I love winters. I love them snowy and long. I even love them cold--sometimes. Even come early March, when most people are itching for the first signs of spring, I'm looking to the skies for a good Nor'easter. You have to love winters when you live in Vermont. Because they're inevitable. And not loving them makes living here a struggle.
That's not to say I don't love spring. And summer, and fall. I'm just not ready for them yet. So when I looked out the window on our drive up to Newport today with Emi & Kevin, and saw smoke coming out of a passing sugar house, I was perplexed.
"Why is there smoke coming out of that sugar house?" I asked.
"They started boiling sap this week," Kevin replied.
"Really? Cool!" But the minute I said it, I was a little bit sad. Spring already? It's too early...
We were driving through an ice storm--the second one this week. Ice was building up everywhere. On the windshield wipers, on the car antenna. It covered the landscape in a glassy sheath. It forced the the pine trees into a deep, stately bow.
"Should we stop by Hull's and see if they're boiling?" Kevin asked us.
"Yeah!" So we took the out-of-the-way way towards Enosburg. We pulled into Hull's sugarhouse in the pouring rain. There wasn't any smoke coming from the chimney.
We were greeted at the door by Kevin's friend Eric. "It's too bad. We just barely finished boiling!" he said.
"Isn't it too early for sugaring season?" I asked as we stepped inside the small wooden building.
"Yeah, this is just a bonus for us," he replied. "Sugaring season doesn't come for another couple of weeks. You can tell it's real sugaring season when you go out and look at the trees and see a ring of thaw around the base. If you go out there right now, the trees are still buried in snow."
There was steam coming from the vat where they boil the sap. I took some pictures.
Eric walked over to a small metal drum with a spigot and poured out three generous cups of fancy grade maple syrup, still hot. I wondered how much sap it took to bowl down to this cup of liquid amber.
"Here, have some of this," he said and handed us each a cup. "It's good for you." We drank the warm, sticky liquid--a sweet tonic like nothing else in this world. I finished in one grand swig. Vermont maple syrup--the first of the season. From the tree to the pot to my belly. Mmm!
We looked out the window across the street to a pair of ancient maples glassed in by frosty icicles.
"See that one there?" Eric said. "We call that one Old Faithful. We still tap it the old way with buckets. We tap about 200 trees with buckets. Not because it pays. Just for something to do."
I thought to myself, "That is so cool." They're preserving a bit of history there. Not for the money, but for the artisan experience. As we looked around at metal buckets filled with syrup, at old bits of wood with the scars of 40 years worth of sugar taps, I felt a sense of Vermont pride. Everything in the work room at that moment emanated a little piece of Vermont. The history, the hand work, the raw wood, the people, the dedication, the flavor.
We stayed and chatted for a bit longer. But soon we knew we had to get back on the road. Maybe it was the hot maple syrup still trickling its tonic magic down our throats, maybe it was the good old Vermont hospitality we received, maybe it was a little bit of both--but we all left Hull's sugar house feeling a little bit warmer, despite the ice raining down in pummels all around us.