Thursday, September 25, 2014

The mountain

No longer broken but not yet quite whole, I accidentally climbed the mountain.

Sunday was a good day for a walk: the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the mountain was at her most fetching. A little tall, perhaps, but not ridiculously so.

The higher you climb, the smaller the trees. Here's a photo of Nathan being a Wood-elf King (we live in Underhill, for heaven's sake, and need to reference Tolkien and hobbits at least once a day...)

After a while, the trees gave up completely. On a camera better than mine, you'd see New York State and the Adirondacks spread out on the horizon beyond Lake Champlain. But look at the sweat on Nathan's t-shirt. See? We'd earned that view and it looks like we're at the top, doesn't it? Mountains are like that. Deceptive beasts, leading you on, pulling another challenge out of the bag just when you think you've won them over.

I learned a lot on Sunday. First, you know those thin pale gray lines on maps? The gradient ones? This photo shows what happens when they're really, really, really close together. And, second, when the Appalachian Mountain Club describe a walk as 'extremely challenging', they're not kidding. (It was around this point on the walk that I made the decision to believe every single word of every single thing I read from this moment on). Third, I learned how much my broken neck has affected my entire upper body strength. Three months ago, I could lift any of the boxes our removal men hoisted around; now, I'm significantly weaker and the nerve damage to my hands and arms means I don't always know where my hands are gripping unless I can see them. I managed to scramble up after Nathan (and follow him up a few other similar climbs besides), but it was not pretty and it was not elegant.

The trail was made in the 1910s by some free-thinking creative Vermonters. In the places where the gradient was too steep to scramble, they drilled tunnels. Perhaps they were as tired of climbing as I was by this point in the trail's design. Standing up there at silly-thousands of feet, I could hear their voices from over a hundred years before...
"Damn your eyes, Fitzgerald, there's another scramble here."
"Might I suggest a little dynamite, sir?"
Whatever. I like tunnels. I really like tunnels. Tunnels mean you don't have to scramble up near vertical rock faces or leap across 5ft ravines. Regardless of how many times Nathan banged his head (because even free-thinking Edwardian Vermonters didn't build tunnels for men who stand 6'7'' in their socks), I will not have a bad word said against them.

I'm not sure if I expected an easier walk because we started from our front door (there's always that strange psychological glitch which suggests something is only truly adventurous if you have had to make a journey to get there), or because my broken neck is stopping me from thinking straight. And I'm still not quite sure how I hadn't understood that our path was taking us to the top of the mountain. But we did it, and the fact I cried twice, bit through my lip on one of the ascents, and could barely move for a few days' afterwards is neither here nor there.

The true testament of the walk is in this photo. It's taken me nearly 2 years, but - look! - I finally wore out the dog.

And this is what I look like after climbing a mountain with a broken neck. You'd never know, would you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The problem with history

It was Iola who started the conversation with the man at Shelburne Museum. We were in the museum's printing shop: a real-life museum exhibit with an authentic assortment of large cast iron presses, printing materials, and an elderly man with half-moon glasses, a large printer's apron, and a face filled with carefully tended facial hair. 
Iola looked around at the alphabet posters which decorated the walls of the shop: 'O could be for Owl too,' she suggested
The man studied her for a moment over the top of his glasses, sniffed slightly and replied, 'Here O is for Oven.'
He is, I soon discovered, a man who does not like the possibility that things might be different from how he thinks they are. 
Iola had started the conversation, but he looked over her head and began talking to me. Together we admired the black iron hand press which he had used to produce the alphabet posters. It was his favorite and had, for many years, been the only one in the world. The corners of the man's mouth drooped suddenly. 'Then somebody found another one in New Jersey.'
I offered my condolences.
'There have been historians...' his face contorted slightly as though the word 'historian' tasted bad, '... who have looked at this hand press and the one in New Jersey. They said that this one was built in Boston, then the shop burnt down and the press maker moved to Philadelphia where he built the press which is now in New Jersey.'
I nodded, half-listening. 
'But!' His shout made both Iola and I jump, 'If that's the case then how can the New Jersey press have been built in 1826 when the Boston shop didn't burn down until 1831?'
He raised his eyebrows towards me, as though expecting me to answer. I couldn't. 
'Exactly! So, the historians go away for a while. Then they come back and say that means the New Jersey press was built first in Philadelphia, and the press maker moved to Boston afterwards.' 
'No, not ok!' He placed his hand flat against the press. 'This is obviously the older of the two presses - look at the shape of the handle here? At the way this part is engraved?'
I looked but, to be honest, neither thing meant much to me. 'What do the historians say now?' 
'They don't.' The printing press man pushed his spectacles up his nose slightly and smiled. 'They've gone away again and won't talk to me anymore.' 
While Iola wandered around the shop, I continued chatting to the printing press man. I enthused about the developments in technology which had enabled Mormons to carry small mobile printing presses on their travels in the early 1800s; how each new gold-rush settlement would somehow manage to set up a press and establish a local newspaper, even when the town had only appeared seemingly overnight. I thought he was interested, I thought we were having a conversation, until he interrupted. 
'The real problem is the patent office burnt down in 1836.'
'So there are no printed records.' He traced two fingers along the engraving at the top of the machine, as though caressing the hair of a favorite child, and then leaned forward conspiratorially. 'I've got a theory,' he said softly, his eyes gleaming behind his spectacles. 'I've traced back her owners to 1860 and I''m not going to give up. I don't think she was made by the man they think made her!'
Iola reappeared and tugged at my hand. I wished him success with his hunt and said goodbye, but he didn't answer because he was already telling another museum visitor how the hand press used to be the only one in the world. 
We made up other alphabet posters as we walked around the museum grounds: W was for Walrus because of the size of the man's moustache, U was for Unique, in case the hand press really was the only one in the world, and O... Well, O is for Oh because sometimes there is nothing else one can say. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Start of the Fall

A series of days when the sky is paintbox blue and the breeze is soft among the trees. I'm regaining some of my energy and can stay awake long enough to see the sky packed tight with stars and the harvest moon making moon-shadows across the grass.

Our mornings begin early: Maya's bus collects her just over a mile from our house at 6.50am and Iola's school starts at 7.30am. We wake before the darkness silvers into dawn and hurry through our breakfast, while the kittens weave around our ankles and the hens cluck about their yard. The dog, with the wisdom he has gained from no longer being a puppy, hides beneath the covers in the warmest bed he can find until we are ready to leave the house.

My mother is staying for the next few weeks and I'm seeing our area through her eyes. She's been driving to the village and back, braving all the Vermont trucks which meander along on the 'wrong' side of the road and slaloming between the potholes which mark the point where the road repairs began earlier in the year and then abruptly stopped when the State funding was cut. In the UK, I am sure, the road would be considered unsafe and either closed completely or signposted extensively to warn drivers to slow down or take a detour. Here, there are no warnings: only a subtle change in the color of the tarmac. One minute all is well, the next moment the car's suspension bucks and jolts. The grin on my mum's face makes me suspect she's rather enjoying the excitement of the Vermont roads.

She's also enjoying the amazing array of foods. We ate our way around Montpelier Farmers' Market on Saturday: kimchi and burritos, clay oven baked pizza slices and pan-fried heart, pickled everything and maple syrup creemees and apple cider. The farm stall between our house and Maya's school is banked high with squash, sweetcorn and this season's apples and many local homes have produce stands at the ends of their driveways. I'm sure we should be canning and pickling and filling the cellar with things to get us through the winter, but we're too busy eating a lot and smiling.

We're also walking a lot. This morning, after the girls were at school, we headed up into Underhill State Park. The park is open until the middle of October, but there was no-one there this morning except Linda, the warden. She was pleased to see us: it had been a long evening with no campers and only her dog for company.

We climbed up through the park and headed South along the CCC road, feeling particularly grateful to Ruth who has loaned my mum a pair of walking boots. This lower slope of Mount Mansfield is heavily wooded: the birch and beech trees slowly giving way to coniferous forest as the elevation increases. A couple of miles from the trailhead, a firebreak has been cut through the forest and the view is, to use the local parlance, awesome! My mum and I sat for a while, looking out all the way to Burlington and Lake Champlain and to the Adirondack Mountains beyond.

We would have stayed longer but we needed to get home: we needed to plan what we were going to eat for lunch!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Life Lessons

My stiff upper lip English-ness, which tends to keep chin wobbles firmly in check, has taken a bit of a beating recently. I have cried through a variety of teen movies and go all misty-eyed at the slightest touch of movie manipulation: a shift in the soundtrack, a close-up of the heroine's face, an allusion to parent-daughter relationships. This past week alone, I have cried through LemonadeMouth (a saccharine Disney Movie), Mamma Mia (a raucous comedy) and one of Iola's episodes of My Little Pony when the other ponies were being mean to Fluttershy! There have been tears of rage - when my old-person-fingers couldn't peel the lid off a yoghurt pot, when I got trapped in my sports bra; and there have been tears of exasperation - when the physical therapist wouldn't listen to what I wanted to do, when I couldn't knead the potato bread I wanted to make. I've also cried quieter tears of loss over the letter from an old school friend about the still birth of her son, over the news from another friend about the loss of her pregnancy when her ongoing journey towards parenthood has already taken so many years.  

My courage has been battered too. As many of you know, Nathan experiences night terrors which send him careening out of bed in the middle of the night. In the past, I've cajoled him, reassured him, shouted at him, pleaded with him to get back into bed and go back to sleep. Now the sound of him moving around our room in the dark leaves me coated in cold sweat. I have fastened a child gate to our bedroom door and have three torches on my bedside table, because once I've got the lights on I can coax Nathan back to bed and he'll sleep through the rest of the night with no memory of what's happened. But I find it hard to get back to sleep these days.

Laughter comes easier too though: I couldn't tell you what started Maya and I giggling as I put the pasta on to boil this afternoon, but we were still snorting and wiping tears from our cheeks as I dished out the cooked food. Laughter shifts our reality by altering the way things respond to us. These days I laugh when the dog starts growling and huffing at strangers, and he soon gives up on his pretend aggression and asks to play ball instead. 

This evening the hens escaped as I was putting them to bed. Ordinarily, I would have been irritated. Locking up the hen house is a straightforward chore when the hens are inside, and an exercise in futility when they're not. It wasn't what I'd planned and they had no interest in going into the hen house when there were bugs to eat and cut grass to scrat around in. After a few failed attempts to round them up, I took out my deck chair and sat down to enjoy the view. It was a beautiful evening: the mountain piled high with storm clouds to the East, the setting sun making the air heavy as honey, the hens striking picturesque poses among the weeds. Maya joined me. For a while we sat in silence, then we laughed. Sometimes there is nothing else you can do.