Mud season challenges New Englanders
MONTPELIER, Vt. — It's known in northern New England as the fifth season: mud.
But the time of year when the thawing winter landscape turns dirt roads into mucky seas and paved highways into frosty roller coasters sprinkled with potholes does not get featured on tourist calendars.
Every place with a snowy winter has its own version, but mud season occupies a special place in northern New England. It's the ugly mirror image to the picture-perfect foliage of September and October that draws millions of lead peepers to look at mountains painted red and gold.
From late March to May, many hotels offer rock-bottom mud-season rates to lure people. In the popular Killington area, many restaurants that cater to tourists close between the end of skiing and the arrival of spring, defined not by the calendar, but by pale green buds and long days that make people want to visit again.
Despite its reputation as the season to forget, cultural chroniclers ranging from poet Robert Frost to novelist Howard Frank Mosher to political cartoonist Jeff Danziger have paid homage to the purgatory that begins in late March and can last into May.
“It's emblematic of everything that's bleak and horrible about being isolated at the end of a road that you just can't get out of,” said Mosher, the Irasburg writer who for decades has written about the picturesque, exceptionally rural part of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom and who set a 1972 short story, “Burl,” during mud season to highlight the desolation of his protagonist.
Mud season does provide recreation for the creative.
In Maine, forest rangers have to warn operators of all-terrain vehicles and four-wheel-drive trucks not to get carried away with slipping, sliding and spinning during mud season. In addition to damaging roads and private property, unauthorized “mudding” can cause uncontrolled runoff that damages fish habitat in streams and lakes.
David Lovewell is a mudding enthusiast and co-owner of Barnyard All Terrain in Livermore, Maine, which was established to provide a legal venue for people to go mudding, with events through the summer. These days, enthusiasts know better than to take joyrides in the woods or farm fields, he said.
“You can get in a lot of trouble now. If you get caught, you're going to get arrested. It's against the law, unless you own the property, to start turning up the woods,” Lovewell said.
There are also more grave dangers: An MTV reality show star was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his SUV last week with two passengers, apparently after going mudding in West Virginia. The vehicle's tailpipe likely was submerged in mud, allowing the deadly gas to accumulate inside.