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Born to Ride

So my first street motorcycle was a 1983 Honda Interceptor 750. I was 16 when I bought it, and hanging on Martha’s Vineyard, where I lived with three friends in a one-bedroom apartment and worked on a roofing crew. The apartment below ours was occupied by a stoner named Rocket, which in all likelihood was not his given name, but I never heard anyone call him anything else. Funny. I just remembered about Rocket; hadn’t thought of him in a quarter-century or more. He must be at least 70 by now. If he’s still around.

I bought the bike for $500 out of the backyard of a middle-aged man who’d wrecked it and quickly lost interest; I would later learn far more than I wanted to know about wrecking bikes and losing interest (I believe this is called “foreshadowing”). The Honda was dinged up, but ran great, and I rode it a whole lot, and I am beyond grateful that the only time I dropped it I was in a parking lot spinning the back tire to show off for a girl I liked but who no doubt (and rightly so) had me pegged for a fool. Because really I had no business on such a powerful motorcycle. I mean, I’d had a couple of dirt bikes – a sweet old Honda Elsinore 125 among them – before the Interceptor, and I’d ridden my friends’ street bikes from time-to-time, but I was pretty green.

I rode the 750 for a while – couple of years, anyway – then bought an early 90’s Honda Hurricane 600. Smaller than the 750, but way quicker, and much more nimble. This one had been dumped, too, and I bought it cheap, too, though I don’t remember how cheap. Maybe $1000, $1200. Rode it all over the place, as much as possible. I vividly remember descending the snowed-packed dirt hill from my house, legs as outriggers, trying to keep it upright until I hit the dry pavement. Shivering to beat the band. During this period of my late teens, I also had a YZ125 (dirt bike), a XR200 (dirt bike), and a CR250 (dirt bike). No doubt there was something else in there, too, but it’s escaped my memory.

Ok. So I rode the Hurricane for a while, then sold it and bought a really nice Kawasaki GPZ750 from an older gentleman who’d babied it. First bike I owned that was in such good condition. I liked that motorcycle a lot, though like so many of those early sport bikes, it was too much engine mounted to too little suspension. Still. Fun, fun bike, and even pretty comfy.

After the GPZ – which I sold to I don’t know who – I had a KZ1000, then a KZ750 and, somewhere in there, a really cool little Honda CB350 twin. Gutless but style for miles and you know what a sucker I am for style. Seems like maybe I had a KX250 dirt bike in there, too, but I could be misremembering. I definitely remember the little XL125 I mentioned a few days back, and the Suzuki DR350 I fell off and rang my bell so hard I couldn’t remember my boys’ names. Puked a bunch, too. Truth told, that kind of put me off motorcycles. I just sort of reached a point where I realized the risk was no longer worth the thrill, and I sold the DR and that was it. With the exception of a handful of minor, low-speed dirt bike get-offs, it remains the only time I’ve dumped a bike, and I intend to keep it that way.

I just realized how few of you probably care about any of this, but it’s sorta fun for me, so thanks for humoring me.

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Our Separate Ways

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Another of the old Dodge. I have no idea how this photo came to be, and that’s probably for the best. 

I camped last night at a music festival with my older boy, and waking early with hours to spare before he roused, I drove to a nearby mountain for a short hike. There I trundled upward, clad in barn boots and flannel, until the heat of my exertion saw me shrugging the shirt and now shirtless and silly-looking I walked onward until I came to a minor footpath diverging from the trail. With no conscious decision reached (and, in fact, none sought), there I turned, and soon after found myself in a forest of mature hardwood, sugar maple and ash. The light just coming on, feet clammy and hot in boots. I stood there, not thinking much of anything and not wanting to, until maybe 70 yards below me a black bear lumbered into the clearing of an old skid road. He (she?) sensed me there and turned his head my way and now we both stood, one looking at the other, until I realized some time had passed. A minute? Two? I cannot say, but we held in the morning softness and the pattering of raindrops shaking themselves loose from the foliage, falling cool against the skin of my back. Then he turned his head and ambled on, and I guess I’m not ashamed to say I felt tears welling. Not of sadness, or even joy, but of something that felt as if perhaps it lay deeper, though I can’t say what that would be. Maybe just the unsettling knowledge of how little we can predict, of how little control we have, of how even the most innocuous circumstances and choices – to wake early, to decide on a hike, to unthinkingly veer from the marked trail – can impact our lives in ways we could have never imagined.

Or maybe it’s just this: I went for a walk and saw a bear in the woods and we watched one another for a while. Then we went our separate ways.

Apropos of all the car talk, a great segment from Erica. (some folks seem to have a hard time seeing the links… so here are the analog instructions: click “from Erica”) 

Been a while since we’ve had any music. How ’bout this one from the Turnpike Troubadours?

 

 

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Into the Inevitable

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The Dodge mentioned below. A loyal friend.

At the big dairy farm a few miles down the road, I pass the dying Holstein. I know she’s dying because she’s been lying in the barnyard for a week or more, bucket of water at her side, small pile of baleage at her nose. I’ve yet to see her on her feet, and a cow that’s been down for a week is a cow that’s likely never to stand again. Besides, I can see how the flesh is melting away from her spine. It protrudes more and more with each of my passings. She does not seem in distress, and I cannot help but wonder about the way of slow death in this animal, of the possibility of passing thoughts and feelings and what memories and stories might be attached. Or if it just feels like a body wasting away, legs or will too weak to stand, the good feed no temptation at all, head hanging heavier and lower by the day, as if leading the way into the inevitable.

The comments relating to my recent post on driving with my son got me reminiscing. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for cars and especially trucks (motorcycles, too, come to think of it). And truthfully, I’ve always like driving. Or liked it enough, anyway.

My first car was a 1980 VW Rabbit that had belonged to my mother. I bought it off her for the princely sum of $200. It was baby-shit tan, fuel injected, with a four-speed manual transmission. A little terror of a car, frankly. I drove it like the she-devil it was until I happened into a head-on collision with my friend Trevor (he coming to visit me, me going to visit him; I’m pretty sure I wrote about this a while back, it’s a funny story, thought it might not have been), and the damn thing never ran right again. It’d still go down the road, but was at least 50% down on power, and no one could figure out what was wrong.

A series of VW Beetles followed. The one I drove the most was a ’74 that had a bad fuel pump, so Trevor and I rigged up a gas can in the back seat with gravity feed to the Weber carb. Worked pretty good; I just had to be real thoughtful about the butts of the clove cigarettes I favored at that point in my life. The car also lacked operational floor brakes, but the cable-driven emergency brake worked just fine, so I drove with one hand on the wheel, and the other alternating between the e-brake handle and the stick shift. And the boom box in the rear seat, right next to the gas can. Got a good year out of that rig. I think that was the one Trevor and I painted with the name of our nascent carpentry/odd jobs business: Troglodyte Construction. You should have hired us. We worked hard and real cheap.

Somewhere in there mixed with the Beetles I had a ’75 Cadillac with a 501 under the hood. A real boat. Like my Mother’s old Rabbit, I bought it for $200, which was a big step up from the $75 I paid for the aforementioned Beetle. The Caddy had what I think was a blown head gasket, and a bad alternator, so for the summer I owned it I was rather limited in range. I’d wake up, install the battery that had been on the charger overnight, drive to my construction job (mysteriously, Troglodyte had failed to take off), add water, pull the battery and put it on the charger, and do the whole thing in reverse come quitting time.

Then I had a Buick LeSabre I named Putris. Fast, that car was. Had a 350, I believe, but seemed faster than that. I outran a cop in it, or dodged him, at least. I was going real quick on a main road, probably had something on me that maybe I shouldn’t have, and he was coming the other way. Turned on his siren and swung around, and I hit the next right hand onto a gravel road and just put it down. My hands shaking like crazy on the wheel, trying to not look in the rearview mirror too much; I was either going to slip him or not. Which I did. I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. I didn’t always make the best choices as a kid. Probably still don’t, come to think of it. Though these days I generally try to avoid criminality.

A bit later, I got a sweet little Mazda pick-up. Two-wheel drive. Stick shift. My first rig that cost more than $500. I think it was $3k, and my dad put $3k in an account as collateral against a bank loan. And when I paid off the loan, he let me keep the $3k. Totally unexpected. I’ll never forget that (sons, if you’re reading this, don’t get any ideas).

What else? Oh, yeah, a ’78 Subaru I bought from Trevor’s dad. A $400 rig if memory serves. Stick shift, had to pull a little lever to engage 4WD. Motor blew within a month or two, but not before Trevor and I took it jumping a time or two.

Dodge D100, circa 70-something. Three on the tree. This is what Penny and I built our first house with, and improbable as it seems, I think we might’ve paid $200 for this one, too. Bi-color. Blue and green with just a smidge of pink. Two-wheel drive. Loved that truck like all get out.

Later, a series of Subarus. Not my favorite cars, to be honest. They drive great, but parts are crazy expensive, and they eat head gaskets like nobody’s business. Oh, and wheel bearings; they’re bonkers for wheel bearings. Gas mileage is pretty marginal, too. Still. Nothing like a Subaru on a Vermont gravel road in winter.

Other rigs: Numerous Ford F250’s. Like four of them, at least. One F350 Powerstroke, the only diesel. A real nice early 90’s Chevy K3500 with a 454 and stick shift. Awesome truck, though wicked thirsty. 8 mpg on a good day. Just in the past couple years, I’ve traded trucks a couple times, and actually done ok. Had a really nice ’90-ish F250 I sold for $1000 more than I paid for it, then a newer Dodge Ram I drove for a year and recently sold for exactly what I paid for it. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course, but it’s nice when it does. Makes up for the lesser deals.

Now have a ’04 F250 with the V10 and a really nice flatbed. Tows way better than the Dodge, which is why I got it. It’s a Lariat edition with these crazy-comfy leather seats that adjust in a gazillion directions. Plus a pretty fantastic plow. The car is a Kia Soul. It’s a pathetic little rig that can barely hold 70 on the highway, but I sorta like it because it looks ridiculous, was cheap, gets amazing gas mileage, is a stick, and has been reliable as a brick.

If this weren’t getting so long, I’d write about my motorcycles, too. But it is, and there were lots of those, so that’ll have to wait for another day.

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One of my favorite motorcycles, a Honda XL125. If I crouched down real low, I could almost hit 60. I traded it for a DR350 that I subsequently rode straight into the emergency room.

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Just Fine

Summer is ticking by. The rain stopped for a few days, then returned with renewed vigor in a series of hammering downpours. This morning – right now – it is clear, and I am stalling for time before morning milking, waiting until the sun is high enough to reach the fence post where I halter Pip. I need the sun. We all do.

Our older boy got his driver’s permit, and we travel the back roads, starting and stopping and swerving at my command, and I think about learning to drive myself, more than 30 years ago now. God. It’s been three decades since I was my boy’s age. It seems like such deep well of time but I know it’s not. I think about him at 45, myself at 75, and it feels impossible, like a feat we can’t achieve.

Yesterday, he stalled in the middle of the steepest hill in town, and I thought for sure I’d have to be the one to get the car going again (it’s a manual transmission), but on the second try, we were off again, and by the time we made the top of the climb, I figured everything will probably work out just fine.

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In the Rain

Everyday, rain. It falls in thunderstorms, showers, drizzle. It comes in bands, waves, curtains, cloudbursts. Everywhere, fields of unmowed hay, grasses bent under the weight of seed and ceaseless water. The last load of laundry stayed on the line for a week or more; twice it was almost dry and I thought to bring it inside, but became distracted by matters more pressing. And so it got rained on again.

Yesterday I rode my bicycle in a steady rain, not a band or wave or curtain or cloudburst, but an entire sky full, low and heavy and seemingly without end. Yet it was warm and I felt light-hearted and a little silly as I licked road grit off my lips and spit it back to where it came from, eyes half-lidded against the sting of the pelting drops.

In a nearby town, I pedaled past a church lunch; the door was open and I could see that the church was full and I could smell the food, and it smelled just like church lunch should. Then home and into the pond, wet on top of wet, the water strangely warm the way it always is when I swim in the rain.

 

 

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It Was Better When I Was There

Last night, driving a back road home from checking on the fields we hay (the grass high and thick, lush from the frequent rain, more than ready for mowing if only things would dry out for a spell), I came upon a truck driving slow. In the bed, a male at some indistinguishable point on the spectrum between boy and man, his right hand clenched around the collar of a Holstein calf. The calf seemed calm enough and remarkably steady on his feet, and the young man/old boy looked to be enjoying himself, as one would under such circumstances: A warm evening, the scents and colors of the landscape emboldened by the recent showers, the joy inherent to riding in an open pickup truck bed, and surely on some level whether conscious or not, the companionship of the animal.

 

Then the young man/old boy turned his head, and the wind kicked his baseball cap into the air. It landed on the shoulder of the road, and I pulled over to retrieve it, and I could see him giving me a thumbs up with his non-calf-holding hand. Then I sped to catch the truck, which eventually pulled to the side of the road. “It’s a nice hat,” I said. “Would’ve been a shame to lose it.” He chuckled and thanked me, and they waved me past, which I was sort of sorry for, because soon the truck would be far behind me and what I’ve found is that life is mostly a series of moments in which nothing very much is happening, and so often the things that occupy our thoughts and fears and longings and even joys are not the things directly before us, but things that live in some unrealized future. And therefore do not live at all.

 

But on this evening, in this moment, on this little-traveled dirt road in Caledonia County, Vermont, something was happening. It’d be gone soon, swept into my rearview mirror and then my past, something I’ll remember for a while, but probably not for long. Which is ok, really: It was better when I was there.

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Saturday Morning

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Morning light in the barnyard

On Saturday morning I turned left instead of right out our driveway, and so rode past Dan’s house just as he was emerging on his way to the logging job he’s on. It was barely 6:00, and we talked a few minutes, then I rode on, and he got in his truck and went to work. I rolled fast down a steep hill past still-unmown hayfields and at the bottom turned to pedal alongside the mountain stream, where I soon came upon a doe and her spotted fawn standing in water. Drinking. Each of us surprising the other, the doe suddenly alert, tail twitching, long legs moving this way then that, prancing in place, but all the while her attention trained on me. As was mine on her. The fawn hadn’t seen me, and kept trying to nurse, and eventually latched on. I wanted to stay but now felt an intruder, so began to pedal again. Uphill now. In another mile or so I passed a house where two rabbits sat under the front bumper of a Ford Mustang, the rabbits fat and furry, the car sleek and black. Then over the bridge and past the small house of the man who lives alone with no car and a yard full of perennial plantings. I see him working outside often, but he does not invite conversation, and I know little about him other than what I have just written plus the fact that he seems to me somehow ageless and I’ve heard he walks 10 miles a day or more, but surely this is exaggeration. Another half-mile, and I’m through the narrow bend where the old roadside maples bear the scars of vehicles traveling too fast, too wide, and there are John’s big Devon oxen, still bedded down, those goddamn magnificent horns thrusting skyward. They watch me disinterestedly, even dismissively, almost as if they have no idea how fascinating I am. They’ll figure it out eventually.

Soon I arrived home. I dove into the pond, the water exactly as cold as I’d hoped it would be.

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Maybe That’s OK

Rain in the night, and still more as day broke. A relief, really; it’s amazing how quickly the ground turned to thirst, cars tailing plumes of dust along the mountain road, the creek low and quiet. Sometimes in the early mornings I ride my bicycle to the top of the mountain and back. I like how the trees – maples, mostly – knit their leafed branches together over the road, forming a tunnel as the climb begins in earnest. I pedal into the tunnel just as the sun is rising, and suddenly everything is dim again, and there I am in the near-dark with my heart in my ears, the birds in morning song, the dry dirt crackling beneath the tires of my old bike.

I realize just now how often I write of early day, and I’m pretty sure why: I think there is something about the break of day that brings one closer to the inner workings of heart and mind, even if only to realize that the inner workings of heart and mind are as cluttered and fumbling as ever. Which I suppose is itself a certain clarity for the truth it speaks.

It is my habit to sit in silence for few minutes upon awakening, in the winter before the wood stove, in the summer perhaps the same, or outside atop one of the large stones that protrudes from the ground at the height of the knoll above our house. I don’t entirely understand the value of this habit; I tried for a while to understand, but have finally (and wisely, I think) given up on the expectation of it even having value. But I continue to do it anyway, mostly even when I don’t much want to, and I sense it is doing something for me, even if I don’t know what “it” is.

Then it occurs to me that maybe it’s nothing. And maybe that’s ok.

 

 

 

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Chances Are

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We drove early this morning to drop the boys and a friend at an access point to the Long Trail, where they intend to spend three days hiking their way southward. This must be painfully obvious by now, but I like driving through the rural working class landscape of northern Vermont, past spray-painted lawn signs pitching firewood and snow plowing, maple syrup and cow manure. There’s a quiet dignity to way folks inhabit this land, not asking a whole lot and generally receiving somewhat less, but having understood how it’d be from the get-go not prone to lament. To be sure, there are those who seem to have surrendered, but under what pressures it’s hard to know and even fathom. Perhaps even they don’t understand the pressures themselves; they only feel the weight of them.

I grew up in northern Vermont, and I guess it’s true how a place gets inside you, the easy familiarity of it, even the way it smells. The little quirks of regionalized character – how people wave, for instance, or the lilt of their speech. I like the way you come to trust people you share a place with. Maybe you trust them too much sometimes, because for every local who doesn’t wave with just two fingers off the steering wheel, there’s probably one you can’t quite trust. But even most of those can be relied on in a fashion; they might stretch the truth or on occasion even break it, but they’re not out to get you.

What I remember from growing up here is pretty thin and sort of random. I remember getting firewood with my father, which is sort of strange, because I don’t think we did a whole lot of that. But I have a very specific memory of him bucking hardwood with his old Jonsereds chainsaw and me begrudgingly throwing the rounds into the back of whatever car he drove back then. A Honda Civic hatchback, I think, circa 1978 or so. He still has that chainsaw, though I doubt it’s been started in a decade or more. The Civic is long gone.

I remember the musty, wet-wood smell of the cabin we lived in, but that’s kind of a cheap memory, because in my experience all cabins smell like that, or some variation thereof. I remember a little bit the bar my dad frequented, though I can’t understand why I would’ve been there. But I was, at least enough to have a sense of it. Skiing up the hill to the cabin behind my mother. I think I remember that.

Every once in a while I catch myself wondering what my sons will remember. Probably not the things I’d choose for them to, such as the constant selfless sacrifice on the part of their mother and me. Sometimes I want to say, “hey, remember this,” but I know the minute one of my parents said that to me, I probably would’ve banished it from my mind forevermore, so I don’t. I’ll let them choose their memories, the good ones and the bad. Hopefully more of the former than the latter, but who knows.

Not long after we dropped the boys off, watched them disappear down the trail without so much as a glance back, Penny and I drove past a snack bar near a lake not far from where I grew up. My parents and I used to go to that lake, and unlikely as it seems four decades on, I know for certain we went to that snack bar. I don’t even know why I’m so sure, but I am. After we passed, I watched it in the side view mirror until we crested a hill and it dropped out of sight. Chances are, I’ll never see it again.