“Carving a home in the north woods” chapter 6

John was standing on Union Street in Bangor waiting for a bus ride back to New Jersey.  It was only seven days ago he got off the bus with the intention of looking at land parcels in northern Maine.  He was thinking of all that had transpired in the last week and the events still had his head spinning.  He had put down a sizable deposit on land, camped out, caught some fish, and established a friendship with a Maine Guide.  It all seemed to happen so fast that he really had no time to process everything until now.  Had he moved to quickly?  Could he really make it up here through a cold winter? Would he be able to make money?  These were the questions John was asking himself while the line of people waiting for the bus ride grew bigger, indicating that it must be close to departure.  He was still unsure what he was going to tell his family, and it was beginning to concern him.  He had thought of the surveying job as a smoke screen but that was a complete lie.  He felt obligated to get a job in agriculture  to justify his four years at the university, but that meant moving somewhere he didn’t want to live.  He knew people who had careers with the Department of Agriculture, most of their work was completed from behind a desk.  There were some exceptions where people did extensive field work in other countries, and traveled, but that was a small percentage.  Some of his professors worked for the USGS before they settled for  a career of education.  They would often talk about spending months in remote areas, studying stream flow, and observing related habitat, which seemed interesting.  However, they also spoke of endless bureaucracy and legislature that took years to negotiate, and the frustration of dealing with politics from state and government officials.  Even worse, the possibly of seeing months of work and research end up in a filing cabinet, never to be seen again, because it conflicted with some politicians bargaining with a major oil company.   Some of the deep rooted propaganda in supposed “green projects” that translated into more government spending with private industry was more than John could get his head around.   John did not want to spend his life shuffling documents for the sake of a steady salary and pension, providing he could stick it out.

John had left all his new possessions at Les’s house with the exception of his new wool shirt and boots.  The coffee pot, fishing equipment and cast iron fry pan were put in a steel foot locker he found in the barn while helping Les fix the old wavy glass windows.  He packed the wool shirt on top of the pile in his duffel bag,  intentionally left half unzipped so he could see it to  be reminded of the north woods.  The shirt was  emitting a slight wood smoke smell from the campfire he found very comforting.

The twelve hour bus ride back to New Jersey was reasonably uneventful with the exception of a safety stop by the Highway Patrol in New Hampshire. The state routinely stops commercial buses and trucks to check brakes and safety equipment. There were no issues with the bus, and all of the paperwork was in order.  There was a decommissioned tractor-trailer, bound for Canada,  that had been  “red flagged”  because it was over-loaded and without correct paperwork for leaving the country.  John spoke briefly with the operator at the rest area, who was finishing his last day of work before going into the hospital for cancer treatment.  The conversation left him feeling lucky to be healthy.  He genuinely felt sad for the truck driver who had worked his entire life supporting a family, and the only thing he had to look forward to, in this stage of his life, was possibly beating cancer.  The two men shook hands and John returned to the bus feeling a connection with this man.  Maybe it was just fate.  Seeing another person looking back at their life, talking about things they wished they had done, was something he needed to hear.  In any case, the bus was back on the highway traveling south on interstate ninety five.

The tall and peaked trees of northern Maine behind him, he now saw the  architecture of a city skyline at sunset.  The sound of vehicles whizzing by at high speed,  overhead steel bridges looming in the distance, combined with the clamor of the bus and it’s passengers was in striking contrast to the sound of the Aroostook River and the northwest winds that had blown campfire smoke into his wool shirt.  He had decided to tell his parents the truth about his intentions of moving up north, living off grid, and surviving off what the land had to offer.  He knew it was going to be difficult, but he had to be honest. There was no point in starting a story he couldn’t finish later.  The learning curve is huge when you live self sufficiently.   Everything you do from the time you wake up until your head hits the pillow must be deliberate. The tasks and chores are enormous for one person to accomplish on a daily basis.  Gathering enough wood in itself is daunting, never mind collecting and containing water, providing food and trying to maintain some modicum of hygiene. The wet heavy snow was going to pile up on the roof, and he didn’t even have a roof yet, but somehow he would have to figure it  out.

Eventually the bus came to a stop three blocks from his parent’s house.  He got off with his bag and zipped it closed.  Walking down the street, he was thinking about four years earlier when he left for the university.  The time had gone by fast, but he felt like he accomplished more in the last week than all his time studying fertilizers and hybrid seeds.  It was early evening and both his mother and father were in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner.  John walked in and his mother ran over for a big hug.  “Oh you are home already, and you need a shave.  “His father closed the door to the dish washer and gave him a firm handshake.  “What smells like a fire?” he asked.  “That must be me dad, I’ve been camping.  Caught some nice small mouth bass up in Maine.”  “So how was your trip?”  John sat his bag down and went to the cupboard for a glass.  “I can’t begin to tell you how much I love it up there.”  “What else did you do, any hiking or sight seeing?”  The water from the faucet smelled like a swimming pool compared to the spring water he’d been drinking the previous week.   “I did some fishing and spent a few days working for a guy fixing up his barn.” “You worked up there?” his mother asked. “Yeah, actually I met a Maine Guide and stayed with him for a few days.  He paid me to help him with some projects and I stayed with him.”  “Really?” his mother asked.  “Yup, I can’t even begin to tell you how nice people are up there.”  “Well I’m glad you had a good time.” “Oh for sure, actually…  I’m heading back up there next week.”  “For what?”  his father asked.  “I am in the process of buying land.  I want to build a cabin and live there.”  “What do you mean live there? In the woods?”  “Well no…I mean yeah… I guess… in a cabin though.”   “That’s pretty much living in the woods John.” his mother said.  “Your out of college for a week, and now you think your Daniel Boone?” his father asked.  “No more like Jim Bridger.”  “Who is Jim Bridger?” his mother asked. “It doesn’t matter, I know who I am and that’s what I want to do.”  “I think we should start over with a drink.” his father said as he walked out of the kitchen.  “I didn’t expect it to go that smoothly.” John said to his mother.  “Oh he just worries about you and Steve.”  “I think Steve will be just fine.”  His mother pulled the coffee maker toward the front of the counter and started getting it ready for the morning. “You know I half expected you to do this after high school.”  “Do what?” John asked. “Go away and carve yourself a home in the wilderness. You always read books about mountain men and trappers. You were obsessed with the fur trade when you were ten years old.  You even talked about moving to Alaska.”  “I do have a plan, its not like I’m just giving up on the world and becoming a recluse.”  “John you have always been focused on the wilderness.  When the other kids on the street wanted new bicycles you were building forts and looking for animals down by the rail road tracks.  Both your father and I know you and your brother are two different people.  I worry more about Steve because he takes chances.”  “You mean you don’t think I’m crazy?” “No, actually you have never given me or your father a nights worry.  You were in college four years and not a single problem.”  “Wow, I expected you both to talk me out of it.”  His mother slid the coffee pot to the back of the counter. “Would it have changed your mind if we disagreed with you?” John thought for a second before he responded. “I would always respect your opinions and concern, but this feels right to me.  I just have to give this a try, and if I didn’t, it would nag at me forever.”  John’s father returned to the kitchen with a double scotch.  “Let’s go out to the back porch and sit down for a bit.”

The backyard at John’s parents house was secluded with trees and shrubbery. John spent many afternoons here as a kid pretending he was in Alaska panning for gold. There was also a trail down to the train trestle where he would catch bass and other panfish.  If you followed the path far enough it led to the golf course where John’s father spent most of his spare time.  You used to be a pretty good bowler in college didn’t you?” John asked.  “I remember the parties and people talking about it.”   His father had multiple trophies in his den from college bowling tournaments.  “When I graduated college two of my friends and I were going to open a chain of bowling allies in Puerto Rico.” “Seriously?”  “Yes, we had the financial backing and sponsorship from a major manufacturer.”  “I have never heard about this.”   “That’s because it was a sore subject for many years.”  “How so?”  His father took a sip of his favorite scotch. “Well, I met your mother in college and wanted to marry her.  She was all for getting married and moving to Puerto Rico, but your grandfather forbade it. He said it was too dangerous and risky.  If his daughter was getting married it was going to be to a man who could provide her with a secure lifestyle.”  John had never heard anything about this and was a bit shocked.  “I really had no idea you ever wanted to do that.”  “Oh yes.  I wanted it very much but I also wanted to marry your mother.  My friends went on to open a franchise and became professional bowlers, both of them.”  “Wow, I really never knew.”  John said.  “Not many people do now.  I have done well in business with the company, but I never had the passion for it like I did for bowling.”  “Why don’t you buy a bowling ally now and retire into that?”  “That ship has sailed John. Those windows of opportunity don’t stay open very long.”  “So your not going to try and talk me out of it?”  “No,  as a matter a fact I want to here all about this fool hardy plan of yours; going off to be Daniel Boone!”  “Its Jim Bridger dad.”

John was beside himself after hearing the story about his father wanting to move to Puerto Rico and become a professional bowler.  It also sparked something in him that he never felt before concerning his father.  It was the first time he had ever talked about anything passionate or being adventurous. The only thing he ever saw his father do was work and play golf.  He never seemed happy about work, and his name wasn’t on any plaque at the country club.  Not to say he was a bad golfer, but occasionally his friends put a handicap license plate on his golf cart.  It seemed he went there to drink and avoid projects around the house.  He entertained business clients there so it was a write off if nothing else.

The next morning John was up before daylight  drinking coffee at the kitchen table.  He was reading the magazine he purchased out west on his way home from college.  It was the “living off grid” article he saw on the cover that had inspired his trip to Maine, but hadn’t yet had time to actually read it.  Now as he was thumbing through the pages, seeing pictures of tomato plants in styrofoam cups and solar batteries running laptop computers, he started thinking about how foolish he would look showing up to Northfield with a truckload of plastic.  It was a concern for many of John’s university professors that there was a growing trend for solar power.  Although not as environmentally harmful as removing mountain tops and mining coal,  the manufacturing of solar cells produces  dangerous waste  including mercury and chromium.  These potentially end up in landfills, eventually infecting ground water, especially where these systems are manufactured in countries with very little, or zero EPA standards.  Every year the electronics industry alone generates millions of tons of toxic waste. The propaganda for installation and disposal of solar systems is often deceiving, the components and compounds used are petroleum based, but marketed as clean and green.  It seemed like another example of marketing and profits getting ahead of responsible manufacturing and distribution. The styrofoam cup is horrifying to anyone who does five minutes of research on materials that are detrimental to the environment, so how could these pictures be associated with a lifestyle, non-dependent of electricity, and free of fossil fuels?

The farm back in Northfield, complete with a blacksmith shop, along with a hand dug well seemed like a very small carbon footprint by comparison.  The people that ran that farm were already self sufficient. The only thing they really needed was wood and steel.  The steel to cut the wood and the wood to manipulate the steel in the blacksmith shop was only walking distance from the barn.  Very little was brought in from outside except a few staples like flour and sugar.  The animals were raised and plowed the fields, and the fields were cut to feed the animals.  Trees were cut for firewood and sawn into boards while the firewood forged the steel to make nails. There was no marketing involved, it was simply a lifestyle…. And when compared to the simple “living off grid” article  on the table in front of him,  John was embarrassed for buying it and felt he had a duty to walk it to the nearest redemption center to dispose of it properly…..

John spent the next few days visiting childhood friends and family that still lived close by.   Most of his uncles and aunt’s had retired and moved to Florida. The old bakery was still operated by the same family that owned it for thirty plus years.  They made the best bread and pie crusts around.  It was a simple operation, and they were famous for their blueberry pie and muffins.  Most people don’t think of blueberries when you mention New Jersey, but there are  thousands of  acres yielding, arguably, the best blueberries in the country.  He found a couple of used pickup trucks for sale in the local paper and looked at both of them.  The first one was a two wheel drive that had high mileage and low maintenance records.  The other was a Ford half ton, four wheel drive with a standard transmission and square headlights that John liked.  It was root-beer brown color with little or no rust.  He noticed the vehicles in Maine showed rust after the age of ten years for some reason.  The price on the windshield was twenty five hundred,  but the older gentleman who owned it said he would accept two thousand after learning John was moving to northern Maine to start a life.   John gave him a five hundred dollar deposit to hold the truck, and would return the next day with the remaining fifteen hundred, taking the truck along with a tool box for the back.

It seemed like things were going too easily.  His parents were actually supporting his decision to move north, and he found a pickup in good shape that was four wheel drive.  His thoughts went back to the cabin he was going to build.  He figured the library may have some trade books with pictures and ideas.  He found a couple of popular mechanics magazines that featured modern contemporary vacation homes that had no appeal to him.  There was a whole book on ways to build tree houses and live in them which he found amusing.  There was also a pile of Sports Afield magazines, the one on top had an elk hunt featured on the cover.  The story inside showed hunters sitting in camp with horses and wooden boxes that contained there camping and cooking equipment.  He also noticed a white canvas wall tent with a wood stove……. This was a new concept…… Could he get by with a tent all winter?  It seemed ridiculous, but there it was right in front of him.  Men living in white canvas tents… in Montana… in November!  He remembered the stories of gold prospectors living in Alaska and they had tents like that with wood stoves.  So why couldn’t he do that instead of trying to build a cabin, at least for the first winter?  In the back of the magazine was an ad for the same tent and he wrote down the phone number.  He knew of an old military surplus store out by the Parkway.  They carried  all kinds of camping and cooking equipment.  They had huge tents,  maybe they had  a stove to heat it with.

The next day after paying the balance on his new truck, and almost two hours of dealing with the Department of Motor Vehicles, he drove to the surplus store to look for a stove.  They, in fact, had three of them that would burn either wood or coal.  They came with a tripod and connection hose that accepted an upside down jerrycan so you could burn diesel fuel.  This surprised John,  he felt it was unsafe, but took it anyway. He figured, worst case scenario, he could use diesel fuel, but only in an emergency.

He contacted the tent company in Montana and ordered a twelve foot by twelve foot wall tent with three foot sides.  The company also offered a pole kit with the tent but said he could cut wooden poles on-sight if that was possible.  John remembered Les telling him about the black spruce trees the  guides used for poling their canoes and he figured he would harvest some when he got back to Maine to save the extra money. The Tent was expensive, but he thought even if he couldn’t make it work to live in for a year, it would still last him a lifetime, and he would never need another tent.

When he got back to his parents house there was no one home.  He made a quick dinner from leftovers, and read through some of the old magazines he brought home from the library.  He especially liked the elk hunting story that inspired him to by his tent.  There was an old wooden box out in the garage that belonged to his grandfather that would make a good addition to his camp. It would hold the tent and most of his camping equipment.  He still needed a few things like a lantern and a camp stove.  He enjoyed cooking over a fire, but didn’t think he would always have the time, and the stove would make a quick meal.  He decided on a stove that ran on white gas instead of bottled gas because it was easier to find in stores, seemed to be less expensive, and  he wouldn’t have empty gas canisters piling up around camp.

The tent arrived three days later just as expected.  John had most of his belongings loaded in the truck with a makeshift rain cover fabricated from old plywood.  He cleaned out his old bedroom taking only a few books and clothing including a wool sweater.  The rest was donated to the church where, as a kid, he helped out with thrift sales on weekends.  His  parents took him out for dinner the night before he left, and his father told everyone in the restaurant his son was going off to live a life in the wilderness like Daniel Boone.  It didn’t matter to John that his father had never heard of Jim Bridger, as long as he was happy.

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