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Crashes

Friday evening is cold and rainy and I drive to the top of the mountain road to hike into the spot I’d discovered by ski three months prior, where I’d counted nine moose beds in an area perhaps the size of a football field. The rain is insistent and I’m soon soaked through and cold; I’ve under-dressed as usual, while simultaneously over-estimating my own sturdiness in the elements, which is also as usual. But I make it to the moose yard in rapidly diminishing daylight, night coming fast, and the mist further obscuring my vision. I’d hoped to see a moose, but now I realize I’d have to be much closer than would likely be allowed, and so I don’t look very hard and instead just ramble until I’m really too cold to carry on and it’s getting darker and I still have a 40-minute hike back to the truck.

Driving down the mountain road I come to a turned-over car, in a deep ditch, driver’s side down, the roof smashed against an abutment of soil and rock. There is no other traffic. I stop the truck, climb out. The car is not running, and the juxtaposition between the crashed vehicle and the rainy, mist-shrouded quiet in the scant remains of natural light feels ominous. I cannot see into the car; all I can see is the underside, a complicated terrain of exhaust and brake and transmission.

I call out. There’s no reply. I call again. Still no reply, and I’m trying to figure out the best way to climb atop the wreckage, where I should be able to see through the side glass, when the passenger door begins to open just a little, straight up into the air. It opens a few inches, then closes, then opens a few more inches, then closes, almost as if whoever’s inside is trying to gather their strength for the final push. And I call out again – hold on, I can help – (though I still haven’t figured my path to the top of the car) when the door opens a few inches further and a man pulls himself up and out. He’s groaning and disoriented, but ambulatory, and, to my delight, smoking a cigarette, which looks freshly lit. I can’t help but wonder if he crashed while lighting the cigarette, or if he lit the cigarette after crashing.

He jumps down from the car and stumbles into the woods, and I think he’s either drunk or in shock, it’s hard to tell which. Maybe it’s both. I ask if he’s ok. He says he’s ok, and improbably, he does seem ok. I mean, the car is fucked, there’s no two ways about it. It’s a bad crash. He makes his way over to me and I ask outright if he’s drunk and he says no, and I believe him. He doesn’t smell of alcohol and now that he’s standing near me and no longer wandering disoriented through the leafless trees, he seems quite sober. He’s still smoking that cigarette. We stand there quiet, watching the car. As if it were going anywhere. I can give you a ride, I say, at pretty much the same moment we notice the patterned flashing of emergency lights from higher up the mountain road. Someone has called in the accident, which means that someone must have passed the accident before I arrived, since no one has passed since. Which means he must have been sitting in the crashed car for a while; the emergency vehicles are from a town in the valley to the east, some 25 minutes away. So he had to have lit that cigarette after he’d crashed. I don’t know why I’m stuck on this detail, but I am.

I ask if he wants me to stay, but he says no, he’ll be ok, and so I leave just as the emergency vehicles pull up, and for starters I’m thinking about the image of him folded into the wreckage of his car, lighting a smoke and maybe trying to figure out if he’s hurt or not, and I wonder if he was just hanging out in there smoking when the car that called 911 passed. Hard to say.

And I’m thinking about the fact that this is the third bad accident I’ve been the first to discover on this very road in just the past handful of years. I wrote about one of them a few years back, it’s in the archives somewhere if you’ve got some time on your hands. The other was an elderly couple, I actually saw the crash happen, and I was able to crawl into the back seat of their car (the front doors rendered inoperable by the force of impact with the tree) and sit with them while we waited for the ambulance. The man was folded over the steering wheel making deep guttural groans, unable to form a sentence, and the woman said her arm was broken, but she was mostly worried about her husband, whom she told me had a heart condition. But honestly even without the heart condition, he didn’t sound too hot. Will you stay even after they come she asked me, after we’d been sitting together for 20 minutes or so, and I said yes, of course. Then we heard the sirens and she asked me to fix her bra strap so it didn’t fall completely off while they were pulling her out of the car. So I did, and she said thank you for staying, and I never saw them again.

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The Ache of Rain

I can feel the approaching rain in the wrist I broke when I was 12 after tripping while trying to catch a football I’d thrown high into the air. This ability to portend weather in the ache of knitted bones is a new feature of my aging body. No doubt there are many more such features to come – I’m not far from 50, after all – but for now, this is the one I notice most, and am almost grateful for, because I know it could be worse.

The rain is welcome. The ground is still thirsty from last summer’s drought, which was followed by a winter of below normal snowfall, which was then followed by a 10-day stretch in early April that might have passed for late June, the seasons co-mingling as the sugarmakers gathered the last run of sap and the poplars budded out. I’d wake in the night and listen to the wood frogs, open my eyes for a minute to the moonlight shining through the window.

I’m ready for the change of season. I guess we all are. Who doesn’t want to hear the wood frogs, see the grass green, watch the buds emerge, boil the last sap, even feel the ache of rain in their bones? I’ll take it all, and then some: Ride the bike, swim the pond, pull the weeds, ditch the damn mask. Set the cows to pasture and stand for a minute in their midst, listening as they chew that new grass.

And then (because winter is never far away), finish stacking the damn firewood.

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Over the Land

View from the kitchen table, morning of April 22, 2021

Early in the evening I walk a half-mile to the town hall for a select board meeting. It’s snowing hard. The snow catches in the rough nap of my jacket and accumulates on the tops of my boots. The road is unplowed and I walk straight down its middle because that’s what passes for excitement these days. Coming home I spot a truck off the road at the corner just past the one-way bridge, and quicken my pace, because the opportunity to pull someone out of a ditch is even more exciting than walking down the middle of the road in an April snowstorm. But by the time I reach the stuck truck, another truck has stopped and a tow strap is being strung between the two vehicles. There’s nothing to do but idly watch and secretly hope that Truck A is too stuck for Truck B to extract it and I’ll have reason to jog home for the tractor and a chain. It’s been a lean year for pulling rigs from ditches – I haven’t notched a single one, come to think of it – and lord knows I need a little something to juice the adrenals.

Alas, the pull goes down without a hitch, and I continue on my ambling way, step-by-step through the insistent squall, six-inches or more already, the snow that takes the snow, the poor man’s fertilizer, the softest, quietest quilt draped lightly over the land.

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The Smartest Thing to Do

Rain turns to snow overnight, and by morning there’s three inches or more. The sky is so low it reaches right down to the ground. Standing by the cows’ fence as their water trough fills, I watch the snow fall, and can just discern the plume of smoke rising from Peter’s house down across the pasture, on the other side of the big beaver lodge and then the mountain road. Smoke rising, snow falling, sky low. The cows nosing at the sweet hay I’ve thrown over the fence.

When the trough is full I walk up the hill into the woods just because I haven’t in a while. The ground is soft beneath the snow, though the snow makes it seem softer still. It sticks to the needled limbs of the conifers. The hardwoods are lean and bony and almost black against all that white. I follow my main skid road for a ways, then veer in an easterly direction across the gentle slope of the land. When I stop I can hear the snow falling, but so faintly it requires a certain faith to believe in what I’m hearing. Maybe it’s just a trick of the senses. But I don’t think so.

Later, I drive over the unplowed mountain road. It’s still snowing, and even in four wheel drive, the truck slips and lurches over and across the ruts and potholes and washboards. Last week I’d thought to have the winter tires swapped for summers, and now am pleased with myself for having had the foresight to wait, though in truth there’s been no cunning on my part. Just procrastination leading to inaction, one of those moments – and the older I get, the more frequently they seem to arise – when doing nothing was actually the smartest thing to do.

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The Weight of the Clouds

Out on my bike in the early hours, I’m passed twice by a man on a motorcycle. The motorcycle is fitted with a sidecar, and the first time he passes me, heading in the opposite direction, the sidecar is empty. Twenty minutes later, he passes me again, this time coming from behind, the sidebar now occupied by a golden retriever wearing googles. The dog looks back at me with evident interest, and for a moment I’m afraid he might jump ship, but soon the motorcycle sweeps around a corner with everyone still in place.

Later, on my way home, I pass the parking lot of the old church, where it’s well known that people like to pull over and get high. Back in my day, it was all about wine coolers and weed, but now I find discarded needles and little balls of charred tinfoil, evidence of harder stuff. Maybe the drugs have gotten heavier because the pain has gotten heavier, or maybe it’s just the natural order of things, that inexorable human pull toward more. There’s a padded bra in the church lot, too; I’ve been watching it for months, ever since I first kicked it out of the snow with my skis. One of these days maybe I’ll pick it up, but I’m also thinking that maybe I won’t.

I realize that what I like about riding my bike is precisely the opposite of what I like about skiing: The bike brings me closer to humanity, while the skiing takes me further away. And I guess I need them both, the closeness and the distance, one being the antidote to the other and therefore necessary to even know the other, like the way you can’t truly appreciate how good it feels to have sunlight on your face if you haven’t felt the weight of the clouds.

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If Only

Winter’s End

Spring comes galloping on a week of 60-degree days. And the sun, that old friend. Snow melts, rivers run, the backroads thaw. Sap flows, but the season starts late and looks to finish early, and the talk is that sugarmakers down south have already pulled their taps, having made only a quarter crop. It’s just talk, but still.

I drive rutted roads to pick up loads of sawdust for the cows’ bedding, the same drive I took almost exactly a year ago, the one I wrote about here. How much has changed. How little. The small town I visit frequently is busier than it was a year ago, there’s no lockdown despite surging virus numbers, we all just go about our lives with masks on our faces and bottles of hand sanitizer tucked into the dash cubbies of our cars. Some of us get sick; more of us don’t. Some of us have been vaccinated; more of us haven’t. It’s just the way life is for now.

Yesterday we had rain that turned to snow overnight, and this morning the trees are newly frosted, there’s no sun, and we’re 25 degrees shy of 60. I shovel sawdust into the cows’ paddock, and there’s something about it that excites them; they run fast, short circles and fling sawdust into the air with their wide, wet noses. Later, maybe, I’ll see if I can shore up some electric wire and give them a little more room to roam, but for now I shovel and shovel as they run and fling, their whole world confined by a wood-slat fence they could breach in a heartbeat if only they knew how easy it would be.

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Cold and white and quiet

Skiing high on the mountain in the early morning, I deviate from my planned route to follow the tracks of a moose, probably from the evening before. Snow falls in waves of varying intensity. The tracks zig and zag, plotting a course that’s steadily uphill, through a hardwood forest that opens as I climb, until I reach the narrow shelf of a ridge that ends in an abrupt plunge down the eastward-facing side. The trees are mostly maple. The tracks of the moose I followed merge with the tracks of more moose, or at least one other moose; it’s hard to tell for certain, the way they come together and apart, together and apart. The animals – or one of them, anyway – must be close, because these tracks are fresher, still sharp around their edges despite the falling snow. I watch for them as I ski, it’s always so startling to see a moose, the horse-like mass of them, the legs almost comically long and too thin for what they support, but all I see is snow and tree and sky. All I hear is wind and my own steady breath, and even as I turn to retrace my tracks, the day and its long list calling me back to where I left my truck at a wide spot in the road, I know I’ll return.

Far back down the trail, I stop and listen again. Now I can hear, faintly, the distant thrum of an engine as a driver revs to make the grade of the Mountain Road. The snow has stopped except for the occasional lazy flake. The wind is gentler, too, but it no longer feels like we’re on the cusp of anything. It just feels like winter, cold and white and quiet, the sky that same stubborn grey it’s been for weeks.

I think about the remnants of coffee in the cracked mug I left in the cupholder of the truck. It won’t be hot anymore, that’s for sure. It won’t even be warm. But I’m going to drink it anyway.

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Spring Ahead

February morning on Dead Moose Pond

Late February. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something; the only question is, what? Spring could be just around the corner, or still eight weeks distant. The cold has been steady for months, never severe, but also never quite relenting, and though we’ve had few storms of significance, the snow lies feet-deep on the ground. The woodshed is lean. The hay, too. Enough of both, I think, but only by the thinnest of margins, the sort of margins I’d like to think were relegated to my younger, less experienced days, but alas. Some lessons are harder learned than others.

In three weeks, we change the clocks. I don’t relish it, honestly. I prefer the early morning light, prefer the early mornings in general, ample time to orient myself to the day, only the cats and the cows demanding my attention (and both so readily ignored). “It’s just the government’s way of reminding us who’s in control,” is what my father used to say twice each year, whenever the time change rolled around. I don’t know if he actually thought this true, or if he just enjoyed fancying himself as the sort of person who thought it true. Knowing my own predilections, and alarmingly aware of the old adage about apples not falling far from the tree, I’m guessing the latter.

Snow fell this morning. I watched it through the window for a while, and then, perhaps not quite as enthusiastically (but not yet begrudgingly!) as only a week or two prior, I rose to put on my boots and head outside.

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When it Comes

The repeating sameness of the midwinter days gives the impression that nothing’s really happening, that time has suspended itself, that nothing changes except for maybe the monochromatic greyness of the sky, one day a bit lighter, the next a bit darker, the next sprinkling snow as if from a shaker. I wake, build a fire, make coffee, feed the cows, feed the fire, ski, work, more coffee, more chores, more fire, read, sleep, and wake to do it all over again.

But throughout it all everything is changing: Our elder son is hired to lead river expeditions from a base on northern California, and prepares to leave. Our younger son is hired to help build a sugarhouse and install 35,000 taps in time for the first sap run, and is out the door every morning long before light. Our old washing machine dies a clunking death. A neighbor’s house burns to the ground.

I try to place my attention where my attention is worthy of being placed, while simultaneously trying to remember that I get to decide what is worthy and what is not. I try to decide wisely. It’s a lot of trying. And still, every day: Build fire, make coffee, do chores, go to woods. Visit with my sons in the moments they’re home and in the mood for visiting, a confluence of circumstances that seems to arise with decreasing frequency, like a clock winding down.

The hard part of winter is over. Or it is for me, anyway. The days are getting longer, and despite that unrelenting monochromatic sky, the sun soon to return (I even saw it once last week!). It’s all downhill from here, a soft glide into the early days of spring, the first bare patches of ground on the south-facing slopes, the muddy, tire-sucking backroads, the rutted driveway, the sap running hard, tufts of shed cow hair stuck to my jacket, the near-empty woodshed, the skis propped optimistically by the front door for another outing or two if the conditions are right. The house often empty, or nearly so. The wet, fecund smell of the thaw. I remember that smell. I like that smell. I’ll try to give it my full attention when it comes.

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Crashing Down

It snows all weekend, a warm snow that accumulates slowly but eventually piles to eight inches or more. For only the second time this winter, I plow the driveway, the wet snow rolling into huge balls as I push it with the tractor. I like plowing snow, though I liked it more when we had a plow truck and I could drink coffee and listen to music as I plowed, continually rubbing away the condensation that formed on the inside of the windshield no matter how high I ran the defroster. And I liked it even better back when the boys were small and would ride along, laughing at the sudden stops and starts, already attuned to the thrill of wielding powerful machinery. Plowing with the tractor is slower, less comfortable, and lonelier – no coffee, no music, no heat, no windshield, no sons – but it beats a shovel by a country mile.

By Monday morning, the temperature has dropped. The cold, aided by a steady breeze, has dried out the snow. It always amazes me how that happens. Again I ski along the mountain ridge, but this time I go further, time and again passing the point I’ve identified as my turn around. The snow is so good. It whispers under my skis. The trees emit cracks and pops in the cold. It’s almost a conversation.

I pass a large paper birch, half-chewed through by beaver and still standing, but otherwise see no signs of wildlife, hear no birdsong. Everyone hunkered down, I guess. Funny to think of them in their snowbound worlds, uninterrupted by the virus, unconcerned with events that I can’t seem stop reading about, even when I know what good it does me. Which is not too bloody much. Again and again I pledge to not look at the news upon waking; again and again I look at the news upon waking. Coffee on the woodstove, the splintering world caught in the computer on my lap. If only it would stay there, though sometimes it seems that if I simply refused to lend it my attention, it would. I know it’s wishful thinking.

Finally I turn back. The snow still whispering. The trees still cracking and popping. The half-chewed birch still standing, though the closer I look, the more tenuous it seems. So I hurry on, not at all wanting to be crushed when it comes crashing down.