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It’s that time of year again, Agnes Findley reflected as she joined the stop-and-go line of traffic heading out of Montpelier. You can’t tell what color the cars are because they’re all coated in the same gray dirt, and the roads buck and weave like the ocean in a heavy swell. One second, your car’s up in the air. The next second, it’s bottoming out in a dip.
She sat through two red lights, her fingers drumming a slow-motion tattoo on her steering wheel, silently cursing the traffic. Then she laughed at herself, remembering why she’d fled the eternal car crawl of Boston. In Vermont, her commute from Montpelier consisted of two turns, two sets of lights, and then a nonstop ride all the way home.
A brown UPS truck turned south on Route 14 just ahead of Agnes, and she soon found herself fascinated by the sharp sway of its cargo box as it negotiated the curls and dips of the frost-heaved road. Charlie’s right, she thought, the road looks like a strip of fried bacon this time of year. I wonder how they keep the boxes on the shelves inside those trucks.
As soon as the bottom edge of the sun touched the hilltops, Agnes felt the temperature drop. As the light shifted from bright to gray, Agnes geared down for the turn to Carding, on the lookout for the tire-eating pothole at the corner of the Route 37 bridge. What was it about that particular spot in the road that made it so fragile? Every spring, the town road crew patched it, mended it, repaired it. They’d even hired an engineering firm to figure out how to reconfigure that whole stretch of road in order to overcome the infamous pothole. But the same chasm reappeared every year as the days grew longer.
Her pulse rose a notch when she spotted a knot of people coagulated in the small park-and-ride overlooking the river. “Agnes,” someone called as she got out of the car. “You’re just in time.”
She hustled to claim a spot at the guardrails next to the love-of-her-life, Charlie Cooper. “What’s the report from upstream?” she asked as she turned up her coat’s collar. The air hung chill and damp by the river.
“The ice is broken in Royalton,” old Henry Wood said. “My cousin Nellie says she can hear the big chunks knocking against one another.” He looked down at the Corvus where a ribbon of gray water flowed over the white of the last month’s snow deposits. He shook his head. “It hasn’t been that cold this year so my guess is that the ice is no more than a few inches thick. Won’t be much of a runoff.”
The sun finally slid behind the hills to the southwest, and everyone glanced in its direction in silent salutation. “Heh, think about it. Three months from now, we’ll be complaining about the heat,” Henry said, and the sun watchers laughed.
Just then, a low roar in the distance hushed the crowd. Every head turned to look upstream at a bend in the river. They felt the rumble through their feet. The crowd tensed.
Wil Bennett leaned as far over the guard rails as he could, pointing his video camera upstream. The rumble moved up a decibel level. The dusk thickened. All eyes strained to see in the gloom.
“Here it comes!” Wil yelled.
Ice shards careened around the bend, and the water level rose rapidly—one foot, two feet, three. The roaring runoff spilled over a low spot in the land just before the park-and-ride, shedding car-sized chunks of ice in its rush. In the span of a single heartbeat, the serene scene of pristine snow below the watchers disappeared in a wild rush of pale blue ice, pewter-colored water, and gray slush.
Agnes felt the guard rail shudder in her hands. Henry had been right. They were only six to eight inches thick but the display of power was still impressive.
“It’s hitting the falls,” Wil yelled, and they all relished the crash as the frozen slurry plummeted thirty feet into Half Moon Lake.
Anxiety zipped through the crowd, and everyone drew back from the guard rails at the same time, suddenly aware of how flimsy the metal rails were in the face of such fury.
“Lived here all my life,” Charlie yelled over the roar, “and that never fails to amaze me. Why?”
“I can’t answer for anyone else,” Agnes said, “but I like seeing human beings humbled now and again. Ice outs, thunderstorms, blizzards, they remind us of our place in the world. And it’s not on the top of the food chain. That’s just a silly illusion.”
Charlie chuckled. “My, you are feeling philosophical today, my dear. How did things go in Montpelier?”
Agnes sighed. She volunteered her legal skills for a consortium of environmental nonprofits, lobbying on their behalf at the statehouse. She squeezed his hand. “Not as well as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. I’m afraid it was all very human.”
The next Carding Chronicle will be published on February 26. If you are enjoying these stories (they’re a great break from politics, eh?) please encourage your friends to subscribe.