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Maine Winters

About the only thing I looked forward to in the Maine winter was the drama of a snowstorm, the possibility of a resulting power outage lasting a day or more notwithstanding. “Nor’easters”―cyclonic air masses that spawn off the shores of the eastern United States, wicked combinations of cold polar air and warmer ocean air―produced the best snowstorms in Gorham. 

I loved the way the curtains of falling snow erased distances, eliminated property lines, bled the world of color, and wrapped the rare person afoot in town or country in his or her own private world―a gray apparition.  Reducing traffic to a whisper―this as Maine’s intrepid road-maintenance crews kept streets and roads in remarkably good condition―the raging storms transformed the countryside into a 17th-century wilderness and the villages into ghostly hamlets.  The mountains of snow relieved the harshness of the naked branches and limbs and exposed rock of the countryside, buried the stains and litter in the towns and cities. 

As much as I liked the unfettered wildness of the snow and wind, I also enjoyed taming it, keeping it at bay, assuming the manly role of maintaining our home’s safety, comfort, efficiency, and welcome.  Although never a gearhead, during and after the storms I enjoyed blasting the snow away with my new heavy-duty Sears snowblower.  I cleared not only our driveway and the walkway to our front door, but much of our front and back yards, creating winter “pastures” for our four dogs so they could stretch their legs and and enjoy some room to accommodate their individual relief habits.  None of us is immune.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, Uncategorized

Maine True

Meanwhile, there was Maine with all its charms and curiosities:  Fried clams.  The Windham, Maine, property that had a mint condition replica of a 1950s gas station.  “Lobstah.”  Locals wintering in “Florider.”  Lighthouses.  The Italian corner store.  Winslow Homer.  Dark, plump wild turkeys filing across a country road.  “Christina’s World.”  Old Town Canoes.  The seventeen-hundred-pound “chocolate moose.”  A public reading of Whittier’s “Snowbound.”  A boat and trailer in every other driveway.  A Portland Seadogs Double-A baseball game disappearing behind fog.  Dunkin Donuts.  Sap gushing from a pruned maple limb in the spring.  Maple syrup.  Bundled and sheltered “CAMP WOOD” for sale along a rural roadside littered with windfallen . . . camp wood. The cottage industry of personal pickups with snowplows.  Roiling, whirlpooling, thundering, misting Maine rivers guided by granite through downtowns after a day of heavy rain.  Lightning bugs burning spark holes in a June evening.

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Autumn in Maine

Fall in New England: What can I write about it that hasn’t been written in greater detail, beauty, and thought by the late Hal Borland?  For over a quarter of a century, Borland lived on a farm beside the Housatonic River in Salisbury, Connecticut―several minutes’ drive from the fabulous lake where I vacationed as a boy.  (And, yes, wouldn’t it have been interesting to have at least met him then?) During that time, he wrote millions of words about the hills, valleys, rivers, and lakes of this corner of New England, and many appeared nearly every Sunday as “nature editorials” in The New York Times.  Dozens of these pieces dealt with fall.  In a 1964 piece, he called it “the great symphony in the woodlands.”  Nobody, not even Thoreau, chronicled in greater detail a landscape through the seasons.  Meanwhile, in Seasons at Eagle Pond, the late New Hampshire poet and essayist Donald Hall wrote a marvelously lyrical and comprehensive piece about fall in his home state.  I can hardly add to this trio.       

Let me just briefly state the obvious that fall in Maine was colors: primarily the reds, oranges, and lingering greens of maple and oak―swimming, exploding, dripping, and drooling everywhere.  Sure, the effervescent gold of the aspen and the muted reds of the scrub oak of the Southwestern high country, and the bright lemon-yellows of the cottonwoods in the Southwestern river valleys and arroyos, were beautiful, but nothing could surpass the sheer variety and abundance of New England’s autumnal palette.  The New England autumn weather, too, was nearly always delightful, thanks largely to the decrease in the humidity.  I welcomed, as well, the lowering temperatures, culminating in the first frost, that killed all the biting insects.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

Summers in Maine

Maine summers have long been known for their comfort, for being warm but generally not hot.  In addition to “The Pine Tree State,” Maine’s nickname is “Vacationland.”  For generations, people, including members of my family, have flocked to Maine to have a taste of the wild and, especially, to escape the torrid summer heat of the states south of Maine.  For instance, if you lived in Morristown, New Jersey, and on a July day the temperature there was 91°F and the humidity is 90%, you were forgiven for longing to be in a breezy Maine coastal town like Bar Harbor or Christmas Cove; or, if you favored deep woods and fresh water, to be loafing on the summit of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, where the famed Appalachian Trail terminates, or to be taking an invigorating plunge in Maine’s Moosehead Lake (“like a gleaming silver platter at the end of the table,” wrote Thoreau).  Indeed, nothing―not even the most pleasant day in New Mexico―beat an August afternoon in our backyard in Gorham, the temperature in the 80s, and I relaxing against the trunk of a pine, listening to the breeze in the treetops and the fiddling of insects, recalling my childhood, my butt upon a new-mowed lawn interwoven with scintillating pine needles.

But the operative word here is “relaxing.”  On many summer days in Maine, if I was engaging in a vigorous activity while working or playing outdoors, my body often felt greased with sweat.  And while the first floor of our house was generally comfortable in the summer, we often had fans exhausting the heat from our second-floor bedrooms on summer nights.  We even considered an air-conditioner for one of the bedrooms.  Living in the arid West nearly all her life, Linda was more sensitive to the Northeast humidity than I.  Yet we both concluded we were just too spoiled by the aridity of the Southwest.[1]

The rains continued throughout the Maine summer.  As in the spring, there were the vast, wet, but low-key systems that moved through Gorham like a slow train.  But there were also the brief thunderstorms whose violence rivaled anything I ever experienced in the Southwest, although a violence somewhat cushioned by all the vegetation.  After a calm, sunny morning and early afternoon, during which I might have guided our newly-acquired self-propelled rotary mower over our entire lawn, I’d take a hot shower and repair to our front porch, where I’d sip a cold drink.  Then, a breeze would arrive from some indeterminant direction, creating a foamy sibilance in the leafy crowns of the huge maples in our front yard.  I’d hear a sky-crumpling shudder of thunder.  Yes, a thunderstorm was soon to arrive, but from where?  In the desert Southwest, one could see storms approaching from miles away.  However, storms approached our heavily wooded Gorham neighborhood like a blimp might approach a man in a closet with its door ajar.  But arrive the storm would, bringing more thunder―and lightning.  As in the Southwest, the harder the downpour, the more one could expect a bolt of lightning and heart-stopping crack of thunder: that seemingly incompatible mixture of fire and water.  The torrent would enclose our property, overflow our gutters, send water vomiting from the drainpipes, and set the creeks in our neighborhood to temporarily singing.         


[1] Spoiled?  In July of 2019, in an online article/survey about coping with summer heat, presumably in the New York metropolitan area, The New York Times posited this: “Humidity is the best weather.  It’s good for your skin, but you probably knew that.  A healthy dose can improve the quality of your sleep and clear up breathing problems.  Maybe that sounds familiar, too.  But did you know that humidity can enhance your sense of smell?  A moist nose works better than a dry nose, and scents, delightful and otherwise, are more easily trapped by muggy air where they linger longer.  Then there’s this: Humidity may have given rise to some of humanity’s most complex languages.  According to one theory, the persistent swampiness in some parts of the world limbered up the voice boxes of local inhabitants, allowing them to create languages with a wide range of subtle tones.  And if all of that isn’t enough to convince you, there’s one more reason to love humidity: It’s egalitarian.  No one needs to be worried about being a sweaty mess, when everyone’s a sweaty mess.”  At the time I read it, 614 readers agreed with the preceding, and 3385 disagreed.

Colorado, creative non fiction, maine, New Mexico, southwest

Delivering Care in Maine

I resumed working, now as a practical nurse with all its expectations and responsibilities―honestly, not every one of which I met.  I briefly worked at a couple of long-term-care facilities, one that did business in an aged structure in South Portland, the other a unit of a luxurious “retirement community” on the coastline of the town of Scarborough.  Neither worked out. 

I then settled into a long-term-care facility in Westbrook, where I primarily passed medications on a locked dementia floor, many of whose residents had Alzheimer’s Disease.  There, I cared for residents who covered a spectrum of diagnoses and behaviors: calm, cooperative people; people who mumbled to themselves as they constantly paced the sleeping pods and common areas; people who fought with other residents and exploded at the slightest provocation; people who refused medications; fall-risk residents who set off piercing alarms as they rose out of boredom from seats and beds; bedridden people in tearful pain, contending with severe pressure sores and praying to die.  Every other week a young man arrived on the floor, and with his guitar, untrained voice, and evangelical bent he performed creaky gospel songs for the residents. 

I worked the swing shift.  Every shift began and ended with the tedium of accounting for the opiates in the medication cart.  On my feet throughout the shift, I’d drag home through the often-foggy New England shoreline night exhausted.  I lost ten pounds during this experience, and quit―even eschewing a small but obviously thoughtful going-away ceremony with cake―after nine months.  I then worked at a family-practice clinic that employed four physicians―here, as in Alamosa, working more as a medical assistant than a practical nurse.  I vastly preferred this to working in a long-term-care facility. However, I never recaptured in Maine the pleasure and rewards I felt delivering healthcare in the San Luis Valley.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest, Uncategorized

Rotten Ice and Rain

Several days after our arrival, I went with Buddy for a first walk well beyond our front door.  Our destination was a place Bruce’s brother―the previous owner of our house, who would soon have a house built for himself and his wife immediately behind us―called the “ottah pond.”  That is, the otter pond.  (Although I had a Boston roommate at boarding school, the Maine accent would take as much getting used to as the woods.  And, yes, I obliquely know the Maine accent differs from a Boston accent and a southern Maine accent differs from a northern Maine accent.)  We walked in the direction of our road’s dead end and crossed a single-track railroad line we had been told was abandoned.  We then headed down an asphalt trail that paralleled the track. 

It was a raw morning.  The temperature was forty.  The skies were leaden.  The air was still.  Fog filled the woods in places.  A foot and a half of old, dull snow blanketed the woods and the occasional open space.  The asphalt trail, obviously used heavily by snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, consisted of flattened snow and rotten ice.  It was all I could do to avoid slipping and falling.  Vast patches of ice were new to Buddy and he, too, fought to keep his hindquarters aloft.  The countryside was quiet but for the occasional call of a crow and the distant bark of a dog―a deep bellow, probably that of a Labrador, which, I would soon learn, is a very popular canine in watery Maine. 

The gloom of the morning and the density of my surroundings were certainly different, got me to wondering:  Is this what inspired some of my favorite writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hal Borland, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Beston, Edward Hoagland?  Would this sea of towering wood succor or smother me?  Comfort me or unnerve me with all I imagined it was concealing?  Would this gray sky soothe my eyes or throw me into a depression?     

Soon we arrived at the pond―actually one of several ponds―where the asphalt trail ended and the railroad track disappeared in a dense, gray tangle of trees and brush.  (I would later learn that the track ran from Portland to the northeastern New Hampshire town of Whitefield.)  The world opened up somewhat at this body of water and patchy ice that I estimated was about the size of the flats behind our house in Alamosa.  The pond was as melancholy as the morning, but, during our walk back to the house, the prospect of swimming in it on a hot July afternoon―after all these years, to feel the sting of some fresh, clear water up my nose, to paraphrase Mainer E.B. White―lifted my spirits as I negotiated the trail, now with a bit more sure-footedness. 

The spring rains that occurred not long after our arrival fascinated me.  I’d awaken in the morning to a gray lid over Gorham―and, I’d assume, all of New England.  Then, with no fanfare―no heralding wind, thunder, or lightning, as was common in the desert Southwest―it would rain.  And rain.  And rain. Not torrential rain, just, amid a fundamental stillness, a relentlessly pouring rain.  It drummed with “Bolero” monotony on our roof.  In the deep woods, where its billions of droplets struck billions of spring-exploding leaves, it hissed, chattered, and roared.  James Dickey wrote of the “pressure” of the Eastern woods; these rains compounded that pressure.  Accompanying the percussion of rain on leaf was the ubiquitous melody of droplets on puddles everywhere.  

Of course, I took measures against the wetness, perhaps overdoing it.  Shrouded in my ethylene vinyl acetate rain poncho still stiff and glossy with desert disuse, I galumphed around downtown Gorham with a Frankenstein gait in my new, shin-high, size-15 muck boots.  (I would have preferred L.L. Bean’s lighter, “legendary” leather-and-rubber boot―all over Maine since 1912 and popular at my boarding school―had it not stopped at size 14.)  Meanwhile, I marveled as women in mere tee-shirts and dresses, their bare feet in flip-flops, splashed with little apparent concern upon asphalt and concrete.  In the night with an oily chill that followed, the hollows that abutted the rural roads filled with the eerie music of the amphibians locally known as peepers.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Home in Maine

We left Alamosa on a warm afternoon in late February.  Sammy, our mover, was a Mexican-American from―frankly, to my surprise―the aforementioned Clinton, Massachusetts.  I drove the pickup that pulled our 23-foot travel trailer; Linda drove the SUV; and we divided the four dogs between us.  We spent six nights on the road to Maine, sleeping in Brush, Colorado; Council Bluffs, Iowa; Chicago, Illinois; Cleveland, Ohio; Utica, New York; and Warner, New Hampshire, where my sister and brother-in-law lived.  Shortly after crossing into New York State, we exited I-90 and pulled into an empty lot gleaming with snow in the town of Ripley.  As we let the dogs wander, I ceremoniously brought a pinch of the fresh snow to my lips.  New York!  Where I went to college, had my first legal beer, lost my virginity, dropped acid for the first time!  

Four days later we closed on house #4 at a lawyer’s office in downtown Gorham. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the house on a dead-end road.  The neighborhood was covered with a couple feet of old, graying ice and snow.  Bruce, one of our new neighbors, was helping Sammy jockey his massive rig to an optimal unloading place.  It was the first of many occasions in which Bruce would help us. 

After several days we established a modicum of order in the house.  The 35-year-old structure was a variation on the common New England Cape Cod style.  It had a second floor and a unfinished basement, which meant stairways, a new element in our homeowning experience.  The front of the house had a small, screened-in porch.  The detached, pitched-roof, two-car garage had a large attic.  The house sat on a little more than an acre, two-thirds of which was lawn, shrubbery, and groundcover. Trees of all sizes―white pine, maple, oak, birch, hemlock, larch―guarded, hugged, and canopied our house.  The remaining one-third acre was densely wooded: our own little parcel of Maine wilderness.  Nearly all of the fifteen or twenty other properties on our three-quarter-mile-long road were of similar size.  We no longer had the wide-open surroundings we enjoyed in southern New Mexico and Colorado; on the other hand, I was grateful for the privacy and solitude provided by the crush of trees.

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To New England

My wife said she would be not only willing to study in the Northeast, but live and work there for the duration of our life together.  This was somewhat to my surprise.  I thought she was a diehard Westerner.  On the other hand, over our years together, she had enjoyed our periodic visits to my family in New Hampshire.  And we once had an enjoyable time in Boston while she attended a medical conference.  My wife was adventurous; certainly, when it came to exploring cities, far more adventurous than I.  She was an only child, and her Denver parents had passed away, so that tether no longer existed.

So we researched New England seminaries.  My wife wanted to attend an institution with a progressive spiritual tradition, so her choices quickly came down to two: Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston; and Bangor Theological Seminary, which had campuses in Bangor and Portland, Maine.

So, while we continued to hold jobs in Alamosa, we made plans to fly to Boston and, from there, visit both seminaries.

As Barack Obama campaigned against John McCain, we landed in Massachusetts in October.  At the Hertz car rental desk at Logan Airport, I penned in my journal: “Boston: Old, wet, dark.” 

Over several days we toured the campuses of the two seminaries.  The admissions directors of both institutions warmly welcomed, informed, and advised us.  I had no doubt that Linda would be accepted at either seminary. 

With realtors we then looked at houses, old and new, in the Boston suburbs, Bangor, and Portland. 

Of course, compared to Anthony, New Mexico, and the San Luis Valley, the Boston suburbs―including such towns as Bolton, Clinton, Harvard, Hudson, Boylston―were densely populated.  After two decades in the Southwest, I wasn’t prepared for such density.  It was inescapable, as was the all the human activity inseparable from it, especially the traffic.  At darkening rush hour in one town whose name now escapes me, as if there weren’t enough rivers of cars and trucks and throngs of pedestrians, I saw a commuter train roaring through all of it; I hadn’t seen a commuter train since I left New Jersey.     

We quickly realized that housing was costly in the Boston suburbs, and that a one-acre―possibly even a quarter-acre―property upon which our four dogs might romp was out of the question.  (How could I not have known?  Well, I had obviously been fantasizing a bit too much about my sister and brother-in-law’s generous property a half-hour outside of little Concord, New Hampshire.)  There existed no “small house in the country” anywhere near Boston for the likes of Linda and me.  Thus, an education at Andover Newton was nixed.

Maine was different, although Bangor, too, was rather quickly ruled out.  Bangor was a nearly four-hour drive north from Boston―a long journey even by Western standards.  And a two-hour drive from Maine’s largest city, Portland.  As we drove mile after mile through Maine, the dense, monotonous woods on both sides of the interstate appeared increasingly savage―almost alienating―even to my nature-loving sensibility.  I couldn’t recall driving through so much wood.  And Bangor wasn’t even halfway up the length of Maine.  What was life and the climate like in that distant city? I wondered.

Curled up against the autumn chill, Bangor was alive, friendly, and somewhat raw.  We toured the Bangor campus.  Then, a realtor showed us a house―surprisingly, newly-built in the obviously old city―with a sizable, although starkly treeless, property; in any event, ideal for the dogs.  Yet, always in Bangor, there was, first, the fact of the city’s considerable distance from the commerce and culture of Portland and my family in New Hampshire, and, second and more unsettling, the certainty of those long, cold, gnawing winters fueled by vast, damp, dark places named Penobscot, Piscataquis, Aroostook, New Brunswick, and Quebec patiently peering south over that flimsy wall at Bangor’s northern edge.

So we agreed: Bangor was out.

Which left us with Portland and its surroundings.  The seminary’s “campus” was just a basement in a great old church in downtown Portland, but the classrooms, offices, and seminary library there were attractive and cozy.  Portland, too, was attractive.  Like Boston, it had a picturesque harbor.  But it was one-tenth the size of Boston, and quickly spread into spacious communities, many of them semi-rural and even rural; the area obviously had room to wander a-foot.  And Portland, despite its antiquity, appeared to be filled with people in their 20s and 30s.  Not that we were drawn to this age group in the Southwest, but it meant vibrance.  And surely a wide variety of good food.  So we concurred: this place was it. 

Time permitted us to look at only one or two houses.  They were both within the city limits and their yards were much too small for four dogs, but we sensed there would be larger, affordable properties within a reasonable commute to Portland that one or both of us could assess on a subsequent visit.

And everywhere, even in the busyness of suburban Boston and the ruggedness of northern Maine, there was the charm, history, and tang of New England. The fireworks of autumn colors in the hardwood trees.  The solemn, enveloping woods.  The gentle light.  The thick, humid air that nibbled on the bones, but plumped and liberated odors, including and especially the sweetness of autumn leaves.  The ubiquitous water: river and streams that pulsed, lakes and ponds that jeweled.  The occasional melancholy. Yes, there were many, many houses, but all the verdure seemed to lend a welcome cushion to the rattle of human presence.  And there was, of course, the cosmic, storied ocean.  But again, my gaze was on those limitless New England forests and granite mountains, about which Thoreau wrote, for hiking and packing.

After acceptance at Bangor Theological Seminary, Linda returned to Maine in the winter and selected a house on an acre or so in a semi-rural neighborhood outside of the village of Gorham.  We moved there in February.

Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

Look Homeward, You Restless Nostalgic Angel

As much as I loved living in the Southwest, for at least a decade I had occasionally fantasized about returning to my native Northeast.  Not the concrete, asphalt, traffic, and sprawl of my suburban New Jersey boyhood and adolescence.  Not even, within that sprawl, the one thing I fondly recall, in an adolescent-romantic way, about the Garden State: that railroad line that ran from my town to Hoboken; that corridor of steel, wood, ballast, brick, soot, grease, sidings, boxcars, loading docks, platforms, Italian bread factories, fifty-five-gallon drums, fens, storage tanks, chemical factories, rust, overpasses, billboards advertising liquor and Broadway shows, and bocce ball courts that threaded in the smoke and haze such burgs as Paterson, Passaic, Clifton, Lyndhurst, Kingsland, and Secaucus, and that I frequently traveled by passenger train for a few dollars after school for fun.  No, nowhere in New Jersey.  

Rather, my gaze was now upon New England, mainly the rural New England of my youth and the memories it held: Vacations on a lake amid the hills and mountains at the confluence of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York State; a lake of awesome breadth and, until I learned to swim, frightening depth, glassy one day and coarse with steep, mutinous, white-capped waves the next.  Dense, dark woods into which I would venture only so far.  A pine needle-blanketed railroad track nearly digested by the woods, yet bearing a short, crawling, thrilling freight train once or twice a week.  Crows and song sparrows.  Corn fields.  Rivers of sibilance in the leafy treetops. Dairy cows encircled by electric fences whose strands I would test with a stem of grass.  A shallow lily pond at one end of the lake in which was interred a rowboat coated in furry mud.  Stubbed and bloodied toes.  Legs and arms stiff and sore with poison ivy rash plastered pink with calamine.  Motorboats.  Water rainbowed with fuel.  Lake activity echoing off a wall of white pine on limpid mornings. Sky-crumpling thunderstorms.  A lush, mysterious, and silent private island belonging to a school for the deaf.  Bass, pickerel, perch, sunfish, mussels, and crayfish.  Nocturnal raccoons raiding garbage cans.  Barred owls calling in the dead of night.  Air balmy with a comfortable humidity. A place that introduced me to the wonders of nature and the succor of woods. As I walked carefully, slowly, tenderly in those woods, I think my developing mind for the first time got a sense of the past―not my past, not my mom’s or dad’s past, but the past.

Memories of a single year at a boarding school at the base of a western Massachusetts mountain.  Coats and ties.  Mandatory sports and chapel.  No girls.  Constant hunger.  Nicotine withdrawal.  Fear of failure. A frustrating if awe-inspiring English master.  A big, quiet, comforting library sweet with the must of old books.  The mouth of a culvert in which I huddled, sneaking Marlboros on bitter moonless nights deep with snow.  The shame of a remedial education.  And yet a school―with its reputation, recommendation, and a second-string spot on its varsity basketball team―that got me into a college beyond my wildest dreams.

I even fondly recall urban New England: Boston.  Age seventeen.  Staying at my sister’s apartment on Agassiz Street in Cambridge.  Lolling on the banks of the Charles.  Discovering Look Homeward, Angel on a night stand.  The pleasure of first-time inebriation―screwdrivers―on a Boston subway platform.  A side trip with sister and her friends by bus to a camp in Conway, New Hampshire.

However, bad memories also haunted that land.  Adolescent New Jersey memories of bullying, loneliness, and academic shortcomings.  I wondered if I could now stand to revisit them―for surely they still existed in Northeast places―and forever put them to rest.

Still, a land to which I owed much. My mind now enriched and my body seasoned by my years in the Southwest, could I, at age fifty-eight, reengage with its spirit? Could I spend the rest of my life there?  I thought I could.

Now, could my wife?

.