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.