Monday, December 28, 2009

When Mike arrived he couldn’t get his larger tractor around my truck, so he used my tractor to clear more snow from the road and we got my truck out easily. I drove it up to the hay barn and walked back to my tractor, which I drove back to my pickup. I loaded the tractor bucket up with a few things and then drove it up to the house, unloaded, and got back to work on the road. Mike thought I would do better with a different angle on the scraper blade, but the heavy snow didn’t care what angle I used. I got a little off with each pass and decided to quit at 3:30 so I could head to the I-81 truck stop and get more diesel for my tractor. Mike had said the roads were much better and my pickup did fine once I got to the outer gate. When I returned, I loaded the tractor bucket with the diesel and was home before dark.
Monday morning was the time to head south, so after doing a few passes with the tractor, I loaded the bucket with a big bag of clothes and then put my computer bag and my saxophone on top. I’m not sure how many times a tractor bucket has held a saxophone and a laptop but it can’t be many. I’m sure I would have provided some wonderful comic relief if anyone was watching, but there were only bovine observers.
I was on my way and the trip was a great success, hiking in the Congaree National Park near Columbia, eating at the Motor Supply Company in the Vista section of town, and strolling the West Columbia Riverwalk. I played some golf each day and then headed back to Charlotte so I could get back early on Thursday when more bad weather was expected.
On Thursday early afternoon, I visited several friends I had expected to see that evening and on Christmas, exchanged gifts and then drove back to the hollow before the bad weather set in. I had hoped that the satellite dish (set up when I was diagnosed with cancer) would be back working, but no luck there so I turned on the DVD player and watched one of my favorites, Remains of the Day.
The bad weather never really came so on Friday I went into town and saw Avatar, the special effects stunning. The weather crisis seemed over for now but it wasn’t even January, the usual start of the snow season.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

On Monday, December 14, it was time to focus on my greatest fear, the return of the cancer. After meeting with Dr. Stoeckle, (the robust and skilled surgeon who had done the colon resection two years ago and was going to do the colonoscopy on Friday), I had to have blood work done the next day at 2 pm. I am uncomfortable about needles, especially after the five months of chemotherapy, but fortunately, I was going to get all the tests I would need in the next month done at same time (for my hypothyroidism, the tumor marker test, and the two tests for the colonoscopy). Drawing the blood went well enough, and now the wait till Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 to get the results. My real concern was the tumor marker test, which would indicate if the cancer had returned but I felt much better than in the past about the outcome. I was very active, and the earlier tests (done every four months) had been fine. I called about 3:45 and finally got the results a little after 4:00, which were all good. My regular doctor, Rob Solomon, had said that if the cancer were to come back, it would likely not come back in the colon, so the tumor marker test had been worrying me more than the colonoscopy.
As a present to myself, I had planned a visit to Charleston, South Carolina, for five days, and I was supposed to leave on Saturday morning. I was looking forward to bike riding, kayaking near Folly Island, a visit to the Plantation Grill, golf and walking the beach. But on Thursday, I found out that a massive snow storm was predicted for Friday after 4:00 pm. That shouldn’t have affected the colonoscopy—that was scheduled at 11:15—but it could affect my trip. I reworked things a little and instead of leaving Saturday, I would leave Sunday by 2:00 and just make it to Charlotte. The prep for a colonoscopy is probably the worst part and by 2:30 on Thursday, I found out that I was now the ninth patient that Dr. Stoeckle would see and my appointment had been pushed back till 1:00. It still seemed like I could be done before the snow began, and get home to start clearing the road with my farm tractor (not recommended after anaesthesia, but in the past I have been fine). However, when I called at 12:00 as recommended, the scheduling person said that I wouldn’t get in before 4:00 and perhaps much later. That news meant my ride was probably out (my friend had to get back to Roanoke before the snow) and it didn’t look like I could even get back to the hollow, which could mean real problems with getting the snow off if it froze, making the tractor’s scraper blade virtually useless. I called Rob Solomon, and he said he would talk to Stoeckle and make sure I wasn’t going to be cancelled (this would mean I would have to do the blood work and the prep again). I had now been without food since 9:00 on Thursday morning and without water since 6:00 am Friday. Rob called and said that I wouldn’t be cancelled and that he would be glad to drive me home after the procedure. But then the snow began around 2:00 and I could tell that it would be crazy to try to get Rob to drive me home. I called my friend Mike who worked on the farm next to my property and he said he could probably come over and clear the snow on Saturday, so I accepted Rob’s offer to stay at his house that evening.
Finally I was taken into the pre-op room around 3:00, and then a nurse came in to start my IV. Unfortunately, I clenched my hand and the vein she tried blew. I was now on the verge of tears and about to run off, but Rob appeared and the anaesthesiologist came in and she quickly got the IV in. I called her an angel and I began to relax. I chatted with Rob and at 4:15 I went in and by 5:00 I was done and all was well.
I stayed at Rob’s and helped shovel some snow from his driveway even though he thought I shouldn’t do any shoveling since I had just had a colonoscopy. I certainly couldn’t let him shovel alone and the exercise made me feel better.
By late afternoon the next day, after helping build an igloo for his son Noah, I decided I could make it back home. The roads were not in good shape once I left Blacksburg but there were other occasional cars so I kept going and reached Ellett about 4:30. I had about 4 miles to drive (normally 10 minutes at most), but the road had become a single lane with banks of snow on either side. I was on the verge of panic, but I didn’t want to turn around and go back, so I pushed on and amazingly no one else appeared. When I got to the farmer’s gate (two miles from my home), I was elated—at least for a minute or two.
Mike had warned me that he wasn’t sure I could get to the hay barn (about ¾ of a mile from the log house), but my luck held as I stayed in the tire tracks of Mike’s truck until the last hill before the barn. Here the steepness and the heavy snow (we would get over 20 inches) stopped my pickup and slid me slightly off the main path. I knew I wasn’t getting out so I called Mike to see if I would be blocking him but he said I would be fine since no one was coming out till 2:00 the next day. It was twilight, and I still had to walk almost a mile through 20 inches of snow. I quickly filled my day pack with my laptop and a few folders and started to the hollow. I had to move very slowly mainly because of the snow but also because of my arthritic knee. By the time I reached my gate, it was almost dark and I still had 4/10 of a mile to hike in. I had taken a couple of advils but my knee was beginning to hurt more and more. I was pretty sure I was going to make it, but I also knew I was moving very, very slowly. I went on for fifty yards then rested, then thirty yards but finally the sight of my house cheered me and the last 150 yards proved easier.
When I got in the house, I realized that I should have accepted Rob’s invitation to stay another night in Blacksburg. I still had a truck stuck in a snow bank and I would have to wait for Mike to show up with his tractor to pull me unless I could dig myself out with my own tractor. However, I wasn’t even sure my tractor, a 35 horsepower John Deere, would be able to handle this much snow. At least I was safe at home and after a good night’s sleep things would look better.
As soon as light came I dressed up in my snow clothes, heavy boots with an insulated farmer john oversuit and two sets of gloves. Having worked through a number of ice and snow storms, I knew how cold it could be on my tractor, which had no warming enclosure. A sleet storm was the worst as it stung my face and blinded me. This morning was simply cold, and after I dug out the tractor barn doors, the big test came. Happily, my tractor pushed through the heavy snow with ease, but as soon as I lowered the scraper blade, it skidded and slowed. I saw that I would have to take off a couple of inches with each pass, and that would take hours but it would work. After numerous passes down to the gate (going uphill was virtually useless), I had most of the snow off and I headed for my truck to see if perhaps I could get it out myself. The sun had come out and I tried to appreciate the stunning terrain but my truck’s predicament kept pushing through the snow-clad pines.
I cleared out as much as I could with the tractor, then shoveled the rest. My plan was to leave the truck in neutral with the brake off and, after attaching a long chain I use for such events, see if the tractor could pull the truck out. When I backed up and put pressure on the chain, the tractor wheels simply slipped. I would have to get down to bare earth to have a chance, but I decided to wait for Mike, who was going to be out in less than an hour. I sat in my warm truck practicing my soprano saxophone (I performed regularly at a restaurant in Blacksburg with an outstanding jazz guitarist). I thought living by myself in the hollow would be an adventure and the last couple of days proved that.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The end of any relationship is almost always a sad moment. But when the separation is the end of a dream, and the abandonment by a partner, the effects are even more difficult. I am the one abandoned after 15 years, but the dream was that of my partner, of raising goats and sheep and making cheese, and her decision has a logic that evades my scrutiny, and that of my friends.
However interesting, that story will have to wait, for my focus is going to be on where her flight has left me: 58 years old, two years clean from colon cancer, an arthritic knee, and now living by myself again on 140 acres of land in an isolated hollow with patchy cell phone reception and no neighbors within a mile.
In my mid-forties I had lived in the hollow for eight years in a 16 x 20 cabin without running water. My first book, In Search of the Wild, documented those ambitious years, and I knew even then that I had to try my Thoreauvian experiment or it might never happen.
Now, after six years of living with my partner in a small log house we had had built, a dwelling that used solar power and possessed the basic amenities, I was back to living in the hollow by myself, a daunting prospect.
Of course, I could sell the property and move into an easier place. My old house, an A-frame on North Fork Road, was available for a reasonable price, but I didn’t want to leave the hollow yet. Our plan, after my cancer and knee problems, had been to stay in the hollow for another four or five years, during which we would find the perfect land for maintaining a few animals and building a new and larger house. That plan was gone with her inexplicable departure and her purchase of an expensive house in downtown Blacksburg. She offered to give me the log house if I would just pay off her mortgage, but I wanted her to get her fair share and so after taking on her mortgage I signed a note to pay her a very substantial amount of money when I finally sold the hollow. It means I am heavily in debt but it seemed the right thing to do. Now my new journey begins.
After bidding my partner goodbye and good luck on November 13—I let her stay with me for almost two months while she closed on her house—I headed down to Charlotte so I wouldn’t be there while she was packing up and moving her stuff. As I drove, a number of fears began to arise, and I was glad my main fear was the kayak trip I was heading to at the new U. S. National Whitewater Center. I have never been a very good kayaker, but at 58 my muscle tone was diminished and my confidence much less than it had been forty years ago, when I started taking on Freight Train Rapids on the Contoocook in New Hampshire.
During the summer I had run Montana’s Stillwater in my inflatable Aire Force, a boat that could handle up to class IV water, and then ten miles of the McKenzie in Oregon. In my earlier days I would run by myself, and I encountered a number of tricky situations. Now I paid for a raft trip and paddled my boat near one of the rafts just in case I got in trouble.
The week before I had visited the Whitewater Center for the first time and been quite impressed. It was no Disney ride, and I had my usual mixture of excitement and trepidation. When I got there I was nervous—a number of people were watching—but after making my first run, everything went well. The other kayakers were helpful and I ran the class III section seven times before they shifted the water to the class IV run. I was exhausted and had to jump in the back of my truck (where I have a bed) and nap for an hour before I could do anything else. I was clearly 58.
With the kayaking over, my fears about living alone in the hollow reemerged. I was not especially worried about the lack of human contact. After all, I had lived in my cabin for eight years and I enjoyed the solitude. However, for the past six years I had a partner with me, and she was usually there when I had to run the farm tractor when it snowed or when I had to use the chainsaw to cut a tree that had fallen across the road, almost a half mile stretch where my cell phone didn’t work at all. If I got in trouble with the tractor (any farmer will tell you how dangerous a tractor can be) or the chain saw, there would be no one to help me and no way to contact anyone. Fortunately, I can drive the tractor very slowly, thus greatly reducing the possibility of an accident even if it leaves me out in the snow for a longer period, and I do have Stihl Kevlar chain saw pants and gloves. There is one sewn up slash in those pants where I slipped once and without the Kevlar would have suffered a deep gash in my thigh. The Kevlar fibers stopped the blade before it touched my skin. Now I would have to be even more careful with the saw.
The other concerns of the hollow didn’t bother me too much. My arthritic knee made it difficult to garden, something I had done extensively in my eight years in the cabin, but now I could get by with a few spinach plants and a tomato or two. I had spent hundreds of hours helping my partner clear and maintain a large garden plot with a small orchard, but with my knee I would have to abandon the garden and hope that the orchard would just need a little work.
Keeping the solar electric system working correctly was also a major responsibility. When we had the system installed, at a cost of $20,000, the fellow who did the work was not an expert, but I didn’t learn this until I brought in Bryan Walsh from Solar Connection. Bryan knew his stuff and quickly pointed out the faults of the present system of 16 solar panels, a 5000 watt inverter and a set of 16 batteries. His biggest concern was that I had not been equalizing the batteries (getting them up all up to around 1270 on a hydrometer) and they were almost shot after 4 short years. He thought there was another year left in them if I treated them properly. Since we were deep in a hollow, it was almost impossible to equalize the batteries with sunlight alone, so I spent many hours using the Honda 6500 watt gas generator trying to get the batteries equalized. I did my best but last year we had to replace the batteries with a new set of eight at a cost of $8,000.
When they arrived I followed Bryan’s instructions completely, but green or new batteries have to be broken in slowly and I was never able to get them all charged up completely. I spent a number of anxious nights worrying about whether I was ruining them. This was one of the things I now had to worry about by myself.
In the past, my partner had helped me check the water level, but now I had to do that on my own and it was a much slower process. A couple of weeks ago I decided to try to equalize the batteries again (something that should be done every few months or so) and I did finally get them fully charged after running the generator for perhaps 30 hours, about 20 gallon of gas. Obviously burning that much gas is much less environmentally friendly, but with proper use the batteries could last 15 to 20 years and that was my goal. It will be much easier in the spring, fall and especially summer, where the extra sunlight will greatly lessen the generator use.