Last week, before my telephone was hooked up at the house, I drove into Boulder to get internet and call my mom on my cellphone. She had asked me to call every evening, to make sure I was still alive. She was dubious about this plan to live alone in the foothills, but supportive; she’s understanding, but she challenges. It’s all par for the course. She’s never been one for hard and fast opinions about behavior. Grey areas are the shadowy places where I was raised and where I still find myself most comfortable.
After a long conversation about nothing much at all, Mom slid sideways into the topic of my retreat. “Well?” she asked, “What about Kevin?”
“What about him?”
“Oh, nothing, I guess.”
“It’s not forever, Mom. Besides, he’s working hard in San Francisco and this gives us both time to reflect and work without interruption.”
This didn’t satisfy her. Her next admonition, if I can call it that, was the amount of yard work that needs to be done. When Kevin and I made the change from a rental property insurance plan to home owner’s plan, an inspection was triggered. After a visit from State Farm, our house was deemed uninsurable for wildfire damage unless we cleared vegetation from the yard within thirty feet, and they gave us one year to comply. The grass is as high as my waist, and thickets, dangerous for spreading fires, have grown up under the trees. Two pine trees on the North side of the house now spread their branches over the deck, their needles like a thousand matches waiting to be lit. It all felt a bit overwhelming, especially when the grass hit the undercarriage of my car as I pulled into the carport. “I’m worried about you doing all that work,” Mom said on the phone. “Don’t get overwhelmed,”
“What do you mean?”
“Hire someone to do it, okay? You don’t need to clear the yard yourself. It’s too much.”
After I said goodbye, I thought about Mom’s warning as I drove all the way home. I felt fear creeping nearby, self-doubt. Despite the fact that her advice was both well meaning and wise, it rankled.
Then I thought about the word “overwhelmed” and tried hard not to be angry. Sure, I’ve floundered once or twice, but there are no fainting couches nearby to catch me; I’ve never placed the back of my hand to my forehead and let the cards scatter to the floor. It’s just grass and trees and shrubs. It’s just a weed whacker. “Well, don’t whack your leg off,” Mom had joked, realizing she wouldn’t convince me to hire out the work.
When I reached my forties I slowly began to realize that many things I never thought I could do was mostly because the men around me had been thoughtful enough to step in and do them for me. It affected my understanding of my own capabilities, and with this realization, a large chip formed on my shoulder. Now, instead of stepping aside when there’s something heavy to lift, I step forward. I climb ladders; I plunge drains; I read complicated assembly instructions and turn a screwdriver. And, by the way, I swing weed whackers, dammit.
Or so I thought.
If you’ve ever been to Boulder, Colorado, you know that McGuckin’s Hardware store is the only hardware store in town worth going to. Green aproned men and women stand around and ask you if you need something as you walk down the lengthy aisles. They’re always hovering. They look at you expectantly, waiting to helpfully direct you somewhere.
The man in the garden tools department who helped me pick out a weed whacker (a Stihl F38, weighing in at just under ten pounds with a graceful goose-neck curve at the mowing head) had one brown front tooth, Tom Petty’s hairdo from 1988, and smelled like last night’s bender, but he was wonderfully helpful. He actually took me out into the parking lot to show me how to start the thing, then watched to make sure I could repeat his motions and make it go vroom all by myself. When I paid for the weed whacker, I carefully put the user manual in my purse, excited to read it later that evening.
In my mind, as I headed up into the Foothills that evening with a car load of supplies – pots and pans for the kitchen, groceries, housecleaning tools, plumbing tools – the yard was as good as swept clear. With the Stihl F38, nothing could get in my way. I played the music loudly (okay, it was NPR) and rolled the windows down.
The next morning, I donned the Carhartt overalls I’d purchased and had shipped to San Francisco ahead of time, the overalls I’d imagined I’d be wearing all winter, every day. The same overalls I saw the ultra-hip sales lady at the Blu Dot furniture showroom wearing a few days after my package arrived, which burst my bubble just a little bit because I didn’t want my overalls to be hip, I wanted them to be practical – the kind of practical that thumbs its nose at fashion. The kind of practical that Patti Smith does so well… which is hip… and here I am again. I donned my Carhartt overalls, threaded my fingers into my new work gloves, placed the special protective glasses on the bridge of my nose with a gesture that meant business, and marched outside to start my gas-powered, 9.8 lb., Stihl F38 weed whacker.
I did everything that the boozy salesman had told me to do. Place the machine on the ground. Turn the switch to “on”. Pump the little rubber button five times. Move the lever to “choke”. Pull the cord until you feel the motor want to catch, maybe three times, then turn off the choke and pull again until it starts. Then, I started doing things in a different order. I held the trigger down, I pumped the primer fifteen times. I even lifted the machine, and against all internal sirens, I dropped it, letting its weight help pull the cord. Then I found the manual and systematically went through everything all over again in the correct order. Nothing worked.
When my arm and shoulder started getting tired, I took off my safety glasses and work gloves and went upstairs to sit on the deck and have a second cup of bitter, disappointed coffee.
Long ago – I couldn’t have been more than 17, it was soon after I started driving – I pulled up at a red light next to a woman on a motorcycle. She was slightly older than me, petite, dressed all in black with black motorcycle boots and no helmet. Her bike’s engine had stopped, and she was jumping on the kick-start, over and over, hurling the entire weight of her body into that small lever on the side of the engine. She dismounted her motorcycle and rolled it off the road, then continued to launch herself into the kick-start, each time becoming more ineffectual as her strength began to give out. This was bad enough, but the worst part of this scene was in my rear-view mirror. The car behind me was filled with young men, and they all thought this was the most hilarious thing they’d ever witnessed. They hung out the windows and pointed while the woman fought back tears and tried to ignore them. The underlying message they sent was that she was getting what she deserved for thinking she could handle a bike. The lesson lodged itself in my head. I was getting what I deserved too.
Kevin (on the phone): Only crazy people try to clear an acre with a pair of hand clippers.
Me: It’s okay. I’ll be tough like a migrant farm worker.
Kevin: Migrants use power tools, Anne!
Me: Whatever. I’ll get it done.
I started clearing the grass the next day, bent over at the waist to grasp a clump and clip it at its base. A sickle would have been more helpful, but the hand clippers worked fine. Slow, but fine. The sun was warm, heating everything into fragrance, like a plate of dinner kept warm in the oven. You hear about the sweet smell of hay, but until you’re in the midst of waist high grass in the sun, you can’t really understand what that means. It tickles in your nostrils, makes your eyes runny, and your skin itch, but it’s sweet, there’s no other word for it, and you just can’t help but breathe it in like tonic.
I moved from tuft of grass to tuft of grass, slowly opening up the yard for observation in the miniscule, making naked what was once hidden. Mostly what I found were abandoned bits and pieces of the marijuana grow operation that was happening up here with our previous tenants – wood screws, pieces of irrigation tubing, a stray black latex glove. But, I did find the molted skin of a snake, which both delighted me and made me extra wary. I also managed to find the lavender bushes that Kevin’s Aunt Sara had planted, and I carefully cut the grass away from the pale green leaves, crushing a few of them to release their scent. Before we moved away, before we even knew we were going to move away, I’d planted all kinds of aromatic wonders – chocolate mint, an antique rosebush, a fast spreading carpet of thyme, purple sage – and took pains to set up drip lines that would keep everything watered on a schedule. None of it remained. None of it survived the tenants’ neglect. The drip lines are just trash, waiting for me to give up and gather it all for Friday’s pick-up. But Sara’s lavender was a small miracle of fortitude.
At the end of the day I was itchy, sweaty, and feeling satisfied. I took a photograph of the cut grass I’d piled to brag about it to Kevin, then peered at my phone. A picture never lies, they say, and my photo was less than impressive. I tried zooming in to make it look bigger, telling myself it was just the angle, but nothing I did could make the pile look as big as I felt it was. I went up to the deck to take a photograph from above and looked out into the yard. My heart sunk. I’d only made a dent, a small nail-clipped scallop into a field.
Me (on the phone): David! Are you going to be in town tomorrow morning?
David: Hi Anne. Uh, yeah?
Me: Can you come up to the house and start my engine. Just start it, I’ll do all the rest.
Me: I swear I could start the weed whacker in Boulder when I bought it, but for some reason I can’t get it to go now. I really need to clear the yard.
David: Oh! Weed whacker! I’ll be there at 9 am sharp.
My former property manager rolled up the driveway the next morning in his ancient Tacoma at 10:45, about when I expected him. He stayed long enough to cut down the low hanging branches of a pine over my deck, and fiddle with my non-operational snow blower (another story waiting to be told) while he told me a long, convoluted story about someone he knew from his many trips to Burning Man and how an act of kindness on his part had gotten him swept up into the guy’s fast spiral into financial oblivion and drug-addled psychosis. When he was ready to leave, he picked up the weed whacker, turned it on, pumped the primer five times, flipped the choke – I swear the man was born with a gas-powered garden tool in his hands – and pulled the cord. Then he kept pulling the cord. Then he pumped the primer some more. Then he pulled the cord again. “Well, all I can say is it’s not you.”
“Thank god,” I breathed, relieved to hear an expensive tool was broken.
“Yep, take it back and see if they can fit you up with another. Strange, though, this brand is usually pretty good. I don’t know, these two stroke motors can be tricky. Maybe it’s just a lemon.”
Back at McGuckins, I marched up to the counter and swung my weed whacker in front of the cash register. “I’d like to return this. I couldn’t get it to go.”
The cashier looked at me with a heart-beat’s pause into which I read doubt. “I got a guy to try it too and it didn’t work for him either.”
For some reason, I felt it necessary to have the backup of a man’s experience, and that’s what it took for the cashier to nod and pick up the phone to call the garden department. Soon another green aproned employee arrived, eyebrows raised, wanting to know the issue. “It worked when I bought it,” I explained, “but when I took it up into the mountains it wouldn’t start. I want to return it.”
“You live in the high country? Did anyone adjust it for you?”
“Adjust it?” I followed the garden tool man out into the parking lot where the weed whacker started up easily.
“These motors need adjusting to the altitude if you’re taking it up,” he explained. He stuck a screwdriver into the motor and wiggled it cruelly. Its noise rose and fell with each turn. “You should be good to go now.”
“Thanks,” I said, a little dumbfounded. There hadn’t been enough oxygen for combustion. I couldn’t believe my weed whacker was suffering from altitude sickness. Driving back up through the foothills, I decided a motor that can get sick like a person deserves a name.
In the yard, back at 7800 feet, Hester roared to life on the sixth pull. I cleared the entire North side, then began to work my way behind the house. I ran Hester until she sputtered off, out of gas, then went inside to fix myself a congratulatory cup of tea. As I lifted the mug to my lips, my entire arm trembled, sloshing liquid to the floor. I was going to be sore for the next few days, but I welcomed the pain with a smile.
Currently reading: Wool, by Hugh Howey and Rough Beauty, by Karen Auvinen
Progress on Book 3: Nothing yet.
Wonderful!! I am vicariously following your adventure with you. Can’t wait to see what’s next……
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Such a lovely story! Your description of the weed whacker was wonderful. When we were children (I was around 8), my father gave the older four children hand-held week whackers and a plot of ground to clear on our summer farm-for Easter. The thistle bushes are a different type of challenge. Congrats on your ground clearing, Anne!:-)
I’ve got my own stories to share with you next time we are together. Lawnmowers have made me cry, weed whips have made me bleed, and leaf blowers have made me feel like a superhero.
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