The Hardest Working Couple in Vermont | The Throwbacks
By the time I arrive at Jimmy and Sara’s sugarhouse, the fire in the arch is roaring, and steam is just beginning to rise from the pans. It’s still cool in the house, but it won’t be for much longer; every 10 minutes or so, Jimmy throws a few long sticks of wood on the fire, and slowly the temperature begins to rise. Slowly, the sap begins to simmer, and then boil. The steam in the room thickens until it’s difficult, if not impossible, to make out a face on the other side of the arch.
Within an hour, Jimmy starts drawing finished syrup off the front pan, pumping it through filters and then into the canner, where Sara and her mother, Nancy, fill pint, quart, half-gallon, and gallon containers. The previous season was something of a bust, and the Ackermanns have a long list of orders already lined up. There’s serious money in that evaporator pan; over the course of the night, they might make 70 or 80 gallons, enough to ensure that the bank will get its annual balloon payment on the sugarbush mortgage, and maybe even a little extra to put away for the baby.
As the arch grows ever hotter, the syrup begins flowing faster and faster, and Jimmy’s mood becomes as buoyant as the steam rising from the pan. “We’re rollin’ something wicked!” he calls out. “Now, I ain’t no sugarmaker, but I’m pretty sure that’s some fancy syrup.” Then, he breaks into song: “That’s fancy syrup, that’s fancy syruuuup!” Across the room, Sara might be rolling her eyes, but I can’t quite tell; the steam plays tricks on my vision.
At midnight, I depart. There’s still plenty of boiling to be done, and it seems unlikely that Jimmy and Sara will be getting to bed anytime before 2:00 a.m., only 150 minutes before their alarm is set to rouse them for morning chores. They laugh about it and don’t complain; this is just the way it is during sugaring. They can’t boil during the day, because evening chores will almost surely interrupt the process, and the evaporator needs constant tending. So they boil at night and sleep during the handful of hours between the end of the boil and the early-morning urgency of their cows’ milk-swollen udders.
As I exit the sugarhouse, I turn back for just a moment, and again I have that sense I had in the milkroom so many months before, when it felt as though I could see into Jimmy and Sara Ackermann’s future. Through the steam, I can see Jimmy sitting on his stool by the draw-off valve, monitoring the temperature and sugar content of the finished syrup. Sara stands beside him, close enough that her pregnant belly rests against Jimmy’s shoulder. Is it merely a trick of the steam that makes it feel as though 30 years from now, I’ll visit the sugarhouse only to find Jimmy sitting on his stool by the draw-off valve, with his wife beside him?
Maybe. But I’m pretty sure not.