A Beaten Path


There are two ways to get to the top of Mount Equinox in Manchester Vermont. You can pay your money to take the Skyline drive to the summit, or you can find your way to the no-traffic light town of Sandgate and go up the back.

You can’t drive the whole way (Sandgate’s dirt road eventually turns into a wide leaf-covered path). Once on foot, you’ll eventually get to the gate of a monastery run by the Carthusian monks (who also, incidentally, govern access  to the skyline Drive). There’s a sign warning away trespassers, so we’ve never actually made it to the top of the Equinox without paying our money down, but along with that once-beaten path on the backside of the mountain, we’ve discovered something equally interesting.

When we first hiked that road, we wondered about its origins. There were easier ways to get to the monks and  the top of the Equinox, but it was clear the road had once been in use frequently enough to leave its mark on the mountain.  Shortly after the ‘real’ dirt road ended, we found our answer.

Thing1 was our distractor-in-chief at the time, occasionally luring us away from the path, and about a mile and a half past the end of the town road, he discovered an abandoned barn we HAD to see.

The barn roof was disintegrating, and we saw no other evidence (save for a few headstones that we almost tripped over) that a farm or homestead had ever existed. The carving on the headstones was so worn down we  couldn’t read the names on them.  As I was wondering what catastrophe that had driven surviving family members away from the farm, I realized this almost abandoned road had been made by and for hooves and feet, not rubber and steel.

At first I had thought these languishing headstones in this isolated part of the mountain were a sad statement about precarious nature of rural life (then and now).  However, as we walked to and from the monastery gate with its no trespassing sign, passing the old homestead again, the late afternoon sun dipped low enough to bathe the woods in gold. I remember the branches were naked on that hike, but the forest, guarding its little cemetery, was warm and absolutely peaceful in the sun.

Modern rural life can be very hard, and I don’t cling to any romantic notions that life on the back of a mountain in Vermont was any easier a 100 years ago, but this quiet resting place was a testament to more than just hardship. It reminded me that people still come to these hard-to-live-in places because a life away from the madding crowd brings with it freedom and (in spite of the long winters and minimal economic opportunities) peace.

An Early Spring

Springs First Kiss, 9x12 Watercolor, $80, Matted and ready to Frame
Springs First Kiss, 9×12 Watercolor

The lack of significant snow has produced some dramatic, and, in some cases, romantic mountainscapes this winter.  There is more green than white reaching up to the sky, and the bits of snow that remain at the top of the mountain make Mother Earth look as if she’s sleeping, waiting for spring.

I was going north on VT 7, decending from the highest elevation when my favorite perspective of the Equinox came into view. I had sped down to Bennington to get groceries, and the sky was still pink and orange, the clouds leaning over Mother Earth for what seemed to be an early spring kiss.  I’m waiting to see if she decides to awaken early.

 

To purchase the original, contact me at rachel@rachelbarlow.com.  You can purchase cards and/or prints here.

Sentimental Journey

Blog  sappy

We’ve had a few weeks of frigid temperatures and, after a few years of almost no snow – a return to a normal Vermont winter. This morning greeted me with perfect pink skies that can only come from the promise of a perfect sunny day. Even though I should know better, I couldn’t help thinking it’s almost spring, and as I navigated the mud pit that is our road, I starting humming something from ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’. Pretty sappy, right?

It gets sappier. I’d gotten up early, escaping to our favorite diner for uninterrupted writing before the Big Guy and Thing1 and Thing2 woke up. The guys met me for breakfast a few hours later. Thing1 and Thing2 argued over who’s turn it was to sit with Mom, and, still euphoric from hours of typing, I basked in the glow of being with my guys. But it was going to get even sappier.

The Big Guy took the little guys to find a part for vacuum, and I headed back towards our neck of the woods in my car. On my way back, I noticed a few pickup trucks parked up on a hill. There was a group of men – some young, some old – congregated around a blue cistern next to a tree. Still feeling sappy, I thought didn’t notice the blue tube connecting the tank to the tree and thought, instead, how nice it was to see teenagers not too embarrassed to spend time with their fathers.

It wasn’t until I turned onto the last paved road on the way to our house that I had the sappiest moment of the day. Then, there he was. An older man standing in the bed of his pickup sorting a pile of tin buckets with tent shaped lids on them. I drove on and noticed he had already driven in the taps for at least a dozen trees.

I turned onto our road feeling extremely sappy and sentimental (and suddenly craving something maple). Even the mud didn’t bother me on my way back up our hill because even though there’s still a good eight inches of snow in our yard today and single digits forecast for a few nights next week, I know spring is here. I saw it on the way home from the Diner, clear as day.

 

When in Vermont

Ski jump

Last Sunday we took a much-needed family stay-cation to Brattleboro for a ski jump competition. We chose the destination because it’s been a stopping point for many Olympians, and, in the forties, for the Big Guy’s dad.

The temperature was brisk, and the sun was out. Food vendors and tailgaiters created delicious grilled odors that bouyed the four of us on our climb up the 150+ snowy steps that lined the jump hill.

Twenty feet of snow-covered hillside and path separated the top of the stairs from the wall that bordered the jump area. We staked out a spot just below the jump-off just as the first round of jumpers whooshed past us.

Seven-year-old Thing2 watched a few jumpers and then, his awe subsiding, focused on the consistency of the snow and it’s suitability for sliding and ammunition.

The first round ended, and he began begging for permission to slide down the massive hill next to the steps. Noting the abundant opportunities the hill afforded for an impromptu ambulance ride, I naturally said, ‘No’. Thing2 pouted, but kept his silence.

The loudspeaker announced a break in the action, and we decided to move to a lower part of the hill for a different view of the action. The Big Guy and I began navigating down the hill towards the stairs. Half-way down, I turned around to offer a hand to Thing2. Still standing at the wall, he grinned at me.

“Mom, I want to slide down here!”

I hesitated for a minute and scanned his intended course for any objet d’injury.  Noting the incline leveled enough near the bottom for him to stop himself, gave my permission. Thing2 sat on his snowpant-covered butt and slid.

“You are a true Vermonter,” I told him as he coasted to a stop at my feet.  He is.

Despite the Big Guy’s deep roots in Vermont (from his father back to a time before “Vermont” existed) and Thing1’s maple syrup-steeped childhood, Thing2 is the only “real” Vermonter among us (I’m a recovering nomad). Local tradition confers the label only on those born in-state. The smile on his face as he sat in the snow, however, proved his status better than any birth certificate.

The path had been packed down, and Thing2 decided it was another slower sliding opportunity. I inched along behind him, keenly aware of the aging tread on my boot.  

Finally, the eternal adventurer in me decided that since we were in Vermont, I should do as my native-Vermonter had just done. The slippery path was much more easily negotiated on my butt. The path from nomad to settled Vermonter is one Thing2 will be showing me how to navigate for some time.

 

Are We There Yet?

 

WorldsFair

One of the ironies of our life is that our resident social butterfly, six-year-old Thing2, needs an enormous amount prodding to get in the car for any weekend outing.  And so it began on Sunday morning.  

Freshly exercised and showered, and ready for our weekly breakfast at Bob’s diner in Manchester, the Big Guy, thirteen-year-old Jack, and I had one more hurdle to leap before we began our Sunday adventure – convincing – rather, ordering – Thing2 to get in the car.  Pouting and mumbling about his desire to stay put and eat the sugar cereal du jour, Thing2 finally shuffled to his booster seat and got his seat belt on.  Anyone watching would have thought we were taking him to look at military schools (the idea did cross our minds).    Instead, he was pulled out of his cocoon.  

Something about the smell of bacon and coffee temporarily banished Thing2’s grumpiness.  But when breakfast was behind us and we hit the road again, the ride took on a different character for all of us. 

The Worlds Fair in Tunbridge – our destination – is  about 90 minutes from Manchester, and Thing2 kicked off the first half hour mumbling a litany of things he’d rather be doing.  We had mentioned the word ‘fair’ a number of times before, but I had made the mistake of telling the kids it was historical, and the only part of the day Thing2 could focus on was the driving.  Finally, the Big Guy and I caught Thing2’s eye and ears to make it clear that the rest of the ride did not need a serenade of complaints.  He adjusted his tone.  The last sixty minutes were mostly quiet, punctuated only by the occasional refrain of  ‘Are we there yet?’

When we reached the muddy parking lot at the fair ground, Thing2 had zoned out, but the bump between road and muck got his attention.  The smell of manure permeated the air.  Well-groomed, uniformed students from the nearby military college cheerfully directed us to a parking space.  There were no formal ticket booths – just a few more college kids (who didn’t look old enough to shave, let alone wear uniforms) taking admission and shepherding patrons through twine-lined ‘gates’.  

Thing2 clung to my hand, then the Big Guy’s, then mine.  He had already spotted the typical fair midway.  We headed up a muddy hill away from the typical and toward the heart of the fair.  

The heart of the fair is a permanent collection of old buildings – long log cabins, a metal foundry, a carriage barn.  The first log cabin contained artifacts of Vermont home life from over the last two centuries.  Period-costumed demonstrators brought the display – and Thing2 – to life as they showed us how quilts were (and are) made or how country stores used to operate.  The second building displayed a collection of tools, and the carriage barn contain, naturally, carefully preserved carriages and wagons once used by local farmers.  But, while the quilting demonstration and old-fashioned donuts had sparked the beginning of a sincere attitude adjustment in Thing2, what was outside perked up his wings, long before we got to the midway.

Alongside the carriage barn stood pop-up tents that, instead of the usual fair t-shirts and novelty souvenirs, sheltered antique engines.  All of the engines were running, producing little pops when air bubbles went through them.  A few of the displays encouraged visitors to try their hand at grinding corn, or winding thread or pumping water the old-fashioned way.  The whirring motors and spinning gears made their own music, and Thing2 began his dance.  

The rest of the afternoon we shuttled between rides and exhibits.  We stopped for maple-flavored cotton candy (it is Vermont after all) and ‘pour-your-own’ freshly-pressed cider, and Thing2 continued dancing until long after the Big Guy and I had exhausted our reserves.  The dancing and accompanying chatter continued until we were back in the car, rolling through the muddy field again.  

“We have to do this again,” said Jack before he nodded off.  The fair was still causing Thing2’s wings to flutter, however, and it was a long time before he slept.  The excitement of seeing something different would keep them moving even when he did close his eyes, and when I heard him singing softly to himself in his sleep, I knew we were there yet.

Communion

Communion

I planted the other morning. It was stiflingly humid out, but I knew storms were coming to water my garden in the afternoon, and there was still one big bed to dig sow.

An hour later I sat down at my computer, soaked in sweat and spring steam. The earth that shelters two-thirds of our house was serving its purpose by keeping the room cool, but I wanted something more. There wasn’t time to shower, and I had more garden time planned after work, but little dots of dirt sliding down a sweaty arm can feel more like the creepy crawlies. When the rain arrived, I was strongly tempted to hit BRB (be right back) in the work chat room and head out for an au natural shower.

The Big Guy set the precedent for this last summer when he attempted to save water with a risqué hose down during a down pour. For a while, the only way to get my two boys clean (at the same time) was to wait for a swimming party, a rainy day or, preferably, both at the same time. Pond jumping is especially purifying in the rain, and only the din of thunder and misdirected parents ordering everyone inside can muddy the sensation.

Outside, the wind intensified, whipping the spindly white birches until their highest branches seemed as if they would sweep the forest floor. I abandoned any ideas about dancing the dirt away in the rain. I knew I’d need to venture out later to mulch anyway, spurring the need for another, if more conventional, conventional shower.

But getting the dust off wasn’t really the point. I knew what I really wanted. It was a cleansing I craved; it was a communion with the elements. But summer is young and I’ve just begun to tend my garden.

The Helpers

the helpers

I was on the way to the gas station driving down our hill when I saw the smoke rising over the trees.  There was too much smoke to be coming from a barbecue, and I felt my stomach sink.  We’d just been talking about this subject at Saturday morning T-ball practice.  There was too little snow over the winter, even less rain this spring, and the trees were still mostly naked.  It’s the perfect recipe for wild fires.

As I drove along the Battenkill River toward the gas station in the center of Arlington, I discovered the source of the smoke, and my fear was confirmed.  Across the road from the river and up a very dry hill a brush fire had already consumed over an acre of fuel. A makeshift fire crew composed of the family and employees of a nearby farm stand owner was trying to control the blaze while waiting for the bulk of the town’s fire department to arrive.  A members of the department were already scaling the rocky hill and establishing traffic control.

I waited for the person controlling traffic to waive me through, trying not to dwell on my worst fears or on any anger with the faceless firestarter.  I was anxious, but it was not from impatience.  It was worry for the people living near by the fire, but it was also concern for the people – all acquaintances and some friends – who were now arriving en masse to put out the fire that was still growing.

Our local fire department, like many in rural areas, is made up entirely of volunteers who execute their responsibilities with as much gravity and professionalism as any paid firefighters.  As I inched along the two-lane road, using as much caution as I could, the bottom of the hill next to the road was smoldering, and larger flames could be seen higher up.  Firefighters had already reached the worst of the blaze, dragging fire hoses and shovels with them and working with rapid calm to contain it.  They were still there working when I returned home later using the road on the other side of the river.  Long after the flames appeared to be extinguished, members of the crew remained, keeping vigil for any sparks that might have escaped their notice in the camouflaging day light.

Later in the day I had learned that some careless individuals had caused the fire while setting off fireworks from a boat on the river.  That kind of selfishness always annoys me, but lately, when confronted with news of disasters or near-disasters in our own neighborhood, I’ve been following the advice of the late Fred Rogers.  I’ve been looking for the helpers, and it’s helped me see yet another layer of our town.

Neighbors and friends from every walk of life had flocked to the fire this afternoon, and because of their love for their community, I went to bed that night, I secure in the knowledge that if an errant spark rekindled that fire, those same people would be there again.  It’s not the first time I’ve felt lucky to live where we do, and it won’t be the last.  But Saturday night was a solid reminder that something bigger than a few spectacular mountain vistas inspires that feeling.

Learning to Look

Mountain

Just about a year ago, I began drawing again.

Once upon a time I drew all the time.  I thought I would draw for my life at one point.  But, like so many adolescent fantasies, it surrendered to reality. 

Last year I joined a writing group at Hubbard Hall, a local community theatre and art center in Cambridge, NY and woke up to a different reality.  Initially intending to focus on writers in rural areas, the group has evolved into a search for authenticity in our work and our lives.  For me that meant making the choice to follow more earnestly my lifelong dream of being a writer and, simultaneously, to revive a dream that made art a part of my life again.  It’s been life changing in many ways, some of which I’m still discovering.

Thanks to my primary inspiration – my family – I’ve found my own drawing groove over the last year.  Perspective and landscapes were never my strong suits, but when the small towns are covered with snow or the hills are drenched in green, Vermont kickstarts my creativity, and I get more adventurous.  Learning to draw them has taught me the need to truly see them, but it’s also taught me to look.  

Trying to capture the snow-covered mountains meant studying them first thing in the morning when the powder dusted the evergreens, but it also forced me to consider the naked maple trees, thrown into relief against a dusky pink winter sky when the wind had swept their limbs clean.  I got comfortable scribbling craggy branches in my sketchbook and began seeking out the silhouettes during the often fiery sunsets.  I even learned to find beauty in the overcast grey that colors most of our winters.  Now, as spring coaxes tiny green buds from tree branches and the longer days turn thatch-colored fields into green and yellow meadows, I’m trying out a new set of skills with my pencils.  And I’m learning, yet again, not just to see the details in the everyday inspirations.  I’m also learning to find inspiration in everyday places and moments.

Worth Repeating

Blog  worth repeating

The willow trees near the main road are sending out shoots of yellow green, and it’s clear the mountains are about to explode in a myriad of greens.  For now, though, the daffodils and the tiny sunlit green dots on the trees cast a glow over our small town.  

The Dairy Bar is open now, and people are stopping in for ice cream after Little League or for a sunny batter-dipped dinner after work.  The air is thick with the smell of manure-plowed fields and fruit blossoms.  At the market, the pansies are being replaced by petunias as the days grow longer, and bales of straw are being stacked for gardeners emerging from their hibernation.  

I’m watching a story that’s being told again in small towns across the country.  I’ve seen it unfold over ten times now, and it’s a tale that never gets old.

Little Miracles

Photo

It’s always an event when we’re not late getting out the door to school.  I can count on one hand the times Thing1 has been about to rush out the door without a backpack or Thing2 had to go back to their room to grab one more action figure for show-and-tell.  So when we got out the door this morning with both backpacks fully packed, homework finished, and two boys breakfasted and brushed (Mom eats after the chaos), it was nothing short of a minor miracle.

We bundled ourselves into the car and headed out the driveway.  We go the same way everyday, and most days I slow a bit as we approach the little horse farm at the bottom of our dirt road.  Today, I stopped.

Over the last week, Mother Nature had put away the pinky-browns and blues she’d been using during mud season and pulled out her spring palette.  As we descended, the morning sun bathed the hill in gold, and we all noticed how the grass had suddenly become green.  A few daffodils were poking through the leaves by the fence that runs along the road, reminding us that, whatever else is happening in the world, it’s still April.  I exhaled again and snapped a quick pic before rebooting the morning school run.  

There are more mornings than not that I have to stop and snap a few photos of this hill and the tiny horse farm framed by the rounded mountains.  Part of me is always surprised that, after over ten years living on this road, the scenery still takes my breath away.  It’s the answer to a question I started as a teenager while visiting southern Bavaria with friends of the family.

Our friends had a vacation home in one of the centuries-old towns that dots that mountainous regions.  We were there in the summer, and the crystal blue lakes and then-snowcapped Alps in the back ground constantly took my breath away.  I always wondered, though, if living with that beauty everyday would minimize its impact.  Today, as I’m snapping pictures and smiling on my way to school, I’m thinking once again about how the answer to that question is still one my favorite daily miracles.

Signs of Spring

IMG 2396

 

We’re still getting the nightly dusting of snow, but it melts quickly these days.  White predominates in our yard, but the crocuses have begun to emerge from the ground.  And even as the cold is slow to relinquish its hegemony, it can’t prevent the longer days and, the return of the roadside egg stand as our neighbors chickens begin to produce again.

 

Tis the Season

Winter2008Master 161

We’re well into the first full week of spring and snow still covers our yard.  It’s almost time to plant peas, and my garden is a slushy mess.  The fact that Vermont’s gardening season commenced at least a week or three behind the calendars in every gardening book (even one or two written by Vermonters) once caused me consternation.   By March, I’m ready to get out of the house and start digging.  

A decade of digging later, however, I’ve learned to relax about this thing I absolutely can’t control.  My springtime serenity stems from two sources.  The first comes from observing the long-term effects of that saturating late winter snow pac.  Soggy in spring but still moist enough to prevent the need for watering well into summer, I’ve come to trust that Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.  The other source of my calm comes from discovering a spring signal far more reliable (and delicious) than a date circled on my calendar. 

The sap buckets start appearing in late January.  The large maple syrup operations set long blue tap lines that run from tree to tree and then into huge covered containers, but there are still plenty of do-it-yourselfer’s and small operators who use the old-fashioned taps and buckets that are symbolic of the season.  

We made maple syrup a few years in a row.  Our buckets were recycled milk jugs.  We collected sap for days and made exactly one gallon (you need 32 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup) on our old wood stove.  Our old house was drafty enough that we didn’t mind turning our kitchen into a sauna for a few days, and it was the best maple syrup we ever tasted.  

We buy our syrup now, and, even though it’s available at even the smallest producers through most of the year, picking up a gallon or two at the end of March has become as much a ritual as taking Thing2 to see Santa at the town Christmas party or planting my peas in soggy spring soil.

The steam started pouring from the sugar houses in late winter.  Even now, the nighttime temperatures are still mostly in the freezing range even as the days get warmer, and the sap still flows.  Last weekend, the first weekend in spring, the sugar houses opened their doors to tasters and tours, but it was just a date on the calendar.  For me, it won’t be until the sap slows that spring will really begin.  It’s when the sap buckets along our road come down.

 It doesn’t make the spring season any less welcome, but it does make it a little bittersweet.