Long Way From Here

Opening day of rifle season. At 3:30, I hear our younger son rise and start a fire in the cookstove. I drift off, but 20 minutes later am roused again by the sound of something frying, spatula scraping pan. At 5:15, I rise, too. Lay a couple sticks of wood on the coals the boy left behind, make coffee. Sit a while. Do chores. The kid’s long gone, leaning against a tree somewhere. Or maybe still hiking to the tree he has in mind. He’s got his driver’s license, got his truck, got just enough work to keep the tank half full most of the time. Well. That happened fast.

I clean up fencing and store it for winter. Split some firewood. Drink a second cup of coffee, then a third. The other boy is off paddling some river in Maine. The wife is off scouting trees for basket material. The cats watch me split, one perched on the hood of the car, the other on a rock. I imagine they’re imaging the fires to come, how they’ll splay themselves across the floor in front of the stove in the most inconvenient spot possible, the one I never quite have the heart to chase them from.

Later, I ride my bike. It’s snowing a bit, but just a bit, and the cold air feels good, drills right into my face like a low voltage electric current. Up Flagg Pond Road, past a bony German Shepherd who tries to run alongside me, but his hind legs aren’t working right, and he stumbles. Then onto Gonyaw Road, where I spy a woman sitting on the ground near the roadside, and I think maybe I should ask if she needs help or something, but she smiles and waves. She’s just sitting, just watching the world go by, or whatever portion of the world goes by on Gonyaw Road, which can’t be too awful much. But enough, I guess.

The houses all have smoke coming out their chimneys. The sky is low, clouds layered one atop the other. Pressing down. Winter feels close now. I think of that old dog. I wonder if he’ll make it to spring, which suddenly seems like a very long way from here.


Won’t Mind At All

The snow goes as quickly as it came, melting fast under an atypical warm spell, mid-60’s and sunny five days running. In the dark one balmy, star-studded evening I hike with my friend Tim up the rooted, rocky trail that scales Mount Hunger, to a sub-peak known as White Rock, where we stand and watch the sky and the twinkling lights of the villages below.

I try my best not to be transfixed by the unfolding chaos – the rampaging virus, the chaotic election – but wow. It is truly something to behold, and even in the swirling midst of it I have the sense of living through an era that will define eras to come. Though I guess that’s always true. I guess it’s just more obvious now.

On the radio I hear an interview with an author who wrote a book about living with an implantable cardiac defibrillator, and she reads a passage from when the defibrillator malfunctions, shocking her to the ground and she can smell burning and she realizes the burning smell is her. The insides of her. And she lives (I mean, obviously, here she is, talking about the book she wrote), and I think it’s remarkable what we can endure. 2000 volts gone haywire in our chest. The smell of our own burning innards. What a thing.

This morning the clouds moved it. Still warm, but you can feel the change that’s coming. There’s snow in the forecast, as there should be. I won’t mind when it arrives. I won’t mind at all.


A Long Time Ago

There is snow on election day, five inches or more. Soft snow. Cold snow. Good snow. I ski at first light, straight down the gravel road, along the shoulder, where the plow has cast what it cleared from the center. That familiar cadence, the push-and-glide, the quick breath. Down past Dan’s, and onto Skunk Hollow. In nearly an hour, I see two cars. It’s still snowing when I return. The light is hazy. I feel buoyed.

Later, at the end of the day, I ride my bicycle a half mile to the town hall to count votes. I’ve never done this before and am surprised by how gratifying it feels to unfold the ballots, then divide them into neat stacks of 25 (four stacks, plus one stack of 14, comprising the 114 total cast in this little town; an unprecedented turnout), then record the individual votes, a tick mark for each in the appropriate column. It is so pleasingly analog; pencil and paper, the mask-muffled murmur of voices from the other two teams of counters, our breath made visible in the condensation beading on the old single pane windows that line the east wall.

It takes barely an hour, and then I’m back into the dark, riding home in the cold, right past the ski tracks I left in the morning, which already feels like such a long time ago.


I Think It’s True

Restless and unsure of anything, not anything at all, I ride my bicycle in the dark to the top of the mountain. There, I stash my bike behind a clump of small spruce and hike deep into the woods; the night is warm and spooky, the air thick and tangible, the trees dripping from an earlier shower. But the moon shows intermittently, and by the time I’ve returned to my bike, the sky is clearing rapidly, the temperature dropping quick. I ride back down the mountain road fast as possible, trying and failing to outrun the cold, my headlamp punching a small hole of light that I’m constantly riding into but never emerging from, and rounding the sweeping corner I whoop loudly, suddenly so grateful for the speed and the cold and the simple fact that no matter what happens – with the election, with the economy, with the pandemic, with anything, really – there remains the possibility of riding a bicycle downhill in the dark, forehead so cold it hurts, fingers so cold they hurt, cheeks so cold they hurt, and maybe it’s a cliche, but isn’t it true that sometimes it takes a little discomfort to remind us just how lucky we are to be alive?

Well, yes. I think it’s true.


Good to be Prepared

I drive home from Minnesota, where I’ve been visiting an old friend, helping him on the house he’s building deep in the forest, two miles up an unmaintained track. We work on the roof, and every so often I pause to take in the view of Lake Superior. The shore is miles away, but the lake is vast in an oceanic way, the horizon line where water meets sky feels like the end of something too big to fathom. We move fast and accomplish much, and I leave satisfied, ready for the long ride home, straight across the middle of America, where grain grows right to the edges of interstate and big trucks accompany me through the night.

Back home the leaves are mostly down. The streams run low and quiet. The cows graze the last grass. Everything seems to hang in the balance, suspended between seasons, the gentle one that’s soon to pass, and the harder one that’s soon to come. I try not to think about it much. Today I’ll go outside, run some fence, help my son change over his summer tires for winters. There’s no snow in the forecast. But it’s good to be prepared.


As It Turns Out

An unexpected evening rain bends but does not quite break the heat, and when I awake in the morning, right at the cusp of first light, I follow the cats outside to stand for a minute in the heavy air. The day is coming on so fast I swear I can see it happening in real time, almost as if the light were accumulating like snow. The cows are gathered under their favorite apple tree; they’ve worn the ground bare around its base, and I wonder why they’ve chosen this tree from all the others that would have suited the purpose equally well. A place for shade. A rough trunk to scratch against. Maybe, just maybe, where they know to be found for scratches in the spots the tree can’t reach.

Busy. So busy. The days compressed and blurred together. The summer feeling suddenly short and all the possibilities it contains feeling suddenly much less possible. I’m reminded somehow of the bluejay I passed on a bike ride more than a month ago; it had been hit by a car, and was flopping frantically at the road’s shoulder, and I turned back, steeling myself to do what I thought right, but when I held the bird in my hands, it quieted, and I could see that nothing was broken. So I opened my palms and it flew. Perhaps it had merely been stunned, or perhaps it was one last desperate lurch before final collapse. Either way, it wasn’t done yet, there was life yet for it to live, and I rode on, grateful that I had not acted too quickly and knowing I’d long remember the way it settled into my palms.

Which, as it turns out, I have.


Easily Tickled

July 15. The mid point of summer. A beautiful day. I milk early, then ride my bike through air that’s heavy and cool from recent rain. Up the long climb to Cole’s Pond and back down, passing Louie out tending to his chickens, he’s 70 or so, still keeps a big flock with his wife Annie, still puts up square bales, and far as I know still goes surfing from time-to-time, driving to the coast and back in time for chores.  And noticing how I notice the old men more and more, maybe the way a young child observes the new adult, always looking one generation ahead for a clue of how it’ll be for us, how we might end up, and from what I can tell, Louie’s way doesn’t seem too bad. I roll through town, pass a young woman sitting on a picnic table in her front yard, smoking a cigarette over the top of a mask that’s pulled down just far enough for the task. Up Schoolhouse Road, past the clothing optional campground, trying to look like I’m not looking (but I’m not, really!), and then to the very top of the mountain where the God is Love sign has disappeared since last I was here, which is somehow disappointing to me, even if I’m not actually 100% certain that God is Love, though it seems as at least plausible as anything else I can imagine, and a whole lot more comforting, too.

Looking back, I see this is the fourth post in a row I’ve mentioned riding my bike. I’ve been enjoying riding my bike; I rode a lot in my younger days, miles and miles and miles, in sun and rain and even snow, and it’s been nice getting back into the rhythm of it. I like the way it makes me feel, tired and exhilarated at once, and the way it brings me up close to the world. I can’t finish a ride without stopping to chat with at least one person or another, even on these quiet back roads, and I can’t go a mile without passing something that tickles my fancy, though it’s true that my fancy is easily tickled.

In addition to riding my bike, I’ve been reading a bunch, and heartily recommend the following. I’d love other suggestions in the comments! Hope everyone’s doing well as can be.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts (an all time favorite)

In the Fall and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent (two other all time fave’s)

The Adventurer’s Son, by Roman Dial





In the rain, I move fence for the cows. The grass is tall and heavy with seed, bent on its stalk. My jeans are wet through and my socks have slid down deep into my boots, where they are bunched and uncomfortable and I’d stop to pull them up but it’ll only happen again. The rain feels good. It’s been so dry for so long I’d forgotten how good rain can feel.

I finish the fence, let the cows onto the new grass. Their coats are sleek in the wet and because I’m done working and getting cold, I imagine the radiating warmth of them from dozens of feet away.

The rain is slowing. Later, I go for a bike ride and pass an old woman tending her tomatoes, they’re planted in big, ugly, plastic tubs, but the plants themselves are beautiful, tall and newly lush from the rain, and the woman herself is beautiful, the way she’s bent to the plants, grey hair across her face, so focused on her task she doesn’t notice my passing, though I could almost reach to touch her. Maybe she’s hard of hearing. Maybe she doesn’t care.

The road tilts downward. My tires throw flecks of mud high into the air; it plasters my shins, paints a stripe up my back. It’s going to rain some more, I can tell. But maybe, if I pedal fast enough, I’ll beat it home.


In the Morning

In the morning I ride my bicycle past serpentine windrows of drying hay, the smell unlike any other, sweet and strong and reassuring. I ride past the tree farm with the big gold-painted rock (because nothing screams “prosperity” like a big gold-painted rock, don’t you agree?), past a small vegetable farm, past Annie out riding her horse, and almost past the free pile, where I find a very nice pair of boots that’s only one size too big, and an almost-as-nice pair of sneakers that fit quite nicely. So I ride on, my new footwear tucked under one arm, laces flapping in the breeze, soon passing two young women pushing a stroller built for four, though only three seats are occupied, and I can’t help but joke that there’s just enough room left for me.

They’re kind enough to laugh.

I’m at the base of the mountain road on my way home, now, right past the house with the Trump 2020 flag, and here I leave the shoes behind a tree for future retrieval. Another half-mile and I spot an old man working in his garden. He’s just bought the property, which I know because it formally belonged to our friend Michael, who is himself moving onto 160 acres, where, he tells me, he hopes to die. Eventually.

I stop to introduce myself to the man in the garden. His name is Larry, and I’m guessing he’s 70 or more. White tee shirt, kneeling in the dirt. Baseball cap. He says he’s planning to get a couple heifers to eat down the surrounding grass, and this, like the smell of the drying hay, is reassuring, because a world in which old men work their gardens and plan for heifers to eat their grass isn’t irretrievably broken. Close, maybe. But not quite.

I say goodbye to Larry and head for home. The sun is high now, and hot, and the mountain stream runs low. I can scarcely hear it as I ride.