On May 8, 2024

Mountain Meditation: My first driving adventure with a Vermont learner’s permit

Building a Killington Dream Lodge: Part 12

While building our ski lodge in Killington, we worked very hard but there were perks, too. One thing I loved most about Vermont was what I discovered when I was 13. Since we owned property, I’d qualify to apply for a learner’s permit when I turned 14. (In New Jersey I’d have to wait until I was 16).

We began driving lessons in Killington Ski Area’s spacious parking lot. It was a perfect training ground—mostly empty when not in ski season (decades before mountain biking arrived). Mom taught me in our long Country Squire to turn around, back up, and parallel park (much easier in a deserted parking lot than under pressure with other cars near). Power steering helped me but the car was 17.5 feet long!

One day, Mom told me, “When I was a girl, I started to drive when I was twelve. South Dakota had many farms far from the nearest towns. Kids needed to drive to help out on the farm and in case of a family emergency.”

Once I learned the driving basics, Dad taught me to handle his 1955 Willy’s Jeep. He bought and restored it in New Jersey, then drove it to Vermont’s Green Mountains to climb steep rocky roads (like our driveway). The grey vintage vehicle stood so high up, it didn’t scrape any rocks underneath like our station wagon did daily. But the Jeep was challenging to drive with its temperamental stick shift and stiff steering wheel. Once I managed to climb aboard and get the hang of using the gear shift, I could move forward in spurts. Exploring the parking lot in the Jeep felt as if Dad and I were on an expedition to explore an exotic destination like a Himalayan outpost or Alpine wilderness.

Once my April birthday arrived, we drove to Vermont from New Jersey a day early. I was eager to take the driving test in Rutland and receive my learner’s permit. I was nervous. It was a big deal, but I’d studied and practiced (harder than in school). My hands were sweaty in the car as I followed the instructor’s commands. I managed to back up the Country Squire without flattening the parking cones. The written test was a cinch. I’d practically memorized the driver’s handbook. I passed both exams and shouted “yippee!” I had my learner’s permit in hand. I could drive—only in Vermont—with any adult with a driver’s license. I was elated and ready to go on my very first driving adventure with a friend.

Ann arrived for our very first painting outing en plein air, on location in the open air. I would drive for the very first time without Mom or Dad in the car. We loaded our lunch and art supplies and took off in the station wagon. We bumped down our driveway scraping the bottom, crossed Roaring Brook Bridge to the Access Road, then down the mountain on Route 4 and followed the Ottaquechee Gorge and River Valley.

Dark clouds had gathered and suddenly let loose with a loud and thunderous pouring rain storm. I was on high alert and turned on my windshield wipers and lights. We crept along the winding Woodstock route then veered off. I don’t know where. The remote dirt road led to a spot where we had a great view of a deserted farmhouse with outbuildings and barn. I parked along the side of the road, turned off the car and took a deep breath. Driving in a storm was exhausting. It was still raining, so we stayed in the car.

After a snack to regain my fortitude, my art mentor, Ann, taught me to draw using perspective with a vanishing point. She showed me how to draw from near to far, and how to depict distance. She trained in art at New York’s Pratt Institute and often shared her art knowledge with me. Ann is the reason I became an artist. She inspired me to take creative chances and follow my heart to do what I love. My perspective lesson that day has served me for decades throughout my career as an artist, teaching and painting en plein air, on location everywhere.

After our class in the pouring rain we’d each completed a watercolor of the farm. I was happy. We’d accomplished a lot, and fortunately the rain had stopped. We devoured our sandwiches, then headed home, chatting (although it was harder to concentrate while talking). I was engrossed in driving and conversation so was quite startled when the car began to sputter.

We were headed up steep Route 4 past Ann’s house near River Road, the Little White Church, and (former) Killington Post Office. The car sputtered some more so I pulled over. It gave out a gasp and completely turned off. I switched on the flashing light and pushed down on the emergency brake. I was afraid it might give out due to the steep incline. “What happened? What’s wrong with car?” I asked Ann without a clue.

Ann studied the dashboard and asked with experience, “What does the fuel gauge read, my dear?”

I peered at the needles then stuttered, defeated. “Oh no, it’s empty! We ran out of gas!”

The skies were rained out so I walked up the road to the sheriff’s house which Dad had pointed out. I knocked on the door with trepidation, but Mrs. Towne opened it with a smile and said, “Hello. How may I help you?”

“Thank you,” I said. “My gas tank is empty. I ran out of gas a little down Route 4.” I felt guilty and stupid but she simply nodded and called to her husband who appeared at the door. I was star struck. I’d never seen a sheriff (other than t.v.’s Andy Griffith and Matt Dillon). Sheriff Towne fetched his gas can. We crossed Route 4 and walked towards the car. I was wondering if we had sheriffs in New Jersey.

“I can’t believe this happened to me on my very first drive with my learner’s permit.” I was so embarrassed my face must have turned red.

“Well, one thing’s for certain,” Sheriff Towne said with a twinkle in his eye, a chuckle and a smile. “I bet you’ll check the gas gauge from now on.”

He was right, except for once. In my 59 years driving since then, I only ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere near Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between Vermont and Florida. She can be reached at Jilldyestudio@aol.com.

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