“Rumble Strip,” a Limitless Podcast About Life in Vermont

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“Rumble Strip,” a Limitless Podcast About Life in Vermont


“O.K., so where are we?” Erica Heilman, the creator of the Vermont-focussed podcast “Rumble Strip,” says to her friend Susan, in one episode. She’s trying to get Susan to set the scene. Susan, a private investigator, says that they’re in a parking lot in St. Johnsbury, in her convertible. “We’re just about to go deliver the little fallen-angel owl that hit—”

“No, just lay it on me,” Heilman says. “I don’t want any ‘fallen angel.’ ”

“O.K., I’ve got a frozen owl in my trunk,” Susan says. “Let’s just be real.” They laugh. Susan, who hit a barred owl with her car, is donating its body to a museum. We hear them unwrap and describe it (beautiful feet and feathers, scary “zombie” eye) before donating it; then they have sandwiches on Heilman’s porch and talk until dusk. It’s an unassuming conversation that reaches a surprising zenith of insight and power, and I’ve found myself thinking of it again and again.

This is the mood of “Rumble Strip”: it’s about life itself, as evoked through Heilman’s quietly extraordinary exploration of life in Vermont. Rich with original music and sounds of the countryside (cows, frogs, pickup trucks), it’s one of the best podcasts I’ve heard. Heilman has a keen, calming presence and a rare gift for balancing details; we’ll hear about the owl’s otherworldly beauty but also its horrible eye, and it won’t be a fallen angel. Heilman is also an exceptional listener. Although the show bears the imprint of her personality, and of her infinite curiosity, it isn’t dominated by her voice. Like “The Kitchen Sisters Present,” it lets the subjects speak for themselves.

Most episodes are adventuresome, reported sound portraits: we hear about road-crew workers, defense attorneys, farmers, a town meeting, Vermont’s mental-health-care system, taxidermists, the Thunder Road racetrack, kids playing, college girls getting ready for a party. Though “Rumble Strip” is gentle and often rural, it avoids being cute; there’s no whiff of Lake Wobegon-style just-folks self-satisfaction. We accompany a game warden on patrol during deer season, and the trip culminates in a high-speed chase (“Game wardens are kind of like nature’s cops,” Heilman says) and a kindly, respectful arrest of one neighbor by another. In the town-meeting episode, we hear proceedings about garbage collection, with a sideline about diapers. “Those things are recyclable, and can be put in the cow bin,” an older woman says. The meeting is “not glamorous,” Heilman tells us. “Sometimes it’s boring. We sit on hard chairs. . . . But it’s also the most civilized and surprising social gathering of the year.” Pastoral scene-setting doesn’t escape realism, either: introducing an episode about a young neighbor, Heilman says, “We sat and talked out by his barn, which overlooks a field and a vernal pool full of spring peepers, which is there because of a stuck culvert.”

Many podcasts of our era, however valiant their intentions, can produce a feeling of Weltschmerz, or can augment the Weltschmerz we already have. “Rumble Strip” is different. In that interesting conversation on Heilman’s porch, Susan worries about our collective confusion and lassitude—people have checked out, and many are suffering for it—and talks about “the Ricky Watters question,” involving the N.F.L. running back who, in a 1995 game, decided not to catch a pass that would have resulted in a crushing collision. Asked about this at the press conference, Watters wondered aloud, “For who? For what?” “That’s where we are,” Susan says. “For who, for what? I don’t think anybody really knows anymore.” But “Rumble Strip” feels like an antidote to “For who? For what?”—the rare kind of documentary art that connects and edifies without bumming us out.

Its independence is a key part of its success. Heilman, who worked in documentary television and learned audio production mostly online, using Jay Allison’s renowned resource Transom, works as a reporter for Vermont Public Radio; she created “Rumble Strip” in 2013. The show is part of the Boston-based independent-podcasting collective Hub & Spoke, which includes several series that podcast producers I respect consider their favorites. Free of ads (except for some episodes sponsored by a local restaurant), “Rumble Strip” has a kind of narrative purity; from episode to episode, it surprises us not just in content but in form, driven by Heilman’s freedom to do what she wants. Some episodes are whimsical: guys talking about their trucks; a recurring satire; a friend reading a strangely poetic police blotter (“Kids were swearing on Elm Street. An arrow landed next to someone on Downing Street. A Brooklyn Street man was worried about his drunk friend but didn’t know his name”). A musical episode, “Sing Your Job,” consists of listeners performing made-up songs about their work. For nine years, Heilman produced an annual episode centered on a conversation with her neighbor Leland, starting when he was a ten-year-old Revolutionary War reënactor (“This summer, I’m gonna start playing fife”). Young Leland contemplates deep space, the Triassic era, and pork shortages; he becomes a teen-aged volunteer firefighter (“helping out, cleaning trucks, sweeping floors”) and then an incoming college freshman (“He tells me they have a really good laundry system there,” Heilman says). Heilman is an elegant producer—the racetrack episode makes gorgeous use of revving engines and opera, the police-blotter reading incorporates music and birdsong, and interviewees are given room to speak thoughtfully, with pauses, taking all the time they need.

The series’ standout is “Finn and the Bell,” an episode from November, 2021, that won a Peabody Award. It’s about Finn Rooney, a teen from Walden, Vermont, who died by suicide, in 2020, and the community that loved him. The episode doesn’t examine why Finn died; we get to know him through the voices of his family and the townspeople. “He’d write little notes to find in weird places,” like on logs in the woodpile, his mother, Tara Reese, says. “Deep in the winter, when we’d go out to get wood for the fire, there’d be, like, a ‘Hi, Mama! I love you!’ ” Finn “recognized coziness, and was always trying to create that,” she goes on. He was a “hipneck,” a friend says, an “ideal combination” of hippie and redneck, who could help weed your garden or fix your truck. He played the euphonium, embroidered, was student-body president, disliked smartphones, was disheartened by “the whole election stuff,” was active in Bread and Puppet, “liked a well-set table.” In the months before he died, he heard about a bell that would ring at a former high school nearby when its teams won away games, “so that the whole valley knew about the win all together,” Heilman says. He wanted one for his town. “He was a kid who had some notion of community being something inclusive and participatory,” she says. Finn thought that the bell could celebrate all kinds of things—a spelling-bee winner, a baby being born—and bring people together. We hear about how everyone from loggers and mechanics to local farmers comforted his family in the wake of his death, and about the town getting a bell in his honor. (When it arrives, the Bread and Puppet band plays a joyful song in the streets.) The episode is a masterly feat of storytelling, immersing us completely; only near the end do we hear about the day Finn died, without warning, on an otherwise cozy afternoon. It concludes on a note of astonishing grace.

The power of “Finn and the Bell” comes as much from its portrait of community, and what Finn’s love of community wrought, as it does from the sorrow of his death. As a series, “Rumble Strip,” which captures local connections with such seriousness and delicacy—whether through a game warden, a town meeting, or a friend donating a frozen owl—has a similar emotional power. It’s tempting to imagine the show itself as a kind of bell—a reminder that ordinary life, and the ties that bind it, remains something to celebrate. ♦

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