Western Massachusetts

Train of Thought

I have trains on the brain since we live within hearing distance of one. Actually, many on this commercial line pass each day and night across from the Deerfield River in Western Mass. That and the traffic on Route 2 are part of my new soundtrack.

A field easily the size of a football stadium, a strand of forest, and a wide river separate the place we’re renting from the tracks.

Without any manmade buildings in the way, the sounds travel easily to our apartment. They range from the waank-waank-waank-waank of a train’s horn to the long ch-ch-ch and squeals its wheels make on the rails. Its rumble and roar. Earlier this summer, explosions shook the back windows a bit, likely for construction along the line.

(The trains in our neck of the woods are strictly commercial although there is a passenger line that stops at the John W. Olver Transit Center in Greenfield, the first net-zero station in the U.S. The trains run to Montreal and New York City, which present intriguing opportunities.)

Hank’s family has a strong connection to trains. His grandfather and father worked for Penn Central, a brother too. Hank had other plans.

What’s my link to trains? I certainly have heard enough folk and blues songs that romanticize this mode of transportation. Yes, I have ridden so very many from subways and trolleys to light rails and passenger trains here and in Europe. And now I live and hear them on a daily basis.

I bet you have your own train stories. Today I offer a few of mine.

In the first, a dwarf barged into my car while I was asleep on a train in Switzerland. He yelled obscenities and jumped on top of me before I could throw him out. In Southern France, the train stopped so briefly, I had to run to catch the last car, a flatbed, where I tossed my backpack and myself safely on board.

There was the memorable time we were stuck for hours on the tracks in Connecticut on New Year’s Eve, and the cops had to come aboard to subdue the drunks heading to Times Square.

How about when one of the newspaper’s homeless street hawkers joined the staff for a ride on the scenic railroad that runs in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado? He kept to himself although my co-workers tried to engage him, and I was amused to see load up his pack with food from the buffet.

I had forgotten these stories until I heard the train move through our backyard. Waank-waank-waank. Ch-ch-ch. Squeal. Rumble and roar.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: This is a railroad crossing farther down the line on the Buckland side above the Shelburne Falls village.

ONE MORE THING: Here is a link for my books for sale on Amazon, including my most recent, The Sweet Spot, set in Western Mass. They’re not free, but they are for the taking. Check them out: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG

Western Massachusetts

Call Him Ishmael

Of course, I’m playing with the opening line to that great American novel, Moby-Dick. I was inspired by a visit to Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s home in Pittsfield where the author was his most productive. Melville wrote there for 13 years, including his most famous book, Moby-Dick.


A portrait of Herman Melville

I have a penchant for visiting the homes of famous creative people — homes such as Arrowhead, which was bought by the Berkshire Historical Society in 1975 — that are open to the public.

I want to see where these creative souls worked and lived. I want to feel their energy.

Arrowhead was definitely on my list.

First, a little background is in order. I’m originally from Fairhaven, Mass., which is steeped in whaling history along with its neighboring city, New Bedford. (Every January, the New Bedford Whaling Museum holds a marathon reading of Moby-Dick. My nephew, Paul, has participated in the event, which takes 25 hours.)

Growing up, I was immersed in whaling history. In fifth grade, I wrote a paper about the Essex, the whaling ship that sank and stranded 20 men in the southern Pacific. Crewmembers survived by cannibalism. Their story is supposed to have inspired Moby-Dick.

I also read Moby-Dick as a high school sophomore, a bit of heavy reading for someone that age.

But back to Melville, he was 21, when he set sail on the whaler, Acushnet, based in Fairhaven, in January 1841. He lasted 18 months, before jumping ship in the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. He called that voyage his college education. When he eventually returned to the U.S., he drew on his experiences to write his first five books.

Melville is also supposed to have read an article about “Mocha Dick: The White Whale of the Pacific.” When that white whale was eventually killed, the crew found 20 harpoons stuck to its body from other attempts to kill the animal.

My theory: Good writers take what they know and have their way with it. I believe Melville did that.

Certainly, there’s enough written about Melville and Moby-Dick that I don’t have to repeat it here. I do find it interesting, however, an author of his stature was unable to profit from his writing. Reviews at the time of Moby-Dick’s publication in 1851 were iffy, even negative.

In debt, Melville sold off about 80 acres. Later, he sold Arrowhead to his brother and returned with his family to New York, where he was a customs clerk for 20 years. He had a desk job, working six days a week for $4 a day.

There is certainly a lesson here for writers, like myself, who are frustrated by the writing business.


Not the original desk but the spot where he wrote.

Last week, Hank and I toured the rooms in Arrowhead that were open to visitors. He admired the workmanship of the home built in the 1790s. I was most interested in the room on the second floor where Melville wrote.

Here Melville sat at a table facing a window that gave him a long view of Mount Greylock in the horizon. The story has it that the mountain’s shape reminded him of a white whale.

The original table is at the Berkshire Athenaeum — guess where I’m heading next — but as I sat in that room I got it. Through the wavy old glass and the overcast sky, Greylock indeed resembled a whale. Call me nuts, but I could feel the creative energy in that room.

That night we watched the 61-year-old movie Moby Dick, which was a bit dated. Gregory Peck plays the vengeful Capt. Ahab. The next day, I headed to the library to order a copy of the novel through the inter-library loan system. It’s supposed to come in Tuesday.

Didn’t I tell you I was inspired?

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: That’s Hank walking the grounds of Arrowhead. For more on historic site, visit http://www.mobydick.org

ONE MORE THING: I have been remiss in not posting info about my books for sale on Amazon, including my most recent, The Sweet Spot, set in Western Mass. They’re not free, but they are for the taking. Check them out: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG



Western Massachusetts

The Process of Elimination

Moving 2,400 miles, from one state to another, requires changes. Lots of them. Yes, we have a list, and I began checking them off one at a time after we had unpacked.

Most of the changes are mundane, but necessary such as getting internet (check), obtaining renters insurance (check), opening a local bank account (check), getting our Massachusetts drivers licenses (check), and notifying everybody we do business with that we have a new address (check).

We bought a used Subaru, which we will need to handle snowy roads. (Check, although it took a lot of time and energy.)  Then we had to get insurance and register the car in Massachusetts (check) and do the same for our Toyota (check).

This week I found two money-making opportunities: a steady freelance writing gig with a magazine and copyediting for a book project (check).

I won’t bore you with the little things, such as where we buy our groceries and get our hair cut.

All that is left is changing our health insurance, and the biggie, finding a permanent place to call home. The second is an ongoing quest.

Hank and I lived in Western Massachusetts for 26 years before moving to New Mexico for 11. Upon our return, we landed in the northern part, Franklin County, to be exact. We want to live here for a number of reasons, but finding that home has proved to be more elusive.

Every week we visit at least one new town to check it out. This week it was Northfield and Bernardston. The previous week, it was Orange and Wendell. We’ve been to others. We drive and and walk around to get a feel for the place’s energy. Does the town have a downtown, even a small one? What other amenities does it have? Do people just sleep there? Do I see myself being happy here?

Each time, I find myself circling back to my top choice — the Village of Shelburne Falls.

As part of that process, we look at houses online, plus at the MLS updates our daughter, Julia, who got her real estate license, emails us. If the house is empty, we find it and peek in the windows.

This week, we brought friends to check out a foreclosure. Victor, who worked in construction, gave it a thumbs-down. Maintenance on this older house had been let go a long time ago. It would cost too much to fix. That’s too bad since it must have been a very nice home at one time. We’ve also discounted buying a lot to build on because of the cost and the traffic noise from nearby Route 2.

What kind of house are we looking for? Preferably something small — but not too small — with a garage, barn, or walk-out basement for Hank’s shop. An arts and crafts bungalow is at the top of our list. The house may need work, but hopefully the right things were kept up or updated. We’d like to be able to walk to a coffee shop or a bar. Yes, a yard for a garden would be nice. Of course, price is a factor.

I know we will find what we want. Everything else has fallen into place. The same will happen. Patience, I tell myself, patience. It’s a process of elimination.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Hank walks in the Deerfield River, the swimming hole that’s a short drive away from the place we’re renting. We cooled off there on three summery days this week.


Western Massachusetts

Green, Green Grass of Home

Uh, not that grass. I’m writing about the stuff that grows in lawns, a phenomenon that wasn’t part of my life for 11 years in New Mexico, except for parks and the odd patch of greenery in somebody’s yard. But here in Western Massachusetts, people take grass seriously.

Before I elaborate, I vowed when we moved to Taos never to mow again. My motto was “No mow, no más.” After all, I used to maintain a very large lawn with a motorized but not self-propelled push mower. No chemicals, of course. But it involved a decent workout since a hill was involved.

In New Mexico, the lands around our home were covered by sagebrush and in spots, obnoxious plants like tumbleweed. Long ago, the landscape was covered by prairie grass. Unfortunately, over-grazing by sheep destroyed the grass and allowed the sagebrush to take over. I would have preferred the prairie grass, but my attempts to grow it were hampered by wild rabbits that also preferred it. Still, the sage-filled mesa was lovely, and if I squinted without my glasses, it looked like the ocean.

Well, all that’s behind me. The landscape here in Western Mass. includes: large farms with fields of corn and other vegetables; grassy fields for hay; forests; rivers; and, yes, lawns. Since arriving in late July, I’ve watched people mow those lawns on a weekly basis. Even the humblest home, and there are certainly many here, has its grass cut low. Yes, they get the trimmers out as well.

I am amused by their diligence.

The place we’re renting comes with a lawn, actually a huge field that extends to a patch of trees near the Deerfield River, but mowing is not our responsibility, thankfully. Monday I watched as the handyman used a large sit-down mower to cut the grass. Even so, the chore took him hours.

Eventually, we will buy a home, with a yard and maybe a bit of land. I am wondering how long my “No mow, no más” pledge will last. Until then, I’ll let others do the work.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: I saw this sign outside a bar in Millers Falls. I asked Hank to stop, so I could snap a photo. I am a sucker for funny signs. No, we didn’t find out if the beer was as cold as that. It was a bit early in the day.

Western Massachusetts

Winter Is Coming

Ha, we kept hearing that on Game of Thrones. But there are no White Walkers in Western Massachusetts, thankfully, just a lot of people thinking and planning ahead for the inevitable.

Yes, I have experienced New England winters most of my life. I did have a short hiatus in Seattle and a much longer one recently, eleven years, in New Mexico. (Northern New Mexico at 7,000 or so feet elevation does have a winter, but it’s shorter and sunnier.)

The worst was when I had to commute in them, from the hilltowns to Northampton, where I worked as a newspaper editor. I left at exactly 6:10 a.m. because I knew a plow truck would hit our road ten minutes earlier, and then made my way through four towns. I kept three compound buckets of sand in the rear of the Subaru for ballast. I left for home when it was still daylight. Yes, there were storms, including treacherous ice storms.

That’s not a worry for me now. I no longer commute to a job.

But as we drive around getting to know the northern hilltowns of Western Mass., I watch highway crews clearing vegetation along the roadsides with heavy equipment. Road construction needs to get finished before the first snows hit. There is also a time limit on any outside carpentry projects.

Naturally, I see stacks of firewood in yards.

The roadside farm stands now offer pumpkins, winter squashes, and apples.

Even the leaves of the maples and other hardwoods are fading.

And people keep warning me about winter. I remarked to Alice at our favorite coffee shop in Shelburne Falls how friendly people have been. She joked, “Wait until winter.”

As for Hank and I, this will be the first time in many years we won’t have a woodstove. The apartment we’re renting doesn’t have one. So, there won’t be the ritualistic stacking of wood or the glow of a fire. I won’t have a garden to put to bed nor will I be planting garlic for next year’s harvest. (I am hopeful all of that will change next year.)

He and I have already gone over our inventory of winter clothing, including long johns, and feel we have enough.

But our serious winter preparation came yesterday when we bought an AWD Subaru, used but with relatively low miles. We got a good deal after trips to several dealerships, not my favorite pastime, but they were enlightening experiences. The Subaru will come in handy when we need to drive somewhere and the roads are iffy.

After all, winter is coming.

ABOUT THE PHOTO ABOVE: Sunflowers on the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls.

ONE MORE THING: I have been remiss in not posting info about my books for sale on Amazon, including my most recent, The Sweet Spot, set in Western Mass. Check them out: https://www.amazon.com/Joan-Livingston/e/B01E1HKIDG