A Pleasant, but Elusive Road in Vermont

This is Hagan Road, also known as town highway #46.  It’s a dirt and rock hardscrabble road near our camp in the hills of Essex County.  For decades, Edward and I and various friends and family members have walked this road, which ascends a steep hill and after another mile or so, makes a sharp right, and then takes IMG_20160823_132529245you on a pleasant, five mile loop back to the road “proper.”

There’s a town highway map–as there are online, for all Vermont municipalities–and our town’s shows Hagan Road as ending mysteriously after .47 miles, petering out into the white space of the map.  But we know all too well that the road continues, and that it’s a real, albeit rough road, and not just a trail.  That’s because all too regularly, we see it traversed by pickups, logging trucks, four-wheeler ATVs, bicycles, horseback riders and even the occasional moped, as just zipped by as I sit here typing this blog post.  Moreover, there are at least half a dozen camps on that phantom 5 mile stretch of road, and camp owners use motor vehicles for access.

This is a Class 4 road.  That means the Selectboard of the Town can use its judgment to decide whether or not “necessity, the public good, or convenience of town inhabitants” warrant regular maintenance.  19 V.S.A. 302.   This Town has decided not to maintain this road over the years, no doubt because there is not a single full-time residence anywhere on the road, real or phantom–and this little Essex County town isn’t exactly flush with money to be keeping up little-used roads.

Prior to 1974, Vermont roads were either roads or trails, period.  But that year, the Vermont legislature decided that Selectboards of municipalities had to classify all Town roads.  Since then, that system of classification determines what the Town’s statutory maintenance obligations are, for any given roads.   (As an aside, I became interested in the ways and history of Vermont roads when I served as the Guildhall Town Clerk and Treasurer, from 2006-2012.)

The classification system is simple, as follows:

State Highways:  maintained exclusively by the State of Vermont;

Class #1:  town highways that are extensions of existing state highways.  Must be maintained; Class #2: those Town highways deemed “as most important to the Town”, with that decision made by the Selectboard in consultation with VTrans; Class #3: All traveled town highways other than Class 1 and 2; Class #4: Maintained only to the extent required by necessity, the public good, and the convenience of Town inhabitants.  Also part of the classification system are legal trails, for which the Town has no statutory obligation to maintain, and ancient roads.  (Read more about ancient roads in Vermont, in a recent New Yorker magazine article).

In general, class 1, 2, and 3 roads must be kept in “good and sufficient repair during all seasons of the year,  although Selectboards can elect not to plow Class 2 and 3 roads if there are “safety considerations for the traveling public and municipal employees.”

And although Towns are not generally required to maintain Class #4s like Hagan Road, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns has interpreted Vermont case law to mean that Selectboards are required to keep bridges and culverts on those roads in good repair. That answers a recent question that occurred to me as we walked our 5 mile route and I saw repeated examples of newly repaired, shiny culverts, which seem oddly out of place in this wilderness.





Stone Garden Circle

IMG_20160821_071805118Yesterday I cleared out the overgrowth and rebuilt this stone circle up at our camp. I built it about five years ago as a place to grow herbs. It became a bit neglected, with tall grass and invasive oregano choking it almost out of sight.

I pulled up all the grass, weeds, and most of the oregano (I left a small patch, to the lower left.) And I rebuilt the stones into more of a respectable circle. Then I used a pitchfork and rake to loosen the soil.

I have not decided how to use it this time around. I could replant perennial herbs. But I am also thinking of using it for some cool weather crops. If I plant lettuce, arugala, radishes, spinach, and peas now, they could be harvested for dinners, when we come up here in October and even November.

And if we take the extra step of placing one or two layers of plastic over it, we could even have salad greens into the winter itself. I  looked up plastic greenhouse domes for sale. They exist, but that might be an unnecessarily complicated step.

I will mull it over and I sit on the porch staring randomly off into space.

Elvina Allen. A Life Well-Lived, 1946-2016.

Member_161251Last Wednesday, August 17, Elvina Allen, also known as “Honey,” passed away at her home in Guildhall at the age of 70, about a month after being diagnosed with leukemia.

I’m not sure my little town will ever feel the same to me without Elvina.  I am grateful that I had the chance to sit with her, hold her hand, and hug and kiss her at her home about a week before she died.

When we moved here in 2004, Elvina was the assistant postmaster.  A few years later, she was finally promoted to postmistress, after years of having much of the responsibility, but little of the pay or recognition.  In a sense, she was the heart and soul of Guildhall.  In small New England towns like ours, postmasters and postmistresses play an outsize social and cultural role, especially when towns are in decline and the post office is the only remaining place for socializing and communicating.

Here in Guildhall, the importance of the post office, small as it was, only increased after our general store shut down about five years ago.  Unlike at the general store, there were no coffee and muffins, but the conversations at the post office were often of the same nature,  as if we were sitting around one of the creaky tables by the wood stove at the store.    A visit to the post office inevitably involved catching up with local goings-on and the lives of neighbors.  (We all felt the pain when the USPS decided to reduce our post office’s hours, but we felt lucky that it survived at all, since for years, proposals to shut down po’s like ours have been looming.)

As a result, Elvina became an extraordinary (and discreet!) source of knowledge of what was happening in town.  She was tuned in to the mood of the townspeople and of the voters, particularly when it came to controversies on the warning for Annual Town Meeting.

Elvina was unsentimental and no-nonsense, but she had a profound and unstoppable sense of fairness and justice.   She couldn’t have cared less about social conventions or how people judged her, and she had lived her life with a female companion (Helen Silver,) during times when it was far less socially acceptable than now.  I loved her for that.

She cared deeply about the town and at various times acted as assistant town clerk, cemetery commissioner, and justice of the peace.  She wanted to bring culture and energy to town, and so was a major force behind organizing the Cabin Fever concerts at the Town Office.  In 2012, she participated in a volunteer day in which about a dozen of us Guildhall residents cleaned up some of our remote Class 3 roads.    Here’s a photo of her that day.  I’ll never forget how she kept our spirits up,  cracking jokes and telling amusing stories about the characters she used to know who lived on those roads up in the hills.DSCN1293

She ran the Guildhall Post Office with military precision and competence, but unstinting, even-handed fairness.  She was the first in town to proudly display a Bernie Sanders sign on her lawn during the presidential primary–for many reasons, but not least because Bernie had fought so hard to protect small town post offices across New England, and because she loved his plan to assign affordable banking and check-cashing functions to those post offices.  (When she put the sign up, Elvina also told me that she was “tired of the rich fat cats having their way with us.”)

In the aftermath of her death, many of us in town are feeling the loss.  Yesterday, my neighbor and friend Alfred McVetty, who has known Elvina far longer than I, emailed me to say he was struggling to find the words to express how Elvina’s death affected him.  “She was known by all and universally liked.  For years, she carried the other postmasters and shined when she became postmistress.  She never wanted to grab the limelight or brag about accomplishments.  Elvina was just always there….the Town has lost a rock and a true friend.”

Rest in peace, Elvina!

Staycation, Late August, Essex County, Vermont

IMG_20160819_094559752_HDRFirst day of our stay-near-home vacation. We started off by harvesting from our Guildhall garden, which yielded turnips, leeks, cabbages, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, swiss chard, and the herbs:  sage, tarragon, chives, mint, oregano, chives, parsley, fennel, dill and rosemary.   I wonder how many meals this will make for us during the next ten days?  Up here in the hills of Essex County, at camp, there is also a profusion of blackberries and apples, so I’m looking forward to some creative pastry-making.

For our first vacation dinner, Edward made a delicious gazpacho, and pasta with garlic sauce.  We ate our dinner overlooking the White Mountains in the distance and downed a bottle of Suavignon Blanc.  Then we had some local blueberries for dessert.IMG_20160819_183402764

Our plan is to read, write, hike, run, bicycle, nap, garden, practice the violin, bake, do yoga, and whatever else our hearts desire.  And I’m not going to check my work email even once.

A Birthday on Sugarloaf Mountain, Nash Stream Forest

IMG_20160808_120638397Last week, on my birthday, we decided to try a new hike, and ventured up Sugarloaf, a spectacular peak in the remote Nash Stream Forest of northern NH.   In the decade since we’ve lived in the North County, we’ve traversed Nash Stream Forest  on many occasions, usually to hike up North Percy Peak, a fabulous trek which ends up on a bald peak covered (in August) with sweet wild blueberries.

Sugarloaf lies deeper into the forest primeval, and while the elevation rise is roughly the same as North Percy, the hike itself is more grueling.  There are no switchbacks on the trail–it’s pretty much straight up and very steep–the very sort of trail where it becomes difficult to just put one foot in front of the other.  Still, the view at the top is immensely rewarding.  After a pleasant rest and some lunch, we headed down, but the downward leg of the journey is deceptive.  At first, I felt relieved that I wouldn’t be continuing at the hard work of a steep upward slog.  But hiking down a steep downhill can exact a painful cost on the legs.  By the end, my knees and thighs were shaky and weak, and for 2-3 days, my calves ached quite badly.

That’s all for par for the course, though.  It was a beautiful day.  The 40,000 acre Nash Stream Forest has seemingly endless potential for exploration and I highly recommend it, because the preserve is untouched by tourism and the infrastructure conceded to hikers and others is rough and minimal.    Throughout most of the 20th century, it was owned and managed by local timber interests, primarily the Groveton Paper Company.  Subsequently the land was sold to Diamond International, an international paper conglomerate.  Throughout the 20th century, Nash Stream Forest was a major timber resource, with logging camps and log drives down Nash Stream to the Upper Ammonoosuc and then to the Connecticut River.  (Around mid-century, the river log drives were eliminated by trucking).

In 1988, a crisis loomed when Diamond International put the entire Nash Stream Forest (about 70,000 acres) on the market.  Developers looked on hungrily as the price was set at $100 per acre.  The danger of private subdivision and development loomed on the horizon.  Fortunately, a coalition of the State of New Hampshire, the federal government, and various state environmental groups worked together–rapidly–to buy much of the acreage and preserve it as a working landscape involving regulated timber usage, recreation, (hiking, snowmobiling, fishing, hunting) and protection of wildlife habitat.   (A similar process took place all over the Northern Forest as Diamond International divested its holdings in four different states, including acreage in Essex County, Vermont, where I live.)

Edward with Django, our oldest dog, who heroically climbed up with us.

As you drive along Nash Stream Road, with the beautiful Nash Stream zig zagging from left to right, there’s a moonscape-like quality to the terrain that puzzled me at first.  Boulders are strewn in unlikely places along the roadway and the sides of hills.  The vegetation appears stunted and there are odd bare area.  It wasn’t until I read up on the history of Nash Stream that I understood the reasons for this startling landscape.  On May 20, 1969, the dam at Nash Bog was breached, creating what the Forest Service called a “500 year flood event.”  The breach caused a 400 foot wide torrent downstream, which remains legendary in these parts.  The flood gouged out the stream bed, destroyed the riparian forest on the stream banks, which had devastating consequences for the fish and wildlife of the region.  The managing agency of the State of New Hampshire still considers the Nash Stream to be in recovery after the 1969 flood.   Here’s a recent article describing the ongoing restoration of Nash Stream, if you’re interested!



What’s This Bernie Activist to Do? (Never, Ever Lose Your Sense of Outrage)

12645031_1701899029949847_6646241008019462480_nAs some of you may have noticed, I’ve neglected my blog for many months now.  That’s mostly because for the first half of 2016, campaigning for Bernie Sanders consumed almost all of my spare time.

But in the weeks since the convention, I’ve had the chance to pause and reflect on this remarkable period in my life and in our nation’s history and to grapple with  my role as a Berniecrat going forward.

Many of you among my politico friends (both Bernie and Hillary supporters) have given me some grief of late–for my persistence in blasting away at Hillary Clinton, post-convention.  It’s over, many say.  Move on.  Accept the inevitable.  And my personal favorite, which I have been told just about every day since the day Bernie launched his campaign:  Grow up.  (!!)

More specifically, I’m frequently told that by continuing to highlight Mrs. Clinton’s lousy positions, like her apparent fondness for war criminal types like John Negroponte and Henry Kissinger, or her continued embrace of DNC hack Debbie Wasserman Schultz, I make  it more difficult for her to cruise to victory against bogeyman Trump.

Well, my friends, my insistent drumbeat of Clinton criticism isn’t sour grapes.  Nor is it simply bitterness or disappointment over Bernie’s “loss–”  although I concede I have those feelings in spades after busting my ass to get Bernie nominated, only to discover, in the words of Senator Harry Reid himself, that the primary “was not a fair contest.”

Verizon striker and Bernie supporter, the weekend before the NY primary, Plattsburgh

No, there’s a deliberate method to my madness, and an actual strategy, crude as it might be.  It’s not the strategy I would have preferred, nor is it a happy or satisfying one.  I’d much rather have something positive to argue, as I did when campaigning for Bernie, a candidate with whom hope and enthusiasm blazed bright for millions like me.    What’s left in the aftermath for me, and millions of others?

Will we door knock and phone canvass for Hillary?  (I’ve got lots of experience with that.  I’m a former union organizer and since January of this year, I have knocked on hundreds of doors in NH and NY, and made over 5,300 phone calls.)   Well, no, that isn’t going to happen.  As far as I can tell, even those Bernie supporters who decide to vote for Mrs. Clinton will barely manage to crawl into the voting booth, pull the lever for her, and crawl out before running off to shower themselves clean.  They sure won’t be out pounding the pavement for her.

And I haven’t the slightest interest in debating who Bernie supporters should vote for in November. I have no intention of trying to convince others how to vote.   We’ve got a dreadful decision to make, and each of us will have to grapple with how best to make that choice.  In the meantime, we face a hideous spectacle of a general election campaign, during which few issues important to American voters will be meaningfully discussed.  Instead, we will have to listen to ugly gender politics attacks and personal character assassination.  My prediction is that those Americans who pay even a little attention will end up with some form of PTSD by the close of the polls on election day.

Where then to focus our efforts?  How to continue the political revolution?  Some will campaign on behalf of the Green Party and Jill Stein.   Although it’s incredibly unlikely that Stein could win the election,  there are other good reasons to go Green.  Maybe, just maybe, with enough Bernie supporters flooding into the ranks of the Green party, she’ll get into the debates, onto all state ballots, and/or qualify for federal campaign funds.  That would be a major, revolutionary accomplishment itself, with potential to put a crack in the two-party corporate monopoly.

Whether we choose to support Jill Stein or not, there is still much to be done.  I badly wanted Clinton out of the picture, since  I believe that the corporate neo-liberalism she represents has been a disaster for this country.  But if stuck with her, what to do?   It’s understandably tempting to give up in despair.  As Chris Hedges and others have astutely pointed out, there’s been a corporate coup d’etat in this country, in which the monied interests have seized control of our democratic institutions and used them to their own benefit, at the expense of the 90% or so.  That coup locked itself into place during the Obama era, and a Clinton administration will only tighten the stranglehold for years to come.

My favorite sign at the Bernie rally in Essex Junction, Vt, on Super Tuesday night, 2016.

In spite of that admittedly dark outlook, however, I intend to keep fighting.  And yes, Clinton is an adversary, almost as much as the GOP is.  (Maureen Dowd argues in today’s New York Times that Republicans, in seeking a GOP alternative to Trump, need look no further than Mrs. Clinton herself.  In other words, she’s Republican lite.)   As a progressive (and a lifelong Democrat) I don’t want her the slightest bit comfortable, confident, or complacent in the belief that she can take progressives for granted, either in the run-up to the general election, or after being elected.   I want her to feel cornered at every turn, to feel her feet held to the fire, and to be obsessed with worry that she’ll be a one-term president or that the left will primary her in four years.  If we couldn’t have Bernie, our best chance to break the grip of the corporate fat cats over our lives, then we can apply constant pressure to the Wall Street loyalist who gets in to office instead.

My strategy is three-pronged.  I will:  1) Give upgraded consideration to supporting a third party, Jill Stein of the Greens.  2) I will campaign actively, including phonebanking and door-knocking for down-ballot Berniecrats like Tim Canova, Zephyr Teachout, and my own Ed Clark here in Essex-Caledonia.  3) And I will stay laser-focused on Hillary’s every political move.  I’ll call her out when she moves further and further to the right, as she surely will, in the bogus name of “pragmatism.”  I’ll criticize her at the top of my lungs when she abandons any part of the Bernie-influenced platform.  I’ll yell like hell when she embraces hideous hacks like Kissinger or Condi Rice.

If we’re going to slide further into the black hole of plutocracy under Mrs. Clinton’s watch, I won’t be quiet about it.  None of us Bernie supporters should.  I’ll protest in every way I can.  That’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it.  xxoo.13495217_10206426717579022_2958611006195355719_n






Hillary’s House (or one reason I’m voting for Bernie Sanders)

Photo by Edward Clark, Jr.

Here I am with my Bernie sign, standing on the sidewalk in front of this beautiful, historic house in Guildhall, Vermont, just one lot away from my own residence.

Oh, except the house–as you can sadly see–is not so beautiful anymore.  That’s because it’s been in foreclosure, sitting empty since 2009.  It’s the first thing you see when you drive across the bridge from New Hampshire into our little village.

For our neighbors, a married couple who once lived here, the road to foreclosure was rapid and devastating.  There was a job layoff, unemployment, low wage work, a divorce, and then, foreclosure.

The wife repeatedly begged the lender to re-negotiate the terms of the loan so that she could stay living here and caring for the house.  Repeatedly, the lender refused.

Perhaps the lender preferred to sell the house, to make more money.  That would make sense, I guess.  But it hasn’t been sold.  It has deteriorated badly, and been vandalized. I have never seen a for sale sign outside.  Occasionally during summers, someone comes and mows the lawn. (Word on the street is that the lender, upon foreclosure, loaded the house heavily with insurance, let it languish and fall into disrepair, and now submits periodic claims for damage which allow them to collect big bucks).

What does this sad story have to do with Bernie?  Well, actually, it has more to do with his opponent Hillary Clinton.   The house went into foreclosure within a year after the now-infamous housing and foreclosure crisis of 2008.   In the fall of 2008,  Congress determined that the big banks and lenders were “too big to fail.”  There was a long and passionate debate about whether the government should bail out the banks–in short, whether to give those banks and lenders a giant welfare check.  In the end, on October 1, 2008, TARP was passed, and the banks were bailed out.  Senator Bernie Sanders, who is now running for President, was the only member of our Congressional delegation to vote against that shameful bailout.   He refused to support a bill that would bail out Wall St criminals, but do nothing to help regular homeowners.

Where did Hillary Clinton stand?  Unlike Bernie Sanders, she supported the bailout of the lenders.  But more important, as we now know, Mrs. Clinton has deep and long-standing ties to the same financial institutions which devastated our economy, and were rewarded for it with taxpayer dollars.  Her ties to Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers are well-known.  She now refuses to come clean with the American people as to what she said in speeches for which she earned upward of $650,000.

This is why I call it the Hillary House.  And this is one reason why I am voting and campaigning my heart out for Bernie Sanders.