Next Came The Old House And Barn

Our St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia, House After Remodeling, Summer 1973

The glowing ember of that Nova Scotia trip did not die.  Maybe it was fanned a little by another trip that my college roommate and I took to Alaska in the summer of 1970 in my PowerWagon.  We were gone most of the summer.  When we came back I was even more determined to find a spot away from the big cities of the East.   In the spring of 1971, I wrote to the Longmire Real Estate agency of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, about a farm and land on the shores of the Bay of Fundy.  The property was advertised in the Sunday Boston Globe.  At the time there was only a print version of the paper and reading the Sunday paper was something I really enjoyed. I was not alone.

Though the details took time to work out, I ended up the owner of 140 acres, a two hundred year old house, barn, and carriage house in Saint Croix Cove. That first piece of land and buildings cost around $7,000. The view of the Bay of Fundy was spectacular.  Soon after with help from my mother, I ended up buying more property across the road.  It actually went down to the shore.

That August after I finished my last class ( I had missed a semester from sickness), I followed in my Land Rover and the adventure really began for me. Two roommates and I had graduated from Harvard and now we were determined to get our hands dirty and let the land tell us what to do. A third adventurer had left Harvard as a sophomore and might have been even more lost than we three college roommates.

Just reworking the old house was a huge undertaking. It needed painting and complete reconstruction inside.  By the time I got there, the plaster, old chimney and lathe had been ripped out. Much of the home was down to its hand-hewn beams. That was only the start of the work. We had to caulk the cracks on the inside of the walls.  Then came wiring and insulation for the exterior walls.  We had made the decision to go with electric baseboard heating because it was easy to install.  We had one very good carpenter, another who loved to tear things apart and to do shingles. A third who was also good with hand tools. I became the electrician and plumber.

There were no beds, we slept in sleeping bags on the floors on four inch thick pieces of foam.  Our few pieces of furniture had come from college dorm rooms.  The decision to relocate the bathroom upstairs delayed having a functional shower for weeks, so we warmed water in a coffee pot for bathing.  Sometimes we took advantage of the showers at a local campground. Eventually one of roommates’ new sweetheart came to stay with us, and she helped with some of the cooking.  Cooking was pretty basic since there was no kitchen.  We ate a lot of tuna fish sandwiches in the midst of our construction and more than a few fried clams at Alice’s Clam shack down in the village of Hampton a few miles away. We did learn how to cook smoked picnic hams and make baked beans.  We also learned to make salt cod and potatoes.  The salty dish was a particularly good excuse for some beer.

We celebrated an amazing first Thanksgiving in Canada with college friends who had decided they needed to see this place that had lured their friends north. There were lots of walks in the brisk Nova Scotia air and the housed now blessed by lots of college friends was soon ready for winter.

By the time winter rolled around, the roommates/helpers started to disappear.

Then there were only two of us left. In the next year, it became clear that I had moved to Canada and beyond working on the old house, I needed to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I bought a few cows and decided to try my hand at cattle and gardening. One of my original helpers had married a local school teacher, he and I began a tenuous partnership with those few cows.

There was a lot to learn and the biggest lesson was that partnerships are hard to sustain. By the next fall, I decided that I needed to move on and find a better place to farm. Between that thought and the reality of accomplishing it there would be a lot that needed to happen. Some things also were hidden in the cards. The decisions were about to get a lot more complicated. Just to keep things interesting, I decided to get my pilot’s license. It would be just a footnote in 1973 which by the time it was done would set me on a course for the next ten years of life.

Sobotta, David. A Taste for the Wild, Canada’s Maritimes

The PowerWagon Changed Me

The Beast

This is part of a series on life and careers that that started with this post, An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work.

It had been a rough semester at Harvard. Getting away from the city seemed like a really good idea. It was a short trip from Cambridge to Newton’s Silver Lake Dodge in the spring of 1970 to take delivery of a shiny Dodge PowerWagon.

I have described it as a beast and like other trucks of the day, it rode like a truck. It had a four speed manual transmission. Of course the shifter and the transfer case that allowed you to switch into four wheel low were both on the floor and far from silky smooth. For the day, the standard tires were pretty big. The big 3/4 ton truck had manual locking hubs, two gas tanks, and an eight thousand pound mechanical winch behind its extended front bumper. On a good day, it would get ten or eleven miles to the gallon. The plan that I hatched with one of my roommates was to drive to Alaska with it.

School at Harvard in that spring was cancelled because of all a few riots and lots of demonstrations. I headed home as soon as I got the truck. I had ordered a cover the same height as the cab for the back from a place just south of my home in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It would allow us to build a platform for our four inch foam mattresses and store our gear underneath it.

We outfitted it with my faithful Coleman Stove and lantern, my favorite camping cooler, and a large Igloo water cooler. In addition we had our sleeping bags, climbing ropes, my fishing gear, first aid gear, cooking equipment, a couple of big bumper jacks, medical supplies and a good selection of tools that might save the day.

There was also a five-shot Remington 30-06 semi-automatic and a 30-30 Winchester lever action plus a 44 magnum pistol. I had talked to a bush pilot in Anchorage. He told me that they would not fly us into the back country unless we were armed. The only gun I had to buy was the 44 magnum pistol. Neither rifle had ever been used for anything beyond target shooting. I had given up hunting four or five years earlier.

Around the third week of June, we packed up and headed off from Mt. Airy. The goal was to get to Alaska or at least the western US mountains as quickly as possible. Somewhere on a country road in the Midwest, we pulled down a short slope into the edge of a farmer’s field. We were going to catch a few hours sleep. It rained a little and we decided to move on but the top few inches of the field had turned to mud. We locked the hubs, engaged the four wheel drive, and nothing happened.

I ended up taking the locking hubs apart and adjusting them in order to get us out of the field. It would not be the last time I would be reminded that four wheel drive just lets you get stuck in worse places and that whenever something can break, it will break.

Somehow we managed to make our way out to Colorado where we started climbing. We had been doing some practice climbing in Maine and rappelling down anywhere we could find a place to tie off. I had even rappelled down from the fourth floor attic of our Mount Airy home.

The first few climbs went fine but one day about seventy-five feet up with my boot clinched to a ledge of rock barely an inch wide, I decided that I would rather fish than climb. I rappelled down and that was it for me and climbing. My roommate seemed fine with my decision, we figured that we could find someone for him to climb with when we got to the climbers’ camp in the Grand Tetons. I would fish by myself while he climbed.

After driving across some high passes where snow still partially covered the picnic tables in the highest campgrounds, we finally made it the Tetons. It didn’t take long before a climbing trip to the Grand Teton was arranged. I dropped my partner off and agreed to pick him up three days later.

Over the next few days, I tried a number of trout streams without any luck and enjoyed a few meals at Moran’s Chuck Wagon. When I went back to pick up my traveling partner, I was told that he was not there. He had slipped on an ice slop on the descent from the Grand Teton. He had been unable to stop his slide and ended up falling one hundred fifty feet to a ledge barely a foot or two wide.

After they got him off the ledge, he managed to walk out five miles with a broken collarbone. They had taken him to the Jackson hospital which is where I headed. After talking to the doctor, I called his parents and soon afterwards, I loaded him into the back of the truck and headed off to the larger hospital in Idaho Falls. They were fine with me handling his “care.”

I spent a week in the Idaho Falls KOA campground while my partner got well enough to travel. Of course he was in no shape to drive and would not be for a long time, but he was determined to make it to Alaska. After the hospital stay we headed up to Montana’s Hungry Horse Lake by way of Yellowstone Park. We finally got to a camping spot near the lake, I found a stream full of cutthroat trout. It was my first success fishing on the trip and I loved it. The fresh fish were great fried up on the Coleman stove.

The trip would get more exciting as we headed north through Alberta.

An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work

My wife, Glenda, in Newfoundland, October 1973

I recently started reading Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons. Dan and I have crossed paths a few times. The first time was when he was in full Fake Steve persona. He offered me sanctuary when it appeared Apple might be coming after my Applepeels blog.

In Dan’s book which starts with losing his job at Newsweek and finding a new job as an editor at ReadWrite. The description of his first new job made me smile.

“Suddenly I am the editor-in-chief of a struggling technology news website called RedWrite a tiny blog with three full-time employees and a half-dozen, woefully underpaid freelancers”

Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

I was one of those “woefully underpaid freelancers.” Dan was actually my first real editor. I had already written my first book, The Pomme Company, by then but the editor of that book had been my very patient but comma-obsessed wife with some help from two former colleagues.

I wrote for ReadWrite for a few months at end of the five years it took me to find my four or fifth career. After nearly twenty years at Apple that was a tall order. During the years after Apple, I worked at a couple of VP jobs in technology, including one at a startup which fortunately unlike Dan’s misadventure was actually generating revenue and went on to a successful acquisition. However, there were enough similarities in my experience to Dan’s to bring back some interesting memories.

Though writing is one of the things that I love to do, I have never thought of it as a possible career. I also love photography and fishing but I have never understood how to make a career out of any of my favorite things. I have supplemented our income through writing and photography. Perhaps having been “a woefully underpaid freelancer,” I learned how hard it is to make good money doing something you love. Good money is required to send three young adults off to college and help them get off on the right foot. I also figured out that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as doing it with someone you love at your side in a place that you both learn to love.

How you end up in your career is an interesting topic that Dan talks about in his book. My experience has some similarities but is very different. I hope to write about it through a number of blog posts here.

Only a couple people in my youth even mentioned a career to me. Things were very different in the fifties especially if you were the only child of a single mother and no one in your family had even gone to college.

Mother worked long hours as a beautician in the beauty shop that was attached to our house. We lived in the small community of Lewisville, just west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My elementary school and church were just a short walk from home. There were deep woods around our homes. As we were growing up, we thought more about building forts in the woods than we did about building careers. There is no question that I enjoyed my childhood in spite of its share of challenges.

A big turn in my life came in 1963 when I got sent off to a military school that was a six-hours drive from home. Being a boarding student in a dorm was not how I envisioned my teenage high school years. At some point after I got over the worst of being homesick, I decided to make the best of it. Getting good grades had never been a problem for me so I focused on that first. Next I figured out how to do well in the military, stick to the rules, shine your shoes, and do what you are told.

McCallie, where I went to military school did have an important impact on my future. It was assumed that every student would be headed to college. I was part of the pack there so college was clearly now part of my future as well.

While the years at McCallie rolled by, I did get to meet a number of adults with careers that were new to me. Whether they were at McCallie or in Mount Airy where I moved after my mom and dad decided to get back together, meeting new adults did give me an opportunity to think about my future. One of the most interesting people who came into my life was RJ Berrier, who was at the time was the editor of the Mount Airy Times, one of two small local newspapers. RJ was something of a local legend and he loved what he did which was getting the paper out the door onto people’s doorsteps in time for them to enjoy it with their morning coffee. The Times was still using lead type and bourbon to make deadlines. People looked forward to RJ’s Mount Airy After Midnight column as much as I look forward to the comics and the morning paper today.

Though I was already showing some talent for writing, RJ gave me no encouragement to go into the newspaper business. He often explained the pay was poor, the hours long, and job security non-existent. Getting a liberal arts degree at Harvard was not much of a push in that direction either especially since it was during the turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies. I did really hit my stride with writing at Harvard. I am not sure whether it was the expository writing class or all the long papers. However, something clicked and I could churn papers that got stellar marks even at Harvard. I also got paid to do some research work, but there were other things on my agenda that created a hard turn away from writing.

Perhaps, the best description of what was pulling at me was the necessity to get away from the cities that threatened to smother me. Like many others, getting my hands dirty seemed more important than a law degree.

In my case, Nova Scotia appeared to be the locus for a cure. My wife, Glenda, seen contemplating Newfoundland at the top of the post also became a big part of the equation. That we spent ten years building a herd of two hundred head of Angus before I went to Apple is just part of the magic that has touched our lives. I will get around to our lives in Atlantic Canada and how Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick became part of the magic.

Mowing Your Way Through Life

Our Backyard In Davie County, North Carolina, March 2022

How did people manage in the first half of the twentieth century before there were yards to connect them to the soil around their homes? I suspect that they were working in their gardens and fields. By the time I was growing up in the fifties in Lewisville, North Carolina, yards had become important. The condition of our grassy yard often stood between me and a trip to my uncle Henry’s fishing ponds. My mother who claimed the only yard she had as a child was packed dirt swept with broom straw wanted our yard neatly clipped. In driving by our old home, I am little disappointed the town did not put in sidewalks in front of our house during my youth. It would have eliminated the slope on the front yard. It was by far the hardest part of the yard to mow as a youngster.

Going away to military school (high school) and then college got me out of mowing yards for almost a decade. My first home after graduation was a two-hundred year old farm house located in a sheep pasture on the Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. No sheep came with the old farm house but long grass did not bother me as a young farmstead owner. When I first moved there in the summer of 1971, the yard was the least of my worries. Getting hot water plumbed in and running so we could stop taking showers at the local campground was close to the top of the list. The second summer I had a tractor with a nine-foot-wide bush hog which I used to mow around the house a couple of times a summer. That was all it needed in my days of being single. After all, I mowed plenty of mature grass or hay, starting with the twenty acre field behind the house which served as one of the few backyards in my life away from home.

Then came the summer of 1973, and I married Glenda, the love of my life from the world of well-manicure yards in North Carolina. Her mother often mowed their yard twice, the second time against the grain, just to catch any grass that might pop up after the first mowing. Sometime during the summer of 1974, Glenda and my neat-lawn-loving mother who was visiting us formed a conspiracy. They drove down the mountain to Bridgetown ten miles away and came home with a Toro push mower. I spent much of the next forty-forty years sharing the task of mowing whatever yard happened to be attached to our personal home.

For the ten years or so when we lived on our farm in Tay Creek, we had a nice riding lawn mower which was adequate for much of the yard. Even Glenda did some mowing. When we lived in Halifax, our yard was postage-stamp sized. By the time we arrived on the mountain in Roanoke, Virginia, I had come to somewhat enjoy mowing. There are those times in your life when something as simple as mowing a yard can be very satisfying because you can actually see what you have done.

One of the immutable laws of mowing is that the farther south you live, the more miserable the task of mowing can be. Sometimes, even the most careful home yard person can end mowing in the oppressive heat of the day like I did more times than I want to admit after we moved to the North Carolina coast. As I wrote then, there is a true brotherhood of Southerners (both men, women, and teenagers) who have mowed yards when they never should have.

Mowing is one of those circular things in life. In your early years, you are too young to push a mower, so it seems fitting that in the later years of life, it is also okay to be too old to push a mower. You come to a point when you are faced with either hiring someone to mow the yard or buying a riding mower. Since I spent many years straddling a John Deere farm tractor, we chose not to revisit those days after a back problem slowed me somewhat. For a couple of years, I shared the task with our mower of choice, choosing the spots that required a push mower for myself. However, it was an easy transition to giving it all up. When we made our 2021 move from the land of coastal centipede grass back to the fescue grasses of the Piedmont, we left our third Toro mower with the father and son team that was doing our mowing. I even gave them my gas-powered trimmer.

When our current mowing team shows up, I know the noise will be over with in a few minutes as opposed to the hours that it would have taken me with a push mower. I still enjoy our green space especially the backyard which is the nicest we have had since that twenty-acre field that came with our first home. 

No Frozen Millponds Today in NC

North Deep Creek at Site of Styers-Shore Mill

January 2022 with its snow and cold temperatures was a shock to Yadkin Valley residents. All the snow had most of us in the area looking for snow shovels or mittens. Depending on where you live it has been two, or three years since your last significant snow. In this throwback year, some have seen four snows in January 2022.

In spite of four January snows, I heard of no millponds freezing over. Our area in North Carolina’s Piedmont used to be dotted with grist mills which usually required a millpond to run. My ancestors, including my Uncle Joe Styers once ran a mill at the Yadkin Valley site pictured above.

All this cold weather feels unusual because winters are changing in North Carolina.  I was in elementary school in Lewisville just west of Winston-Salem during the locally famous March of 1960 cold snap. It snowed for three straight Wednesdays.  Since so many roads were dirt back then, we hardly went school that month. Even during what still is the coldest March on record, I don’t remember any ponds freezing over.  I was a dedicated fisherman even at the age of eleven, and I paid attention to the condition of ponds.

Frozen ponds are part of North Carolina’s history even here in foothills. My stories of iced-over waters came from my mother.  She was born in 1910 on a millpond in Yadkin County where her dad, Walter Styers, had a water-powered gristmill that ground grain between two big millstones.  His millpond was just a little over five miles further north from the site above on a tributary of North Deep Creek. Their homestead and pond were just off Union Cross Church Road. Mother’s vivid stories of men driving wagons onto the frozen mill pond and sawing out blocks of ice have stayed with me.  The blocks of ice she remembered were hauled back to the shore and stored in a sawdust filled underground ice house. According to mother they enjoyed iced lemonade and homemade ice cream  from their treasure trove of stored mill pond ice.

The recent cold got me wondering if I could look back at state climate records and find something to lend scientific  credibility to mother’s stories.  I checked the NC State Climate Records, and I found the winters when my mother was  young were much colder. All in that era were colder, but two winters, 1912-13 and 1913-14, when she was a toddler were strikingly colder.  The two winters had 107 and 106 days respectively when the low temperature was below freezing according to Winston-Salem records which are the closest ones that go back that far.  To put that in perspective, the same station only had 39 days with lows below freezing in 2019-20, and back in 2013-14 there were only 11 days with lows below freezing.

Another interesting piece of data is that in the winter of 2013-14, the first day with a low temperature below 32F was October 22.  The last day was an amazing May 5.

While the records are far from complete, logic indicates that there was a great drop in the number of days with lows below freezing by the time we get to the fifties when I was in grade school.  It looks like it is quite possible that my mother did see or at least was reminded by oral history that men did take teams on the ice and cut ice from her dad’s millpond.

If you are wondering about  the winter 1960 with all its March snows, it was a little old-fashioned with 90 days with lows below freezing.  It makes you wonder if our grandchildren will some day be talking about snow on the ground like we are talking about iced-over ponds.

THE TRAILS OF OUR LIVES

My Nova Scotia Trail

By the time I found the first trail that really meant something to my life, I had graduated from college and was living in an old farm house on the shore of the Bay of Fundy. Behind the house was a large field which sloped upwards to a spruce forest. At the top of the field there was a trail that wound through the woods. As much as I loved the rocky shore that was part of the property, the trail at the head of the field seemed to be more personal.

My two Labrador Retrievers, Tok and Fundy, often accompanied me on my hikes. There was nothing spectacular about much of the trail but it finally opened into a clearing that actually was on my neighbor Joe’s property. The view from the clearing was spectacular. I was living in the Village of St. Croix Cove and you could see the actual St. Croix Cove. I loved the view so much that I eventually traded some land for it.

There were times that I thought that Nova Scotia was the greenest place that I had ever seen. We sometimes were able to find baskets of chanterelle mushrooms just off the trail. No mushrooms since then have ever tasted like those.

It being Nova Scotia, the trail had a winter look and often stayed that way for a month or two. While it was hard to walk up the hill, getting up it on cross country skis was even more challenging.

With each move, we managed to find new trails, some of them memorable. (Read More)

Not Enough Wilderness To Save Us

Sunset on White Oak River Near Swansboro, NC

Towns are magnets and they suck people from the countryside, especially the young and talented. We noticed this happening when we returned to New Brunswick in 2012.We farmed there in the seventies and early eighties. Since our trip, what remained of the three churches in our old town disappeared. The community store closed. Yet the provincial capital, Fredericton, is thriving as the small towns wither.  It is a story repeated time and again in Canada and the United States.

I still worry that some of those wild places like the North Carolina coast will become too populated. I sometimes think that what we call the Northern Outer Banks from Corolla to Cape Hatteras will sink into the seas just from the weight of all those beach castles. I offer up my profound thanks for those who created the National Seashores. Beyond nourishing our souls places like coastal Carteret County and hilly Davie County where we now live grow a lot of food that North Carolina cities need.

(Read More)

Empty Promises

No Paper in the Driveway and An Empty Newspaper Box

I don’t want to be the old guy complaining about other people trying to earn a living. I would like to provide some constructive criticism that might make all of our lives easier.

I spent nearly twenty years at Apple and anyone who knows me will quickly tell you that I am no Steve Jobs fan. I saw him do things that were nothing but mean and contributed nothing to the great products that came out of the company.

However, the one thing that I learned of value from time within the Steve Job’s orbit is that the hardest thing is to say no to things that you might like to do but aren’t in your sweet spot. I would add that if you cannot do something with passion and precision, find something else to do.

Obviously sometimes you really need money and I understand those pressures because I have had my back to the wall with a payment or bill due.  I have been lucky that I have always found ways, one time I sold our bulldozer, to keep going until better times. Those better times have always taken me to opportunities where I was proud to work and more importantly eager to do my best.

So here is the problem today. People take jobs and commit to doing the work, then they don’t do the job. Some never master what it takes to do the job. Some pretend to do the job. Others do not even bother to show up. We have been amazed when trying to hire students to do data entry as part time jobs. It is not hard work, yet continually people commit to working x-number of hours but only work half that. Then there are those who promise but never show.

The problem is widespread. (Read More)

The Five Shirt Day

My Work Shirt

An overlooked challenge of the pandemic is that it has been very hard on clothing, specifically shirts. I have never been easy on clothing. I have a long history of getting dirty.  When we lived on the farm, my wife, Glenda, was known to sometimes hose me down and make me take my dirty clothes off in the woodshed before I could come into the house. Back in my lawn mowing days on the North Carolina coast, not only did I come in encrusted in dirt from a yard that was more dust than grass at times but I also ended up fishing, walking on the beach, gardening and working at my desk. It all required a lot of different clothes, but I am not sure that I ever had a five shirt day.

The pandemic has made it more challenging to do almost everything except work from home. The statement that clothes make the man or woman has changed to shirts make the man or woman.  With Zoom and Team conference calls, how you look on video is what matters these days and our video cameras only show us from us from the face down to our desks.  So we pay attention to the shirts that we wear.

(Read More)

The Ghost I Knew

The Pine Street House

You cannot have a ghost story without a spooky, somewhat mysterious house and where I grew up in rural Forsyth County was nothing like that but things change.

A little mystery also helps with ghosts and there was plenty of mystery in my life in the fifties. The house also had a lot of history, some of it gruesome which is certainly helpfully when looking for ghosts. Many of stories that the house’s four walls could tell never got fully explained to me before everyone who could explain died. Some the questions that I wanted answered never got addressed because no one wanted to talk about them.

Upstairs above the floor with the bedrooms was a full stick-framed attic complete with walnut banisters. If ever there was an area that could house ghosts along with mysterious steamer trunks, this attic was it

(Read more)