Make no mistake — I'm a city mouse, not a country mouse. I came of age in the Big Apple before moving to Vermont as a young adult, and I've called Burlington my home ever since. And, like the city mouse of Aesop's fable, I find myself failing to grasp certain realities of the natural world that my country counterparts intuitively understand as simple aspects of daily life.
Though small by national ranking, Burlington's population of some 40,000 people makes the city the most populous in the state. By any standard, it's also the most cosmopolitan and, well, citified. This brings to mind an old chestnut oft repeated by rural Vermonters regarding the Queen City (conjure up your best woodchuck accent): "The best thing about Burlington is that it's so close to Vermont."
Every few years, as winter gives way to spring, I get a taxi fare that puts me face-to-face with a particular urban blind spot: the soupy reality that is mud season throughout the rural countryside. For all of March and April, you can tool around Burlington and its surrounding suburban communities without encountering a single dirt road. And with rare exceptions, any unpaved road you do run into is likely to be short in length, fairly level and well groomed. Mud season? What's that?
A social worker called on me to pick up a client, Marisa Dawe, at the hospital and transport her to the Hyde Park home of the client's mother. As a rule, I operate on a need-to-know basis and never pry into the mental or physical condition of a customer. That said, though I've continued to operate my cab during this time of COVID-19, I have been declining any fares with folks who have tested positive for the disease. The social workers respect this and, upon my inquiry, assured me that Marisa had been treated for an unrelated illness.
At the hospital entrance, one of the brave and dedicated people who direct traffic and otherwise assist the arrival and discharge of patients helped Marisa into the rear seat of my minivan. It was not an easy task: the middle-aged woman was quite heavy and moved with great difficulty.
Before getting under way, I looked over my shoulder and asked, "So, I'm taking you to Hyde Park, right?"
"Yes, my mother said she'd take me in," Marisa replied. She sounded beleaguered, beset with despair. "I have nowhere else to go."
"OK, well, I'll get ya up there safe and sound. Just lemme know if you need anything."
On the ride up Route 15, I heard not a peep from the rear seat. Every 15 minutes or so, I snuck a peek at Marisa in the rearview mirror. She had a troubled look on her face but appeared physically comfortable in her seat.
Before leaving for this pickup, I had checked Google maps for the address. (I get GPS on my cellphone, but service can be iffy in wide swaths of northern Vermont.) The thing about these digital route planners is, they don't indicate unpaved roads. Or maybe they do, but I don't know how to access the feature. Either way, I was taken aback when I made the final turn onto the mom's road — and the GPS read 4.3 miles to my destination.
The road before me was dirt, though still hard packed at the onset. But like a canoeist staring ahead at the looming rapids, I could make out the muddy ruts just up ahead. And worse still, I could see that the road was hilly.
I hit the mud like a champ. A Toyota Sienna minivan is a righteous vehicle, but it doesn't exactly "jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive," to quote the Grateful Dead. All my muddy skills immediately kicked in via muscle memory: shifting into a lower gear, slow and steady on the accelerator, avoiding the deepest ruts. At times, staring down a big incline in front of me, I felt certain I wouldn't make it, but somehow I forged ahead.
"Hey, Marisa," I called out to my customer, "lemme know when we get close to the driveway, OK?"
"Sure, about another mile to go," she said. "It's on the left."
When we got there, I stopped. The driveway was even steeper and much narrower than the road, and I couldn't see any building. "How far up is the house?" I asked.
"'Bout a quarter mile," said Marisa.
"Is anyone at home with a car who can pick you up down here?"
"Nope, just my mom, and she don't drive."
"OK, then. I'm gonna give it a shot. But if it becomes impassable, we'll have to stop. Will you be good with walking whatever distance is left?"
"Sure," Marisa replied, but I wasn't very confident, should it come to that.
It came to that. About halfway up the driveway, the path grew steeper still, and my wheels began to spin futilely. I placed the taxi in park, cut the engine and engaged the emergency brake. Social distancing be damned, I helped Marisa get out and, arm-in-arm, we began the trek up to the house. I glanced down and saw she wore only hospital socks, utterly insufficient for negotiating the cold and muddy conditions.
After about 100 feet with still no house in sight, Marisa gave up. "My feet are wicked numb. I got the diabetes. I can't go another step."
"OK, lemme go back to the taxi. I forgot my phone. We'll figure out what to do. I promise I won't abandon you."
Just as I reached the vehicle, a huge black pickup pulled to a stop just behind it. I could make out a young woman in the driver's seat and an elderly woman (Marisa's mother?) riding shotgun.
The young woman popped out and said, "Did you drop off Auntie Marisa? I'm Janice, her grandniece. We're so thankful!"
After I explained the situation, Janice backed the pickup down the driveway to allow me to do the same. At the bottom, I asked her if the road was better if I took it north instead of the south.
Chuckling, she replied, "Nope, if anything, it's worse. It's mud season, don't ya know?"
"Well, I sure as heck do now," I said, shooting her my best city-mouse smile and, for good measure, a wink.