Ambushed by Wallace Nutting

oneinathousandlogoE.O. Schaub


I don’t know if you’ve heard, but they’re digging a culvert on East Wells Road today. Yup. So, as the nice man with the mustache and orange vest will tell you, what’cher going to have to do is take Saw Mill to Lamb Hill. That’ll take you right around it.


Lamb Hill Road

What the nice man with the mustache and the orange vest won’t tell you is how you think you know a place after living there for twelve years, but you don’t. Right when you least expect it- he will neglect to tell you- an unexpected detour can change your whole outlook on things.


Acquaintances who live elsewhere will periodically ask us if one ever gets tired of the Vermont landscape; if, like any house with an especially scenic, or bucolic, or just downright breathtaking view- of the Jersey shore, of the Eiffel Tower, of the polar ice caps- one eventually grows so accustomed to that prized, pricey, location-location-location view that it ceases to enchant, and becomes, for all intents and purposes, invisible. It seems to me, sometimes, as if these folks are trying to justify why living in Vermont is nice and all, but, you know, not really worth the trouble and expense.


(Does anyone ever ask them, I wonder, if they get tired of the view of the neighboring apartment building/subdivision/strip mall? Or, is the idea that it is better to be tired of the view first, before one ceases to see it anymore?)


Oh no! I always protest, explaining how every drive down scenic, rolling Route 30 is a different one: transformed by low, veils of morning fog, or late, glinting orange sunsets, or simply the hot, heavy, smell of a giant vat of summer manure next to a cornfield so verdant it verges on obscene… not to mention the white-knuckle days of snow piled, snow plowed and snow shoveled, and ice- black ice, white ice, clear ice- so entrancingly blank and bright that you begin to see spots from looking too long.


Although I know this incredible diversity to be true, it’s also true that we are human beings and we all have the sad tendency to begin to take for granted what we encounter on a daily basis, day after day. Luckily, there is always a wake-up call, somehow, somewhere, waiting to bring me back. One time I happened to travel away from home in September, probably mid to late, as when I left the leaves had yet to turn. I vividly recall the drive back: the closer I got the more breathtaking the scenery around me became. Like time-lapse photography, the further north I drove the further into autumn I drove, until I was surrounded at last with a swirling landscape of oranges, yellows, reds and browns that seemed almost too bright, too luminous to be natural.


I found myself rolling down the windows and taking deep breaths of that familiar, crisp, autumnal air that clears your lungs and makes you glad the hot, sweaty days of summer are at last at an end- despite yourself. For of course you can’t help knowing what all this plumage precedes- the long, cold, dark time that even the most avid skier can begin to dread if they recall it fully.


But October is about acceptance. We eat the bitter, sweet apples right off the tree, and don sweaters gratefully, knowing we will need coats too- later. But not yet. That year, after my foray into some suburban nightmare or other, I was especially grateful to see Vermont with these new eyes and appreciate the incredible, illogical brilliance of it all over again.


But today I was on Saw Mill and Lamb Hill. And as I took the proscribed detour I was mildly excited and curious to find out where this new road led. Because East Wells Road is my preferred route of choice to our beloved child-care provider, over the years I have driven past the intersection of East Wells with Saw Mill literally hundreds, and maybe even zillions of times. I am fairly confident that at this point I could drive the route blindfolded, while drinking a cup of coffee and reciting the Gettysburg Address. Which I never do, of course, at least not while the kids are in the car.


But Saw Mill…? This was as unfamiliar as if we had moved to town yesterday. Almost immediately the detour road turned to dirt, and soon after that to the kind of road that makes me wonder if it will ultimately dead-end at the entrance to a cow pasture. Although my mini-van was becoming increasingly alarmed at this road-less-traveled (I could tell because a little exclamation point in a triangle kept flashing on my dashboard, as if threatening to call my mother), I was becoming increasingly entranced with the new surroundings. Tall grass meadows fell away from the edge of the road and into valleys filled with a waving, sunny breeze; then suddenly forest would crowd overhead, only to then part and reveal a neat little farm with a tiny, empty carriage barn that was so living-history perfect I uttered a tiny involuntary “oh!” and then that, too, was gone, as we continued bouncing and gravel-crunching our way down the road, leaving only giant clouds of dust in our 15 mile-per-hour wake.


Now, I know I’m a little weird on this point- but I can be reduced to tears by some unusual things. In this case, there were- interspersed with lots of more modern homes, some shacks and several neatly-kept trailers- a very few old, well-maintained farmhouses on this route, with their matter-of-fact wrap-around porches and rocking chairs, small fenced gardens and tiny outbuildings, which quite frankly were making it hard for me to breathe. They were just so- so- so- what? As if I had walked into a completely different time and existence, one that was just inherently, unselfconsciously, heart-stoppingly, beautiful.


Was it the dirt road? Or the fact that this was just an new, unfamiliar route? And why did I have the sense that a photograph would entirely fail to capture what it was that was so mystifyingly special about this particular road, on this particular day?


My girls brought me back to reality with their backseat exclamations about how remote our route was becoming- will we get lost? Is this dangerous? Are there tigers and kangaroos out here? We might be driving through a Wallace Nutting photograph, but in my four-year-old’s eyes this way-back-country road was safari material.


Just then we came back out on our regular route- twenty-some minutes, and a much dirtier mini-van later, here we were a good mile or so further up… East Wells Road. What? I had practically expected to arrive at the Canadian border-patrol.


So maybe I’m just odd, in fact, it’s highly likely. (I also cry at Pampers commercials.) Nonetheless, I’m not the only person to be captured by Vermont’s unique spell, a siren song for those of us who love old barns and axel-cracking dirt roads and, yes, even those big smelly piles of manure. And no, I don’t ever get tired of it.


All I can say is: thank God for culverts.

2 thoughts on “Ambushed by Wallace Nutting

  1. A wonderful article that reminded me of my times in Vermont. I have felt ‘lost’ in the beauty of the landscape around me and, of course, wondering if I was really lost!

  2. I agree…I never get tired of the VT scenery and views. Each time we go up and down the same roads I look at as much as I can take in at 40 mph, as if I’m looking at it for the first time. Next time we’re up we’ll have to try this detour. Thank you. I enjoy reading your essays.

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