Daryl May’s travel writing draws from his visits to forty-five U.S. states, nine Canadian provinces, and sixty countries. Whether as a notable hiker or a lowly hitchhiker – or in cars, boats, bulldozers, planes and RVs – his stories are generally wistful and self-deprecating as he faces adversity and extricates himself without losing his sense of humor.
The American dream burns brightly in the minds of many immigrants. So it did in Jennifer’s and mine when we stepped off the boat in New York. We were just over twenty.
The Interstate System was transforming the country, but had gaps like Route 66. A relatively unknown Lee Iaccoca launched the Ford Mustang, and we were awed to deliver one cross-country for a relocating doctor. California was sprouting hippies who made love not war. “Clean Gene” (Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota) was campaigning to be the Democratic presidential candidate. The latest salad dressing was a forgettable concoction known as Green Goddess.
Jennifer on the land
Everything about this great country enthralled us – as it does 43 years later. Even as students, we drove from sea to shining sea, enjoying the plains, the mountains, the desert and the Pacific coast. Our student stipends were modest, but so were our expenses. Groceries cost $10 a week – for two. Gasoline was thirty cents a gallon. A modest but clean motel room cost $6; they didn’t call themselves Motel 6 for nothing.
Once we graduated, a welcome phenomenon entered our lives – salaried jobs. At the same time we decided to stick with our old thrifty ways. Using savings from our salaries, we bought fifty beautiful wooded acres near Burlington, Vermont. It wasn’t far from my work. We pitched our tent there each weekend, and our land became a second home. Then we bought a used travel trailer. Now our second home was a comfortable retreat.
The land rose on each side of a rippling stream. We planned to subdivide the property and sell lots. For that we’d buy a bulldozer to create roads, and dig a lake fed by the stream. A modest dam would regulate the lake water level at the end of the property. Beyond the dam, the stream would continue as before.
Soon enough, our acreage would be transformed into thirty or more tidy vacation lots sloping down to the lake filled with trout and bordered in places by a white sandy beach. Then I’d go fishing in the lake, ready to welcome city-dwellers beating a path to buy a lot from us and build a cabin. They’d all become fishing pals for life – as Jennifer and I became rich.
“After all,” as I explained to Jennifer, “isn’t the American dream about having enough money to go fishing?”
For $1000, we bought an ancient International TD-14 bulldozer at an auction. Somehow, I learned the skill of maintaining the beast. It had a curious gasoline-diesel engine, which you started on gasoline, then switched to diesel once it was chugging. (For fellow enginers: The compression was altered mechanically to enable the two operating phases.)
An army friend who had been a tank commander looked over our new property, and taught me how to operate the dozer. Then he departed for the city with a twinkle in his eye. The meaning of that twinkle became clear later.
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When your bulldozer gets stuck in the mud, there is nothing quite as miserable as being bitten alive by black fly. Black flies aren’t called “buffalo gnats” and “fierce biters” for nothing. As a university fact sheet puts it, “After the black fly finishes feeding, bleeding may continue for some time”.
Just as the tank commander had known, the bulldozer wasn’t up to excavating for a lake – even without black fly. Black fly just added pain to the frustration. To free the bulldozer from mud, I learned the technique of lowering the plough on to tree limbs that I would cut for the purpose. With the plough pressing down on the tree limbs, the bulldozer tracks rose partially into the air. At that point, I’d shove other tree limbs under the raised tracks. The dozer could now power itself over the tree limbs to a new work area.
At that point, I’d resume ploughing until the dozer got stuck again, and the black fly attacked while I freed it. That became the tempo of my weekends.
Progress on the lake was excruciatingly slow. The wider it got, the greater was the distance to expand it. Meanwhile, the travel trailer became a home away from home. After a day’s work, a shower was right at hand. When the sun went down and the black fly took a break, we would cook on the grill, sip a glass of wine, and appreciate the great outdoors in peace and quiet.
The trailer was the best feature of our country weekends. Come to think of it, that’s why people buy travel trailers. It’s just that most people are smart enough to drive trailers away from their working lives and not into them.
One day, Jennifer said, “We need to take the travel trailer on a trip. That’s why they call it a travel trailer, don’t you know.”
As snow flurries swept through New England, we towed the trailer down to Florida. It needed little imagination to realize what we’d been missing. An RV can move with the scenery and the seasons – so you can enjoy sunny beaches in winter and cool highland air in summer. You can hightail it on the highways, or dawdle on the byways. You can just plain stop – for as long as time permits – and even put down roots in new places. The comforts of home – along with the excitement of travel. Meals when you want. Books and music. Never a “No vacancies” sign. No reservations needed!
When we returned to our land, things were never the same again. Armed with an improved job offer in California, it wasn’t hard to say goodbye to mud and to black fly. I interested a neighbor in buying the bulldozer, and spent a long afternoon around his pool table, negotiating its sales price of $2000.
The profit from selling the bulldozer was the only profit from our real estate enterprise. Soon after, Jennifer and I hitched the travel trailer to our wagon, and headed west. Much later, we sold the land. I was pleased that Nature had reclaimed it.
Riches had eluded us in our quest for the American dream. Instead, we’d gotten stuck in the mud in black fly country. We look back at those days in our youth as a bittersweet transition to adulthood. With continued perseverance, other ventures bore fruit. They enabled an early retirement while we were young enough to travel.
Thankfully, we’d discovered more of the great outdoors and what an RV lifestyle offers. Traveling we did – and still do. But not by bulldozer – and never in black fly season.
Read Daryl’s other columns.