Sunday, December 15, 2013

the trip long time coming

The hardest day by far was the one that started in the middle of the night in the middle of the week when I got up because it was so darn cold and the fire needed wood and I found the pipes were frozen so I had no water but for a few mason jarfuls that I had gathered from the tap behind the post office, where there’s an artesian well, the last time the pipes were frozen. It was about eight below zero with an unmentionable wind chill and this after days and days of a thermometer creeping up and down within degrees of zero, staying so close to zero it was like a courtship, like a long Fred-and-Ginger dance ending in a swoop and a swirl and a cigarette—if only it would end. I spent much of the morning in the crawlspace, my heat gun aimed at the water pipe that runs along the west wall just underneath the floor. There’s some insulation I jammed up there, not that it does much good, and when I started smelling singed denim (the insulation is made from old ground up and spewed out jeans), I realized I had better be careful and thought of one of my first winters here in the U.P., when the pipes in that house froze. A plumber was called. He took care of it. Later that day I heard a story on the news about a guy who had burned down his house trying to thaw out his water pipes with a heat gun or blowtorch or something and I felt bad for the guy but thought: What an idiot.


In two weeks or so I am leaving the U.P., driving to California with Elliott, my cat, to spend some time with my mother and my sisters. Since my mother moved to California a few years back, I have flown out there for brief visits, but I have not spent more than a few days here and there, now and then. This trip now with no firm timetable is a long time coming.

I first thought of hitting the open road around 2004 or 5 or 6, when events left me alone in this adventure of moving to and living in the U.P. There were times when heading to California, heading to family, seemed the practical thing to do. There was no one and nothing to keep me here, and although it is wild and lovely it can also be rather empty and desolate. My family—my sisters—would have welcomed me. They would have opened their homes, shared their families, shared their friends, just as they do each time I visit.

But I stayed put, and a funny thing happened. I became attached to this place. Sometimes I wonder about the attachment, wonder if I am here because I want to be here or because I have grown attached to this story that I was abandoned in the U.P., made a go of it anyway; have grown attached to the detail of my then-husband leaving one week after arriving, his going back to Chicago, his telling me not to come with him. And lately there is this story of me still being here, living in a cabin on 18 acres of abandoned farmland with a wild, beautiful river running alongside it, a river full of trout and dreams, hovered over by eagles, visited by deer and coyote and wolf. A river that in spring surges so with snowmelt that its banks become redefined, and a river that in summer settles to a gentle meandering flow. A river that now, in winter, freezes over, closing up like a zipper.

Are any of these stories true? None is the whole story (truth and whole stories being hard to know, let alone tell). And the vague difference between action and reaction bothers me. I’m not always sure which I am doing, and somehow it makes a difference, doesn’t it?

During my first few years here, I looked for clues, finding some in quotations, and here’s one I kept, attributed to Hubert Humphrey.
It’s not what they take away from you that counts. It’s what you do with what you have left.
What I had was a house, two dogs, and a cat, some cash in the bank, and the remnants of a dream. I decided to stay put, to become a medical transcriptionist. I would live, I thought, on my own, a quiet life in the woods, self-sufficient with an honest job that required nothing but sitting at a computer, listening carefully, getting the words right. I signed up for an online course and began studying.

I loved the books I received—they seemed so official, so clear-cut, so devoid of nonsense—and I enjoyed studying the language of medicine. (If I could recall a bit of it, I would insert here.) I learned there was a logic to the words and that medical mumbo-jumbo was really not mumbo-jumbo, but real words with real meaning. (Again, if I could recall any of it … give you an example … I am trying to recall the word for a droopy eyelid, as that is one I really liked … why does “ptosis” come to mind? Aha! That’s it!) But when it came to listening to the recorded voices of doctors—some with sniffles, some with bits of ham stuck between their teeth—and trying not only to understand the gist of what they were saying but the exact words, well, therein lies the skill. Is it “a” or “the”? “Hyper” or “hypo”? “An” or “and”? I don’t even want to talk about the nit-pickin’ punctuation, which mostly had to do with commas. Wayward slips of punctuation tanked my test scores, and I found it most irritating. Eventually, I quit, as I would the next plan, which was to live a quiet, contented life in the woods as a tax preparer.

One early spring, before my mom moved from Chicago to California, I decided to move back to Chicago. I would find an apartment, I thought, live close by my mom, help her out now that my dad was gone. I would return to my secretarial days at the university and give up on whatever the heck I was trying to do in the U.P. So one lovely day I drove down to look at an apartment, found that the leasing agent I had been corresponding with had lied to me about pets being allowed, and then the dogs and I had a really bad picnic at a Cook County Forest Preserve. It was layered in goose crap. (Canada geese congregate in great hordes throughout the Chicago area, enjoying large, mowed, grassy areas like parks and ballfields and picnic grounds. If the grassy expanse is near water, look out—goose bonanza. There is no getting rid of them, though people were giving border collies a try the last I heard, years ago. Of course border collies love to chase and round up things like sheep and cats and kids and, I guess, Canada geese.) That same day I drove back to the U.P., knowing there I would stay. I had to go through this, I thought, in order to start fresh in my mind, this time with no misconception: I am living in the U.P. and I am on my own.

It disheartens me that I so often end up with this aloneness. Hester had her “A”; must I also have mine? Hers was imposed by others; mine is self-inflicted. Hers was punishment for a crime against Puritan morals; mine is a punishment for … crime perceived? Of course, it is partly my nature. I am capable of spending a great deal of time alone without complaint. But “aloneness” is different, and, apparently, not really a word …

I almost made this trip to California in the spring of 2012, shortly after I moved into the cabin. My mother had had a small stroke, and it changed her life. She had been living independently in an apartment in a senior community that provides for different levels of care, and, at 92, she was enjoying Scrabble tournaments, bridge games, art class, balance class—an array of activities managed on her own. Then, the stroke. Questions arose. Could she continue on her own? Would she need help? What kind of help? Should she move in with one of my sisters? Should she move to an assisted-living unit? What exactly were her capabilities, mentally and physically? Where would she be happiest? Where would she be safest? What would be best? Should I drop everything, go to California, be a part of the assessment and decision-making? Provide hands-on help? Or I should I stay put, not necessarily uninvolved, but certainly nowhere near as involved as my sisters who were right there, always.

An open-ended, cross-country trip was tempting. I would look at Buster, my old dog, the last surviving pet from the good old Chicago days, and imagine us taking off together, finally embarking on this California sojourn, Buster on his last legs, me on an angelic mission, the two of us living for a month or two or maybe even through the summer in a camper by the ocean, enjoying foggy mornings full of salty air, and I would help to take care of my mom during what we all thought were her last, waning days. But the facts. Buster was fairly blind, deaf, and had very weird continence issues that were most prevalent during travel. And I did not want to close up and abandon this cabin. And I did not want to shut down and abandon the beeswax business. So I flew out to California for a week, flew back, and the old dog and I stayed put.

From the start, this trip has scared me, and my fear has been that if I travel across country with animals in tow, maybe I do not come back. It seems a strange fear, perhaps brought on by the romantic notion that traveling an open road can change one, can lead to new ideas, new dreams, to the resurrection of old dreams with new twists. There were times I wanted that these past few years, but I could not leave where I had been left. By staying here, by digging in, I thought I was determining my own future, taking control, but control is, after all, at some point, an illusion.

The time for this trip has come. In a couple of weeks, Elliott and I will drive off in the old, rusty van. We’ll cross snowy plains and mountains, rivers and streams, desert and concrete wasteland. I’ll be thinking of Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat-Moon. I’ll be thinking of my mom, I’ll be thinking of my family. Maybe we’ll stop in the desert, see Louis and Finn. Who knows when we’ll be back, and who knows what stories we’ll find.