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.


About the End of That

It snows again, perhaps even a bit more than the last time, and if that earlier snow was poor man’s fertilizer, this snow must be a gift for the truly destitute. This must be the snow that takes the snow that took the snow. And yet it’s beautiful, and most so before it’s finished falling, when there’s just the faintest trace on the ground and you can still see the fine details of the forest floor through the spotty skim of it. I drive over the mountain and peer west to taller peaks. Soon the trees will bud and the leaves will emerge and this view will disappear until mid-October or even later, when the last of those leaves have fallen. But for now it’s like looking across a storm-tossed ocean, the land grey and choppy and forever unfurling.

On the weekend my friend Mark and I go exploring on our bicycles and at the junction of two little-traveled fourth-class roads – a Jeep track, really, all ruts and rock – we happen upon a middle-aged man extracting a trailer from what I assume to be the edge of his property. There’s an old Ford Ranger on the trailer, which he’s pulling with another Ford Ranger, and there are three more Ford Rangers parked (or perhaps “planted” is a better word for it; none seem to have moved in quite some time) in close proximity. The Ranger on the trailer is not a promising looking vehicle, though it does bear a large sticker across the top of the windshield that reads Ford Fuckin Ranger!! and because my son drives a Ford Ranger, and I have the idea that the sticker would please him, I ask the man if he minds if I take a photo. He does not, and we soon fall into easy conversation regarding the merits of Ford Rangers: There’s my son’s Ranger, plus Mark has a Ranger, and the man has the five of them, so there’s plenty to talk about – the best model years, the best motor options, and so on.

And now I notice that the man has fashioned his hair into a mullet, shorn on the sides and left to grow rangy across wide swath from his forehead to the nape of his neck, and for some reason it’s this detail that buoys me, or maybe it’s this detail in combination with the other details: The five Rangers, the Ford Fuckin Ranger!! sticker, the modest house/cabin in which the man plainly resides, the remnants of last season’s garden just beyond the Ranger graveyard. The garden appears well-tended and I can’t quite tell from where we’re standing, but it looks as if maybe he’s got his peas in already, and I think that although the world is falling to pieces in more ways that I know how to count, it is also holding together in many quiet ways I too often fail to notice.

I take my picture. Mark and I say goodbye to the mulleted man. He turns back to his task, and we to ours. When I get home, I show my son the photo. “Huh,” he says, and that’s about the end of that.


Poor Man’s Daylight

In the evening I ride my bike exactly one-half mile to the town hall for our bi-weekly selectboard meeting. The sun is out but the air is still cold from the front that brought the previous evening’s snow, which is now melting but only slowly. Across the road from the town hall, the old church is washed in late day light; it looks almost as if it’s lit from within, as if the light were emanating from the building, rather than being cast upon it. We gather in the office, the three of us on the selectboard and the town treasurer and because there is scant business to conduct, we mostly talk the small news of this small town, which on this evening revolves around who has covid and who moved into the big house on the hill and if they’re nice folks or not, and Steve says that Jay says they are and that settles that so we all get up and walk out of the town hall and Regina points to the melting snow and says “poor man’s fertilizer” and I say “the snow that takes the snow” because that’s what my father always used to say. And probably still does.

The light is off the church now and it’s gone colder by far. Goosebumps rise quick and sharp on my arms. I pedal over the bridge on my way home, the familiar sound of the stream rushing below. The day nearly done. The sun sinking, the light gone dusky and thin. It’s poor man’s daylight, I think. It’s the light that takes the light.

Music: Here’s a beaut from Zach Bryan. And a good ole foot stomper from Shane Smith and the Saints.


I Bet B Would Agree

Just Beware

Spring. I awake to the distant sound of water rushing in the small creek that skirts the southern boundary of our land, and above that, the intermittent call of songbirds. I feel like I should know which ones, but I don’t. Daylight coming on, but the sky is low and sinking lower, I can feel it even if I can’t quite see it yet. It will rain soon. The floor creaks beneath my feet. After coffee and chores I pedal my bike up the long, steep climb to Cole’s Pond, the thawing road soft beneath my tires, beads of sweat amassing along my brow, lining up to drop one after the other. I ride under a strand of wire strung from the outstretched branches of maples on either side of the road; a hot line to a fence containing a herd of Angus that watch my passing with that particular bovine breed of curiosity: Interested, but not too interested. Like really if they had anything better to do, they’d be doing it. There’s no grass for them yet, but it won’t be long. Two, three weeks. Another few minutes of climbing and there’s the charred remains of the house that burned last month, it’s stunning to see the fire’s rude work, everything black and twisted into gross approximations of its original form. I don’t know the family, but I heard they made it out ok. So that’s good at least.

A young woman shows up to my writing group, and when I ask if her name is spelled Bee or Bea, she says it’s just B, and then proceeds to crank out one incredible spoken word piece after another, full of these complex rhymes that never quite seem to fall where I’m expecting, and I can tell immediately that this is a person who’s done some living. I mean, who hasn’t, but you know: There’s living, and there’s living, and maybe like most of us I sometimes feel like I’m dwelling too much in the former and not enough in the latter. But really who’s to say. Each will take their pound of flesh. Each will eat you alive eventually. I bet B would agree.

By the time I’ve made the top of the climb and ridden back down past the burned house and under the hot wire, the farmer who strung it is out fixing fence. Lines in his face like a treasure map. He waves, I wave. Morning. Mornin’. I look for the cows again but they’re nowhere to be seen and I guess they went and found something better to do after all.


Mud, War, Gas

The end of winter

The hours bleed into days, the days into weeks, weeks into months. The snow recedes, the ground thaws, and navigating the backroads become a test: Of courage (or is it stupidity?), of skill (or is luck?), of sheer determination (or is it simple necessity?). Everyone says it’s the worst mud season in years, if not decades, and maybe they’re right. My memory for such things is scant, so I just nod along: Yeah, it’s bad. Mud and war. That’s all we talk about anymore. Well, that and the price of gas. So: Mud and war and gas. Hell, a fellow could get nostalgic for the days when covid was all we had to worry about.

In the morning I ride my bike while the road surface is still solid from the nighttime freeze. Just over the crest of the mountain, there’s a moose standing in the road, all leg and nose. I slow to a stop and watch, and I can see that it’s not healthy: It’s thin and its coat is rough. It holds its head at an odd angle. The moose looks my way, then slowly turns and begins to trot downhill, straight down the middle of the road, and since that’s the way I’m headed, too, I follow at a distance until I see it stumble and then I stop and turn back. I don’t want to watch the moose anymore. I just want it to turn into the woods and find a quiet place to rest and maybe even die if that’s what needs to happen. But when I look back over my shoulder, I can see that it’s still headed down the road’s corridor with its head at that weird angle, its gait unsteady, like a child just learning to walk.

The road pitches steeper. I stand to drive to pedals, and pretty soon I’m back up and over the top. And even though it’s cold and starting to spit rain and the road is rough and the sky is even lower than it was just a few minutes ago, I know that from here to home, all I really have to do is hold on for the ride. So that’s exactly what I do.


Don’t You Dare

Morning ski through town

Six days a week my son’s alarm goes off at 4:30. He’s working a big sugaring operation an hour-plus drive from here; they start at first light and end at last, and some nights even later than that. They’ve got maybe 5 weeks to make it or break it, and those 5 weeks start about now. Last year, they broke it, and so did pretty much everyone else making syrup. It won’t be good if that happens again, though I hear prices are up, and some are speculating that all the cold nights we’ve had are setting us up for a good season. Then again, someone’s always speculating about something, are they not?

Over the weekend, I ski with an old friend, someone I haven’t seen for nearly two years. I take him on my favorite loop, the one that climbs up through a shallow saddle, then veers up and to the right to the knife’s edge of a ridge that drops in a series of cliff bands to the east. We trace the ridge northward along the edge of the cliffs, then cross to the next ridge over, and follow it back to our starting point. The new snow – six inches or more – is so, so smooth and light, there’s hardly any moisture to it at all, it’s like cold dust, like smoke, like something that appears in a dream from which you awaken unable discern fact from fiction. And maybe even unsure if such discernment is necessary.

The news unfolds in slow-moving tragedy; one hardly knows how to respond. Renounce the Russian vodka, I suppose. Pay what it costs to fill the damn truck and be grateful you’re not huddled in some damp basement waiting for the strike you know is coming, just not when. Hope for the things that seem the least possible, while not closing an eye to those that seem the most.

Then just do what needs to be done. Get up in the dark with your son. Light the fire. Make the coffee. And for God’s sake, don’t you dare forget to give him a hug as he walks out that door.


Attention is Definitely Not

Early morning ski to Dead Moose Pond

It snows, then thaws, then freezes hard again, creating a crust that I quickly punch through when I try to walk on it. Later in the day, driving, I pass an older mobile home far down the other side of the mountain, where two young girls and a dog are running across the yard. The crust is strong enough to bear their modest weight, and it’s true that I’m a little jealous, but it’s also true that maybe that’s exactly the way it should be, that part of the magic of childhood is being able to do at least a few things the big people can’t: Scamper atop the crusted snow, nap whenever fancy strikes, squeeze into small places. Watching the girls and the dog, I remember riding my BMX bike atop the frozen snow around my parents house, that incredible sense of freedom to go anywhere I pleased, up and over and around the natural hummocks of the forest floor, the whole world (or at least what seemed like the whole world to a 10 year old boy from Vermont) transformed into something that defied the laws of physics as I’d previously understood them.

Pedal and swoop, pedal and swoop. Four decades ago but damned if I can’t feel it now, exactly as it was. Exactly as if all those intervening years only prove the simple truth that time is an illusion. But attention is definitely not.


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.