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One in a Million

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This is one beautiful state,” my passenger said, gazing through the window at a passing meadow. To the east, the Killington mountain peaks still glistened with snow against the blue sky. “I have a buddy back in Baltimore who used to come up here to ski when he was a kid.”

We were passing through Pittsford en route to Brookside Ranch, a residential psychiatric facility in Cuttingsville, about 15 miles southeast of Rutland. I had learned that my fare was an administrator for a mental health organization in Washington, D.C. He’d come to Vermont to evaluate Brookside as a possible treatment option for one of his clients.

Aaron looked about 30, with dark brown skin and keen brown eyes. He was dressed in a cream-colored turtleneck and light suede jacket. Though casual, his entire look was polished. Is it just me, or do out-of-staters seem to dress better than Vermonters? Perhaps my perception is skewed, because the visitors I tend to transport are tourists and professional people.

One detail contasted sharply with Aaron’s young-professional presentation: his hair. He had thick dreadlocks tumbling over his shoulders that reached the center of his back. It wasn’t the funky, frizzy affair you might see on a hippie-type; his was clearly a well-groomed coif. Still, it wasn’t the look you’d expect on a young African-American man rising in his field.

We reached the Brookside Ranch a mile up a dirt road off Route 103. Aaron — who had done the research prior to taking the trip — told me the place has been in operation as a mental health facility for 70 years. The “campus” looked to have expanded building by building over time.

An extensive sugaring operation was also in full swing — the surrounding woods were filled with tapped and tin-bucketed maple trees. A number of people were walking about the property; I couldn’t tell who were staff and who were clients. I don’t know what I expected: Nurse Ratched and hysterical people in strait jackets?

We pulled into a parking area adjacent to a building marked “Office,” and Aaron got out to investigate. The parking spots overlooked a fast-flowing stream, which was swollen and bubbling with winter snowmelt. I lowered my window, eased the seat back and closed my eyes to listen to the watery symphony. An hour later, I awoke to Aaron tapping on the windshield.

“Sorry to wake you,” he said with a laugh. “You looked like you were into some sweet dreaming.”

“No problem, man,” I said, shaking off my grogginess. “I actually feel kind of invigorated. Are you all set for the ride back to the airport? Did you accomplish what you needed to?”

“That’s ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’” he said. “I’m quite impressed with this place. It’s really a working farm — of sorts, anyway — and they integrate that into the therapy experience.”

“Great,” I said, “then let’s roll.”

“Hey, is there a place where we could pick up some maple syrup? I had some for the first time with waffles this morning at the hotel in Burlington, and I think I’m addicted. I’ll probably also get some for gifts.”

“Yeah, I know just the place. It’s where I get my syrup, too.”

About an hour later, we reached Dakin Farm in Ferrisburgh. I love this place and stop here every chance I get. The delectable samples they put out — preserves, cheese, ham, crackers — beckon me whenever I’m cruising down that road.

The store was crowded with tourists, and the old proprietor himself, Sam Cutting, was scurrying to and fro, cleaning up, replenishing the samples. I stood to the side, downing smoked cheddar cheese cubes and watching as Aaron made his way through the store. He looked like a kid in Disney World, checking out everything from the chutneys to the Vermont T-shirts, all the while talking with the staff and fellow shoppers. Something about his presence inspired people to light up and spontaneously engage with him.

Eventually, I coaxed Aaron out of the store. He had a bag filled with maple syrup, maple powder and cream. Another Vermont convert, I thought, as we got underway again.

I kept glancing at the guy’s hair as we continued north to the airport. There was something magnificent, almost regal, about it.

“Aaron, if you don’t mind my asking, how long did it take you to get the dreadlocks looking that good?”

“Why, thanks, man,” he replied. “They do tend to shake up some folks. My stepdad, for one, has no idea what it’s about.” He smiled. “To answer your question, I can tell you exactly: I began growing them in 1995, right after the Million Man March.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember that — when all those black men assembled in Washington. Did you attend?”

“I did, and it changed my life. It was such an awesomely positive experience. When I got back to Baltimore, I started expressing myself differently, or maybe I should say more fully. The dreadlocks, I guess, were a physical sign of that change.”

“That’s deep,” I said.

“That it is,” he agreed. “That it is.”

I dropped Aaron at Burlington International, and later that night I found myself thinking about him. What impressed me was the guy’s authenticity, his willingness to truly be himself.

I used to think that kind of self-expression was risky because — heavens! — some people might not like you. But then a friend put it in perspective: No matter how you cut it, a third of the people in the world are bound to dislike you, a third will be indifferent, and a third will truly dig you. Why bother, then, to cater to the first two-thirds? The world currently has 6 billion inhabitants; that leaves two billion who’d be happy to meet any one of us.

You can count me squarely among Aaron’s two billion.

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