The Mud City Loop Road meanders deep into the Sterling valley and back out to Morristown Corners. Morris Orvis and Doc live along the north branch of the dirt road in a slumping L-shaped farmhouse, the sills of which are skirted with mushroom-dappled hay bales. Two well-muscled Belgians graze about the surrounding fields and a John Deere B tractor rusts near the shed. A larger Allis Chalmers, with traces of its original orange paint and evidence of recent use, is parked by the side door. A homemade wood splitter extends off the tractor’s three-point hitch and is linked by hydraulic hoses to the circulatory system of the tractor. Morris’s woodpiles are legend to those few who drive by on the Loop Road.
One hundred ninety acres remain of the original Orvis farm. Morris’s fields are the last open land hikers cross when they ascend Sterling Mountain. The two-story white farmhouse sits 50 feet back from the Loop Road. The roof line sags near the chimney. The shed and summer kitchen extending off to the right have lost their paint to the harsh weather. The shed is crammed with well-dried wood. There is enough room left for a chest freezer dappled with rust, drawing its power from an extension cord running into the house through a living room window.
Morris and Doc live without benefit of the growing number of social services available to them. Doc is a drinker, but Morris doesn’t drink because he has “the sugar.” Together, they support Doc’s consumption of alcohol, Morris’s “sugar med’cine” and have enough left over to buy canned foods. They sell cordwood to log truck owners who buy the wood from them and haul it to the paper plant in New Hampshire, selling it there for a hefty profit. Twenty cords a month yields $400 and pays for life’s necessities and the taxes. Doc also sells firewood to those who don’t dicker and are experienced enough to know that wood comes wet and green and needs to be cured a year before burning.
They have no immediate neighbors, even as the Sterling Valley succumbs to Stowe’s outward push of kitschy ski chalets and unheatable glass aquaria popping up here and there along the dirt roads that used to link vanished hill farms, sugar works, cedar oil mills, and lumber camps.
Doc is not a doctor but earned his moniker as a kid. His father was in France “fightin’ krauts” and his mother was tolerating the sexual attentions of their mortgage holder at the Lamoille County Savings Bank who had found her “saucy” as she pled for forbearance on their $28 a month payment. Back at home her son Royce Denton heard screams coming from his neighbor’s house and ran over to find Bessie Pixley lying on her kitchen floor in a pool of blood-stained water, beginning a birth process with which, at seventeen, she was as unfamiliar as Royce. He asked over her screams what to do as he stared at the small head emerging from Bessie. “Anything!” she screamed. “Just save my baby.” Royce gently grabbed the head and pulled. At each pull, Bessie screamed louder and finally Royce just pulled the new Pixley boy out and Bessie fainted from the pain.