Monday, February 15, 2010

GPS and mountain gaps don't mix


When you come to Vermont, turn off your GPS device. On the Saturday they came to visit Fern Forest, Brandon and Mimi took the advice of the blind woman in the machine rather than heeding H’s advice to go around the Green Mountains. They also ignored the sign that said ROAD TO LINCOLN CLOSED and started up the gap, a narrow dirt road with steep hairpin turns. The road crew stops plowing and sanding around Thanksgiving and locals drag their sleds up the mountain or skin up with tellies for a heart-stopping ride down. We haven’t had much snow, so there was no frozen wall where the plow stops to deter these Cape Codders. It was late, and Brandon wanted to surprise Mimi with a Valentine’s weekend in the treehouse, and the GPS device said Lincoln Gap Road was the quickest route. He drives a 4WD and thought even if he encountered a bit of rough stuff, he could muscle his way through. I’d probably have done the same thing had I not known better.

When I was traveling around Kentucky on book tour a year ago, I rented a car with a GPS thingy. The voice had an English accent with a bit of saucy added to make her sound southern. I couldn’t understand a thing she said. Navigating Louisville roads, I had to listen, look at the map on the little screen, check street names, road signs and stoplights, and I admit that I made several gratuitous turns when I found myself in the wrong lane. “Off course. Recalculating,” the voice said. In the time it took her to recalculate, I’d made another wrong turn or two. “Recalculating,” she said again. And again. I finally stopped and bought a map.

Midnight on the Lincoln Gap. Cold. Dark. Car stuck solidly in snow. Wheels spinning. Brandon likes to drive on the beach and so is ready. He’s got a shovel and some boards, but the shovel goes in a few inches and hits solid ice. Snowmobilers have packed down the snow so that the trail looks drivable, but it’s a nasty illusion. The boards do nothing, even with Mimi gunning the engine in reverse. No go. No traffic. No houses. No cell phone reception. Deep breath. Start walking—back down the mountain. Knock on the first door available, even though lights are out. Lights come on. Welcome to the warmth. Use the phone. Call H.

We’re on the other side of the gap and H had no way to reach them except to go over the Appalachian Gap, drive down Route 100, and approach from the Warren side. He didn’t know how badly the car was stuck, whether he could haul it out with his truck. Brandon said he’d call AAA. He did. Help arrived within fifteen minutes, even though it was close to one a.m. When he called H again, H directed him over the App Gap and they arrived finally, cherry cheeked and glowing with adventure. It was nearly three a.m.

I didn’t meet the duo until the next afternoon, when they rose at two p.m. for waffles I’d made at eight a.m. and which were now hard as those boards Brandon had used the night before. But soaked in Vermont maple syrup, they softened enough to get down and the hungry couple devoured them with granola, berries and yogurt. Afterward, they toodled around Bristol, shopped, had a beer at the Bobcat. It was Sunday and Valentine’s Day to boot. Shops closed early, and the Bobcat was packed, so they picked up some snacks and came back to Fern Forest.

Earlier I’d put a bottle of champagne in the fridge to cool, and when they returned we had pomegranate champagne cocktails, dark chocolate hearts and good conversation. H and I took leave for a soak in the spa and they retreated to the treehouse, a blessedly early evening for all of us.

Mimi heard about Fern Forest from Colleen, a previous guest. She lives in Manhattan and works as a designer; her specialty is sports shoes for girls. Brandon is vivacious and amiable. He runs a motel in Orleans on the Cape with his father and his three-year-old son, and he has started a company called Frozen Waves that makes skateboard ramps. They met ten years ago in Limestone, Maine, at a Phish concert but then lost touch with each other. Four months ago Mimi was visiting a friend who suggested she look Brandon up. She found him, made contact, and it looks to H and me that they were ready for each other. These two are gracious and modest, and we enjoyed their company. They’ll be heading south today, straight into a snowstorm, but this time I have a feeling they’ll steer clear of the mountain gaps.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Fern Forest Angels

The new Hot Springs spa must have something to do with the good night's sleeps I’ve been having lately. I admit that I wasn’t in favor of getting a home equity line of credit for this top-of-the-line item that I categorize as a luxury rather than a necessity. But that was two weeks ago. Now, even when it’s 10F out, I peel out of my socks and slip on flipflops, wrap myself in a big terry towel and pad out to the liquid massage parlor. Nothing like being surrounded by 105F H2O swirling like lava in a volcanic crater, shooting fingers of wet heat onto my muscles sore from gym workouts. A plunge into the spa just before bed is better than popping a pill, better than a couple glasses of Cabernet, almost as good as a shot of Woodford Reserve.

It took just a week after installing the spa before the request came from Melissa for a return visit to Fern Forest Treehouse. Melissa came up last fall from Boston for an overnight retreat from her work as assistant to Ophelia Dahl at Partners In Health. Paul Farmer and his crew kept her at her desk ten or twelve hours a day, and she was exhausted. H and I pampered her and were delighted when she contacted us to say she wanted to come up again, this time bringing her friend Kim, assistant to one of the physicians on the PIH team.

They arrived in Melissa’s Subie (no problems with the snowy driveway) just before nightfall and were glad to accept a glass of wine to mellow out from the drive and from their work at PIH, which has been madness since the earthquake in Haiti. Kim was in Port au Prince when the quake hit. The United Nations mission building where she was in a meeting shook but stood solid while other buildings just outside the windows crashed pancake flat to the ground. In the back of her mind Kim remembered advice to get to a doorway, but her legs wouldn’t cooperate as filing cabinets toppled and desks skidded across the room as if fleeing for their lives. Someone yelled to get out of the building and as she dashed for the stairs, a desk slammed into her shin but the bone didn’t break.

Outside the streets were chaos. Kim remembers screams. People running without direction. Confusion. Panic. Disbelief. Haiti has had its share of hurricanes and quakes, but how can anyone get used to feeling the earth come alive under her feet? I’ve always counted on the solidity of rock, always been glad to get off a boat or a carnival ride and set foot on “solid ground.” It seemed that January day in Haiti’s capital that there was no solid ground. Anywhere.

When the shaking subsided, aftershocks continued to topple buildings, trapping people in the debris. The physician Kim works for whirled into action to help the injured, and Kim followed her verbal commands to do whatever she could for others. For three days she didn’t sleep except for a couple hours in the middle of the second night when she nearly collapsed from exhaustion. On the third day she and others who had been at the UN building were ushered to a helicopter and taken to the Dominican Republic. Kim didn’t want to leave. She wanted to stay and help. But she and the others were put on a plane back to Boston.

Since the quake, Kim and Melissa have been working twenty-hour days at PIH. They’ve coordinated flights donated to take medical volunteers to the crisis center on planes owned by Timberland, Fed Ex, and other companies. Celebrities have lent hands, too, like Matt Damon, who personally arranged for a private plane. Lately they’ve been fielding requests from people volunteering to go to Haiti, rejecting all but medical personnel with experience in third world countries. The time will come for those interested in building, but first the injured and ill and about to give birth need attention. And then there is the possibility of virulent diseases caused by unsanitary conditions, dehydration, starvation, and decay. If you go to Haiti anytime soon, Kim says, realize that you may not eat a square meal, sleep in a bed, take a shower, or use a flush toilet for weeks.

Halfway through a second glass of wine we’d finished a plate of cheese and crackers, and the young women headed to Bristol for dinner, ending up at Dan’s Place where there was music and games of pool and laughter and pretty good veggie burgers. When they returned, H turned on the spa jets, and they had a soak under the stars. It was nearly 10:00 this morning when they trudged in from the treehouse, bundled in their down coats, and sat down to frittata, granola, fruit, and hot coffee. I suggested a snowshoe into the woods, but they had work to do and settled on the couch with laptops, iPhones, and binders of documents to collaborate on next week’s PIH business.

I often think I don't do enough to serve the world. But at least I can serve those who serve. At least I can show them how much H and I appreciate the work they do and the generous hearts with which they do it.