Sing a Song of Mud-Time

THE road commissioner, who knows Vermont mud if anybody does and is not exactly young, avows that there has been no spring like this one since he can remember. From the hill villages and the back roads, by telephone, by messenger on foot or horseback, by grapevine telegraph, he receives every few hours a fresh complaint about some highway morass that will promptly become passable if he will only dump a load of gravel into it.

‘Just a load of gravel — that’s all!’ he says witheringly. ‘And how do they think I am to get a load of gravel to it? Carry it in a reticule? I can’t get a truck in there; I can’t even get a team in there — not drawing a load. We can’t get near four fifths of the places that are howling for help.’

As a matter of fact, those who intimate that a load of gravel will do the trick are just illustrating the notorious Vermont knack of understatement. On our much-used South Road there is one forty-foot stretch into which, for one entire week-end, an immense truckload of gravel was poured every time a car went over it; but on Monday you would never have known the difference. In the pre-automobile era it was fascinating to watch a horse-drawn vehicle navigate this pocket when the frost was coming out. A sort of wave, a leisurely ground-swell of clay, would precede the horse and follow the wagon, spreading to either side. It was exactly like the billow that escorts a skater on the thinnest ice that will ‘bear.’ One side of the road sank, the other rose. No one ever quite broke through until motors came in, and then everyone broke through. After the first spring of chronic trouble — thirty years ago — they excavated the whole pocket, lined what they were pleased to consider its bottom with 300-pound boulders, and refilled with crushed rock and gravel. But, pussywillow time this very April, the surface again took to heaving and billowing as if not a thing had ever been done. Under wheel pressure the boulders popped to the surface as if they were bubbles. A maw like that will gulp down a five-ton truckload of gravel without even losing the edge of its appetite. And it is only one of the few that can be got at. Fancy, then, what those are like in the real hinterland, where cars drop through until actual water swirls over the brake and clutch pedals.

A hill-village correspondent of the town paper is goaded into writing with elaborately bitter facetiousness: ‘Many artesian wells are being sunk in this part of the town, using automobiles for covers. Some covers adhere to the wells and are removed with the assistance of pries and horses. Other covers remain for some time.’ The very light car I drive opened such a gusher last week in a farmyard driveway that had never spewed out trouble before. It gave me a grand (and unaccustomed) swelling of the ego to get myself out in less than thirty hours, selfreliantly, without oxen or even a watch tackle.

It is easy for city folk, frequenters of the numbered routes, to forget that all such regions as ours have from a dozen to twentyfive miles of back road for every mile of hard-surfaced, year-round highway. So it is; and people live on every mile of pretty nearly every such road. Naturally, it is basic in the complex long-range strategy of country living that you arrange to do your backwoods traveling before or after mud-time, and during it to stay put. But that is only the ideal principle of the thing. You cannot count on getting it deferred to by the cow that needs a vet, the tooth that screams for the forceps, the child that runs a sudden temperature. We do, in spite of principle, have to get out, or try to. I tell myself that this is the very last day (or the very first) on which an expert mud driver, like me, can squeak through. Not until the bottom drops out from under me do I sadly admit that the last such day was yesterday, or the first such to-morrow.

Mire, uncertainty of arrival, certainty of delay, and the herculean labors of extrication being the prolonged miseries they are, what is it that makes mud-time on the whole the pleasant, spiritually easygoing interlude it is in our year? Why does it produce at the moment so little of fret, exacerbation, and raving, and afterward so much by way of a pleasant glow in the memory? I have contemplated this little country paradox through many a New England spring before the present epic one, and I have become sure that the answer is mine. For all the physical woes there is one immense compensation. It is a moral compensation, and its name is fellowship. Mud-time brings us together. The year-round mood of the road — every man for himself, and devil take the hindmost gives way to the philosophy of all for one and one for all.

It is not merely that on this subject, all having been at some time in the same fix, we thoroughly understand one another. It is not only that mud, being the chief topic of conversation and nub of activity, draws together the rich and the poor, the thrifty and the shiftless, the profane and the pious, the young and the old — not to speak of the automobile and the horse. It even draws the sexes together.

For the rock-bottom basis of social solidarity on the bottomless roads is the cardinal fact that all things and everybody belong to us and are at our service, without cost, penalty, or obligation. Stuck in the mud, we do things to the back-country neighbor that in another season would get us a prompt bullet through a tire if not birdshot in the calf. We rip rails from his cow lane. We leave gaps in his stone walls. We raid his piled cord wood. We clip his barbed wire to

short-circuit a mudhole by digression through his field. He comes out egging us on and fetching supplementary tools. If the prospect is grim, he fades away to reappear in five minutes with a harnessed team, and scoffs at the tender of pay. The old lady living alone, and ordinarily scared to death of strangers, comes out in a shawl to preside sociably, anecdotally, over our crude engineering operations, and when they are over she urges tea and cookies upon us, with not even a glance at the gumbo we track on to her kitchen floor. The children pitch in and lug stones. The very watchdogs forget to yap and sit watching us with what looks like kind solicitude. Every mishap means from two to a dozen pleasant acquaintanceships with folk half of whom, if you had first known them in some context other than mud, you might have found curmudgeons.

If you want to sec strangers get together, if you want to experience in its full intensity the grand emotion of neighborhood, you have only to wait until something disrupts the communication system — that smooth, effortless system that, functioning in its normal perfection, turns most of us into glassy-eyed, speeding strangers to one another. Let who will agitate and logroll for better roads: I sing the bad ones and the friendly unity that travels them when wheels and hoofs bog down.

The children, of course, get the spirit of the thing. (Jane, who is four, was heard yesterday saying to Ting, who is not two: ‘Come on, Ting, let’s go take a walk. Let’s go take a hog wallow.’) When they are octogenarians they will ruminate: ‘No, the winters are not what they used to be. And the springs! Why, when I was a boy a grown man couldn’t step into his own dooryard in anything lower than waders. Children under six were not allowed out without a strong man accompanying them. It was a law — yes, sir! In the famous spring of ‘39 the mud came rolling down the hill roads in regular waves, and when you took a car up the Brook Road the whole surface teetered in one piece until the side you weren’t on stood up two feet above its bed. You kids nowadays don’t know anything. Not anything. No more mud now, thanks to WPA and all the other modern improvements — blast them! How can kids know anything, with no mud left for ‘em to learn on?’