There’s a meme going around social media: what advice would you give your younger self. I’m not sure what it’s intended to do. Make you feel better about where you’ve ended up? Or feel worse?
My 20- and 30-something self would be amazed. I never contemplated where my life would take me. I’ve had the unique privilege to leave my job behind, leave the city behind, and start fresh in a new place, though not really new.
I now live in a town it seems no one’s heard of. When I tell people, they give me a blank look. So I’ve taken to calling it Three Pines, after the small Quebec village at the center of Louise Penny’s wonderful Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries. Thankfully, the murder rate is lower than in the real Three Pines since Armand Gamache does not live here (nor is he real, sadly).
Louise Penny’s Three Pines is notable for what it lacks—cell phone service (ditto here), Internet service (at least Three Pines has dial-up as an option), and a spot on a map (I do have that). I wish I had the mullion-windowed bistro of Three Pines, but will have to do without.
These are not why I moved here. I found a home and property I liked. That it is also near a place very dear to me—the Quabbin Reservoir—is a not-insignificant detail. I could have ended up in any number of places out here beyond Worcester, which is the edge of the state for those living and ruling from Boston. But I ended up here. Back here.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, coming out to myself, but to few others, and living a life of miserable loneliness, I found solace in the woods surrounding the massive Quabbin Reservoir where my urban drinking water, some 70 miles away, came from. The stories of the “drowned towns” have been widely told (and someday I may finish my own fictional version)—in the 1930s, four towns were physically dismantled, right down to the graveyards, the Swift River plugged with dams, and the valley filled with water. It’s not the sort of public works project you could get away with today, and it’s heartbreaking what it did to the people who lived here.
In order to maintain the water quality, the state protected the land around the reservoir from what would no doubt have become the rampant sprawl that overtook much of the farmland elsewhere in the state. As a result, Quabbin is surrounded by some of the wildest land remaining in Massachusetts. Bears, turkeys, moose, and bald eagles (with some help) have returned and thrive. So there I tromped through relatively undisturbed woods (other than some, controversial, logging). I learned animal-tracking and photography and followed coyotes and otters on snowshoes and sat by beaver ponds and swatted at deer flies. I stood still while deer grazed nearby and porcupines waddled past my feet. I examined scat so enthusiastically that to this day my friends will point out a pile for me to dissect. I sat at a perfect seat in a stone wall under ancient sugar maples and breathed in the fragrant air so different from the bus fumes at home. Pileated woodpeckers hammered unseen against thick trees.
Quabbin saved my life, perhaps literally. Like many young, shy dykes, I fell for my share of straight women but also suffered failed lesbian relationships as well. I tried to join groups to meet women but never felt I belonged. I’ve since learned there’s a difference between fitting in and belonging. I was a lesbian among lesbians. Of course I fit in. But I never made lasting friends, let alone lovers. So every weekend I could, I drove out to Quabbin and fled into the woods, becoming as shy as a deer. I’d bushwhack off the remnant roads and follow animal trails. I fit in among them better than I did among humans. There, I belonged.
Quabbin comforted me through the deaths of my best friend and of my grandmother, within weeks of each other. One thing was missing, though. As I wrote at the time, there was “a hole in my life big enough for a person to walk through.”
I wanted someone to share it with.
Then I met her.
We went out to Quabbin a few times and she loved it as much as I did, but life intruded and schedules didn’t allow for long day trips where the bugs were plentiful and the bathrooms not so much. As I aged, my knees ached and I doubted I’d ever again walk the two miles to the old Dana Common where I set a couple scenes in my novel, Wishbone. If I couldn’t get there in real life, I decided, I could vicariously through my protagonist.
Call it fate or maybe a latent urge. A few years ago my wife and I visited a friend in one of the “hill towns.” Driving back to the city, I felt depression press on me like the car’s brakes in traffic. My lungs contracted with bus soot. “I want to live out there someday,” I said, not believing it could ever happen.
But it did.
And here we are.
This is arguably my generation’s most challenging times (worse than Vietnam? Watergate?)—the climate! The tweets! The hell so many are being put through because of the insanity of one deranged man! Yet, I find myself in paradise. Yes, I feel guilty.
This is my final home. Maybe. Maybe I’ll become too feeble to descend the hill to the mailbox or to drive—everywhere for everything! Maybe I’ll end up somewhere else, but not yet. For now I’m where I am meant to be. Weirdly.
Aging does things to you. When I was a child and a teacher asked us to calculate how old we’d be in the year 2000, it was incomprehensible to me. Absolutely meaningless.
Now I look back at various times in my life and it’s like looking at someone else. How can that possibly have been me? How can I possibly not still be that young and awkward? Now I’m old and awkward. My journal of my Quabbin walks reads like they happened yesterday. Last May, not 23 years ago!
On one walk I found a stick that a beaver had stripped the bark from. I kept it. It had moved with me from apartment to apartment to house to…here, back where it came from and belongs. Like me.
My advice to my younger self? Don’t despair. Be patient.