• Home on the Range

    Every Memorial Day weekend, the next town over puts on a chicken and biscuit dinner at the firehouse. It's a fundraiser for the department and draws 300 or 400 locals: farmers, tradesmen, and a large retired population. Admission is $7 for adults and $4.50 for children, and for that you get a split biscuit the size of a moon pie, two ladles of creamed chicken, an ice-cream scoop each of mashed potato and corn pudding, and a helping of beets. Coleslaw is served in separate plastic cups, and coffee is poured at the table. You can also get all the sweetened iced tea you can drink.

    This year, our family showed up 15 minutes late (chicken dinners always start promptly at 5 p.m.) only to find that the firehouse was already packed and some folks had already eaten and left. Harley, a local farmer, had eaten his share and was headed toward his pickup, and Charlie Bentley, looking well-fed, was holding a piece of chocolate cream pie wrapped in plastic as he headed out the door. I asked Harley why he got there so early and he said, "Well, I want to have my choice of desserts." The kids and I scooted over to the pie table, and I was relieved to see plenty of inventory: Apple, rhubarb/apple, cherry, blueberry, lemon meringue, and chocolate were still available. Each one was made with a homemade crust, and I can personally vouch for the cherry and rhubarb/apple. Everybody in the country likes a good feed, and that's exactly what we got: real good home-cooked food.

    This small Vermont town wouldn't look like much if you were just passing through, but you might notice that it had three churches; Sherman's Country Store (which doubles as a weigh-in station for large game and where you sign up for the buckboard in the fall); a library (which shows films one Saturday night per month); two post offices; more than one sap house; a working farm owned by the Lourie brothers; and, if you get way back up into the mountains, a pretty fancy house or two owned by people from out of state. But if you spend time here, you realize that Debbie, who helps run Sherman's, has a nice smile and easygoing manner; that Axel, who runs one of the sap houses, has a unique approach to life ("Don't borrow money, and always expect the best of people"); and that despite Charlie Sherman's gruff manner and sharp wit, he has a quiet, gentle way about him. You might also run into Don Lewis, the town surveyor, who leaves memorable recordings on his answering machine ("You've reached Don, and the frost is on the pumpkin"), or the old-timer up the road who left one side of his house unfinished so he wouldn't have to pay a higher assessment. In the summer, the town holds a fireman's parade with trucks from all over, but the highlight is the homemade floats: burning houses; old Chevies painted like sharks chasing kids in cardboard dinghies; and, in the wake of 9/11, a patriotic display with more than one woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

    Home is an overused term but still a powerful idea. When Jim Nabors sings about his Indiana home (he isn't even from Indiana) at the start of the Indy 500, the crowd goes wild. Anyone who grew up anywhere near Kentucky can't help getting a tear in the eye at the first note or two of "My Old Kentucky Home." The concept of home even applies to horses. In Argentina, gauchos refer to the region where a horse is born as the querencia. (Querer means "to love.") In the days before fences, a horse would always try to return to its querencia because it was home, the place a horse knew by the quality of light in the early morning, the taste of the grass, and the look of the hills-- all things a horse never forgets.

    As for my home, I can't forget the mad rush of Baldwin Brook after a big rain; the luminous emerald of the Green River; the scent of pines on top of Red Mountain; the sound of prayer bells from the local Carthusian monastery; the sight of a half-dozen red-tailed hawks spiraling up into invisibility; the rich, damp smell from a stand of fern; the taste of fiddleheads and wild watercress; the feeling of being on top of a horse in high pasture, looking down across New York State toward the Adirondacks; and the unworldly sight of a cloud of mist advancing up our valley, turning orange in the sunset. Home is where you get your first kiss and make your last stand. It's the place where you are accepted and forgiven, any foolishness swept away, as the minister promises down at the Methodist Church. It's an appealing notion, one that carries me through to coffee hour and doughnuts.

    Today it's raining. I'm headed out with Charlie, my 8-year-old, on a fishing trip up to the small pond in the upper cow pasture. In the old Ford pickup, we pass the pigs; his horse, Paint; the two beefers across the road; the chickens down by Jean's; the crabapple trees in full soggy bloom; the swamp where we go rabbit hunting in the fall; Nate's sap house; the old Smith farm where Harley grew up; and then up a muddy track to the pond. Charlie is excited by the prospects as we drive up through a narrow lane of freshly leafed poplar and birch, chattering excitedly about the trout and bass waiting for us up ahead.

    I look over and see a towheaded kid who has found a home in these hills. Years from now and miles away, he will wake up dreaming of his querencia, with the taste of buttermilk biscuits in his mouth, the glow of a wood fire in his eyes, and the keening of hawks in his memory. He will start the long voyage home to his old bed, the house framed by green pasture, a fringe of white birch, and the fading blue of twilight. And then, at the edge of sleep, he might remember a rainy day with his dad, a fishing trip, and a small trout that was caught and released, a flash of silver in the dark water as he headed happily back home.

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