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The Final Countdown

By Shangri-La - Published December 01, 2007 - Viewed 808 times

It’s 4:30 a.m. with seven days to go. I never used to wear watches. Clocks are everywhere and other people wear watches, so the answer to the time question has never been too difficult to find. But, lately, I’ve started wearing one. It seems to help make the days more productive when, at the flip of the wrist, you can see how fast the minutes and hours are passing. Time is whizzing by and one week before getting on that plane headed south and boarding the boat headed west, everything is accelerating. I knew it would be like this, knew that in the homestretch, I’d be straight out. And, so it goes.

When I’m nervous, or jittery, or for whatever reason not proceeding from day to day in any kind of calmly predictable way, squirming aches in the belly region sets in. It’s a chronic squeamishness,

Last moments at home are more poignant than ever, even my refrigerator, covered in family photos, fills me with nostalgia.
and mostly, it manifests itself at about 4:30 in the morning. It has been happening with greater frequency with age, worsening now as departure day looms, which in a positive way adds extra hours to the day and helps to get more things done. I get up and quietly creep downstairs to the kitchen, as if the boys could be awakened that easily from their youthful and enviably untroubled slumber, to make a cup of tea before heading down the next flight of stairs to my office.

There are several lists on my desk. One is for who to call, the other is for what to bring, another is for which papers to give the bookkeeper, another is for writing ideas. Call the plow guy, make sure he’ll keep coming throughout the winter. Pay Greg for bush hogging and liming the field one last time this season, or else our battle with the bedstraw weed will suffer setbacks. Call home-schooling headquarters, make sure they found Sam’s transcript. Bring the chickens over to the neighbor who’ll board them, then clean out the coop and spread the droppings around the fruit trees. One notebook is opened to the list

The packing pile grows outside my office.
compiled before leaving Shangri-La in Curacao. I like looking at this one because it’s simple, and everything, except ordering new hull paint for touch ups, is done. It turns out paint is considered a hazardous material and won’t be allowed on the airplane. Early morning is a good time to remember what I have to do, what to add to the lists. It’s what woke me up in the first place.

Right outside my office is a futon couch upon which I’ve been piling the stuff I don’t want to forget. Charts, pilot books, lightweight foul-weather gear, a couple of jars of homemade jellies, games, books, bags of dried mushrooms we picked earlier this summer, and another ton of shiny boat equipment like a new compass, EPIRB, and modem that will hopefully be hooked up to the SSB so we can send and receive the occasional email. I try not to think too hard about the

logistics of packing it all, how expensive extra baggage fees will be, how I will manage getting it all into and out of the terminals in Boston and Curacao, how I’ll ever figure out a SSB-to-modem-to-computer-to-email connection. As usual, everything will come together in time, or not. On this chilly and wet morning, I know I’ll be sweating very soon.

The boys at home in Vermont.

The kids and I have talked about the tropical heat. I try to convince them one learns to live with sweating, that we get accustomed to it, that millions of people who live within fifteen degrees of the equator are acclimated to the heat and surviving. So will we. Then, I catch them staring out the kitchen window to the fields, the hills beyond. I know they’re thinking how much it’ll suck to always be too hot, how wickedly they’ll miss their home, skiing, sleeping under a duvet. Dude. I don’t take it too personally. I’m convinced that once we’re actually out there, we’ll all be living in the bathing suit-clad cruising moment and loving it. I fully intend for us to all to pull back up this driveway and resume our lives in just under a year from now and on the next turn of a screw. It’s normal for the familiar to feel dearer and safer just before a separation.

This is home. Ever since their father and I found this piece of land, put in the foundation, started raising walls and filling them in with construction materials and memories, I’ve been saying this would be my last home. It wasn’t an investment, it was a forever place to let roots take hold and spread as widely and deeply as they needed. This home, the maturing gardens I’ve planted, the field I maintain, the forest, the neighborhood, are all flukes on a well dug-in anchor around which we swing. I don’t like the idea of the house

I’ve contracted with different people to take care of the special responsibilities of a house in Vermont in winter.
being vacant, of doors opening onto empty rooms, the mice moving in and eating our linens and wiring, of my roof not providing shelter to someone. I think I’ve found a last-minute house sitter. She will water plants, make sure the pipes don’t freeze, fend off rodents, keep the wood fire stoked, snuggle up under the safe and dry covers as winter storms blast past the tight doors and windows.

In the past couple of years, we’ve had some doozies take out a bunch of trees in the back forty that are too big for me and my puny chainsaw. I love the raging of a mighty tempest . . . from inside the house. I try not to imagine one at sea, but lately, masochistic memories keep surfacing, unbidden — the waves, the howling, the smells, the sweet relief when it’s over. As with the few actual storms I’ve been through and will remember eternally — because people can sail around the world three times without ever really encountering anything worse than a gale — I know that when all is said and done, the next six months will fly by, that every minute should be savored and the memories made good. Otherwise, what a waste of money and energy and time when instead, I could be cleaning up all the deadwood in the forest, making a garage and woodshed, or fencing in the field and finally starting to raise cattle, or beefalo, or pigs, or sheep, or Christmas trees, or sunflowers.

For me, it’ll be six months, for the boys, it’ll be ten. They’ve started working on their home-schooling program while we’re still home and they can develop a comfortable routine with it before joining me on the boat where everything will be new and unfamiliar. Nicholas, the oldest, has always been the one who could pack his bags and head out the door at the drop of a hat, and he whips through his lessons. He loves traveling, visiting people,

Nicholas at work on his home-schooling.
getting in the car and airplanes, being transported to somewhere else when he wakes up, or finishes his book. He adapts easily and happily to change, just as long as he isn’t called upon for too much labor. He’s smart; he figures if it weren’t good enough, they wouldn’t have called it the minimum. It makes life simpler for him. His attachment to home is nothing like Sam’s, the younger, the over-achiever who labors painstakingly over every question and exercise. These days, the smallest little thing will get Sam’s face quivering. It’s not that he’ll be missing any friends or activities in particular. It’s his comfortable life, all he’s ever known, that will be painful to leave.

Once, on a trip back from a visit to New York City, Sam fell asleep before we hit Westchester and only woke up hours later, after we’d crossed Connecticut and Massachusetts, when I had to slow down for road crew work. He sat up, looked out the window, and asked if we were in Vermont yet. I said yes, and he replied, “I knew it. Even construction looks better here.”

He loves where he lives. He won’t cry, but I know he’s often close, and then it’s time for me to give him a hug and try not to get all weepy myself while reassuring him how fast a year flies by, even when we aren’t doing anything special, how there’s a great world of sights and experience waiting out there and that leaving

Sam, ambivalent about the voyage ahead, does his homework and tries to keep a stiff upper lip.
home will probably be the hardest part of the whole trip. Leaving and saying goodbye never gets easier. But, once it’s done, life goes on. He needs reminding of how much he loved our short passage from St. Maarten to Curacao, how every picture shows his beaming grin. I have to keep remembering this for myself, how at home I felt on the boat and at sea on that trip, my first offshore passage in thirteen years. It’s hard to recall all that now, amid the bittersweet feelings that come with flying away from this earthly home where our roots run so deep. I’m starting to feel like a Hallmark card full of aphorisms, cheerleading mantras, and inspiration.


My home office, in the basement, is mission control for all the last-minute preparations for the voyage.

I look at my watch. It’s 7 a.m. already. The boys need to get up and prepare for their last piano lesson in ten years for Nicholas, seven for Sam, another solid routine being temporarily shelved. Sitting in front of the computer to catch up on writing, emails, bills,while organizing and preparing the paperwork end of things for the duration of a prolonged absence really takes up many precious hours. I once read that the underground root system for a tree is equal to the size of its crown. Imagine that. Look at a massive oak spreading its limbs and try to visualize a root network beneath the earth just as big. Likewise, until uprooting oneself, it’s impossible to really know or see how attached we are to the underpinnings of civilization, how well established we can get. From this little station in my basement office, next to the lists that grow as fast as items get crossed off, trails lead off in every direction, forking and spreading ever further, but they all lead back here. That’s what this is all about: going out to come back. To come back home.

The view from my kitchen window..




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