Archive for June, 2013

Road trip

I do travel by plane a bit for work, as miserably evidenced by my last post. For that work, Georgia is as far afield as I have ever gotten. Still, that’s pretty far for me, and in my personal travels, I just about never leave New England. This past weekend, however, we drove out to Rochester, New York to see long-lost friends (we lost them to Arizona. A terrible thing.) who were visiting family there. Rochester was about as far north and east as they are likely to be, so off we went, driving.

IMG_3989We are New Englanders, and so small staters. Maine seems outrageously large to us. But New York is bigger still. The boys were bewildered that we could drive for hours and still be in New York. Rochester is a cool little city, and I wish we could have seen a bit more of it than a day and half affords. But by Sunday afternoon, it was time to head back east again. We had arrived after dark on Friday night, and we were leaving in broad, glaring daylight, so the landscape was fully visible. On either side of the road, flat fields opened out. I remarked on the flatness, and Christophe responded, “Rochester is less a city of the northeast, and more the first city of the midwest.” Sage, that guy. It’s not just one thing, of course, that sets one place apart from another. When we passed between the cliff faces left where a hill had been blasted away to make room for the Thruway, there was neat, tile-stacked shale instead of solid granite. Gradually, hills began to appear, and at Albany, unable to face  the drive on the Turnpike through Massachusetts, we took the back way through Vermont instead. We toured the smaller roads where relic motels of the 50s motoring age sat mouldering and vacant. The road dipped and turned alongside cobbled rivers, and we were hemmed in closer and closer by green forest on all sides. We ate lunch in Brattleboro, Vermont, where vegan cafes are on every corner, and the smell of pot, patchouli and incense seems to hang in a cloud running the entire length of the Connecticut River, and I was brought to mind of my years at UMass, and felt the tug of home.

Malcolm had been quiet a while, and suddenly announced that he had finished his reading–a chapter book of a hundred pages or more. He’s been reading well for some time now, but this was reading an entire book on his own, asking for only two words’ meanings: novices and  initiation. This is a world I’ve been waiting for him to enter, remembering the trips I would take as a child to the library on my own, to get stacks of books to read on my own. Wholly self-sufficient, it seemed to me, and my memories of the summers when I was seven, eight, nine, seem to have no parents or other adults in them at all. That’s the part of it that had not hit me until now. His first big book, read start to finish without me. All the other stories and characters we’ve carried in our heads jointly, simultaneously. Mutually understood small references to what we’d been reading in our universe unto ourselves. He announced he’d finished his book, and I felt more sundered from him than at the moment he was born and his tether to me was cut. He began leaving me then, but it took six years and a book to make me notice it.

IMG_3988By now, Simon had taken a nap and was reanimated and philosophical. Malcolm drifted off to sleep, and Simon, four years old and lacking any self-sufficiency, began peppering me with his usual questions. “Mum, why is the road so tippy?” “Mum, am I so great and so beautiful?” “Mum, what’s this stuff in my ear? I call it ‘ear fug'” and finally, this one, that struck me hard, because he’s my younger son, and no one after him, and soon he will stop asking this kind of question, and enter the solid, sensible realm of all the grown-ups,

“Mum? Do you remember when you were a tiny baby and I was way back nowhere?”

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This month, I took my older son backpacking. He just turned six, which seemed old enough to me. We gave him his own kid-sized pack for his birthday, and I planned a route for us. I have a dubious reputation for taking people on hikes that turn out to be overly ambitious for them, and what seems moderate to me ends in expletives, staggering and limping for them. This time, I genuinely tried to rein myself in, charting our course from Crawford Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire up to the Nauman tentsite in the trees near Mizpah Spring Hut on the side of Mt. Pierce. It’s three miles from the parking lot to the site, and we managed it fairly well. There’s a bridge over a clear pool within the first half mile, and just after that, Gibbs Falls. The last 0.7 miles where the trail to the Hut and the tentsite veers off isn’t bad either. But the not-quite-one-mile in between seems longer than it is. Hiking takes patience, fortitude and resilience, and six year olds are not deep springs of any of these. Luckily, we have camp songs, and I only had to carry his pack for about a quarter mile of the way up.

at Gibbs Falls

at Gibbs Falls

We ate our supper at a table inside the Hut where an older gentleman scribbling in a small notebook offered me a cup of red wine from a two liter Poland Springs bottle. I accepted this mountain hospitality as Malcolm and I wolfed down oranges and our peanut butter walnut and chocolate burritos before retiring to our tent down the hill. I read Lord of the Flies while the wind swept up the side of the mountain from down in the Notch.

The next morning, we were up before anyone else at the tent sites and ate our breakfast on a rock. People staying at the Hut began gearing up to hike, and I noticed we were being openly stared at. Finally, a man with two kids a few years older than Malcolm approached. “What’s the story with this kid?” he asked, gesturing with his trekking pole. “How old are you, bud?” Turns out, no one could get over a kid so young on the trail with his own pack. Given, he carries only his own sleeping bag and pad, but he looks the part, and we, after all, had not slept in the relative luxury of the Hut’s bunks either, but in the woods, by ourselves.

Rather than hike straight back down, Malcolm insisted he wanted to climb to the summit of Mt. Pierce first. It would be his first 4,000+ foot mountain and would add almost a mile and a half of steep climbing to our day’s travels. I vacillated, asking him over and over, “You really want to?” and the cautious parent in me hesitated, knowing I’d pay for the choice on the forced march back down, but I wanted to climb Mt. Pierce too, and the selfish ego parent, the part that swells with joy when a child likes something I like, made the decision and we headed for the summit at our excruciating pace.

Just the least little top of Mt. Pierce is above treeline, in the alpine zone of fragile, low groundcover and wind-raked granite, but a little is all I needed. Looking over the ridge to Mount Eisenhower, and Monroe, I could see Mt. Washington, shrugging off a cloud, and the runnels down Ammonoosuc Ravine. We couldn’t pause long, knowing the 3.1 miles back down would take several hours, so we had a snack, added a rock to the last cairn above treeline, and began the descent: a long, and to a six year old, unchanging and featureless expanse of mossy boulders and bubbling streams. His feet hurt, his pack wore on his collarbones, he couldn’t stop dreaming of the Falls and the pool way far down. We played Fortunately/Unfortunately (Me: “Fortunately, the man was able to escape the sharks by grabbing onto a passing helicopter.” Malcolm: “Unfortunately, the sharks could fly.”) and I had to carry his pack a while, and then both his pack and my pack and himself. When I set them all down near the Falls, I almost leapt into the air at each step with the unaccustomed buoyancy.

The last half mile, we finished the game. Me: “Fortunately, they found a pizza place.” Malcolm: “Unfortunately, the pizza had teeth.” We lapsed into silence on the flat path on the way out to the parking lot as thunder threatened from north of the Notch. His rhythmic footfalls, and mine, summoned to my mind the last line of Frost’s Hyla Brook, and I marched the last bit of the trail to its steady drumbeat:

We love the things we love for what they are.

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On Friday night, a Painted Turtle showed up in the backyard and began digging holes. I assumed she would promptly lay eggs. I forgot that turtles do nothing promptly. By bedtime, she had listlessly wandered off, leaving several half dug funnels in the dirt. Saturday morning, she was back again, and this time deposited a passel of small white eggs and then tamped the dirt over them with her hind legs. She stalked slowly off to our little pond, her shell making a soft clack against the rocks as she scaled them.

She's done laying eggs now.

She’s done laying eggs now.

That same morning, Malcolm and I were on our way to the grocery store when we came upon another Painted Turtle partway across the road. I stopped in the street, put on my hazards, and climbed out to move her. A car came up behind us as I stepped out and I help up my hand and mouthed, “Wait, please.” Picking up the turtle and stepping out to walk the rest of the way across the road, the car swerved out in front of me, grazing my knuckles with its sideview mirror. Though this was disconcerting, the closeness of our encounter afforded me an opportunity to look both passenger and driver directly in the eye and clearly mouth, “You are an asshole.” The turtle began urinating on me.

After the turtle was safely across, and Malcolm and I were walking the grocery store aisles, I thought of the turtle again, and the driver. Turtle urine squelched in my flip-flop as we considered microwaveable pouches of rice “ready in 90 seconds!” Two minutes is too long to wait for rice, and 30 seconds is too long to wait for a turtle to be carried across the road.

We are only one of evolution’s recent innovations, and turtles are its time-tested and ancient success. When our mammal ancestor was some terrified tree shrew fleeing the steps of enormous dinosaurs, there were already turtles. When it’s time to nest, they plod out of their ponds and seek high ground, crossing our roads with none of the manic indecision of squirrels, but with a constant, measured pace.

I approached her a bit less closely.

I approached her a bit less closely.

Yesterday, a snapping turtle showed up in the yard too. She raised herself up on surprisingly long legs and stalked around the yard, now and then lowering her snout to sniff the ground. Finding a gravelly spot by the garden beds, she spent four hours plowing up the ground. She didn’t lay any eggs, and eventually walked off again. She may come back, or she may not. She was my companion as I worked by the window all morning, and I looked up at her constantly. One of my chickens came by and approached the turtle as if to peck at it. The turtle froze and raised her broad head. The chicken froze, feathers pressed close to her body, head cocked. Each eyed the other, and I watched them expectantly. Then the chicken withdrew and walked away pecking at grass seeds. The turtle went back to rearranging the dirt. Nothing happened all morning. No nature special scenes of white, ping-pong ball eggs dropping from beneath a turtle’s tail, no violent tangle between reptile and bird. The turtle came to the yard, dug in the dirt a while, and left. The chicken walked around, eating. By the pond, a snake looked out at the rain from under his accustomed rock. Most of the time, nothing happens for hours. A turtle teaches patience, if we can sit long enough to notice.

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