American Sabbatical 62: 12/13/96

Home Turf

12/13.. Bowdoinham.

Yes. We arrived home mid-afternoon on Friday the thirteenth, in an icy rain. Those of you who are hanging on our every episode can relax. We didn’t end up in the ditch somewhere east of New York State.

We were up and cranking before dawn in Oneonta, and the Owl was screaming at low revs, in his excitement. A loose fanbelt, I diagnosed, but didn’t want to tinker with it for fear of throwing a belt in a blizzard. Better the bird screams a little, I decide, and I vowed to watch indicator lights for alternator malfunction. Off we squealed and sissed in the downpour.

The long hills of New York develop out of the grayness, steaming under the cloudwrack. I’d forgotten how black the slates and shales of the Mohawk escarpments are. How hard and industrial the Empire State looks. Half way to Albany a blanket of whiteness spread its stark contrast up to the dark rocks. Two big raptors wingbeat across our path, male and female. Other owls heading home? Looking down from the ridge-running road onto lone homesteads, aglimmer with Christmas lights in the wan dawning, I saw the decorations as votive offerings to the night sky, rather than up-with-the-Joneses. As gifts of joy to passing strangers, promises of home. Must be a case of schmaltz coming on.

Approaching Rockefeller’s Folly the carflow clustered up and the rain eased off. Maybe we weren’t going to have to grope blindly across New England. Flood warnings were posted for coastal NY and Penna, but we were riding the highlands between air masses, and the sun was trying to show itself. Back on familiar pavements. Drislane country, across the Hudson, where we once helped build a dreamhouse. And up into the Berkshires, where I’d buried grandparents, and lived among their memories. We’d expected the known hills to seem tame and dull, but the Berks are still beautiful in their rounded hulking way, more crowded together than the New York uplands.

Climbing past Lee to the heights of Becket we disappeared into whiteout fog, and the snows deepened. A pickup with Maine plates appeared alongside and winked out into the blankness ahead. We cheered. 16,000 miles and we’d only seen two other Maine cars. A pair of young guys in a beater hotrodding round the curves at Big Sur, and a solo cross-continenter in a Nissan who waved by on Rt40 in Oklahoma. We could even get nostalgic about those crawdad plates.

The radio was full of Public Broadcasting music and chatter out of Kingston and Springfield, and we eared-up as much as we could take before our culture caches were full, then scanned for rock and blues. Springfield had both, and black classical broadcasting to boot , so we dropped down into the Connecticut Valley with Horace Silver bebopping away the miles. Bunch of the 50’s dudes, probably half-lit, in some dingy Manhattan studio, capturing the echoing angst of night pavements, and the city beat. I even smiled as another heedless Massachusetts driver cut off the tandem-trailer ahead of me, so it fishtailed on the slick asphalt. Back East again.

Sturbridge merges, Worcester weavings, and the long brick mills of the early industrial rev. Andover’s chapel and bell tower lining up due south, on that far adolescent hilltop. Then a peak experience for Peggy. We haul into the Ames truck-stop for hi-test and a rest. Coming out of the restroom, Peggy encounters a wizened character in a billed-cap who asks, “Did you just bring that Kenworth in?” Mistaken for a lady trucker! She was grinning all over when she swaggered back up to the Owl.

It was drizzling chilly as we crossed the Piscataquis at Portsmouth, and the wipers screaked and shuddered in the on and off-again. No snow on the ground now, and processional pines line the way. We’d first noticed white pines in the mix back in Pennsylvania, but here on the northern edge of the hardwood domain, where it dwindles into the boreal forest, the big pines dominate. The pine tree state. Home.

Firs and hemlocks thicken the woods with their coniferosity, and the coastal tangle replaces the more open hardwoods of lower New England. The stature of the trees has hunched down and the underbrush has densened as we climb in latitude, the exposed ledges have an orange stain that reminds us of rusty tasting coastal wells. Biddeford and Saco, Ogunquit and OOB. Same old sign litanies, but it’s all new, somehow. The Maine woods seem diminished after the Olympics and Cascades, but the horizontality of the pine boughs sketch novel patterns, and the tide-drowned marshes lift our spirits like flotsam on the flood.

Past the BFI (Big Fucking Indian) at the Freeport line, and we’re on local turf again. We give Peggy's High School a collective Bronx cheer as it zips by, and all the old daily details roll past like a latenite rerun. Our hearts lift and sink in waves of recognition. Off the ramp into Bowdoinham, Peggy and I have diametrically opposed responses. She exclaims how weird to be where it’s all intimately familiar. I’m seeing it with new eyes. Look at that roofline, how those trees are bunched. Complete novelty in a remembered landscape. Eerie.


The onion dome is down off the town hall, there’s a new sign at Frizzle’s Gas Station, and Green Mountain Roasters advertised at Jeanine’s. Over the Cathance and up the hill. They’re putting in a new septic across the road, and our drive looks well-graded. O my god, the dooryard looks like some Mainers live here, skiff rolled over, boat blocked up and tarped, new pile of stovewood. But nobody there to greet us.

Except Bagel and CC, tails wagging.. unsure we really are. Not the wild eagerness of a daytrip away barking and wiggling, only tentative hangdogged nuzzling-ups, of the why did you abandon us. O please forgive us. And the moist fugginess of our old wood house, and the enclosing spaces all rearranged to shelter Seth and Klara (and Bob), and the puppy’s kennel, and the new cat’s refuge, and houseplants grown rank, and the radio whispering cool jazz. 16,666 miles around to find home, and it’s all strange, but familiar.

Disconcerting. A pile of mail and notes from friends are mounded on the table. One is a booby-trap. A letter from a dear friend tangled in a divorce proceeding, accusing me of betrayal for writing her husband 6 months ago offering him emotional support. Guess you can’t be neutral in a warzone. My letter has apparently been used as a weapon in proceedings. I had violated confidences, chosen sides, was unforgivable, goodbye. No answer at her home phone. And it makes me wonder if all this reportage about people we’ve visited along the way hasn’t been a violation of confidences. If portrayal itself isn’t a betrayal, despite intent. Not home ten minutes, and self-doubt germinates. Is that what home is? The place where you can take off you self-assurance? Let your hair down and look in the mirror?

Another note is a warm welcome from Carlo, our local art-mensch, hoorahing us home. We call, and he insists we come over for lunch. We flee the scene. Going downdrive is reflexive now, and the same old road less alien. Hugs and veggie burritos and local gossip take the edge off. Then Seth calls, and we Owl-dance back through town. Two eagles are sky-writing over the house as we come up the hill this time. And it’s long wet-eyed hugs and puppy-nips, and we really are back.

12/21.. Solstice in Maine.

Local Scene
The dogs have begun to accept us again. They don’t entirely trust us yet, and moving baggage around makes them hanghead and woe-eyed, but they thump their tails when we talk to them. And out in the woods with Bagel and CC (Cream Cheese) I’ve refound a sense of place.

For the first 6-8 weeks on the trek I looked for them everywhere.. couldn’t cross a road without checking they were safe. They were my invisible companions, as they had been my fellow travelers for years. But dog-consciousness diminished, until I’d stopped sniffing the perimeters and quartering the whistle-space. Now I’m back in the sensory field of labs, and these golden noseologists are reminding me about olfactory trails in the air, and the joys of savoring an old stink.

It poured and sleeted and drizzled and fog-drenched us for the first week we were home. The gloom mirrored my inner confusion, but Peggy plunged right into the local do. The father of her dear friend and ex-partner, Sally, died the day after we arrived, and Peggy reached out to her, then connected to her local net. And it’s the holiday season, with all the happy hoopla Peggy delights in. I always had the protection of gift deadlines to keep me in the shop, and out of the schmaltz, however, so I was just a lost soul in a gray world. I’d have to go out and sit in the Owl, or fire up Puter to feel in place. Your E-mail has been my home turf. Now I was in a cloud. Seth and Klara and the animals walked a wide circle around me. Let him stew, was the operative mode. Even the puppy, Echo, gave this alpha dog a wide berth, and quizzical looks.

The grumps couldn’t last in a houseful of happy spirits, of course. I retreated to my corner in the front parlor, and grumbled over old snarls and gripes, but there was simply too much laughter in the kitchen, and puppylove. Finally the dreary damp eased off, and we were granted a pet day. Fifty degrees and sunsplashes. I jumped in the Owl and went looking for a fellow recluse. Buzz.

Buzz lives in a camp in the woods of rural Brunswick, with his black lab, Doc, and as few possessions as any man I’ve known. He makes living in a Festiva look acquisitive. No powerline, no phone, no plumbing. Bagel and CC and I came tiptoeing up Buzz’s woods road, looking for a quiet spot where someone has been keeping watch.


Sitting in Buzz’s loft, overlooking his grove, we saw the red squirrels doing spiral chases in the trees, while the big grays tail-twitched on the feeder-stump. Chickadees and morning doves shared the sunflower seeds, and an occasional jay would dive-bomb all this neighborliness, scatter everyone, and the seeds. After I slowed down to the woodland pace, we made a roundabout through the hemlocks and pines, maples and oaks. All the recent wet had freshened the mosses, and the floor was carpeted with glistening green patterns of a dozen species of bog lovers. We squished and plodded through the fall’s unwrappings, and the cool humid scents brought back memories of belonging here. We carefully stepped over a forest of yearling firs, reclaiming a logging road, and felt like giants. I took the back way home, not quite ready to face town yet, but maybe myself. The dogs were grinning.

Then it came off cold. Freezing drip, chased by a snapping clear frost, and a frozen car morning. Had to pry our way into the Owl’s tailgate then shoulder open the doors. Dig out the scrapers and the longjohns. Winter. Nothing like a brisk wakeup and sunsparkle to shiver you out of a fug. The old dogs bounced with letsgo when I crunched across the back yard and into the beeches, and Echo nipped at CC and ran circles around us.

The tangled ridge-and-gulley terrain backing on our half acre tumbles into cedar and swamp maple marshes along the Cathance. A waterdog’s delight. Echo is part wolf, part shepherd, part retriever, and total curiosity, but isn’t entirely sure of the wet stuff yet. She harries CC nonstop, though, clinging to her neckruff with sharp puppyteeth, the way CC used to plague Bagel. Payback is a bitch. Bagel, stiff and dignified at 12, simply snarls the puppy off, but she can get fangplay from CC. Our noisy circus gamboled off into the woods.

I have sunk myself in this local environment in recent years simply because it's a dogwalk from home. It has no grandeur, and little charm esthetically. Cutover twice in the last century, it’s a betwixt and between system. Upcountry from the true coastal jungle of spruce plus, but downcountry enough to be favored by the coastal effect, and the estuarial ambiance. Hemlock and fir, maple, beech, ash and oak, popple, white cedar and birch, the occasional pine or cherry. The trees are rarely over 50 feet , and thick as teeth on a comb. I avoided it for years, as too muddy and snarled to walk, and too rollercoaster to ski.. and felt trapped, without a near ramble. Then I started to look at this miserable thirdgrowth in minute detail, and it opened up like a storybook. The patterns of arboreal cohabitation, the wealth of understory and floorcreeping veg, the microscopic glory which shines everywhere. Small treasures in a worthless wood. Taking the world in wide-eyed, anyplace is wondrous. So I started letting the dogs lead me about, snuffling in the leaves. Come winter I decided that I would ski in this puckerbrush. Now I’ve figured out how to sideslide the gullies, bushwhack across the frozen swamps, and backdoor my way onto the river ice. The comedy of crashing through this wilderness in a deep powder can chuckle me all day.

But there’s no snow yet (or what there was over Thanksgiving had melted before we got back), and I could examine my favorite spots. The blue spruce I planted just off a woods road, the grotto spring, fern fruits poking up in the bunchgrass gully, the yellow birches entangled with kneeling beeches. I carried Echo across the running brooks, and admired the new ice feathering out across the still pools. Some could support dogweight, but I plunged through to my boot-tops. Everywhere there were frost flowers blooming up through the crusty floor, with dead leaves lifted up by the icy explosions. The puppy had been so good at dogging CC’s heels that I’d stopped minding her. Then she was gone. Oh, no.

“Echo... Echo!.. ECHO!!” And I heard myself, shouting for an Echo in the silent woods, and I started giggling. The errant puppy nosed up to me in my absurdity, and I hugged her home. I think I’m back.

Kitchen Sink
Yesterday evening there came a knock at the door. Looking out, our dooryard was filled with neighbors and friends, who broke into a verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, then Good King Wenceslas, capped off with We Wish You A Merry Christmas. We threw on our coats, and joined the procession, across the bridge into Bowdoinham and round about the village, stopping to sing some cheer at every lighted house. Later there was a dusting of snow. Yes, definitely home.

Front page
Previous dispatch
Next dispatch
Index of dispatches