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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.

 

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It Should Be Said

I left the house early this morning to meet my friend Tim for a ski. It was cold and dark and blustery; in the beam of my headlamp, I could see new-fallen snow being tossed and tumbled by the wind, lifted from the ground and sent swirling, only to be deposited anew as each gust subsided.

I drove slowly through the dark, the roads snow-covered and slick, our little two-wheel drive car struggling to gain traction on the steep pitch past the intersection of Route 16 and the Bend Road. At the top of the hill, I happened upon a ditch-stuck car, and slowed to offer assistance, but the driver waved me on. He’d already summoned what help he needed.

On the radio, I listened to an interview with a transgender boxer, who’d recently won his first professional bout as a male fighter. He told of how in the aftermath of his win, during an interview from the ring, there was booing and jeering from the crowd, and then they played a piece of audio from the interview, and I could hear the booing and jeering, and the boxer – Patricio Manuel is his name – say I hear some fans aren’t happy. It’s ok, I’ll be back. I’ll make you happy then. 

Then I thought back to weekend, when my older son and I had traveled to a small bar and music venue in Winooski to see a show by band Rough Francis. Rough Francis plays very, very loud music – punk, I guess you’d call it, if you had to call it anything at all – and it’s not really my cup of tea, but my son was intrigued, and because he was intrigued, I was intrigued, and so we found ourselves crammed into a crowd of Rough Francis fans carooming around the room, fully immersed in the noise and energy of the moment, bouncing and bumping and slamming off one another with seemingly little concern for trifling details like, oh, I don’t know, acute physical injury. Though to be honest, I mostly stuck to the fringes, leaning against a wall and fiddling with my earplugs in a mostly-vain attempt to temper the tsunami of sound. And so it came to be that I watched as a middle-aged man in the midst of the fray discarded first his jacket, and then the shirt beneath, his upper body now naked, and this might have been unremarkable but for the fact that he was missing an arm; there was just a briefest stub of an appendage where his arm once was (or maybe never was). But still the thing that struck me most was his absolute unself-consciousness at displaying the truth of his body. The truth of himself.

And so driving in the dark to meet my friend Tim, the words of Patricio Manuel still tumbling in my mind, I could think only of courage, and how little I know of how it must feel to be truly courageous, to follow and live a truth in the face of adversity and even outright hostility. I’m so used to people hating my very existence, Patricio said to the host, and there wasn’t even a whisper of anger or fear or malice in his voice. And the shirtless, one-armed man, spinning and tumbling around the room, not unlike this morning’s wind-swirled snow, the courage to reveal the truth that it’s not that there was no arm where an arm was supposed to be, but that there was no arm where we think an arm is supposed to be.

The skiing, it should be said, was excellent.

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Nothing Much Had Changed At All

The cold and snow came early this year, grinding numerous projects to an inglorious halt, and leveling assumptions about what would get done before winter truly sets in. On Thanksgiving morning it was five degrees below zero, and not much – if any – warmer by day’s end. My younger son and I skied after dark, under the glow of a fat, bright moon, looping through the forest, then across the cleft of the mountain road to the apex of our neighbor’s sloping field and back down again, headlamps turned off to heighten the sensation of speed. Before we’d pushed off I’d made some inane comment about the vastness and beauty of the night sky; he’d merely grunted, and I’d felt old and foolish all over again.

We slid off the hill, then past the old church, over the bridge, and up the driveway, my lungs stinging from the cold. The next morning I turned 47, but it was still cold, still snowy, and it seemed to me as if nothing much had changed at all.

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Only As Much

Last night I skied after dark, down past the pond, where less than three weeks ago (I remember the date: November 3) I’d taken my last swim of the season. The water painfully cold then, though surely colder now under its annual rind of ice and snow. I liked the way the beam of light from my headlamp illuminated the individual flakes as they fell. They hovered in the air, a slow descent, each so inconsequential, and yet there I was, gliding atop a foot-deep layer, an unfathomable count.  I remembered reading once that someone had calculated the total number of grains of sand in the world. I couldn’t recall what the number was (trillions? At least), deciding anyway (and on no particular basis) that surely flakes of snow out-number grains of sand.

I turned left past the pond and entered the woods. Not sweating yet, but I could feel it rising, just beneath the skin, that welcome flush before the pores open. The trees close around me, the short reach of my headlamp showing me only as much as I needed to see.

 

 

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Unbound

On opening day of rifle season, my son’s alarm rings at 4:00. I hear him rise, descend the stairs, crumple newspaper for the fire. A moment later, the crackle of flames. I lie a few more minutes, then follow him downstairs. He is cooking eggs and sausage on the wood stove. The cat is dozing in his preferred spot on the couch. The stove throws heat, and I stand near it, watching my son cook his breakfast. Not talking, just standing. The smell of butter and egg and sausage and still a little wood smoke from when the fire was young and the stovepipe cold and the chimney draught not fully established. I make coffee. We’re at the table, him eating, me just sitting. Sipping coffee. Still quiet. My son finishes his food, and we murmur about the day, and what it might bring, about the snow that fell in the night. He’s so different than me. It startles me sometimes.

At a little after 5:00 he heads out the door, wanting to be in his stand well before first light. After a bit, I tie on my shoes and head out into the dark, running through the snow down to the town road, which has been plowed but remains slushy. Soon my feet are wet and cold, but the rest of my body feels warm and alive, that delicious thrum of blood, the dark just now beginning to give way. I pass Danny in his truck, already heading to work in the woods on a Saturday morning, and then the road is empty and I run its center, the least-slushy part of it.

By now, my son is up in his stand, and I picture him there, sitting in a maple tree in the cold and quiet woods, thinking thoughts I’ll never know. And I am thinking about how even the people we love the most can sometimes seem so mysterious to us, and yet how we can somehow love them all the more across that mystery, across silence and time and distance, and how this must be the truest love of all, the one unbound by these constraints.

It’s nearly light now and I’m close to home, so I run a little faster.