Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Moving In

Still crazy busy here--deadlines, deadlines, deadlines--so here's another previously published essay about when we first moved into the farm in 2006.

The moving van lumbers up the rough dirt road and hesitates at the end of the driveway where the faded handmade sign declares this property “For Sale.” With a nervous glance at each other, we rumble forward over the gravel curb and scrape through the tunnel of overgrown cedars and apple trees into the secluded yard.

The sign is lying. This place, a 40-acre Upper Peninsula farmstead in western Alger County, is not for sale. It had been yesterday, and for several years before that, but today it’s home. This is the place my wife, Kristen, and I have been dreaming of, a place to raise chickens and children. A place to live and love while our hair gets as white as the lake effect snows the area is famous for.

A few swings of the hammer and the sign flies loose. If we have our wish it’ll never show its face again.

Like us and our blue-collared ancestors—Poles, Germans and Swedes—the buildings are sturdy and straight, but a little rough around the edges. Shingles missing here, siding sagging there, and paint but a memory in spots. The big white farmhouse, part of it made of hand-hewn logs, is surrounded by a sprinkling of tidy red outbuildings. There’s a root cellar, a shed, a garage, the old milk barn, sauna building and woodshed. At the edge of the field squats the remains of the original log cow barn.

But at the center of it all is a familiarity that we can’t explain. A sense of belonging, like a family reunion where you might not know everyone’s name but it doesn’t matter because you share the same laugh, chubby cheeks or hair color.

This farm was built by people with winter in their blood. Swedes came first, around 1900, and hewed the forest into fields and a home. Then Finlanders took over in the 1930s and didn’t let go until the last one passed on in the mid 1990s. Since then an absentee owner has let it fall into disrepair, and only rodents and coyotes have spent winters here.

A convoy of friends roll into the driveway behind us with pickups and trailers heavy with our possessions. Boxes in the house. Tools to the garage. Garden stuff to the shed and root cellar. Skis to the barn.

“Do you know you’ve got, like, ten friggin pairs of skis?” my friend Cameron is asking from somewhere behind his armload of poles and boots.

I’m aware of how many pairs we have, though I don’t really have a justification for it other than that we live for winter. That’s why we moved to this area, a well-known snowbelt that routinely closes schools and highways. Also, with that many skis you need a place that has a barn to hold them all. We needed a ski stable.

The skinny ones are for racing, their flashy blue and white zigzag graphics leave no doubt. They are iced lightning that must be operated only during daylight hours by those in bright shades of Spandex. I have a tendency to miss turns at the bottom of steep hills at excessive speeds when on them; and Spandex doesn’t soften the cold kiss of mature timber. These snow stallions are kept stabled in all but the finest conditions and fed only the purest waxes.

The workhorses are found deeper in the pile. They are wide, with steel edges and heavy three-pin bindings. Mated with equally heavy leather boots these planks pull loaded sleds and packs into the hills for camping. These are Rosignols, but they may as well be called Carhartt or Craftsman. They are rugged tools, but once camp is established they become powder queens, linking telemark turns through knee-deep lake effect pow pow. Kneeling, turning, kneeling, turning like a powder-powered piston through snow of a religious magnitude. These backcountry boards are winter worship at its best and our new home is only blocks from the cathedral.

Of course we have 10 pairs of skis. Everyone who lives in a place where snow flies from October through May should have a solid winter arsenal or they’ll go stir crazy watching the flakes fly.

Cameron is waving from the door of the shed and babbling incoherently. He’s holding a grey and weather-checked board with a familiar shape.

“Skis. You’ve got skis…there are skis in here!” he stammers, pointing up into the exposed rafters where he’s been stowing our stuff. But there, alongside our modern gear and next to an old white door with fraying paint, is a peculiar-looking board that matches the one in his hand.

They are flat on the bottom, tapered from thin at the tips and rising to level in the center. The front tips are pointed, but not curved up. These are handmade, but unfinished, wooden skis.

“I take it back, you’ve got eleven friggin pairs of skis!” Cam stammers.

But this was more than Pair Eleven. It was the passing of two wooden, Nordic batons, and it was the best housewarming gift imaginable.

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