Monthly Archives: April 2011

Day trips

Roads less travelled

Abandoned road near the old radio base on Otter Cliffs

Roads connect us. They get us to work, bring us to visit family, and take us to distant adventures. Road trip—the words conjure an expanse of asphalt disappearing into the distance and luring one on. Roads are plowed, patched, swept and maintained so we can get where we want to go. Part of our infra-structure, they seem permanent. I live on a simple village street, Grover Avenue, and cannot imagine it disappearing.

Roads do disappear, however. There is not a town in this country that doesn’t have abandoned roads. Once traveled daily, these roads are now devoid of purpose. Trees creep in from the sides, the surface cracks and vegetation emerges. Rocks, branches, and debris fall on the road and are not removed.

Roads are closed and neglected for a number of reasons. A sharp corner might be smoothed and straightened, leaving a curved section frequently renamed with the qualifier “old.” There is Old County Road, Old Goose Road, Old Turnpike and Old River Way. If there are no homes on the section, it very quickly becomes unpassable. I once lived on Winthrop Road in Deep River, Connecticut. It was straightened, and a beautiful stretch that curved along a marsh was bypassed. No one lived on that section, and so no one drove on it. Taking it one day for nostalgia I rounded the curve by the marsh, and braked. A card table with blue paper tablecloth, candle in a jar, and a few food stains blocked the way. Some cheeky celebrants risked the random driver, and held their party right in the middle of the road.

Old Bridge on Grover Avenue

Other roads become uncared for if they no longer go anywhere. A straight, tree-lined path leads to what was once the naval communication center near Otter Cliffs. The facility was moved to a neighboring town, and the road then simply went to an abandoned site. It too became abandoned. The wooden sign pointing the way down the road to Otter Point has grown into the tree it was mounted on and looks like it has bark lips devouring it with a gruesome grin.

Sign to Otter Point

Closed roads are derelict, uncared for, unused. They beckon, raise questions, and connect us with the ghosts of those who once traveled these routes daily. Their history is palpable. A footpath along the Narraguagus River is wide and tucked closely to the river bank. It is an excellent spot for watching eagles and osprey feeding, a mink dodging along the rocks, and the silver splash of returning alewives. But looking at the way the flat wide surface was dug into the hillside revealed it was once a road. We followed it until it intersected with a old rail road line. There were traces of it on the other side, but that section had not fared so well, and we soon gave up and returned to bird watching.

Road along Narraguagus River

My road may someday be an overgrown trail with remnants of foundations, or it may have vanished under the weight of development. It has already begun to recede from regular use. It was once the main road connecting the villages on either side of Otter Creek. After a steep hill below my house, called Ben’s Hill, the road passes the head of Otter Cove and then twists along, following Main Brook. Fifteen years ago is was passable by a car you did not care too much about. Today a rugged vehicle can make it to within sight of where it rejoins the new main village road, but is no longer passable. When I moved here, it was a through street. Now, I live on a dead end.

It takes so little time for a road to change from a daily part of life to a mysterious path drawing us in. It disappears in the distance, behind encroaching branches or around a corner. It asks us to remember that it once hummed with activity and ably provided a way for people to get from one place to another.

Sagging bridges, mossy foundations, weathered signs, they are all there, on the road less traveled. Wander one, and listen.


Pick up lines

Every April our town offers a roadside pick up. Things too big to put in the weekly household trash collection can be hauled to the curb and taken away for burning, chipping, recycling or to the landfill, whatever the town deems best. This is a wonderful service, and while every year there is discussion of stopping it as an unnecessary expense it is always voted back in.

Refrigerators, three-legged chairs, new-in-the-box mattresses, dysfunctional propane heaters, table umbrellas with torn canvas, a Nordic track with no visible flaw except being out-of-date­, the items are motley and incongruous. A clean, pristine, aqua-glazed flowerpot, price tag attached, leaves one wondering why it is on the curb. Did its mate die an untimely death, and it was unwanted as a single? Nearby a jumble of broken and unidentifiable parts leave no doubt why they are awaiting pick up. Most things are in poor condition, truly worthy of being hauled and away and mashed, but there is a fair amount of stuff that has a lot of life left.

I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and the idea of a week of unwanted items adorning our groomed lawns and perfectly trimmed hedges was unthinkable. These roadside discards fascinate me. I love to slow down as I pass a pile. I am not looking for a treasure, I am simply mesmerized by the stuff. I spot two matching twin maple beds with frames, and remember someone asking me if I knew of any. There is no way am I going to remember which friend needs some. As I look at them and force my brain to cough up the name, a van pulls up and the beds are gone. I admire a vintage rucksack with dusty labels. Some venturesome soul from Otter Creek went to Paris, departing on a Holland America cruise ship October 13, 1951. I cannot make out the name, and really want to know. Was it a neighbor, or a relative of my husband? I stoop to photograph the graphically beautiful label, and a couple prodding the pile near me ask if I am taking it. “No” I reply, and it is pulled away while I quickly snap a picture, and in less than a minute they open it and dump the leather sandals, men’s size 10 and in excellent condition, circa 1950, onto the ground, hop back in their bulging station wagon, and head off to the next pile.

I look at an old victrola, the legs are rotted and it struggles to stand erect. A neighbor wanders over and says, “I’m going to take that,” as he rubs his index finger with his thumb. “It’s worth money, and I sure need some.” He heads back home, presumably to get something to move it with, but when I pass by the next day I see two energetic fellows toss it on their truck and move on. Pick up week is not a waiting game. They are not bumper-to-bumper, but the cruising vans and trucks form a steady line through the town, and hesitating is not a good choice.

Looking at other people’s discards and speculating on the history behind them is only one aspect of the annual pick up. I also have the chance to do my own housecleaning. Dragging things out of the shed or basement to the roadside is satisfying, a general spring-cleaning, good feeling. Finding it gone the next morning, picked up by someone in one of the slowly cruising pickup trucks that populate our streets every year at this time, is also satisfying. I ponder; do I really want to get rid of this wooden swinging patio chair? It works, it’s cool, just needs to be refinished. In the pile it goes. I do have the option of snatching it back on Wednesday, which is the day the town picks up on our street. I have yet to snatch anything back. I rarely know who takes my offerings, but they are in my mind. There is a connection between us. The plaster lion, once boldly painted, was used as a doorstop until he had his tail whacked off by a vehement door closer. I brought him outside, intending to repair the tail. Instead the rain washed off his lovely colors. He was now not only tailless, but also colorless. My husband several times picked it up. “Garbage?” he asked. “No,” I said. Eight months later it becomes part of town pick up week, as I lovingly set the lion down by the road. In less than six hours he has a new home. I do not know who saw him and wanted him, but I smile with pleasure that someone did, and whoever they are, we are connected, because we both saw something we loved in that plaster lion.

Cruising and checking out other people’s leavings is fascinating. I also appreciate being able to offload things that cannot go in household trash. Without pick up week, I would waste a Saturday morning, as it’s over half an hour drive to the transfer station which then charges you by the pound. It probably wouldn’t happen. The piles in the shed would grow, and grow, overwhelming my daughter and family when I move on.

Since I do have this convenient method of disposal at hand I have turned it into a game. I have become obsessed with rating my leavings, and guessing how long they will be sitting unwanted by the road. I haul a matched set of spring steel chairs to end of the drive. These have to be the most comfortable pieces of lawn furniture around. But they need to be sand blasted and I am not going to do that. They don’t last long.

My goal is to have everything I put out taken before the town truck comes around. I come close. I like to think I have a pretty high quality of discard. I have also spotted some of my leavings in the home of my stepdaughter, and that of neighbors who live down the road. My stepdaughter rescued the pink and black marble chess set with four broken men, a Bermuda souvenir that has been replaced. The neighbors took the sunny yellow lavatory sink, and thanked me. They said they liked passing my house at pick up week because I had such interesting stuff. Maybe they took the lion.

This exchange of goods is a phenomenon few towns share. The gains are innumerable. The vast piles shrink as people who have either a use or a market for them take things. These objects are given a second life rather than being disposed of by the town, which costs not only labor but disposal fees. Bar Harbor, a neighboring town, has forbidden removal of anything from their transfer station. Liability is the reason, and yet what a shame. Instead of recycling they are adding to the mass of garbage that has to be dealt with at great expense.

I check my pile, and am delighted that someone took the glass carboy with some nameless liquid inside. It is a great bottle, but I’d planned to clean it for ten years, it was time to let someone else plan to clean it. The table saw my dad and I bought at a yard sale for him to use was sadly put out; he is no longer here to use it. A friend spotted it, and was ecstatic. I helped carry it to his house, pleased it would continue to be used, and by someone who knew and admired my dad.

Town pick-up is not about the town generously removing our big trash, though we appreciate it. It is about passing on tales and tools, being tantalized by incomplete stories, and giving things another purpose and another life before they get trashed.

Now, will someone please tell me who went to Paris in 1951?

Day to day

Nesting, Nesting 1-2-3-4

Snowshoeing several weeks ago I startled a downy woodpecker. She flew from a perfect round hole in the decapitated, shoulder height trunk of a white birch I was passing. She flew into my arm, and then, all a fluster, (we both were) landed on the branch of a tree ahead of me. She was building a nest.

Several years ago a woodpecker nested very close to that white birch, near the top of a dead tree in our yard. While I do not love trees dying, if they do, I am not inclined to grab the chain saw and turn them into firewood. Deadwood provides food for birds, home for insects, and composts on the ground. If I had removed them, I would have missed the nesting, hatching, and fledging of a family of baby woodpeckers.

After watching the parents take turns sitting on the eggs, both they and I were delighted when a small brood of babies was hatched. These babies buzzed. I would drive into the yard after work, and roll down the window and listen. The soft droning noise was unmistakable, even though almost 200 feet away. The parents were very attentive, flying in and out, presumably with food. I could not see the newly hatched birds, although I could hear them. A neighbor’s cat also heard them. I came home one evening, smiling in anticipation of my private bird vespers. Arlo, a muscular cat with dense black fur, was three-quarters of the way up the tree. I leapt out and raced up, sending him home. This was not a cat who took no for an answer, and I was not happy he had discovered the nest.
We battled the next few days. I made chicken wire cages, and hung sharp objects around the base of the tree. Arlo persisted, he was a very persistent beast. Between tossing him back home, barricades and sharp obstacles, he was finally confined to mewling at the base of the tree, unable to get up the trunk to the nest.

The vibrant baby pecker noise increased in volume, and listening became an evening ritual. Watching morning and night, I still almost missed it. The first flights of those downy babies, fuzzy little intrepid balls of feathers, demanded a cheering squad. I rah-rahhed as each tumbled out, righted itself, and shot straight for the nearest branch. Acrobatics could wait for later.

That was a few years ago, and I am excited by the possibility of once again watching Downie’s feed and raise their young. Winter has given way. It let go reluctantly, and we shift from ice fishing to archery in the backyard in short sleeves. And nesting. Yep, the birds are at it. I watch crows out the window as I sit at my desk. They are dismantling an old squirrel nest, efficiently recycling. They fly off with twigs in their mouths to some unseen home. Ravens may have nested by now, but are still singing their courting song and doing belly flips as they fly, soaring. Almost touching, maybe they do touch, but their flight is seamless. An eagle has been flying nearby by with nesting material, and my husband, curious, snow shoed when there was still snow. He made note of the towering white pine, and we now watch the nest from a distance with binoculars.

Birds are in the mood. Every evening I hear a woodcock in the back yard, a male, making his beep-beep noise, then flying up and spiraling down, the air a rhythmic sigh in his feathers.

Biking Acadia National Park’s loop road, we pause near the Otter Cove causeway. Three immaculate white male mergansers swim and show off to three drab females. The water is so clear we can see a nearby eider as he flaps his wings and swims to the bottom of the cove for a mussel snack.

Winter was stubborn this year, but is has finally happened, the shift from frozen beauty to procreation. One moment I rhapsodize about the sun on ice, and before I can lament its loss, I am reveling in nest building and airborne mating dances.

Happy spring. At last.


Common Cause

When we hear of quilting bees and barn raisings, we are mentally transported to colonial America, or perhaps a 1950’s sewing circle. That same spirit of camaraderie prevails today. Brothers, sisters, aunts, nephews, neighbors, friends, kids and dogs converged and helped clear the land for my sister-in-law’s new home.

It was one of the best parties I have gone to. There were family and friends I had not seen in a while to hug and exchange news with. There were the friends and relatives of my sister-in-law I only see at her house for Thanksgiving or family events. There were her old school chums, her soon-to-be neighbors, and in-laws of in-laws. There were golden labs, boisterous mixed breeds, and a steam machine of red hot dogs.

We all had a common cause. Little orange flags on wire stems marked a septic field in the midst of the forest, and a track through the snow indicated the future driveway. The septic field and a twenty-foot swath around the driveway had to be cleared of trees. It was a tall order. Well over one hundred trees had to be cut down, cut up, dragged and burned.

By nine thirty there were three bonfires, and three chainsaws buzzing non-stop.

Liz, commander in chief, was a relaxed overseer. Buckets of coffee, water and juices were available at a tented outpost along with donuts and homemade muffins. We worked, ate, chatted, ate, worked. One neighbor hauled hardwood logs as tall as she was. Every time I looked up, there she was, dragging a big log to the pile being saved for firewood. Trying to keep up with Emma became my mantra. Blue skies, soft air and festive spirits defined the day.

The softwood and branches went into the fire, hard wood was set aside for warming a home next winter. One in-law of an in-law was a showstopper. I am not sure I ever saw him pause, except to be sure the next tree he felled had a clear path. Wisely protected with chaps and hardhat he danced among us. We would pick away, dragging branches from downed trees and almost have a section clear, when this chainsaw master would take a few more down for us to remove and burn.

It was beautifully orchestrated, and in spite of the many people, we never got in each other’s way. If I picked a log a bit hard to handle, suddenly there were three pairs of arms helping to hoist it and toss it onto the pile. Just as suddenly they were gone, as we all went right back to work.

“Am I on fire?” someone would call, and we would brush sparks out of a hood, or off a back. A few minutes to grab water, and pause by the lunch wagon gave us a chance to admire those working in the woods. As the morning went on, the woods became field. It looked not unlike my images of Dante’s Inferno. Sweating, laboring workers could be glimpsed through billows of drifting smoke, and orange flames were the only color in the landscape of gray snow and wet dark-barked trees.

A quick glance at any face there made it clear we were not in hell, however. There was satisfaction, or a smile, on each and every one. And the smiles, while they were individual, filled the air with one big giant group smile.

What a great party.