"So, Burlington is a fun little town," my customer said to me as she settled into the shotgun seat of my taxi. She had just hailed me from the wild and woolly streets of downtown Burlington. Though it was close to midnight, the woman asked me to take her to the Walmart out at Taft Corners. "Have you lived here your whole life?" she asked.
I love getting that question, because it's the setup line to a quintessential Vermont joke.
"Not yet," I replied. Rim shot!
"What do you mean 'not yet'?"
I could barely suppress a sigh having delivered the punch line with, I believe, perfectly dry panache.
Every joke is a Zen koan: One either gets it or doesn't. This holds doubly true for Vermont humor, which generally winks at the cosmic absurdity of life. Be that as it may, the woman awaited a response. So, while I have found that explanations are to jokes as defibrillators are to heart attacks — they seldom work — I figured it was still worth a shot.
"Well, I'm still alive," I explained, "so, I haven't yet lived here my whole life."
"Oh, I get it," she said offering up a polite chuckle, the joke-response equivalent to a faked orgasm. Don't get me wrong — I appreciated the gesture. Over the 10 months of this fraught presidency, I have gained a newfound respect for the value of social norms, seeing how frayed our communal life has grown in their shredding.
It was the tail end of the foliage season but still unusually warm, as it had been all fall. Of course, what qualifies as "usual" or "unusual" weather has been scrambled in this era of global warming. Though I understand the new climate reality intellectually, I don't think I'm alone in my failure, as yet, to recalibrate and adjust my expectations accordingly.
In any event, the moderate temperature explained my customer's lightweight attire. She wore knee-length orange shorts, a pale-green cotton top and canvas sneakers. Her close-cropped blond hair seemed to pull together the whole look. What did Huey Lewis sing? It's hip to be square.
If I had to guess, I mentally surmised, I'd peg this woman as a middle-aged, midwestern, lesbian tourist. Making such assumptions, I realize, is a primitive and inadequate shortcut to understanding a stranger — it gains you very little knowledge about who the person actually is — but that's how my mind works. I can usually get beyond these mental leaps once I get chatting.
"What brings you through Vermont?" I asked as we angled onto the interstate.
"I'm halfway through a planned yearlong journey around the country. This morning, I hiked Mount Ascutney in southern Vermont. It was so beautiful up there. I saw a number of hang gliders. That was awesome. Apparently, the mountaintop is considered one of the best launch points in all of New England."
"Where do you call home? I mean, where did you set out from?"
"I'm a Hoosier, an Indiana girl. I've lived there my whole life." She paused, lifting a forefinger. "Well, you know — not yet."
I laughed heartily. "Good one," I said. "What do you do for work?"
"For 20 years, I've been a nurse. But I've been wanting to travel, to really see the country for as long as I remember. So finally I said, 'Screw it,' quit my job and bought a decent used RV. The big fear holding me up had been going without health insurance. It took me years to work up the courage, but I finally took the plunge."
I immediately thought, Why couldn't she just take a work sabbatical for a few months and maintain her insurance? Wouldn't that have been the prudent plan?
But, in the next moment, I understood completely. There are moments in life when halfway measures won't cut it. Sometimes, like a hang glider, you just have to jump off the cliff and fly.
We reached the Walmart parking lot, and I recalled reading that Walmart stores generally allow RVers to park on their property overnight. I'm sure this policy raises insurance issues for the store, but, on the other hand, they probably sell a lot of supplies to the happy campers.
My camper directed me to her RV, and I pulled up alongside it. As she paid the fare, I asked, "So, where to next?"
"Well, I figure this warm weather can't hold up much longer, and I don't want to push my luck, so I'll be heading south. I've really enjoyed my time in New England, though."
When I got home that night, I googled "Mount Ascutney + hang gliding." I discovered that, in 2002, a hang glider — one Curt Warren — flew 132 miles, crossing Massachusetts before coming down in Connecticut. It didn't say whether or not Curt was insured for the flight, but, if he was anything like my peripatetic Hoosier in the RV, I doubt a lack of insurance would have stopped him.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.