On my first pass up the mountain, I missed my destination and had to pull over to ask a lady working in her garden. In my defense, few homes in the neighborhood had addresses on their mailboxes, and my GPS had lost contact with the mother ship, or however that works. It was early morning, and I was plying the unpaved back roads of Vermont — the town of East Topsham, to be specific, in Orange County.
"Yup, I know the Marcottes," the gardener told me, standing up and clapping her gloved hands, releasing a scattering of black soil. "Ya drove past 'em. They're ... let's see ... three houses down on the right. The place looks like an army barracks, if ya know what I mean."
"I do know what ya mean," I replied. "Like a half-cylindrical structure. Yeah, I remember it. Much obliged."
The deeper you get into the boondocks, the more improvisational the housing becomes. With its corrugated aluminum exterior and wrap-around wooden deck, the Marcottes — or whoever constructed the building — were clearly doing their own thing.
The driveway appeared so steep and soft that I feared getting stuck if I drove down it. Luckily, Kyle Marcotte and his daughter, Willow, were already walking up to meet me on the road.
Kyle had blue, sparkling eyes and a full brown beard. (He reminded me of Levon Helm, the late drummer of the Band, which irrationally made me like the man before he said a word.) Willow was aptly named: a tall and slender preteen with long, blond hair parted neatly in the middle. She was at that charming age when, if the kid is lucky, gangly mixes with graceful, like a shy and frisky foal. Willow was lucky.
I had been hired by a social service agency to drive them to some sort of father/daughter class or seminar, I think it was, being held in Burlington. I had worried that this would involve some traumatic or at-risk family situation, but the evident closeness and easy comfort between this father and daughter put those concerns to rest.
The way they both spontaneously reacted when, from my seat, I opened the automatic rear sliding door — "Wooow!" — gave me some indication that these folks were part of Vermont's rural poor. Every day in Burlington, we're confronted with homeless folks, but the persistent poverty pervading rural communities can remain largely invisible to urban dwellers.
The two of them took seats behind me in my minivan. "Thanks a lot for coming up here to get us," Kyle said. "My car's not going nowhere for a while. The transmission is shot."
"Glad I could help," I said, and we took off down the mountain.
"So, Willow," I said, catching her eye in the rearview mirror, "I guess you're missing school today. What grade are you in?"
"I'm finishing up sixth grade," she replied, with confidence and some verve.
"Sixth grade, cool. Do you like school?"
"I like math and science a lot, and I have some cool friends, but there's these two mean girls that are always bothering us."
"Oh, that's too bad," I sympathized. "There's always a couple of mean kids, I guess. Well, you know what Taylor Swift says — you just gotta 'shake it off.'"
I had no idea if a tweener from East Topsham would be a fan of Taylor Swift, but that was all I had.
I informed Willow that I had satellite radio and, upon her request, we played the Disney music channel all the way to Burlington. (I was pleasantly surprised; if this is modern bubblegum pop, it's not too terrible.) Kyle was amiable but quiet. It was on the return ride home, five hours later, when he opened up.
"So, Kyle — I'm guessing you're a Vermont boy?" I asked, en route to Orange County.
"Yup, I grew up in West Fairlee, and I guess I've lived in the area all my life."
"You doing anything for steady work?"
"Well, I've always done stone masonry. But I haven't been working much lately on account of my car scenario."
"So, what do you like to do during the day?"
"I like to walk around the hills."
"Just walk?" I asked.
"Well, I look for stuff. Like ruins of old houses, or even older things. Sometimes I find fossils."
"What have you seen lately?"
"I've been digging out what seems to be a 15- or 20-foot carved piece of stone. And nearby I found what looks to be the carving tool, maybe a chisel. I think it might be the work of druids."
"I see," I said, genuinely intrigued.
For as long as I've been in Vermont, I've heard stories about an ancient druid presence in the Green Mountains. But mostly these tales circulate among New Age types, as opposed to dyed-in-the-plaid-flannel locals like Kyle.
Not far from his mountain road, Kyle pointed out some ramshackle buildings off in the distance. "That was the old mine back over a century ago. They would extract gold, silver and copper. The gold paid the workers' wages, the silver financed the equipment and overhead, and the copper was the profit."
I imbibed this apocryphal slice of local lore like mother's milk, entirely indifferent to its historical veracity. I'm a dyed-in-the-denim city boy. And, because of my job, I have the lame tendency to see rural Vermont as a picturesque or, God forgive me, "quaint tableau" of woodlands, farms and old buildings. For 40 years I've earned my daily bread traversing the roads that intersect them.
Kyle, by contrast, lives between the roads. For him, the land is a living, breathing entity, from which he derives meaning and spiritual sustenance. Wandering the hills on foot is a world apart from speeding along the roads in a motorized vehicle.
"Hey, if you got a minute when you drop us off, I got something to show ya," Kyle offered.
"Sure do," I replied.
I pulled up to his driveway and said goodbye to willowy Willow as Kyle went inside. Soon he emerged with an object wrapped in a white towel. He stood next to my open window for the reveal.
"I think it's a fossil of a giant's footprint," Kyle explained, holding it up for me to examine. "I dug it out off a ridge about a half mile up a ways. I know bear paws, and this is way too large. When I fix my car, I'm gonna bring it down to Dartmouth and see what the professors think."
It absolutely looked like a giant's footprint to me, though I suspected the professors might have a different hypothesis.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.