Starting in mid-February, the morning sun finally rises high enough in the sky to clear the rooftops on the south side of State Street in Montpelier and flood the front windows of the coffee shop on the north side. The clearest days are also the coldest, so we trot out the old New England aphorism, “February sun is hard won,” and turn our faces toward it with our eyes closed.
But by March, we know that, just under our feet, that sun is creating a calamity – one we have to endure, all the while hoping it won’t be too bad this year.
During the winter, the ground slowly freezes – though not as deeply as it used to – especially under the plowed roads, where there’s no insulating blanket of snow. When the irresistible sun melts the frozen surface, the ice turns to water, and the water looks for a drain, as water will. But the ground beneath is still frozen, and will be for a while; the water’s got nowhere to go, and the mixture turns to something like Dinty Moore stew. Then somebody drives through it, and there goes your road.
It’s impossible to describe mud season to anyone who’s never experienced it: the uncertainty about whether you’ll make it across to dry ground; the inability to steer; the sound of your muffler dragging across gravel and stones. Sometimes the mud freezes at night. That helps, unless, as the Maine humorist Tim Sample says, “you get cross-threaded in a couple of ruts.”
I used to visit an old farmer in Etna, New Hampshire. He kept a pair of big horses for plowing, haying, logging, sugaring – and pulling cars out of mudholes. Just after the war, a doctor in Hanover had bought a war surplus jeep, and used it for mud-season house calls. But he got stuck, anyway, and showed up at Elmer’s door.
“I thought them things could go anywhere,” Elmer said.
“Yep, they can,” said the doc. “But they’ve gotta have at least one foot on solid ground.”
Some of the old-time photographs of mud season and Model Ts stuck hub-deep are almost unbelievable. Nowadays, people carry cell phones/cameras, and GoPros, so we can experience their anxiety electronically: Are we going to make it? If we don’t, we’re going to have to climb out into a foot of cold beef stew in our street shoes to go for help.
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work – assuming I can.