If you've heard it once during this whole T.S. Irene craziness, you've heard it a thousand times: You can't get there from here. It's a common adage that grizzled, dyed-in-the-wool Vermonters like to say to stupefied out-of-towners who can't figure out why it takes two hours to get 30 miles. But, in the wake of the storm, as countless media outlets have already rhapsodized, you really can't get there from here. Thirteen towns were cut off from the outside world for three days due to annihilated roads on all sides. By Wednesday night, the governor's office claimed to have bored a way through the rubble in all those places to get help in. Hurrah! The towns were no longer isolated. But, as I found out on Thursday, you still couldn't get there from here.
My journey to the affected towns of Rochester, Hancock and Granville began early that morning as I drove down I-89 to Bethel. I didn't know that Route 125 through the Green Mountain National Forest became passable late Wednesday (otherwise I would have taken it and saved myself some trouble), so I figured I'd try to get to Rochester via Camp Brook Road in Bethel. But clearly that wasn't going to happen. When I pulled up to the road, I was stopped by a volunteer in a yellow safety vest. He told me that, unless I was taking medical supplies or I worked for one of the utility companies, there was no way I was going up that road. Crews were working to repair it, and they might be interrupted by an idiot reporter in a stupid (and stupidly named) Pontiac Vibe. Fair enough.
Unthwarted, I drove to the Bethel Fire Department, where the cavalry was just about to mount up. Rescue workers were suiting up to head up over Rochester Mountain to deliver supplies to über-isolated Pittsfield and Stockbridge. I thought maybe one of them could give me a ride. But no such luck.
As I drove past Camp Brook Road to figure out a new way to get to Route 100, I spotted a young guy on an ATV. I pulled up next to him and asked where he was headed. He said he was going to his house up the road a ways to get some clothes. Did he mind a passenger? I asked. He indicated that he didn't. At that precise moment, young Caleb Butler became my knight in shining armor (or really just Carhartts).
I hopped on the back of his ATV, and he told me to hold on. I tried to put it out of my mind that we were going on the most rugged, gnarly trails I've seen without any sort of head protection. I just trusted that Butler, a ruddy-faced 30-year-old who could easily be mistaken for a teenager, knew what the fuck he was doing. I held on for sweet life, doing my darnedest not to get bucked off the back. In about two minutes, I was covered in mud from my knees down. Awesome.
When we finally got to his road, he told me he had to go check on a friend first. So we drove a little ways to the Bath/Bacon residence, a handsome shingled home overlooking a lush valley. Caleb checked in with Bob Bacon, while I chatted with his daughter, Cass Bath. Bath told me she was supposed to start student teaching on Monday, but without electricity or a phone or a reliable way to get off the mountain, she's in a holding pattern. "We're so cut off here. It could be a month before our electricity comes back on. It could be three days," she said. "It's just totally overwhelming."
After the brief visit, we drove on to Butler's place, where I stupidly asked if I could use the bathroom. Butler pointed to the vast acreage surrounding his house. I got the point. Butler grabbed the clothes he needed and agreed to take me the rest of the way to Rochester by car. The reconstruction was below us, and the road was passable.
When we arrived in Rochester, I got out of the car and bade my driver goodbye. Frankly, Rochester did not look like a town in distress. Kids played Frisbee on the town green, neighbors chatted at the gas station, and everyone was waving to each other. And to me. I'm pretty sure I strained my wrist from all that waving. But it really didn't look like anything was wrong. Obviously, when I walked around the corner and saw a house on Route 100 slumped in on itself, completely knocked off its foundation, it was apparent that, yes, in fact, there had been a catastrophic weather event here. The residents' cheery attitudes belied the suffering they were enduring.
I wandered around, taking stock of all that I saw, including an obscenely tan couple from Australia who were bicycle touring around the U.S. and Canada. Irene and the destruction she wrought were nothing for them. They had been cycling through Egypt when Anwar Sadat was assassinated and decided it was unsafe, so they pedaled down to South Africa. That was also unsafe, because of apartheid-related riots, so they turned around and went back to Egypt. On their bikes.
While I was chatting with one of the Aussies, Geoff Oliver, a woman approached me and asked if I wanted any photos. She had been staying in Gaysville, just a few towns to the east of Rochester, and said she captured some amazing pictures of flood damage. The woman, Lisa Roberts, explained that she and her sister, her son, her son's friend and her two cats had driven up to Vermont from New York City for a vacation. They expected to play tennis and go hiking (not the cats). Instead, they were fixing bridges and communing with their new neighbors (also not the cats).
Roberts asked if I needed a ride anywhere. They were finally heading out of town, and they could drive me a few miles up the road to Hancock if I wanted. I said yes and piled into Roberts' Mazda convertible, which was about the size of a Tic-Tac. Her sister, Tracy, drove an equally ridiculous car for the sketchy road conditions -- a Mini Cooper. On my lap sat two bags, each one filled with a furious cat. The cats were not into driving, even if it was in a convertible, and they were flipping out, which you would be, too, if you were trapped in a bag after living through a massive storm.
They dropped me off in Hancock, where I tootled around talking to more folks. Just after the junction of Routes 100 and 125, I wandered over to talk to the innkeepers at the Gathering Inn, a sweet little hippie hostel that just barely avoided rising floodwaters. Kathleen Byrne and Rick Gottesman regaled me with stories of the storm and its aftermath, including one about how they came to be the adoptive caretakers of four chickens. Then Byrne insisted that Gottesman show me around to view some of the more out-of-the-way damage.
I jumped in Gottesman's Subaru, keen to see the sights. Gottesman, a bearded New York transplant wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, gave me a tour of the off-the-beaten-path destruction -- a cantilevered home on Quarry Hill Road nicknamed the "Hanging House" by locals, the wreckage of Churchville Road, a jury-rigged bridge over the White River, etc. After the tour, he dropped me off back in Rochester.
It was starting to rain, and I didn't want to get stuck, so I figured I'd leave. But there was one problem, which had been niggling me all day -- I didn't have a way out of town. Since Bethel Mountain Road/Camp Brook Road was closed at a certain point, there wouldn't be much road traffic heading up toward Rochester Gap. All I could do was walk up the mountain road and hope I could catch a series of rides, perhaps from friendly/deliriously exhausted utility workers.
As luck would have it, another ATV rider came buzzing up the hill. I flagged him down and asked him for a ride as far as he could take me. He said sure, so I shoehorned myself onto the back of the four-wheeler, which was not built to take passengers. My driver, 22-year-old Rob Krattli, a soon-to-be UVM student and New York City native living in Rochester, introduced himself, and off we went.
About halfway up the mountain road, Krattli took a detour and drove to his house high in the hills above Rochester. He reasoned it would be better to take the car, since the rain was picking up. I am all for not getting wet, so I approved of this plan. We drove the rest of the way in Krattli's pimped-out black Ford Explorer with leather interior and about a dozen longboards in the backseat. Dude, Krattli was super stoked to be cruising around on his rad ATV. Sick.
Once we got as far up the mountain road as Krattli could go, he dropped me off and turned back around. He had to get back into town to have dinner with his grandma at the community supper. I figured I would just wait to catch a ride back down to my car from one of the utility or road workers who had been traveling up and down the road all day. I didn't have to wait long. A member of the Bethel road crew named Robert was heading back down Camp Brook Road and would take me.
Robert, who most likely had been working for the past three days straight, was gracious and friendly and, like Butler, a skilled ATV driver. We stopped a couple times on the way to check on the progress of the road reconstruction, and it was amazing. At the beginning of the day, the road was no more than a goat path. By the end, it was a nearly passable road. Many of the people who got the road in such good shape, Robert told me, were volunteers who happened to have access to heavy equipment like backhoes and bucket loaders.
At the bottom of the road, Robert dropped me off. I got in my own car and drove away. After riding on the back of three ATVs and in three different cars to get from Bethel to Rochester and back -- a distance of just 12 miles each way -- I had a whole new appreciation for just how true that old Vermontism is these days.