Not in my Experience (a true story)

Sunset in the orchard

Yesterday afternoon I hauled a load of logs for my friend John. He’s logging with his horses about a mile up the road, a nice patch of spruce belonging to our neighbor Scotty. He sells the spruce to David, who lives about three miles down the road, where he used to do custom milling, but now sells spruce cambium to a local cheesemaker; I guess they use it for aging cheese or something. David build this nifty steam chamber to remove the cambium; he’s the kind of guy who can just pick up a torch and build precisely such a contraption, which means I always feel a little dumb and clumsy in his presence.

Anyway. It was a big load of logs, maybe 1200 feet, which I was happy to see, since my deal with John pays me per 1000-feet hauled. I ain’t getting rich off it – no one gets rich of much of anything to do with forest products, at least no one who actually gets their hands dirty in the process – but I don’t mind a bit when John hands me a check for the loads I hauled the month before, which I’d pretty much forgotten about in the intervening weeks. So in that way it’s like found money.

The mountain was – how to put this nicely? – icy as fuck. Truly, a sheet of ice. I put the truck in low, and basically idled down the hill, tapping the brakes every time I found even a bit of sand for traction, and otherwise just letting the gears hold back the load. Twelve hundred-ish feet of spruce plus trailer isn’t near to the most I’ve hauled, but it’s enough weight that I damn well knew it was back there, and what with the ice and the stream along one side of the road (not to mention my pride), I really didn’t want to end up needing to be pulled out of somewhere I oughtn’t be.

About halfway down the road, I passed a truck coming the other way, towing uphill, a nice, newer Chevy Duramax with a sweet gooseneck trailer upon which was loaded an old plow truck. Even at the time I thought damn, I think I’d rather be towing down than up, because while towing downhill in those conditions can be a little hairy, there’s nothing worse that hauling a heavy load up a slippery hill, losing traction, and sliding backwards. Don’t ask me how I know.

I dropped the trailer at David’s, shot the proverbial shit for a few, then headed back up the mountain road. I was in a fine mood, and had already forgotten about the rig I’d passed on the way down, my sense of self-importance so finely honed that in my mind I was onto the next task of my day, and thinking about how good it’d feel to have that one ticked off, too.

Except that right where the road pitches up before it levels out again (before it gets really steep) at the town hall and the old church, I found the Chevy. Or both Chevy’s, I guess, because the trailered truck was also of GM lineage. Indeed, they had lost traction on the iced road, come to a halt, and begun sliding backwards. Fortunately, the driver had been able to stop the truck and trailer before tipping into the ditch, and with just enough room for traffic to pass. But to put it mildly, it was not a good situation. Not at all.

Let me preface the remainder of my tale with this: While I am no builder of custom cambium-removal devices, and while in so many ways my ingenuity and general resourcefulness fall tragically short, one thing I am pretty good at (and rather enjoy) is extracting stuck vehicles. It’s a niche skill, I’ll give you that, but one that comes in handy ’round these parts. And if it’s someone else who’s stuck, all the better, because of course then the pressure is off. Plus, there’s none of the small embarrassment of being the one who perhaps made a less-than-stellar judgment call and now finds him/her/theirself in a marginalized situation. Yes, I know this small embarrassment very, very well, which is why I can write about it with some authority.

I stop to assess the situation. It’s three men. The center console of the truck is populated by energy drinks, candy wrappers, and a handful of loose ammunition in what looks to me like .270, though I could be wrong. They’re friendly, but a little tense looking, which is understandable given the circumstances, which boils down to the fact that they’re frankly a little screwed. Can’t go forward, can’t go backward, and with the roads so slippery, it’s really not a good place to be sitting on top of 20,000-ish pounds of immobile metal.

I’ll go get my tractor, I say, but already I’m thinking it’s long shot. For one, I don’t have chains on the tractor, and for another, we’re talking 10 tons, uphill, from a dead stop, behind a 50-hp Kubota. I don’t even know how to begin calculating the physics, but simple common sense is telling me it’s not likely. Then again, it’s hard knowin’ not knowin’, as the saying goes.

Alas, I’m right. The tractor spins uselessly, the Duramax spins uselessly, and nothing is resolved with the exception that the quickest, most-convenient extraction option is off the table. I make a  trip over to Danny’s to see if he’s around with his skidder, but as expected, he’s off in the woods somewhere, working. Everyone who’s serious about working the woods is working all the time right now, prices are sky high and the conditions are near to perfect. Scotty has a skidder, too, but I’ve already been past his place on my way to get the logs, so I know he’s not home, either. So I head down the road to Tom’s, because Tom also has a 50-hp Kubota (can’t swing a dead cat ’round this parts without hitting 50-hp of over-priced orange paint), and I figure maybe we can hitch up BOTH tractors to the twin Chevy’s and at least get them up to where things flatten out and then maybe they can turn around and sneak their way back down to where they came from. Because like I said, after the flat section, the road gets really steep again, and there’s not a chance in hell they’ll clear that section.

And this is what we do, and it is (I am not ashamed to say) the absolute highlight of my day (and perhaps my weekend, though who knows what fun today has yet to deliver) to be riding tractors side-by-side with my friend Tom, inching the stranded trucks and trailer up the iced-over mountain road, feeling the dominion thrill of harnessed horsepower, all that metal and rubber and oil and noise at our command, and even better, a couple of stout choker chains thrown into the mix. Does it get any better? Maybe, but not in my life experience thus far. Well… maybe seeing my sons being born. Yeah. That was close, at least.

Soon the tractors, trucks, and trailer are safely to the flattish section of road, so we unhitch, and Tom heads his way and I head mine, back to where I’m framing walls in the upstairs of the house. While I’m working, I think of the men and their load, and hoping they made it back down the hill ok, and I briefly consider taking a little trip, just to be sure.

But the wall won’t frame itself, so I decide to trust that they did.



Looking the Wrong Way

The snow that fell on the backside of the rain was a disappointment; two inches at best, a scant blanket that barely covered the ice-encrusted ground. Yet the texture was silky and pleasing underfoot, so I strapped on my skis and headed for the long, sloped field across the mountain road. It was late in the afternoon, and I skied as the light changed, noticing that the transition felt like someone draping fine layers of gauze over the lens of the sun, one layer after another, the layers coming more rapidly as the day wore out.

From the height of the field I looked back across the road, over the church steeple, to our barn tucked into the fold of a hill. How many times I’ve stood in the barnyard, looking to the field, to the precise spot I now stood, and it was strangely unsettling to stand there now, seeing everything in reverse, looking the wrong way through a window I always thought offered only one view.

The light was leaving fast now, no space between the strips of gauze, the snow covered field luminescent in the gathering dark. I pointed my skis straight down the slope and pushed off. The cold air bit at my face; the snow hissed beneath my skis. If I hurried, I might still do chores without a headlamp.


That’s How it Feels From Here

Coming in from morning chores at 25 below zero. Last day of the cold snap. 

Yesterday a warm and lashing rain, the snow disappearing fast, rivulets of water running down every slope, the tarpaper on the unsided exterior walls of our home ripping in the wind, the torn flaps thumping against the house. Hearing this in the night I had a sudden reminiscence from childhood, of how the branches of the trees by the cabin would rub against the roof in the wind, and how much I liked that sound. Yet I can’t be certain this happened; it was so long ago. So perhaps the memory is false, but I like it anyway.

By this morning, we’d lost 80% of the snow or more, though the temperature had dropped in the night, and the rain had turned over to ice, and then the ice, slowly, by degree, to snow. It is snowing now. I did chores with my shoulders hunched against the weather, 10 degrees and windy, the driven precipitation – whatever it was, snow, ice, sleet, freezing rain – sharp against my face.

Now we are firmly into the New Year. I am not one for resolutions – they’ve always felt too unyielding to me, and in my experience, that which does not yield eventually breaks. But I like the idea of intention, and if were to name my intentions for the New Year, I suppose I’d put openness at the top of my list. I’d like to remain open to possibility, to change, to being wrong, even, and therefore, to being humbled, because I think it’s a gift to be humbled, and I’d like to not lose sight of that.

I am doing some new things this year: For the first time, I am teaching a writing and speaking class at a nearby college, something that only a year or so ago, I would not have thought possible. Likewise, I have been accepted into the MFA program in creative non-fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, though whether or not I will actually attend depends on a handful of contingencies, including finances, logistics, and (I’m not too proud to admit) basic courage. It is a funny thing to consider returning to academia, having dropped out of high school, and with only a modicum of experience in college-level learning. Sometimes I do not doubt my capacities; at other times, I do, a waxing and waning I have come to understand as being inherent to the human condition. Or to my human condition, at least.

And I am doing some things the same. Still writing for Yankee magazine, and grateful for an amazing editor there, and the latitude he gives me to follow my whim. Finishing up an illustrated book with a good friend, and cooking up more book ideas. Heather and I have a project in the works that we’ll be announcing soon. And I continue my work with Rural Vermont, an organization I love dearly, partly for the work we do, but equally (if not more so) for the people that comprise the “we.” I like people, always have, and the older I get the more I like them, the more I seem able to accept their quirks and outright flaws, even as I become more accepting of my own, more able to chuckle at them, and to present them to the world without embarrassment or shame. Well, most of them, anyhow. There’s a correlation, of course, between acceptance of self and acceptance of others. But you probably knew that.

I hope to continue writing here – no, I’m sure I will – though my schedule is busier than it once was, and perhaps about to become busier still. But in so many ways, this remains my favorite outlet, free of the pressure of money and editorial expectation, and always greeted by a gracious, compassionate, and generous readership. Or that’s how it feels from here, and I am ever-grateful for it.





First Morning of the Year


Morning ski with my friend Dirk on the last day of 2017

Milking this morning at 18 below, I noticed the squeak of snow under Pip’s hooves as she shifted her weight; how the stream of milk made splashes that froze immediately against the sides of the bucket, coating it in white; the spiral of wood smoke rising from our chimney. My own breath pluming in the air, the expelled heat of blood and lung. Strangely, my bare fingers were warm, while my booted toes were not. But the bucket was almost full now, and I knew what awaited me in the house: The fire, so fierce I’d watched the stovetop glow orange in the early morning dark, the cats, connoisseurs of comfort, slumbering in patches of sun just slanting through easterly windows, a pair of this morning’s eggs tucked in my coat pocket. I’ll fry them in butter and eat them as the sun passes over the copse of spruce beyond the garden.