Any Kind of Answer At All

Winter passes as winter does, in fits and starts of snow and cold, in the pages of one book after another, the cat dozing on my chest while I read in the evenings before bed, in early morning forays into the high-elevation hardwoods at the top of the mountain road. There I watch the sun rise through the leafless crowns of the maples and yellow birch and eventually over the snowed boughs of the spruce and fir, glad for the silence and the solitude and sometimes wondering how different my circumstances might be if it weren’t for snow and skis and cold and this big swath of land where I soon find myself beyond the range of human sound. Or of any human sign at all. It’s good to wonder these things, I think, at least from time-to-time, just as perhaps it’s good to wonder how to be of use in a world that spirals further and further out-of-control with every passing day. Though it’s true the answers don’t come easy; it’s true I envy those who have any sort of answer at all. Or who seem not to wonder in the first place.

In the evening, I read again. The cat dozes, and I doze with him, drifting in-and-out of my family’s murmured conversation, stars visible in the sky through the window above my head. In the morning, the boy and I rise before dawn; he leaves for work and I sit by the fire until I’ve sat by the fire long enough and then I head back to the woods where it’s always clear I know nothing more than the last time I came here, or the time before that. But also where knowing doesn’t seem to offer any kind of answer at all.


The Clearest, Coldest Pond

The big storm hits with pounding rain and swirling winds, but the power stays on and the roof doesn’t leak, and in the night, toward the end of the maelstrom, the rain turns to an abundant snowfall – perhaps 5″ in total – so that by the next morning, the landscape is returned to its former winter glory. It is suddenly cold again, and at first light I ski to Dead Moose Pond, which is arguably one of my three favorite places on earth that I can think of at the moment. The early light is eerie and spectral, the conifer-green wedge of the surrounding forest like the filling of a sandwich between the grey bread of sky and ground. Despite the cold – it’s 5, maybe 6 degrees above 0 – the pond ice is rain-rotten beneath the new snow, and within a few strides I know I won’t be crossing, so I turn back and retrace my tracks to the road, then push north toward the summit of Wheelock Mountain, which is also arguably one of my three favorite places on earth that I can think of at the moment. And so it is that an hour later I find myself at it’s little-heralded-and-even-less-visited peak, which isn’t really a peak so much as a wooded plateau where the boys and I used to joke that every broken and bent over tree was evidence of a resident Sasquatch marking her territory. It’s been a some years since one of the boys has ventured up here with me; I try to remember the last time, the particulars of it, but I can’t, all I can recall are the Sasquatch jokes, all I know is that it happened, and that I surely failed to appreciate the possibility that it wouldn’t happen again. Or at least not for a very long time. But that is the way of it, I suppose, the appreciation so often coming too late for memory to salvage the specifics.

In the evening I fall asleep early, but not before I’ve opened the window above my head just an inch or two so that when I awake in the night I can feel the air drift across my face, just for a moment or two, like the tiniest, gentlest waves of the clearest, coldest pond you’ve ever jumped in.

Another year. I’m grateful to you all for reading and commenting. Happy New Year.

Also, here’s a nice one from Zach to close out 2022.



On the morning of my 51st birthday, I emerge from the woods on my skis at the top of the mountain road just as a man in a black Subaru glides over the crest and slows to a stop. His window descends. “See any tracks up there,” he asks, and I know he means deer because he’s dressed all in orange and it’s the height of rifle season, and when I say “no” (because it’s true, I didn’t see any, or at least not any to speak of), he smiles and says “I got one this morning,” and that’s how I end up shoulder to shoulder with a stranger in the middle of the road on the morning of my 51st birthday, me in my ski boots, he in his Lacrosses, peering into the hatchback of his Forester at a pretty little four-pointer with just that one spot of blood where the bullet entered. You’d think there’d be more to it, but no. Just that one spot. Just that small bloom of red.

A week later, and the snow is all but gone. A storm is approaching, the thermometer rising into the 40s. Before the rain, I walk a portion of the same route I’d skied the week before. Rifle season is over and muzzleloader season has yet to begin; there are no other cars at the trailhead. I have the woods to myself. The trail is a mix of hard-packed snow and open water; the sky a monochromatic grey, so dim and unchanging that my sense of time feels off. Have I been walking for 10 minutes, or 30? I know that it’s morning, but it somehow feels as if it could be nearing nightfall, as if I’ve been awake for 10 hours, rather than two, and the wind blows in sporadic gusts that sway the treetops but on the ground can barely be felt at all.


Always on Our Way

On election night the sky is cloudless and a shade of almost-blue from the light of the moon. It’s the coldest it’s been in weeks, though no colder than one might reasonably expect this time of year, and I recall that two years ago, I skied on the morning of election day. Not this year. Not even close. Why, just this weekend, I swam in the pond, though it’s true I didn’t exactly linger.

I walk to the town hall to cast my vote as well as count those cast by others, the moon so bright I don’t even need the headlamp I’ve brought. At a distance, I can see the shadowed outline of the church, and far beyond and above that, the spinal column of the mountains to the east, and I think that it’s nice to be reminded that despite the crazed fever dream infecting so many who yearn for the power we might grant them, there remain still larger, more enduring forces at play.

One of my favorite things about counting votes is seeing how many of my neighbors have split their tickets. They’ll vote for our Republican incumbent governor (wildly popular, and about as moderate a Republican as one might happen upon these days, but still), then vote for the most progressive of the Lt Governor candidates, before veering Republican again. Or vice versa. For some, the votes are split evenly across parties up and down the ballot, an almost willful demonstration of independent thinking just to prove we won’t do what’s expected of us. Not here. Not in this town.

Ninety minutes later, I walk home, the moon just as high and bright as it was an hour-and-a-half ago, the sky still that endless blueblack color. I hear a large animal moving through a copse of trees at the road’s edge; a deer, most likely. Through those same trees, I see moonlight glinting on the surface water of the beaver pond and stop to watch it. It’s a new pond; the beavers moved in only the fall before last – built a dam, built a lodge, made a home – but already it seems like they’ve been there forever. Eventually, they’ll have felled the last of the trees within beaver-distance of their new home; they’ll move on, and the dam will slowly fail. Or perhaps it won’t fail, perhaps it will be strengthened by debris from upstream, making their way down the mountain and into the pond to be caught in that intricate web of sticks.

I hear a car making it’s way down the mountain road. I hear laughter and voices as others emerge from the town hall. Everyone on their way to somewhere else. Always on our way to somewhere else.


Day and Night

Before the storm

Every day, more leaves fall from the trees, and on Saturday, while splitting wood, I spy the season’s first snowflakes. If flakes is even the right word; they’re so small I can barely see them at all, like motes of frozen dust that melt to nothing the moment they hit the ground.

Later, riding my bike down the backside of the mountain road, I happen upon a car parked at the road’s shoulder. There’s a puddle of bright blood just under the front bumper, soaking into the dirt. There’s a dog in the driver’s seat and no one else in the car, which appears undamaged. I stop, unsure of what my role might be. Hello? No answer. Hello? No answer. The dog watches me, unperturbed. The cars’ flashers tick on and off. I ride on, but in 15 minutes, now headed for home, I pass the spot again. The car is gone. The blood still soaking. Near the top of the mountain, I try to catch a falling leaf in my hand and miss.

In the evening, I pull the truck into a gas station and empty $80 into its tank. I have a love-hate relationship with this particular station; I hate it because it has television screens on the pumps that start screaming at me the moment I begin pumping. It startles me every time. And I love it because right next door there’s a run-down house with rabbits inhabiting a wooden hutch that’s essentially in the parking lot of the gas station. It seems a small life for the rabbits, to be sure, but I like to watch them while I pump, and I like that departing the station requires me to execute a three point turn in order to avoid hitting them. Where else can I get gas and be compelled to navigate around rabbits? Go ahead: Give me an example. I bet you can’t come up with a single one.

That night, the moon is big and bright and I’m awakened by the singing of coyotes. They are close and loud and I lie there watching the moon and listening until they’ve moved on or gone silent or both, and then there’s really nothing more to do but close my eyes and fall back to sleep.


That Good Feeling

Not yet. But soon.

The rain in the night is torrential and unceasing, a stuck valve freed and now drawing from some inexhaustible pool, months of pent-up demand set loose. It’s not been this wet since I-don’t-remember-when; rainwater sluices down the steep driveway hill, the pond rises to nearly its normal level, and come morning my jeans are still damp from the rain they absorbed during yesterday’s evening chores.

I walk outside barefoot to grind my coffee and watch the dark lift. The ground is pliant and warm. The air is dense. The cats climb the fence posts of the paddock and perch atop them, feet tucked, tails twitching. Beyond, the cows are lying on the dwindling pasture, soft shapes I might not recognize if I didn’t know better.

Back inside, I light the fire for my breakfast. The cats return, wet and mewling and expectant, though for what, I’m not certain. I fry eggs and eat them straight from the pan. It’s day now. The cows have risen; they’re ambling westward, drawn by some deep bovine instinct, or maybe the memory of sweet grass, or perhaps nothing so much as that good feeling of moving in that dim morning light.

Music. Here’s a great cover of Robert Earl Keen’s Shades of Grey by Jason Boland. And a new one from Zach Bryan. Hope you like.


As Big and Quiet as it Wants to Be

After the rain

Finally the heat breaks, and rain falls, though not enough. But not enough is better than not at all, and in the morning when I drive over the mountain road, my passage through the trees is shrouded in mist that looks so much like smoke that even though I know it’s not, I keep smelling the air just in case I might be wrong.

In the evening after the heat breaks, I count primary ballots at the town hall. There are 42 of them in total. It’s a good turnout. Jig and I sit at a wobbly table and I call out the chosen names and he makes hash marks on a page and at the end we count and see that everything adds up and this is democracy in our little town.

The daylight is contracting, and at an early hour this morning, it was just cool enough to raise goosebumps on my arms. The summer softness hasn’t hardened yet, but you can sense it’s going to, incrementally at first, slowly, slowly, slowly, then more quickly, until the air is a knife’s edge that won’t go dull for months.

The younger boy packs his truck, he’s headed West (of course he’s headed West, don’t they all head West?), and even though he isn’t even gone yet, I feel the impending quiet. And maybe I fear it, too, just a little, all that empty space after so many years of fullness, it’s hard to know exactly how to shape myself to fill it. Or maybe the trick isn’t to fill it, but just to let the space be there, as big and quiet as it wants to be.


Like We’re Counted On To

Church and truck

In the morning when I awake the cows are in the front yard, on the wrong side of the electrified fence meant to contain them. It’s misty and barely light, and for a moment I stand there mute, watching them graze the tender grass, willing them to be back where they belong, because really what I want right now is a cup of coffee, not a cow chase. Alas, my will is too weak for the task, so I pull on my boots, drive them back into the pasture, and fix the section of fence that was no doubt pulled down by the calf, not yet well-attuned to the possibility of electric shock and therefore willing to push his way to greener grass. In fencing parlance, an electric fence is known as a “psychological barrier,” which is to say that the fence itself is not what holds the animals. Rather, it’s their fear of shock that keeps them contained, and I can’t help but think it’s an apt metaphor for the human condition and all the psychological barriers we erect for ourselves. Or that our culture erects for us, or some combination of the two, barriers we’ve lived with for so long or have gone to such great, contorting efforts to make peace with that we can scarcely imagine the shock of dismantling them, the undoing of all the manipulations we’ve done to get comfortable with them. And never mind what awaits on the other side!

(Yikes. What the hell was that? Philosophy or something?)

With the cows in place, I head out on my bike and ride my favorite morning loop, the one that takes me past the nearest working dairy farm where I come so close to the barn I can hear the rhythmic thump and hiss of the vacuum pump, and then, just past that, an old farmhouse with its enviable collection of vehicles: There’s the 80’s-era F150 with a God Bless Johnny Cash sticker on the hood, an IROC-Z of similar vintage, and a Cadillac DeVille that’s not old enough to be particularly cool, nor new enough to be ostentatious. I’d proudly drive any of those rigs, though I can most vividly imagine myself now in that low-slung IROC, running hot through the S turns at the top of the mountain road, a little Motley Crue on the stereo. No! Quiet Riot! Yup. That’s the ticket for sure.

Back home, the cows watch me wheel up the driveway, looking chagrinned. The cows, I mean, not me, though in truth, it’s probably just wishful thinking. More likely, the little one’s thinking of making another run for it; he’s been bit by that fence only a time or two yet in his young life, the pain hasn’t quite stuck, he still believes he can take on the whole damn world and not feel the sting of it. That’s ok. He’ll learn to stay in line soon enough. Like we all have. Like we’re counted on to.


As Much As You Possibly Can


At the Agway in town I buy cat dewormer and make conversation with the middle-aged woman at the register. She’s wearing a Great White concert tee, so of course I ask her about that, and she reels off a list of all the shows she’s going to this summer – Skid Row, Pat Benatar, Loverboy, I think maybe Dokken, or maybe it’s someone else, those 80’s era hair bands sort of run together for me – and then she tells me that she got tickets for her daughter, too, and I can see in her eyes how much this means to her, and for a moment I imagine the two of them pumping their fists and singing along with Sebastian Bach.

“Thanks, hon,” she says when I leave with my dewormer, which I’m going to stuff down the skinny cats’ throat to see if maybe it’s worms that’s making him look so small, though it could just be age and the inevitable diminishment it visits upon us all. It’s been a very long time since anyone’s called me “hon,” and I have to admit that I sort of like it. I mean, in this day and age you can imagine a person being offended by it and yet at the same time it seems to me as if the world would be a poorer place without middle-aged woman in Great White concert tees calling their dewormer-purchasing customers “hon.”

Driving home, it’s all new-mown hayfields and wind-tossed trees, the undersides of their leaves slivery against the sky. The ribbon of gravel road like being carried on a mud-brown river. Coming out of the corners, rocks ping off the underside of the car. I know that sound like the sound of my own breath. All these years of dirt road driving, all these years of them taking me just where I need to go.

The road begins to climb. The car shifts down, the engine surges. The smell of summer is pouring through the open window, and I want to tell you what it smells like, but I can’t. It just smells like summer, the way rain smells like rain, the way snow smells like snow. The way you want to just slow down and breathe in as much as you possibly can.

I really enjoyed this conversation with Ada Limón. You might, too.


It Does Feel Good

Cat. In a cart.

In the early evening I drive far north to the small town of Canaan to pick up a pair of used tires for the truck. It’s a long drive, pretty much as far as one can travel in a northerly direction from our home and not end up in another country. The evening is stupendously beautiful, the air silky soft and warm, the landscape so lushly green it feels almost as if the color itself could bear my weight. I turn onto a road I’ve never driven before, a long, winding ribbon of pavement that passes lakes and moose swamps and mobile homes and forests so thick I get a sense of foreboding. There are long stretches unmarred by human habitation, then the remnants of old farms, then a village too small to sustain even a gas pump. For many miles, I follow a man on a Harley, one of those models that places your feet way out in front of your body, so that it basically looks like you’re floating down the road in a La-Z-Boy. I’ve got the windows to the car wide open and I can hear the rat-a-tat thudding of the Harley’s engine. I could get a motorcycle, I think. I could ride for miles with my feet in front of me. I could lean into the corners just the way he’s leaning into them. It must feel so good.

I buy the tires from a very nice man with a lot of tattoos, then I turn back and drive the same route home. I’m pleased with my purchase. I’m pleased to be driving in the slow-fading light, past the done-in farms and the small villages, through the forests so thick I get a sense of foreboding. I’ve still got my windows down, and the air is rushing in, and I noticed that my feet, while maybe not quite as far in front of my body as the feet of the man on the Harley were in front of his body, are actually pretty far out there. I tilt the seat back just a bit, and I let my body lean into the next corner, and then the one after that, and you know what? I was right: It does feel good.