A Fair Swap: The Excursionist I

On Friday, February 1, Mariam and I will be exchanging this:

[The Hudson River on January 26, 2018]

for this:

[The Yorkshire Dales, England]

It’s a pretty fine change of scenery if I do say so myself.

Once upon a time, back in the day, I loved winter.  How could one not love winter…when you’re twelve years old and you’re skating on the Brick Pond in Owego, NY?  I had a toboggan, a sled and the ability to make a superb snow person.  I owned a pair of old snowshoes with leather hide webbing.  An Eddie Bauer Arctic Parka hung in my closet…and still does.  I camped out in the High Peaks of the Adirondacks when it was -28℉.  My ice skates, black and weathered, hung on the wall leading to our attic.  Every time I would pass them, on a stifling day in August, I would think of the coming winter and the frozen pond only a few hundred feet from my front door.

I couldn’t wait.

Then in 1974, a personal tragedy visited me while hiking in the Adirondacks and winter became a little darker in my heart.  I no longer saw the snow as pristine and pure and calming as I had for almost two decades of my life.

The years went by.  I woke up one morning and looking into the mirror, I saw a middle-aged man looking back at me.  The salt & pepper hair had gone mostly gray.  My back hurts after shoveling.  My skates no longer fit.  my bones ache and my muscles get sore when I am forced out of our house to deal with a two-foot snowfall.  Winter no longer holds a spell over me.  I layer up with wool and fleece because I always feel chilled.  I love to watch the snow fall slowly onto the lake near our house.  I love to walk in the moonlight, feeling the peculiar crunch of the ground on cold nights.  But where I’d really rather be is sitting near our wood stove and reading a Nordic Noir novel.

In the mid-1980’s, I spent a year in Dorset, England.  It changed my life.  Footpaths and pubs abound in the chalky hills of Thomas Hardy country.  The mossy gravestones surround the mossy churches.  And, the green is breathtaking.  England may not have the twenty-eight shades of green that cover my beloved Ireland, but it’s a close second.  Sometimes, at our home in the Adirondacks, I will gaze out of the large window that faces Rainbow Lake and see a monochromatic world.  My eyes strain for some color.  A last brown leaf on a dormant maple or even a patch of blue sky beyond the leaden skies.  But no, it’s a world of white and gray.  I yearn for a dandelion or a trillium…anything with color.

So, we’re off to spend the remainder of the winter in Dorset, hosted by friends I met in the 1980’s.  We plan on doing a lot of walking, and I will carry an L.L Bean pole to lean on if my back begins to trouble me.

I guarantee that there will be a stone wall to sit on and rest.  There will be a quiet pew in a forgotten little church in a out-of-the-way village where I can write in my journal.

Yes, I will sit in that quiet pew and think about trading white for green, mild days for thumb-numbing cold mornings and ice for muddy footpaths.

And, I shall have some peace there…without fleece, without down and without cares.

 

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Another Adirondack Tragedy

 BREAKING NEWS 

REGULAR GUY GOES MISSING WHILE SHOVELING A PATH TO DRIVEWAY!

AVALANCHE SUSPECTED

[The Egan Cabin at Rainbow Lake at time of search. Aerial photo from Channel 7 News Drone7]

[Photo credit: Google search]

Rainbow Lake, NY (AP)

Only days after a lone ice fisherman had turned, basically into a snowman, another winter-related incident occurred on a lonely loop road in the town of Rainbow Lake.  A regular average man (name is being withheld pending further investigation) vanished only yards away from his front deck while shoveling his way from his front door to the safety of his, as yet, unplowed driveway.

This following a major snowstorm that dumped nearly 20″ of snow the previous night.

This photo was taken by his wife shortly before the tragic event.

[Photo credit: Mariam Voutsis]

His wife spoke to state police Search & Rescue: “I don’t know.  One minute he was there and the next minute, he wasn’t.  I thought he wandered off to take some pictures for Facebook,” she said while taking another sip of her fresh cappuccino mocha.

“Oh, I see you like a sprinkle of cinnamon in your coffee,” said the Trooper.  “What else can you tell us?”

“Sometimes I don’t use cinnamon, I just take it neat.”

“No, I meant about your husband, ma’am.”

“Well, he kept complaining about how he had no place to put the new fallen snow.”  The Trooper looked out at the piles of newly fallen snow.  The tiny crystals twinkled in a sun that was struggling to break through the cloudy sky, as gray as a wet sidewalk in Schenectady.  “He spoke to me through a crack in the front door.  He told me that every time he would heave a shovel-full of snow onto this giant pile on the deck, much of it would slide back, forcing him to shovel the same place all over again.  Poor guy.  He has a bad back, you know?”

“It’s unfortunate but most men his age have back problems.  Does it affect his golf game at all?  I’m looking for suggestions to lower my handicap.”

“Oh, heavens, we gave that up years ago.  Those little white balls kept getting lost in the snow.”

“You can paint them red, ma’am.  Besides golf is a summer game.”

The wife looked out over the mound in the driveway (which was her Honda CRV, she hoped) and pondered this comment.  “Summer? like in the season?”

“Yes, ma’am.  The time when people swim, fish, take walks, go camping, sit on the beach…things like that.”

“Really?”

“Well, the search dogs are getting a little tired.  They don’t like deep snow.  I best be calling off the search for now.”

The Trooper surveyed the yard and the front deck.

“Sorry to have to say this ma’am, but from the looks of this accumulation, we may not have any luck in locating your husband until late-May at the earliest.”

“I’ll probably be in New York City then, so here’s my contact number.  Don’t hesitate to call if you find something.”

“Rest assured.  And thanks for the cappuccino.”

“No problem.”

[Happier days at Rainbow Lake. Photo taken by Pat Willis]

 

The Ring

My left hand is ringless. The wedding band lies on a tray on the dresser in our bedroom, along with assorted jewelry.  Is this the sign of a marriage gone south?  Hardly.  The only thing that would be going south right now is my wife and I.  Because outside the wind howls and the temperature is dropping like the broken seeds of the sunflower mixture in our bird feeder.  Mariam reports from the kitchen that it is currently 14.2℉.  By 2:00 am, when I make my first trip to the bathroom (it’s a prostate thing), it’ll be -6℉.  It’ll bottom out at -12℉ in the wee hours.

So, what’s the deal with the ring?  In truth, I’m losing weight and a few weeks ago I tested the ring by lightly shaking my hand on the bed cover.  It slipped off.  I had a little clamp thing on it to keep is snug and safe on my ring finger but it broke.  For now it will rest, in security, on our dresser.

I have rarely taken it off in our 25+ years of marriage.  Why should I?  If I were out to ‘get lucky’ at the local pub…and I slid it off my finger, it would leave a white, unweathered ‘ring’ on the finger in question.  That would a dead give away for any twenty-something who had mistaken me for George Clooney (refer to my Facebook profile photo).

And I would never do such a thing anyway.  I can barely comprehend life without her.  She gets frustrated on her computer, but she’ll sit in my office for hours and we will read aloud the drafts of a novel I would be working on.  (A novel that will sell approximately 43 copies.)  Mariam will drop anything to help me with something that is beyond my ability.  She saved my life by locating the best hematologist in New York City, in 2003 when I was diagnosed with a rare leukemia.  She slept on a cot while I went through ten days of chemo.  She stayed on the phone (while she was working at Mount Sinai) for hours until we secured tickets to see the Rolling Stones.  She never denies my need to see Bob Dylan whenever he plays near us.  She lets me roam at will in a Barnes & Nobel…and even tells me which credit card to use.

[Mariam in 2017]

Twenty-two years ago, when I turned fifty, she asked me what I wanted.  I humbly suggested a 28″ sailboat or a 1952 MG TD (with wire wheels).  That’s when I think she started secretly stashing away money for one or the other.

We’ve traveled a great deal, especially since she finally retired after over fifty years in health care.  We’ve been to Paris, London, Belgium, Alaska, Istanbul, Ireland, Germany and countless other places.  And, we’re about to spend the winter in England and returning home aboard the Queen Mary 2., for the second time.

She is my wife and my best (and sometimes I feel my only) friend.

So, why this post?  Why now?  It’s not her birthday nor our anniversary.  It’s not Mother’s Day.  It’s just another day I wake next to my wife and feel that I could write a simple blog to brighten her day.  In the middle of a snowy and cold winter, she needs a lift.

After she reads this (which she will proof) I’m counting on her being a tiny bit happier.  So, now is the time to quietly mention the sailboat and the MG.

[In Istanbul. Circa: late 1990’s]

Like Living in a Holiday Greeting Card

[Photo is mine.]

Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

–Lyrics by Sammy Cahn

I’ve never lived inside a greeting card before. You’d have to be really really thin, like Wiley C. Cayote after being flattened by a road paver. Never fear. My readers know that and that the title of this post is metaphorical. Having said that, I will admit that I could drop a few pounds.

So, consider the lead photograph at the top of your screen. Doesn’t our house look like a Disney version of Santa’s Workshop? It looks so cozy inside and it is. Outside, it looks like a winter wonderland…snowy and frozen.

Many of my friends from back in the day will read this blog in Florida and say: “Beautiful, but no thanks.” Others may look at the picture and say: “How cozy. How peaceful.”

[My photo.]

I used to love winter when I was growing up in Owego, NY. We had a toboggan, sleds, skates and shovels to pile the snow and make a ‘snow fort’. My views have changed since 1958. Consider this:

I have to get from the front door to the car in the driveway which means I have to shovel a path, clean the snow off the car and hope the battery isn’t dead. Then I look and see that the county plow has piled the road snow at the head of the driveway. We have a guy (last name is Winter by the way) who plows our driveway but to do so properly, the car needs to be moved. Can you see a problem in this situation? I can.

Now, for reasons I won’t get into here, we have two cars. My car is in the garage. Protected. But how do I get to said garage? I have to shovel a path from our porch to the back door. I need this path because every two weeks the recycling and garbage has to be brought to the large plastic buckets in the garage. Once these are filled, I have to shovel a short path so I can haul the bins to the roadside. Mr. Winter may have had a chance to clear that space from the garage door to the road. Sometimes he doesn’t have that chance…so I have to shovel.

The other day I brought up the idea of getting a snow-blower. They cost about $700 for a proper one that ‘drives itself’. I told my wife that we’d save on Mr. Winter’s plowing. We’d have the thing paid off in two to three winters. She said we’d still have to keep him on our payroll because when we’re away for the winter, the driveway needs to be plowed. It’s an insurance thing.

“But I have a bad back,” I told my wife.

“Then I’ll shovel,” she replied.

“Not with your dicey shoulder,” I retorted.

We’re at the classic snow-blower stalemate.

[A beautiful landscape. Photo is mine.]

So, what is the situation now? Well, I need one of those patches for my lower back after I shovel even a few yards. I possess five buckets of ice-melting stuff on hand as well as three cans of de-icer, three shovels, a child’s plastic sled to haul our groceries from wherever I can park the car to the front door.

You can see the front door in the top photograph. The one that looks so cozy and inviting. But there’s not many people on our road to invite to our cozy home. They’ve all gone south for the winter. Like the hummingbirds, geese and other seventy-something-year-old folks.

We will be spending the majority of this winter in England. We have a great place to stay at the home of long-time friends. But, last year they had a freak cold snap and several inches of snow fell in North Dorset.

I wonder if I can use an English shovel. They drive on the left…maybe there’s a shoveling etiquette?

If you get a holiday card from your son or ex-wife who now live in Tucson, savor the photo of the lovely, dry, snowless desert.

[Source: The New Yorker. Dec. 10, 2018. Artist is Peter Kuper.]

Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]

 

Adorable Aquatic Mammals Of Rainbow Lake

[Castor canadensis. Source: Wikipedia]

beaver n. A large aquatic rodent having thick brown fur, webbed hind feet, a broad flat tail and sharp incisors used for felling trees and building dams.

–The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.)

When late summer arrives here in the North Country and the leaves begin to turn red, gold and yellow, I like to reminisce about the fun facts and involvement I’ve had with the wildlife that is abundant in the Northern Tier of New York State, deep in the Adirondack forest, where animals and plants, from bears to wildflowers flourish.

I’ve written about the fascinating lives of spiders, black flies, mosquitoes, gnats and bees. This year, I’d like to turn my attention to the cuddly little furry critters that scamper about my yard at all hours of the day and night. The squirrels are just so full of life…they scamper about and make cute attempts to scratch holes into our eaves so they can live in our attic. The deer almost seem ready to eat out of my hand as I sit on the front deck. Every time I walk across the tiny little patch of grass that we like to call “our lawn”, I get yet another chance to check my body for ticks.

We don’t see too many bears so I’ll skip them.

But what we have, living in some lodge in some hidden part of this relatively large Rainbow Lake, are a pair of beavers.

So, let’s talk about beavers.  The North American beaver (Castor canadensis) can weigh up to 71 pounds! I got that fact from Wikipedia, so it must be true.

Are they social animals? You bet they are. They come right up from the lake and into our yard. Why just about two months ago, at night, while I slept just a few feet away, one (or both) of the local beavers chewed through and felled my wife’s favorite Poplar tree. I noticed it the next day when I was taking the recycling bags to the garage. There was the tree resting against the house, just outside our bedroom. Actually, the tree (about seven inches in diameter) was resting against our power lines.

This was serious. Our cable TV could have been taken out. How was I going to watch Dancing With The Stars or The Hoarders? We called the National Grid (sounds so Canadian) and within an hour they had the tree down.

Not one moment of interruption of our favorite shows!

But it was not all bad. We gained some useful information about our friends, the beavers. They loved Poplars and Birch. It so happens that I love those trees as well.

So, what did we do? Simple. We caged the trees. Our friend who sells us firewood and does some trimming (his name is Forrest, really) caged our vulnerable trees.

Now, because of those miserable beavers (what were they going to do with our tree, dam the lake?), we have a yard that looks like a display at Disney World.

How attractive is this:

Or this:

Or worse, this:

At least they left these under our dock. Maybe I can find a nice walking stick from this pile:

In search of more beaver lore, I went to The Wild Center in Tupper Lake. There, in a tank, was a beaver. I felt some aggression rise within me. I stared into the beaver’s eyes and said: “You will not conquer me. You will not take out all of our favorite trees on our .5 acre lot. I am still the master of my domaine. Do you hear me through this thick plate glass? I will not be ruled by you!” I suddenly realized that the beaver was stuffed. A small crowd had gathered around me.

“Daddy?!”

“Harriet, take the children to the car.”

“Don’t worry, Timmy, he’s just a grumpy old man…you know, like grandpa was when he became senile.”

I had to save face. I pretended I was a WWI veteran and slowly limped away humming It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.

I can only deal with these little frustrations philosophically. Soon, none of this will matter. The sun will expand to the size of a Red Giant and consume all the inner planets. Or, global warming will flood the Adirondacks.

And, if none of this happens, we’re going to spend the winter in England. I know they have hedgehogs, but I’m not sure about beavers. Hedgehogs don’t build dams, (I don’t think) but the beavers can gnaw away on our wire cages all winter.

At lease I don’t have to build a Wall.

[With the exception of the lead illustration, all photos are mine.]

 

 

The Birch Tree Clock: An Update

After I posted the blog about a clock that my father made from a birch tree in our backyard in Owego, NY., I got some responses.

Several people said that it would be a tribute to my father to restore the clock. Refurbish it. Make it come alive again. So, I did it. A friend, straightened out the hands. I found a AA battery. In a few minutes it was silently ticking away the time.

I put the clock on the top shelf of my Adirondack/Mountaineering bookcase.

It’s there for a good reason. On the shelf below are my pitons, carabiners and climbing slings. I was once a fair rock climber. Now these items only remind me of who I once was. I can’t climb 5.4 rated climbs in the “Gunks” anymore. I put the clock in a corner. You will notice that there are no numerals to mark the hours. I thought of going to Michael’s craft store in Plattsburgh (I won’t go to a Hobby Lobby because of their discrimination policy) and buying small foil numerals for the clock.

I decided that I wanted the clock to be free of numbers. I have a fairly good sense of how a clock is set up. I don’t need reference points to mark the passage of time.

I can sit on the sofa and look at my rock-climbing paraphernalia and remember my life when I was in my thirties. I was fit and I was strong and I was fearless. Now, I look up at the clock with moving hands but no numerals. Do I care if it’s 5:15 or 6:15?

Not really. Time is relative. My memories are flood waters in my mind. I think about the past more than most people and probably more than I should.

But, when I look up at the clock that ticks silently and without the hours marked…I don’t feel that time is ticking away in my life.

It’s just a piece of wood, full of memories, full of my father’s love for his sons and now, a new-found love for my dad, who took time to put the timepiece together.

When I look at it, I don’t wonder what time it is.

It is what it is.