Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Some events are unplanned (and unwelcome)

Sarah and Brian arrived at Fern Forest last weekend in a cute Mini Cooper AWD, which trundled up our snowy driveway without a slip. They’re event planners in Massachusetts and organize corporate conferences and festivals for thousands of people—sometimes as many as a hundred thousand. Imagine arranging venues and hotel reservations, designing registration folders with name tags and itineraries, planning meals, scheduling talks and workshops, solving a myriad of problems and answering a hailstorm of questions. Imagine the rise in blood pressure, the surging anxiety.
Three weeks earlier, they would have driven their SUV, but there had been an accident. Sarah was driving while Brian reclined in the passenger seat, asleep. They were on the highway, returning from a trip, and Sarah had her ear tuned to the voice of the GPS device to guide her home. When the GPS lady told her to turn right, which would take them south, Sarah knew she should be going north. Could there be a glitch in the satellite signal?
            We don’t use GPS devices in our part of Vermont. Some roads that used to be thoroughfares are now horse paths or hiking trails. The steepest, most winding mountain roads are closed in winter, but the GPS doesn’t read signs and will lead a trusting driver straight into a wall of packed snow where the plow stops.
            I once used GPS in a car I rented in Louisville to find my way to a book festival. I don’t know Louisville roads and the device’s voice spoke in what sounded like a Liverpudlian accent. By the time I got close enough to match the street signs with the nasally voice, I was usually in the wrong lane and the woman was “recalculating.” I prefer to sit down with a map the night before a trip and memorize the route. Even so, I often get lost and have to ask some benevolent local for directions, in which case all I’ve lost is a bit of time.
            Concerned that the mechanical voice was heading her into uncharted territory, Sarah took her focus from the road just long enough to look at the animated map on the GPS screen.
            Not two seconds.
            When she looked back at the road, she was careening at seventy miles per hour straight toward the tailgate of a pickup stopped dead ahead. Thankfully, there was no time to swerve because SUVs have been known to overturn at high speed jerks of the wheel. Thankfully, too, her seatbelt was fastened.
            Just before impact, she looked over at Brian, his seatbelt stretched and locked eight inches above his sleeping body.
            When the SUV slammed into the pickup, its airbags inflated, saving Sarah’s pretty face from smashing into the windshield. The seatbelt left a bruise across her chest for weeks afterward. Brian woke up as his body crashed into his seatbelt, fracturing his sternum. The SUV was destroyed. The driver of the pickup was uninjured and the truck had only minor damage.
            An ambulance took Brian to the hospital and after a few days he was released with a fistful of painkillers. He had to train himself to sleep on his back, what little sleep he got.
The visit to Fern Forest was elixir for him. The first night was windy, and the creaking of the treehouse woke him several times. The second night was calm, and he said it was the best sleep he’s had since the accident.
Most days, Brian and Sarah spend their time tending to the edification and enjoyment of other people. I’m glad that for one brief weekend we could provide them an intermission, a chance to look around and breathe in stillness, a chance to feel grateful for being alive.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Panning for Vermont Gold

I was coming down with the flu and in bed when the Russians arrived for a stay in the treehouse. I heard the front door open, the clamor of suitcases and greetings, and a little feminine voice say, “Hi! What’s upstairs?”
            We’ll call the girl Verushka. She had just turned a precocious seven. H hadn’t said anything about the guests bringing a child, and when I heard her traipsing up the stairs, I pulled up the covers and pretended to be asleep.
            It was Monday. We don’t usually take guests during the week, but H thought the Russians sounded interesting, so he accepted them. They booked the treehouse for three nights.
            When I heard Verushka’s parents—Elana and Nureyev, we’ll call them—peppering H with questions, I rolled out of bed and went downstairs to help him entertain, tissue held tightly to my nose. The only Russian words I know are “do svidaniya,” and when I said it, Verushka laughed.
            “We just got here,” she said.
            “That means goodbye,” Elana said.
            “Oh,” I said. “Then how do you say welcome?”
            “Privetstviye.” Copying Elana’s pronunciation was beyond me, and I found that a smile and a nod worked just as well.
          H put out cheese and crackers, and Elana disappeared into the guest room to make some phone calls. She manages a team of web designers and needed to make sure everyone was on task. Nureyev gave Verushka his cell phone to keep her occupied with games while he talked about his own web business. When I told him I have a blog, he said he knows someone who makes half a million a year blogging.
“Where does the money come from?” I asked.
Nureyev was vague about the source of the fortune but said one gets advertisers by writing posts everyone wants to read, as if that’s as easy as splicing a comma.
            Just as I was getting interested, Verushka complained, “No one’s talking to me. Why does my father get to do all the talking? He’s always talking.”
            H scooted over to sit beside her on the couch. I wondered if it was her bedtime yet.
            I offered Nureyev a glass of wine or a shot of bourbon, but he said, “I drink three quarters of a bottle of vodka before I feel anything, and then I just feel bad.”
            Fine with me. I didn’t have any vodka anyway.
            Elana finished her calls and sat down to eat some cheese. We suggested some local restaurants for dinner, but Nureyev said the cheese was sufficient. Elana had brought a cooler of snacks from Brooklyn to eat in the treehouse in case they got hungry later. It was early winter, the time mice come in to warm up, and I hoped our local rodent population had no appetite for Russian nibbles.
            Normally I’m a patient B&B host, but I wondered why this family had chosen to stay in a treehouse if they were going to spend all their time in our living room. Thankfully, two hours later—after the cheese plate was empty—they retired to their lofty quarters for the night.
            At nine the next morning, Elana and Verushka came in from the treehouse. Elana helped Verushka dress and braided her long brown hair. We asked if Nureyev was getting up soon, but Elana said he was sleeping in and they’d have breakfast without him. I wasn’t feeling much better, but I helped H serve breakfast, making sure not to sneeze into the granola. After the dishes were cleaned up, Nureyev still had not appeared, and I suggested Elana, Verushka and I go for a walk. It was a bright, cold day, and Elana tied Verushka’s purple hiking boots and off we went, Verushka dressed in purple coat and hat to match her boots.
            I planned to take them a couple miles up a country road to see some horses and the mountain views, but after half a mile Verushka lagged behind. When Elana couldn’t coax her any farther, we ambled back. By the time we returned, a little after eleven, Nureyev was up and hungry as a bear. H fed him the cheese omelet and bacon he had kept warm, and I tried to hold up my wilted end of the conversation while Elana and Verushka went out to straighten their things in the treehouse.
            “What is this white stone in the yard?” Nureyev asked.
            “It’s quartzite,” I said, “brought here by glaciers thousands of years ago.”
            “Probably from the west,” he said. “There was a gold rush here two centuries ago. There is gold in your white rock.”
            “There is?” I said. “Gold?”
            “Probably. Gold, yes. Have you panned in the streams? There must be gold in the streams.”
            “No, I haven’t panned,” I told him.
            “You might have a fortune here.”
            Nureyev is a burly man with a bushy beard. He ate every strip of bacon, the omelet and several slices of toast.
“Where is the closest panning shop?” he asked between mouthfuls. I told him I didn’t think we had panning shops in Vermont. He checked his phone and found a place on the other side of the Green Mountains where he could buy such a pan, much to our surprise.
Sometime in the afternoon, after Verushka showed me a few ballet postures, they took off for a hike and some gold panning. That evening they returned, having no luck at the pan shop, which was long closed, but they had gone down to the New Haven River to hang out and sort through rocks. From somewhere Nureyev had procured a mason jar and filled it with river mud, which he was convinced contained gold. He planned to take it back to New York and have it tested and would let us know if he found the precious metal.
I’ve since discovered that Nureyev may be on to something. In the 1860s, more than five hundred prospectors came to central Vermont seeking gold. The Great Appalachian Gold Belt runs along the Green Mountains, and some veins have been found in the last few years as the ground has shifted. Panning for gold is legal in Vermont, and those with enough patience have found flakes and even nuggets but so small one needs tweezers to pick them out—hardly worth the effort. Gold does indeed hide in quartzite, as Nureyev said, but getting the metal out of the rock is tricky and can cost more than the gold itself. It’s better to wait for a sale at the local jewelers.  
On their final morning, Elana packed up, and Nureyev carried his precious jar of river mud to the car. Before he left, he told us, “My other interest is knives. I like sharp knives. Japan has the best knife sharpeners in the world. I take trips to Japan just to have my knives sharpened.”
I’m rather glad Nureyev didn’t spring his knife fascination on us any earlier.
As they drove off, I yelled, “do svidaniya”—and this time I meant it.