Soul food and mid-century adventures

SWANTON, Vt. — This year the trees have put on a particularly spectacular show, slowly and brightly changing into an autumn quilt draped over the gentle, low Appalachian mountains.

We’re fortunate enough to live in a place where we witness at no charge one of nature’s most lovely events and we’re not so jaded that our breath doesn’t catch as the car lifts over a rise and the entire world is spread before us in yellows and reds and oranges, pitted with green and canopied by blue and white.

fall colours

We were day tripping — during leaf season, room rates in northern Vermont more than double — and had promised Jilly an adventure. After a brief interlude at a friend’s cottage overlooking the mountains, we dipped father south to St. Albans where we got lost looking for a big-box store and ended up instead in the sweetest little shop. Vintage Vibe was packed with mid-century delights at mid-century prices and manned by the possibly the funkiest lady in all of Vermont. We left the store with crowns, costumes, antique furniture and a sense of gratification.

Yet Jilly was still asking whether we were on an adventure. An adventure to the nearest Denny’s is what I was thinking as I filled the tank with good old cheap American gas in a tiny border town. After all, all that socializing and shopping makes a family hungry. But Melani was looking across the street at Swanton Memorial United Methodist Church.

“There’s a church supper tonight,” she said, even though she knows I’m not comfortable with churches or strangers. “The second sitting starts about now.”

memorial united methodist church swanton

I didn’t make any cute jokes about the second sitting. I was still thinking about Denny’s as I clicked my seatbelt into place and pointed the car toward the border.

“Ten dollars a plate,” she added, appealing to my frugality.

I slowed the car. “You really want to do this? It won’t be weird?” She shrugged in that way that means “it won’t be weird unless you make it weird, dummy. And I’m hungry.”

memorial united methodist church swanton (2)The church itself was built in 1895, about 90 years after the first Methodist meeting in Swanton. It was the fourth official meeting place for Methodists. In 1826, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Friends, and Methodists built a brick church, according to the Swanton Historical Society, and in 1848 the Methodists constructed their own building. It was torn down and replaced in 1886. That one was destroyed in a fire, but rose again a year later. That’s a lot of history for one little church, but frankly we were more concerned with our growling stomachs.

I think they were surprised to see us. But their welcoming smiles and almost uncomfortable attention put us somewhat at ease. The lady who seated us apologized that we’d have to sit alone — the only other occupied table was already full. We were brought cider and buns, then potatoes and mashed squash the deliciousness of which I can’t even begin to explain. Biscuits and chicken were the centrepiece of the meal, with more gravy if we wished, and my favourite kind of cranberry sauce — the kind where you can still see the bumps created by the tin it came in. All were served on mid-century church dinnerware by a kind lady and her sweet, round-faced daughter, who might just be running these church dinners herself ten years from now.

church dinnerA handwritten sign on the back wall said “All are welcome at God’s table.”

The pastor came over to personally welcome us and we nodded and smiled — none of us really knew what to say or how to go about this, this whole thing where complete strangers drop in and sit at a table alone raving at the deliciousness of the food in a small-town church basement. And yet I thought of our friends over at Meanwhile at the Manse, who I think would have been tickled pink to have travellers drop in to one of their church suppers.

Just outside the door, with our bellies full of soul food, Melani put her hand in her pocket and withdrew a bundle of crumpled cash. We’d be home in just a few miles. “What should I do with this?” she asked me.

I shrugged. She’s the one who’s involved with the Unitarians back home, not me. “What would you want some stranger to do with it?”

And so she slipped back in and dropped it in the church basket. I hope they’ll put it toward the next church supper.

An adventure with Joe on Devil’s Night

Joe is loaded up for this third and final tow in 24 hours.
Spoiler alert: This is how this story will end.

ST. ALBANS, VT — “Whoa whoa whoa! Bad noise! Bad noise!” is not really what you want to hear from a cop in a deserted mall parking lot at nearly 1 a.m. Frankly, even “Do you realize how fast you were going, ma’am?” would have been better.

When I left Montreal around suppertime on the night before Halloween, I didn’t foresee having any contact with police. I don’t, you know, because I don’t speed and I signal my turns and I’m a middle-aged white lady, so I don’t get stopped randomly. I was just hopping across the border for a few hours to pick up Melani and the baby at Burlington airport after their sojourn in Colorado Springs.

My biggest adventure of the night (I thought) was when Alpha the GPS, peeved because I’d taken the Mercier Bridge rather than the hateful Champlain, led me through the darkness directly to the edge of the water and said, “Now, take the ferry.”

Alpha the GPS decided -- in the dark, without warning me -- that we were about to take a ferry in Vermont.
Alpha the GPS decided — in the dark, without warning me — that we were about to take a ferry in Vermont.

Once my ladies were safely back in my possession, I appeased Alpha by letting him choose the route home. It was late, and the Champlain is slightly less hateful once the traffic’s gone.

Joe the truck started vibrating a few miles south of the border. It was a gentle shake that worked its way up to jiggle my arm fat and cause mild emotional distress.

“It’s just the road,” Melani assured me, because she knows how much I worry.

Nevertheless, I left the highway and when I turned the wheels to enter a gas station, Melani said the genle click-clunk just sounded like I’d run over something. We continued to disagree about severity of the issue—gently, because we’d been separated for a week and we’d missed each other. At the end of the not-argument, I exited the gas station, promptly turned the wrong way and had to make a U-turn in a shopping-mall entrance.

Only Joe wasn’t feeling up to a U-turn. He got as far as an L-turn and groaned and yelled like he’s never done before.

I love Joe. When he hurts, I hurt. So I cut the engine, sighed heavily and pretended I wasn’t sideways in a mall exit after midnight.

Melani was on the phone with triple-A when a pickup and two cars full of men surrounded us on three sides. It could have been the opening scene of a Law & Order: SVU episode, but turned out to be three groups of guys—none of whom knew each other—making sure we were okay and offering to help.

They were long gone by the time the bright light filled the car. I had the baby on my lap and thought for a moment that we were about to be alien-abducted together. Then the light started cycling red, white and blue, and let me tell you this: I read this cool cop’s blog and I listen to this jailer podcast, so I know better than to swing my door open in the middle of the night with suspicious cops right behind me.

“DO NOT EXIT YOUR VEHICLE,” he bellowed into a megaphone and I froze with embarrassment.

He relaxed the moment he’d flashed his light into the car. We’re not a very menacing crew. I explained what happened and he explained that we really couldn’t leave our car sideways in a mall exit, offering to give us a push a little off the road. I did tell him the wheels weren’t happy about having to turn, but he really wanted me moved. He smiled. “It probably won’t even make that noise now that we’re here.” He didn’t say “little lady” out loud, but it sure hung there in the air.

I dropped it into neutral and the cops got behind and gave me a gentle push. Wouldn’t make that noise with them there, indeed.

Clunk cluck clunk GRIND YELL UNHAPPY.

“Whoa whoa whoa! Bad noise! Bad noise!” one of them exclaimed, stepping away from poor Joe as I cut the engine and pulled the parking brake.

I wasn’t smug and I didn’t say I told you so. I thanked them for the push to somewhere safe and thanked them again when they said they’d be back to check on us. They parked across the street at the gas station for a while and kept an eye on us.

Joe settles in for his tow from St. Albans, Vt., home to Montreal.
Joe settles in for his tow from St. Albans, Vt., home to Montreal.

The tow-truck driver was a darling, but he didn’t have his passport with him. He’d take us as far as the border, he said, and leave us at the duty free. Sounds reasonable, right? But you know us. You know it couldn’t possibly be a warm, brightly lit duty free at a nice big border with lots of traffic and fun things to look at. You just knew it, didn’t you?

I was a little mad by the time the second tow-truck driver showed up. We’d been told there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab for us and a car seat, so Melani unloaded most of her stuff onto the shadowed, cold dirt of the parking lot and was determined to wait there for her mother, who’d been woken up after midnight and drawn into our chilly drama.

Her mother was not answering her cellphone, so we couldn’t explain to her that the duty free probably wasn’t what she was expecting. It was a good distance off the highway, down a twisty, heavily wooded road. It was a small, dark shack with a looping parking area surrounded on three sides by thick black forest and this—this!—is where my bride expected me to leave her for an indeterminate amount of time.

I was that sort of mad where, as I buckled myself and the baby into the tow truck, I thought, “If she gets herself disfigured by a man with a hook, I’m gonna kill her.”

The driver was round and baby-faced and earnest. He wanted to talk about cars, and five minutes into the drive he’d determined that I knew just enough about vehicles to be a satisfactory sounding board.

“What does her mother drive?” he asked as we approached the boarder. He was squinting toward the U.S. entry, scanning the cars on that side.

“A beige Ford.”

He shrugged, because she hadn’t gotten there yet, and we speedily crossed the border ourselves, whereupon he continued to tell me about his cars and what he was going to do to them. He asked me again what sort of car Mel’s mom drove and he peered at approaching headlights seriously.

Moments later, he filled in the blanks: “A Taurus? 2003 or 2004? She just passed us.” I sighed and relaxed, because everything was going to be fine, and then I realized he’d gotten model and year of her car from the shape of headlights travelling past us at 100 kilometres an hour. I was probably about as impressed as he’d thought I’d be, but not as impressed (how could he have known?) when he said slightly shyly, “You know another thing I’m kinda into? Demolition derbies.”

When I squealed and matched his excitement, he whipped out his phone and navigated (the highway was dark, but straight and empty) to his demo videos, which I watched the rest of the way home.

And though Joe was going to be just fine (he had a broken axle), I made him a silent promise right then that when his time came, he wouldn’t go off to some lonely dump—he’ll be donated for a demolition derby and go out in flames.

Here’s my favourite of the tow-truck driver’s videos (or one very similar). The guy in the bottom vehicle controls the gas—the guy up top steers.

The one with the friendly border guard

The lovely Lake Carmi, which I might not have seen if not for the friendly border guard.
The lovely Lake Carmi, which I might not have seen if not for the friendly border guard.

WEST BERKSHIRE BORDER CROSSING, Vt. – I’ve written at least two posts on border preparedness. The rules are: Answer only the questions you are asked. Always tell the truth. Have all your documents ready.

The wait to get into Vermont from Frelighsburg, Que., was pretty long, considering it’s a teeny crossing way off the beaten path. The guard was spending at least five minutes with each vehicle, checking every trunk, peering into back windows and opening suitcases.

“This is going to go very poorly,” Melani said, and I shot her a “the hell?” look.

“Is my license suspended?” I asked her, making a mental note to double-check that we’d paid that bloody parking ticket. She takes care of these things for me and she assured me I was driving legally.

“Is there fruit in the car?”

“Nope.”

“Then why would you even say something like that? What’s wrong with you?” She knows I have issues with authority figures and she loves to mess with me.

“Good afternoon,” The guard greeted us. “How long do you all plan to be in the U.S.?” He’s from Vermont, so it’s two words rather than y’all. We told him three or four hours, and he wanted to know where we were headed for just a few hours.

“Lake Carmi. We’re meeting friends from Franklin for a picnic,” I explained.

“Your trunk open?” He was really nice, relaxed. He rooted around in the wayback and laughed, “You’re going to a picnic and you didn’t bring any food.”

Our friend was bringing lunch, and the guard was so non-threatening that I actually laughed. “Yeah, that’s just the kind of guests we are.”

In his booth, he finished inputting our information. “Ma’am,” he said in his friendly way, “Are you aware that your passport has expired?”

And that is when my heart stopped.

I mean, it wasn’t a huge deal to me if we missed the church picnic, because I get shy at those things anyway. But the humiliation of being turned away from a border! Me, who triple-checks our documents even when we’re not going anywhere … plus the cost of passports just went up, and all our extra funds are tied up for our summer road trip … through the States … in two weeks.

My hands were over my mouth. Ridiculously, I suddenly thought he was joshing me. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, ma’am. It expired February 2013.”

“Oh crap. Oh crap.” Then, because there was positively nothing I could do about it at a rural border crossing flat in the north of nowhere, I said, “Well, this is a good time to find out.”

He stifled a chuckle. “Really? I’d think this would be about the worst time you could find out.”

* * *

For the record – according to our uniformed friend, who merrily waved us into Vermont – it’s no problem driving into the States on an expired passport, though we’d be laughed out of an airport.

Nevertheless, with 12 days till Road Trip 2013, it might be the time to look into getting an enhanced drivers’ license.