Saturday October 27, 2012

You can travel to the site of your past, but it won't be there. You can drive north on the Interstate past Exit 13, where you went to college, where you wrote sheaves of poems about "the half-life of desire," where President Clinton clasped your hand in both of his and looked you straight in the eye, making you believe you were the only two people in that great vaulted hall, you in your black graduate's robe and red chiffon scarf tossed around your neck as a last-minute accent that final morning, when you woke with a woman in your bed, a bi-curious friend who'd wanted to kiss you again, alone, after playing midnight Spin-the-Bottle on the River Ranch porch.

You can pass the library clock tower, pass the white hospital, where you gave up one baby and birthed another. Pass the Thetford farmhouse where you sorted the papers of tiny, fluff-haired Grace Paley, oblivious to your good fortune, and keep going, further north exit 19, 20, 21, veer off toward Hardwick and cross the threshold into the Kingdom.

I went looking for my past with kids in tow, the family wagon hastily packed with duffel bags, raingear and a tote bag filled with apples, peanut butter, honey, and raisin bread. That should sustain us for the weekend. I threw in Katie Kazoo Switcheroo and some Junie B Jones books-on-tape but didn't bother with toys, markers, or play-dough. Let the girls entertain themselves in the woods. Let them bounce on the twin beds of Cabin B, play Slam-Dunk-Jump-Spin with Ducky and Lambie.

Our first evening in Craftsbury I told my husband I wanted to explore - rediscover the wild woman within who had lately felt tamed, trapped by modern domesticity and motherhood.

"Go and run with the wolves, honey," he said, "I'll put the girls to bed."

I don't know what I thought I was going to do - dive naked into the black waters of Lake Hosmer in October? Rain fell steadily on our rental cabin as I zipped my wool jacket and switched on a headlamp to guide me down Lost Nation Road. The immense dark was a container for my longing. This was the dirt road I'd run that first night I arrived in Craftsbury, 25 years old with a ski bag and a journal. The sweet scent of cedar beckoned me deeper into the boreal forest - no city lights refracted, no traffic hum, no people to be seen, though I found them eventually, friends and lovers, competitors and co-workers, and some who wouldn't fit any category, like the grizzled Russian novelist who told me I didn't know how to flirt.

"I have been thinking about your troubles with men," Alexei had informed me. "And I have realized the problem is that you reveal too much. You are too open. There is no mystery."

I thanked him for his insights and walked back to my staff cabin, dismayed. Was Alexei right? Was I not at all mysterious? As a Craftsbury Ski Center employee I lived in a former duck blind, 11-feet square and half of it bed, heated by a rusted woodstove that cranked the place into a sauna so hot I had to crack the windows to let in polar air. That first winter I took a boy into my bed, a shy 17-year-old named Owen who was talented at fine carpentry but could barely string three sentences together. My friends called my cabin the Love Shack and the name stuck for years.

I could see it now through the rain, a dark blur on the lakeshore. It looked empty, abandoned in the off-season. Did it still shelter new generations of ski instructors? How strange to be the responsible grown-up walking in the shadows, looking for evidence of my former self. Craftsbury was the first place I'd lived that had nothing to do with my family. After college, which had been expected, after graduate school in England, which my father had wanted, I went north on my own and discovered this remote place, falling in love with it the way you fall in love when you're young, a fierce identification with every aspect, each road and trailhead imbued with meaning. Craftsbury had reminded me of the sea shanty called "Isle Au Haut" my uncle used to sing: "You're a damn fool if you stay, but there's no better place to go."

Of course I did go, in the end. I originally came for three months, but I'd stayed for seven years. After I got married, we moved south and had babies, but I always thought I'd return. The family weekend trip opened the door into possibility. I didn't run with any wolves that night, but in the morning I took the girls on a tour:

"There's the field where Mommy and Daddy first met at a giant bonfire. We were sacrificing old skis to the gods of winter, trying to summon the snow."

The girls were curious about the story but unimpressed with the field, barren except for a line of solar panels. So I walked them by the Love Shack.

"That's where Daddy first kissed me," I explained. The girls' father had moved into the cabin three years after I'd left it, taking a job as snow-shoveler and fire starter.

Carmen wanted to go in and snoop around, of course. We found nothing but an empty dresser and some rowing magazines. The place had been sterilized with blue indoor-outdoor carpeting: there was no woodstove, no flicker of the magic I'd felt reading in bed by candlelight during February blizzards. It was cold and smelled of Lysol. Neither memory nor desire belonged there.

To be continued .

Diana Whitney is a writer, yoga teacher and mother of two in Brattleboro. She blogs at www.spiltmilkvt.com. E-mail her at dianaspiltmilk@gmail.com.