The last few weeks I haven't posted too many "incident" stories. You know - the slices of life as they play out in my taxicab. It's not that the well has run dry. I have a million stories, and every night on the streets replenishes the aquifer. Like last night I drove the undercover security guard from Old Navy. Every day, he busts two or three shoplifting teenagers and he loves his job. There's a blog-worthy story, by jeezum.
It's the time of year is what it is. As Christmas and New Year's approaches, I find myself emotional and reflective. I dwell on the passage of time, what's been lost and what's been gained; I think of old friends I haven't been with in years, family members far away; mostly, I ponder the vastness of living. What is the meaning of being, as Sting called it, a spirit in the material world.
As 1999 passed into 2000 - the Millennium New Year's - I wrote a "Hackie" column which dove directly into the heart of my feelings about all of this, well, life. It's as close as I've ever come to putting the ineffable - which seems to call to me from just beyond the next corner -into words. And here it is, a Hackie-Blast-From-The-Past:
The first widespread snowstorm coated northern Vermont in mid-December. The evening news broadcast the inevitable film of vehicles spun off the highway; beaming skiers and snowboarders; and the sober warning from the state transportation spokesperson to stay off the roads unless "absolutely necessary."
Everywhere there was significant accumulation, as high as a foot and a half in Stowe. Burlington - and only Burlington - had zero, I mean barely a trace. It was the oddest snowfall pattern I had seen in my 20-plus years in the north country. Driving my taxi on a Saturday night, the streets were perfectly dry. Every so often I'd notice a passing car - obviously from out of the area - its bumper and roof piled with fresh snow, its side streaked with slush, salt and road gravel.
I was grateful Burlington had somehow dodged the storm. While severe snow conditions increase the number of calls, you can't make any time - as anyone who has driven during and in the aftermath of a blizzard knows all too well. For cabbies, this translates into fewer fares per hour and less revenue. In any case, I'm too old for vigilant, white-knuckled driving - when the white stuff seriously flies, I put out the "closed" sign and pack it in.
It had been a decent Saturday night for the time of year. Most students were studying for finals or had finished up and gone home for the semester break. The locals don't go to the bars and clubs much in December; free time is filled with shopping and preparation for the holiday festivities. Tourism and business conferences are likewise on hold during the lead up to Christmas. As the night wound down, I was glad to have a few bucks in my shirt pocket. On a last spin through downtown, a thirtyish man hailed me with a waving left hand; in his right hand he held a bulging gyro sandwich. As I pulled to meet him at the curb, he attacked his hand-food with a lusty chomp while he opened the front door to speak to me.
"You want to take me to Richmond?" he asked in garbled gyro-speak.
"I don't see why the heck not," I replied, and off we took.
As we headed south on 89, it was like entering another climatic zone. Passing through Williston, snow started appearing on the sides of the road; by Richmond, the snow was falling quietly, with steady force. My escape from the storm had lasted until the last run of the night.
He had me pull into a driveway next to a general store in downtown Richmond. "This is my place," he said. "I just gotta run in to pick up some things and I'll be right out." I sat in the taxi watching the snowflakes land and evaporate on the windshield. In less than five minutes, my customer returned with a bag in his arm filled with grocery items.
"Listen," he said, "my car's right here, but I'm really in no shape to drive. Could you take me up to Bolton Valley? I live in one of the condos up there. I'll pay you whatever you need."
Though the ski area is called "Bolton Valley," it's anything but. It's a mountain, with a bear of an access road, the bane of local cabbies. On a snowy night like this, I knew it would be straining the transmission on the way up and hell on the brakes on the way down. But this is my job; the guy was being responsible by not driving after drinking; I wasn't going to abandon him in Richmond.
I said, "that's going to be a hectic trip on a night like this, you know. If you hadn't noticed, this rig ain't exactly an SUV. I'll take you, but I gotta get 60 bucks."
"How about I give you a hundred? I appreciate what you're doing."
Whoa! I thought - that's what I call serious appreciation. "Well," I said, "the 60 will be fine, but I won't turn down a good tip. Let's get you up there."
Through Jonesville and into the town of Bolton, snow was everywhere - on the ground, in the air - and the road was greasy, as the Vermonters say. The first-of-the-season confrontation with winter conditions is always stressful, especially since the near absence of snow in Burlington had lulled me into complacency, if not denial. But I quickly adjusted. It's all so familiar: the frigid air; the gleaming white; the foggy, frosted windows; the steady crunch under the wheels.
We swung a left onto the access road and began the long ascent to the ski area. From years of experience, I know that low gear, slow and steady, gets the job done on these mountain inclines, and steadily we climbed.
"Man, there's a ton of snow up here," I said to my customer. "It's great that the ski area finally has the solid ownership to get this place happening again. I've heard this mountain has some fabulous skiing."
"You got that right," he replied. "this area is a for-real snow belt. It's always snowing up here. I've seen days when Sugarbush or Stowe gets nada and we're buried."
The higher we rose, the more beautiful it became. The headlights illuminated the dark woods etched in glistening ice and snow. It was all mysteriously enchanting, the way Vermont gets, the way we love it. There was no more talking now, and the silence was natural, and it was peaceful - just me in the front, my customer in the back and the gently swirling snow whooshing against the vehicle as we moved through space. The driving settled into a comfortable groove; I took a deep breath and my thoughts drifted.
I thought of the two thousand year mark, just days away. Whether or not this benchmark in time carries an intrinsic meaning is beyond my understanding, yet I clearly sensed some power of the date washing over me and filling me with reflection.
I gazed out into the twinkling night air and felt a wave of deep feeling. I couldn't tell if it was sadness or joy; it seemed to spring from a place in my heart deeper, more fundamental than mere emotion. What felt like ancient tears rose to my eyes. I found myself silently mouthing the words "thank you" though I'm not sure to whom it was directed.
In that instant this thought came to me: I don't know to where our souls journey when we die, but I hope the place feels something like this mountain, at this moment.