Snow dancin’

If I stood on the porch and really listened, I could almost hear it. Carried on the wind gusts off Saddleback and sweeping through town before blowing across from Haines Landing came a song of celebration—of voices lifted in chorus. So thrilled were we with gratitude, yet so stunned with disbelief, we sounded like Whoville when the Grinch brings back Christmas just in the nick of time:

Welcome snowfall! Welcome snowfall! Welcome snowfall, come this way!

I watched the first flakes fall with childlike fascination. Just like a snow globe, living in Rangeley in the wintertime was…at least that’s what I’d come to believe. Last year it nearly buried us in our tracks, barely leaving room for our little green-roofed village to peak out above the drifts before Mother Nature shook down a fresh blizzard. While I didn’t relish a repeat of that landscape, I felt a flutter of hope as the first flurries turned to serious powder piling up on the porch railings and turning my mudslide of a driveway white again.

Content to be settled in and no more than a couple slipper shuffles away from the wood stove, part of me did long to be out and about. Rangeley folks love a get-together and—especially this time of year—we drum up all sorts of reasons to see how our neighbors are “making it through” and if our friends from away still think we’re worth the trip. We hope Mother Nature will cooperate, of course, by keeping enough snow in Snodeo weekend, and letting us dance on the lake during our Icestock Music Festival. But if she doesn’t (which certainly seemed to be the case this year), we’re almost as happy bringing the party back indoors—warming our spirits at the Chamber’s chili/chowdah cookoff and brightening our mood at the flashiest Fat Tuesday party this side of the bayou. But nothing, I bet, rivaled the revelry of winter returning to Rangeley! Up on Saddleback, staff from behind the ticketing desk must have burst into the night, joining the trail crew in a huge circle of merriment. All over the land, from Loon Lodge to Bald Mountain Camps, pockets of happy dancing erupted as proprietors joined with winter vacationers on the verge of giving up and going home. And there were just as many silent prayers, too, I imagined. Uttered from faces lifted to the night sky as folks at the IGA and Oquossoc Grocery turned off the lights and started dreaming of a busier tomorrow, an echo stirred: “God, it’s about time!”

Those of us already home in our snugglies watched winter make its comeback via TV satellite. Our hopes grew as the Maine weather map turned the western mountains from a green “could be slushy” hue, to that in-between “we’ll get three inches if we’re lucky” pinkish purple, and finally to white—pure, glorious white. We posted the colorful NOAA maps on Facebook like kindergarteners proud to have something worthy of tacking on the fridge. Come morning, when snow actually had covered the landscape once again, we shared more Facebook pictures of it than if we’d seen a bull moose walk into Tall Tales Tavern and order a Sam Adams on draft!

Yes siree, Rangeley was back in business! With the hum of plows and snow machines signaling our pulse had returned to normal, the heavier the drifts got, the lighter we all became. I could feel it, way out here, even though I don’t ski and I rely mostly on my own fuel to get out on the trail. A huge weight lifted as we surveyed our fresh horizons full of new possibilities. In my neck of the woods, the turn in the weather meant I could change my footwear, a momentous event indeed! I could rip off the serious grippers that kept me vertical but feeling like a drunk penguin and go back to my basic Bean boots, walking softly in the snow that now graced my luge track of a road. I could relax, pick my head up, and fully appreciate Nature’s clean slate.

White…is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black…God paints in many colours; but He never paints so gorgeously…as when He paints in white.”
— G. K. Chesterton

Living in Rangeley through the winter has brought its share of pleasant surprises, and becoming a full-fledged, year-round outdoor person as well as active in my new neighborhood is at the top of the list. Turns out, I can be as solitary or surrounded by people as I desire. Instead of just toughing out the cold as I once envisioned, I immerse myself, appreciating the stark beauty in my big backyard and the colorful community of hearty, like-minded souls outside my doorstep. “We bring our own slippers this time of year,” my new friends told me last January, stomping off the snow and leaving their boots just inside the back door. It was a simple routine, a natural rhythm that told me I’d fallen in step with the right people in just the right place.

I do love warm white, too–especially warm white sand that gently slopes into tropical water. But I’ve discovered nothing quite compares to winter white in Rangeley. It is, as Da Vinci said, “the first of all single colors,” the backdrop that makes all seasons relative. Out here, softly enveloped, I watch the trees wait against the sleeping shore. I feel the promise of new-leaf green and lupines. And, if I really listen, I can hear the hum of ice-out fishermen trolling the lake for trout, bringing us full circle.

Settling back in

I wasn’t in my usual hurry to put up my Christmas decorations. Most years, I’d be eager to add some sparkle to my little brown cabin in the now-brown woods, to say farewell to November and let DecemBear make my knotty pine a bit nicer before winter closed in around me. This year, though, I didn’t feel the same post-Thanksgiving, pre-holiday-party push. I’d just come back from “away,” and my little house on the lake didn’t need any extra cheer whatsoever to welcome me home.

“I’m baaaaack!” I called as I burst through the door a couple days after Thanksgiving. No one was inside, and Tom was still schlepping our luggage out of the Subaru. But, as usual, the house answered. It hugged me.

How does a house hug? Well, it’s a subtle and very subjective thing. I can only speak from what I’ve felt here, in this one home, but I imagine house hugs are like human hugs—each one good but different—minus the squeezing part. By the time I made it back up the mountain, down the Bemis track, up the winding camp trail and down my driveway, surrounding myself with my favorite stuff again felt pretty darn good.

I do love to travel, to explore new places, meet new people, and revisit old favorites. Especially in the colder months, I take any opportunity I can to “get out and around.” And, if I’m really lucky, I end up where I can exchange my snowshoes for Tevas. Although I didn’t get that far south this trip, I did enjoy a 70-degree November beach day in NH with my sister-in-law. Then I headed cross-country to meet up with Tom and my girls and spend Thanksgiving with the rest of our western family in Couer d’Alene, Idaho. The food was awesome. The east-west family reunion was even better. (And yes, Jon’s Big Green Egg did produce one hell of a tasty Quirky Turkey.) I was gone for a little over two weeks, but it felt longer. And when I finally came across the threshold again, I knew I’d traveled about as far away from Rangeley as possible in the continental U.S.

“Wow, by the time I get back home, I’ll need to hang up DecemBear!” I said to Helen. We were in the Las Vegas airport, waiting to change planes for the last leg of our outbound trip. The airport was abuzz with LEDs, electronic melodies and the jingle-jangle of slot machines folks had to throw their money into before and after they hit the Strip. I wondered what their deal was, imagining they needed way more holiday glitz than the kiddie advent calendar I’d hang on my cellar door and the string of lights around my three-stooled bar by the wood stove.

“Maybe we really are crazy,” I said to Tom as we finally turned onto our road. (It’s a common joke between us, one that somehow gets repeated just at that point in the journey when most folks, even those from around here, start to question how level-headed we are to have put so many miles of dirt road between us and town.) But then the beagles began stirring with anticipation in the back seat and we could all feel our special spot drawing us down the home stretch. One last turn, the soft crunch of tires on early snow, and…phew…there was our cabin in the headlights, waiting just as we’d left it. (After more than 20 years of coming back up here, the phew feeling never really stops. Even though we don’t drive away from October through April anymore, the relief at seeing the place still standing, surviving wind and fire and other acts of God and man, is hard-wired.)

Did my house smell this nice when I left? I didn’t think so as I opened the door to remnants of Rangeley Balsam room spray still clinging in the air, mingling with the vanilla potpourri in the L.L Bean kettle atop my wood stove. “It’s my own Bemis spa treatment,” I declared back in October when I dumped aromatherapy drops into the old blue kettle of water that would keep me warm, soothe my dry skin and rejuvenate my senses.) And I swore my knotty pine woodwork had mellowed since before I left. These walls felt homey compared to what I’d surveyed and said needed a boost—maybe some new paintings or a couple more cute moose and loon nicknacks for a splash of visual variety during the long months ahead.

“If this is crazy, I’ll take it any day,” I declared to no one in particular the next morning. I was sitting in my own chair, drinking my own coffee, admiring my very own slice of beautiful, wild lake. What great memories I’d made spending premium quality family time in two beautiful homes on both ends of the country! But after five different beds, four climate changes, three hotel rooms, two airports and one major case of jet lag, I was content to kick back and let the quiet of being back off the beaten track settle over me. I was grateful to be entering my second December of year-round Rangeley living, and to have the fresh perspective of traveling away now and again. And I sure was glad to be on the far side of saying: “To heck with all that home for the holidays crap, let’s go to Vegas.” Yup, with Black Friday avoided and December ushered in, all was calm and bright in my world as far as I could see…and would remain so, as long as I moved a tiny Christmas bear around a door hanging.

“Oh, jeez, DecemBear…!” I remembered. Guzzling the rest of my coffee, I sprang from the glider rocker to go hunt down the little critter.

Everything…and the kitchen sink

I do a lot of reminiscing this time of year. And, like any good cabin wife, I do a lot of it right where I should: standing behind my kitchen sink. From there I can look out the window and up the driveway, keeping track of any comings or goings, observing Nature’s ebb and flow while washing and rinsing. It’s my other water view—the one that lets me gawk and ponder the passing of the seasons while being way more useful than when I’m swiveled toward the front yard just staring at the lake.

“Vacation is just another sink,” a friend of mine used to gripe at the end of every summer. She was a mother of six grown children, two of them twins, and our office secretary back before we had to call her an administrator for political correctness. Mostly, though, she was a grumble puss, a glass-half-empty person looking for opportunities to bemoan what she saw as her fixed station in life.

At the time I wondered if she’d ever found herself standing doing dishes in some of the primo spots I knew and appreciated. Had she heard loons calling over her shoulder while Rangeley balsam wafted over her soapy hands? Was there ever a beagle beside her circling for crumbs, softening her heart more than her two-legged beggars? Did she ever vacation where she had to do dishes without a sink and swear if, by some act of grace she got a sink, she’d never complain again?

Back when I first heard the vacation-sink observation, I thought having a camp by the lake–plus having a working sink in the camp by the lake—would be the vacation of my dreams. I had the camp part, a rustic A-frame on the northern tip of Moosehead. I sort of had the sink part, too. I’d recently graduated from perching a large Rubbermaid Roughneck dish tub on my kitchen counter to an actual sink installed in the counter. Except for the drip bucket under the drain pipe that often became a cenote for sacrificial mice, the arrangement was a much better alternative for holding water. But, when it came to running water, the mechanics of getting it into the sink by way of the faucet, my first camp setup left a little to be desired. The only running water I had was the kind I got (or hoped my husband would get) by running down to the lake with a bucket.

Fast forward a few years to my newly-built but still rough Rangeley cabin. So thrilled was I by the promise of indoor plumbing, I didn’t really mind reverting back to the old Roughneck tub for a bit. It was way before the time the girls would want to live in the shower, so they didn’t care that I swabbed Spaghetti-Os off them with giant wads of  Wet Wipes. I, however, was psyched beyond belief. Water, warm wet flowing water over my hands and my crusty dishes, was looming closer and closer like an oasis.

“You’re getting hot running water at camp?” my mother-in-law asked in astonishment. “All those years on Great East Lake, I only had cold water coming out in the kitchen sink. Had to heat it on the stove.”

Yup, back in 1988, I was as spoiled as I thought a remote cabin wife could be. Not only did I have lakefront property, I was going to have the luxury of bringing some of that lake water into my basement, heating it up, and gushing it into my brand new sink on demand! Seems like just yesterday I stood by the Sears “almost-the-best” stainless steel sink sitting inside my plywood pre-countertop next to the Coleman stove that was about to be put into hibernation. I was holding my breath, praying for water to pour forth. Thanks to my husband and the wizardry of hydraulics he was overseeing outside–where a hundred feet of hose came up out of the lake, through the cellar window and into the pump tank–we were ready and waiting. Finally, on his third try priming the pump, the spigot let forth all its pent up air and whoooosh sent a glorious torrent splashing and sputtering inside the sink.

That was more than 20 summers ago. But I still feel the same inner release, the same
liberated feeling over knowing it is possible for me to listen to loons or watch hummingbirds hover inches away white I’m rinsing crusty pots clean down to the
shine. My vacation sink is now my everyday sink, the one I’m glad to come home to, even after taking hiatuses now and again to some pretty sweet condo sinks in the Caribbean.

“All done up there?” I can still hear Tom hollering from his plumbing control center in
the basement. “Can I shut it down?”

It would be this time of year, time to shut down the water, close up camp and head down the mountain till May. “Yeah,” I’d yell back, taking one last swipe at the counter with my sponge. “Done with the water. You can shut ‘er down.” I’d look out at the hummingbird feeder dangling in the wind and hope none would come by first thing in the spring before I’d have a chance to fill it up again.

Now I’m happy to stay put, standing at my newer, shinier sink that fills with well water. I can look for as long as I like—through the yellowing birch branches to where I used to haul a “camp stuff” box out to the car, interrupting the flow of my best possible life for the cold months ahead. ‘Course, what’s not to be happy about, now that I’m living my best possible year-round life in Rangeley AD (After Dishwasher)? I grin each time I grab the box of dishwasher detergent out of the old Roughneck tub in the cupboard and know that, even if I wanted to roam far and wide, I couldn’t find a better place to hang my towel.

Happy blog birthday!

A year ago, I gave birth. Not to a baby—at least not the kind that squeals and squirms
and grows to need braces, a room in the house you avoid at all costs, and a college fund. A year ago today, I began this blog. Spawned by my desire to write things that didn’t require sequential numbering or use of the word “functionality,” it became a glimmer of possibility in those quiet months after unpacking for my first full year of Rangeley residency. Then, stronger and stronger, the knowing grew: I had a heck of a lot to say and not a whole lot of people within earshot. Plus, I was a writer, living in seclusion in a place where my creativity could echo as loudly as I wanted, if I only knew how to start using my outside voice again. Was it really right, really responsible, though, to give all my silly, crazy, sad, happy, deep but long-winded thoughts an outlet? Did the world truly need another contribution to its over population of words?

“Yes!” I promised myself, mentally exhausted the first time I hit Publish and sent my
offering out into the world. “I have a blog!”

At first, what exactly I had produced was full of unknowns—a blank slate ready for my unique, twisted stamp. Would it prosper, gain acceptance, or wither in obscurity like the new kid nobody notices sitting alone on the edge of the playground? It was too soon to tell. But, as the weeks went by and my new creation gained personality and spunk with each new post, I often found myself holding my laptop at arms’ length and staring in disbelief, wondering: How in the world did something so weird and wonderful come out of me?

A year later, I’m happy to say I’m proud and fulfilled. And I’m only kept up at night when I want to be. Far as I know, my wild child ramblings have not ostracized me from any local gatherings or attracted dirty looks behind my back at the Red Onion. People actually tell me I’m doing a good job. They like me on Facebook! I accept their compliments with gratitude and a bit of bewilderment, much the same way I did when folks would ooh and ah at one of my baby girls. “Thank you, I think she’s cute and funny, too,” I’d admit. “But I’m not sure enough how something new and marvelous chose me as a vehicle to take full credit.”

It sure did feel good, though, cranking out my true creativity. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I just let nature take its course and allow this to happen earlier? I was so pleased with my new writing role, I even outed myself on LinkedIn. I announced to the professional world and to my industry peeps that I was both creative and technical. And, lo and behold, a
year later I’m balancing a blog on one knee and a new paying assignment (with sequential numbering and descriptions of “functionality”) in my lap.

In looking back over how my baby has grown during its first year, I figured I’d acknowledge its 2,303 viewers-to-date by sharing some of my favorite ways it’s been
randomly visited. By randomly, I mean not by my regular acquaintance readers—those
who log on because I wrote the URL on a cocktail napkin they stuffed in their purse, or those who get curious because they heard about the “Rangeley blog lady” from a friend of a friend. I’m paying tribute here to those Googlers who most likely were looking for something entirely different when they happened upon my back woods website.

So here’s to the best of a year of Rooted In Rangeley search terms and the wayward surfers who found their way to my corner of the lake:

Rooted where? Of course, my search engine database logged plenty of “rootedinrangeley” attempts and a wide variety of spelling variations on my name and my location. Turns out, I am “routed” here and, some would say “rotted,” but usually just “joy’s blog in Rangeley.” Once I was even found at “My Fork in the Road, Maine.” (On occasion, I do confess to Googling my own self, just because I can. My blog publisher claims it doesn’t add to my reader tally, but it’s still fun to play cyber boomerang with myself now and then.)

Top award for being topographically challenged: Goes to whoever pondered “Are there year-round residents of Toothaker Island?” (Yes, perhaps there are, but they must really like privacy during those long months when the ice on the lake won’t support going anywhere else!)

Woodsy Wikipedia: I’m not sure what some readers were researching, but I’m quite
curious to read their reports! Why, I wonder, did “Mooselookmeguntic duck itch”,
“Clarence who haunts the Rangeley Inn,” and “how to use Yankee as an adjective”
come to seek my advice? Of course, if queries like “Did any of the 9/11 terrorists visit Rangeley, Maine?”, “Girls who ride around in red Mustangs,” and “History of sex in a pan dessert” are coming from one in the same person, I guess I really don’t want to know, do I?

Haphazard how-to advice: Since I offer cooking tips one week, then blab about my fashion blunders and my quirky approach to home decorating the next, it only makes sense that I could attract folks wondering about “beagle flannel sheets” , “how to refinish a Naugahyde couch”, “new uses for shoulder pads”and “red Kool-Aid stain removal” to my virtual doorstep. I don’t know if I’d invite them in for coffee, except maybe those sisters searching for “bathing suits that fit real women.”

Seriously, thanks to all my readers—those from away who wish they were here and those from here who aren’t scared off…yet. Thanks to my real kids who haven’t stopped speaking to me…yet. Thanks to my friend, Walt, for taking my awesome blog picture who, no doubt, has  been commissioned by Popular Photography by now. And extra special thanks to my editor/husband who, with a few minor exceptions, sanctions my stream-of-consciousness publishing without reservation. I thought of giving away a big jug of his homemade wine as a prize to the first loyal reader who matched the above search terms with their respective blog posts. But then I’d have way too many “homemade Mooselookmeguntic merlot” enthusiasts knocking on my real door.

Hoppin’ down the muddy trail

Take ten miles of soggy Bemis track oozing along the cutoffs and swamp lands of lower Mooselookmeguntic Lake. Add about three more miles of private dirt road snaking up the shore still shadowed by snow banks. Mix in plenty of early spring snow. Freeze, melt, rechill and thaw until soft, and what have you got? A route to town that looks like Oreo cookie left soaking in milk too long and feels like a rodeo rink.

As I said back in Finding Community, we don’t really live in Rangeley. We live in a “suburb” of town given the Maine-unique distinction of a “plantation.” I always thought the name stood for a place with tons more trees than people. But, according to Wikipedia, in colonial times when Maine belonged to Massachusetts, this term came in use to describe a “minor civil division.” So, in Rangeley Plantation (population about 155) we don’t have councilors or selectmen. We have assessors. And Mother Nature keeps them plenty busy assessing and maintaining the stretches of roads and bridges that connect us back to the big town.

“We don’t live on this road,” I told a first-time visitor last April. “This is our main town road. Our place is on a side road off of this road a few more miles from here.” We were about midway down the Bemis Road—also known by those of us who consider it a major thoroughfare as the Bemis Track. “Back when folks came here by train, this was actually a train track,” I explained. “See how straight it is? But it all got washed out in the Great March Flood of 1936, so now it’s a road.” I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or scared. He just jostled back and forth in the passenger seat, peering out the window in silence. But I’m pretty sure I heard him haul in his breath as we motored across the one-lane causeway bridge at the southern tip of the lake. “Almost there,” I promised rounding a corner and chugging up a small hill onto my “camp” road.

Friends generally don’t come here during mud season. And if they do, they don’t come out this far. They get part way into the Plantation and either park it and call for help, or spin around and slide back down the mountain. Even UPS—the guys driving huge brown trucks, wearing brown uniforms who look like they could handle a little extra wet dirt—won’t venture out past the town package depot this time of year. But, with our address label officially stating we live on a trail, I can’t say as I blame them for dropping our boxes off in another zip code and having us retrieve them there.

After more than 20 years of negotiating our way from southern New Hampshire, Tom and I knew what we were “getting ourselves into” when we decided to retire up here off the beaten track. Money, house, road. Boiled down to their essence, those were our determining factors as our thoughts turned from “Wouldn’t it be nice?” to “How can we make it happen?” Would our savings hold out? Could we really turn the old camp into a house? What was the likelihood we’d got stuck out there? Plus, lurking in the grey area at the end of the money-house-road list were generic retirement questions about health and sanity. Would our health and our fondness for each other’s company last as long as our savings? But in the big game of chance called life, we knew that mental and physical wellness were cards we’d carry with us no matter what road we chose. So, as much as anyone could, we prepared for all scenarios, got our ducks in a row. We vowed to balance frugality with adventure, to eat from our garden whenever nature cooperated, and figure out how much homemade wine consumption would fortify our hearts and souls without jeopardizing our self-sufficiency. We packed up our life in the bigger city and made the one-way trip to Rangeley.

For our “back home” friends, the route from there to here does take a little getting used to. TomTom and Garmin help with some of the trip, but get confused when friends type in our “trail” and get warned they’re on their own from Route 17. From there, they have to rely on plain, old Tom’s highlighted squiggle on the Maine Atlas and their own senses of direction and adventure. Personally, I think the resulting candid commentary tops their barking GPS monotones anyways. Where else can you go from “See how pretty the lake is over there?” to “I think I might see the lake again,” to “What the hell were they thinking?” and back again all in less than 25 miles?

So far so good, though, I’m happy to report. The pantry is full. Most days, we still talk to each other more than we talk to ourselves or the beagles. We haven’t found ourselves standing at the end of the driveway wearing tin foil hats barking at the full moon yet, either. We’re even managing to take frequent trips beyond and back without calling for rescue. But we don’t kid ourselves for a minute that we can take all the credit. We get constant support from some very special people—two in particular. Thanks to our lead assessor/town road agent and the plow man hired by our private road association—who defy all geological, hydrological and meteorological laws to keep our travel lanes clear —we’re staying on track with retirement in the woods. Even during this worst winter/spring in memory, we have never been stranded, marooned or otherwise stuck out here 13 miles from pavement.

And Tom and I don’t need to kid ourselves that pavement is by any means better than dirt. For more than 30 years, we lived right alongside a real city, tax-dollar funded road. Salmon Falls Road, it was called, named for the river bordering New Hampshire and Maine it follows. Once a place of fishing folklore and sprawling farms, it is now mostly a commuter corridor for folks wanting to work closer to Boston. To say it was paved would be generous. It was a long stretch of tar patches connecting pot holes through swamp land that ate hub caps like M&Ms. On those unfortunate summer evenings when we were back home from Rangeley, a steady stream of tire thumping outside our bedroom window kept us awake, longing for loons and waves lapping the shore. We were only a couple miles from  hospitals, stores and all those other things our city friends want us to be able to get to now. But, most days, the route to those conveniences was an obstacle course that gave us much less bang for our tax dollar and more pounding on the Subaru suspension than driving down the dirt roads in the Plantation.

Getting out here is never what you’d call a smooth ride, though, not a cruise control sort of commute. I was reminded of that recently while driving alone back from town through a low spot in the road. A torrent of melted snow rushed down off Bemis Mountain and across the track on its way into Mooselookmeguntic where no amount of maintenance or tax dollars could have kept the dirt surface solid. My Subaru tires started to sink like four fudge doughnuts and I sucked in my breath and steered my way through. “What the hell were we thinking?” I started to say. But then I thought I could see a patch of open lake water through the trees…and summer somewhere right around the corner.

Signs of spring

When the phone rang the other day, my heart did its little “Ooooh…somebody’s checking in on us!” dance and my feet had to join in to carry me to the other end of the house by the third ring. Caller ID said it was Becky calling from Moab, Utah, and I got breathless. What a nice girl, calling to check in so we won’t worry about her making it through the long, harsh winter all alone out there!

“Hi, Mom! It’s 65 degrees and I’m in flip-flops, shorts and a tee-shirt!”

“Great, honey…awesome!” I said. Although I kept my voice light, my upper lip instinctively curled into the kind of snarl a dog does when you put a treat just out of reach and then snatch it away.

“How about you guys?” she wanted to know. “Got much snow left?”

“Yeah, you might say that,” I said, shuffling back to the window. I knew I could give her a Rangeley weather update without up-to-the-minute visual clarification, but I still needed to look one more time just the same. No longer propelled by happy feet, my walk slowed to the pace I get when I go on food recognizance in the IGA. I gazed outside with that same expectant look I get when I survey the grocery aisles—thinking maybe if I search really hard, I’ll see something new—my favorite tea, or maybe more produce from distant, exotic lands. But, once again faced with the evidence, I must accept what’s right in front of me. The snow piles and contours in my back yard are just as I remembered from the last surveillance. I can look away, blink a bunch of times, or hide my head like a spoiled kid. But when I look again, not much will have changed. Although I am starting to see some bare roof shingles on my out buildings, and I’ve heard tell there’s a patch of pussy willows somewhere between here and Stratton, for the most part it seems spring is hiding away in the land of gourmet tea, green, leafy vegetables and flip-flops.

“Remember those pictures I posted of the back yard on Facebook?” I asked Becky. “That was two storms and another foot of snow ago.”

“Woah,” she said. “The grass is all green here and I got a sunburn playing volleyball yesterday!”

“Humph,” I replied. “Well, I’m down to just one layer of underwear, I got to leave my ear flaps up all day yesterday, and if the dogs jump really high I can see them out in their pen above the drifts. So, no grass yet, but there’s a big brown spot up the end of the driveway we’re hoping is dirt!” Thanks for sharing, I told Becky, and to make sure she put sunscreen on. Right after she hung up, I’m pretty sure she called her sister and asked her to drive up from New Hampshire just to double-check on us.

I’ve known for years that these Western mountain lakes generate their own weather and the winter-to-spring cycle can run slower than cold molasses. Now that I’m here year-round to actually witness the process, it must be like watching the proverbial pot boil, and Old Man Winter really isn’t taking any longer than normal to loosen his grip and let spring take over. But I’m thinking there is some twisted connection between our prolonged winter and the sign out in front of the Oquossoc Grocery. As of this posting, it no longer reads “Do the Snow Dance!” which we apparently did with abandon. Now it declares “Snow All Year Round!” I’ve never actually seen anyone out there changing the letters on that sign. The words just somehow appear in the middle of the night. If I wasn’t so petrified of ladders, I just might get up there and alter its cosmic energy pull. Something like “Spring: It’s a Fun Season Too!” might do the trick.

Folks in other social circles are blaming this year’s tough winter on a mixed up Ground Hog’s Day prediction. Back in February, he emerged from his hole and said spring was just six weeks away. The nerve of that wood chuck! How could he and his stuffy handlers come out with all their pomp and circumstance and say that? Aren’t there laws against false advertising? Shadow or no shadow, I wasn’t paying all that much attention. Up here, we don’t have Punxsutawney Phil or anything close. We have a bad ass red squirrel who hangs out in the shadow of the wood shed hogging all the bird seed, and he’s not real prophetic.

Tom and I did manage to have ourselves a little spring fling when we learned we’d be getting some money back on our taxes. It wasn’t a terribly huge sum as far as those things go, just enough for us to splurge on some California vegetables to go with supper, and to dive into the Margarita mix we’d kept cold since summer hoping for such an occasion. Thanks to springing the clocks ahead, we could still see the big expanse of white that used to be our lake from the dining room window. We toasted to that, to our most memorable winter yet, and to warmer days ahead. By a few sips in, we started to feel downright tropical. A few sips later, we recalled a winter vacation when we tried to describe Rangeley to our boat captain in the Turks and Caicos. Tom told him that yes, we had a boat of our own, but since our lake was iced over we had to wait till May to launch it again.

Our guide gazed down at the turquoise water like he was trying to form a picture that just wouldn’t come into focus, and slowly shook his head. “Only ting ice be good for, mon, is puttin’ in drink!” he said.

He did have a point, we agreed, swirling our frozen Tequila around in our drinking jars. But ice had also come in real handy for holding us up on our snowshoes out on the lake too. “It sure was pretty out there this winter,” we concluded. Not Caribbean pretty, but a different, breathtaking kind of pretty that warmed our hearts and invigorated all our senses. We drank to that, too, and did a little spring dance.

The cooking of Joy

Hog in a Quilt. Sex in a Pan. Marinated Chicken Boobs.

With menu items like these coming out of my kitchen, it’s no surprise I’m not being featured in any community cookbooks. Good thing, though, because I stopped saving recipes in the ’80s after all the clippings and copies I shoved—with the best of intentions—inside my Joy of Cooking bible finally blew out its binding. When the cookbook came out and I was a newlywed, I did have a fleeting fantasy that I could personalize its best-selling title, that maybe it was my birthright not only to master mealtimes, but to delight in doing so. The honeymoon was over as soon as I figured out the crock pot was my most cherished wedding gift and, as long as I put potatoes on the bottom and remembered to turn it on, viola, dinner was served. I have had a few Julia Child moments over the years. But, for the most part, I’ve come to rely on whimsical recipe names, plenty of homemade wine, and a dimmer switch on the dining room light to conceal my lack of zeal in the kitchen.

My culinary roots just don’t run very deep. My mother, bless her soul, gave new meaning to the word casserole. She knew all the old-fashioned basics well enough, but reserved them for holidays and company. Most days, she relied heavily on Campbell’s, Oscar Meyer, and that little Hamburger Helper hand to whisk her through mealtime. She showed me how to mix spaghetti sauce from an envelope and how to blend in good humor so, hopefully, no one cared. Most of her concoctions she called “glop”—leftover turkey glop…hamburger glop. Growing up, I thought it was just her Midwestern way of saying she was making a casserole, that her lingo was as interchangeable to my New England friends as “pop” was to soda or tonic. It didn’t take me long to learn though, that when it came time to ask their moms if they could eat over my house, telling kids my mom was making glop for supper didn’t translate particularly well.

Once I had girls of my own, I did my best to not let history repeat itself. I found Prego in a jar and defaulted to spaghetti as my yummy, generic kid-friendly meal. For my older daughter, Helen, it was “what Mom was fixing for dinner” for friends for 12 years in a row. By the time her best friend coughed up the courage to tell her she really didn’t like “sketty,” they had graduated high school and it was too late to change the menu. Luckily, around that same time, their Dad rediscovered another wedding gift, the wok. He turned into Chef Morimoto with the thing, serving Becky’s friends stir-fry as the house specialty throughout her high school years. To this day, it’s still a company favorite…at least no one is admitting otherwise. Tom and I do complement each other in the kitchen, rounding out the meal selections with our own signature dishes. As the breakfast cook, his “Tomlettes” keep company full and focused for all kinds of Rangeley morning fun. And, when it comes to barbecuing, he doesn’t just go outside and grill because it’s his God-given male duty and he can bring a beer with him. He rocks—and he’s been undisputed grill master since sometime BC (Before Children).

“Da Da cooker,” Helen would declare, pointing to the burger spatula when she was just learning to form sentences. Thanks to his spatula skills, his prowess with “hot dog scissors” (aka tongs) and his stir frying finesse, Tom has rounded out my repertoire admirably. Like I said, I’ve had my memorable cuisine moments. I’ve made Willard Scott’s favorite three-tiered crimson Christmas cake with cream cheese frosting. I’ve perfected a Scallops and Linguine dish that flies in the face of the Food Network judges who insist that cheese must never garnish shell fish. Interesting…they never told that to my relatives who’d ask me to make it in trade for a car tune-up, an interest-free loan, and other favors. And, they certainly didn’t tell that to the Johnson and Wales University judges who awarded Helen a scholarship when she recreated the dish for their recipe contest. (Yup, the universe did a mysterious balancing act and Helen, my mother’s namesake, earned a culinary degree and has been teaching me new tricks ever since!) Recently, she showed me how to make Hog in a Quilt, a dough-wrapped pork tenderloin slathered with onions, peppers, mushrooms and cheese so delicious it doesn’t really need its quirky name. My dinner guests who’ve tried it are delighted, but probably not for long. Once they realize I’m the one who’s been hoarding the entire stock of pork tenderloins the minute they go on sale at the IGA, they’ll get a bad taste for my cooking, for sure.

Thanks to my younger daughter, Becky, I’ve also recently expanded my dessert horizons beyond everything blueberry. “Hi, Mom, I’m having Sex in a Pan tonight,” she called to tell me from her work-study job in the Bahamas. Although mature beyond her years, she was only 17 and I prayed she was talking about a dessert. She was, but I still had to see for myself. When I visited her and her chef friend made some, eating the layers of cream cheese and chocolate pudding swirled together with illicit amounts of whipped cream became a vacation high point. It was better than the rum drinks, sunning on the beach and even…well, you get the point. Last month, when I found myself stumped over what to bring to the Valentine’s Day pot luck at the sportsmen’s club, I decided it was time to unveil the recipe in Rangeley. “Sex in a Pan” the heart-shape sign on the dessert table underneath my frothy, mint chocolate chip garnished tray read. In the fine print, I included a blurb about its tropical origins and, for any not-so-frisky sports in the group, a list of ingredients showing it was safe. Folks got intrigued real fast. Some didn’t even bother to finish their casseroles before they dug in. And, judging from the smiles on everyone’s faces, I think they’ll want to try it every month.

Aside from these culinary triumphs, though, most days the only Julia Child-like thing about me is my voice after I’ve put more wine into myself than into my cooking. I’m cool with that, with knowing my kitchen experimentation will never make it into a recipe book, or even on an index card to be passed along to my grandchildren. I’m content with focusing on “tastes better than it looks.” If folks around my table want their eyes stimulated along with their taste buds, I figure they can look out at the lake.

I do miss quiche, though, and am planning to add that back into my menu choices as soon as I can get a box of Bisquick with the makes-its-own-crust recipe on the back. It used to be real popular in my house until the day I found I didn’t have bacon, mushrooms, or the two kinds of cheese I was supposed to make it with. I hoped American cheese and an over abundance of onions would substitute for an extra trip to the grocery store. It didn’t. Tom named the resulting dish in honor of Steve Blah (pronounced the way it’s spelled), a guy who kept asking me out in college even though I was engaged. “You can call this Mrs. Blah’s Lazy Day Quiche,” he announced to a burst of giggling from the girls. “Be quiet and eat,” I said. “And just be glad it’s not glop!”

Snow daze

“Gee,  wouldn’t it be kinda cool to see how high the snow is around camp now?”

Back when I relied on folklore and friends who visited Rangeley more than I in the winter, I heard tales of drifts piling up to the windowsills. Still, the desire to be “upta camp” no matter what the weather warped my reality and, by the first of March, I’d fantasize about my little cabin nestled in the snow just waiting for ice out so I could show up again. “Even though it would take a whole day to heat up the place, I wish I could see it.”

Well, here I am, smack in the middle of my first Rangeley winter! And, boy, am I seeing it! Guess I never listened to all the older, wiser people about being careful what I wished for. Guess I should have remembered why my Bahamian friends (those blessed, barefooted souls) were always problem-free. “Don’t put mouth on it,” they’d say, unless you are totally sure what it is you be asking for!

As I’ve said right along, I do love living here year-round. I love snowshoeing on my big frozen lake right from my front door. I love my new friends and how they’ve given me a sense of neighborhood, even out on the quiet shore in the off months. I love how Main Street looks like a Currier and Ives painting and how my Elmer Fudd hat is never inappropriate attire. And I love how Mother Nature is blessing our local economy with dump after dump of fresh powder on the ski and snowmobile trails. After all, that’s what keeps the lights on along Main Street: all this white stuff and the folks who come up here to play in it—and eat, drink and sleep in wintry wonder—until they need to go earn more money so they can come back and do it some more.

But, c’mon already…wish granted! The snow isn’t up to my windowsills yet but, as of this post, it’s steadily approaching. Back in November, we could only wonder and wait. “What kind of winter do you suppose we’ll get?” Folks started speculating with the same tone of awe and surrender they’d use when predicting the annual black fly hatch. We all knew  some snow was inevitable, living in the mountains of Maine and all. But after a barren year that left local businesses hankering for winter tourists, the big question was “How much?” Will we get serious footage, some good ground cover that won’t scrape our sleds? Can we hope to be skiing in our short sleeves just days before the fishermen return? Those who believed Mother Nature evens things out from year to year predicted a wallop. Those who swore by the Farmers’ Almanac agreed that “a cold slap in the face” was in store, combined with plenty of precip. But, just to be safe, most called forth rituals that had worked in years past. “Pray for snow!” store and restaurant signs beseeched. “Do the snow dance!”

Now that it’s March and winter has blessed Rangeley with a rockin’ Snowdeo weekend, the best-ever conditions on Saddleback and me, personally, with snowshoeing thighs of steel, I think we can all say: Mission accomplished. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth storms, I began thinking up my own sign. Bright red and octagonal, it will spell out my one commandment to the weather gods: STOP! If I can ever break trail long enough to make it back down to the lake, I’m thinking I’ll make it big enough to spot by satellite.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling this winter thing has gone from kinda cool to, as my Nana would say, “too much of a muchness.” Even my self-proclaimed snow bunny friends, who wouldn’t trade the brisk beauty of tromping around Rangeley for a beach chair in Florida, have seen enough white stuff to last them the rest of the winter, if not their lives. As the drifts keep piling up, we’ve even had to expand our ways of describing its impact and our ever evolving coping skills. “The dogs can’t go snowshoeing alongside us anymore,” my friend reported the other day. “They’re porpoising.” After seeing my beagles try to go off-road, I could relate. And, now that the snow banks are getting higher than Tom’s shoulders along the bobsled chute we used to call our road, walking them there is no easy alternative, either. When each dog decides he wants to be king of the hill on opposite sides, Tom may  as well trade in their leashes for bright orange flags and go get a job at the Jetport.

It is Christmas card pretty out here, though, and Tom and I try to find at least one way to voice our appreciation each day. Food analogies worked for a while. “Look, it’s like we’re walking on a giant glistening sugar cube field,” we raved during a recent trek. Then, after another storm, we thought the marshmallow fluffiness stacked all around us was magical. We also repeatedly fall back on our version of that old “dry heat” observation folks make when they’re baking to death in the desert: “At least it’s light, fluffy snow,” we tell ourselves. “If this was all wet snow, we’d really be in trouble.” Tom said that again just the other day and I agreed. But silently I concluded that, once the snow starts inching up past his mouth and nose cavities next time he’s out there trying to shovel, it won’t much matter if it’s fluffy.

During the most recent storm, our positive outlook ran a little thin. As we stood staring out the kitchen window, watching the sheds get buried, we couldn’t think of much to say. But we weren’t completely quiet, either. By late in the afternoon, Tom was making a noise echoed by others around town when the “s” word is mentioned and how deep it’s getting. Each time Tom looked out the window, he’d let out a half-growl, half-groan, then a long expulsion of air that sounded more like a punch in the gut than a sigh.

Yup, I sure picked quite a year to jump into the reality of Rangeley winter. No more hypothesizing from another state. I’m here, seeing for myself, with all my climatized senses fully involved and invigorated. It’s definitely an adventure—experiential learning at its best. And now that I’m fully immersed, body and soul, I’m learning for sure that the real thing is way better than theorizing from anywhere else.

Yankee swappin’

Yankee: (adjective) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of a northern native. Swap: (noun) an exchange or barter, typically involving bargaining. Used in a sentence: “Everyone had a wicked fun time at the Yankee swap over in Oquossoc the other night.”

For years, I was a relative newbie to the Yankee swap tradition. All I knew was it happened at Christmas parties and, even if I got invited but didn’t participate, it was OK to eat the food beforehand. I’d sit on the sidelines munching cookies while the game players picked and traded presents based on their previously allotted number hierarchy, their tolerance for risk, and their ability to abandon themselves in holiday frivolity.

Until recently, my Yankee swap exposure was limited to office party settings. I figured my coworkers were maximizing their company-sanctioned away from their desks time. We were too old for musical chairs and besides, with so many layoffs looming, playing that would have reminded us we were all in line to possibly lose our chairs permanently—a definite party downer. So we ate goodies and watched each other and our bosses enjoying an excuse to get goofy. If it was an especially good year, the top swapper might come away with a bottle of booze yanked away from a manager who, ultimately, had to be content with battery-operated nose hair clippers.

Karma came around for me one year when I finally decided to bring a gift (a nice bottle of homemade wine) and participate. I had the coveted bottle of Kahlua in front of me for all of about two minutes when my boss swooped in and left me with a giant tin of singing Christmas cookies! While giant tins of anything are regular Yankee swap fare, this one seemed destined especially for me. The minute I touched the lid, it blared Christmas carols so loud that everyone within an office cubicle square mile knew I was sneaking a cookie break. I left it in my bottom filing cabinet drawer when I got laid off that July, hoping whoever sat in my chair next would like cookies, too.

Fast forward to last week. When I got invited to the Rangeley Region Guides and Sportsmen’s Association annual Yankee swap, I knew my bah humbug days were over and a new favorite tradition was in the making. The oldest and one of the largest sporting groups in Maine, these folks have been making Oquossoc the epicenter of all things outdoors since 1895. After joining this summer, it only took one meeting before Tom and I made it the highlight of our social calendar, too. An RRG & SA meeting, you see, is actually 90% enjoying good food and fellowship with nearly everyone in town, and 10% business. No Robert’s Rules of Order, boring agendas, or anything like that. Meetings convene with Bob, Harry, Karen and Marge and most of their neighbors sharing casseroles and telling stories. No matter what the season, everyone piles into the clubhouse smiling, and leaves filled with great food, good cheer and ideas on where the trout are holing up. Come Christmas, when no wildlife guest speaker is invited and after dinner business turns to Yankee swapping, it’s the most outdoor fun you can have indoors.

This year, about 30 good ole sports went fishing for the best gift to open and then hunting for the trophy swap. Up for grabs were two hats (one functional), six flashlights, work gloves, ice cleats, two suet holders, and the best wine to be found for under $5. A battery-operated bug zapper paddle/racket got bartered around the most, while a giant blue vase, a poinsettia pie plate, a jar of homemade maple syrup, and the one functional hat were also heavily traded.

Being not very high in the gift-picking number hierarchy, I ended up opening a “what the heck am I going to do with this” thing with no other better options in circulation yet.  Based on critiques from the gallery and my own limited experience, I now know how to score what you’re left with at the end of a Yankee swap. Basically, your gift falls into these categories:  1) you can actually wear it, eat it or otherwise use it; 2) you can recycle it for some better use; or 3) at least you can rewrap it and won’t have to buy anything next year. Best previous swap I went home with was actually a combo of categories 1 and 2. After eating the contents of the giant tin of popcorn, it made a perfect dog food storage container. This year, however, my gift definitely ranked a 3. If I don’t get it out of the back of the Subaru by March, it’s going to be regifted to the recycling house at Rangeley Plantation dump.

But, like all Christmas festivities, my first Rangeley Yankee swap was all about the celebration and not really about the trinkets. Sitting among new friends in the clubhouse, I thought about all I had swapped to get there at this point in my life: A bigger home on a shorter road to a busier town—for my quiet corner on a big lake. Fewer restaurant dinners for five-star potluck once a month. Closer proximity of conventional writing opportunities for creative flow and the time to unleash it. My gym bag and endless loops on the elliptical machine for more time in winter boots off the beaten track. Best Yankee swap ever, for sure.

Any given Saturday

I was browsing the greeting cards at a local gift store recently when the announcement was made: “Oh….it’s Saturday!”

It came from a woman standing in between the complimentary coffee carafe and the cash register. Her tone was not one of dismay or panic, but rather matter-of-fact with just a hint of urgency. She chuckled, pleased at her own sudden recall, made her purchases and left to go about her business.

“Yup, it’s Saturday, all right,” I thought. And then it hit me. There I was, reading through the same cute moose and hummingbird cards I’d seen repeatedly, wondering which critter went best with which upcoming birthday, and I hadn’t even been distracted by the woman’s announcement. I’d simply nodded in silence. I already knew it was Saturday. And, without even looking up, I felt I knew this lady just as if we’d sat down and had coffee face to face. She must be a local, I realized, and I must be almost one, too.

With house moving check lists, real estate deadlines, and 9-to-5 work weeks behind me, most days I’d be hard pressed to tell you what day of the month it is. I do have a calendar pinned to the refrigerator like everyone else. But unless it tells me it’s time to send off a cute card, pay a bill, or remind Tom to stop fishing and start hunting, I don’t use number dates to monitor my activities much anymore. I’ve switched over to a day of the week system instead. It doesn’t so much matter which calendar week I’m in, as long as I know “What day is today?” (Except when you’re talking about the third Thursday of the month. Everyone knows that’s pot luck dinner night at the Rangeley sportsmen’s club.)

Out in Rangeley Plantation (see my description in Finding Community), Saturday is dump day. It’s also fresh seafood truck day, post office and bank in the morning day, library before 2 o’clock and building supply store before 4 day, and make it to the IGA before last week’s sale items run out day. But, first and foremost, it is dump-is-open-all-day day. As you can imagine, Waste Management curbside pickup stops way south of here, leaving us responsible for our own garbage disposal. I can’t run out to the curb at the last minute in my slippers hauling green bags in one hand and pulling a recycling bin in the other. Tom and I need to haul our own by-products to the “transfer station,” so-called because it’s not really a dump, but a place where we dump all our refuse and recyclables so they can get transferred somewhere else to be dealt with. And, if for any reason, we have a total brain freeze on the dump hours of operation (meaning when the gate is left open), we can’t transfer our garbage out of our garage and must deal with those consequences for another week.

“Jeez, is it Saturday yet?” I wonder long about Thursday during unseasonably mild weather when what’s left of what I bought off the fresh seafood truck the previous week is in desperate need of transfer. (While most welcome in all other respects, Indian Summer is a bummer when it warms the garage after the dump reverts back to its winter schedule. In the “winter,” meaning after Labor Day, I lose the respite of having the dump open for a couple hours on a couple week nights.)

So if our noses haven’t reminded us, our bio-rhythms hopefully have and, come Saturday morning, we load up and head off for the dump. But, unless we are in dire need of emergency garbage transfer, we are not headed just to the dump. Out in Rangeley Plantation, 13 miles from the post office and 20 miles from the hustle and bustle of the Town of Rangeley, we strive to never make the 12 miles to the dump our only stop. We do what we call “the loop.” The loop will take us around to all the previously mentioned places of business. It consolidates our errands and conserves on gas, while preserving our sanity and rural way of life. And, more importantly, it reminds us why we came and why we don’t care so much about forgoing bigger city conveniences. At the dump, we are greeted as “hun” by the longtime attendant who has told me she will sort my recycling for me. A true honor, indeed, in these parts where co-mingling and other offenses have banished others to a lonely life of digging through their own smelly cans and sour bottles. At the post office, we aren’t a box number, but Joy and Tom who have a book from Amazon that was too big to put in the box so is handed over with best wishes for our well-being and weekend plans. On any given Saturday, one of us might stop in at the only hair salon that’s on a pond next to an ice cream store, where we have a good hair day as long as we don’t giggle too hard at the proprietor’s jokes and make him slip with the scissors. In our travels, we might also run into the guy who installed our TV dish and wonders if our reception is OK. He’s the Rangeley installation guy, not the DirecTV contractor sent from Waterville who refused to go up on the roof and told us we were out of luck. Our local guy runs into us in the building supply store or in the bank and wants to make sure we’re happy because, if we’re not, he’d “make the trip out” again. On any given Saturday, our “loop” is bigger now, but connected by people who would go the extra mile with us.

Maybe the woman in the gift store realized it was Saturday since that’s the day they switch over to Back Woods Blend in the free coffee carafe. If she was a renter, chances are she wouldn’t have even been there to make the announcement. Come Saturday, she would’ve hung her head and headed south while a local guy picked up her garbage at her rental cabin and transferred it for her. Nope, my guess was that she was a local and headed out of the store to make it to the dump before the gate closed, and after she got fresh seafood and did the rest of her loop.

“You know, when you retire, every day is Saturday,” our neighbor reminded Tom and me when we were making dinner plans awhile back. “Jeez,” I thought, smiling at the possibilities. “You mean the dump is open every day?”