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?”

Finding community

Isolation, we’re figuring out, is more a state of mind than a geographical predicament.

It is a valid concern, though, voiced regularly by those closer to bigger lights and brighter cities. “What do you expect to do all by yourselves way out there?” That’s what they wonder out loud, anyway. And even though we rattle off our list of comings and goings and the lakeside decathlon of events we engage in on any given day, silently they seem doubtful. What they’re really saying behind their raised eyebrows and nervous giggles is: “Yeah, but summer’s not going to last forever. Then what?”

Sure, it’s only September still, but as fall begins and we enter into the “then what” phase of this wonderous experiment called early retirement, we don’t feel loneliness encroaching. Call us naive, totally in denial, or just plain stupid, but we don’t expect to be lonely, either. Right from the early planning stages of deciding to live in Rangeley permanently, building a new sense of community has been just as important to us as building a newer house. So far, we’re finding what we came looking for.

When we moved, we went from being two of the 30,000+ residents of the City of Rochester, NH, to becoming new additions number 154 and 155 in Rangeley Plantation. (Technically, you see, we live in a “suburb” of the Town of Rangeley 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 described a “minor civil division.” As far as I can tell, when Maine split off on its own, places like Rangeley Plantation kept the name and a lot of summer folks, but dropped all other Massachusetts correlations.)

Soon after settling in, we went from numbers 154 and 155, to Joy and Tom, or just “the new folks living on the old Upper Dam Road all winter.” And in the four months since, we have mingled, been entertained, reciprocated, and basically hung out with people more frequently and more intensely than we did in the 35+ years we spent packed closer together with them in Rochester. Why? Well if you’re a Rochester reader and are about to stop because you’re feeling this is a Rochester vs. Rangeley “the grass is greener and the people sure are swell” comparison, please don’t. I love you and want you to still spend gas money to come see us because you were included in the friendship intensity I just mentioned. And, if you’re a Rangeley reader, please don’t stop because you think I’m saying you aren’t above and beyond what neighbors should be. You are. You see, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a geographical cure for loneliness. I believe you get what you look for in people, no matter where you go, if you choose to look. I believe people are giving, open and nice to be around unless and until proven otherwise, and I trust them to believe in me the same way. Whether I’m talking to the clerk at the DMV or someone I meet out walking, that’s what I put out there and, in large part, what I get back. So, the difference – the reason Tom and I are more closely knit with friends even though we moved “away” has not been so much a change in attitude or a change in population. It’s been a sharpening of focus, a recommitment to building relationships and the luxury of time to make it possible.

“Having the time” to stop in for coffee, to check in on our nearest neighbors, to participate in town and township events, has really been nice. ‘Course we had the time all those years we were commuting to jobs and busy with kids and any number of other things that put friends further down the list, but we didn’t take the time. Now that we have more time, taking advantage of it is a top priority. We’ve joined clubs. We’ve been to three festivals named after fruit harvests, and are reaching the limits of my “friends over for dinner” menus. One new friend has even invited me to join her group of bikers who pedal to the Oquossoc Grocery for muffins and coffee each morning! As the farthest away, with a 13-mile one-way trip on dirt roads to get there by 7 a.m., I can’t imagine what she’d ask me to do if she didn’t like me. (Just kidding. I love my new friend and am sure I’ll accept her invitation sometime between now and July 2012.)

So, while building a sense of community isn’t as cut and dried as building a year-round house, we are just as glad to be surrounded by friends this winter as we are to have R30 insulation in our new walls. We are glad to be finding what we’re looking for – friends new and old to keep us company, to call us by name and ask what’s up as we come out of the IGA or the bank. And when we look over their shoulders while chatting with them and see the gorgeous Rangeley lakes and mountains that are now our back yard, we’ll know we are doubly blessed.

My fork in the road

Oprah would call it my “Aha!” moment — that pivotal point in life where I had to choose one course of action over another and forge ahead. Living in logging country, I now know to ponder a fork in the road, hypothetical or otherwise, much more seriously. Both directions may look passable, but not too far off, one turns into a gnarly spur road taking you way, way off course. Five years ago, though, when I stood at my crossroads with my “smart thing to do” blinders on, I walked right into danger and almost lost my bearings for good. “Aha!” would have been too poetic. My change of direction, when I finally let my heart lead the way, was more like a “Holy crap, what did you almost just do, you idiot?” moment.

Direction “A” was the common sense thing to do, the “right” choice according to our bank book and, no doubt, all those level-headed, man on the street-type people I imagined grouping themselves on the side of reason. It first came into focus as a hot tub conversation. It was fall, near closing up camp for the season time, when it was necessary for Tom and I to adopt an all-business, end of summer attitude so we could forget that we really didn’t want to leave Rangeley, didn’t want to go back to school/work, didn’t want it to be September already. Practicality went way beyond talking about packing up and shutting down, though. On this night, it watered down the wine, drowned out the loons calling, and pretty much counteracted the whole purpose of a hot tub soak. Topic of discussion was our tiny, four-room cabin which, after 20 years of use and sharing it with the critters, needed a roof and other major improvements. Sneaking up on early retirement, would we be able to add enough living space to relocate comfortably and affordably? Not according to the Land Use Regulatory (LURC) guidelines, or so we first imagined. LURC said our setback from the water, originally 85 feet when we built the place, would now need to be 100, minimum. We couldn’t add rooms to each side, either, without infringing on our neighbors’ property lines. So, even though we loved our waterfront property, our discussion kept coming around to how it just wouldn’t work to keep it, to sink more money into it to live there, only to have our dreams of a fulltime residence constrained by LURC and other logistics. And, more than anything else, our thread of conversation kept winding its way back to one huge positive in the midst of all the negatives: Our tiny cabin on its beautiful spot of shoreline, even needing some repair, had appreciated in value four times more than our investment. Our real estate in Rangeley could fetch double the selling price of our four season home near the bright lights and bigger cities.

Sell it, we decided. With the profit, we could build from scratch “exactly what we wanted” in any of those just as nice towns like Farmington. We wouldn’t have to be right on the water. We’d have college-town culture, brand spanking new everything and money….money to travel wherever and whenever we wanted. Course we probably wouldn’t come back to this lake, to Rangeley. That would be too sad. But we would go to Alaska, to Jackson Hole, to Yosemite, to all those other lakes Maine was famous for. Wow, we’d even start exploring islands we’d earmarked in Caribbean Travel and Life. Our girls were grown up now, they’d understand how we couldn’t keep camp, given our exciting new agenda!

Oprah says you can navigate your way through an “Aha!” moment to your best possible course of action by quietly posing the alternatives to your inner self. Does one make you feel more “open” and light-hearted, while imagining the other drags you down? Does one make your gut clench while the other expands your solar plexus? YES a small voice was saying. But still I hauled myself and my sinking innards into the realtor’s office that Columbus Day afternoon and signed a contract to put my camp on the market.

Looking back on it, I don’t so much remember it as a gut clenching moment. It was more like a hole opened in the floor of the realtor’s office and swallowed me whole, pen in hand, along with the sinking realization that the dollar signs in my head would never buy my way back to solid ground. I did manage to get out of the real estate office, and the quaint streets of Rangeley framed in fall foliage blurred as I got in the car and cried all the way back to Rochester, NH. I cried past all the property for sale signs just outside of Rangeley, where Tom said we might be able to build a cute house by the river. Through Farmington and south to the turnpike, not able to pick my head up to look out the window or even for a Subway sandwich, I cried. Not crying tears you dab with a Kleenex, but two-year-old bawling, gooey, hiccuping sobs.

Luckily, the universe didn’t allow me to ignore instinct for much longer. Waiting for us in our driveway back in Rochester was Becky, one of our grown up girls who needed to hear our news and would, reluctantly, agree and understand. Even more rooted in Rangeley than us, Becky had found her calling working as a counselor for the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust environmental camp. And now, what a coincidence that she chose to make her first trip home from college (where she was learning to be an outdoor educator) on the night we agreed to sell the source of her inspiration!

“We’ll be able to go to such cool places,” Tom said after he dropped the bomb. But Becky didn’t hear anything about Jackson Hole or meeting up in any of her future home bases. “No, no, no!” she said as she stomped off to her room and slammed the door. “We are not having this conversation! Not now. Not ever!”

Fast forward a few years to August. Tom and I have slept in the garage loft above all the stuff from our camp we’ve shoved into storage when the old roof was torn off to rebuild two stories higher. I am standing in sawdust looking out at my new view from what is shaping up to be the best bedroom I could ever imagine. Thanks to Becky serendipitously slapping us upside the head, plus umpteen different remodeling plans to fit enough square footage on our tiny footprint, a realtor grateful we would be staying to support the Rangeley economy, and a builder who worked miracles, I was enjoying my second-story panorama. I now know without a doubt that we couldn’t have gone through with selling what was rooted in our souls. My “Aha!” moment, the poetic one, came after I got a timely shove down the road less traveled. And looking through my white birches, across the lake to Bald Mountain and Saddleback in the distance, gratefully breathing in the new cabin smell, my heart soared and still does.