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Going Home

We are fortunate to own some land in Maine. It is a 48-acre lot with a river providing one side of the lot and a stream on bounding the other side. We bought the land around 30 years ago for $200/acre. Yes, you read that correctly – crazy isn’t it? And at that, as I was deciding this was the lot for us, the agent said: “That lot is $8000.” I was completely taken aback because 48 acres at $200 doesn’t equal $8000 and so I asked what I was missing. He barely blinked an eye and said: “I sell in 10-acre increments; 48 is less than 50 so it is a 40-acre lot and is $8000.”

We bought the land sight unseen, just based upon the maps. And the primary purpose of buying the land was as an investment with hopes it would appreciate and we could sell it to pay for the kids’ college bills. Well, ultimately we never sold it. When the college bills began the land had not risen sufficiently in value to seriously consider selling. And I knew we couldn’t replace it.

Upon leaving the realtor, we decided to try to go see it and headed to the town the land where the land was located. We were able to only get a mile or so up the logging road before the mud and snow stopped us, so we walked the last couple of miles. We hit pockets of snow that were literally hip deep on me. Impossible to see the ground of course, it was under all that snow so we were constantly tripping over rocks and logs or branches. And then there were those pockets of snow which had puddles hidden beneath them leaving our shoes and feet soaking wet. But we finally reached the land, and while we saw very little of it, we saw enough to allow us to drive back to Rhode Island happy and comfortable that we had bought something worth having.

Now an important point here: the land was part of a huge multi-thousand acre lot that had been logged and was now being sub-divided and sold. When we bought it, the way into the lot was over two miles on a rutted dirt logging road. And the land itself looked like a war zone; ruts and tears in the earth, limbs and logs laying everywhere, just almost total destruction. But….the law prohibits logging within a certain distance of rivers and streams, so I knew we’d have relatively unspoiled forest on at least two sides, and we did. And of course, the rest would regrow.

There is something deeply and inherently calming, satisfying, perhaps….reassuring, about owning you own land. Taxes aside, no one can ever take it away from you – you always have a place to go to live. And that was important to us initially as we were renting when we bought the land; this lot was ours and was the only place we knew we could go to and call home no matter what. We visited the land often those first 5 or 10 years of owning it; the kids were young and always up for an adventure. We drive up there, have a campfire and eat, then swim in the river and the kids would play in the small waterfall. Then we’d drive back to town and sleep in a hotel. If it was just Teri and I, we’d sometimes just sleep in the van on the land. We cut trails from the road to the river at the little waterfall for our campfire spot and spent hours just generally cleaning up the land.

But as it always does, the daily minutia of life piled up and we got too busy to go up to the land. The drive was between five and six hours each way and with work getting busier and more time consuming, it made getting up there really difficult. We either drove up Saturday and back Sunday, which consumed almost half the weekend with driving, or it meant working all day Friday, leaving here by 5PM in hopes of checking into a hotel by 11PM. Then Saturday on the land and home Sunday. Money was getting tight then too; we were saving to buy a home in RI and trying to save for college as well, so the gas and hotel bills increasingly became an undesirable drain on the finances. And once we bought a house here, that effectively ended our trips to the land.

Fast forward something like 20 years (or maybe more – not sure) and now that I am retired, time is again my ally. So we headed up for a really short trip – two days – one up and one back – just to see the land and how it had changed. I did not bring a chainsaw or ax or any other tools to cut or clear the land; this was more to see and absorb what time had done to our little forest.

So, another comment needed here: when I bought the land they told me I could obtain a 96% reduction in property tax by developing and adhering to a forest growth management plan. I hired a professional forester and he developed a plan for me and ever since, the forest has been in active regrowth. So we knew going back up that we would see a huge difference in the land. And we were not disappointed – more to come on that shortly!

Another comment: my son had been on the land, several times, long after we stopped going up. His cousin lives in Maine so he and his friends would drive up to Maine and see his cousin and then go fish and camp on the land and he described the road in as being increasingly difficult to navigate. Then last year, my daughter and her boyfriend went up to Maine and while up there, they wanted to see the land but they were unable to get in – there was a locked gate across the road. So before this trip up there, I called the town hall and got the name of the land owner who had installed the gate and was able to reach him. He agreed to meet us at the gate Monday afternoon to let us in and promised to have a key made for me as well. The backstory here is that Maine folks love hunting – it is a really big deal to them. And this whole area is prime hunting grounds. As he put it: “you wait all year for the chance get a hunting license and then you get out on your land and find a stranger perched in your tree stand hunting the bear you spent weeks baiting – just not right.” So he gated the road, about a mile from our land. There are probably five or six camps between the gate and our land and they all had keys, but since we never went up there anymore, he hadn’t given us a thought. I actually appreciate having the gate as it does help hold our property more secure, even though I don’t hunt and have little concern about people coming onto the land.

The way there, once on the local town roads, was only dimly familiar; some things rang a bell and struck a chord, but others were new or too changed to recognize. We turned onto the road in and were happy to see that there were very nice houses a mile or so in, none of which were there the last time we were there. And the last time we were there, power was at almost three miles from our land; now it runs right to the gate a mile from our land – cable too! So there had been great progress in the birth of what had been a desolated wasteland from logging – very exciting! And the road – I think I could have driven a MINI all the way in, except maybe the last ¼ mile or so; the 4WD truck had no issues at all, people had done a remarkable job of making the rutted old logging road into a well maintained dirt road.

Most of the drive in on the dirt road was completely alien to us; nothing was familiar. What had once looked like a Martian landscape was now fully wooded with magnificent white and silver birch trees, pines and hemlocks, and oaks and maples, interspersed with an occasional camp tucked into the trees. In one area, what had been a boggy, swampy, wet area that we always used to struggle to get through was now a firm elevated dirt road with a beaver pond on one side and wetlands on the other, complete with two massive beaver lodges.

We got to the gate a few minutes early but he pulled up shortly after and we exchanged introductions. As with almost everyone I’ve ever met in Maine, he was a down to earth and friendly man; hard working, a hunter (as previously mentioned), and deeply respectful and appreciative of the woods and nature. He had not managed to get a key made for me yet, so he agreed to meet us at the gate the next morning to let us in again. With that he unlocked the gate and we headed off in opposite directions.

The final mile in was mesmerizing, so much growth and rebirth of the forest. We passed a handful of camps, none of which had existed the last time we were up there, and were especially taken with the quality of the road, this last mile of which had always been dodgy at best to drive upon. The way the trees lined and overhung the road was almost stately and completely alien to how it had once looked, barren and stripped from logging.

And then we were there. The old rutted logging road that ran through the length of our lot was no longer dirt; due to almost no traffic now, it was a grassy lane, still open as this is the only way in for the guy who owns the lot behind ours. There was one area that was still wet and muddy down at the back end of the land; it was hard to picture it but I am certain this was the near 100’ mud puddle that had tadpoles in it when we first bought the land. It was now just 30’ of two muddy tracks leading to the neighbor’s land along with some telltale marsh grasses and suggestions of its former glory of mud.

Finding the waterfall and old campfire spot proved to be a little more difficult, at least from the dirt road. I wasn’t exactly certain where to go in to hit the spot and any paths we had once made were long gone. Ultimately we just made our way to the river and then walked the bank to the ledge where the waterfall and campfire site are located. Our firepit of river rocks was still there, its use obviously perpetuated through the years by others who have used our land for hunting or fishing. To walk this river again, first walked in when I was around 30 years old, now in my 60’s, was a lot to process emotionally. In fact more so for Teri who cried as we preparing to leave on Tuesday. The last time we had been there we were young, strong, and full of hope and excitement for the future. All four of our parents were alive – not just alive but happy, healthy, and hale. The kids were young and unaffected by the scars life inevitably inflicts on all of us, as mostly were we. Cutting through the logging refuse and remains ad through the woods and vines was far easier then, without a thought in fact.

The land was fully back to a Maine forest, to the extent that I am not fully certain you would ever know that the land had been so thoroughly decimated by the logging operations. And it was spectacular. For those hours on the land I was the luckiest man on earth. To roam the land, follow the river, and absorb all that beauty and know that is belongs to you is a feeling I wish for every human on earth to experience in their lifetime.

We’ll go back; probably not this year but surely in the spring, after the snow has melted and at least some of the spring floods and mud are past. Time is short for us and I want to be able to enjoy it more thoroughly before I am too old to get up there and get around on it. The power of the forest, of the deep woods, is both powerful and intoxicating – always. But that is intensified a thousand times over when it is your own land. Your chest swells a little bit, you walk a little taller, and you feel empowered somehow. I believe this to be more of a vestigial reaction than anything else. I feel as if it is a throwback to what our early, early ancestors felt as they learned to live in harmony with the land and nature that comes with it; it is, I believe, a feeling buried deeply within all of us and one we should all have the privilege of experiencing again. I wish this for you dear reader, to recall that feeling from the past, when cellphones and computers and electronics didn’t exist and survival depended on getting shelter, heat, and food/water. When you alone were responsible for your life. A harder time, but a nobler time and a simpler time. The feelings and values bred during those times deserve to be honored and remembered.

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