a college friend of Lori Flanagan's and knew she now lived in Burlington. So he contacted her for a taxi recommendation, and Lori, a regular customer of mine, gave him my number. Word of mouth is a beautiful thing.
That's how I ended up driving south on Route 7 with John — a short man, friendly and talkative — beside me in the shotgun seat. I dug his precisely trimmed short beard, a vision of facial topiary.
"Are these guys you're hooking up with old college buddies?" I asked.
"Nope. Two are, like me, veterans of Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and the third is a son of one of the guys."
"That was a righteous, long-shot campaign, man," I said. "I remember the cool house they rented on Intervale Avenue in the Old North End. It was always teeming with volunteers. What did the press call them? The Deaniacs?"
"Oh, yeah — the Deaniacs," he said, chuckling. "That was us."
"Are you still involved in politics?"
"I am. I lobby for the United Mine Workers. It's a tough road for these guys. An entire way of life, and not just the jobs, is disappearing before their eyes. Then Trump shows up like a skilled con man telling them he's going to bring things back to just the way they were. It's grasping at straws, but a lot of miners fall for that rhetoric. Who could blame them? Most of the union leaders, fortunately, see through Trump like a pane of glass."
The more we talked, the more I liked this guy. He had dedicated his life to fighting the good fight. To me, that's a life well lived.
We hugged when I dropped him off in downtown Rutland. The older I get, the more I hug. I'm not saving my love for a rainy day.
"We might need a ride into Burlington when we get off the trail in about five days," John informed me. "We're gonna spend a few days in town reliving our campaign days."
Four nights later, John called. "Gosh, it's tough getting bars up here," he said. "I'll talk quick. Could you meet us at noon tomorrow? I think it's the town of Lincoln. We'll be coming off the trail onto, it says, 'South Lincoln Road' right where 201 comes out. It's a forest service road — 201, I mean — so I don't know if it'll be on your GPS."
"Don't worry. I'll find it, John. See you tomorrow."
I did find it, though it was tricky. I arrived at the dirt-road intersection right at noon, and the boys emerged a few minutes later. There were the four of them, plus one young woman and one dog. The guys appeared tired, but good tired — relaxed and happy. The dog looked exhilarated, having spent four days in the natural world. The woman, who was tall and lean, was the exception. She looked bedraggled.
John introduced me all around. Before stepping into the Sienna, each of the hikers removed their muddy boots, banged them together sole-to-sole and dropped them in the trunk area — a considerate gesture I much appreciated. They placed their backpacks there as well and, on top, the pooch. The woman, Reba, took the shotgun seat, while the guys got comfortable in the rear.
"Are you doing OK?" I gently asked my seatmate as we began the drive back to Burlington. "You look a touch worn out."
"I've been sick for a couple days with a stomach thing," she explained. "These guys took me in and looked out for me in the hut last night."
What a sweet bunch of dudes, I thought. In this vital (and long overdue) #MeToo era, it's good to recognize the safe, kindhearted men among us.
On the way into town, John searched for a dog-friendly hotel. "It might be tough to find a vacancy," I said. "This weekend is the Festival of Fools. Well, every weekend is something."
It took a few clicks, but John found an open spot at La Quinta on Williston Road. When we arrived at the hotel, the guys were delighted to see Al's French Frys right next door. Apparently, this was a regular hangout for them back in the day during the Dean campaign.
They rented one big room with extra cots, including one for Reba. When I picked them up later that evening for a ride to Church Street, the boys looked showered, clean and rested. Reba, too, looked great, her eyes clear, and all smiles. "I'm all better!" she said.
For the next few days, I drove them between La Quinta and downtown — always the gang of five. I had the sense that they were picking up the tab for Reba every step of the way.
On the fourth day, Reba was booked on the Amtrak to Springfield, Mass. When I showed up at eight in the morning, all the guys were waiting with her outside to see her off. She gave each one a big hug, like when Dorothy left her crew in Oz to return to Kansas.
On the ride to the train station in Essex Junction, I got the skinny. Reba was at Harvard in a graduate pre-med program. "Do you come from a family with a lot of doctors?" I asked.
Reba laughed. "Not quite," she replied. "I'm the first person in my extended family to graduate from college."
"What do your folks do?"
"My dad works in a collision shop, and my mom drives a school bus."
"Not exactly born with a silver spoon in your mouth, I guess."
"Are you kidding?" she said, chuckling. "We were happy to have any spoon at all."
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.