Winter being nearly over early spring is not without its challenges. We in rural New England, and other rural northern areas of the United States and Canada, have five seasons:spring, summer, autumn, winter, and mud season. This fifth season can be so dramatic that it deserves special note and its own place on the calendar. It is the time of year before all the snow has melted and the ground is still frozen underneath. The melting snow water stays near the surface and turns dirt into a gritty pudding. Undisturbed the casual observer would hardly be able to tell that the area may yield major problems but with the aid of any agitation, whether it be foot, hoof, or wheel, the soil turns to a slurry of muck that can resist extraction with the power of vortex. Many a rubber boot has been lost to the gods of mud season and many a car and truck has been mired to their chassis requiring the extraction of a wrecking truck.
I have admit that I am partial to mud. I love the unpredictable nature that it may add to any excursion. In my particular case it is as if during each year I must relearn the dangers of this short lived time of year. Much like the movie “Groundhog Day” I am destined to relive my mistakes over and over and over again.
My first memory of mud season was at about the age of five years old. I was walking along a dirt trail that hugged the edge of a kettle bog deep in the New England woods. One might ask why I was in the woods alone, particularly near a swamp, at such an early age. It seems that I was an impossible wanderer and my mother learned quickly that when I did escape the grasp of her keen eye it was pointless trying to find me in the woods. On two occasions she became nearly hopelessly lost trying to find me. Both times I returned home in a few hours to find that my mom was missing and I returned to the forest to lead her home. The combination of her embarrassment and great personal relief at being found kept me in minimum trouble and so I continued to explore areas that were undesirable to most and quiet, secret and dark in my very young mind. On this particular day I was trekking along this wooded path that had reasonable soil stability despite the high water table. The bog was still ice covered and the large hummocks holding high bush blueberry bushes looked mighty tempting. I was considering whether it would be safe to walk on the ice and hop from hummock to hummock when I stepped into an area on the path where the soil had been disturbed by a buck rutting during the previous autumn. My right foot immediately sunk down to a depth where I was knee deep in mud. I tried to pull my foot out of the mud and it met great resistance. Finally managing with all my might I extracted the foot but my rubber boot stayed behind. I knew returning home with only one boot was not a good option and so I reached into the slurry to try to grab my boot with my right hand. I felt around, my arm buried in mud almost up to my elbow, but I couldn’t find the rim of the rubber boot. After several attempts to recover the sunken object I realized that it was hopeless and walked home with my head hanging down wondering how I was going to get myself out of this mess. Surely punishment for innocently losing the boot was not acceptable but then I remembered the clincher-I wasn’t supposed to be out here in the first place. As I plodded home I came up with a plan. It seemed ingenious at the time. I fabricated a fantastical story about finding a giant in the woods. He was in a bad mood and very testy during our encounter. I felt danger and ran as fast as I could. Along the way I fell into a giant puddle and lost my boot! Although I escaped there was no time to get the boot. Surely my mother would be greatly relieved and hug me as I had narrowly escaped sure death.
As I walked home, or should I say hobbled home, as I only had a boot on my left foot and my right foot was barely covered with a muddy sock, I began to feel confident that my day would end well; in fact I may even become a hero! My five year old mind was not able to see the flaws in this logic.
When I got home my mother was out in the back yard hanging laundry on the clothes line. She immediately recognized that I was one boot short of a complete set. She asked me what happened and I told her this big fat lie embellishing the wild details as I went along relaying to her about how it was that I came home after a near miss with an ugly, horrible giant. I could see her holding back a laugh. She was really itching to bust a gut as my story kept getting wilder and wilder. When I was all done she told me to go to my room and think about what really happened. After about an hour I came back out and told her the truth. I was grounded for two weeks for telling a fib and had to work removing rocks in the garden as compensation for the lost boot. I was forbidden to leave the yard during this two week period. I knew she meant business and faithfully complied.
My next serious encounter with mud season was not entirely my own doing. But it does reveal a distinct genealogical deficiency when it comes to mud season. I was about eight years old and was on a local fishing trip with my father. We were going to find a secret pond that was so buried in brush that hardly anyone knew it was there. My father was an incredible master at telling tall tales; another trait that I inherited and used flagrantly from the time I was old enough to talk. The pond was located on the top of a hill at the end of a dirt road that was barely wide enough to allow the use of a pickup truck. Our family didn’t have a four wheel drive in those days but my Dad’s Dodge truck had posi-traction (meaning it had a locking rear differential which allowed both wheels to grip simultaneously) and he was convinced that it could be driven anywhere. This old dirt road was remote and was not plowed in the winter. On this particular day in April there were still steep sections that had snow. In places where there was no snow the water ran down the wheel ruts imitating a perennial stream. My father took one look at the road, clenched the cigarette between his lips and put the petal to the metal! The ride was fast, furious, and bumpy. We didn’t wear seat belts in those days and so we bounced up and down with our heads ricocheting off the interior ceiling of the truck. The ass end of the truck fish tailed from side to side but forward progress was steady until we reached a level area. Dad let off the gas as we passed through it and we immediately sunk down to the frame. I remember the forward progress slowing. My father gave it more gas. The posi-traction did it’s job by digging the rear end of the truck down to the license plate and back bumper. After an immense amount of swearing and cussing my father got out of the truck to survey the damage. I can sum it all up by saying he was way less than happy. His language quickly found every sour word he had learned in the navy. His blood pressure probably caused an earthquake or volcano on the opposite side of the planet and the blue skies above quickly retreated behind dark ominous clouds that covered all six New England states.
As an eight year old boy I was amazed to witness these events. I took copious notes of the new swear words so that I could impress my older friends. I used them in the school yard one day and a teacher heard me resulting in a very long parent teacher conference, but that is another story. After a while my father calmed down to a rapid boil. Fortunately he always carried a shovel in back of the pickup truck and he dug out a large hole behind the rear bumper and underneath the frame below the pickup bed. He found a large flat rock near the side of the road and relocated it to the ditch that he had dug underneath the truck. He placed the jack on the large flat rock and jacked up the rear end so the right rear wheel was off the ground. He found another large flat rock and placed it under the wheel and repeated the whole process on the other wheel at the rear of the truck. This allowed us to back up onto stones that were placed behind the rear wheels while digging a long trench as we backed up, moving the same stones all along to keep the struck on stable footing. It took us about four hours to get to a position where we could back down the hill. We never did find that pond. Oddly my father and I never mentioned the incident again until I was asked by my teachers where I had learned such language on the day of the school yard incident.
Fast forward about twelve years. It was a late March day. By some odd coincidence I found myself at the bottom of the same road that my father and I got stuck on with my two best friends Jeff and Smitty. We were riding in Jeff’s 1960 Ford Galaxy sedan. We had found the hidden pond a couple of years earlier and so we knew it really existed. On this day the old, one lane, dirt road looked exactly as it had the day that my Dad and I had gotten so stuck on it. To this day I don’t know why we attempted to navigate this mud laden road. Perhaps it was the adventure of it or the sheer thrill! Perhaps we were just being stupid, but in the end we found ourselves mired on a muddy flat exactly as had occurred years before. This time the swearing was kept to a minimum. We were young hippies and used expressions of wonder like “Wow, man!”. We used exactly the same technique but due to the fact that we were in a car rather than a truck it took about six hours to extract ourselves. If I remember correctly we were actually glad that we experienced this. We somehow saw it as some sort of warped rite of passage. The Galaxy was none the worse for the wear other than all of the mud that had gotten sprayed on the interior of the car from the leaks in the rusted floor. You have to understand in those days these minor flaws were easy to ignore.
So it was with great experience that I came across a similar situation in 1977. I was living in a tipi on my land in western New England. They did not plow this road in the winter and so during these colder months I used to walk to the tipi, a distance of less than a half a mile. During the snowy months I walked on snow shoes made of bent ash that were webbed with rawhide while pulling a toboggan behind me with whatever supplies I needed for the next few days. By the time spring came this became monotonous and I pined for the days when I could drive to my land in my two wheel drive Ford pickup truck. On one particular day I could see that most of the snow had melted, and although the melting snow water was running down the ruts in the road I still thought I could make it to the woods road entrance to my land. I cruised along at a pretty good clip until I came to a big open area that had a bright sheen on top indicating deep mud. Pressing on with the thought of dragging my supplies in the rest of the way I drove straight into this temporary bog and immediately became enveloped up to the bottom of my doors in mud. I remembered my first experience of this kind when in the company of my father. The same language found its way through the opening between my lips. Luckily there was no one there to hear it save my two mutts. I was pretty experienced with the extraction drill at this point and went right to work. The fact that I was alone added about two hours to the chore. It took me nearly eight hours to find way back to sturdy footing where I took out the toboggan, loaded it with supplies, and walked wearily to the tipi where I laid down and fell asleep as the sun set to the west.
I still live in the same location. The town started plowing the road when we started building our house. Given the fact that the snow is plowed to the sides of the roads, and the drainage is maintained, mud season has been relegated to navigating deep ruts and an occasional lost boot. But remember one thing, if you ever do find yourself bogged down in a slurry of mud you might consider calling me. I’ve got a lot experience at extracting vehicles from miserable spring conditions. And as a bonus I can teach you a few new swear words and foul expressions that are a critical part of removing the vehicle from the grimy slurry that we call mud season.