Back Then

August 4, 2011 § 3 Comments

This is an essay that was published in Men’s Journal about a half-dozen years ago. I’d forgotten about it, but found it when I was searching for something else. It was fun to bump into it again. 

The realtor wore high rubber shitkicker boots and drove a rust-bitten Chevy pickup. It was late in October, 1997 and raining. The maples rooted in the rich Vermont soil had shed most of their leaves, and the birches looked like tall bones against the gray of the day.

We trailed the realtor as he pushed through wild raspberry whips, looking for the barbed wire that marked the boundary lines. The land sloped gently to the southwest. It was rectangular, topped by ten acres of overgrown pasture that fell into another 30 choked with black cherry, fir, maple, poplar, oak, and spruce. Across the valley, we could see the long, low barns of dairy farms and the patchwork of fields rimmed by stonewalls and dotted with Jersey, Holstein, and Black Angus cattle. We pretended to listen to the agent’s selling points, pretended to be careful, cautious buyers, pretended, even, to be taking notes, but already, we knew. “I love it,” I hissed to Penny and she nodded furiously, her eyes as wide as the mountain views from the height of the land. We made an offer that night.

To find our place, you’ll most likely need to drive east and north. You’ll need to leave the interstate at the nation’s smallest state capital, Montpelier, and roll along the frost-heaved tarmac of Route 2 until it passes through the town of Marshfield (population 325), where you’ll take a left onto Route 215. The road is still paved, but it’s narrow, and traffic travels slowly, sharing the slim strip of pavement with wayward heifers and sputtering tractors. Five miles later, you’ll ride through Cabot (population 239) and a mile after that, just past the old farmhouse with the pond out back and the 60-foot platform the local farm boys dive from each Fourth of July, you’ll find our driveway.

Our driveway demands a leap of faith of the uninitiated: It’s long (nearly 1300-feet), and starts steep from the road. Most winter days, four-wheel-drive is mandatory. Even in summer, low slung cars risk sacrificing a muffler to its rocky crown. Visitors either love it or hate it, depending largely on whether I have to pull them up the final hill with my truck, a ritual that’s become something like sport to me. I am rarely happier than when crawling along the snowy ground, looking for a tow hook on a Volkwagen or old Volvo, the chain already wrapped around the makeshift tubular steel bumper on my idling Toyota. If it’s late at night and wine and roast meat have been consumed in quantity, well, that’s all the better.

To us, this driveway, and all it implies, encompasses much of what we love about our home. Set so far back from the road, we hardly hear the big milk trucks that occasionally rumble by. Our three-and-a-half year old son, Finlay, can romp endlessly, fearing nothing more than stubbed toes and skinned knees, which, to a three-and-a-half year old, is akin to fearing nothing. But perhaps most critically, our separation from the road and the network of power lines that trace it demands a level of self-sustenance we might never have demanded of ourselves.

Of course, we could have brought power back to our land, but it would have cost $15,000, half again what we’d paid for the entire 40-acres and, to our mid-20’s bank account, an astounding sum. Instead, we spent $1000 on a generator and, with another ten grand we’d borrowed from a wealthy friend, began building. We ordered our lumber from a local mill, and the man who delivered it took our check between the gnarled stubs of fingers only half there, the nails and first knuckles long ago lost to the saw.

It took us three weeks to raise the frame and get a roof on. When we moved in, we had no running water, no insulation, and no refrigeration. But we had power: We’d scrounged a couple of small, 55-watt photovoltaic panels and a pair of used deep cycle marine batteries, enough juice to run a pair of lights and my laptop. Not long after that, we were gifted an old propane refrigerator. With my friend Jim, I rigged up a pressure tank and hot water heater, and we were in business.

When you live off the grid, you become a worshipper of the sun on a level most people can’t appreciate. It’s not about the tan, or the simple pleasure of its warmth on your skin; you worship the sun like you worshipped the permissive father who let you steal sips from his beer on Sunday afternoons. There’s an almost giddy pleasure to be had from watching photovoltaic panels soak up free electricity, and if you get close enough to charging batteries, you can hear the water inside them bubble. It sounds a little bit like laughter.

We have two children, both boys, and both born at home. It is immensely gratifying to watch your child be born onto a floor you laid yourself, under a roof you screwed down over the course of two scalding August weekends, too scared for the height to crack beers until the light had bled from the day and the tools were put away, sweat still drying on their handles.

Our first son, Finlay, was born in January ’02. We were in the midst of turning our cabin into a house: An 18 x 32 addition, kitchen, mudroom, bedroom, second bathroom, an office for me. Radiant heat in the kitchen and bath, cherry floors, window trim, and stair treads. Full basement. More solar panels, bigger batteries. Slate tile. French doors. A pretty damn nice place, which I suppose sounds a bit arrogant, but still. It is.

We borrowed 50 grand for the foundation and materials, hired a carpenter friend to help on weekends, and put it together. It wasn’t quick, but we didn’t really care. We were having fun. The three of us (well, four: Penny was pregnant by the time we started) worked long weekend days; Penny and I would pick away at stuff during the week. We had work parties to raise beams and hang sheetrock, and by the time Fin came along, it was down to finish floors, trim, and paint.

Rye was born almost three years later, in October of ’04, in the same room as Fin. By then, the house was pretty well finished; a few rough edges here and there, but I’ve come to accept these things as part of the reshuffling of priorities that children visit upon you. We did manage to put up a small barn to shelter a sweet Jersey cow and her heifer, and we got a greenhouse up and running. Planted 100 blueberry bushes and 150 red raspberry whips, too. A half-dozen laying hens give us a half-dozen eggs each day; we eat them all and our cholesterol levels are just fine. We do a few pigs each year, in no small part because a BLT comprised of B you’ve raised, L you’ve grown from seed, and T you’ve just harvested from the garden is superior to most things on this earth, but also because one can realize an inordinate amount of pleasure from watching a happy pig root about in the soil. One of the pigs goes to our annual pig roast; the other goes into the freezer and is fondly remembered on a weekly basis.

Some people would call it homesteading, but I dislike the term. It makes me think of straw brooms sweeping dirt floors, smoky kerosene lamps, and wood cookstoves. Screw that stuff. We’ve got radiant heat and all the hot water we can handle; hell, we’ve even got DSL. We have friends who go deeper than we do, and I’m not saying they’re not happy firing up that cookstove in July, but there seems to me a certain grimness in it. Our lifestyle is by no means low maintenance, but everything we do, we do because we want to, not because it’s a piece of a bigger puzzle we’re trying to complete. We never planned this life; sometimes it seems as if everything sprang from our desire to have a piece of land big enough and private enough that we could walk out our front door naked.

I should maybe mention that we don’t have a lot of money. I’m a writer, for Christ’s sake. Penny stays home to be with the kids and tend the land. We have nice mountain and road bikes and skis and a canoe, but that’s about it. We had a tractor, a sweet little Kubota that I never tired of wheeling around, but it was costing us $300 each month, so we sold it when Fin was born. I miss it, but not as much as I don’t miss paying for it. We drive old cars. When shit breaks, we try our best to fix it. Often we fail, but often enough, we don’t. Our mortgage is almost nil, the reward for all those days we worked late enough that we had to wear headlamps so we didn’t cut our damn hands off. We have enough disposable income to go on vacation most years – Tobago, France, Spain, Switzerland, San Francisco – and put a little away toward retirement, which may or may not be any different than our life right now. I’m inclined to believe the latter.

It is not a very complicated life, and there are times I wonder if maybe we’re cheating ourselves. We could move, make more money, have more things. Maybe even do more things or, at least, do different things. But then I look down our field. I see the cows grazing, the little one kicking up her hind feet every so often. I see Fin pulling his wagon, filled with the treasures of his day: A pine cone. Strips of birch bark. A quart jar filled with blueberries. And I say screw it, push away from my desk, and go see what else we can find.

§ 3 Responses to Back Then

  • Twister says:

    I’ve been lurking for a while, I’ll say hi a say I’m looking to move back to the country. I grew up there, and at about 13 started to hate it, but now I’m 23 and I’ve lived in (many) cities for 6 years and I know after that hits 10 years of cities I’ll have gone a little (more) crazy and will move to the middle of nowhere to become a hermit like my dad.

    I think it’s great how you and your wife just kept pushing and working until you got your dream.

  • Suzanne says:

    I am so glad you mentioned the travel part. While I really enjoy reading about living with lots of land and an extensive garden (as I do) and having animals and yes “homesteading” I really like to travel too. And while I try to live simply and caretake the land I also like regular appliances and air conditioning(set on 79) on Virginia 100 degree days. I enjoy your stories~

  • J says:

    I found my way to your site via Jenna at CAF. I love your writing, your thoughts on life in general. Thank you so much. I look forward to reading your books and more about you and your life with your family.

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