As folks around here are fond of observing, our roads take a beating in winter. But by early April, it’s not the snow or the ice that’s making things difficult but the heaving that’s a challenge.
I remember an April drive on Route 100 years ago when I got behind one of those tall, brown UPS trucks.
Now Route 100 runs right through the heart of the Green Mountains. It’s narrow and windy and the frost heaves are, depending on your perspective, either horrid or stupendous.
It was a little unnerving to watch that truck swing and sway in front of me, and I kept imagining how the packages on the inside were flinging themselves from wall to wall.
That’s one of the many inspirations for this story.
By the way, the illustration for this Carding Chronicle comes from my first novel, The Road Unsalted.
Edie Wolfe had her fingers wrapped around the handle of the Crow Town Bakery’s front door when she heard the first one.
“I think spring just arrived,” she called to her son-in-law, Stephen Bennett, as she came through the door.
“Did the ice go out of the river? I saw it chunking up this morning,” he said, deftly flipping eggs on the griddle.
“It’s not ice out. It’s our favorite frost heave by the bridge,” everyone’s favorite waitress, Hillary Talbot, said as she swept by with a full coffee pot. “It must have been an out-of-towner in a pickup to make a sound like that.”
Of all the responsibilities of local government, none is more important to its residents than the condition of town roads. In summer, road crews fill in potholes, re-pave streets, and grade dirt roads. Then they cut back weeds in the ditches, unstick stuck drains, replace guardrails, and generally spend the fall getting ready for winter.
Winter, of course, brings plowing and salting and sanding as crews struggle to keep folks flowing back and forth to work.
But no matter how much effort goes into the local roads, no one has ever solved the problem of frost heaves.
“Whoa. Watch it,” Brian Lambert shouted as he struggled to keep his coffee in his cup. “I was hoping to drink some of this before we got to school, not wear it.”
“Sorry,” Wil Bennett said as he slowed down some more. “There’s not much you can do when the heaving starts.”
Brian switched his cup from one hand to the other as he struggled to mop up the drips with a napkin. “We had frost heaves on Martha’s Vineyard but I don’t remember anything like the ones you’ve got here.”
“I’m wearing half my juice,” Wil’s sister, Faye, whined from the back seat.
“And the other half’s all over me,” Suzanna said. She was Faye’s best friend. “Got any more of those napkins?”
Brian handed a couple over the seat. When his fingers touched Faye’s, the two of them glanced at one another then just as quickly turned their eyes away. It had been weeks since the two of them decided to be “just friends” but the desire to be more than that had not faded.
Suzanna, noticed and barely suppressed a huge, impatient sigh. While she could understand Brian’s caution—college loomed on the young man’s horizon—she wished he and Faye would just get on with it and be a couple while they still had time.
“How come they’re so bad here?” Brian asked as he placed his thumb firmly over the sipping hole in his cup.
Wil shrugged. “I don’t know for sure but I think it has to do with the difference in the soils between the Vineyard and here. You folks have mostly sand down there while we’ve got topsoil and clay.”
Brian thought about that for a minute. “I guess that makes sense. When you walk on a beach this time of year, it’s like walking on concrete, hard and flat.”
“Yeah. Think about what the ground is like around here when it first freezes, all bumps and knobs. My guess is that’s what’s happening all the way down, and when things start to thaw, the bumps and knobs show up again.”
That’s when they hit the big one by the bridge.
Brian turned around just in time to see the last of Faye’s juice stream down her face and jacket.
“You know that’s the biggest frost heave in town and you just hit it full on,” his sister yelled.
“If you knew it was coming, you should have been ready,” her brother said as he examined Faye in his rear view mirror. “Besides, that’s not the biggest frost heave in town.”
He started to laugh as Faye’s face congealed into the throwing-daggers look he knew so well while Brian dug a bandana out of his coat pocket to mop up the juice. Faye used it to biff her brother in the head first.
“Are you talking about the heaves up on Belmont Hill?” she asked.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, we’ll go up there after school with cups of water, and hang them out the window while Brian drives and then we’ll see who has the most left when we get to the bottom.”
Wil laughed again. “You’re on, little sister. You’re on.”
Of course, Carding High School being Carding High school, news about the frost heave surfing contest had spread through the whole student body by the end of first period. By lunch time, the friendly competition between rival siblings had morphed into a full-fledged contest complete with teams, cheerleaders, and more than a few side bets like the one between Wil and Faye over dish duty at home. The loser got stuck with it for a month.
Andy Cooper, over at the general store, caught wind of the event when the Coop became the object of a teenaged water-buying spree that afternoon, and he alerted the more senior elements in town.
Of course there were people who complained about “the kids these days” but Andy told them to lighten up.
“What else are we going to do in early April?” he asked. “It’s too soon to garden. The hiking trails are all mud and more slippery than they are in winter. It’s too cold to barbecue and the good skiing snow is long gone. Who knows, maybe frost heave surfing will catch on.”
By the time the dozen cars entered in the “competition” slogged their way through the tire-sucking mud to the top of Belmont Hill, there was a pretty good crowd waiting for them at the bottom. Wil’s friend, Dave Muzzy, arrived in his Dad’s truck, and began to set up speakers and a microphone.
“Color commentary,” he explained to the folks watching him with quizzical brows.
“Okay,” Brian Lambert shouted above the tumult. “Here are the rules such as they are. Every team has four people, a driver who doesn’t have a cup and three who do. Everyone gets the same amount of water in their cups. All windows have to be open and cups held outside the car. Drivers cannot go over 25 miles per hour or you’ll break an axle and have to explain it to your parents.”
“And the chief of police says we’ve all got to wear seat belts or else.” Brian waited until the clicking sounds subsided. “Each car gives the one ahead of it a two-minute lead and then they can go. Everybody got it?”
“Are you ready?”
Cups were hoisted into the air with another loud “yeah” and then a dozen engines roared into life.
“Let’s go!” Brian grinned over at Faye as he eased Wil’s car from park to drive. In the back seat, Wil and Suzanna leaned out their windows, full cups clutched in their hands.
The first car in line inched forward but then picked up speed as it jumped and kicked its way down the notorious Belmont Hill.
“And they jounce and they bounce and they weave.” Dave Muzzy’s voice carried through the cool spring air. “Whoa, there goes a cup. The recycling police are going to demand a clean up after this.”
“Whoa, Annabelle Nelson is struggling here, getting crossways in the mud. Can she get out of this?” Dave paused for dramatic effect, and then he yelled: “Yes! Yes she can.”
“And here comes Wil Bennett’s car, driven by Brian Lambert. They’re our final contestants so they’ve got the worst road conditions. Good luck with that Brian.”
“Oh wait now, here’s a little sideways action to the right…now to the left…watch out for the big heave by the barn, Brian…Hey, did you see that? There was a lot of air between that car and the road. I see a future in professional frost heave surfing for Brian Lambert.”
The crowd oohed while Wil’s father shook his head, imagining the car repair bill at Stan’s Garage if Carding’s first frost heave surfing contest didn’t go well.
“Oh no,” Dave yelled, “he’s hit ice. Brian’s sliding sideways, getting some more air there. Are they gonna make it? Yes, yes, they do. Now watch the big dip by the culvert, Brian! Wow, ladies and gentlemen, did you see that? I don’t believe there’s a dry person in that car now!”
Later, when folks gathered around the TV in the Coop’s coffee corner to watch the frost-heave-surfing video that Andy filmed, the laughter and groans could be heard all the way down Meetinghouse Road.
But what no one realized, except maybe Suzanna, is that in their airborne moments, Faye and Brian renewed their couple-ness.
By the way, Wil lost the bet with his sister and he will be on dish duty until further notice.
You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Light in Water, Dancing, will be available for your reading pleasure on June 15, 2018.
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If you’d like to get in touch, my email address is: Sonja@SonjaHakala.com.