Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…

…sometime.

Hopefully…

In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?

Wrong.

My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”

WHACK!

“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.

Sun Dreaming – 4/11/05

Monday Poem, A Year and a Day

Sun Dreaming – 04/11/05

The winter has been long and I turn my heart towards travel.
Soft banks of snow have been transformed by the late winter rains
and now bear none of their earlier powdered beauty.

The icy mud sucks at my feet as the brown grass shows
greasily through on cold, dead patches of earth.

It is grey and cold,
Too cold to hope yet for flowers.
Too cold to see the ice banks retreat into the ground.
The wet and sharp winds bite exposed ears
and makes red cheeks sting.

Drizzling rain freezes as it hits,
making a walk to the mailbox a treacherous affair.

It is cold.
Grey.
Wet.
My shoes are soaked.

Then I smile.

For a moment, I am not here,
and I fly away in my mind.

For me, Southern France is always sunny,
and I close my eyes,
remember…

and walk along the terraced hillsides,
amongst the ancient almond trees once more.

Better Living Through History

“Your wife has something she wants to tell you.”

It was my Dad on the phone and he was heading off the island to do some errands in town. Action Girl had been at work on the ferries since early that morning and the wind had been whipping with gusts pushing thirty-five miles per hour on the water. Winter had arrived with a vengeance and the temperatures were in the teens. I’ve never been able to remember how to correctly calculate wind chill factors and to be honest, I really didn’t want to this morning. I already knew what she was about to say. It was hard to make out her every word as Dad passed her the phone, the white noise from the wind covering up her voice, but the sentiment made it through.

“Anyone who would willingly go out in this when they didn’t have to is INSANE!”

That might not be a perfect quote, but it’s in the right spirit.

“Don’t care! I’m going! You knew I was nuts when you married me!” I momentarily distracted her with a tale of something cute the kids did and then made my telephonic escape with what I hoped was a completely stable sounding, “Love you!”

What I was getting ready to do was not only go out in this Arctic weather, but also do it while standing very still out in the elements in a big, open space.

Oh, and there would be guns.
The guns make it all worth it.

It has been since October the last time I made it to the range and I badly wanted to go. The rifle range is where I can relax and do something I truly love. I find it calming, head clearing and most of all, really, really fun. It was going to be bitterly cold but I had three things pulling for me.

The first card I had was the company of good friends. I had gotten a message that an old buddy of mine was in the area and had brought his 1917 German infantry rifle with him, “just in case” we could carve out an afternoon to slip away and have some fun. Another friend who lives near by had asked about shooing just the week before. His brother wanted to come as well and that made a group of four of us.

My great uncle Don had a saying about boys and groups. His theory was that to find the group IQ, all you need to do was find the median intelligence of the members… and then divide that again by the total number of males present. This, I feel, can give good explanation of some of the stupidity of what men do when present in large numbers.

The second card I had was that not only my wife, but also both my parents tried to talk me out of it. It wasn’t cold out. It was super-nasty-bonechilling-find-you-dead-in-a-snowbank-come-March weather. Polar bears, had we any in the area, would have looked at the day, thoughtfully chewed a strip of explorer jerky, and gone right back to bed. I don’t know what a polar bear bed looks like, but I’m willing to bet that it was more inviting that what was outside. Well, maybe not if you’re an Arctic explorer. BUT, as we all know, there is nothing that can change a single, dumb idea in to a burning quest faster like having your wife tell you that you shouldn’t do it… Except perhaps having your parents say it to you too.

My last card was my secret weapon. My ace in the hole. And though to an outsider it might have just looked like coffee, it was much more than that. It was coffee in… The Thermos.

This thermos was made by the Thermos Company long, long ago. Longer ago, in fact, than I have actually existed. It is big, plaid, made of metal and glass and is proof that they most definitely don’t make ‘em like they used to. It had been gathering dust in my folk’s basement for decades when I spotted it on my last trip back home. It was sitting on a shelf, wedged amongst other bits of family memorabilia and debris and with permission, I gleefully snapped it up and brought it home. Action Girl was unimpressed with it when I got home and showed her my trophy. I explained that it was, simply put, “The best thermos ever built.” She pointed out the rust on the bottom and the spots where the lovely nineteen-sixties faux plaid painting scheme that covered its surface was blistering off from corrosion in places. Wounded, I hugged it close for a moment and reverently put it on a shelf in the kitchen.

In her defense, she had good reason to be dubious. I have a fairly reliable tendency of looking at my past through a heavy miasma of rose colored nostalgia. Something that I ate and liked when I was twelve, easily comes back to me as tasting of ambrosia and honey. Maybe I really did love what ever it was that much when I was a kid, but often in the adult re-trying… well… these things do seem to fall a bit flat. This time, the thermos was being viewed with similar skepticism. I knew better though.

The really don’t, in fact, make them like this any more. At least not that I’ve seen. Outwardly it looks like you’d expect a thermos to look. The cap doubles as a cup, it has a built in handle and carries about eight mugs worth of what ever you want to fill it with. What makes it different from its modern counterparts is the glass. The entire lining of the thermos is a heavy glass and once you seal it up, it will keep stuff hot or cold for ages. I remembered that from childhood and it’s why I wanted it so much, now as an adult. I recall both of my parents reminding me to be careful with it lest I crack the glass and ruin it forever. I was being very careful and now. Filling it up to the tiptop with high grade, freshly brewed, black coffee, I headed out the door with it in one hand and my rifle gear in the other.

My GOD, it was cold out.

Within an hour, I was at the range with three friends, several guns, a pile of ice cold ammo and numb toes. The wind was biting, our fingers numb and, as far as we could tell, we had the entire complex to ourselves. It was great! When one of us couldn’t manage to physically pick up new rounds to load our weapons, we’d run back to the car and warm up with some of the atomically hot coffee in the thermos. I think we all burned our tongues at some point that day. When all was shot and done and I was heading back home on the boat, I poured my self another cup and had to blow on the contents of the lid before it was drinkable. It was just as good as I had remembered it!

This morning I was cleaning up the kitchen and found a few ounces of coffee still in the bottom of my rusty, plaid friend. When I started to move to pour it down the drain, I stopped and decided to try it, just out of curiosity. It wasn’t hot… but it wasn’t cold either. Actually, I’ve been known to drink colder coffee than this when it’s been momentarily lost and neglected in a mug somewhere. I carried it to the bathroom where Action Girl was just exiting the shower.

“It’s still warm. It’s from yesterday.”
She looked at me, and then the thermos with doubt. “No way, Seriously? What does that thing have, its own reactor built into the cap?”

It’s not often that I’m definitively right about things like this and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to bask in being correct. Triumphantly, I returned to the kitchen, carrying it before me like a chalice to be carefully cleaned up and returned to its shelf of honor.

I know I have a habit of equating “older” with “better” and I know too, that it’s not always the case, but boy, things like this do tend to cement my faith in the items of the past. My lawn mower was made before my Grandfather was born, some of my favorite hand tools were from before my father was born and now my favorite thermos is older than anyone who lives in my own house. They’re all awesome in their own ways.

I hope that one day my grandkids can say the same of me.

But I doubt it.

*Siiiiiiip* Ahhhh! That’s some good, hot coffee!

Power For The People

As I wrapped up my various projects at work, I glanced at the clock.

“Crap. It’s getting tight!”

Living on an island makes you a slave to the ferry schedule. In years past, missing a boat would have just been mildly annoying, but now with kids to pick up from daycare, simply going across the street and having a beer while I wait for the next boat is no longer an option. I HAVE to make the boat. No excuses.

As I bolted out the door and headed to my car, I was quickly reminded that living in New England means that the weather is never to be trusted. Though the tiny, high windows at my shop, I had noticed that it was raining out. This, as it turned out was not accurate. What had been actually happening was freezing rain. As I bolted out the door to the parking lot, I noticed with an expletive flourish, that my car was neatly encased in a quarter inch of ice. When I needed to hip check the driver’s door to encourage it to open, I knew that the scraping necessary was going to be athletic. Boy, was I right.

Peaking through the tiny holes I’d managed to clear and with a judicious use of sneaky back roads and a lot of colorful language, I did manage to get to the boat just in time and picked up the kids when I reached our little home off the mainland. When Action Girl finally ended her shift and made it home as well, it was pushing eleven o’clock. The rain continued to fall and freeze everywhere it hit. Trees were starting to bow and the roads were truly treacherous. We were asleep by midnight, pots of water filled and sitting on the counter in anticipation of the power taking a hiatus and giving us that “Little House on the Prairie” experience that we’ve come to expect in bad weather. This is far from our first ice storm and with both of us being native to New England, we’ve gotten used to Mother Nature trying to freeze us to death every year or two. You make the preparations you can and hunker down.

Confession time. Power outages don’t worry me any more. I don’t have to since I can make my own. I have a generator.

Growing up, I had gotten used to the power going out for prolonged periods and since we had a wood stove, the most a blackout meant was a game of Parcheesi rather than TV and sandwiches and popcorn instead of something warm. Honestly, I liked it. It was sort of like an adventure and best of all, it gave a valid excuse to get the hurricane lanterns out and play with fire! Action Girl had it a little rougher growing up in rural Vermont. They too had a wood stove to keep the children and pipes from freezing, but they also had a well. What that meant was that no juice equaled no water. If they suspected an outage was on the way, anything that could hold water was filled. I, having lived more suburbanly, had city water and could flush the toilet with reckless abandon.

When we moved to the island, we essentially combined aspects of our two, different childhood environments. Our neighborhood is packed pretty tightly like any suburb yet, we live on a well. If the weather is bad enough, no one is going anywhere and it wouldn’t matter much any way since everyone else on the island is in the same situation you are.

A few years ago, we experienced a North Atlantic thrill. It was dubbed the “Patriot’s Day” storm, after the holiday it occurred on and man oh man, was it a good one. This was our first instance of island living during hurricane-type weather. Our son was only about eight months old at the time and since my wife was out on the angry, frothy sea trying to get people back to their various costal homes, it fell to me to take care of things here.

The first thing to know is that we had just done some major construction on our house. What we bought when we moved here was a hundred year old structure that was built as a summer camp. So far as we know, we are the first people to ever spend a winter within its walls and I had been doing a lot of insulating. Because it was just a cottage, it also had no basement. The house sat on posts and the posts sat on flagstones. When the ground heaved in the spring, the whole structure would groan and twist. The kitchen was a downhill walk form the living room.

After a couple of years with our undulating floors and nowhere to store the Christmas decorations, we decided that it was time to fix this permanently. With only a truckload of money and several months of crazy work, the house was raised, the ground under it, excavated and a basement poured. Our house wasn’t going anywhere again and a marble, dropped by the front door, no longer makes a beeline for the back.

houselifting

Then, the storm came and our beautiful, new basement transformed its self in to an indoor pool. No power also means no sump pump. As I stood in my cellar watching the water rise, I was keenly aware of my son asleep up stairs, the foolish amount of stuff about to be ruined before my eyes and that the house was getting colder. When the house was lifted, we had to take down the chimney and thus, had no wood stove. Things looked pretty bad. As luck would have it, the self inflicted isolation of island living comes with some really fantastic community support. A neighbor, spotting a despondent looking, young father standing on a front porch asked if he needed any help. Within about ten minutes I had a small army emptying my basement ahead of the floodwaters and a couple of nice ladies caring for my infant son.

It all worked out fine in the end. We stayed for several days at a good friend’s house who had a guest room, a wood stove and tolerance for a baby waking up twice a night. The storm passed and the waters slowly receded and I waded back to deal with the mess at our place. With my Father’s help, I also got a generator. He had to look like hell to find any, but he came through.

As last night’s storm pelted the already heavy power lines and trees with yet more ice, I thought about the generator, topped up and ready to go in the shed out back. It made me smile. At three-thirty in the morning a huge crash from a tree giving up the ghost and a “Kra-KOW” and accompanying blue flash of a transformer going with it, got my attention. The power flickered, went out, and then back on. It did this a few more times, but always came back again after a second or three.

This morning we walked around the house resetting digital clocks and emptying emergency pots of water, no longer needed. Every surface out side was covered in ice and it looked like a world made of blown glass. Tree branches bent low or lay snapped, on the ground, encased in an heavy, clear skin. On the lawn, ever blade of grass was entombed in it’s own icy sheath.

frozen-grass

As it turned out, I didn’t need the generator this time, but I’m really happy to have it. I have children I can use as an excuse for owning it, but to be honest; I’ll never be without one again. Living the simple life is great when it’s your own choice, but me, I like to plan for it.

As things sit now, my plan runs on unleaded and produces about six thousand watts.

Cool Down.

Fall in Maine does not approach calmly or with advance notice. On one day, it’s summer. The leaves are green, the air is warm, the flowers in bloom and the tourists cover the roads like lost frogs oblivious to the traffic bering down on them. Local drivers like to award point values.

This morning fall arrived. It is not an arguable point. The temperature out side, as well as in, is chilly, and the sad fact that the heat will need switching on after a long summer break is inescapable. If any doubt remained to the change of seasons, then the arrival of the cats last night, sleeping on our bed, removed any further argument. It’s time to button up and get ready for the cold.

The trick with Fall in the upper New England states (Here, I’m talking about Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont) is that there is no good way to dress for a day like today. When I got up, it was feeling quite raw. Socks and a flannel shirt was picked out for my own attire while miniature sweaters with a variety of entertaining themes were put on the kids. That, and the comfort of corduroy pants for Short Stack. It was that cold.

To quote my son, today was quickly turing into, “A fine, bright day”. Every day is a “fine, bright day” for him now. It’s a quote from one of his favorite Miffy episodes and he tells it to us often. Pretty much, if it’s not actually raining, he decrees it a “fine, bright day.”

Today however, he was correct. Bright, fine and nippy. After my first two cups of coffee were gone and the grisly remains of a shared english muffin sat next to me on my plate, we headed out on to our porch. The mid morning sun flooded over the various toys and strollers and Short Stack amused him self with some plastic trucks while Lulu Belle reclined in her bouncy seat and soaked up some vitamin D. I worked on cup number three. Within about ten minutes, I was shedding my flannel and stripping objecting children of their woolens. By the time it I had to get them to the baby sitter’s I was in shorts and sandals. Mother Nature in New England might not throw earthquakes, fire storms, or tornados at us too often, but she does try to confuse us to death.

The part that amazes me the most is our neighbor. She left for the season just yesterday and her timing this year is verging on the clairvoyant. She is a summer resident of our little corner of costal Maine and calls Florida her home most of the year. She’s single, in her seventies and appears in portrait in most dictionaries next to the definition of “Fire Cracker”. We love to see her arrive each summer and bring her boundless personality with her along with the official mark of “High Summer”. She adds a lot of life the place and lets nothing stop her, with one exception; the cold.

“Cold” is a relative term, really. I like to think I’m pretty tough when it comes to winter. Born and raised in New Hampshire, I’ve seen snow and freezing temperatures and they don’t scare me. I am however, a big wimp compared to a good friend of mine who is a native of North Dakota. If I’ve got maple syrup in my veins, then she’s got molasses. I may not gripe about the snow, but she goes out in it barefoot to get the mail from the end of the drive. Routinely. That, is tough.

If I’ve got maple syrup for blood and my friend has molasses, then our hot shot, summer neighbor has tap water. Action Girl and I have seen her in a full length down coat in June and come the first whisper of the possibility of a rumor of cold weather moving for the season, she locks up the house and returns to the stifling heat of central Florida. She probably doesn’t even switch on the AC when she gets there.

The amazing part for me is that she has been gone now for exactly 24 hours and fall has moved in like it’s been waiting for he flight to leave. From now on, the windows will be mostly closed around our house and I’ll start panicking about the outside jobs that I’ve been foolishly putting off all summer. I’ll test the generator out this weekend, just to make sure the gas is still good lest we discover it otherwise come a power outage in mid winter. I’m not going through THAT again!

There are some real good things to look forward to as well though and Fall is truly my favorite season. The leaves blaze up with the colors of a thousand sunsets. The tourist, bedecked in their fanny packs and out sized cameras start to thin out and the black fly and mosquito finally meet a deterrent mightier than Deep Woods Off. Frost! I’ll get to go to the range more often and do some shooting and with some luck, go turkey hunting with a friend once the leaves drop. It’s all worth the chill, so far as I’m concerned. In just a few weeks, I’ll be able to put on one set of clothes and leave them on for the whole day without broiling come noon or freezing once the sun goes down. Okay, the freezing part will probably happen, regardless. It’s a long, cold winter here, but I’m not complaining. It aint North Dakota!

Vermonsters

As I drove up the rural onramp to get up on I-91, I knew that something wasn’t right. The notion that car just didn’t seem as peppy as it should be floated through the back of my head but the alarm bells were hardly going off. I was driving an elderly, but good and solid Subaru Legacy up to a cousin’s wedding in the northern reaches of Vermont. The drive was going to be a long one and I had already done a lot of driving the day before. I was okay with that, though. I didn’t mind the drive. Then the power really started to fail. Hmmmm. This was starting to not feel right at all.

“Holy crap!”

My eyes popped as I looked in the rear view mirror and I realized that the giant grey cloud that was rapidly filling the onramp was coming from me. Not good! Alarm bells! Bad! I pulled off the highway having not quite made it out of the merge lane and shut the car off. Three things were in my favor here. One was the fact that I was following my parent’s car and they had noticed the smoke screen that I was laying down behind me. My father, ever an astute individual, figured that I was not trying to screen the fleet from marauding u-boats and that perhaps, I might need a lift. The remaining two aces in the hole that I had were my a cell phone and a AAA card.

As soon as we had made the call, we transferred my stuff to their car and then waited on the side of the highway for the tow truck. Moment’s like that are always interesting to me. I didn’t expect to have a lot of time to chat with my parents that morning and especially not sitting on the scrubby grass next to cars whipping by at eighty mils per hour. As we cleaned out the Subaru, we talked about how different this sort of thing used to be and what it meant.

Not so very long ago, a break down like this would have meant a lot of different leg work. If I was alone, I would now be walking down the road to the village about six or eight miles back. I would be looking for a pay phone and then trying to explain where the driver could find both me and my car. Having gone through this in cell-free, years gone by, it made this situation look like cake. Not fun, to be sure, but hardly high drama either. The tow guy came around twenty minutes later but had sadly, left his personality in his other coveralls. An older man, round and mustachioed in a striped cap, it looked for all the world like having your car moved my a grumpy Mario. I wondered if Luigi was back at the shop working on Princess Peach’s Fiat. A few grunts from our Nintendo-esque tow truck driver and we were on our way again, packed in tight for a two and a half hour drive.

Vermont is a beautiful place. Action Girl hails from there and I have both spent a lot of time driving through it and briefly living there my self. It’s those amazing mountains. The Green Mountains are not like mountains you find in other places. They aren’t even like the mountains of New Hampshire, where I grew up. They are their own thing. If bare of vegetation, they would stick up like the teeth of an enormous granite, saw blade. Any one looking at them would immediately forgo any notion of hiking over the long ridges and precipitous cliffs. That’s how they would appear. In actuality, they are green. They are in fact, very, very green. Not only do the forests of Vermont seem to go forever, but it’s the fact that they are mostly hardwood forests that makes the autumns here so spectacular. The soil, though poor for large scale farming, is perfect for maple and oak trees. Pines, though abundant as well, are relegated to the edges of rock formations too ambitious for their slow growing, leafy brethren. Together, they turn the landscape into a softened spectacle, reminiscent of rumpled sheets on a bed freshly mugged.

As we climbed through the state along its highway spine, I waited with anticipation for views that I knew were en route. Deep river valleys speckled with towns opened up beside us. A cluster of old homes crowded close to the high white steeple of the village church marked the place where farmers had settled and toiled for hundreds of years. It made me want to move back, nestle into the soil and never leave again.

Eventually, we got off the highway and took the smaller roads that by necessity, wound deep into the dark valleys, following closely the path of the rivers and streams. In much of the state, a five mile trip “as the crow flies” means a fifteen mile trip, winding along the bits of the landscape that are actually passible to anything terrestrial. It’s a beautiful way to travel, but slow. You’ve got to be patient.

The wedding went off with out any undue drama. The bride was beautiful, my cousin looked calm and the backdrop for the out door event was a lush mountain range and a mirror smooth mill pond. You could literally not have painted a prettier picture. I mean that. As the party moved inside and we met folks from far away, we got to answer some questions about New England.

“Was it so green because of excessive rain?”, asked a couple from California. “No.” We replied. “It’s supposed to be like that.”
“How bad are the winters?”, asked another woman from Maryland. “Oh, it can get pretty spectacular. Especially in the valleys where the snow can really pile up and is shaded from the sun. It’ll be several feet deep come spring.”

It’s with a real sense of pride that I call my self a New Englander. Living here is not an easy thing a lot of the time, but to my mind, it can’t be beat either. Years ago, when describing the oppressively humid summers and the bone chilling winters to a young man in Germany, his immediate reaction and next question was, “Why do you live there?” To be honest, I don’t have a good answer to that. The extremes of the seasons are breathtaking and require a lot of work, but I do love it here, Mario look alike tow truck drivers and all.

The next morning as I took my hangover out for a walk, I just kept looking up at the Green Mountains. In the distance, I could listen to birds in the trees, watch the wind move along the hills and over the next ridge, just make out the report of someone sighting in a rifle, possibly getting ready for deer season. On the way back to my folks house and my car problem du jour, we stopped at a little diner called the Wayside, where I had enjoyed many a greasy breakfast when I called this place home. It was just as I remembered it and the pancakes came with real maple syrup, naturally. It was fantastic.

I really do love Vermont and New Hampshire and I miss them terribly sometimes. I’ve lived on the coast of Maine for over a decade now and I honestly don’t see us leaving. Where we are fits up mighty well, though mountains do call to me still. I know they do for Action Girl as well and some day, I think we’ll have to get a little cabin up there. It would be nice to have a place to call our own. We could go there in the summer and swat mosquitos and black fly, chop wood until our the sweat gets in our eyes and come winter, try to shovel out and not freeze to death.

I know part of my heart is still up there in those high valleys, because all that actually sounds like a good time to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we ever left. I’ll have to go back soon anyway. I’ve got to see what Luigi’s done with my car’s head gasket and if they accept payment in 1up’s or or floating gold coins.

Lonely Mountain

The snow and ice covered rocks sloped down and away from us in an alarming fashion. The same stacked and wintry boulders that had just been inches from my nose on the ascent not ten minutes ago now looked very far away and impossibly spaced to allow for a safe descent. I turned to my companion, Mountain Man for his thoughts.

“So, how are we going to get down?”

Cold winds swooped by us and I waited for some good idea from my friend. How the hell do I wind up in these situations? Oh right, I follow friends like Mountain Man up actual mountains in the dead of winter.

Wow… That’s a long way down.

It all started some time in the fall. My climbing friend had a lot of training to do. Though his lightly built frame would fool many into thinking that he lived a more sedentary life or at most, was a weekend runner, He’s the poster child for the saying, “Looks can be deceiving.”

He’s tall, thin, almost gangly and always seems to sport a special, goofy , lopsided smile. He is also made of what I gather, must be steel cables and iron. He is very strong and I have never once seen his stamina wane. He is also supremely confident when it comes to outdoor experiences. This can be… overly exciting at times.

The training he was so hot to get in was, as he put it, “All preparation for climbing K2”. The news had just come out that its summit might just be a smidge higher than Everest’s and so if it wasn’t the highest, he didn’t want to play. K2, it was. His plan was to wait for the winter to properly nestle down on our corner of New Hampshire and then climb our beloved, lonely mountain, Monadnock. All this preferably after a really good, solid snowstorm. In the early autumn evening when this idea was put forth, it sounded like fun. A simple thing, really. How many dozen times had I been up that piece of granite? I could do it blindfolded. Sure! Why not?!

It was late in February when it all was brought back to me by my outdoorsy friend. “Remember the plan?” he enthusiastically chirped. “This is the perfect time! Next big snow storm comes and we go the next day! That way we’ll be assured of having to break the trails!”

By “breaking trails” he meant that we would have the “enviable” task of beating down the fresh snow and finding surprising holes at random intervals. Does he know how to live or what!?

Mount Monadnock is not a difficult mountain to climb, at least in the warmer months. If you take the right trail, you can be up and down in about four hours. That’s not to say is doesn’t get steep, but you can do it.. There are lots of ways you can get to the summit though, and some of the alternate paths will change that quick excursion into an all day affair. Naturally, the harder version was our chosen route.

When Mountain Man and I met at the deserted and closed parking lot, he wore his regular, big smile and a far bigger pack. The thing was huge!

“Are you ready to go?”
“Yah. What the heck is in the pack? It’s only a day hike, right?”

Visions of an unscheduled snow camping trip floated through my head. I wasn’t packed for that!

“Oh, it’s mostly my dirty laundry. That and some heavy stuff I had in my room.”
“Uhh, do you… always…”
“Training! I needed some weight.”

This is Mountain Man I’m talking about. Just winter wasn’t going to make this hard enough for him. He needed more. Perhaps the loss of a leg on the way up would make him happier.

After insisting on digging thorough my bag and poaching anything weighty to add to his pack, we were off. Almost immediately, it was slow going. The path was wide and the slope, fairly gentle but it was also just shy of knee deep, unbroken snow.

No… That’s not accurate. The top foot was unbroken snow. The next few inches was slushy ice and the final two or three was actual, running, melt water. All I can say is “Thank God for Gortex.” My boots were lined with the stuff and at the time, it was a new and mysterious substance. I had paid a lot for the privilege of being able to point at the little “Gortex” tag sewn on the side of each foot. Right now, they were worth every penny.

As we slogged on up our trail, Mountain Man started a running commentary. It was in the tone given by Captain James T. Kirk as he kept his captain’s log. Mountain Man’s long, colorful entries however, were of our climb up K2.

“Day 5: The Sherpas are keeping a good pace and the supplies are coming up easily. We shall miss the friendly people in the villages, but the mountain awaits.”

After an hour or so, our path changed dramatically. We broke away from the easier, if not wetter, main trail and started the first part of the real climb. The route is called the “Do Drop” trail. A lot of folks think that’s a typo and it’s supposed to be “dew”, but no, it’s intentional. It’s called that because if said in a proper, old New England accent, “It do drop, some” so watch your footing. Here it starts getting interesting.

Our first real surprise was discovered by Mountain Man, as he took the lead. In one step, he disappeared up to his armpits in snow. His arms shot out to his sides and his “WOAH!” was muffled by the heavy snow cover. He had found a hole, and a big one to boot. It only took a minute to help him climb out and another few to empty the snow from clothing. This was more like it! He was beaming.

“Day 9: A dark day for the expedition. An unseen crevasse has opened at our feet. Three Sherpas have perished as well as Dr. Robinson. We have decided to press on. The good Doctor would have wanted it that way.”

We did press on and as we finally climbed out of tree line, we bundled up against the sharp wind. The last quarter of the climb was nothing but granite covered in ice. Crampons were attached and progress slowed down as greater care was taken. We had not seen so much as a foot print ahead of us all day.

Mountain Man’s climbing log got more and more desperate as we went. Sherpas went missing in the night. Supplies were lost. Members succumbed to altitude sickness and our oxygen ran dangerously low. The actual climb was not even close to dire, but his running commentary made it seem like a far greater feat.


Photo via nh-photo.blogspot.com

As we clambered on our bellies up the steepest, last bit of the mountain, we proudly looked across the small, flat summit and stopped, just as frozen as the stone we clung to. Looking across the small plateau at us were… two other men just making the summit as well. Both parties boggled at the other, like a stunned bird after hitting a window. The same unspoken thought floated through everyone’s mind: “What the hell are YOU guys doing here?”

As it turns out, they had climbed Monadnock from the other side, making the top at the exact same moment. We all laughed, made introductions, shook hands and then… my moment of glory. I pulled out my camera and asked them to take a photo of us at the top. Happily, they obliged but before he could set up, I quickly dove back into my pack. Mountain Man looked confused. From my bag, I pulled two things. The first was an American Flag, the second was a piece of poster board. On the board I had scrawled “Summit-K2, 28,251 feet”. He laughed, we posed and the picture was taken. It hangs with some pride in my house today.

After all the picture taking and niceties were done, it was time to go down. The other expedition headed down the gentle slope the way they come up. We looked back at the path that took us back to our starting point. “Hmmm. That’s quite a drop.”

“So, now what? It’s going to be awful for climbing down. What’s your plan?”

Mountain Man looked at the huge stones covered in ice and snow, thought for a moment and then, with out a word… jumped. HE ACTUALLY JUMPED! My eyes must have been the size of saucers as he sailed through the air and bounded from the top of one frozen rock, six feet down to the next and then the next. It was like watching a rubber ball disappear down the slope as he bounded along at high speed. I looked back at the empty summit and then to the rapidly shrinking image of my friend. With out a breath in my lungs, I leaped after him.

It was one of those stupid but life defining moments. If either of us missed our footing, the damage would have been horrific. This was long before the days of cell phones so there was no way to call for help if we needed it. Foolish? You bet your ass it was foolish. Exhilarating? Hooooooo Yah! The two of us yelped and hooted as we bounded at full stride down the rocks and path. What finially stopped us was an unseen root that reached out and snagged Mountain Man’s foot, mid-run. He went down quickly, disappeared into the deep snow and plowed along benieth its surface for ten feet or so. All that could be seen was his oversized pack, cutting along like a sharks fin through water. I got to him and helped him up. Mercifully, the only injury was a cut lip and tender ankle. He hobbled the remaining way down, and we let the adrenaline slowly subside. We had made it. We were soaked, we were tired, and one of us was a little bloody, just the way he hoped.

I’ve never climbed Monadnock in the snow again and to be honest, I don’t feel the need. Call me too old, call me too cautious but I know the real reason.

Don’t you know? I’ve been to the top of K2, and have the photo to prove it.

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