The following is a continuation of “Back where it all began,” published in June 2017.
I was drifting back to childhood, watching the gigantic Snoopy float hover over the Macy’s parade, when the sound of Jim’s voice took me way back. Almost to the cradle. “Happy Thanksgiving from Moosehead to Mooselook!” he hollered in a voice roughened from years of talking over steam engines and chain saws.
“Same to you!” I said, glad that his hearing aid and the goddamn cell phone he kept threatening to throw in the lake were working at the same time. I was thankful just to be on his happy holidays list, to picture him leaning heavily on his hand-hewn cane gazing over at Mount Kineo as, once again, we wished each other all the best.
And I sure was glad I stuck to my story long enough for him to be part of it.
Two summers ago, I was ready to let the whole “returning to Moosehead” chapter of my life peter out and fade into memory. At least the part where I kept going “Back Where It All Began,” to the small cabin in Rockwood where my love for living by a big lake out in the woods first took root. Where I kept trying to find its original owner, forge a connection, and express my gratitude.
But I just couldn’t close that book. The mountain wouldn’t let me. Each time I looked across the lake at Mount Kineo—my rock, my childhood center of gravity—something deep and true kept whispering I was not alone. How could I be the only one who was so eager on the drive from Greenville to see the craggy cliff face loom up out of the lake, to fixate as it morphed to a gentle, forested giant just up shore from the Moose River? There had to be at least one other soul, hopefully a living one, who came of age as I did on the opposite shore—watching that serene, enduring mound of earth watching over me.
Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had the Rockwood shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good. So stay. Rest. You belong here.“
As soon as my horizon opened wide enough to embrace the world beyond my mother and father, I fell in love with places like that. Places where the water meets the sky. Wide open blue and green places named after moose and rocks and safe harbors. And I fell hard. Especially for the tiny cabin my family stayed in across from my first favorite view. A cabin called HOJET.
HOJET was the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owned the cabin, my dad explained when I was old enough to spell out the sign that hung above the front door. Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that red wooden sign. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.
But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people named Dunn who lived near us in Blandford, Mass., and let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine. For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other.
“Someone must feel something similar,” I said when I rediscovered the place on my birthday, Memorial Day weekend, more than 50 years later. “Or they wouldn’t have rebuilt expansions around the two-room camp and kept the old sign that told me for sure I’d come back to the right spot.” Yet, not seeing any signs of life or recent use, I wondered if maybe I was alone in my enthusiasm. After all, nonstop lake life wasn’t for everyone. As a year-round resident in a mostly summertime neighborhood on my other favorite lake, I knew that folks weren’t always as head over heels as I. Some loved conditionally, seasonally. Only when the bugs weren’t biting and their iPhones were connecting, and they could still get to town for some hustle and bustle. And while some husbands/wives might be tickled pink to stay upta camp for a long, long time…their wives/husbands…not so much.
The old cabin knew the real story. So did the mountain. But I was the only one who could tell what needed telling. So I did what I’d been doing since the first time I held a pen so long it left a callous. I poured my heart out, published “Back Where It All Began,” and started combing the North Woods for the right reader—that one kindred spirit who shared my sense of belonging—maybe way back before I ever came along and staked a claim. Then, when everything short of paying for a people search failed, I returned the following Memorial Day and shoved a copy of my story and a letter introducing myself inside the rickety screen door. And I stood there for a long time, gazing across at Kineo, trying not to question the perfect timing of the universe.
“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river,” I reminded myself each time I reread my words, saw the last picture I took from the front porch. Putting it all out there in print had been pretty cathartic, landing a spread in the Rangeley Highlander so huge I should have been able to just look at it, pat myself on the back, and smile as I got back to minding my current events. But coming almost-full-circle just wasn’t enough. I wanted more, a new chapter, a new interpretation, some proof that, as Patti Digh says in her book Life Is a Verb, “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” I wanted the verb of my life to be about Moosehead—in future tense, plural.
Three months later, as the finest weather in Rangeley was doing its best to keep me here and now and focused on the lake right in front of me, I found Jim, my missing link. Or rather, he found me by finding the story I’d left at his cabin. He wrote right back, but I didn’t find his response in my PO box in time to answer. So he drove “only a hundred miles or so” out of his way from his house in Connecticut to introduce himself in person. And, after finding me not home, he left a note in my screen door. He’d really love for me to join him upta camp over Labor Day, he wrote.
“Not your typical story line,” I thought as I peeked over at Kineo on my way to Rockwood. “And one that might not translate real well in the retelling.” I was on my way to stay with some old guy I’d never met in a cabin I hadn’t set foot in for half a century. At night. Alone. Why? Because I was sappier than a maple sugar house in March and wanted the “happily ever after” part of the fairy tale. Because, at 63 years old, I clung solidly to my sense of home, of place, to my longing to cement whatever ancient memories I’d made there. Because whatever happened to bring my family and the Dunns together way back in Blandford (the teeny hillside town in western Massachusetts where was born), I needed to shed more light on it. If only to help me feel in my heart what time, the loss of innocence, and the loss of my parents had blurred in my head. Hiding in my mother’s garden with gladiolas towering over me. Eating my favorite Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup at the red, chrome-edged kitchen table in my jammies with rubber nubbin Spoolie “Sunday school” curlers in my hair. And leaving there in the pre-dawn dark in the backseat of our Rambler to drive up to Moosehead.
So, there I was, heading down the steep, familiar slope toward the old camp, on my way back over that timeworn threshold to some sort of sequel—to whatever last pieces I’d be able to wedge into the central gap of an antique puzzle on the other side. To the man and the face behind the J in HOJET. And, all of a sudden, I didn’t even need to knock.
“You must be Joy from Blandford!”
There was Jim, welcoming me in a Yosemite Sam voice that muffled any whispers of doubt. Smaller than his voice and slightly stooped from age and injury, he still looked to be what I call “stugged”—sturdy and rugged as the log door he held open for me. And his face? Well, given my tendency to draw “what my dad would look like today” on other guys’ faces and my lack of subject matter much beyond age 70, I hadn’t tried too hard to imagine it. And even if I had, I’d have been wrong. In a good way. Picture Sean Connery letting himself go woolly and woodsy, swapping his tux for buffalo plaid, suspenders and moccasins, and tying whatever hair still grew on the back of his head so that it hung in a grey rat tail halfway down his back. That’d be the guy who hugged me hard and led me inside.
“I said to hell with going to the barber after I retired,” Jim told me later. A lifer Navy vet who couldn’t understand sitting still if there were things that needed tinkering, he left his last job as an auto mechanic when, at age 80, he “couldn’t lift the damn car engines no more.” We were sitting at the kitchen table his dad built, the central gathering spot for my family whenever hunger or the weather drove us inside. When it rained, I stayed there and drew so many pictures of a golden-spiked arc of sun peeking over the top of Kineo that, by weeks end, I could barely hold onto what was left of my crayons. And as soon as the supper dishes were cleared, out came the cards to play “Aw Heck,” also known as “Aw Hell” or worse when just grownups played.
I reiterated all this in great detail to Jim, of course, during his welcome back to the cabin tour. How I sat right there in the varnished log chair, also harvested and built by his dad way before people started shelling out hundreds of bucks to buy furniture like that out of a showroom. How my dad peered out that same window in the front door to see the neck of a six-foot-tall bear standing upright on the porch about as close as he could get to where my sister and I slept.
And Jim, of course, pointed out where the old cabin joined the new cabin. Where his dad rebuilt the original little shack that was hauled over from the logging camp on Farm Island into the cabin I visited. Where he later covered over the porch, added a new one, added bedrooms, a bathroom, some new used furniture, and all the little mementos and knickknacks from time spent there with his kids, grand-kids and great-grand-kids. The end result was 1950’s rustic retro meets 1990’s kitsch. And I loved every square inch.
“Good thing I rebuilt that silly HOJET sign, too,” Jim said. H was for his mother Helen, (my mother’s name, too), O for his dad Orman, J for him, E for his sister Ethel, and T for his brother Tom, he explained. “Without that, you probably would never have found the place again.” Or him, the only one left of that letter puzzle hanging over the front door, the last surviving Dunn.
And I certainly wouldn’t have found the two of us sitting side by side in our favorite chairs holding hands way past midnight, the book of word puzzles he did “just to pass the time” closed next to the third glass of wine he agreed to drink if I had another, too. We’d long since figured out that my dad “Mac” first found out about HOJET back in Blandford from Jim’s late uncle Ray. Because, more than likely, they’d crossed paths fishing the same waters around his hometown in nearby Huntington. “And I remember Mac, too, from visiting home when I was in the service,” Jim said, his eyes twinkling over his wineglass. When he raised a toast to then and now, I stopped trying to talk myself out of how very much his eyes reminded me of my father’s—a unique shade of hazel I hadn’t seen looking back at me in 20 years—and just let it be.
Three months after I left it and two years after the visit that prompted me to write it, Jim’s grandson, Scott, found my story and letter of explanation. They’d just opened up camp for what Jim thought might be one of his last visits to Moosehead. He’d signed ownership over to Scott and probably wasn’t going back. Because, after recently losing Mary, his beloved wife of almost 70 years, barely surviving a sideswipe collision with a tractor trailer truck, heart surgery, and other health scares, Jim Dunn was done. Done, he said, enjoying a lot of the things that used to bring him joy. Pretty much done with camp and all the bother that came with it. Until I reached out on paper “out of the blue” to show him how his story there was a shared one—and far from over.
“You changed my life!” Jim says with great gusto whenever we’re together, which is as often as possible and mostly at HOJET. He loves to retell his version of finding my story and the inspiration he needed right when he needed it most. And I never get tired of listening—to that and all his tall tales of Moosehead “back in the day.” Or how, whenever we eat at The Birches and people ask him if he’s ever been there before, he gazes up at the walls of the historic lodge, chuckles, and booms “Been here? I used to scrub down all these darn logs when I was 13 years old!” The stories go on from there. About how he hitch hiked from Massachusetts up to camp as a youngster and survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until his dad came and got him and made him promise not to take off like that again unless he told someone first. How he worked log drives on the steamship Katahdin, and helped raise an orphaned black bear named Suzie, who lived in an open-door cage for 30 years and “only run off once to breed once ’cause she knew she had a good thing.” How he swapped all the gear in his buddies’ ice fishing sled with a live porcupine that hitched a ride all the way to Farm Island. The only long-term details that seem to have slipped Jim’s mind are those related to deer hunting. Over all the decades he’s been out hunting how many has he tagged? Well, he can’t really recall. That aside, he’s a story teller after my own heart. Nothing really ever happens to us or for us if we can’t regale all who will listen with our unfiltered, uncensored narratives.
“The courage it takes to share your story might be the very thing someone else needs to open their heart to hope.” A year ago, when I felt like my words had fallen into the void of some stranger’s abandoned dreams, that anonymous quote seemed like wishful thinking. But now, each time I see Jim “in his element,” bright-eyed and engaged and making new memories, it rings true. Our shared story is about giving and receiving hope. It’s about believing that, by intertwining our narratives around a beautiful, peaceful place that speaks to our souls, the ultimate story of why we are all on this earth becomes richer. A story that, in the end, anchors us like Kineo, now and forever.
“DJ’s coming upta camp with us,” Jim announced this past Memorial Day as my sister, Jan, and I were getting ready to go up and celebrate our birthdays with him. Jan, the only other original character left in my HOJET story, hadn’t returned for decades. And neither had DJ, Jim’s then 20-year-old great-grandson. He’d gone through an emotional rough spot, too, and hadn’t felt like going back to the place where he and his Pop shared so many happy times. “Until I just showed up on his doorstep all teared up with my stuff packed and said, c’mon, get in the damn car, I’m taking you up to Moosehead,” Jim said.
DJ followed his Pop’s orders. And after the silly birthday ladies and Jim swapped enough “good ole days” recollections to last him a lifetime, DJ stayed there for several more days, splitting and stacking wood, paddling in the canoe, going on moose rides, and just getting to know with his great-grandpa again. Soon after he got home, DJ moved into Jim’s house, as did DJ’s new wife, Gabby.
“We all look after each other now like peas in a pod,” Jim says. But DJ, like Jim and his daughter, Cathy, his grand kids and other great-grand kids, seems to picture himself most at home at camp. His new “profile” photo shows him up at the cabin on his honeymoon with Gabby. And his “cover” photo is pretty much a copy of our favorite view—with him floating by Kineo for the first time since he was little. Jan took the picture, standing next to the headstone-shaped piece of granite Jim found on the property that now marks where he wants his ashes buried so he’ll never miss the view again.
“Happy Birthday from Mooselook to Moosehead, Jim!” I yelled into the phone on a cold, grey day in the beginning of January. “What’s it feel like to be 90?”
“No different a’tall,” he said. “Except I gotta remember to put a nine in front of my answer whenever somebody asks how the hell old I am!”
The “Happy Birthday to my favorite 90-year-old” cards were too corny, even for us. So I found one with a painting of a bear cub nestled up against a big ol’ papa bear and penned in ^ carets (low-tech precursors to the “paste” function meaning “insert here”) to make it say “Happy (90th) Birthday, (Adopted) Dad!”
Reading between the lines, we both know that it really is different, this birthday and however many more we get. Because, when the time was right and the Maine characters were willing, an afterword came to life with a refreshed plot, and a renewed sense of place. Because the scenario now stars an old guy and a younger, childlike woman who wanted a fairy tale. Fueled by wine and inspired by familiar turf, they sit holding handing hands and retelling the “good parts” late into the night out in the middle of nowhere. And especially because, thank God, I stuck with my original story, cast out my heart strings, and reeled in a keeper.
For more “Rooted In Moosehead, too” stories, see: