Rob Williams, like a lot of people, is convinced the United States is no longer a functioning republic. He doesn’t take any joy in that—“that’s just where we are,” he says, staring across a table at the Big Picture Theater and Café in Waitsfield, Vermont, up north in what’s called the Mad River Valley. No one party, program, political scheme, person, or platform is going to reform an out-of-control empire, he believes. An empire for the 1 percent. The Banksters. The Fascists. “Call them what you will,” he says. No reform is going to stop climate change or “peak oil”—after which we’ll quickly run out of fossil fuel—or “full spectrum dominance”—militarily speaking—or Pentagon-slash-Wall-Street-military-industrial-largesse. No reform can secure our food and energy self-sufficiency against the rapidly-approaching “collision between Petroleum Man’s vision of infinite growth and the fact that we live on a finite planet.” Our day of reckoning, Rob says, is upon us.
He calls the waitress over for some more coffee.
“Sounds downright biblical, right?” he asks me. But Williams, a middle-aged, lean and energetic professor of history at University of Vermont and Champlain College—an affable dad-bro and one-time yak farmer who looks like he could play the president on TV—knows exactly what we can do. He’s going to tell me all about it. He runs the Second Vermont Republic, an organization devoted to freeing the Green Mountain State from the empire and reverting it back to the “perfectly fine constitution that has served us well since 1793.”
I point out that it didn’t go well the last time some states tried to, like…you know?
“Will the U.S. roll tanks into Montpelier and burn down all the maple trees and kill all the Holstein cows?” he says. He laughs. “Put Ben & Jerry’s out of business?” He doesn’t think so.
There are some haters out there, though. Feds aside. There’s an anonymous blog—vermontsecession.blogspot.com—that’s been trolling Williams for five years and, pretty baselessly as far as anyone can tell, has been accusing 2VR—the Second Vermont Republic—of racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia. A photoshopped picture of Williams above the words “hate blogger” and “proponent of Lincoln historical revisionism.” It’s true that Rob’s not a big fan of Honest Abe, whom he has described as an “ambitious corporate railroad lawyer.” And it’s true that at one point 2VR was at a conference with “secession-minded groups from across the political spectrum.” One group: the League of the South, which takes its credo from nineteenth century lynching advocate Thomas Nelson Page. To Williams, though, it’s all just a guilt-by-association argument; they’ve been tarred by the same brush. Sure, he’s been critical of Lincoln. But, he points out, so was Howard Zinn. “Is Zinn, who is one of the foremost socialist historians of our time, a Neo-Confederate?” Rob asks. Whoever runs the anti-Williams blog has been excellent at covering their tracks—even a computer forensics buddy of Rob’s couldn’t figure out who it was. 2VR has some theories, though. It might be the CIA, Rob tells me. Fuck, might even be Mossad.
There’s nothing more inspiring than an impossible cause, nothing more invigorating than an ideology so pure that it morphs into something beyond ideology itself. Set it against an idyllic backdrop of small New England towns, the endless soft roll of hills. Add jagged mountains. Little valleys quilted with family farms. Vermont writ large is a frame of reference that teaches the relativity of toil. It’s also a place of no tactical significance to The Empire. One international airport. A small border with Canada. Abandoned dairy farms. A few breweries. But the way Rob tells it, The Second Republic is not so much a lost cause as a cause whose time has never come—at least not yet. There are true believers out there, up in the Vermont woods where the Mobius strip of the political spectrum wraps back around on itself and socialists become paleocons and paleocons go Green; there are secret supporters in the statehouse; there’s a citizen brain trust working behind the scenes to advance the cause of liberty and self-determination. The tent is big and Rob is waving me in. Walking away across the parking lot after breakfast, he turns back and calls out my name.
“Yeah?” I ask.
“FREE VERMONT!” He raises his fist in the air.
* * *
It’s a May morning; the air is dry and I’m idling in the Windsor park-and-ride lot, the rendezvous point. Rob gets up at 5:30 every morning, so I need to be on time. I’m early. And I’m just sitting here, staring at the run of cars on I-91 below the jughandle, mostly Connecticut and New York plates. Through the stereo Sinatra croons “Moonlight in Vermont,” that sentimental anthem for the citizenry. For—I mean—the second home owners. The flatlanders. And anyway the song was written in a studio in Los Angeles and is rife with factual errors. Meadowlarks? Sycamores? Bullshit.
When Rob pulls up he tells me he has 150 pounds of frozen yak meat in the back of his Subaru. The car has sweet rims and a vanity plate: FREE VT. “Gotta stay in the shade,” he says. “Can’t let the meat warm up.” He nods at my Buick. “Nice wagon. Right on.” He introduces me to Pete Garritano, a very tan car salesman who ran for lieutenant governor as an open secessionist in 2010. Pete clocked in at third with 3.7 percent of the vote. “He’s a natural campaigner,” Rob says later. “He worked hard for each of those 8,000 votes.”
I follow them up 91, Sinatra on loop. We pause at another park-and-ride near Royalton, where Rob suggests that I ride in his car. “It’s a rough road,” he says, looking dubiously at the rust creeping from my car’s underbody. He’s probably right—GPS had told me to park my car and walk in the final mile. But the precariousness of the climb into the hills adds a layer of drama to the encounter: we’re heading up to meet with what I’m promised is the Second Vermont Republic’s “braintrust,” a revolutionary breakfast club at publisher Ian Baldwin’s house. The best minds of the movement will be there. Important business is at hand. We’re going to reflect on what we’ve accomplished thus far. We’re going to plan. We’re going to strategize.
Curving around dusty bends, past a pond, up a steep grade, Rob tells me about Mohammed Bouazizi. Bouazizi was a Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation in 2011, in protest of police who demanded bribes because he did not have a permit, ignited the Arab Spring. Rob also has a food cart—Yak It To Me. Yak burgers, yak sausage. All local. All organic. “The greenest red meat,” he says. He likes to entertain this idea that his cart could be a “mobile propaganda tool” for the Second Republic.
“Are you going to self-immolate?” I ask. He smiles. I wonder if he thinks his comparison might be a stretch, or if his pool of belief is more like a sinkhole—and then I wonder if he could be right. One gunshot can change the world. One food cart can start an unstoppable tide. It’s happened before, right? I guess. I’m trying to see things the way Rob does.
Ian Baldwin’s house is a built in a clearing where the sun beats down, edged by birches and pines. His wife Margo is gardening. A dog that could be a basset hound or maybe some form of mutant beagle greets us, followed by a cat with a ring around its neck to prevent it from eating birds. In the driveway Pete hands Rob a stack of 9/11 Truth books and DVDs—all the classics plus a few from Europe, some deep cuts from the back catalog, some bootlegs. Rob pauses to admire Pete’s t-shirt, red with white lettering: NOBODY EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION.
“Hilarious, man,” Rob says. “Andrew, you see this?” He gestures at Pete as he puts the stack of DVDs on the backseat. “Monty Python. Funniest movie ever made.”
“I’ve never seen it,” I admit. They both stare at me. “Really?” asks Rob. Pete doesn’t say anything. He is, I’m starting to think, the quiet type, despite what Rob has said about his knack for retail politics. And his melanoma tan? He was just in Costa Rica, Rob tells me when Pete’s in the bathroom. He was looking at property.
“For when SHTF?” I’m quote the popular doomsday prepper phrase: Shit Hits The Fan. He stares at me.
We’re the last to arrive. In the kitchen the rest of the brain trust sips coffee, making small talk around a circular table, taking books out of their bags—Ian toiling on the stovetop, brow furrowed, oiling a pan, pulling bacon out of the oven, moving it to a serving tray layered with paper towels, and then looking through cabinets for a plate for the pumpkin bread Pete’s wife made. A poodle appears.
“Gentleman,” Ian calls out. “Eggs! Hard, soft, or medium?” Rob hands me a cup of coffee and gestures at my notebook. “Getting this all down?” There are seven of us around the table. I realize that I’ve been the only one calling this crew “the brain trust.” Rob calls it “the mothership.”
He’s sitting to my left; to his left is Ralph Meima, a PhD (Lund University, Sweden) and Wharton MBA, a consultant currently specializing in solar power—the mothership’s energy guru. Next to him, with slicked back white hair and a purple and green ferny Hawaiian shirt is Dr. Rick Foley, a Keene State professor of Sustainable Product Design and Architecture.” Then there’s Ron Miller, bespectacled and goateed—an education expert and local bookstore owner—and to his left Ian, the publisher of Chelsea Green Books, a respectable Vermont publisher. Ian is wondering where all the bacon went.
Rob asks us all to check in. That’s when we get serious. “What’s everybody’s update?” He asks. Rick passes around the books he’s been into lately—first The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, and then The Ancient Giants Who Ruled America: The Missing Skeletons and the Great Smithsonian Cover-Up. When Ian’s up he turns our attention to geoengineering—government attempts to use weather control technology to halt, or possibly expedite, climate change. He leans back in his chair chewing bacon. Chemtrails. They’re no joke. “I’ve never felt dryness like this in early May,” he says. “I’ve never felt this uncomfortable in my life.” He’s writing a piece about this. There’s a lot to learn. “The more you burrow into this material, the more you need a hard sciences background in electrical engineering, in physics, in chemistry, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have it in aviation and the military.” He pauses, glances around the table. Everyone nods.
“One little lead,” Rick says, “is Project Azorian. Do you remember Project Azorian?”
“I remember a-zore, ah-zore…” Ian trails off, puckering his lips like he’s trying to extrude some sour lozenge, trying to spin the sundial of his memory.
“To suck up manganese molecules from the bottom of the Pacific—” “Ah, yes! Yes,” says Ian. It was a huge project. $3.8 billion dollars in today’s money, employing hundreds of scientists, and it was all just a cover to suck a Russian sub up from the bottom of the ocean to acquire the communications system and a missile. And yeah, it happened. I looked it up later.
“The thing is,” says Rick, “nobody can believe: cover up!”
“This is the difficulty,” Ian says. He’s seventy-six—the group’s elder statesman. The elder statesman who squints to see, from across the living room, that red squirrels have swarmed the bird feeder on his balcony. He leaps out of his chair, jogging across the room—arms flailing—and scatters them.
Now the eggs and bacon are gone. I’m taking notes about nothing in particular. When no one is looking I delete portions of my tape and start again, waiting for the grand plan to be revealed. Is Pete running again? Doesn’t seem like he’s interested. Who can blame him—I’d rather move to Costa Rica, too. Now the toast is gone.
Rob is getting impatient. I picture him for a moment as the kind of kid in middle school always trying to organize the kickball game, the one who considers himself the ceremonial GM of the recess squad. He’s waiting to speak. Waiting. Ralph is talking about solar panels. Solar panels. Rob is waiting. Solar panels. Pause. Rob seizes it. “All right my friends, we have until noon to talk about the future of the Vermont independence movement. Let me paint a picture for you guys.” He leans back and puts his hands behind his head. “Ten years ago this month we published the very first issue of Vermont Commons. Happy tenth anniversary to—”
“Mhm, mhm, mhm,” Ian nods. It was back in the spring of ’05, in the wake of the RadCon—short for “radical conservative”—conference in Middlebury, when Rob had had his awakening. That was where he met Thomas Naylor, an economics PhD and prolific author whose prognosis—secede and buy gold--was as much an antiestablishment posture as a grim prediction of the impeding economic turmoil sure to result if the union continued along its corrupt path. Naylor brought together a disparate crew of Vermont secessionists he organized around a platform that somehow fused libertarianism, socialism, paleoconservativism, and Green Party ideals into a small-centric 21st century vision, helming the movement until his death in 2012. Rob was his intellectual heir, though less of a demagogue, more of a dude.
“So what have we done in ten years? We’ve done a lot, I think. We’ve published Vermont Commons for six years. We’ve held three statewide conventions at the statehouse on Vermont independence. We’ve built out several websites. We’ve got a thousand followers on Facebook, a thousand followers on Twitter, a few hundred videos on YouTube. We’ve run a political campaign in 2010…”
One of their candidates for state rep, James Merriam of Montpelier, once cracked double-digit percentages as a secessionist candidate—picking up 900 votes. I get the impression, though, that the others might think Rob is being a bit optimistic. Rick flips open his notebook and draws a diagram of a pebble in the pond. He sketches some lines, holds it up. “See this? Over the last ten years the ripples didn’t come back,” he says.
Rob doesn’t agree. “Traction.” They’re getting traction. He recently Skyped in to a class at Carleton College, where a professor—“Devashree Gupta,” he says, “Cool name!”—is researching separatist movements. Scotland recently tried to secede: a topic of big interest around the mothership’s table, and also an international conversation to which Rob believes 2VR should be tied.
“People are interested in the idea of Vermont independence,” he insists. “I don’t copy you guys on all this stuff since you have lives and you don’t need that much email, but, you know, there are people who are watching us. Continue to watch us. Other than, of course,” he knocks on the table once, “the normal people who watch us.”
“Who are those people?” I ask.
“Oh, you know…um.” He gazes down at the pumpkin bread.
“My paper recycling disappeared out of my garage the other day,” Ron whispers. He’s straight-faced. Lips pursed. Shaking his head in slow, fractional movements.
“Really?” Rob asks.
“I absolutely couldn’t figure out…” Ron can’t hold the blank expression anymore. Everyone breaks into laughter—even Rob, though it seems forced. They’re making fun of him. “Is your cat missing?” Pete deadpans.
“It was the FBI, clearly,” says Ron.
But this is serious! “There are 80,000 people in Vermont on food stamps,” Pete says. “They need the federal government to feed them.” Ian makes a gesture of his fingers fluttering like rain. “This is why,” he says, “it’s just not in the air.”
“When I moved to Vermont in 2002, 2003,” says Ralph, “I found the secession movement really appealing. At the same time, what was always a dilemma for me was that I could find it interesting, and be inspired, but at least it seemed I couldn’t come out in the open in local politics or local fora and say, I’m a secessionist, I think Vermont ought to leave. You can’t just come out and believe that your livelihood—and your credibility—are still going to be intact.”
Coming out. Chemtrails that aren’t just water. Secret projects to pull submarines off the ocean floor. Our miniature state becoming a nation—giving the finger to fascism—these are just a few of the things we aren’t allowed to talk about in America. The things we meet in secret to discuss. The plots we make. Especially the ones we know will never come to pass.
* * *
Something is happening on the statehouse lawn. A crowd materializes out of buses, rusted Subarus, vans. They’re mostly wearing matching red tees. They pitch a line of tents. Up on the capitol steps an acoustic guitarist wearing a bowler hat talk-sings his way through the more regrettable odes of the Dylan back catalog. People fire up grills. Now the air smells like burnt chicken. A girl runs by me waving a Che Guevara banner. This could just be a normal Friday in Vermont.
I came to Montpelier for two reasons. First, I want to see Senator Bill Doyle, the elder sage of state politics continuously reelected since the year we put a man on the moon. Then I’m going to find Rob’s secret secessionist. The inside man. Zagar is his name. “The radical,” Rob claims, “who snuck in the back door.”
* * *
There’s no metal detector in the statehouse lobby. No GUEST nametags get stuck to your chest; not even a sheet to sign in. We the people just walk in. And compared to the mounting tension outside the lobby is quiet. Representatives and senators stroll to committees. Flannel shirts and hiking boots intermingle with suits. Citizens chat with legislators, smile, shake hands, reminding them to get single payer done. A sanguine older woman approaches and asks if I’m from the Rutland High School field trip.
* * *
The Senate chamber: green curtains fringed with gold tassel, eight massive Corinthian columns encircling the room. “You want to talk about secession, right?” Senator Doyle asks. “We’ve got a few minutes. Secession like the Civil War?” The guitarist on the lawn outside outside is now so loud that the windows of the capitol just slightly shake. People are chanting over him. WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON! WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON! The words are clear—even from up here in the stale air among the Romans.
“Like Vermont Independence,” I say, kneeling down beside his wheelchair. “I’m following this group of people who think the state should be its own country.”
“Why do they think that?” He smiles. “What’s their argument?”
“Well, they think the federal government is militaristic, and corrupt, and—I’m not saying I agree with them,” I say. “They call it The Empire.”
The Senate president bangs the gavel.
“Stay here,” Doyle whispers. He points at the window seat behind him. Now there’s a little action. Senator White stands up to clarify a point about x’s versus ovals on ballots for write-in candidates before turning her attention to penalties for campaign finance impropriety.
“Mr. President, I’m sure,” she says, “that there are many people here who think that public financing coffins—I mean coffers—should be ended, but—.” A page drops a pink envelope on Senator Doyle’s desk. He slips it open and pulls out a piece of paper with the words TELL YOUR LEGISLATOR--image of a cow with some sci-fi saddle on it--TO STOP BOVINE HARNESS SOLAR POWER TODAY. Doyle slips it back into the envelope and tosses it on his desk.
Pretty soon another recess is called.
“Thirty seconds,” the president calls out, banging the gavel. Doyle rotates his wheelchair back to me. “Don’t count on it,” he says. “It’ll go longer than that. Where were we? What was it we were talking about?” I start back at the beginning. He gazes at me. Clear blue eyes. The hint of a smile; a few white hairs wisp across his capitol dome. I ask him about the secessionists again.
“Well, I don’t question their sincerity, okay?” he says. “And the fact that they’re thinking about government and have ideas is a net plus. It’s just something I don’t believe in.”
“Right. Why not?”
“I’d have to know what the charges are,” he says. I explain how the secessionists think our current form of government is unsustainable, how they point to peak oil and the impending collapse of civilization--it’s happened before, they say, and it will happen again—and say that, somehow, if Vermont were an independent nation, despite having fewer citizens than El Paso, it could develop its own local food infrastructure, renewable energy system, and nonviolent foreign policy.
“They should be given some credit for thinking out of the box…” Doyle trails off.
“Do you think a candidate running on that platform would stand a chance?”
“I think the odds would be against them,” he says. The gavel sounds.
* * *
Sitting on a bench across from the Coat Room—not the Cloak Room, which sounds too Empire—I plot the next move. A bomb-sniffing dog walks by, sits under a bust of Abe Lincoln, wags its tail, stares at me. My phone pings. It’s Zagar. Can you meet in the cafeteria by the speaker’s office? I’ve got a blue tie and sneakers.
Zagar tells me he only has ten minutes—something about a floor vote soon. He’s young, 36, with short buzzed hair, hipster glasses and a thoughtful stare. He lives off the grid in a town of less than a thousand, Barnard. He has his own solar panels. In the winter he gets into town on a snowmobile. In the summer he takes a four-wheeler. Now he’s holding his iPhone up to his face; it’s playing a VPR feed of the House chamber. I lay out my questions.
“Actually, let’s go to my committee room,” he says. “I don’t feel like this is something…” He chuckles. “I mean, I think I know where you’re going with this.” He parts a throng of suits angling for the salad bar as I follow him to his committee room—Agriculture.
Zagar takes his seat at the table. A poster, GROW HEMP FOR THE WAR, hangs over his head; he occasionally waves me to silence to listen to the audio leaking from his phone. Then he clicks down the volume. “I think I’ve got more than ten minutes, actually. Let’s talk.”
“Secession,” I say.
“The notion of independence and self determination is totally reasonable,” he says. “That’s what our country was founded on.” Zagar was born in Slovenia, which declared independence form Yugoslavia in 1991. He says Slovenia gets compared to Vermont a lot, especially in how it was part of larger federation that was “run by a very militaristic, aggressive government that was not treating all of its citizens very well.” The chanting outside is getting closer. Becoming slightly meditative, he walks over to the window.
“Look,” he points out below us. “There’s a protest going on. The Worker’s Center.” He whispers along with a chant. “Stop the cuts/on the back of the poor. Cops are there, cameras…”
He turns back and adjusts his tie, unbuttons his jacket, buttons it again, his voice louder. “But yeah, you’re asking me about independence. I used to be naively idealistic,” Zagar says, “that we could get to a point where we could break apart.” He speaks calmly. Evenly. Each word clear. He wonders aloud about how the country has spun out of control, thoughts cycling through the wars, the bailouts, the justice system, the banks too big to fail, the banks laundering money for drug cartels and terrorists—his tone is grave to the point of cynicism. And the protesters have now entered the building. Clapping, still singing stop the cuts/on the back of the poor, they make their way down the hallway on the other side of the wall.
“What are they protesting?”
“Austerity,” Zagar says.
The budget gap is now at almost $113 million.
“The thing that totally shuts down the argument for independence is the fact that most Vermonters are just not ready for it,” Zagar says. “And we just don’t even really have the money for it.” He wonders whether it can all be changed from within; he’s just not really sure how he feels about it anymore. He was once, I imagine, as much of a believer as Williams. But Zagar now knows how the game works. When he was first appointed to fill a vacant seat—and has been since elected and reelected—a journalist asked if he was planning on bringing a secessionist agenda to the statehouse. He said he wasn’t. “Because I didn’t want to, like, totally marginalize myself as soon as I got here.”
His constituents aren’t into the issue, either. He gets the most emails from them about a proposed 5 percent tax on satellite TV. The sugar sweet and beverage tax is another big one. No one asks about secession.
* * *
Rep. Marjorie Ryerson walks in holding a jar of organic peanut butter and a plate of crackers. An author, poet, professor, photographer, and journalist, she represents a district of small towns in the middle of the state.
“What do you think about Vermont independence, Marjorie?” Zagar calls across the room. “Should Vermont secede from the union?”
“Vermont independence?” She’s confused. For her, the independence question somehow perfectly segues into GMO’s, anti-tobacco campaigns, cutting sugar from our diets, and neonicotinoids, a new and not-very-well-understood class of insecticides that paralyze insects by spiking their central nervous system with chemicals. She pauses. “Oh, and that obesity amendment—”
“If we ever get around to it,” says Zagar.
“But sugar is the cause of almost 75 percent of the diseases that humans get. We’re just randomly sticking it in everything because it’s addictive, and I’d like to see Vermont lead the nation in making smart decisions about that, too. Those are the kinds of issues I’m much more captured by,” she says.
Zagar holds up his phone. The Speaker is droning on about something.
“We back?” Ryerson asks.
“Twenty minutes,” says Zagar. “We still debating e-cigarettes?”
“The amendment,” says Ryerson. “The tax thing.”
Rep. John Bartholomew—an earnest veterinarian with glasses and white hair cut straight across his forehead—walks in with a fistful of miniature Three Musketeers bars.
“I’m squirreling these in my desk,” he says. Zagar tries to grab the candy. “Hey! Hey! Get out of there.”
“John and I were two of the lead sponsors on the GMO bill,” Zagar says. Bartholomew looks at me. “Is that what you guys are talking about?”
“We’re talking about Vermont independence,” says Zagar. Bartholomew laughs. “You can put him down as a secessionist in your article,” says Zagar. “John Bartholomew. Got that? John, do you want to spell your name for him?”
“What’s your um…take on that?” I ask.
“On what?” Bartholomew is incredulous.
“On these pro-independence folks who write these books, have these demonstrations—”
“Is that what this was?” He nods at the door. “And who are you?”
I tell him I’m a journalist. He stares at my recorder.
“Independence is certainly something we don’t talk about here,” says Bartholomew.
“Yet,” Zagar says.
The state’s too small, says Bartholomew. What about currency? Wars, treaties? Immigration? Access to ports?
“Well, we’d enter into free trade agreements with out neighbors, and Canada,” says Zagar. “We’re very well armed. And who’s gonna attack us? We’re not gonna hurt anybody. We’d have to come up with our Green-Mountain-Back currency—”
“My point is there are so many issues we don’t have to address now because we’re part of a larger nation,” says Bartholomew.
Zagar leans back in his chair. “I think a lot of our problems,” he says, “are based on the fact that we are a party to this federal system, this corrupt federal system—”
“And this federal system is a corporate system!” says Marjorie.
“And the military-industrial complex!”
“I’m gonna go shoot myself right now,” she says.
“And wasn’t it the day before 9/11 when Donald Rumsfeld gave a press conference where he said there was more than a trillion dollars of defense budgeting that he can’t account for?” Zagar says. “That would have been a breaking story for a while had September 11th not happened the next day. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a lot of unaccounted for money in the government. What are they doing with it?”
He gets up and walks to the window again. He sighs. “This topic. You can go down the rabbit hole with it.”
* * *
Nick is trying to light the stove on the food cart when I pull up to Rob’s house; he flicks a Bic and uses it to ignite a rolled up paper towel, angling the fast-burning wad down near the gas. It doesn’t take.
“I should clean this thing first,” he says.
He’s wearing a backwards hat with a yak logo. He’s 29 but looks younger, and his street-modified Honda Civic SI—dyno blue pearl with a spoiler that calls to mind the Arc de Triomphe—is parked on the gravel under a basketball hoop. A former student of Rob’s at Champlain College, Nick is now his business partner in Yak It To Me. They raised eight grand on Kickstarter, and the rest, they tell me, is “history.” He scrapes clean the griddle with a flathead screwdriver—he’s getting it ready for the impending summer season of farmer’s markets and beer festivals—rubbing Goo Gone on the metal, scraping, scratching, wiping away the flakes. Everything is going fine until the weather turns. Drizzle. Nick pushes the cart into Rob’s garage and then Rob appears with three summer shandies. He pauses before setting them on the cart’s maple, mahogany and oak bar, next to can of WD-40 and a bag of napkins. He and Nick fist bump. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about Rob: he’s a master of both the firm handshake and the insouciant fist bump, and, unlike many other errant fist-bumpers, he knows when to employ which gesture.
“First of the season,” he says.
“Good stuff.” Nick snaps a picture. Rob plans to sell copies of 2VR’s essay collection, Mostly Likely to Secede, right off the cart this summer. He sent me the book a few weeks ago. Slipped behind the title page and the introduction was a facsimile passport for the Vermont Republic. The book goes for $19.95; the passport goes for ten. The 2VR website promises that I can use this commemorative parchment passport to gain access to VIP special events! Declare your support for decentralism at all border crossings! It also makes a great gift for family, friends, and colleagues. He threw in a bumper sticker for good measure, which the website tells me to stick to my Prius, John Deere, yogurt maker, or gun cabinet!
I glance around. The garage of a secessionist is just like anyone else’s. Old VCRs stacked on metal shelves. Obsolete sporting goods jutting out of boxes. Kids’ Nerf guns. A workbench. I don’t know what I was expecting Rob’s compound to be like… some exotic doomsday prepper enclave, maybe? Solar arrays, a subsistence farm, retrofitted plastic tubs to collect rainwater, a gun tower to pick off jackbooted thugs, i.e., invading feds?
What I’m discovering is mundane. Comfortable. The Williams’s house is a two-story, wood-sided “hillside-sunk energy efficient four star-rated building,” Rob says proudly. No attic, no basement. Radiant heat. Porch strung with white Christmas lights and a hammock-like hanging chair where his son is curled up playing a game on his phone.
On one side of the property a standalone sauna abuts a patio bedecked with Tibetan prayer flags—then there’s a wood fired pizza oven, a little pond of bright green algae, a garden of organic garlic, a beehive, a tent full of chickens. Firewood is stacked neatly near a pile of canoes, kayaks, and surfboards, and the garage and its contents are so normal they could have been teleported wholesale up into the New England woods from whichever circle of hell suburban Connecticut occupies. I’m realizing that Rob Williams is actually a very normal guy—a normal guy who happens to have some unusual ideas. He was a normal guy this whole time! A normal guy who, like a lot of other people, is convinced that the United States is no longer a functional republic. He’s right. And that doesn’t make him any less normal.
* * *
Woodpeckers are mating on the side of the shed somewhere near the Second Vermont Republic flag—that symbol reappropriated from more conventional history, the flag that was originally the emblem of Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys. The male is hammering his beak to get the female’s attention, signaling his territory with an incessant and aggressive clacking that breaks the woods’ otherwise pleasant silence. Rob’s inside getting more beer. I turn to Nick. “What do you think of all this secession stuff?”
“As an idea, it’s fantastic.”
“So we should do it,” I offer. But no, Nick says. It’s never going to happen. Our tax base, our population—it’s too low. Our quality of life would go down. So from that angle Nick thinks it’s absolutely ridiculous. “There’s a better chance of that shed over there turning into a million dollars. The federal government has tanks, planes, guns.” And our state government? “I don’t know how they’d ever run a country. They can’t even run a state.”
“So you’re not on board?” I ask. He pauses before returning to his griddle scraping. “If anyone could do it, though,” he smiles, “Rob could.” On cue Rob returns to the garage and palms me a second beer. Nick reminds me that the state gets a ton of its money from the feds—money that comes with strings attached. Money that isn’t flowing from anywhere else.
“Yeah,” Rob chimes in, “but fifty-one cents on every dollar we pay in goes to dropping bombs on children.” But even if we reclaimed that, it wouldn’t be enough. Rob has some revenue-raising ideas. “One word for you: cannabis.” He clinks my beer. “Oh, and a public bank.”
* * *
Now we’re going to shoot some guns in the backyard. I ask Rob what his family thinks about all the Second Vermont Republic stuff.
“My son likes to roll his eyes,” he says. And his wife? We’re not going to talk about that one. But his teenage daughter is inside the house right now writing a high school paper about the fall of the Roman Empire—that go-to simile about how America will collapse, any day now. Rob hands me the rifle, a big black Ruger .308, and shows me how to hold the stock into the fleshy dividing line where my pec meets my shoulder. He hands me earmuffs. I bend my knees. Even though Rob is talking, saying something, I assume, about the fall of the Roman Empire, I ignore him and stare through the rifle’s scope, past the bottles and out into the deep woods that since the days of the first European settlers have drawn into them the rebels, the misfits, the headstrong. Those who resist and those who endure. Those who live by the paradox of the land, its motto first articulated on the 1788 seal of the Vermont Republic: freedom and unity. I pull the trigger. My first shot misses.
“Fire again,” Rob says. “Try again.”
40 Towns is supported by the Dartmouth College English Department Class of '54 Fund.