Ray Nolan relaxed in the back of my taxi with his wife, Sheila, as we rolled down the highway. He was a big man, both in height and girth, with jowls to spare. Those same jowls were of the bearded variety — auburn and precisely groomed. Stealing a glance in my rearview mirror, I pictured Burl Ives, an actor and folk singer my parents used to enjoy in the postwar era.
Given the time of year, I also envisioned Ray as an excellent Santa Claus. He certainly had the requisite body type and jolliness for that persona. And, going in another direction, the patch over one eye — from the surgical procedure he had just undergone at the hospital — evoked a piratical figure. Yes, Redbeard the Pirate!
Before I could conjure another identity for him, Ray restarted our conversation.
"Do you take many folks down to Ludlow?" he asked, naming our destination.
"Few and far between," I replied. "Northern Vermont is more my territory."
"I figured maybe tourists to Okemo. Ya know, the ski resort?"
"Yeah, but you Ludlow folks are far enough south that the skiers would just drive up from Boston or New York City rather than fly into Burlington."
"Ayup," he said, "I could see that."
Without asking, I could tell that these two were no tourists. From their speech and personae, they were clearly Vermont country folks through and through.
Though it would consume fewer miles — MapQuest put it at 15 — to get off in Waterbury and take wiggly Route 100 south, I decided to stick with the interstate all the way to Weathersfield and cut back west on 131. This would be the faster and less mentally taxing itinerary: Just set the cruise control to 70 and remember to steer. Ray and Sheila had seconded this route choice, albeit with Sheila's disclaimer, "Not that we get up to Burlington all that often, mind you."
"So, Ray, did you grow up in the Ludlow area?" I asked.
"Yup, I sure did."
"What have ya done for work?"
"Yeah, well, that's not a short story," he said. "I had a short stint in the army about 35 years ago. Mostly I've worked for the ski area — grooming the trails, making snow. And, in the summer, I run a landscaping business."
"So, what do you hunt?" I asked, deftly forgoing the redundant preliminary question, "Do you hunt?"
"I like mostly going out for bear. Yup, I've taken a bunch of them through the years. Folks make a mistake when they're used to deer hunting and aim just behind the shoulder. With bears, you got to shoot 'em in the chest, into the heart and lungs. And they make the darnedest sound with their last breath, kinda like a baby crying."
As a guy who gets a little choked up killing an insect, I contemplated that for a moment. Shoot a bear? I'd just as soon shoot an actual baby. Still, I have full respect and affection for Vermont's rural culture, hunting and all. By all accounts, it's a culture on the wane, which makes me appreciate it even more.
"Once took a 500-pounder," Ray continued, "maybe seven feet tall."
"Holy smokes!" I said. "That sounds more like a grizzly than any East Coast bear."
"Oh, he was something, all right. Had a great rug made."
"What did you do with the rest of 'im?" I asked.
Both Ray and Sheila suppressed a laugh. "We ate him," Ray explained to the clueless city boy. "Kept us in meat pert' near the whole winter."
"The key is beer," Sheila added. "Ya gotta use beer for stewing bear. It takes out the gamey flavor."
"Listen to what this woman says," Ray instructed. "Sheila is the best cook you'll ever find. Everything she cooks is delicious."
I watched them smile warmly at one another. Sheila had to be 20 years younger than Ray. I had the feeling that theirs was a second marriage for both. And great cooking goes a long way to sealing the deal. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach" is a cliché and probably sexist, but it still holds some truth.
"What's your best dish, Sheila?" I asked.
"Oh, I'd say my chicken Parmesan. Ray loves it. I used to do veal Parm, but he won't have it."
"I just don't like them keeping the baby cows in those small crates, is all," he explained.
I chuckled at the selective compassion of this bear hunter. Then again, I thought, I'd wager he'd never shoot a cub.
We reached our highway exit and began the final stretch to Ludlow. A couple miles before reaching the town, the Okemo ski trails came into view, stark white ribbons against the big, dark mountain. It was heartening to see, as the ski industry pumps green money into the Green Mountains. Thank goodness some people enjoy sliding downhill.
Coming into Ludlow, I noticed a barbecue joint and asked if it was any good.
"Oh, yeah," Ray replied. "It's great. It's run by a flatty. He's from the South and makes regular supply trips down there to pick up the meat."
It took me a moment, and then I got his meaning. Though "woodchuck" is not my native tongue, I think I understand a fair amount. But I'd not heard this one before.
"So, 'flatty' is a flatlander?" I asked, to be sure.
"Ayup," Ray replied with a wry smile, dragging out the "ay" and the "up." Meeting my eyes in the rearview mirror with his unpatched eye, he graced me with a shot of that patented Green Mountain twinkle.
There are no two ways about it: Native Vermonters are cool. Ray knew it, and so did I. He could afford to be gracious with me, and, for my part, I appreciated the love.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.