A few weeks ago, I hopped off the ACTR Tri-Town Shuttle at Mount Abraham Union High School to pay an unexpected visit to a Spanish teacher whose name I didn’t know, who may or may not have been on the premises, who perhaps had something to do with a field trip fundraising effort that I thought would — probably — make a good photo-op for an inside page of the paper.
Inside, the annual Back-to-School sale was in full swing. The room was buzzing with parents, students and educators getting excited about the upcoming year and stocking up on supplies. I wasn’t the only one on a mission.
So it was no surprise that I loitered awkwardly around the entrance to the sale for several minutes, pad and recorder in hand, trying in vain to make eye contact with one of the busy teachers who were helping families and students “shop” around the fold-out tables stacked high with notebooks, pencils and other school supplies.
“Hey!” a woman called out. “You need a number, and you need to stand in line.”
I explained my actual purpose, and was ushered through the door and into the crowded room. She pointed me in the direction of a teacher who taught Spanish (though not at Mount Abe, I’d later find out), who was currently helping a young man and his grandmother maneuver their way from table to table. I resumed loitering. But not for long.
“You know,” the woman said, “if you’re just gonna stand there, we should put you to work.”
Gamely, I traded my pad and recorder for a pencil and punch card, temporarily assuming the role of a “shopper,” guiding families around the room as they picked out their school supplies. I was useless — the 12-year-old I was supposed to be helping was actually the one doing the guiding — but I met half a dozen people I wouldn’t otherwise have met, and they all got a big laugh out of it. I never did find the Spanish teacher.
Here’s something I’ve learned in the last year of covering the agriculture community and the Five Town Area for the Independent. The conversations that have moved me, and the people that have stayed in my mind throughout the months — the 100-year-old lady on Hewitt Road, India Day at the Lincoln school, an undocumented migrant worker who came off a 20-hour shift milking cows and talked politics with me, a “magical” garden in Starksboro, the kids at the autism-spectrum day care center in New Haven, a mural under Garland’s Bridge — have often been the story pitches that began as a vague, one-paragraph email in my inbox on the day of a story meeting or an offhanded suggestion on the street. In other words, the stories that would have been easy to dismiss.
So I’ve gotten used to chasing them. Even if the story falls through like it did at Mount Abe the other week, I’ve always been thrown into an experience that makes it worth it.
Especially without a car.
Being a rural community reporter is probably not something one should do on foot or by bus (all the ACTR drivers are used to picking me up at very random places on their routes by this point).
But I have to say, it made things a lot more interesting.
Here’s the thing about not having a car in Vermont — you’re in better shape than you would be almost anywhere else. That’s because people around here don’t just rush past you. If you’re looking a little lost, someone will stop and ask you what’s going on.
That’s something I discovered with two college friends during the summer of 2008. We were at Middlebury’s language school and attempting a desperate escape to Burlington for the day.
But we missed the only Saturday morning bus. As we stood forlornly on the side of the street, watching it disappear up Route 7, a New Haven mechanic pulled his truck up next to us and said, “You guys look like visitors in my homeland. Where do you need to go?”
We hopped in. And though people should obviously exercise caution while hitchhiking, I’ve done it a number of times since, always meeting someone interesting who was willing to go a little out of their way.
These days, I don’t hitchhike much. I don’t need to. For all I’ve been told that it takes seven generations to be a real Vermonter (and I’m going to need another few decades here before I start busting out those Carhartts) I’ve found that if I ever really need a lift, someone in my community will reach out with an offer before I have to stick out a thumb.
Most mornings this summer, for example, I began the day by aiming my rusty, fixed-gear bike down Gove Hill Road in Lincoln — which in case you haven’t been there lately, or you aren’t as intimately familiar with its gravel patterns as I am, has definitely been getting steeper and more pitted with each summer storm — and praying the chain wouldn’t pop on the way down. It usually doesn’t.
Every now and then, though, a rain cloud will appear from behind the mountain, scoot itself over and unleash a torrential downpour. That’s not fun.
But I’ve been rescued more times that I can count by a kindly, passing Lincolnite (many of whom I first met when I ran our car into the ditch at the end of our driveway right after moving in last fall because in case you haven’t heard, native New Yorkers are really, really bad drivers).
And I’ve walked miles down farming roads in New Haven, Monkton and Starksboro and run into all kinds of people on the way to wherever I was originally going.
And it’s nearly impossible to pass through downtown Bristol these days without spotting someone I know and getting swept up in a long conversation.
One of my predecessors at the Independent, Katie Flagg, noted in her farewell Clippings that some of the joys of being a reporter in a community like Addison County were the opportunities to get a real glimpse of people’s lives, the openness with which they invite you through their front doors and trust you to tell their stories. Being a reporter gives you the license to ask questions, an excuse to walk through the door.
I couldn’t pin it down any better than that.
But I’ll add that the openness and trust that have been extended to me in the past year transcends the reporting work I’ve done for the newspaper — it has come in countless ways.
And all I can say is thank you for letting me into your lives; for picking me up on the side of the road and taking walks with me; for striking up a conversation on the bus; for putting me to work and letting me get swept up in the community activity that defines this very special place.
I am headed to Spain in a few days to teach, but this year has been a fantastic trip.