Room to Dream

The old hayfield in St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia

Except for boarding school and college, I have always lived with enough space for my imagination to roam. I grew up in Lewisville, NC, with a wonderful back yard with woods that stretched farther than I could roam.

I have written of finally finding a real backyard for my somewhat rural life. I have had much wilder backyards in my earlier years. They ranged from the field of buttercups behind our old farm house in St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia to miles of woods in New Brunswick and Virginia to the expanses of marshes on the NC Coast. Living on the edge with wilderness or near wilderness on my doorstep has enriched my life and that of my family.

The Lewisville backyard of my youth remains entrenched in my mind. The memories of the great, long-gone, cedar tree that shaded our picnic table are still there. The picnic table was my first office. When we were really young we were able to play baseball there. Home plate was in front of the plum and cherry trees. If you hit a ball and it ended up in the fig bush, it was a home run. Until it interfered with the septic system, the mimosa tree in the front yard was a great climbing tree. The yard was just a base from which to operate. The woods that stretched for a few miles down to the Yadkin River bottomlands were the real attraction for those us steeped in the lore of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.

We played in the streams, built dams where we could and climbed over the old boulders. The woods were a cool retreat in the summer and as we got older, a place to hunt squirrels.

While I felt marooned from the out of doors when I was at military school during my high school years, it was just the opposite in college. Maine was at our doorstep. When I visited LL Beans in the fall of 1967, it was a tiny place and one room still had a wood stove. Maine led to Nova Scotia, and Nova Scotia changed my life.

That field of buttercups on the waterlogged soil of my first farm was a great introduction to real wilderness. Only getting married kept me from moving to Newfoundland. Instead I ended up in the relatively civilized hardwood hills north of Fredericton, New Brunswick on an old two hundred acre farm. It was a good place to get comfortable with wilderness, understand its charms, and appreciate its challenges.

My dream of farming started in Nova Scotia and was realized in New Brunswick where we build a cattle operation that had two hundred head of red and black Angus at one time. We built barns and learned to put up incredible amounts of hay while figuring out how to raise cattle in the woods. It was harsh environment once hitting minus forty and a couple of times approaching one hundred degrees with plenty of black flies and black bears to keep you alert. We were barely beyond party lines for a telephone so there not even dreams of cell phones. If you were a mile back in the woods alone, you were on your own.

I had dreamed of farming and built the farm of my dreams. It was a hard life with no vacations but with great neighbors living together in place that could push you to your limits. Eventually the dreams were no longer of farming but not because farming was too hard. It was interest rates of twenty percent that got us. It is hard to even imagine paying those rates today, but we did until we dispersed our cattle herd. Then the dreams turned to a better, perhaps easier life and more opportunities for our children.

We ended up in Halifax, Nova, on a tiny city lot. I had no time to dream because I was working for Apple then. It was twelve years after leaving the farm before I got time and space to dream again. Finding the space was driven by a new Labrador puppy, named Chester. Chester needed a lot of exercise and we both quickly grew tired of two and three mile walks in the neighborhood. We wandered into the woods and found an old road to a mountainside homestead. I met the owner of the land on a hike. He was elderly but eager to see someone clean up the old road. For over a decade Chester and I worked and wandered the trails on the mountainside.

Then one day the vets said that it was Chester’s time to cross over and he was gone. The mountainside and the trails were never the same without Chester so next I dreamed of the North Carolina coast which I had wandered as a college student. In 2006, we bought a home in the marshes along the White Oak River three miles from Bogue Sound and Swansboro.

The marsh turned out to be a good place to dream especially when aided by some almost wild stretches of sand over at the Point on Emerald Isle. There were wide rivers to kayak, inlets and near shore waters to explore in our skiff. The coast also gives you a very personal look at the power that nature can throw at you when the elements are right. We endured the eighty-five mile per hour winds of Irene and learned that there are moments like Florence when retreat is the safest option. We heeded the mandatory evacuation orders for Florence and came back to devastation, not at our home, but to many of our friends’ homes. Finally three years later after fifteen years of walking the sands and marshes, I began dreaming of those Piedmont woods of my youth.

In February 2021, we moved to Davie County, NC, about twenty-five minutes from where I grew up. The good news is that the backyard is plenty big enough for dreams and I am old enough that I can easily justify having someone mow it for me. I can still dream but I am no longer mowing my way through life while dreaming.

It Started With Nova Scotia

The view from the top of the hay field at the back of my new home in St. Croix Cove, NS

Thanksgiving during my junior year in college, three college friends and I decided to take an extra long break and go camping on Cape Breton Island. This was long before the days of the Internet and Google maps. We had little idea of what was ahead of us when we choose to drive up Route 1 through Maine and then into New Brunswick and finally Nova Scotia where we could finally cross the Canso Causeway to Cape Breton Island. Even today with more bypasses, Google maps says the drive is thirteen hours. It probably took us sixteen hours.

We went in my old 1966 Bronco which had a can of stop leak as an item in emergency equipment. Fortunately, we were young and driving that far and crossing an international border was not nearly as hard as it would be today. By the time we got to Cape Breton, it was sleeting and snowing. All the provincial campgrounds had shut down months earlier. We managed to pitch a tent in an abandoned field one night. We almost froze. Everything was soaked. By the time we got back to Halifax, I pulled out my emergency credit card and we booked a single room for the four of us in a Holiday Inn. Hot showers never felt so good.

We drove back down Nova Scotia’s south shore stopping only to grill a steak over a fire and eat a barely thawed bag of Nova Scotia shrimp. Our trip back was on the Bluenose Ferry which in those days traveled from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine. The seas were rough but there were few people on the ferry besides us. We stretched out and slept on the long bench seats. I have vague memory of a weighted ash tray sliding by me in the rough seas.

The trip has no moments that suggest that Nova Scotia is a place to visit again but as my wife has always said, “If you can tolerate a place during miserable weather, you are likely to live it when the sunshines. Somehow what I saw of Nova Scotia planted a seed. I started watching the Sunday Boston Globe for Nova Scotia properties for sale.

The spring after the trip to Nova Scotia, the anti-war protests hit Cambridge. In a classic case of taking to the woods after all the debates and marches, a roommate and I decided to take a road trip to Alaska in the Dodge Powerwagon that I convinced my parents that would keep me out of trouble for a summer. It was a beast, a 3/4 ton 4X4 with a mechanically driven (PTO) 8,000 pound winch on the front. It had two gas tanks since it barely got ten miles to the gallon with its 383 cubic inch V8 and four speed transmission. The Powerwagon would come back to school senior year, haul me to Nova Scotia and even have a place on the farm in New Brunswick.

Sleeping in the back of a truck while traveling thousands of miles seemed like a good idea. I was in love with wilderness. There were great adventures on the trip including my roommate almost getting killed while climbing. It was to be an epic trip and one that would give me a life long love of wild places. It would make Nova Scotia the place that I wanted to live.