You can go home again

When I walk out side and look up to the sky I realize: If you want to change your life, just try to find a way to do it. Life is short and the stars are bright, you just have to be looking up from the right spot.

When her youngest goes off to college, a woman returns from the west coast to her first love, western Massachusetts. In The Berkshires she buys an abandoned farm and learns gratitude and lessons over the course of a day in her new town…

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I was driving too fast the other morning over Rt. 23, between my new place in Great Barrington, and my parent’s place over in Westfield. That’s where we moved after the GE plant in Pittsfield started layoffs in the 70s. It’s a trip I take frequently since I came back from California after three decades and a recent empty nest. With my mom’s health in decline, I’m happy to be so close. The drive takes almost an hour, and in the winter it’s extra interesting because I can snoop though the leafless trees into properties that I hadn’t previously been able to glimpse in scattered summers through here. I hate this drive at night, all that wasted scenery, but I did it once under a blue moon and that was really something.

I’m learning to let my eyes adjust so I can see better in the dark.

I notice the cop too late to slow down sufficiently. He tells me that the speed limit is 40, and I apologize, blaming my stint in LA: “Where I never drive without gridlock, so I got overexcited by the open road!” He warns me that there is still snow on the road up ahead in the mountains and I should slow down and be safe. He then tells me to have a good morning and slaps the side of my old van to send me off as a more careful traveler — No ticket!

THANK YOU Monterey PD. for the warning.

I’m learning that I need to slow myself down.

Mill river General Store. Photo: David Scribner

I’m now late, and on my way to the Mill River General Store there is no cell service and I get lost.I yell at myself for a while as I drive when my sense of direction deserts me and I end up crossing the Connecticut line. And by yelling I mean singing I’M AN IDIOT to the tune of ALL THE SINGLE LADIES. Why oh why don’t I learn a lesson and print out a map before I leave to come to these parts?? When will I learn that New Marlborough doesn’t give a crap about my GPS signal, and really, why should it? Ugh, this happened when I was picking up the free sleeper couch at that one place, the walker and elderly accouterments from that amazing farm that other time—I really should know better. I hate standing people up, and sure enough, I miss the guy from Facebook Marketplace whom I’m meeting at the store. I do have a particular affinity for country stores, and with so many going under, I’m happy to see this one has new enthusiastic ownership. The Monterey Country Store closing was a blow to my parental trek routine, even though they met my request for investing in a cappuccino maker with unexpected disdain. Anyway, the guy whose apple crate turned upholstered bench I’d hoped to buy has left. I’d imagined I would sit on this to tend to the fireplace at the farmhouse we’ve bought, which is severely heat challenged.

The New Marlboorough Library

I do make it to my Fresh Air Child Host meeting though, at the New Marlborough Library right across the road in this lovely little hamlet. The librarian excuses herself from the Book Club meeting so I can use her landline:  What are you reading, can I join? I ask.  I’m able to reach the apple crate guy, and not only do I love this thing which he lovingly repurposed, but there seem to be no hard feelings for standing him up earlier.

THANK YOU beautiful woman with the amazing house out back and her community who all take in Fresh Air Kids each summer. I hope to be approved to join you as a host in July.  I want to have you at my women’s writing group, and hear your stories. I’ve got my eye on a few of you gals to join me there when the house is ready. The writing table is currently host to boxes of construction materials and a tic tac toe board that my kids drew in the accumulated dust over Christmas break, but one day soon.

I’m learning that I’m actually a bit like a fresh air kid myself.

And THANK YOU grizzly off road furniture builder with an eye for fabric—you were so forgiving when I made you wait.

And yes, I will take a second crate if you can find more of your late mother’s bolt—His and Hers! Honestly I think you could charge more.

I’m learning not to call myself names when I mess up. Or to change the lyrics to any Beyoncé songs in order to further undermine my success at life.

I explore new country roads on the way back and as ever crane my head to take it all in; I call this whiplash driving. I stubbornly refuse to look at anything built after circa 1950. I’ll often make an impromptu turn onto a dirt road just to see what’s up there, and sometimes it turns out to be a driveway (sorry!) and I back out as unobtrusively as I can. At times I end up hitting the brakes because of the scenery and the properties and the BARNS; I can only stop and say WOW and try to breathe, which is hard sometimes with my heart singing so loud.

I wonder if one day I’ll have explored every road that there is to explore in the Berkshires, or if such a thing is even possible. Although actually with my menopausal brain fog I can probably do repeats before too long and not even realize it, though at this point I never forget a property. I’m so happy to be back that it’s hard to imagine that, as a teenager, all I wanted to do was to leave for the big city. Well, for everything there is a season.

Berkshire Grown Winter Farmer’s Market at Monument Valley Regional Middle School. Photo: David Scribner

Next stop is the Farmer’s Market at the Middle School to get some lunch, which is a challenge because I gave up pasta and red meat and sugar for Lent this month, even though last year I give up religion for Lent after the Parkland school massacre in Florida, but still. A promise is a promise, and one to a higher power works better than being self regulated, which I’ve always considered an oxymoron. Especially when you live in the land of pie— it’s practically a food group in these parts. And cheese? There are baby goats wearing onesie pajamas playing on seesaws here! It’s all impossible to resist.

THANK YOU all the makers and bakers and growers at the market.

I’m learning that even without Trader Joe’s this is still a land of plenty. But really, couldn’t we put one in the Price Chopper spot in Lee? Pretty please?

I then arrive at the Wildlife Tracking Class which is meeting over at the high school parking lot, led by a woman who is a 4th generation wildlife tracker and to my chagrin, a hunter. I quickly discover that I am woefully under prepared for this outing.

Ski Butternut in Great Barrington, Mass.

At 12:45 when we head out, I am mainly concerned about finding my sunglasses, but it gets darker and colder quickly once we are in the woods. I am wearing my green Hunter wellington boots— which were a Goodwill score, 10 bucks, but I actually always feel weird wearing them.  I don’t want to be mistaken as the sort of Berkshire newbie who would buy $150 rubber boots. These are topped off by jeans, a sweater, a not down vest and short ski shell with Butternut lift tickets blowing off the zipper—Skiing 7 minutes from home! I have gloves but no hat, and thankfully a scarf that I will wrap around my head eventually.

THANKS Dad for being the kind of 88 year old who can still take his daughter skiing on the blue squares. I remember our crazy black diamond days out west, but at this point I’m fine with cruising.  Also, I think once you’re over 85 it should be free.

And THANK YOU Goodwill not just for these boots for all the drapes and quilts, too, they make my house so pretty and so warm for unbelievably cheap. Couldn’t have done it without you. Glad you’re getting that Sears spot.

And Restore up in Pittsfield? Holy mackerel, really, I owe you. I’ve got to invite all you guys to the theoretical housewarming when this place is done. And that may be into the next decade considering how things are going, but whenever it happens I wish Jimmy Carter himself could come to see all the building materials from Habitat. What a mensch. I adore our contractor, but when he showed up for work the first day I asked: When is the rest of the crew coming? He laughed and said: No crew, kid, it’s just me.

I’m learning that previously owned anything is a gift that keeps on giving and that when dealing with schedules and renovations, it’s best to keep believing that one day you will have a kitchen. Hopefully before the hotplate gives out.

There are maybe 18 of us in the tracking class, and everyone is dressed for a serious expedition: Poles, parkas, packs, the works. I feel like a city slicker with my useless aviators and worry that when the others learn that I’m from California they’ll think I’ve gone soft, but in fact, that’s a real thing! I usually lead with the fact that I grew up in Pittsfield, because I want to be considered a Home Girl and not an interloper driving up real estate prices.

Our place was an amazing deal, but let’s face it, the whole world is an amazing deal compared to Southern California. But still, I do wonder as an insider-ish sort of outsider, if I’m actually part of the Berkshire’s affordable housing problem. Like most of the country, the wealth gap here is ever widening and I’m either on one side or the other depending on whose asking. Chances are good that if I’d never left as a teenager to make my way in the world, I wouldn’t be able to afford being here now.

A sign of bear: Scratches carved into bark.

I learn to track raccoon, bob cat, coyote, lynx, beaver, otter and bear. Oh, and ‘signs of a bear in the woods’ is called Bear Sign. I am grateful that they are currently hibernating. We examine every aspect of scat. There is one particularly long poo on a log that someone suggests may belong to a mink. Our guide responds: ‘A mink would never lay down something that inelegant’ and neglects to even poke it with her pole to make a point and I kind of fall in love with her.

I am, however, succumbing to hypothermia and it’s getting harder to concentrate on the myriad fecal displays, ground scrapings and bark scratches by around hour 3. Her intern is a young man who gives me his down parka ‘until you warm up’ and I kept it longer than I probably should have but he appeared extremely hearty.

THANK YOU generous coat loaner.

And THANK YOU woman who has dedicated her life to the forest and the animals that live there, even though you occasionally hunt them down and eat them. Thanks for saying I have a good eye.

I am learning to be prepared for what nature is offering.

I have possibly never been so happy when something was over—a few couples counseling sessions come to mind—but this is entirely my own fault for not being prepared; it was a fabulous and singular class. But I am finally able to go home and take a hot shower to thaw out, considering myself lucky for that one shower up in the back that works.

THANK YOU previous owner for painting the hallway pink. Your name was Jocelyn and you’re long dead but I wish I could’ve known you and seen your famous gardens. It is my fervent desire to be a good steward to this place. However, I was born with good shoulders but not a green thumb and suspect that it’s too late to develop one.  I’ll opt for Lilacs everywhere, I’ve already decided, like the ones around my childhood home on Stratford Avenue. They’re hard to kill.

The Mount at the Edith Wharton Estate in Lenox, Mass.

I’m learning to understand my strengths.

I’m then off to my first ever Berkshire dinner party in a converted barn up in Lenox that used to be on the Edith Wharton Estate—now there’s a sentence straight off a vision board. I met these folks at Tanglewood, and there’s something about picnicking on the lawn at Tanglewood that just makes you feel like you’ve done something right in your life—it’s weird!  And as I sip probably the most delicious cocktail ever, I understand that this new life is shaping up to be everything I dared imagined it might be and I just feel tickled and probably laugh too loud and do some dishes to compensate.

Swing dance at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Mass.

We all make plans for another go at dancing: this time Contra at Jacob’s Pillow. Last time when it was Swing Dancing down at Dewey Hall in Sheffield. What a room. Everyone should go dancing at Dewey Hall, trust me on this.

When I walk out side and look up to the sky I realize: If you want to change your life, just try to find a way to do it. Life is short and the stars are bright, you just have to be looking up from the right spot. I take a deep breath of the night air and my heart is full of possibility as I drive off into the floating snow to my new home.

THANK YOU old farm for waiting over a dozen patient years for someone to turn the lights back on.

And above all, THANK YOU Berkshires for another great day.

I am learning that you can go home again.

Rainbow over Stockbridge Bowl.


Michelle Joyner is an actor/writer/director who is returning to the Berkshires after leaving as a child. She leads The Long Table, a women’s writing group and along with her husband Robert Egan, is creating RAMSDELL, an Artist’s compound and retreat in Great Barrington. But first, heat. And a kitchen. Hopefully followed by baby goats wearing pj’s.