I’m a native Vermonter, I’ve lived 50 of my 60 years in Vermont, and in my 25 years as a newspaper reporter I’ve seen more than my share of strange things. But I’ve never seen anything like the parking lot Saturday night at the Addison County Fair and Field Days.
This event is billed as Vermont’s most agricultural fair, which is plausible given agriculture’s major presence in the Champlain Valley. This in turn is logical because of, in one four-letter word, clay.
To simplify somewhat, clay is ground-up mountains. Since Vermont had two-mile-high glaciers doing the grinding, the particles in Addison County’s clay approach the nanotechnological. While this makes the soil wonderfully fertile—minerals are more accessible in smaller particles; think of how much of a fistsize rock is on the inside versus the outside—also it makes the wet clay infuriatingly, gruesomely gluesome.
Which brings us to Saturday night. My wife and I were headed for Field Days at sunset, so she could pick up the beaded necklace that had won a ribbon just short of the Grand Prize. Simple errand, we thought.
But when we got there, two things were apparent: the place was packed, and the parking lot wasn’t. The roads between the parking places were fine, having through the years received enough gravel and cracked marble waste to support a skyscraper during annual bouts with the wet clay. The parking “spaces” were something else.
Where they weren’t churned into mire, they had vehicle tracks up to a foot deep going through them, in a kind of demonic Death by Chocolate topping off what had been a placid hayfield. We drove where the parking directors directed, searching for anything that looked like it wouldn’t engulf our Saturn in the Green Mountain State’s version of the La Brea Tar Pits, with no success. The liquidity that has dried up in the nation’s financial system apparently had taken a holiday in New Haven, Vermont. Through windows closed so we wouldn’t get spattered, we could hear the sorts of engine whines that normally accompany an ice storm, or on a smaller scale the death throes of flies that have blundered into spider webs.
Three cheers for the good folk of Addison County, who weren’t going to let this spectacle keep them away from their beloved culminating Demolition Derby and fireworks. As I put it in a poem about Addison County clay once, the story about clay making men “is true: it does.” But we didn’t have to stop—Irene could retrieve her prizewinner on Sunday—and we didn’t. We went back to Middlebury, maybe or maybe not with our tail between our legs, but certainly with our muffler between our wheels.
The irony of which is, as any long-time Addison County resident knows, there is still time for a drought to turn all those sharp-edged ruts into the sort of material the ancient Mesopotamians used to build ziggurats.
So that’s what happens when possibly the rainiest year on record hits The Great Plains of Vermont. The wicked floods, in Addison County, take place in mountain towns like Bristol, Lincoln and Ripton. Washouts during the past week stranded Ripton by making Route 125—a major state road, not some glorified cow path—impassible both to the east and west.
Whatever else is true about climate change, there’s little doubt that we’ve entered a period of wild swings and unpredictable extremes. I’m old enough to remember the onset: in the late 1970’s, scientists who had reviewed historical records warned that people should not judge what was likely to happen by the unusually steady seasonal patterns since World War II.
Who would have thought that some day we might be nostalgic for the calm, predictable Sixties?
But as Addison County’s example shows, there’s a good side and a bad side to everything. If the Champlain Valley’s silo-studded “Great Plains” were not a former sea and lake bed, they’d be suburbs of Burlington. In the end, the clay is—as those who remember the title of this essay will perhaps have anticipated—a wash.