Last weekend the Vermont highways were really crowded, especially the Interstates. On Sunday afternoons it's as if somebody pulls out a giant drain plug, and all of Boston and half of New York come spilling out of the nicer parts of Vermont and clot on the highways. There's a tide of southbound cars on Interstate 89 and 91, all going too fast and wearing ski racks over license plates that announce, "We're from away."
Vermonters are pretty good at getting people from away to come here and spend money on nonessentials: looking at dead leaves, buying images of black-and-white cows and gallons of boiled tree juice.
Vermont is especially good at enticing winter visitors to stand on high-tech sticks and practice falling down, while freezing.
Maybe skiing is popular because you have to make a serious commitment to it. You have to spend money on expensive equipment and neon clothing, and a lot of that money stays in Vermont.
Our other winter sport is not so popular, perhaps because you don't need expensive stuff. It's sort of a northern New England secret.
Come on, I'll take you with me, but be careful, it's slippery here.
We're standing on the roof of Lake Champlain, and I'm getting ready for the first scene in an irrational act. I have to shovel the snow off the ice so I can drill it. Now I have room for the auger. This is a sort of giant corkscrew. It churns up a neat collar of shaved ice around the hole, in a season when there's absolutely no demand for shaved ice.
There. I've got a column through about 18 inches of ice, big enough to stuff a football into, or pull a fish out of.
That's the idea. This is ice fishing. It's a cultural thing in the northern fringe of this country. I'm about 30 miles south of the Canadian border, and a Canadian wind has me zeroed in. Actually, it's below zero with the wind blowing. But that's OK because it perfects the experience I'm having. You're not supposed to be warm when you're ice fishing.
What you do is, sit on an upturned five-gallon plastic bucket and drop a line down through the hole you've drilled in the ice. On the end of the line, hiding the hook, is a make-believe fisheye, a gobbet of colored plastic. Real Vermonters say the yellow perch go crazy over those plastic fisheyes, and jump on the line.
OK down there, I'm ready.
Hmmm. There seem to be pauses between the thrills.
I've got time to think. Thoughts like "What am I doing here?" I am laying the groundwork for my remote descendants to claim real Vermonthood. You see, I can't be a real Vermonter, because I wasn't born here. My kids can't, either. Same reason. It's like running for president: To qualify, you have to be born here. But in Vermont it's more complicated; your parents also have to be born here, at a minimum.
Come on, fish.
My grandchildren can't be real Vermonters, either. But my great-grandchildren will qualify, unless they change the rules again. Seventh-generation Vermonters get to do that, but they tend to avoid meetings, so they probably won't.
So I'm sitting a hundred yards off the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, and my feet have just divorced the rest of me, and my lips don't work anymore, and the fish don't like gobbets of colored plastic today.
But really, all this is worthwhile. You see, it's not just a matter of surviving in Vermont for four generations. You have to do real-Vermonter things to achieve true citizenship, and that's tougher than meeting the requirements for voting and paying taxes.
WITH this exercise in minimal satisfaction, I'm putting the necessary lore and legend into place. Some child two generations yet unborn will be able to point out this spot and say, "Yes, my great-grandfather the Flatlander used to fish right out there."
So I'm doing this for posterity, banking up credentials against the time when there will be a test of real Vermonterhood.
And when I've finished having fun out here, and thawed out, there will be another test. This year I will be invited to slog through melting snow and freezing mud carrying heavy buckets of maple sap so that some real Vermonter can boil it into maple syrup.
That happens in March. The sap can hardly wait.