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The Last Morning of January

Deep cold has lingered for weeks, though the January sun is strong and already there’s a spring-like quality to the afternoon light, the way it slants across the landscape, across my upturned face, forces me to squint my eyes or simply close them altogether. We’re still a bit lean on snow – the blizzard tilted eastward and left us in its shadow – but the skiing in the woods and fields is excellent and by now I’m well enough acclimated to the weather that even this morning, at an even dozen degrees below, I soon found myself hatless and sweating as I climbed an old skid road deep in the woods just over the crest of the mountain. It was the first time I’d come this way, but already I knew I’d be back, I liked the openness of the trees – sugar maple, mostly, with a scattering of birch – and the contours of the land, rising steep on my left to rock abutments before topping out at what appeared to be a sort of plateau and dropping on my right into a snowed-in drainage where I suspected I could still find fluid water under the snow if I were inclined to go looking. Which I was not. The air was stone still and when I stopped to linger I could hear nothing but the muted noises of my body’s mysterious inner workings: A vaguely electrical hum that’s more sensation than sound, a steady whump, the occasional gurgle. Then back to it, leaning forward to get my weight positioned just right so that my skis would find traction against the slope.

An hour later I emerged from the woods into the full force of the sun and started gliding back toward the road along the edge of a large, south-facing logging cut, mindful of the stubble lurking just under the surface of the shallow snow. Yet the slope kept pitching downward, and the temptation to let ’em run got the best of me, and so I now I leaned back in hopes that doing so would allow the tips of my skis to ride up and over any unseen hazards until I was legitimately going pretty fucking fast with no real plan other than to keep riding it out and trying to gently steer between the more-obvious perils.

Soon I’d reached the bottom (with no ensuing calamity!) and then turned to ski atop the snowbank at the side of the mountain road, now in-and-out of the sun according to the placement of trees, the sensation of cold settling back into my body but even as I thought to reach for my hat, I could see the nose of the truck up around the bend and instead I just skied a little faster.

And that was the last morning of January.

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Not Really Broken

Sunny Ski Shadow Selfie

There’s barely any snow. It’s been below zero once that I’ve noticed, and maybe twice more that I haven’t. In the mornings I fry eggs for the boys on the wood stove; it’s dark outside and they sleepily dress for work while I tend to their breakfast. The fire whooshes and the eggs are done so I slide them onto chipped plates. Two yolks intact, one broken, one leaking just a little. Not really broken, not really intact. No one cares one way or another, it’s just a game I play, trying to keep those yolks whole. I’m not too good at it.

They eat and leave. I ski on the scratchy snow, do chores, then drive over the mountain. It snowed a little the night before, it’s still snowing now, in fact, but so lightly you could almost miss it. Maybe an inch total, and yet the old man who lives in the trailer on the other side of the mountain is shovelling his driveway. He’s cleared the neatest of paths down one side of his drive and seems to be working his way back up the other side. The edges of his path are so crisp I want to stop and take a photo. The trailer is old, but clean. It looks freshly painted. The old man looks spry and happy and I watch him in the rearview mirror for as long as I can.

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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.

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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.

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Always


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.

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First Snow

The weekend brings the first snow of consequence, enough to smooth the rough edges, cover the bootprints pressed into the half-frozen mud, stifle the cats’ usual pre-dawn pacing: They’re not so eager to get outside now. Later in the day I’ll drive north on Route 16, where the road is lined with tamaracks turned a deep gold. The afternoon light will be draining from the sky, and those golden trees will seem almost to illuminate my path. Where the tamarack corridor breaks I’ll see into the dusky forest, devoid of foliage but for the occasional beech, which hold their leaves through winter. Marcescence is the word for it. The leaves are known as marcescent leaves. Try saying it aloud. It’s a great word.

The boy gets up early each morning to chase deer. He’s not seen much yet. I get up early each morning to light the fire, watch the sky change, drink coffee, check email, read news I’d be better off not knowing. The snow-averse cats doze alongside the wood stove. Later, I go out to the barn to lift weights. I watch the cows through the opening of the big sliding door while I do deadlifts. One of the cows – the heifer – is licking the others’ neck, right along the collar line. The one being licked – Pip – has extended her neck for better access. It must feel so good.

I lift the weights up and set them down again and again. I love the solid sound of the clanking iron. I love the last, labored repetition of each set, the moment between thinking I might not make it and knowing I will. I love walking out of the barn 40 minutes later, my entire body flush with blood. It’s like a hum in my bones.

The day has arrived in full. The cows are at their hay. Someone has chased the cats outside and now they sit on the wide cherrywood sill of the door, paws tucked under, watching my approach through the falling snow.

Here’s a great version of a great song.

Here’s a great conversation with a great songwriter.

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Might Just Be

Good advice.

Wind and rain strip all but the most stubborn of the remaining leaves. The forest smells so good now, there’s a weight to the smell of it, a tangible thickness, almost a flavor. I cut firewood nearly every day, so close to my longtime goal of getting a full year ahead that I’m already pleased with myself. I like to drive east, up the mountain and then back down it, following the wet track of packed soil and gravel as it curves through the woods. The leafless maples skinny as shorn sheep. Still no frost, though one is surely coming soon, and snow not far behind. The apples have dropped, and the pond is cold enough for second thoughts. The cows are on the very last bit of pasture grass, only a day or two remains. Then six months of hay. No: Seven. Dark comes early and leaves late and for the first time I find that it helps to wear glasses for reading. It’s not so bad, really. It makes the words look close up. It feels like I’m winding down. I tell myself it’s just the season, and I’m pretty sure it’s true, though it’s also true I’m barely a month from 50. In the morning it will be warm again and I’ll awake to rain so soft that it might just be mist hanging in the air.

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Again and again and again

Fellow Vermonter James Crews recently shared this poem by Kim Stafford. I like it.

I ride in the morning, half-light, warm, remnants of the weekend’s rain in the air as I pass the same hill farm I’ve passed dozens of times already this summer. Now the lights are on in the milking parlor and I hear the metronomic chugging of the vacuum pump, smell the sweet-warm smell of manure and baleage and watch the dry cows and heifers graze the very last of the season’s grass. Fallen leaves thick on the road’s shoulders and I purposely steer through the thickest layers of them because I like the sound they make beneath my tires. A mile or so later I pass a man standing in his driveway, next to the open door of his car. He’s peeing and not even trying to hide it, an impressive stream collecting into a puddle at his feet, and part of me wants to wave and say good morning, and part of me wants to let him pretend that I never saw a thing, though it occurs to me that maybe he could care less. He’s just taking a piss. We’ve all done it.

The days tick past with the same metronomic chug of that vacuum pump. I haven’t written here lately because it feels like nothing much changes, like maybe I’m just writing the same thing again and again and again. Though of course everything changes always, there’s proof of it everywhere – the falling leaves, the diminishing daylight, the pasture grass gone dormant, even lights on in a milking parlor where last week there were none. At the selectboard meeting Jan arrives with a fat wad of cash, $1250 in 100s and 50s that someone gave him to procure five burial plots in our little town cemetery, and as he counts it onto the desk I look toward the window, where I can see both my reflection and beyond it, to the shadowy outlines of the trees in the gathering dark.

James McMurtry has a new album. Lots of goodies, including this one. Also, here’s a great conversation with the author Richard Powers. Finally, I’m almost finished with this book and am really liking it.

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It’s Not Usually What We Know

Riding my bicycle up a long climb I pass a man riding in the same direction. He’s older than me, wearing an orange tee shirt and a white helmet, and he has a holstered pistol on one hip. I say hi and he says hi back, friendly enough but neither of us trying too hard. I keep pedalling, not looking anywhere but where I’m going, deciding not to be unsettled by the presence of that gun, which is now behind me and out of sight, though not quite out of mind. It helps that I’ve seen the man riding before, at least a handful of times. I’ve noticed the pistol before. It’s not like he’s trying to conceal it. I might be more unsettled if he were concealing it, like most people who carry around here. But of course if he were concealing it, I wouldn’t know about it, and therefore wouldn’t know to be unsettled, even if maybe I should be. Funny how life works. It’s not usually what we know that gets us.

There’s not much left of summer. It’s going the way every season goes: Slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, then picking up speed until you’re waking in the dead dark and thinking you better get the hearth for the wood stove finished so you can get the damn stove hooked back up real soon. Besides, you’re sick of tripping over the stove which is sitting in the middle of the floor next to the big laundry rack you’re also sick of tripping over, but which is pretty much a permanent fixture at this point, so you’ve come to accept it. Or so you claim. Still, it’s going to be a nice hearth, big slate tiles set flush with the floor boards so there’s no more stubbing toes on the grubby old bricks that were always supposed to be a temporary solution. And here you are only six years later making good on that promise.

The pond is still warm. The last of the blueberries are so sweet and a little soft. The cows are on their final rotation of pasture. I watch them graze in the fading light, it seems to me as if they’re forever eating, eating, eating, fattening themselves for the winter that in their bones they must surely know is coming fast.

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All Sorts of Ideas

Reminder

Driving up the mountain road, I trail a red Ford pickup hauling an old John Deere mower. Both the truck and the mower have seen better days by far, but the colors of them – the truck deep red, the mower that unmistakeable John Deere green – are bright and cheerful. The truck’s tailgate is lowered to accommodate the mower, which I can see is held loosely place by a rusty chain strung from bed rail to bed rail. None of those fancy ratchet straps I’m so fond of, the ones that always end up in knotted piles on the floor of my truck. The Ford rattles over the washboards, and the mower wags back and forth. An empty bottle shoots off the lip of the lowered tailgate, bounces into the road, and miraculously doesn’t break. I have the passing thought that I should stop to retrieve it, but I don’t. I’m not in the mood to deal with someone else’s trash.

Going over the top of the mountain, I see that the leaves are beginning to change, and for the first time this summer, I have the sense that another season is imminent, and I’m suddenly awash in all the things I still need to do. Finish the new hearth for the woodstove. Finish siding the barn. Replace the rotting boards on the paddock fence. Change the hydraulic fluid in the tractor. And on it goes, seemingly without end, a list I already know will have to be reconsidered, reprioritized, reordered, the tasks that address heat and the containment of livestock moved higher, above those relating to cosmetics and convenience.

And so as I follow the truck and mower through the curves on the west side of the mountain, that is exactly what I’m doing – reconsidering, reordering, reprioritizing – until by the time we hit the flats, I’ve got the list pared down to nearly nothing, a trifling weekend or two’s worth of work (if that), and I’m already getting all sorts of ideas about what I’m going to do with my free time.

I’ve shared this one before, I think. But it’s always worth another listen.