“So what’s your purpose?”
That’s what Ron Rost asked me after I talked to him on a Saturday afternoon. This Saturday in the life of Rost was like every other day – a product of all the days that came before it. Before arriving to our meeting, he had been reconciling how to drill holes through 12-inch wood with a 10-inch drill.
“So how do you do that?” he asked. “You can do it by measuring really well and making parallel lines or” – here Rost pantomimed a haphazard glance and a reckless drilling motion – “and you split the wood.”
Rost is a farm-carpenter musician. That is, he is the carpenter for a farm outside Vergennes, where he has lived – and sugared – since 1986 and also plays music.
“I moved in with a couple people. There was a studio in the back. We started a band,” said Rost.
Formed in 1980, Rost’s band grew to 10 people, so he asked his landlady if he could take down a wall to accommodate the whole group.
“She said yep, go ahead, just save the wood. I’m still building from that wood,” said Rost.
Rost plays the lap dulcimer. It is oblong, wooden and stringed (imagine a stretched-out violin), and he has carried it in his travels since his trip hitchhiking across the country after his college graduation.
Rost started to play and learn more about the dulcimer after college, and began to play with different groups of fellow dulcimer-players. He began to make connections around Vermont simply by carrying his instrument.
“First night I came into town I was walking around Burlington, I was looking at a marquee there. Guy came out and he said, ‘Hey, that a dulcimer on your back? And I said yeah. And he said, ‘Ah, I could use a dulcimer player in between this act and that act.’ And I said, ‘Well, what a great town.’ And it happened to be 1980. How bout that 1980?”
Rost also found that music gave him a purpose to travel, one of his other interests.
“I like travel but I wanted to travel more directly. So I thought music was one way to do that. That gives purpose to the travel. That’s one of the reasons I did what I did,” said Rost.
Last year Rost travelled to Ethiopia. Through some band mates and friends, he landed a job at an arts camp for children in southern Ethiopia. The camp eventually culminated in a circus production.
“I brought 250 pounds worth of art supplies and some juggling pins [for the circus]. I worked with the band. They wanted to learn blues, jazz and reggae,” said Rost, who is well-acquainted with all three.
Reflecting on his experience in Ethiopia, Rost realized how unprepared he had been for the job.
“When I got there, I still didn’t really know what I was doing,” he said.
Sometimes, Rost wonders if we ever really know.
“Is this what you do?” Rost asked. “I don’t know,” Rost responded.
“Is this the right way to brush your teeth? I don’t know,” Rost asked and responded again. “But I don’t say that all the time. I make up something. Or base it on something I’ve read or what somebody told me was right.”
Though he is prone to philosophically questioning his life, Rost’s daily routine retains a comfortable degree of regularity.
Everyday Rost cuts an onion. He grows them alongside his potatoes in his garden.
Everyday Rost drives his car. It’s a big 2002 silver Astro van with an array of instruments and carpentry materials rattling around in the back.
But the greatest constant in his life is music.
“These past four months, I don’t know what I’m doing. I want to know, but I don’t. There’s a point where it’s just, I am playing music. This seems to be what I’m doing more than anything else. I’m in it,” said Rost.
Rost accompanies the dance classes offered by Middlebury’s dance department and plays in the dance department’s performance improvisation ensemble on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. His repertoire on any given day includes anything from the piano to whatever forms of percussion are lying around, often a cymbal or a set of bongo drums, to the trumpet. On special days, he brings in the synth.
“I’d like to be a genius. Or I am a genius,” Rost said. At 57, Rost is still looking for more genius. “To feel something different. I mean that’s what I’d like to do, feel something different. To be surprised. I want to be surprised.”