The Moon, the Snow, and Dr. Zhivago


One autumn about a million years ago, I was living with friends in Vermont, teaching high school, avoiding conscription, and just starting my California Dreaming.

We lived on a farm on a dirt road off another dirt road. The farm didn’t grow anything. The owners lived on Guam, used it only as a summer house, and were dumb enough to have rented it to four just-out-of-Dartmouth, draft-dodging, occupational deferment, Vietnam-avoiding high school teachers.

They decided to rent it because they had been burglarized the year before when the house was empty and thought having someone live in it year-round would enhance security. They also installed a bright street light over the yard to ward off burglars.

The farm consisted of 80 acres of beautiful, rolling Vermont hills, four streams, fields separated by stone fences, and a gentle hill to climb at sunset when the deer came out to feed. The total rent was $150 a month.

The farm was easy to find. From Windsor, where I was teaching, you drove a few paved miles to Hartland Three Corners, a tiny hamlet among verdant fields, then another few miles to Hartland Four Corners, even tinier. From there the rest of the trip was on dirt. You took the Hartland-Quechee Road toward Quechee, and after a few miles, you turned left at the Van Vlack place. Everyone knew where that was, and if they didn’t, you could remind them it was the place that had the barn fire, but they were able to get all the horses out, thank God.

When I told locals where I lived and described how to get there, they would nod sagely and say, “Oh, the old Proctor Place.” Really old locals called it the Patch place, though the Patches had sold and left more than a half century before. We thought of it as the Bacon place, the name of the folks who rented to us, and they called it Merienda Farms. Probably named after their grandchildren.

It was idyllic the first few months. As the weather grew cold, Nature displayed a splendid pallet of fall colors, an ever-changing, constantly ripening panoply of richly saturated earth tones. The maples put out the most impressive plumage, the sugar maples the deepest reds of all.

Then the inevitable happened. The weather turned colder, the freezes coming nightly. The lush leaves ran their course, dried up, died, and fell. The trees were bare, the grass dead, the cold omnipresent. Temperatures fell close to zero.

Snow fell from the sky, often quite a lot.

County snowplows worked their way up and down the curvy dirt roads. They took the Hartland-Quechee Road toward Quechee, turned left at the Van Vlack place, and kept the road clear all the way to our driveway. Two different local guys would show up to plow us out. One had a snowplow mounted on a big, butch Ford pickup and would come after smaller snowfalls. The other guy would appear on a huge road grader with a little cab perched on top when the snow drifted over six feet.

Only a lot of snow, a real buttload, would close down the local schools, despite our constant hope for snow days. But deep snow on weekends discouraged us from seeking fun in town, about 12-15 miles away.

One Saturday night, the residents of Merienda Farms grew restless. We could only get one TV channel, from Poland Spring, Maine. We were all tired of reading and playing music. And we were intoxicated, some kinda way. Probably a little too much booze or pot, or perhaps we dropped acid that night. It didn’t matter. What did matter was that we were all a bit tipsy when we decided to go out for a walk.

It was ten below, so cold that the mucus in my nose froze instantly when I walked outside. More snow arrived in flurries all around us. Despite the cold, it was a beautiful night, illuminated by a huge full moon, the air calm with the stillness that comes from extreme cold. All sounds were muffled by the presence of huge snowbanks around our yard. We ran around in the yard with a football for a few minutes, then found a break in the snowbanks that opened a path down to the creek in the valley just below the house.

Using the moonlight to guide us, we trudged down the path and separated at the bottom. The snowfall was several feet deep, and with each step my boots broke through the crust at the top and deep into the snow below. As I walked along, my tired brain saw myself as Yuri Zhivago, walking across Siberia to get back to Lara, the love of his life. But the love of my real life had dumped me a few months before, and I was pretty sure that trudging toward her would be a fool’s errand.

I walked behind a bank of trees, which blotted out the moonlight, but I could see a bright spot ahead and made for that. Keep on plodding, Yuri, and eventually you’ll get back to her. Keep plodding. My sense of time wobbled precariously, and I realized suddenly that I had been walking for days, or maybe even weeks, with little sign of progress. I had no choice except to keep walking as the snow fell around me. Forward was better than backward, and stopping was not an option. I’d freeze to death.

I reached the bright patch of moonlight. After the deeply shadowed area I had traversed behind the trees, the moon was amazingly bright. I looked around me and recognized nothing. I was lost. Irretrievably lost in a white landscape where everything looked the same. I was cold and knew I’d been exposed to the elements for quite a while. But I was young and immortal. And foolish.

“Hey, Z! We’re going in!”

My roommates were calling, but I couldn’t see them. I blinked and stopped and looked around me. The broad valley I had crossed was the stream below the house. Thick ice covered with deep snow. I had no experience walking on frozen bodies of water. A sudden, horrific vision of falling into the stream fought the euphoria of the intoxication. There was no way that could happen at ten below, but I didn’t know that. Snowflakes continued to fall and land on my hat and shoulders.

“Where are you?”

“Over here,” they answered. Don’t stay out too long.”

I turned. The house was less than a hundred yards away, the bright moon close to the horizon and right in my eyes now, and I saw my friends heading back. I turned carefully, afraid of the ice cracking and giving way beneath me. My feet and fingertips were already cold. Snow had gotten into my boots as I broke through the crust.

Keep walking, Yuri. You’ll get there. She’ll still love you. Save those snowflakes on your jacket to show her when you arrive. They’re all unique, you know. She’ll love them.

I walked up the path from the creek to the yard and squinted at the bright light. It wasn’t the moon. It was the streetlight, of course. Why would the moon be out while it was snowing? How illogical.

I scampered across the yard, needing to get warm after our extended playtime in extreme weather. I looked at my watch as I burst through the front door. About 14 minutes had elapsed in the eternity since we’d gone out.

I kicked off my boots and began to massage my feet. My friends passed brandy. Lara would have to wait. First I had to save my toes.

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