I moved to Adamant, a Vermont “micro-village” eight miles north of the state capitol of Montpelier, not because I am a foodie or want to make artisanal cheeses. I’m not looking for schools because I have no kids. I’m not a hippie or back-to-the lander. I have no idea how to start a garden and often kill houseplants through sheer neglect. I don’t ski or hunt. I have no desire to be without electricity or to raise sheep. Trees, well, they don’t all look the same but I’m hard pressed to name one. Before moving to Adamant, I’d never lit a fire and was afraid of the dark.
Soon after moving there, I exclaimed to everyone in town that there was a moose track behind my apartment. A cracked window showed that surely the beast was trying to break in. My landlord came to look when he got word. “An ermine, maybe.” (I had to look it up; it’s basically a white weasel.)
I have since learned that the tree in front of the co-op is a Norwegian maple. That the yellow flower that blooms along the road in spring is coltsfoot, not a dandelion. And I can now light a fire in the wood stove that has a pretty good chance of staying lit.
I learned all these things from standing around not doing anything.
Stand around in the Adamant Cooperative Store long enough and you’ll get the weather forecast, a pickle recipe, gardening tips, news of a sick neighbor, or a taste of some Santa Lucia buns (who knew?) dropped off by a neighbor down the road. The co-op is where I have discussed money, men, invited people to tea. I found a writing group there, played Scrabble by the fire, and learned fiscal responsibility. When I first came to town, I loved watching the locals say to the cashier, “Put it on my account,” and a black Dickensian binder was brought up from under the counter. “Let’s see, Kehne, initial here please…” I wanted so badly to say that, that when I finally moved there, I would say it so often that Regina, the tall bushy-haired Austrian manager of the co-op, would benevolently chide me, “Can you pay something on your account today?”
What I wanted was not the monetary credit, though when times were hard it was a great relief to get a can of soup or milk. I wanted something else that was part of the transaction. An update on the customer’s daughter’s school play, news of road conditions up the hill, whether the heat was back on in the community center. Conversations that digressed to a coffee by the wood stove, the slow opening of mail. No one was rushing to get out of there, though they had their yogurt and grass-fed beef on the counter to be rung up. Everyone seemed right where they wanted to be.
The Adamant co-op sits at a four-way dirt crossroads in a town that technically doesn’t exist.
“Adamant is a state of mind,” said the woman on the phone whose basement I was hoping to rent in spring 2012. I’d found her ad on Air BnB.
“Is it a village?” I asked.
“It’s an unincorporated community,” she said.
“What do you mean? It’s a real place, right?” Was she a hippie? I wondered.
Adamant may be on maps but has no true borders to define it. No legal, commercial or governmental status. Its co-op is an out-of-the-way general store and post office that you’ll find down a slope by a meadow and waterfall, as if dropped down from a tornado, like Auntie Em’s house in The Wizard of Oz.
The co-op started in the 1930’s when eleven families pooled their money ($5 each) to get food and goods delivered out in the sticks, and it still operates the same way. It now has 121 members and is mostly run by volunteers. “The white elephant,” one told me, “is that it’s all women.” There are men, too, in Adamant, and they do many of the “agentic” things, like fix fuses or rotate the outhouse.
The coop is creaky and dusty, with crooked shelves and a door that squeaks. There are papier-mâché cats all over the place, pig piñatas, bins of penny candy (OK, Swedish fish are five cents). An art corner hawks ceramics, beaded jewelry, and hand-made cards, some of it okay, some of it inspired.
Janet MacLeod is largely responsible for the aesthetic of the co-op, which, in addition to the outhouse includes wireless and a Keurig. She makes the papier-mâché cats and groundhogs, and one Christmas, a crèche with bears in berets and a flying heron and owls. She fashions the zoology of Adamant from things she finds in the barn out back or at home. Janet is informal, with carpenter’s hands, rosy cheeks, and a radiant smile. I was shocked to learn her age: nearly 70, not old for Adamant, as it turned out.
My decision to move to Adamant was not rational. I mean, how would I meet a man? What would I do for work? And so on. I didn’t reason anything out. Instead, I was hit by a series of epiphanies. This is the only way I can say it, though it sounds kind of dumb. Reason was strangely absent.
There had been a lot leading up it, granted. This, I believe, is the way epiphanies work. They seem like a gift but they’re really just the result of a lot of struggle and the beginning of more. So it’s a mixed bag.
I arrived in July 2012 on a six-month sabbatical from my job. I was 44 and single after the break-up of a twelve-year relationship. Being a woman of a certain age and alone, I was beginning to face the fact that home might not be the white picket fence.
“Settle down,” my mother said for years. I moved around a lot, house-sitting and moving in with people who already had stuff, like big faded sofas with tattered arms and sunken cushions and family photos on the wall. Taking a fancy wine glass out of someone else’s cupboard I would think: Wedding gift? Ancestral cup? There was a mystery to it. Possibility.
When I visited home, I was envious of the small town gossip of my aunt and cousins, the talk of the little things of daily life, during which I felt the weight of career and ambition slough off me. In the city, I was an avid swing dancer, a devotee of a local monastery. I made the rounds with friends for coffee, dinners, Sunday brunch. These were all fine occasions but then I would go home and be alone, not sure how all these people fit together.
As I prepared to leave for Vermont, I fretted. No one had heard of Adamant.
“Adamant? What’s that?”
They thought I was saying Adam Ant.
Its population was mysterious. Wikipedia said 65. There was a music school in the town that had concerts. Just a mile down the road, the hippie said, I could walk.
I looked up their website. Uncommon nourishment for the soul, it said, and contained lots of paintings by Janet MacLeod, who had her studio above the store. The artwork was soft and colorful, and documentary in subject matter. The pictures were of people in the town, friends and neighbors, presumably. This was interesting but also kind of off-putting. The word co-op, to be honest, gave me pause. I was not into organic foods, and was really not that into sharing. The website showed a porch where people gathered to use the wireless. There were Friday night cookouts in summer, a Black Fly Festival in spring, and an annual “floating potluck.”
“How do you eat while paddling?” I asked my analyst. “Isn’t that kind of strange?”
“Bring bags of potato chips,” he said. “You can lob them into peoples’ boats.”
The hippie had included in her directions a warning: My driveway is not for the faint of heart. She wasn’t joking. At the bottom of the gravel switchback I gunned my Hyundai and held on tight until I arrived at the top in an overgrown yard with a modern three-story house and deck, on which an older woman, braless in a sundress, appeared as I pulled in behind her Impreza. She was a lawyer and conflict negotiator, she had said on the phone. From her car roof sprouted a plastic sunflower, on the bumper a sticker that read, “Say NO to negativity.”
“Hey,” she said, coming down and introducing herself. “You just missed some deer out here. I see a bear once in a while, fox, too. One had her kits right by the road. For weeks, you had to stop the car until she finished nursing.”
She led me into the house and through a set of French doors into a walk-out basement. Two fat cats appeared, one meowing like a creaky door in need of oil. “Strays,” she said. “But they’re good for the mice.” The main room had two sets of tables and chairs, off which were two bedrooms. “I didn’t know which room you’d want, so I’ll let you make up the bed,” she said, and pointed to a tangle of sheets in a laundry basket.
After showing me how to turn on the gas and start the shower, she went back upstairs and I assessed the situation. The apartment didn’t quite look like it did in the pictures online. It was damp. The concrete floor was painted brown. Spiders had claimed every corner. It felt like a basement.
I dragged a table into one of the bedrooms to work at, and transferred its colorful cloth to the table in the “kitchen.” The other bedroom had twin beds under two small windows. I threw the tangle of sheets onto one of the beds, and out tumbled a dead mouse, its eyes closed tight as if having a bad dream.
My first meal at the co-op was an empanada, hot and oozing under tin foil on the co-op counter. I bought one and went out onto the porch and did what would become a running theme in my sabbatical: I rhapsodized about it in a poem, “Let Adamant Feed You.” The next day on that counter was peach pie. Then scones. Some fairy dropped them off, clearly, and they were there just for me.
The hippie was oddly intrusive--did I need a lawn chair to sit out in the weeds? a gift certificate to a local restaurant? a kettle bell to secure the lockless French doors to prevent the croaky cats I was allergic to from getting in? I escaped on long walks to the co-op. A mile down, a mile back. In between I sat on the porch and ate scones, listening to the waterfall or watching turtles sun themselves. People came and went, saying hello and waving.
That first day at the co-op, I did something that was so counter-intuitive, so unlike me, that I can only say it seemed like divine intervention. I asked if I could help. It was volunteer-run after all, and taking on a role would be a safe way to meet people. The friendly blonde woman at the counter eagerly showed me to the sign-up sheet on the ice cream cooler. Set-Up, Clean-up, Server, Grill, Cashier. I put my name in a different slot for all eight cookouts and went home.
I had an epiphany in the hippie’s basement early in my sabbatical. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first few days. Time moves differently on a sabbatical. I would spend an hour eating a maple creemee. I cried once on the library lawn, realizing I could read my book all the way to the end and not have to stop.
That morning, I was at the kitchen table, staring out at the frogs in the overgrown grass, eating a breakfast of raspberries and cheese, and the thought came to mind: This is the only life you have. You might as well live it.
Thoughts like this are alarming. You’ve either been reading too much Mary Oliver or hanging out with, well, hippies. It sounds mystical, but there were a lot of unusual things happening to me now that I had time to do nothing. I sat in the middle of a dirt road listening to bumblebees. I watched the clouds for hours. One day, I mistook a fly’s eye on goose dung for a hummingbird. It was like living inside a James Wright poem, whose cow patties “blazing like golden stones” I’d never quite bought.
Moments stayed with me and seemed to last forever. Reading in a chair in the library, swimming with a girl in the lake.
“Sounds like childhood,” my analyst said when I called him from a wedge of road near Sodom Pond, the only place I could find cell reception.
I wrote more poems. I let my hair grow. I couldn’t remember the last time I showered, and didn’t care.
The sweet air, the silence, the minutes ticking by.
At my first cookout, I was assigned to serve salads. “Be careful not to give out too much,” said the pretty blonde lady, handing me a one-cup measure and plastic gloves. I fussed with the gloves, feeling shy. The women of the coop were there, the Madame Defarges, or “The Witches of Eastwick,” as one called them, running the show, except for the grill, which was run by men.
Janet MacLeod the artist from upstairs was there. She’d just returned from Scotland and had sketches and watercolors on display in the store.
“Another Janet!” she said to me and smiled. “There are, let’s see, five of us now. People can come into the coop and say Janet and someone will answer.”
We laughed and I started to relax. The back of the coop was festooned with twinkly lights and café tables with bud vases of wildflowers, a sort of poor man’s Paris. Someone had painted an Adamant board game on one of the tables. Around 5:30 people started driving up in Subarus with kids and dogs. I was told sometimes the governor showed up, or a prize-winning novelist or nuclear scientist. Everybody was in jeans and informal.
I sized up my one-cup ladle, trying to level it off perfectly with each scoop. Surely they’d be watching to see if they wanted me back next week. I smiled at the guests, most of whom were interested in getting to the desserts. “Ooh, is that Donna’s carrot cake?”
Someone ran past, “MacLeod’s made pickles!” and descended on the condiments table.
I was officious and probably scowling. I expected people to want to know my resume. Where are you from? What do you do? But no one that night asked me what I did. Clearly, I was scooping salads. All people said was, “Wasn’t that a good peach cobbler?” and “Isn’t it a beautiful night?”
A man from the grill came down and started talking about rowing on the pond across the street. “The sunsets there are spectacular. The walk around the pond is great at night. Up at Sibley farm you can see so many stars, it’s like standing in the Milky Way.”
This was when I realized there was a third unusual thing going on here, beyond the co-op and the people: nature. Even a ratty old farmer, or a grizzly man with a bush hog on his tractor appreciated the moonlight on a country road in winter, the spring peepers humming like sleigh bells in early spring, the sight of a bobcat. They checked the weather, watching for when to plant seeds or shelter the tomatoes. It’s like that quote of Kurt Vonnegut’s, praising the pre-cable television days before on-demand viewing, when you could call your neighbor and say, “Turn on channel 5, there’s this cool documentary about Hoover!” In Adamant, it felt like we were all watching the same channel—nature—and that felt grounded and connected in a way the city never did, with its fevering movement of cars and people, lives crossing in and out but with no cord to cinch it all together.
I kept going back to the co-op, drawn to its creaky floors, to its assortment of soups and spices, fresh eggs and yogurt. I worked the grill, joshing with the guys in my apron, running salmon burgers and chicken sausage to the servers. I read on the co-op porch in the afternoons, or napped on one of its benches. One day I watched a thunderstorm roll in, crashing rain on the roof and turning the roads to mud.
While I read and dozed on the porch, I heard the workers inside, talking or putting out the trash. The front door opened and closed with neighbors coming in for mail and groceries. I could say hello to people or not. I could be as involved as I wanted to be. I didn’t have to do or be anything to become a fixture, which I slowly was.
“What is it about this place?” I asked the ladies inside, only half-joking.
“It’s something in the water,” they said.
Whatever it was that drew us to the co-op, it was shared. This was important.
Every night at the hippie’s, I went through the same routine: I lay in bed reading until I heard the inevitable “noise outside the window”, at which point I turned out the light, and sat up in bed, heart pounding. Every night, the same questions. What was out there? Could it see me? What would I do if it got in? (Questions that curiously echoed my existential state of affairs.)
What was out there was wild. Owls soaring over the hood of my car late at night. Coyotes trotting along the side of a road. A family of moose crossing the road in eerie silhouette. Mysteries in my headlights, portals to other worlds.
On Friday, I drove to the co-op for the cookout. I edged onto the shoulder of the road behind a long lines of cars. As I did, my right front tire dropped firmly off the road into a ditch. My reaction to this was to laugh. Not a cynical chuckle or groan, but a giddy laugh from deep inside, like a balloon untying in my gut and all the air pushing out.
A woman heading into the cookout with her kids looked over and she started laughing, too. We locked eyes and howled. Her kids jumped up and down, pointing. “Rick Barstow will get you out!” she shouted. “They’ve got his number inside.”
That’s when I knew this was a place where I would be okay, no matter what.
I took my time eating that night. I went up for extra dessert. I talked to people. On the porch I saw a man I’d met at a cookout the week before named Justin. He was nearly bald with a little red fringe of a beard. He was eating with his teenaged son when I asked if he could help. He excused himself, tossed on an Irish tweed cap and followed me out to my car.
He peered into the ditch and nodded. “I’ve got a winch in my pick-up. I can get you out.”
I put the car in reverse, tapped the gas lightly and soon felt my back wheels level out on the road. I thanked him. “No problem,” he said, coiling the rope. Then he asked me out.