"Will you go to Jeffersonville?” asked the man standing at the curb in front of Junior’s downtown pizzeria.
“Jeez — lemme think about it,” I hedged, taking a moment to size up the guy. He looked about 30 and wore a maroon wool cap and checked flannel shirt, very rural Vermont-style. “It’s the busiest time of the night, is the only reason I’m hesitating,” I explained. “Where in Jeff?”
“No problem, I understand. Everyone’s got to make a buck. I live up the Mountain Road, not too far from Smuggs.”
“I’ll tell you what — I’ll take you, but I can’t go cheap.”
A smile of relief came over the man’s face. “Don’t worry about that, man. I appreciate it. I lost my ride and need to make it home tonight.” He jumped in the shotgun seat, and off we went.
Here’s why I’ll never be a successful businessman: My decisions about fares are, at a minimum, half based on whether I like the person. This guy was immediately appealing to me — completely down-to-earth, a type of person prevalent in Vermont, which is probably the key reason I call this place my home. Abandoning town during last-call rush hour might cost me a few dollars, but I wanted to help this man out, and, frankly, hang out with him for an hour.
As we cleared the bright lights of B-town, I turned my head and asked, “So, what’s your name?”
“Jernigan,” I reciprocated, and we shook on it.
“You a native?” I asked.
Tuck smiled — and I could tell that came readily to him. “No, but sometimes it feels that way,” he said. “I’ve just been here a few years. I actually was born out in California, the town of Long Beach. When I was just a baby, the family moved to Amherst, New Hampshire.”
“Your folks still down there?”
“Well, they divorced when I was 7, but they’re all in the area. They both got remarried, so I have all kinds of family.”
“You get along?”
“That’s the awesome part — I love all of them, and everybody gets along. I’m talking about the step-parents, step-kids, you name it. You know, you don’t see that too often.”
“I’ll say,” I agreed. “You rarely see that in so-called intact families. So how’d you end up in Vermont?”
“Well, I was going to school in Arizona, but I knew I wanted to get back East for the snowboarding. Plus, I missed my people. So I got a job making snow for Smuggs, which gets me free access to the slopes all winter.”
We were rolling through the long stretch between Underhill and Cambridge, the trees alive in the bright moonlight. The foliage season was on its last legs, but even the end stage — the fading purple and amber leaves — offers a beauty all its own.
I thought about snowboarding, a sport essentially invented by a single individual — a Vermonter, Jake Burton Carpenter. How cool is that, both for Vermont and Jake? “So, Tuck,” I picked up the conversation, “are you a competitive boarder?”
“Nope, those days are over. The body’s just not made out of rubber anymore. It’s just for fun now.”
“Layla” by Eric Clapton came on the radio, and we both just listened for a while. Like a fool, I fell in love with you — turned my whole world upside down.
“Who are you listening to these days?” I asked. “What’s, like, on your iPod?”
Tuck chuckled. “I don’t have an iPod, but I will tell who I’m listening to. Heard of Modest Mouse? I can’t get enough of this band. Some might say they’re kind of dreary, but I think you just got to listen a little deeper.”
“Modest Mouse — got it, man. Here I come to save the day!”
“Close — that be Mighty Mouse, brother,” Tuck played along, cracking up both of us.
We reached Route 108, the Mountain Road, and began our ascent. Just before the ski area, we turned off, still slowly gaining altitude. We turned again onto another dirt road, which sliced through an alpine field. Across the shadowy landscape, the rusty ground, the fieldstones and shrubbery revealed themselves in stark blues and pale greens. Pockets of white snow gleamed in small depressions. Above us, the vast firmament was like a billion stage lights. Here we are, I thought, my heart soaring from the sheer beauty of it all, smack dab in that Green Mountain magic.
We pulled to a stop in front of an old farmhouse with four or five cars in the driveway. “God, I love it up here,” Tuck said. “It’s so clear and open.” He handed me $100 and told me to keep it. When he opened the door, cold air gushed into the cab. “Sheesh,” I said, “it is friggin’ chilly on this mountain!”
“Are you kidding?” Tuck said. “I’ll tell you my favorite temperature — 5 degrees. I’m, like, out there with the crew making the snow, layering it on nice and thick.”
“I guess you might as well have been a Vermonter,” I said as my customer stepped out into the freshening wind.
“Five degrees, Jernigan,” Tuck repeated with a wink before he turned to go. “Good times.”