Saturday, August 06, 2011

Maine afternoons

Up is down

On our last evening in Maine, I spent half an hour wandering the fields, looking down. I waved at the long grass -- still five or six inches, bent over as if combed, with tufts of fresh-cut blades scattered in clumps -- with a wooden stake borrowed from one of my cousin's gardens. My uncle had spent part of the afternoon mowing his lawn, then ducking through a short stand of trees into the neighbor's field to cut some of the grass in front of their guest cabin. And somewhere along the way, he had lost the ignition key to his John Deere riding mower, a farm version with a license plate and headlights that he's had for probably 20 years. There are photos of me sitting on it, reading Cars and Trucks and Things That Go while my mom cut my hair. I couldn't have been more than 10. But somewhere along his route that afternoon, my uncle John had knocked the key from the ignition. The tractor continued purring along, but when John went to turn it off back by his driveway, his hands came up empty, so he stalled it and decided he'd figure out the key problem later.

So while John, his daughter Kate and her boyfriend, Rich, were back in their yard, tending to her gardens, I took it upon myself to see if I could find the key. I didn't particularly feel like digging around in the gardens (and without knowing what I was doing, someone would've had to instruct my every move, which probably would've been annoying for them, too). So while Casey sat by the house and read, John put a James Taylor record on his turntable, pivoted his large speakers to face out the windows, and cranked the volume so they'd have music out in the yard. It carried over to me as I scanned the neighbor's field.

The afternoon soon melted into those August Maine days from my childhood. Crickets chirped up a soundtrack (one that -- not for the first time, but for the first time outside -- was augmented by the folk stylings of Mr. Taylor) as the sun sunk lower in the west and painted the pines in a golden tint. I thought of how I used to find the path down through the woods to the river dark and terrifying, especially in the late afternoon when the canopy turned the woods dark before dusk had even begun. But when I got older, I'd often take walks down that path by myself, then turn left, following the path along the river until the flora closed in, then turn left again, heading back up the hill, bushwhacking my way back toward the house, though not along any known path -- or even knowing where I was headed. I just knew that I'd eventually, at worst, hit the road not far from the driveway and be able to find my way back.

But it never came to that. No matter how far along the river I walked, once I turned to head in the direction of the house and open field, I always seemed to emerge at the top of a short but steep slope that led down into a small gravel pit at the end of a second -- but rarely used -- driveway. I guess more than a usable driveway, it was more a wider, longer path leading from the road that contained no rocks or trees and was big enough for a car to maneuver.

I thought of those days as I criss-crossed the field, head down, scanning the path of the tractor for the strand of red string my uncle said might be attached to the tractor's key. Nothing against my family, but some of my favorite moments in Maine always were -- and, for brief moments, sometimes still are -- those when I'm alone and unplugged. No phone (we can't get cell service at the house anyway), no TV (we rarely watch anything during visits there). We'll still use the internet, now that they have it -- on an unsecured network because there are no other houses within range, so anyone trying to access it would have to be in view of the house -- and music is always an option. But I don't always need music; I'm happy to stroll along with the soundtrack of the forest and fields.

So not only was my perambulation soothing to my soul and psyche, but it was fruitful in my search as well. The one last section I had to explore was a path John cut parallel to the stand of trees separating the neighbors' field from his. It was a simple down-and-back to the thicker forest, a lane as wide as two tractor widths. I followed it to the circular clearing at the end -- not unlike a dead-end street -- and eyed the indentations of the tires, noting the steep angle in one section formed by a subterranean rock. And then, just when I thought my quest was about to come up empty, I saw a flat, yellow plastic tag -- precisely the type of key fob you'd get for free from a car or tractor dealership. Attached to it was a small, slightly rusted key that certainly looked like it might start a tractor. I flipped the tag over in my hand and saw the name and address of the local John Deere dealer.

My quest complete, I returned to the gardens and asked John if he was sure the key had a red string attached, or if it might be a light yellow key ring from the John Deere dealer. His eyes lit up when I held it out, a look of relief that he'd not have to dig up the tractor's VIN (or some other ID) to have a new key made.

A few minutes later, the gardeners finished their work and we traipsed down to the river to wash up for dinner. The beauty of a Maine summer is the ability for four people to put on bathing suits, wade into the river and use the all-natural soap and shampoo my family keeps on the bank to rinse off after a sweaty afternoon. After washing up and briefly enjoying the flowing amber water, we were on our way back up the hill to change for dinner, everyone ready in half an hour. Such a satisfying way of life.

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