On the desk in my study is an Atlas Obscura calendar that captures the sensation of wanderlust in 365 days of color photographs, unique facts, and unexpected adventures. I was delighted to find today’s page dedicated to the extraordinary Dog Chapel in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. The structure was built by internationally-known author and folk artist Stephen Huneck to celebrate the relationship between human and hound. The interior walls are covered in handwritten notes and photographs of cherished dogs and other animals that have passed on, and tables offer treats for canine visitors. A sign outside reads: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed.”
My husband, Gene, and I visited this remarkable place with Mac and Molly, our sibling pair of Old English Sheepdogs. In a podcast (the link for which I’m sharing here), I take you on a tour of the chapel, recall a romp with our M&M, take a peak at what’s on offer in Huneck’s adjacent art gallery, and wrap it all up in an interview with Huneck’s widow Gwen. Take a listen!!
I am a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander. I’ve often used that expression over the years without ever knowing its origin and I never thought to ask other dyed-in-the-wool New Englanders why we refer to ourselves as such. I’d read, at some point, that the expression means “thorough-going and uncompromising” but it wasn’t until today that I found a history of the phrase on Merriam Webster’s website. There I learned that:
“Early yarn makers would dye wool before spinning it into yarn to make the fibers retain their color longer. In 16th-century England, that make-it-last coloring practice provoked writers to draw a comparison between the dyeing of wool and the way children could, if taught early, be influenced in ways that would adhere throughout their lives. In the 19th-century U.S., the wool-dyeing practice put eloquent Federalist orator Daniel Webster in mind of a certain type of Democrat whose attitudes were as unyielding as the dye in unspun wool. Of course, Democrats were soon using the term against their opponents, too, but over time the partisanship of the expression faded and it is now a general term for anyone or anything that seems unlikely or unwilling to change.”
I am one who has had the privilege of travelling extensively over the years – for work and pleasure – and, even now, I am visiting with family 800+ miles south of my beloved New England. I give thanks every day for the treasured times I’ve had at dots on the map from Barcelona to Manila; from Hwange to the Arctic Circle; from Capri to San Francisco; from Florence to Key West; from Death Valley to Half Moon Bay. I could rhapsodize for hours on each and every one of these glorious places and hundreds of others. But, as a storm – and a storm for the books – may be bearing down on New England, I find my wayfarin’ mind and heart and spirit turnin’ home. I’ve been on the road for a while now and, suddenly, I find myself missin’ my New England somethin’ awful.
I miss the culture and intellectual stimulation of Boston and Cambridge and the incomparable beauty of the Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine coastlines. I miss cider donuts and fresh-off-the-tree Macs. I miss my farmers’ markets; I miss my May strawberries. I miss cross-country skiing from pub to pub in North Conway; I miss the apres ski at Sugarbush and Killington. I miss Vermont cheddar, Vermont maple syrup and Vermont maple sugar candy purchased in Vermont. I miss Mystic and Lyme, the Newport “cottages,” and Providence’s Riverwalk and Waterplace Park. I miss the Green Monster, the Boston Public Library, Boston Garden, the Boston Public Gardens, the icky sticky subway, and the “Make Way for Ducklings” statue. I miss the brilliant dome on the Massachusetts Statehouse, Beacon Hill, haddock, fried clams, and the old Filene’s Basement. I miss the MFA and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I miss Irish Pubs especially on St. Pat’s, the Freedom Trail, the sailboats on the Charles, the Hatch Shell, the Symphony and the Boston Pops. I miss the Huntington Theatre and I miss Bunratty’s. I miss Harvard Square, the Flume, the Concord Bridge, Walden Pond and Hampton Beach (where I pastored the most delightful congregation of Baptists). I miss all the folks with whom I made memories in these places. And I miss the comfort in knowing a place and having a place know me.
Today as a blizzard, that may rival the one of ’78, approaches with its threats of 30 plus inches of snow, I think back to the storm of 35 years ago. I was six months pregnant with our daughter, Brooke, living on the North Shore of Boston and making an hour-long trip each day to the South Shore to teach in an alternative high school. The administration dismissed us just a bit early as it became increasingly clear that a real blizzard was moving in. And, though the state was closing the highway – literally – right behind me, I was able to make it home – after several hours – in my Triumph Spitfire (a no-longer-produced vehicle which, as some of you may know, was little more than a go-cart!). Any Triumph devotee will tell you that part of the charm of the car was that you had to have towels at the ready to catch any raindrops or snowflakes coming in where the convertible top met the body. You had to bundle up in the winter because there was just not much of anything to insulate you from the cold. It was very low to the ground – you could stick your arm out the window and push yourself along – and it was so light, it didn’t stand a chance in Hell of holding the road in inclement weather. Oh, how I miss that car!! I really did love it! Anyway, my husband Gene and I had another vehicle at the time – a Blazer – with four-wheel drive and we decided to volunteer with the Red Cross. Gene helped pull folks out of flooded properties on the Lynn shore and I worked to create a shelter – in one of the city’s public schools – for those displaced by the storm. One thing we both remember is that neighbors who barely acknowledged us with a nod or “hello” prior to the storm suddenly became our best buds when they realized we could get out to buy essentials for them. As I recall, they forgot who we were after the storm.
I shouldn’t fail to mention what blizzards can do. Whiteouts can blind you as you’re walking or driving and the snow and cold and gale-force winds can cut – like thousands of tiny pin pricks – into your skin. The roads are especially treacherous and fishtailing is almost to be expected. If the power goes out, it may be days and days before it’s restored. Pipes may freeze, cutting off your water supply and/or flooding your home. While you wait, you toss spoiled food from the non-working refrigerator into the trash. Roofs may collapse. Trees may be toppled. Folks may overdo shoveling and suffer for it. Homes along the coast, rivers and other waterways may become inundated. Folks may need to be evacuated and shelters set up for them. Public transportation may shut down. Flights may be cancelled. Power companies, DPWs, firefighters, police officers and other civic authorities go on overdrive. And there will likely be kids home from school for a good week or more driving themselves and their families crazy with cabin fever.
All that as a given, I would imagine it must seem more than odd, to those accustomed to and ensconced in warmer climes, for me to be waxing poetic over blizzards. But…there is a unity in adversity that binds people together if only till the snow is cleared and, when it’s all over, there are stories to be told.
The Blizzard of ’13 may well be en route but Gene and I won’t be stockin’ up on bread and milk. We won’t be gettin’ out the candles. And, though, we have another four-wheel drive vehicle, we won’t be diggin’ anybody out and we won’t be makin’ snow angels. No throwin’ snowballs. No buildin’ snow forts or scramblin’ over snow banks. No countin’ how many shovelfuls of snow we’ve tossed. The dogs won’t be leapin’ over snow drifts and we won’t have to avoid eatin’ yellow snow. We won’t be sharin’ storm stories with the neighbors, the bagger at the grocery, or friends on the phone.
I pray everyone stays safe and that all use good judgment in the days ahead. And I hope our loved ones up there will think of me missin’ all the hunkerin’ down in front of the “fiahh” waitin’ to see just how wicked big the “stawm” will be. Make sure you’ve figured out a way to heat up the Dunks should the power go out. I’ll be thinkin’ of you as you wait on those calls cancellin’ school or work and, please, think of me missin’ you and all of this. I’m still dyed-in-the-wool but I can only be there with you – in my woolies – in my dreams. I’ll be watchin’ the weather and toastin’ you with hot chocolate (or, more likely, a glass of wine)!