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Still Cold Enough

For five whole days, sun. And with the sun, heat. Along dirt roads I drive past newly mown hayfields, taking that sweet smell deep to the bottom of my lungs. Standing in line at Willey’s, I listen as customers lament the heat and humidity. I wait my turn, buy my ice cream sandwich, eat it in the truck on the drive home, slowing for two chickens to cross the road, then speeding up again. Gary Clark Jr on the stereo.

Soon home, I am alone, my family scattered like dandelion seed. I’m alone so much more now; my sons teetering on the cusp of adulthood, both with jobs, both with lives steadily expanding like filling balloons, like my lungs breathing hay smell, my wife immersed in myriad projects and collaborations beyond this small holding.

I feed the chickens, fill the cows’ water, and dip into the pond where, if one dives deep enough, it’s still cold enough to take your breath away.

 

 

 

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Heavier Than I Know it is

I pick up a boy hitchhiking. Or more to the point, he picks up me, approaching my truck as I idle at the blinking yellow light that brings a semblance of order to the main intersection of the small town we frequent. “I need a ride to East Hardwick,” he says, and because I am going right through East Hardwick, and because even if I weren’t I’d probably give him a ride anyway, just to better understand the nature of a boy who approaches a man in a truck to ask for a ride.

He climbs into the cab and settles in. We wait our turn at the blinking light, then accelerate through the intersection. He tells me he’s 19, though surely it can’t be true; he looks younger than my 14-year-old son. He tells me he spent the night outside, and this I believe, because he smells badly, and his bare arms are covered in dirt. He asks if I have a couple dollars, and although of course I do, I reflexively tell him I do not; there is something in the request that feels inauthentic to me, though in hindsight I’m pressed to say why. He tells me his name is Kenneth, and ask for money again. He complements my 15-year-old truck, asks what kind of motor is has, says it’s smooth. He calls me “sir” and between requests for money, thanks me for the ride. I drop him in the parking lot of the mechanic I’m visiting to pay for recent repairs to our car, and he stands in the open door of the truck, not backing away, asking for money yet again. But I don’t give him any. Maybe I should, but I don’t.

I pay my bill, and drive home, detouring past the long-neglected private campground that is reemerging under new ownership as an adults-only, clothing optional venue. This is big news in our little town of 200 (give or take a few), and predictably, the venture has become the butt (see what I did there?) of innumerable jokes. I drive slowly, and look carefully, but there’s no one around, naked or otherwise. I don’t think they’re open yet, anyway, and even if they were, it’s still black fly season. You’d have to be plumb crazy to let it all hang out right now.

I wish I’d given Kenneth some money, even though I’m still not convinced he really needed it. But I can feel it in my pocket, even now, that small wad of crumpled bills. It feels heavier than I know it is.

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The Cows, the Mushrooms, the Turtle

Often in the mornings I drive our younger son to work. Or rather he drives me; he’s 14, and learning the row the gears in the little stick shift, and we practice on the lesser-traveled gravel roads. I make him stop in the middle of an incline, then start again, and I chide him for riding the clutch. But the truth is, he’s a good driver, probably better than I was at 14. Certainly more responsible.

The writing I don’t do here is stuck in my head, like the image of a herd of cows the other morning, early, just after dawn, this time me driving through the verdant land, the lushness almost overwhelming to the senses, past the grazing cows, and two of them off to the side, one licking the others’ neck, the lickee tilting her head just so, all the better to have her itches properly scratched. And wondering how they communicate this need, or if it’s just happenstance.

Or gathering morels with my son, the same one I take driving, so many mushrooms we eat them for three days straight until suddenly they don’t seem so special anymore and we decide not to go back for more. Though there were so many. Never seen morels like that.

On the highway, I see a snapping turtle trying to cross. I stop and hurry it along, and an hour later, returning home, I see it again (or is it really? Could it be a different one? It looks like the same one to me), now heading in the opposite direction. This does not seem possible, but there it is, so I stop again, and hurry it along again, skootching the indignant beast with my boot until it’s out of harm’s way. Thinking all the while that one of these days the turtle’s going to get hit. I got shit to do. I can’t just hang out kicking it across the road.

Other things, too. In and out of my mind, they all seem noteworthy in the moment, but so many of them just fade away, and I return to the cows, the mushrooms, the turtle. And the sound, yet again, of rain on the roof.

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Isn’t That All?

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Early morning. I ride my bike five miles home from dropping the car at our mechanic, across a dreary landscape, the trees still bare, the fields not yet green, or at least not fully so, the roadside bearing winter’s detritus: Empty cans of Bud Light and Twisted Tea, random bits of plastic and paper. Two miles of pavement, then the turn onto the graveled mountain road, the big mud holes mostly healed by the town grader. The stream rushing by on my right as I begin the climb, still flush with snowmelt running off the mountain. Past Michael’s house, set back high from the road, surrounded by prayer flags. He lives there alone, mid-50’s I’m guessing, very many tattoos, always a smile, always a wave. For a long time, he had no car, then he did, and now it seems that again he does not, and I pass him on the road often, walking with his granddaughter or his dogs (or his granddaughter and his dogs), and sometimes we chat. Sometimes we don’t.

I like riding along this stream, the sound of it, the weight of the air, heavy with moisture. I like climbing the road, it’s just the right pitch, and climbs for just long enough before I pull into our drive, past the birches, past the wide-eyed cows and their water trough, past the truck and my son’s first car: A 1990 Volvo station wagon.

When he brought it home I remembered suddenly the time my friends Josh and Trevor and I were driving from Cape Cod to Vermont in Josh’s old VW Bug, and how we broke down only a few dozen miles into our trip. I was 16, maybe 17, at the time, the same age my son is now. Josh and Trevor and I limped the car to the parking lot of a furniture super store, where we abandoned it and started hitching. It was late at night and no one would stop, and anyway we were arguing over whether or not to keep trying, or to curl up in the woods and sleep ’til daybreak, so we split up, and soon I got a ride that took me most of the way home. At some point the next day we reconvened, none the worse for wear, each with tales to tell. I cannot remember what happened to Josh’s car.

“I want to do stuff like that,” is what my son said when I told him about that night, now 30 years behind me. “Maybe,” I said, though I was thinking maybe not. But I could understand the yearning, the desire to have the experiences that make the stories, even if it means sleeping in a ditch. Even if it means hitchhiking through the night.

Because really, isn’t that all any of us want?

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All of This is Very Good

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Driving over the mountain road at night, the fog is so thick I’m forced to slow to second gear, 20 mph or even less, though I know this route with back-of-hand familiarity. But the suspended water vapor plays all manner of tricks on my mind, and for a moment, I’m no longer convinced I’m even on the right road: Have I taken a wrong turn? Was this really the way I meant to go? But I carry on, and eventually descend to the lower flanks of the mountain, where there is no snow left to melt and thus no fog, and now can see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, behind the wheel of our little car, churning through the mud, on my way to pick up yet more used building materials (always, always with the used building materials), the night close around me.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been working on a book with our dear friend, Luke Boushee, a wilderness educator, amazing illustrator, and all-around wonderful person. It’s called The Young Adventurer’s Guide to (Almost) Everything, and it was published last week. It’s a total departure for me; not at all the narrative non-fiction I’m accustomed to, but I’m happy with how it came out. I love Luke’s illustrations, they’re the perfect combination of instruction and whimsy, and they’re really fun to look at, even if you’re not particularly young. Or adventurous, for that matter. Penny wrote the bulk of the instructional text, and I handled the less-technical stuff, mostly because I’m a less-technical sort of person. It was a true team effort, and it’s gratifying to see it come to life.

If you happen to have read the book, and if you are so inclined, I would be very grateful if you would drop by Amazon and write a review. Naturally, I’d prefer folks purchased from their local, independent book seller (don’t have one? Maybe you’d consider supporting one of my favorites, here and here), but the Amazon reviews are still important, both from people who are purchasing there, and for those who are just browsing. Thank you for considering this.

That’s all for now, except to say that the season has finally turned in full. The snow is nearly gone, even from the stubborn, northern facing hollows, and the cows are restless, eyeing the early shoots of young grass beyond their paddock gate. The windows thrown open, laundry on the line. And early this morning, still half dark, I pulled my bike from the basement and pedaled down the road. First ride of the season.

It was a very long winter, and all of this is very good.

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The Day Almost Over

On the eve of the first day of spring of 2019, I split wood under a rising, near-full moon, the sky transitioning from blue to black, moving fast through all the shades of steel between. The wood was maple; straight-grained and riddled with intricate patterns of darkened fibers. It split easy. Behind me, between swings of the maul, I could hear the cows rustling through their evening ration of hay, and I paused every handful of swings and turned to watch them rustle and chew, rustle and chew. The moon was directly behind and over them, it had cleared the leafless branches, and with every pause I could see that the open space between the tree tops and the moon had increased ever so slightly.

I turned my back to the cows and to the fat moon. I set another round on the chopping block and raised the maul high over my head. So much wood still to cut, to skid, to split. The land still so deep in snow. The day almost over.

 

 

 

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Through the Slow Falling Snow

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I feel this space slipping away, like the snow that melted yesterday, turning to water under the high sun and running down and across the softening back roads I drove with my son on our way home from the ski mountain, passing a rapidly diminishing pint of Ben & Jerry’s back and forth between us, windows down to all the smells of the new world, singing along loudly to Good Lord Lorrie between bites. And I’ve been learning that believing/And that barely breaking even/It’s just a part of life for you and me/And I’ve been living with the loneliness/It’s got down in my bones I guess/It’s just another phase of being free.

Only a few nights prior, in the company of the same boy, I’d skied by headlamp into a squall, the spiraling flakes magnified by the bright-lit cones of light cast from our foreheads, the trees waving and creaking in the wind. We skied to the height of our land, then cut across a wet area where often the deer bed in fall, maybe it’s a bog, maybe it’s not, and on this night a grouse burst from the snow directly beneath my skis. Its frantically beating wings brushed my arm and if only I’d had half a mind, I could have reached out and plucked it from the air. But in that moment half a mind was half a mind too much, and the bird landed high in a nearby spruce. Rye and I skied on into the storm.

It’s been a serious winter. Snow on the ground since mid-November, and only one significant thaw. In many places, the snowbanks along the back roads are higher than the roof of our car; mailboxes are carved out of their depths and driveways split them, narrowed to car-width tunnels by the accumulated snow. The cows’ fence – a good 40-inches off the ground – became buried in places, and they finally decided they’d had enough of their winter stomping grounds, and stepped right over it. And so now are confined to the smaller, plank-fenced paddock until the barbed wire reappears. We’re behind on next year’s firewood – the snow is simply too deep for the tractor to navigate – but not too far behind; during that one extended thaw, back in the old year, I felled and skidded a nice pile of sugar maple logs, and I know right where the rest is coming from.

I am writing plenty, though not here, obviously, and mostly for money, which of course is at once a blessing and curse, though I’m not so jaded as to realize it’s more of the former than the latter. I’m grateful for the work, as I’ve been grateful for this good winter, and also for the way the grouse’s wings felt against my jacketed arm, delicate and desperate at once, the bird rising fast through the slow falling snow. And I’m grateful for those of you who continue to read here, despite my long absences. Thank you.

 

 

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Some Heavy Shit

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The moon shining through the window wakes me earlier than usual. It’s so bright I can see the unlit numbers on the little clock I keep on the windowsill above my head: 4:27. I won’t fall back to sleep, I know, so I tiptoe downstairs and light a fire. Do the coffee thing.

Last night I skied after dark, except it wasn’t really dark, already the moon was casting ethereal light, enough to forgo a headlamp, even in the deep woods, and the trees seemed to stretch upward forever against the blue-black sky. It was cold and so, so quiet. I skied a different route than usual, straight down the driveway and through town, past the old church, plenty of snow to ski the road’s shoulder. A car drove by and honked a friendly honk, just the briefest tap to the horn. I turned into Bob’s field and started to climb.

It’s been an amazing winter, maybe not one for the record books, but still. Snow on the ground since mid-November, and only a handful of brief, inconsequential thaws. I just finished clearing a half-mile driveway that hadn’t been plowed all year, up the road another 500 or so feet in elevation, and in places the undrifted snow was an honest 5 or 6 feet deep. Even with the big bucket on the tractor it was like bailing a bathtub with a teaspoon, and it took nearly 20 hours, but now it’s done.

I have skied and skied and skied, and twice a week or so my sons and I drive 15 miles to a small basement gym where we lift weights and laugh, then drive home, loving that flush of sweet blood to our labored muscles. It is a humble little gym, none of those complicated machines, just a couple of benches and lots of iron. There are smelling salts on the window sill, and the first time we went, against my best advice, the boys thought to give them a go. They haven’t done so again.

So this has been my secret to surviving this eternal winter: glide through the moonlit forest, staring up at the endlessly reaching maple and birch, stopping where the stream still runs under the depths of snow to hear its muffled gurgle. And then, twice each week, descend the creaky stairs to that little room with my two teenage sons, put the music on loud, and lift some heavy shit.

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Maybe it was

I left the house early this morning on my skis, light just coming to the sky, the wind gusting from the south or maybe the east. It was hard to tell. I stopped to feed the cows, forking hay off a large round bale perched just outside their paddock. Round and round the bale I skied, prying loose the hay until I’d accumulated a sufficient pile, then skied it to the barbed wire fence, then pitched the hay to the cows, who’d stood watching the whole time in anticipation of their morning ration. Their flanks crusted in wind-driven snow.

Then into the woods, onto the same perimeter loop I’ve skied 25 or more times already this season, and probably 50 times the season before and also the season before that, so yes I know it well, but of course it’s always different, and today it was the consistency of the wind-blown snow that struck me, so silky and smooth, and I moved fast through the forest, the wind still whipping around me, clouds galloping through the dim lit sky.

Down the hill and across the mountain road, then through the cedar stand, then up the steep climb into our neighbors’ hilltop maple woods, now in full daylight, the tall maples creaking loudly in the wind, a chorus of sound from all directions, and in the midst of it I stopped for a minute just to listen, and it felt almost as if the sound was resonating through me, as if I were somehow a part of it. Or it a part of me.

And I guess maybe it was.