I don’t get out much these days, but I did get out yesterday for what I’d thought would be a fairly straightforward overnight visit with an old friend from my elementary school days in Chicago, and who now lives in mid-state Vermont. It was a short trip, but densely packed with new and memorable experiences.
My childhood pal is moving across the country to the Seattle metro area. She’s lived here in the Northeast for three years and I haven’t yet been to see her (she and her family have, however, been to visit me). It’s hard to believe that it was only yesterday morning that I was throwing a toothbrush and a favorite pillow into a bag and hitting the road. It feels like I’ve been gone a week. My head is full of images, my heart is heavy with a final, impromtu stop I made on the way back, and I’m saddened to learn that shortly before I returned home this evening we lost Amity, our last pure white hen from the old flock. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed right now, siting here in my cozy chair in something of a daze; post gin and tonic, post review of new photos, post whirlwind tour of historic Vermont, post the loss of one more hen. And although I may feel uncertain about many things in life, there is one thing I do know for certain: I love being home. And after having just seen a thousand different ways to live, having a head swirling with images, places and possibilities – and even loss – I know one thing for certain, that I need none of it right now, thank you. I’m relieved at the peace of being still and doing nothing at all. I’m more than happy to be back.
Once again, some time away has given me the experience of seeing my own corner of the world through brand new eyes. And I remember again how much this place means to me. I’d rather look out at the distant mountains of Vermont than live in between them. I like to assess it all from afar, nestled as I am here in my small, hillside niche in the woods. I have just the right amount of sky and trees, and just the right amount of house, both which give me more joy than they had just the day before yesterday. A day trip is a lovely experience in of itself, and it’s also a healthy way to help remind one just how blessed a thing is home.
The road as I start out… Vermont has always seemed idyllic and just out of reach; now I mean to examine these once-distant hills more closely.
This shot is uncharacteristically ‘un-claustraphobic’ of the Vermont byways; the roads almost all run parallel to the many rivers that run in the valleys between impassable mountain ranges. Usually one is in the woods, under cover of endless pines, a stony river bed close to one side. This is what makes travel through the state either extremely tedious or a journey of great beauty and mystery, depending on how urgently you may want to get somewhere. I always start out intrigued, but after a couple of hours of meandering alongside a shallow river in the deep woods I can get a little short of patience.
There’s precious little flat land in between the hills, but farmers find and use what they can.
After driving two and a half hours on two lane roads, at last I’ve arrived at Dina’s house. The small town of Randolph is a mere stone’s throw down the road.
First things first; lunch at ‘Wright at Home’, an even closer stone’s throw from the center of town.
The kitchen is in full view of the dining room. Cute, sarcastic and vintage signage decorates the place.
Dina’s son Sam figures out how to use my fan (given to me by another classmate from our elementary school who spent the past year in Spain).
This cutie is Thomas, the younger of Dina’s two sons.
Small town action! The local hippie artist has a mild run-in with the town cops.
We walk back up the hill after lunch. Nice place, huh?
Sam stands in the doorway of the carriage house-turned apartment unit.
Earnest, the boy’s dad, made a catapult for them. When I left it was still on the front lawn for anyone to take. It could be yours…
Dina and her friends enjoy one last soccer game before she moves…
While the women play a game I go investigate a nearby river behind the athletic field. Spied several species of birds and enjoyed some time also doing nothing at all but enjoying the perfect breeze and the gentle sound of moving water.
I took a walk around the field and learned the name of the high school mascots.
The town’s high school class is graduating tonight under this tent in the same field, so we go to pay a visit. Dina and a friend wave to each other under a gloriously-clouded sky.
The band gets ready. Love that sousaphone.
Dina knows a lot of people here in this small town. Turns out our visit is a perfect opportunity for her to say goodbye to many friends.
The graduating class and their teachers line up for the processional.
Elihu will get a kick out of this kid’s cap.
A little window into the moment.
Dina says good-bye to Tom, a local cop.
Looking North, towards the ice cream shop, a favorite of locals. I myself don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but highly recommend both the ‘maple creamee’ soft serve and ‘coconut crunch’ hard ice cream.
A taxidermied white panther in the window of the local barber shop. When I was small, I’d heard stories about black panthers still living in areas not far from my current home, but never of white ones. Today, panthers are extremely rare, but thankfully their smaller cousins the bobcats can still be found in the woods around the Northeastern US.
A wonderful and successful addition to Randolph’s downtown, restaurant One Main offers an enticing menu and a casual yet upscale vibe for locals to enjoy. Send an energetic gift of good thoughts to owner Shane, as he faces some health challenges at the moment. Seldom met anyone so radiant and positive, I’m sure he has a successful future ahead of him.
But like in so many small towns, keeping it alive and vital is an ongoing challenge.
Every building in this town is picture-perfect, like something from a set. This is the train depot. You can catch a train here and be in New York City in five hours.
Plus there’s a movie theater – with first run films. Love that awning!
We visit a neighbor’s house for dinner – Earnest, Dina and hostess Phyllis seen here in what I think is probably the most inviting, homey kitchen I’ve ever been in.
At the dinner table in this landmark Victorian house. Hosts Phyllis and Richard are on either end, and we’re joined by Earnest and Dina’s two sons, two neighbor kids and one of the hosts’ twin daughters. I have not sat at a table with so many people in probably twenty years. One of the most enjoyable dinners in just as long, too.
Captain lives in this beautiful house too; she may be the world’s only one-eyed Bernese Mountain dog.
This house is known as “Mari Castle”, and it was built by a speech writer for Abraham Lincoln and named for his wife. And if you might be interested in living in this gorgeous gem of a house, it’s for sale! A beautiful coach house and small chapel-made-office building are also on the property.
Here’s a photo postcard of the place from years ago…
…and here’s a picture that Dina took of the place in winter.
The coach house and neighboring mid-century chapel.
Some readers may know my love of things mid-century. This was the first building to catch my eye as I drove into town. My heart skips a beat when I see such a roof line. I’m not kidding.
The stunning original wood arches inside. It was difficult for me to see the interior so altered from its original beauty.
The same arches as seen from the second floor. Even though it pained me to see the place so transformed (into a doctor’s office), I gotta say they did a tasteful job of it.
At three in the morning, Dina and family get loaded into the car to drive to Logan airport. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken any photo of me and my friend of 45 years, hence my last-minute selfie (and disheveled appearance). I’m amazed I’m old enough to have known someone this long. Wow.
Like me, this fellow stops to gas up on Main Street before heading out (note the barber shop in the background).
Virtually all Vermont towns are situated alongside a river.
Kayakers wave hello as I shout a greeting to them.
Even in the fairly populated city of Rutland the mountains beckon from beyond the utility poles and roofs… What a sky, huh? I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day to travel.
This trip, I decide to visit the mountain settlement of Killington. When I was small it was a modest and barely developed ski area. Now it’s a ritzy destination. Kinda reminds me of an American version of Zermatt, Switzerland.
…and the means by which one gets there.
It’s just not possible to convey the feeling of being atop such a mountain; this photo doesn’t come even close. Those who ski (a population of which I am regrettably not a member) will know exactly what that is. So will those who hike and climb mountains. It’s the most expansive, exhilarating feeling. Also, in my case, it can inspire sudden bouts of panic. This didn’t happen to me in my younger years; I hope to discover a way to mitigate such altitude-related episodes, as they really suck and I can see them eliminating future adventures.
I continue South, down historic route 7, past Manchester’s famous Equinox hotel.
Had to stop when I saw this place.
If only I could afford one of em. Played the ‘hey, I’m an artist too’ card, but no go. Wouldn’t even consider the slightest mark down. I was seriously interested, but he seriously didn’t care. Ah well.
Onward I go, still heading South. I pass another farmer, doing things old school. One just doesn’t see those huge machines the way one does in the Midwest, where fields go uninterrupted for miles. Life here in Vermont has a gentler, more organic feel.
I saw these two fellows dressed in such odd-looking garb that I just had to stop and ask them what they were about. Daniel, left, and spokesman Michele, right, tell me they are cave enthusiasts, here from Montreal for the wonderful underground cavities unique to this region. Lots of white marble comes from this area too. Here, Michele writes down some sites I can visit to learn more. Tonight they are celebrating the birthday of a fellow caver by descending 140 vertical feet into a cave and sharing a glass of champagne at the bottom. !!
My ultimate destination en route home has been in the back of my mind all afternoon. I’m headed for Bennington. It’s the burial-place of poet Robert Frost, and the town in which my father, harpsichordist Robert Conant, was cremated. I need to see the place in order to give myself some closure. This obelisk is a monument to Revolutionary War soldiers which sits at the far end of Main Street, up the hill. The funeral home where dad was cremated is off frame and to the left, at the other end of Main Street.
Within a short time I’m at the base of the monument.
Here’s the church behind which Mr. Frost is buried. He himself did not belong to a church, but said if he were to have, it would have been the Congregational Church. His gravestone is the only one in the cemetery to face East instead of West.
Some ancient headstones just next to the Congregational Church.
The view of mountains to the East.
The signs that show the way are many and the effect is comical.
Here’s the Frost family plot. The center marks the poet, his wife and five children, the far one his grandchildren (one of whom is still living) and the marker in the foreground is completely empty. ! That’s thinking ahead, huh?
Here’s his famous epitaph; “I Had A Lover’s Quarrel With The World”. I placed the small, white stone in between that line and ‘his wife’ on the line below. Like hers too: “Together Wing to Wing And Oar To Oar”
Leaving the cemetery, the light is especially magical.
This next step is kind of surreal for me. Might be for you too. Get ready to see a side of life – or death, rather – that none of us ever really thinks much about until the choices are directly in front of us and ours alone to make. Even then we tend to think of it as some far-off, unreal sort of process that somehow doesn’t ever really happen, especially not to our beloveds. Cremation happens, and it has to happen somewhere. In this case, it’s on Main Street behind a cheerful looking house.
I walk around to the back. I’m ready, I guess…
It’s strange to see this for myself. The doors on the right are the last ones my father passed through looking as I knew him. My heart stops for a second when I recognize the facility for what it really is.
How bizarre it seems… That after such a marvelous, accomplished life, a body becomes merely something that must be gotten rid of somehow. And here it is. No pomp or circumstance to it, really. It’s just a super-powerful oven.
How mundane it looks, I think to myself – and in a way, it’s almost funny. The final end of my father in the un-glamorous back-end of a building with a wheel barrow and garden tools stashed behind. It makes me smile even. I wonder if dad too is seeing how hard it is to grasp for the earth-bound soul.
This is where my father’s physical matter met again with the world of its creation… And this is where I begin to cry. Please forgive me the next image; I realize for some it may be too much, but for me it’s the very reason I’ve driven so far today. I need to understand more completely what this process was. I remind myself the whole time that this happens thousands of time every day, in every single corner of the world. Most of us will never care to see it for ourselves, but some of us, whether we dare to express it aloud or not, may find ourselves unsettled until we see it with our own eyes…
The last place where hundreds of people’s loved ones – mothers, fathers, sons and daughters – have entered in bodily form. I look in the window in something of a trance. How can this be? I wonder over and over to myself. What an illusion we create and sustain for ourselves all life long that we shall ever be as we are now. We aren’t even as we were last year, or even yesterday for that matter. We weren’t even around one hundred years ago, and we won’t be here one hundred years hence. We know all this. So why is this idea of burning the bodies of our loved ones – and seeing the very sentence itself in print and the photo of the place in which it happens – so unthinkable? Why? If my father were here, he’d put his arms around me and tell me not to be sad, not to concern myself with the loss of his body. I know it. And I also feel very strongly that he still exists very close by, like a person on the other side of a one-way mirror, and he smiles at me and lovingly wishes I wouldn’t trouble myself so. But then again, I can’t help myself. I’m still on this side of the mirror, and no matter how hard I try to expand my consciousness on the matter, I just can’t. This feels creepy. It feels sad. But somehow, it does help.
I return to my car and see a tattooed dad and his family pass by the funeral home on a summer night’s stroll. Life keeps on goin.
Ok, for some this will undoubtedly be too far… I wanted something local to bring home from my trip, and this mom and pop store was across the street. It was here that I picked up some cheese and smoked meat; it was impossible for me to overlook the Monty Python-esque humor in it. I can promise you dad would have laughed too.
I’m headed home now. I pass the marble-enfused rocks of Vermont on highway 7 as I head North.
I’m a bit emotionally spent by now. Got lost a few times (in a region divided by vertical, North-South mountain ranges it’s not a simple thing to get from East to West) and by now had had it with winding, two lane roads and picturesque New England villages.
… and then New York again, at last. I love a trip, but truly, there’s no place like home.