"I was snorkeling in about eight feet of water, and the fish were amazing! Some of them had a lemony color that changes to a creamy white toward the lower half of their bodies. The angelfish were striking, simply brilliant, with these spiky fins. Oh, my Lord — the green sea turtles! They would swim so close, just a foot or two away."
Chris Strait, my customer, was sharing stories of his Hawaiian vacation while we waited at the baggage belt for the arrival of his and his girlfriend's luggage. He was glowing as he spoke, his skin radiant on his bearded face. It was as if he'd been to paradise and couldn't contain the experience.
"Tell Jernigan about the hula lessons," Alicia encouraged him. She, too, seemed still to be enraptured by the aloha spirit but was less effusive about it than her partner. With wavy brown hair framing her face, she struck me as lovely in an unassuming and quiet way.
"Oh, that was a trip," Chris said, chuckling. "The dance moves were really complicated. How did the instructor put it, Ally? Like rubbing your head and stomach in opposite directions."
"I did appreciate the explanations for the various movements," Alicia said. "It all has deep cultural meaning, a lot to do with the notion of mahalo, which is hard to translate but seems to express a profound sense of gratitude."
Dozens of folks were gathered around us, mostly Vermonters like my customers, returning from vacations built around the Presidents' Day holiday. Many — they were soon to discover — were overdressed for the unprecedented warm spell that had moved into all of New England. Two days later, the temperature would top 70 degrees. To me, the effect was not so much pleasant as disorienting.
We gathered up their three bags and got quickly under way, en route to their home in Calais. They lived near Maple Corners, just up from the town's most identifiable landmark, the Kent Museum.
"I checked out your website, Chris," I said as we motored toward the highway. "The photos were gorgeous. Is that pretty much your livelihood these days?"
"Well, thanks. For about seven years I was an AP photographer, but since that gig ended, it's been all freelance. So I got that and the maple sugaring. We run about 1,100 taps. Not a huge operation, but we go for the high quality. Like we market bourbon barrel-aged syrup, which imparts an exquisite flavor."
"That's where Chris and I got together seven years ago," Alicia chimed in. "I was a neighbor, and we ran into each other in the maple bush. He needed help with his sugaring, and there you go. I'll never forget our first date. He asked me over to his place for a meal, and, when I walked in, he was in the kitchen rolling pie dough. I found that quite compelling. I think he knew that would appeal to me because I was a pastry chef."
"Chris, I am impressed," I said, chuckling. "You clearly know how to woo a woman."
"Interesting postscript," Alicia continued with a meaningful smile, "is that I've never seen him attempt a pie since."
In the rearview mirror, I saw Chris smile warmly at his partner, evoking the understated quality of middle-aged romance. When two people get together later in life, they're generally past the "stars in your eyes" notion of love. With the benefits of age, the connection can be deeper and richer.
"So, Alicia, you're a pastry chef by profession?"
"I actually came to Vermont as an art therapist at Vermont College. But, after two years, the school was sold to Union College, and my program didn't fit in with their plan for remote learning. That's when my baking skills came into play. I worked for a while doing pastries for the Inn at Shelburne Farms. But the commute from Calais was tiring, and it wasn't year-round employment. Also, you never knew if you would be asked back after the season. So, now I help with the sugaring, and I also craft tiles for a Connecticut-based company. I enjoy the creativity. They provide you with the basic specifications for what they need, but within that there's room for self-expression."
On the highway, there were more tales from Hawaii. By the time we reached Montpelier, I felt like I had attended a luau. I swear I could taste the poi. On the ride up the County Road, as we passed the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks, I said, "You must know these folks, I imagine."
"Oh, sure," Chris replied. "Burr Morse and his entire family — what great folks. Besides the sugarhouse, Burr is also a writer and a sculptor and God knows what else. He might be the quintessential Vermonter, and what a kind and generous person. Last season, I got too much sap, more than I could possibly boil. I paid a visit to his farm, and he greeted me, put his feet up on the table and asked mischievously, 'So, how's the sap flowing this year?' He knew exactly why I was there. And he graciously purchased all my excess sap. I probably would have sold it for a song, but he gave me full price."
"Hawaii's great, but Vermont has its own charms, don't ya think?" I said.
"It's just another kind of paradise," Alicia agreed.
Coming into Maple Corners, the road changed to dirt. With the freakishly warm weather, it was already beginning to grow soft and rutted. "Oh, jeez — it looks like we're in for an early mud season," Alicia said.
"Yup," Chris said, exhaling a relaxed sigh. "It sure does."
That made me smile. Hawaii's got its lava, I thought, and we've got our mud.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.