Just to See

On Tuesday I drive to P&R Lumber to pick up a few sticks of lumber, along my way passing through the small town of Hardwick, which on this stone-grey day is even quieter than usual. I’ve been going to P&R since I was a teen, back when my friend Trevor and I had an odd jobs business we called Troglodyte Construction, which we operated out of whatever decrepit rig was most road worthy at any given moment. There was a ’71 VW Bug, a similar vintage VW van, a ’79 Cadillac, a mid-70’s Buick LeSabre I called Putris, and a handful of others that escape memory. Trevor was a good builder, particularly for a 16-year-old; I mostly rode on his coattails and tried not to screw up anything too awful bad. We listened to a lot of Van Halen on cassette tapes (Panama! Hot For Teacher! Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love!) and thought we were cool. Maybe we were.

(I feel like I must’ve written about all this before… but, anyway…)

I like going to P&R. It’s a sawmill and a lumberyard, so there’s always noise and motion – the constant whine of the mill, and the back-and-forth of the front loader moving logs and lumber. The smell is amazing – fresh cut hemlock and spruce, the diesel exhaust of the loader – and I like driving past the towering piles of logs to the towering piles of lumber, where I’ll load what I need and write it down on a scrap of paper with the old stub of pencil I keep in the truck for precisely this purpose, and then pay in the little office where pretty much no one wears a mask nor has since this whole shitshow started. Not saying that’s good or bad; it just is. The office walls are covered with old logging photos and postcards of thanks people have sent and sayings like the one that reads “we shoot every third salesman. And the second one just left.” There’s another about taxes, but I can’t remember quite what it says, though I’m fairly certain it’s not pro-taxation, if you know what I mean.

When I go to pay with my little scrap of paper in hand, there’s a scrawled note on the counter that says “out in the mill,” but just as I’m about to head out to the mill, Aaron comes through the door and takes my money. At least I think his name’s Aaron; I don’t know him the way I know Ben, who’s run the place since his father and uncle passed on, and who’s about my age and who’s now been selling me lumber for 30 years or more. I’m a little bummed not to see him today; we always catch up a bit, ask after one another’s families and so on. And to tell you the truth, if there’s anything I’m needing right now, it’s catching up a bit with someone I’ve known for as long as I’ve been legal to drive, if only the way I know Ben, at just enough of a distance to have a sense of his character and mannerisms, but not a whole lot more. Which is actually a pretty good way to know someone, come to think of it.

With Aaron it’s just “thanks” and “have a good day,” and I’m back on my way, back past those 1500 guns and the dump truck and trailer (hood still up, no sign of the man I saw before), back through the under-populated heart of town, and to home, where I stoke the wood stove to make coffee and where, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, my favorite Van Halen song is but a few clicks away.

Later in the day, when I drive in the opposite direction on yet another errand, I find that someone has carefully situated a fully intact gingerbread house at the apex of a roadside snowbank, and though I don’t claim it – don’t even snag a Hersey’s Kiss or three – I’m delighted simply by its presence and am already planning to come this way again tomorrow. You know, just to see if it’s still there.

Holy smokes, this blog has somehow survived another year. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting. It means a lot.


At Least

The shortest day comes and goes. There is scant snow; I’ve plowed the drive only twice. The temp rises and falls and rises again. The New Year is barely a week away and it feels as if winter has yet to begin. In the mornings I draw water for the cows and then ski through Bob’s hayfield, climbing to the height of the land where the sugar maples begin. Along the way I pass the bench that Bob has situated at the top of the field. I sat on it once. It’s a real nice view. This morning, though I didn’t sit, I pause and glance back down the long slope of the field and across the road to the church and beyond that to our barn on the hill which from this vantage point looks small and quaint and not nearly as messy as I know it to be.

Every year I await the passage of the Solstice with a certain anticipation, but this year everything seems so frayed and tenuous that I can’t quite muster my usual enthusiasm for the transition. At least there is snow, I think. At least there is the familiar routine of my morning ski. At least there is this view stretched out before me: A church, a barn, and, if I looked carefully enough, the distant specks of the cows gathered at their morning hay.



More snow, this time upwards of seven inches, enough to shovel and plow and ski. The lattermost I do the morning after the storm, before the former two (priorities, ya know?), guided by the thin tunnel of my headlamp for the first 20 minutes or so, until enough light has come to the sky that I can flick off the headlamp and stash it in my jacket pocket.

On my way home through town, past the old church that sits across the road from the town hall, I see Kyle, who comprises the entirety of our road crew. This means he runs the grader and the plow and the backhoe and the dump truck and pretty much anything else that needs running in the service of the 16 or so miles of gravel roads that fall within town lines. He’s stepping out of his tall F250, on his way to drop his time sheet for the previous week.

Right next door to the town hall, I happen upon Peter, who’s out shovelling his driveway with one of those big, blue push scoops. Peter lives alone, has an old Massey tractor he uses to pull an old wooden wagon he uses to gather firewood to heat his old farmhouse. I’m guessing he’s 60 or so. In May, when we had our covid-friendly, outdoor town meeting, we had to talk loud over the clatter of Peter’s tractor, but no one seemed to mind.

I stop. Peter asks how the skiing is; I tell him it’s good. He comments that the weather doesn’t look too bad; I agree. We both have something to say about what we’ve heard from someone who knows someone else who supposedly said that the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting an up-and-down sort of winter, so I know it must be true. I ski on.

It’s hard to believe it’s already December. It’s hard to fathom another winter of this virus, though I notice how many people seem to have stopped trying so hard not to catch it. It’s difficult to imagine exactly what awaits on the other side of this winter, or the one after that. I keep hearing the phrase “new normal” as if there was an old normal, as if we’ve somehow forgotten that this is what life does – give and take and ebb and flow and bend and straighten over and over again. Always the newly graded road needing grading again. Always the snow falling in the wake of the plow, blowing and swirling into drifts that disorient the landscape. Always the fire burning down to ashes that by dawn have gone cold.