You know you’re in Maine in winter when the TV weather forecast describes twenty degrees Farenheit as “balmy.”
For over seven years running, I’ve been traveling regularly from my home in New York City and now Washington, DC to Freeport, Maine, where I teach at the Stonecoast low-residency graduate program in creative writing. When I tell people what I do they often say, “Ooo, Maine in winter. Must be cold.”
Yes, must be, but when I travel to Maine, I rarely have time to feel the weather. My busy schedule keeps me mostly indoors, shuttling between my hotel room and various classrooms, with brief dashes between buildings and various colleagues’ cars. (We carpool.)
Last January, however, I experienced the true meaning of Maine in winter: a full-on storm of wind and ice and snow that froze the roads and buried trees in banks of creamy white. Conditions became so bad that our program decided to finish early, after lunch. With three of my colleagues, I bundled into a car and headed back to our hotel.
We were making our way through a forest of tall pines, driving along a curving dirt road that winds its way up one of the many fingerlike peninsulas that jut out from Maine’s southern coast. The road was smooth and slick, and so we crept along carefully, our tires occasionally sliding over the ice.
About halfway to the main road, we passed three young people looking forlorn beside SUV that had swerved into a ditch. One of my colleagues, the writer Rick Bass, said, “Let’s help.” Being the city boy that I am, I thought he meant, let’s call AAA on our cell phones. In fact, he meant let’s get out and help.
Rick, who lives in Montana and is well renowned for his writing about nature, has a tanned face marked with deep lines. He wears worn fleece sweaters and hiking boots that look as if he actually hikes in them. A lot.
I have lived in cities, New York and now Washington, DC, for all of my adult life. I read and write and go out to dinner and attend the theatre. My hands are soft and supple. The last time I had slept outside I was still not entirely sure of the mechanics of sex.
Watching Rick crunch across the knee-deep snow to the side of the road where the car had gotten stuck, I couldn’t imagine what we could do to help. But Rick plunged directly into the forest, grabbing branches, snapping several of them in half over his knee, and then instructed me to do the same. I wondered, for what purpose? To build a fire? Light smoke signals?
In fact, we were going to stick these branches underneath the tires of the vehicle so they could gain traction while we pushed from behind.
Though I followed Rick’s instructions, I had little faith in his plan. How could mere human effort actually dislodge a car from its location except on reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies? Sure this was just a show of straight male bravado. No way it would actually work.
At first it seemed that I was right. As the driver gunned the engine, Rick and I and one of the passengers pushed from behind — with little result. The car would budge an inch or two before sighing further down into the deep banks of snow. “Keep going,” Rick said. “We can make it.”
But in fact, after half an hour of the car huffing back and forth and more branches and leaves stuck under the tires, more gunning the engine and pushing, suddenly, without warning, the car crawled forward, then momentum took over, and it was on the road. We had put it there.
“You’ve done this before,” I said to Rick.
He gave me a wry look. “I’m from Montana,” he said.
As we returned to our car, my arms and hands were tingling, and my face felt warm. I felt strangely disoriented, and maybe liberated by the experience. So much of my life has been spent studying words on pages or on screens within the confines of climate-controlled rooms. I get my exercise from walking, playing tennis, or stomping on exercise machines at the gym. For me, the elements are generally something I dodge on city sidewalks, heading from art shows to restaurants to bookstores or classrooms.
But what if all that were taken away? How would I take care of myself? What survival skills do I have?
Maybe more than I had realized…