It was the survivor’s side of the Maine winter that held the landscape as I did my last few chores before leaving to go two states away for knee replacement surgery.

The snow had fallen steadily through the last 48 hours, at last spitting a little frozen rain just before dark. I still had to pack up the car to be gone for the weeks it would take to wedge in a new knee and relearn the art of walking. It seemed more like mountain climbing than throwing some clutter into bags and into the car, and I was ready for a Sherpa by the time I stuffed comforters and linens into the cargo carrier and slammed the hatchback down with the finality of an end stop punctuation mark.

I’d been through this a year ago – except with an ankle (a harder surgery by far, I have been told), but I would have endured almost anything to avoid more months of bone-on-bone pain and my slowed pace of life. Surgery that promised resumption of normal walking and knee bends even prompted nightly dreams of all the things I used to do before a torn meniscus, then a ripped ankle tendon, had kept me off hiking trails and mountain paths that were the closest thing to serenity I’d blended into daily life.

I could almost taste the freedom again.

Before departing, I spent a morning cooking for the dog, building up caches of food for the neighbor who was going to take care of her. Chicken with rice, chicken with pasta, chicken with quinoa. Milk Bones, rawhide chews, antler slices the price of gold.

I got out more bedding for her than for myself, restitched all her favorite stuffed animals (elephant, iguana, alligator) and piled everything into a Hannaford sack that already held a half-dozen sizes of balls to be retrieved.


She stayed by my side much of the day, but as packing commenced and then became more complicated, she took her comfort outdoors, in the woods, doing her own version of prepping for an out-of-town trip.

Every now and then she would come inside to sleep for awhile on my feet and remind me I was not to leave without her, but she has reached the age and experience which for a dog translates into confidence and autonomy, so she spent hours in the cold, returning only to reassure herself that the door would be open, come nightfall at 4 p.m.

I was struck by how peaceful and glorious Maine seemed to be – like a storybook wonderland during the last days before my presumed departure. The little snow that fell came down clean and thick, big chunky flakes neither heavy nor unmanageable – the kind of storm that makes you happy for refuge, hot chicken soup simmering on the stove, the occasional hum of the belly of the wood stove and the quiet of a northern winter that recommends refection and the Spartan life.

There was plenty to do to get ready to be gone for weeks, but I didn’t get most of it done.

I settled for what I considered most important: putting out boxes of bait for the mice and sprinkling cinnamon on paper towels (a tip a real Mainer had given me to discourage an infestation while I was gone).

I kept the wood stove stoked and turned all the other heat in the house off, because even a small stove can do an admirable job if it has an attentive keeper.


Leaving always gives you the chance to rediscover why you want to stay, and it was no different for me as I packed boxes and satchels, plastic tubs and cloth grocery bags. I spent hours on tasks I ought not, I thought, have to worry about: plugging mouse holes with steel wool, in case the openings provided entryways; burned all the cut wood that had been hauled indoors so that if there were boring beetles in some of the splits, they would not spread into the walls or floor.

I cooked and baked, and gave away food with the kind of frenzy you reserve for the holidays, and at day’s end the refrigerator was just about swept clean – which was exactly what I had hoped for.

But I would rather have stayed at home. And as it turned out, nature intervened in my behalf and blew in a blizzard that cut me off from the hospital just in time to delay the surgery another few weeks. A reprieve wasn’t really what I wanted but I savored it all the same.

Truth is, I am content to leave home for a while, believing there is a fair likihood that I will be able, eventually, to return, steady on my own pins, and plan an outing to Bradbury Mountain or beyond. I can hardly wait to walk long distances again, bike for miles under bright sun and the strain of hilly routes; or swim a tidal channel of Casco Bay with the golden retriever who took her name from that treasured place.

I even expect that with time and practice and patience – and a thaw in the mid-winter weather – I will get my sea legs back.

North Cairn can be reached at 207-791-6325 or at:

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