North of Boston

August 14, 2005

One of the things I’ve learned from the scrapbooking hobby I dabble in is that, when it comes to the family photographs that have been stuffed hapharzardly in drawers, sometimes for years, you need to get current and stay current, and then go back and catalog one envelope at a time of the past.

I’m in Vermont tonight, at the start of the final two weeks of my Summer 2005 Gallivanting. At the end of this period I will have been away from home for 34 of the 92 days of summer, first in Wyoming, then a brief trip to Massachusetts, and now, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which begins on Wednesday.

I have three more pieces to finish about the Wyoming trip and something to say about Massachusetts. But I’ve decided it’s best to just get started on the Vermont experience. Get current, stay current, and fill in the gaps later.

I’m taking the title of this piece, “North of Boston,” from the volume by Robert Frost published in 1914 that established his mature voice and made him a force in twentieth century American poetry. I’m on something of a Frost quest this year. He is, of course, intimately associated with Bread Loaf. The farm he lived on during the summers is only a little way down the road. And there is a lovely interpretive trail nearby, a nature walk that illustrates spots with extracts from his poetry. Jay Parini, a Frost scholar and biographer, will be at Bread Loaf again. And I have some time tomorrow to visit the Frost museum and grave site in Shaftsbury.

I am, actually, way north (and west) of Boston. Bread Loaf takes place on a mountain campus about ten miles from the town of Middlebury (and eight miles from the Old Hancock Hotel on the corner of Routes 125 and 100, where I stay). It’s 430 miles north and only a little west of where I live.

The drive takes nine hours. Mapquest says six and a half, but they don’t allow for stopping for refreshment, missing the turn (again) for 100 North, and navigating the stretch of that road between Rutland and Hancock in a driving rain (again). Vermont has signs advising that a given thoroughfare is a “long winding road.” It’s said that Paul McCartney was inspired by the B842, a thirty-one mile stretch in Scotland that winds from Kintyre into Campbelltown, as well as the impending breakup of the Beatles. The song hit number one in the US on June 13, 1970, while I was recovering from a breakup of my own. The first time I saw the sign at the base of the mountain I burst into tears.

My companion on this long drive was Joan Allen, by way of her recorded reading of Unless, the last novel by Carol Shields, who died in 2003. Allen is a superb reader, and the book held me spellbound. It’s about a writer endeavoring to finish the sequel to her well-received first novel while dealing with the decision by her twenty-year-old daughter to drop out of school and devote her time to begging on the streets of Toronto.

Just before I left I reviewed the ambitious things I had to say about my plans to write a novel between Bread Loaf 2004 and Bread Loaf 2005. I didn’t do it. I failed not because I have no talent but because I just didn’t try. I stalled and procrastinated and made excuses. It might be true that I have no talent. It’s time to find out, finally, if I do.

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