I left the office last Friday afternoon. I traded my work slacks for a pair of beat up of LL. Bean shorts that have been repaired, sewn, and patched more times than I can count. I packed my rucksack with the essentials: toothbrush, skivvies, and a clean t-shirt. I packed up the car and packed my lip with Skoal. I crossed over the Newport Bridge and left Aquidneck Island behind me for the first time in a month. I saw the blue waters of Narragansett Bay dotted with sailboats and yachts in my rear view. I was in for an adventure: the North.
I was on my way to Vermont. The Vermont Brewers Festival in Burlington, to be specific. I had 5+ hours of open road with no one in the passenger seat. My only company was a few CDs and my thoughts.
I don’t do well with silence. As an extrovert, I draw my energy from other people. But as a writer, the idea of quiet and isolation has always been romantic to me. Take Thoreau or Frost. These New Englanders spent years in isolation living simple, spartan lives and they wrote some of the most prolific poetry in American history. I loved the idea of these men’s live. I found the idea of that isolation beautiful, but the reality of silence is horrifying to me. On this occasion, I needed the silence. I needed to truly be alone. Not alone in a cabin on Walden Pond for months, but alone in my Volvo with the thoughts in my head and the feelings in my heart and gut, if only for a few hours.
I was driving between I-91 and I-89 when I looked out of my window and saw the rolling green mountains. They seemed endless and alive. Such deep rich green and the smell of cool spruce and maples filled the air, even on the highway. My whole heart filled. I realized at that moment, looking at those lush green mountains that I was smiling. I felt pure happiness. Even entirely alone, I felt an energy fill my body and the goosebumps roll up my arms and through my spine. I continued on I-89 and I was somewhere outside on Montpelier when a familiar song came on the radio. It was a tune I hadn’t heard in a number of years and gave me flashbacks to the summers I spent in the woods at camp. I sang, as I always do, as loud as I could. As those mountains passed and the night came on slowly, I realized there were tears running down my cheek. I don’t know why those tears came, but my heart was so full and it seemed like the only way my body and mind knew how to react. I felt something real on that drive. I wouldn’t say I found myself on Interstate 89, but I knew I was on the right road.
I arrived in the bustling metropolis of Winooski, VT to be met by my cousin Nick, a South Carolina native who moved up to Vermont about 3 years ago with his wife, Jen. Nick may have left the South, but he never lost his accent. Short in stature, Nick has a heart and personality bigger than any man. (His accent and mannerism remind many people of a white Aziz Ansari.) As we opened the door to the old Woolen Mill turned apartment complex that Nick and his wife call home, we ran into a young bearded man in a tank top holding a case of various cans, bottles and growlers of brew. This was Kevin, Jen’s younger brother and my “Kevin-in-law” as he would later comment.
We walked into their loft apartment and were greeted by Jen. A self proclaimed introvert, Jen is one of the most intelligent, hilarious and coolest people I know. Darwin, the fluffy orange house cat, was there too. We were there, together. We were all family in one way or another, we were there on the banks of the Winooski River, and we were ready to drink beer.
Together, we walked down the street, in the opposite of “downtown Winooski.” Each step we took lead us further from other people. The apartment buildings turned to tiny one bedroom homes with chain link fences around the yards. I thought to myself, “where the hell are they taking me?” We arrived at an old abandoned garage with a 1970s Winnebago trailer (white with a teal stripe) out front. Nick said simply “we’re here”. I didn’t realize that this old garage was Four Quarters Brewery and that Winnebago was one of the best food trucks in Burlington. We drank some creative takes on farmhouse ales and hoppy well balanced IPAs, and we ate Peking Duck and Kimchi tacos and pork jowl, heirloom tomato, lettuce and garlic aioli sandwiches (all organic and free range, of course.)
After some nosh and drinks, we sauntered down the road into the downtown area to a watering hole around the corner, the Mule Bar. This spot was full of beards, artists, students, brewers, cooks, and a few Quebecois. The bar got its name from the beer mules who would drive to Burlington to stop at all the breweries and purchase as many of their beers as possible to supply the local bars with enough to satisfy the population. I scanned the beer menu to see what was available. The chalkboard was full of local New England brews, many of which top the charts of the best beers in the world. But I knew exactly what I wanted. The one beer I drove the 5 hours and 32 minutes to try for the first time: Heady Topper from the Alchemist. The elusive white whale for hop heads world-wide, this Double IPA tops the list as the best beer in the world (not hyperbole…fact.) And so, we drank.
After a few Heady Toppers, and stories of our families, relationships, travel, baseball, love affairs with Romanians, and Bill Murray’s thoughts on the meaning of shrimp cocktail, we stumbled back to the loft to call it a night.
With a head full of beer and smoke, I felt an odd clarity. There was no place on earth I was supposed to be at that moment other than on this air mattress with a cat named Darwin staring at me from the other side of the loft. I closed my eyes and thought, “Tomorrow: beer.”
– CF O’Rourke
Come back tomorrow for the next installment of this 3 part series.