When I was in law school, I interned at a legal aid clinic about forty miles from Philadelphia. One of our clients was a man named Zeke. He was a country boy of indeterminate age with long, ropy hair and a grizzled beard, and he lived in an abandoned school bus in the woods with his cow Bessie. He was part country hick, part hippie and part mountain man. He was Gomer Pyle crossed with the Unabomber.
I was helping him appeal from the denial of welfare benefits. One day I was reviewing with him his income (none) and his assets (Bessie). He seemed a bit more unfocused than usual, and suddenly he blurted, “Are you married?”
“No-no,” I stammered.
“Would you like to be?”
“No!” I gasped.
But a couple years later I did get married –– to a city boy living in a one-bedroom apartment.
We’re celebrating our anniversary this week, and it occurred to me that I would have been happy living in that school bus in the woods so long as it was with the man I married. Especially if his cow was a Guernsey. I hear they give the creamiest milk.
Here in the mountains of western North Carolina (we pseudo-locals call it WNC), the fall foliage season peaks in October. Tourists from far and wide are aware of this and book their travel plans months in advance. We live in the heart of WNC and somehow missed it. Well, I had my excuses: I’ve been mostly housebound for the past two months, recuperating from a broken back (more about that some other time) and working to finish a big project.
Yesterday, having finally emerged from a fog of pain and toil, I was ready to get out and admire the fall color. We planned a trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway to Blowing Rock with stops at Grandfather Mountain and Linville Falls on the way back. I was vaguely aware that the weather had taken a chilly turn, so I wore a hoodie over my turtleneck and tossed a windbreaker in the back seat. (This from a woman who once lived in Alaska and ought to know better how to dress for weather contingencies).
Our house is at Elevation 2500 and we still have some gold and crimson leaves on our leaves. But as we climbed upward, the leaves disappeared. Also, the temperature dropped a degree every hundred feet up. That’s fine, we cheered ourselves. With the leaves down, the views will be even more spectacular. On we went. We had the Parkway to ourselves and thought how pleasant it was and how very clever we were to have missed the tourist stampede.
But before we were halfway on our journey, we were unexpectedly and rather rudely forced off the Parkway by a barricade with a sign reading “Closed for Snow and Ice.” Ha! A few flurries and the Park Service starts to clutch its bureaucratic pearls.
So down we went to the highway, and wait—what ho!–what approaches? Cars with rooftop caps of snow perched jauntily over their windshields. And what’s that on the shoulders of the road? A dusting of snow like talcum powder in the creases of a woman’s arms. Did you know about this? the Sidekick asked, his tone a bit accusing. No, I cried. The weather channel said Sunny. I didn’t mention that there was an alert crawling across the scream that some people were reporting snowfall in the area, because those were obviously false reports. How could there be snow if the forecast was Sunny?
Soon the snow was no longer content to collect on the roadside but was making its presence known on the roadway as well. By now the dashboard thermometer showed that we’d dropped into the teens, and there were no views, leafless or otherwise, because the sky has gone to an opaque swirl. We were in a white-out.
This expedition had already lost all its appeal, but I don’t like to admit defeat. We were bound for Blowing Rock, and by God, that’s where we would go. And we did. We emerged from the ice fog and parked downtown. I grabbed my windbreaker, but the wind just laughed at my feeble efforts and blew right through me as we tried to negotiate Main Street. We made our way over icy sidewalks to the Village Café, only to learn that it closed for the season four days before. Wait—there’s a season?
This story doesn’t get any more dramatic than that, I’m afraid. We ate in a different restaurant and drove home with our electric seat warmers on and had drinks in front of the fire. But perhaps I’ve learned a lesson about tardiness. And also that Sunny does not mean without snowfall.
This week I’m reading Some Luck, by Jane Smiley. This is the promised start of a trilogy about a Midwestern farming family.
This is ground she’s plowed before, of course (pun unapologetically intended) in A Thousand Acresamong other works. I can’t say I exactly enjoyed A Thousand Acres (so grim, and that was at the good moments), but some of its images resonated so deeply that I can still conjure them up in an instant all these many years later.
There is so much I admire about Smiley. I admire that she writes from something other than a modern urban sensibility. I admire her deep understanding of and empathy with ordinary people in the heartland. And I so admire her output! What a body of work she has. And somehow managed to have four husbands along the way! I don’t know how anyone could navigate the rapids of marriage, divorce, courtship and remarriage multiple times and still be able to steer her work to such fabulous completion. I wonder if maybe a new husband is just what one needs to keep that creative battery charged.
I jest. And speaking of Some Luck, I’m well aware that it’s only by luck that I’ve managed to stay happily married to one man all these years. It would be nice to think that the secret to our success is that we’re such wonderful people, but I won’t delude myself. My husband and I like to say that our marriage succeeds because one of us is a saint, but we’re never sure which one.
We were married in Anchorage, and for our anniversary this year we returned to the scene of the crime. We felt the giddiness of newlyweds as we went galloping around the city in search of the street corner where we met, the restaurant where we first dined together, the apartment building where we first lived together, the courthouse where we got married, and the hotel where we had our wedding luncheon. Well, the street corner was under repair, the restaurant was closed, and the courthouse had moved. But to paraphrase Elton John, we’re still standing, better than we ever did, looking like true survivors, feeling like little kids.
There’s a story, probably a fable, about a mountain lodge midway up one of the French Alps called the Mediocre Inn. (Apparently “mediocre” is French for “halfway.”) Travelers bound for the summit break their trip there and stop for a hot meal or a soft bed. Some of them linger longer. It’s a cozy spot, and while the view may not be as spectacular as it is at the peak, it’s still pretty nice. Eventually most of them decide that there’s really no reason to push on to the top. Why take the chance of blisters and frostbite? They’ve already accomplished a lot just coming this far, and it’s so very pleasant at the Mediocre Inn.
There are a few different ways to spin that metaphor, and here’s mine. After you achieve a certain level of success and comfort in your life, there’s a real reluctance to do anything to rock the boat. The more you have, the more you have to lose. The more risk-averse you become.
I’m guilty of lingering at the Mediocre Inn. While I hope my work hasn’t been mediocre, I know my life has been. It’s been comfortable. Easy — not to say I haven’t worked hard, because, God!, how I’ve toiled — but easy in the sense of predictable. I’ve been living in a controlled environment where everything I do has a moderate range of expected outcomes. No sudden moves and no big surprises.
Until I finished law school, I’d spent the whole of my life in one little corner of Pennsylvania. Then I astonished everyone by accepting a job in Alaska even though I didn’t know a soul there except the people who’d hired me. But I was single, mostly broke, and I’d always dreamed about life on the last frontier. Now or never, I thought, and off I went. It was a Bold Move, but I had so little to lose back then.
Now I’m on the brink of another Bold Move, and I have a few things to lose this time. A comfortable niche in the legal world, the warm regard of clients and colleagues, good friendships that will inevitably fade with distance and diminished opportunity. But there are new adventures out there, and I’ll never experience them if I don’t put down my mug of hot chocolate and get up and out of the Mediocre Inn. The summit is still up there, and I still haven’t scaled it.
I’ve been dropping hints like hand grenades, but today I finally made it official: I announced to management that I will be leaving the firm at the end of the year.
The law, she been very very good to me, but it’s time to go. It’s time to start a new adventure. Next year the Sidekick and I are moving to the mountains. (Okay, maybe he’s the Superhero and I’m the Sidekick, but this is my blog.) We plan to enjoy the outdoor life again, the way we did when we lived in Alaska. I plan to write, maybe teach, read everything I missed while I was in court, learn to be a better cook, organize those photo albums . . . . But mostly, write.