Living As We Always Hoped We Could
I struggle with the term “absentee landowner”. It sounds dirty. It sounds like some sort of landed gentry of old - wealthy aristocrats building a summer home; pass the caviar. I hear it and wonder if native Vermonters utter it with disdain, an unspoken boundary that separates “us” from “them”. I hear it and wish I had been born among those mountains rather than in the flatlands of southern New Jersey.
Still, that is what I am now in part, an absentee landowner. The small home on ten acres I will soon own in Vermont is just over a six hour car ride away from where I grew up, and live, and work, and have raised my two boys for nearly a decade. As teachers, my wife and I are fortunate to be able to live in Vermont for the summer, but for a good percentage of the year the owners of that land will indeed be absent.
I tried to stay in New England after I graduated from Middlebury College in 1998. I wanted desperately to forge my post-college life amid mountain trails and farmland. Vermont is where I wanted to set down my roots as I started a family raising boys who would spend their summers helping to bale hay for local farmers and jumping from cliffs into clear icy waters after a hard day of honest work. I found my first teaching job in neighboring New Hampshire (no offers in Vermont) and spent a year fighting the pull of family that would eventually bring me back to New Jersey.
Fresh out of college, I struggled to figure out how landscape, vocation, and people worked together to create a sense of belonging. I knew that for me, landscape was inextricably tied to happiness. Hiking alone along the Long Trail and cross-country skiing through the Breadloaf Wilderness I found a sense of peace I could not quite grasp anywhere else. By nature, there is always some unspecified tension inside of me, like an old boiler that runs too hot, testing the welded seams of the tank. Out in the mountains in all sorts of weather the pressure inside was replaced by a calm as complete as I had ever known.
I knew, too, that a physical landscape alone would not be enough to sustain happiness. My landscape was in New England, but my family was in New Jersey. Family, it turns out, was more important for me. I missed my parents, and wanted to be nearby as they aged. So, after four years of college and one year of teaching, I packed my bags and headed home.
I am glad I made the move. That move allowed me to meet my wife, and with her create two wonderful boys. As my father begins showing signs of dementia, I am here by his side. As my mom struggles to redefine herself as care-giver rather than wife, I often sit with her and listen. When my closest friend lost his father, I was here.
I have also found beautiful spots within the flatlands. My two boys spend many afternoons swimming in sweet-scented cedar water, many summer days jumping the waves of the Atlantic. Still, I never stopped looking back over my shoulder, staring north with a longing like someone displaced. I am not meant to live in the most densely populated state in the country. I am not comfortable amid the strip malls and traffic. I feel the absence of the land I loved most. I miss cycling over mountain passes, hiking to remote outcrops where the scope of the world can be seen and felt. I miss the sweet scent of manure wafting across the patchwork fields.
So, three summers ago, my wife and I decided we would take our kids to Vermont. We spent ten days hiking, swimming, and playing cards. It felt like a reunion of sorts: me with a place I had once called home, and all of us with a simpler way of living. The next summer we spent three weeks and invited friends.
Then we bought ten acres with a small house.
We are not rich people. We are both teachers, and my wife works part time. Thoughts of a second mortgage, second property tax bill, second home owner’s insurance, are almost enough to scare us off. But here is the thing: being in Vermont allows us to live as we always hoped we could. Our boys thrive. Our relationship thrives.
Taking a hike together, or visiting a favorite swim hole slows time. Hiking up to Sunset Ledge or exploring a trail for the first time, my two boys chatter away as they scramble over rocks that require the use of their hands. They gasp with excitement and tentatively lift a juvenile Eastern Red-Spotted Newt to hold carefully in a hand. They use their imagination to entertain themselves without wi-fi or cell service; they use their newfound daring to leap from rocks into clear and icy waters.
So much more of our food is purchased and consumed with an understanding of where it came from. So much more of it is responsibly raised and grown. As teachers we love being in a state that so closely links the people consuming food to the people growing it. We eat eggs from our new neighbor and marvel at the various colors and sizes, the shocking color of the yolks. We eat pizza topped with sausage from the farm we passed on our way to dinner, and vegetables grown on site. In a world where factory farming, genetic modification, and processing threaten our environment and our health we feel we have a fighting chance of showing our boys the way it should be done.
Perhaps most striking is the relationships we are already building. Local shop owners, our new neighbors, people we meet along the trail all have stories to tell. They all tell them. They all indulge a tendency to connect with people rather than simply conduct business. The pacing of each interaction is different than down here. Here it feels life is conducted under a time press; there whole afternoons have passed showing my children my neighbor’s cows, and looking through his decaying sugaring house. I have had coffee, and beers, and meals with the people who will be my part-time neighbors now.
Nearly twenty years after leaving, I am headed back to Vermont, at least as a part-timer. My love of family and friends, the roots I have established through marriage and nearly a decade of fatherhood won’t allow for a full-time move to the state I wish I lived in. My love for Vermont will no longer abide a life in flat, suburban, South Jersey. So for now, I must abide with the complexities the term “absentee landowner” suggests.
Perhaps someday, when my boys are off at college and I am fully vested in my pension I will finally make the escape. Perhaps someday that title will be stripped away, and I will simply become a Vermonter. Until then, I will make due with the next best thing.