Life as it is Meant to be Lived
I’m sitting here in front of our wood stove, sipping on a mug of spiced apple cider. We had our first serious snowfall of the season last night.
I joke about being “of a desert people,” but I think my ancestors’ extended stay in Lithuania resonates more.
I love the cold.
When I was a kid, growing up in my parents’ rental on Cabbage Hill in Lancaster, next door to what used to be a Getty Gas Station and auto-repair shop, the city landscape was utterly transformed by any of the 1980s blizzards. After the gas station closed, and before they built a carryout/delivery Pizza Hut (where I worked in my teen years), the city would plow all the snow into their lot. This made for Hoth-like trenches for us city kids.
Maybe that’s why I like snow? Empire Strikes Back and the fertile playground mounds of snow present to young people?
Is it my love of Jack London? I have a tattered copy of his short stories I read beside a winter campfire when I head into the woods.
All I know is my love affair with the cold outdoors began in earnest when I was stationed at Fort Richardson, Alaska, starting in 1996.
It was 1995, and I had just graduated from Air Assault School at Fort Campbell, KY. I was an infantryman with the Rakkasans. I had finished Airborne School after OSUT Infantry training at Fort Benning, but unlike many of my other friends with Airborne or Ranger contracts, I was sent to the 101st.
And so my first two years in the Army involved Army aviation but little parachute action. When I received orders for a Permanent Change of Station to Alaska, I was both apprehensive and excited.
For one, I thought the Department of the Army was playing a cruel trick on me. At the time, the 1/501st Parachute Infantry Regiment fell under a single brigade designated as 1st Brigade, 6th Infantry Division (Light). The unit patch was a 6-pointed star with an airborne tab above, earning the the unit the sometimes nickname, “The Jumpin’ Jews.” The unit would later reflag back to the 172nd Brigade while I was there, a welcome relief, as well as a patch more reflective of our northern exposure.
What this entailed, after leave in Pennsylvania between duty stations, was for me a 4300 mile drive from Lancaster, PA, to Fort Richardson, Alaska.
In the dead of winter.
In a Hyundai.
I made it from Lancaster to Milwaukee in one day. It snowed. I made it from Milwaukee to North Dakota the next day. It was the most I had ever seen of the country besides Pennsylvania and the South. In Montana, I took a turn into Alberta, and from there, to the Yukon, and from there, to Anchorage.
The trip introduced me to what isolation truly means, and how deadly it can be. My car cracked a rod outside of Grand Prairie, Alberta. Edmonton was the last large settlement I drove through, and Whitehorse was a day or two away. A small engine repair shop received authorization to fix my Hyundai, and they flew the part in on a small plane to perform warrantied service. I stayed at a run-down, very late-1970s hotel close to the garage. If not for the kindness of the only Canadian motorist who passed by my broken down car within four hours, in -20 degree temperatures, I would have been a Jewsicle.
Alaska was everything I had ever hoped for in a place to live. I hiked all the driveable National Parks: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, Gates of the Arctic. I got to Katmai. I hiked Resurrection Pass in the Chugach National Forest. I backcountry skied in Turnagain Pass and at Hatcher Pass. I climbed Matanuska Glacier with my unit, I climbed Mt. Foraker. I camped out with my buddy Jim, who I still am friends with today, on a frozen-over Eagle River. I jumped from the tailgate of a Chinook helicopter north of the Arctic Circle.
When I left active duty service in 1999, I desperately longed to return to Alaska. My now ex-wife nixed the idea of staying there, and I spent the next decade and a half pining to return. I tried to find what I felt I had lost in Northern California. I tried to find it in New York, with trips to the Catskills and the Adirondacks (the latter coming close). After a while I settled into my life with Leah, realizing that living in a place that tickled my need to be in the outdoors, in the northern outdoors, was an itch that was never going to be scratched.
And then as we searched for a house when were finally able to move out of state, we saw a property on Verona Island with Penobscot waterfront. We talked to our wonderful realtor, Louise Rolnick, who not only patiently helped us navigate the house search, but advised us on joining the Jewish community here. We surprised her a bit when we settled on this 12-acre sprawl in Winterport, with a modern A-frame.
My itch was scratched as soon as we drove down the long driveway, and when we saw the loft and great glass windows overlooking Cove Brook.
My itch was scratched as soon as we moved in, and our first morning, I saw a doe grazing on the moss near one of our many trails.
And my itch is definitely scratched, when I go out on the deck for a late night cigar, and I look up at a night sky so clear that I can barely believe it.
A blazing hearth against the dark and the cold. A landscape transformed and renewed with the changing of the seasons. A hike through the woods, up a mountain, on the coast…on a coastal mountain…I love Maine more than I ever loved Alaska. Our Jewish community, our friends, the people we’ve not met and become friends with yet…everything about this place is perfect.
I know I said the end of fall feels like a very isolated season, but I think I was wrong.
This is how life is meant to be lived.