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Hackie: Halfway House

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"So, Grayson, how long have you lived on Isle La Motte?" I asked my customer.

"Just over a year now," he replied from the back seat. "I moved up from Baltimore."

Grayson Benton had just undergone a medical procedure at the UVM Medical Center, which is where this taxi fare originated. We were en route to that most northern and remote section of the elongated archipelago formed by the three largest Lake Champlain islands: Grande Isle (aka South Hero), North Hero and Isle La Motte. Sewn together by a series of causeways and bridges, this island chain is referred to by the locals as simply "the islands."

I took the opportunity of the pause in our conversation to take a gander at Grayson in the rearview mirror. I saw a wiry, handsome man in the mold of the late actor and playwright Sam Shepard. He had Sam's inquisitive, intelligent eyes, as well. As to Grayson's age, I put him in his mid-forties.

"Is that where you grew up? In the Baltimore area?" I asked.

I've always been genuinely interested in the lives of others. In my experience, most people like to talk about their lives when given the chance. And, if they'd rather not, I get the message and don't push.

"To tell you the truth, I don't know if I've grown up yet," Grayson replied, chuckling. "Let's just say I grew tall in Rutland. I was adopted when I was 2 by my parents, who were from there."

I took a moment to absorb that piece of Grayson's earliest history before asking, "Do you know much about your biological parents, if it's OK to ask?"

"Oh, sure. My mother was just a girl herself when she got pregnant with me. This was in Nova Scotia. Shortly after my birth, she ran into problems and was in and out of rehab. I ended up in an orphanage, and that's where my adoptive parents found me. I was lucky — they're good people."

"How about your father?"

"My birth father is a full member of the Micmac, a First Nation tribe. They traditionally occupied what are now the Canadian Maritime Provinces — Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Also, I believe, the northern Maine coastal region. At different points in my life, I've spent time at the various tribal reservations. Mostly on Lenox Island in P.E.I. — that's where my dad's from. The entire island is tribal land, and it serves as, like, the cultural center for the tribe as a whole."

"The Micmac — I don't think I ever heard of that tribe. Have they remained culturally cohesive?"

"Yes, they're known for keeping up the traditional ways, which are based around fishing and especially lobstering. The Micmac invented the technology for lobster pots, which is still used to this day."

"So, why'd you relocate to Isle La Motte? That's pretty remote. What's that expression again? Oh, yeah — 'off the beaten path.'"

"Well, the remoteness is just what I need in my life now. But to answer your question specifically — it's where my two kids live. My daughter, Mindy, is 13 and Sam is 17. I'm committed to living close to them until Mindy makes it through high school. My son is graduating this year. He's a great kid. Wants to be a welder."

We were passing through Sand Bar State Park. On this steamy Saturday in June, it was heartening to see so many vehicles in the parking lot and families out grilling, fishing, paddleboarding and just enjoying life. The COVID-19 crisis has given me, and I expect many people, a new appreciation for the simple joys of life we had taken for granted just a few short months ago.

"Grayson, you mentioned that the remoteness of Isle La Motte is something you needed in your life now. What exactly did you mean by that? Again, I'm sorry if I sound like I'm prying."

"Hey, no problem, man. Here's the deal. I've lived in a few places in my life, but only on the Micmac tribal lands do I truly feel like I'm home."

I noticed a change in Grayson's tone of voice, and it was striking. It felt as if he had downshifted to a deeper place in his being.

"It's my goal — my dream, actually — to move up there permanently," he continued. "But even putting aside my commitment to my kids, at this point I'm not in the right head space to live as a tribal member. I've grown, like, way too citified. It's an entirely different frame of mind up there — or maybe you can call it a different heart space. So, I consider the next few years in Isle La Motte my time of mental and spiritual preparation. Also, I'm studying the Micmac language online."

"I think I get it," I said. "It's like your place in Isle La Motte is kind of serving as a halfway house."

"That's a great way of putting it," he said, smiling. "Another cool thing: Sammy, my son, wants to move up there with me. I told him that the tribe operates a fleet of 65 lobster boats, so there's always plenty of work for a good welder."

What a beautiful guy, I thought after I dropped Grayson off at his Isle La Motte halfway house and began the drive back to Burlington. I was genuinely touched — I would even say honored — that he shared his life story with me. I had no doubt he would make it to his true home among the Micmac people.

Godspeed, brother, I whispered into the invisible world. Though in all likelihood we would never meet again, I was squarely in Grayson's corner.

Back at my house later that night, I googled the Wiki entry for the Micmac tribe. Two things I learned have stuck with me: The preferred spelling is "Mi'kmaq," and their word for lobster is jagej.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Halfway House"