A Tale of Two Boots (Part 2)

20 Jul

Culture Clash or Delicate Balance?: A Week in the Maine Woods.  Or, “A Tale of Two Boots”

This essay was written by my mother, Daniella Levine, on July 16, 2006 after a few days of hiking on the Appalachian Trail with my brother and me.

A Story in Two Parts: Part One describes our family, against the backdrop of an amazing adventure and terrain. Part Two describes a shifting culture and community against a backdrop of our family’s growing relationship with the place and the times.

Part Two 

Buddy chatted on, about the lumber industry, how many rescues he had effected, how he had snuck into the trail on numerous occasions leaving mysterious notes, baffling the hikers. He bragged that he could find anyone anywhere along the 100 Mile Wilderness, one way or the other.

He had grown up in these hills (part Native American we later learned, and adopted by those of European descent), learned to drive on the lumber roads, hiking the trail. He knew every nook and cranny. He was a trail whisperer. He had joined the military, been involved in a truck crash in Tennessee (the driver fell asleep at the wheel), broken his spine, and ended up with two fused and three artificial discs. Strong pain medication left him listless and confused. He proceeded to Motrin in massive doses, which burned out his stomach. He has difficulty with foods today, but is drug free, because he “just did not like the way the drugs made me feel.” He discovered massage therapy, and now skis all winter with his stepsons and step grandchildren, his greatest joy and release. The snows are receding, thanks to global warming, but he has a favorite place that still gets pretty good snow. He can no longer hike. He moved back to Monson, his childhood home and went to work for Mr. Shaw.

The founder of Shaw’s Boarding House, a thriving Monson business, died a few years later, after building a national reputation as the “not to be missed” way station for the hiking community. Dawn, the new owner, persuaded Buddy that she could not run the business without his prowess as cook and shuttle-driver. Before she even bought the business, she had Buddy write down all the details he had learned working for “Old Man Shaw.” Buddy’s breakfasts were famous up and down the trail, and he was a key component of the business’ success.

The lumber roads are marvelously smooth, and we fly along at 45 mph. Buddy explains the different lumber extraction methods as we drive by: clear cut, select cut. His father still lumbers the old fashioned way, tree by tree, well into the winter. He rates the different companies along the route, which are more concerned about the community, which just want to leach and plunder the land to maximize profit.

I am busily massaging my foot which has gone numb. Buddy suggests a massage.

We reach the main road, and soon thereafter the top of a rise (where moose are often spotted) that is known to provide some cell phone access. By standing up on the rear bumper of the car, Rob is able to call out to Miami and learn that his mother’s condition has stabilized. He will call more when we get to town. We plan for the children to return to the trail the next day, and for Rob and me to learn more before we decide whether to head home or continue our vacation along the coast (or in Nova Scotia, a desired destination for us both) for the remaining week as scheduled.

We stop in Greenville along the edge of Moosehead Lake, the largest lake in Maine. A major developer is planning a huge project that will restrict a good part of lakeshore to private use, and the locals are up in arms. They plan to block it, although the plans are fuzzy. Buddy points out his stepson’s house on the lake. He is out mowing his lawn.

The in-demand shoes themselves.

The town is cheery and the store immense. We are dazzled by the array of merchandise, and I am mesmerized by the grocery store. I pick up a crate of clementines, Ted’s favorite, and some milk and berries. Eliza buys new sturdier sneakers, and deposits the worn-out ones she is wearing in the garbage. Rob finds a lightweight blanket, complete with embroidered moose design, and Eliza decides to substitute it for her heavier sleeping bag. We look for replacement DEET and crocs for Ted. Crocs was the definite product innovation for this trip. Light as a feather, rugged and comfy, Eliza even walked through mud patches on the trail in her crocs (yes, they are a type of footwear). Ted coveted Rob’s, and Rob was planning to bequeath them with love, but Rob needed replacements, and the store was out.

On to Monson and the boarding house. The town is tidy, compact. The boarding house is just a block off the main road, and it is a buzz of hiker activity. A steady stream of weary hikers file in. Where is the shower, the laundry, the bunkroom? We don the loaner clothes in the box, and put up our wash. Ted finds the most comfy pajama bottoms, and I make him trade for the very tiny running shorts.

Three guys limp in around six pm, and we learn that they have hiked the 100 miles in 3.5 days. We are aghast. It was a fundraiser for a children’s hospital in Nashville. They have raised $25,000.They are so exhausted and injured (one man’s feet are covered in blisters and another has open sores from the chafing of his backpack hip strap) that they considered slowing down and lying about their time. Who would know? Needless to say, they did not slow down and made the goal. I say that they would never feel good about not having told the truth.

We shower and change and head to town, picking the new pub overlooking the lake for a light dinner. We order three kinds of ale, and the blueberry one is my favorite. We are joined by a rowdy intergenerational group out to celebrate grandma’s birthday. They have been partying all afternoon, and their stop at the pub is just midway in the revelry. The local teen boy population is running up and down the main street and sidewalk on skateboards.

We sleep well and awaken to the smell of bacon, as Buddy promised (no alarms needed). Our breakfast consists of one by, two by, three by, etc. The units are bacon, sausage, egg (you pick the style), blueberry pancakes or French toast on alternating days, and hash browns. All for $6.50, served until 8 am.

This last information is important, because hikers are still streaming in. One fellow from France looks dazed, half crazed, and surely needs a hot meal. He is directed to the showers, but he is too late for breakfast. The ladies (Dana, Dawn and Jill, Buddy’s wife) bustle about serving, joking, and bantering with Buddy. Tabasco would be picked up and added to the menu next time, from Costco, by popular demand. “The gentleman asked for a four by”… “There are no gentlemen in here.” It is warm and warming, a great breakfast experience, in shared tables right next to the big stove and griller.

Buddy is getting ready to take our children back to the trail head at Polliwog Creek, where we had been evacuated the day before. We repack the bags and they appropriate desirable items no longer needed by their departing parents: new socks, a long sleeved “bug shirt”(which they both covet), more baggies and stuff sacks, toilet paper, and more. Ted even takes Rob’s walking poles, for which Rob has given blessings, and which has made it possible for him to walk for four days and 40 miles. We place surplus food items on the camper’s table, and they are snatched up in minutes, deemed great finds by the scavenging hikers. I ask Buddy if I can buy the soft pajama bottoms from the clothing bin, and he says no, as they are his favorites, and he wears them all winter. Buddy is sharing his clothes with hikers while they do their laundry? What a place.

Rob and I will make travel arrangements and visit the two shops in town while Buddy runs our kids’ shuttle. Then he will drive us to Bangor. We bid a fierce farewell to Ted and Eliza, who are of good cheer and pleased with their new lighter packs (having left other heavier items with us or in their pick up pile in Shaw’s office for their return approximately seven days in the future). We sit in the comfy parlor and visit with hikers: a lady chemist from California who gave it all up to hike the trail when she was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy. She is looking for a new meaningful work role. I offer my advice and placement consultation. A fellow from Devon compares the English right of way system across private lands to the American restrictive approach.

We head up the block to town, and Rob sits down by the pay phone to locate a rental car and change our plane reservations. We have decided to head home as soon as possible, as Fanny’s condition is unpredictable and we will not be at ease. I find the local craft shop and proceed to shop! It takes Rob over an hour to make the arrangements, just long enough for me to learn more local lore from the shopkeeper, and to purchase my staff’s holiday presents, a baby gift, some great photos, jewelry, a purse and wallet. I am without these last essentials, only a baggy for my credit card and license, as wallets are excess weight on the trail. Nor do I have any adornments, a frivolity in the wilderness. I buy earrings made of squashed local beer caps. Red and blue. Very pretty and clever.

The shopkeeper and her granddaughter keep me company. I learn that the local TOPS (Taking Off Pounds …what is the S?) group has taken up Middle Eastern dancing, and performed a number they called “Miami.” That is the grandchild’s association with my hometown. I am told that the dancing was invented to help women in child birth, but that it was discovered by the men and sexualized. I say that the book “The Red Tent”describes how that happened, and she writes the name down. Her girlfriend loves to know the where and why of things.

We cannot get home until Tuesday without exorbitant extra fees (this is Sunday), so we decide to head down to the coast. Buddy calls to say that he is delayed behind a logging truck, and will not get out in time. Jill is to drive us instead.

Jill, Buddy’s wife, fills in the details of the family and community life. Jill herself has only returned home three years before to care for her ailing grandmother, then aunt. They all were living in the family homestead, built by the first generation Americans, children of English and Canadian ancestors. Her mother had been unstable, and her grandmother and aunt did much of the childrearing. She was enormously grateful to them. She had been living in a larger city in Maine, running an assisted living facility, but her boss was always cutting corners and undermining Jill’s efforts and program improvements. When the inspectors came around, Jill was only allowed to make nominal improvements to meet minimal requirements. Jill felt her integrity was compromised. She quit. With Grandmother no longer able to care for self and the Aunt mostly blind, she returned home. She was able to care for both in their homes, and finally when the Aunt was no longer able to provide basic self care, she found a nursing home in the area, where the aides were children of friends and acquaintances from a lifetime in a small town. The Aunt flourished in this environment, loved and coddled by staff, sociable for the first time in years. When she passed away, the staff stayed beyond their shifts to dress and prepare her for the funeral.

I say that this makes me think what has been lost for so many of us, a sense of community. How fitting and perfect that the Aunt can go to a community nursing facility where she is known and loved, rather than to a place where she is an anonymous client. Jill agrees. It gave her great comfort.

Jill then took up substitute teaching. She was burned out on care giving, and wanted to live a bit for herself finally. Last summer she rode the back roads with Buddy as he shuttled hikers. This summer she was working at Shaw’s as well, and enjoying it. She had suggested to Buddy that he take off a day a week so they could spend some time together, but he told her the hikers needed him more. Eliza observed that Buddy is the kindest person she has ever met. She said it with true wonder in her eyes. I tell this to Jill who says she will pass it on to Buddy. She is glad that he has found his calling and is truly happy in his work. He has overcome many obstacles in his life to get to this place.

She would like to travel. The two 70 year old women Buddy shuttled every two to three days throughout the 100 Mile Wilderness last summer are urging Jill and Buddy to join for an adventure. Jill has never been to New York City. Perhaps they could meet there. She has a relative in Florida, and Dana has relatives elsewhere. She has many destinations in mind. Rob asks her what is holding her back, and to just take the plunge and do it. He urges her to make a plan.

We part with hugs and best wishes. I feel humbled and invigorated. A life of meaning, in a quiet place and a quiet way. I am inspired.

We find our rental car, grab a bunch of travel flyers, and call Eliza’s friend, Grace. Perhaps she will join us for dinner. Perhaps she has a favorite spot to recommend. She is busily preparing for the get together that will break the ice with fellow counselors. She offers to call her friend the warden of all state lands. We decline the offer and wish her luck. We are in Wal-Mart near Bangor. No more crocs.  Rob’s hip is hurting a lot. Back to the car. We find a sporting goods store. Out of crocs.

We find a convenience store and get a map. We head south to the coast. We call home and hear Anita’s upbeat voice. Fanny is doing better. We drive through beautiful coastal towns, and stop in Belfast where the Chamber of Commerce is open. We find brochures about ferries. I have remembered that there are islands to visit, and that they may be more rustic than this gentrified coast. We eat steamers, dipped in hot broth. They are divine. I feel stronger in my legs and heart. My feet still ache.

We call all the ferry companies. Only one answers, and they have a boat to Monhegan the next day. They recommend an inn across the road from their dock. We have a destination, New Harbor. Once off the main road (Route 1) and on the secondary road heading down the finger peninsula, our hearts soar. The road curves easily, the views are postcard perfect. Quirky sights amuse (the junkyard sculpture studio), and we are listening to Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen on an NPR special on the power of music to effect social change. We pull into New Harbor, and our beautiful little inn overlooking the harbor, just as the show ends. I am in love. With Pete, with Bruce, with Maine, with the sea, with the moon and the blanket of white clouds that resembles a cotton quilt, and with Rob. Good night. At 5:30 am the lobstermen prepare to launch. We close the windows and the blinds and go back to sleep.

We do wake up in time, and we do eat blueberry pancakes, before heading to the ferry. The ride is rough, and I steel myself to prevent seasickness. The captain rates it a 7 out of 10. We arrive at Monhegan, home of lobstermen and artists. We circumnavigate the lower half of the island, explore the historical museum, and head back to sea. Rob falls asleep with his head on my lap and I vow to find more beauty and peace in my life, as I gaze out to sea, this time a 4-5.

Back in New Harbor, the lobster restaurant is still open, so we eat two. Then we order another and some mussels. Then at 6:30, Rob goes to sleep. I commune with seagulls and cats, then drive up the road to the one remaining shop open until 7, to buy basics like pens, pad of paper, toothbrush. Rob sleeps until morning, and after pancakes we head down to Boston along the coast, in the rain. We find outlet stores, and suitcases for our new plunder, comfortable new shoes for my tired feet. The rain turns to hail (the size of golfballs), and we hear that the Boston tunnel is closed due to a partial collapse. We find an alternative course to the airport, and drive the slow road all the way.

Our plane is delayed due first to the weather, then to the fact that someone has vomited on the inbound plane due to weather. Three hours later we take off, after having made the acquaintance, thanks to Rob’s outgoing ways, of two deputy superintendents of the Miami Dade County school system. We watch the movie, and upon arrival, hear from Mike, our faithful airport shuttle man and brother in law. We emerge from the terminal and pull up to the curb just as he arrives.

A great trip. We are home.

To reach the author, email mom@elizacava.com.  Part One of “A Tale of Two Boots” was posted last week.

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