My collection of linked stories — available at Amazon. But here is the next bit of my memoir:
The wind whistles through the eaves and I shudder, hear the siding flap and bang, knowing I’m likely losing some siding on the north side again. I open the door and the cold air slaps me in the face, but I pull my zipped sweat shirt around me and head to the side of the house and the woodpile: one more load will likely get me eight hours warm sleeping time and a start to the day tomorrow. I fill my leather carrier as full as I can manage, stagger back in with it, throw a couple logs into my woodstove; I need a roaring fire by bedtime, dampered down good, to keep my 1400 sf warm that long. My dog (an aged part-lab mix) woofs uncomfortably since she knows a stranger lurks outside, but soon shrugs and curls up close to the stove.
I feel for my young savior outside and next I feel guilt for his suffering. I am thinking that even without the generator I would have been fine with the wood stove and oil lamps for reading and I have propane for cooking. I rant and rail at the elements and hardships because that is my nature, but I never feel real panic. After all, this is not my first rodeo. I’ve lived here at least part time for a good twelve years and I know I’ll last a good day before I lose so much juice the pump won’t run at all. Though I will have to limit myself to flushing the toilet. I have a couple feet of snow to melt in order to flush without a pump if I have to, have bottled water for drinking. My biggest fear in winter is not keeping the unpaved 400-foot drive clear of snow—not getting in or out through the ubiquitous 300-plus inches/year. Most neighbors are seasonal and those that aren’t are a ways off. But as long as the snow blower starts and I don’t jam it with a stick—something that took me hours to unwedge once—all will be fine.
I am still expecting the bad news from this intrepid young man since I’m used to the more delicate flowers downstate, the general ineptness of most young people today put in situations like this one. But except for eating, he braves the cold for a good hour and I can scarcely believe my ears when I hear the generator kick over.
Ben Freeman is his name, I will find out. He will become a fast friend, someone who occasionally plows my driveway, puts in a new ceiling for me, rebuilds a generator, creates metal art work that will one day top my outbuilding.
I was right; he has skills.
He’s competent, dependable and honest. He will later surprise me when he tells me he was once an English major at one of the community colleges—I forget which.
I always ask myself at times like this why I do it. Live here like this. And I admit to myself: this is part of the fascination of the place. Were it not so, it would rapidly lose its appeal.
Ben comes in and I ask him if he’s still hungry. He isn’t. The smell of bacon and eggs hangs in the camp air, and I pour him a cup of camp coffee (coffee thrown into an enamel pot, settled with a bit of cold water) and add cream, offer him a seat up close to the stove to warm him before he attempts the twenty minute drive back to his house in a truck I am not sure can make the end of my driveway. Though I will soon learn to have confidence in his ability to run anything and that he considers his truck a classic. My dog Idgy pulls herself up despite arthritic hips and greets him and my son Josh (29 years old with Down Syndrome) shakes his hand. We chat about our lives and how we have come to happen on one another in a no-man’s land most people would find uninhabitable, the synchronistic nature of it. But we don’t have to chat about why we do it. I imagine — he having grown up in this wasteland — that he is skeptical of someone like me relatively new to it. I know the jokes they make about we “trolls” from under the bridge and have even grown to share a bit of the gentle humor-filled disdain they hold for those underneath. They have a sense of humor in the U.P. that rivals my father’s: get tough or die.
I know I must provide a ludicrous picture, this crazy writer/professor with a handicapped kid and old dog, hanging out in this brutal country—mostly alone—and yet I can sense the unspoken bond between us. He knows why I do it, understands the attraction to this indifferent cold land and its challenges, understands that one can appreciate but never sentimentalize this kind of lifestyle. Though I know they are skeptical of those not born here, I can feel nothing patronizing in his manner toward me. I may be wrong and he may be extraordinarily polite, but I have no feeling he is privately laughing at me.
I can barely keep eyes open and I can only surmise that what will become Ben’s characteristic reluctance to leave comes partly from a desire to be polite but moreover originates from his own loneliness; I am someone, anyone—a wannabe, a transplanted troll from under the bridge—with whom to talk.
And I do.
Josh’s head looks heavy and leans against the back of the leather couch. I am grateful and relaxed and the fire feels lovely. Ben stirs,” You should be ok now, but here is my number if anything goes wrong. Thanks for the food.” I pay him for his time and thank him profusely but as Ben shoves his hands back into his gloves and prepares to leave, my mind wanders to morning as it does every late evening. I am already thinking of something lower on that hierarchy of needs than shelter, more basic than human contact. Breakfast: a skillet of stored garden potatoes, onions, and pastured fennel and chorizo sausage, fresh rosemary and garlic, pepper flakes and parsley—with a few cage free eggs cracked into them.