In that helpful division of personality types into “city mice” and “country mice,” I have always thrown my lot in with the city mice.
I was raised in the suburbs, amid small plots of neatly manicured lawns, which could have predisposed me toward the woodsy and the verdant. But while I enjoy walks in city parks and I love to look at city birds and I genuinely admire canopies of stately trees arching over city sidewalks, the truth is that Nature in her completely uncultivated glory makes me nervous.
Perhaps my problem is that I never went to summer camp, where I’m told I would have learned useful outdoor survival skills such as building a campfire, raising a tent and roasting marshmallows on a stick. Other camp skills I never acquired include recognizing bear scat and avoiding those wild mushrooms capable of turning a cozy dinner for two into a last supper. I’ve been lucky, though; I have managed to construct my life in such a way that I have never had the slightest need for any of this knowledge.
Because of my aversion to Nature without extensive nurture, I am not even crazy about visiting friends who live in the country. Several years ago I gave it a try once or twice, only to make the mistake of leaving my friends’ house well after dark and becoming hopelessly lost on a tangle of pitch-black, two-lane roads that seemed to lead ever farther into the darkness, away from the brightly lit highway that would bring me back to the safety and comfort of the civilized world.
It was only by dumb luck that I finally reached the highway, after driving in growing alarm through the inky void while wondering if I could possibly navigate my way back home by using the bright stars above.
Those experiences left me with a sour taste for country life and a desire to restrict my travels to areas where streetlights are found in abundance. For that reason, I am more than a tad apprehensive whenever I receive a new invitation to smell the country roses. My latest offer came earlier this summer, after I saw a film at my local indie movie house and then struck up a conversation with two women who had also seen the film. After we had been talking amiably for perhaps half an hour, one of the women told me she lived in the country north of the city and she invited me to visit.
The county where my new friend—let’s call her Mona—lives has long had the reputation of being so rural that city slickers and suburbanites alike would do well to avoid it at all costs. When I told another friend about my planned trip, she said, in a faintly disparaging tone, “You’re going to the boonies!” And yet Mona painted an intriguing picture of the place, telling me in an email that a small town near her home boasts a coffee shop, an art gallery, a health food store, and an antiques and flea market collective. A farmers market is a half-mile from town, she wrote, and a state park just five miles away. From her description, it seemed like a too-good-to-be-true bucolic paradise.
We set a date for the visit, and Mona sent me directions to her home. As I reviewed the route she recommended, I realized that, in the decade I had been living back in the area where I grew up, I had traveled in every direction but that one. While my mother was alive, I drove the 25 miles west from my city apartment to the college town where her nursing home was nearly every week. I had made many trips south, to Maryland and Washington, D.C. I had gone southeast to Philadelphia and northeast to New York. But the rustic northwest quadrant of my local geography was, in my mind, a great blank. Clearly, I had taken to heart the warnings of my fellow urbanites to give “the boonies” a wide berth.
The morning of my trip was bright and clear—just the sort of sparkling summer day that would be perfect for a 27-mile drive to the country. With my MapQuest directions at my side and a sense of adventure in my heart, I set out. All went well until, less than two miles from Mona’s house, I left the broad, four-lane highway that had carried me out of the city and turned onto what I thought would be an easy one-mile interlude on a small country spur labeled “Shortcut Road.”
The name seemed innocuous enough, but neither the name nor the map I had studied in advance conveyed the vital information that the last 2,000 feet of this road was a steep, curving slope cut through layers of Appalachian mountain rock. As my trusty subcompact nosed down the hill at what felt like a 90-degree angle, my city-slicker vertigo kicked in, made worse by road signs warning “Trucks Reduce Gear” and “Stay in Reduced Gear.” These were supplemented by a yellow sign with a sinuous black arrow and the stern command "20 M.P.H." beneath the arrow.
At times like these it does not pay to have a vivid imagination. As I crept down the slope with my car in third gear and my heart in my mouth, I envisioned slipping out of gear just as my brakes failed on a sharp turn, causing my car to plunge through the guardrail into the Appalachian woods.
After a few moments of terror, however, a small rural miracle occurred: I came to a stop sign at the bottom of the hill and saw that Shortcut Road merged gracefully into a flat two-lane road running parallel to a small river I could see through the trees on the other side of the road. I was so grateful for the absence of more steep and twisting curves that I was almost willing to ignore the "Falling Rock" notice just beyond the stop sign.
I suspected I was close to Mona’s house, but I was so shook up from my roller-coaster ride down Shortcut Road that I had lost my bearings. Instead of consulting my directions again, I drove forward in a haze of relief onto this new, level road, with the river to my left. In about two miles, I saw just ahead on my right the sort of Promised Land all disoriented travelers long for: a huge, nearly empty parking lot, into which I swiftly turned. I called Mona on my cell phone and, when she picked up, explained to her where I thought I was. She must have heard the vertigo-induced anxiety in my voice. “You’re out of your comfort zone,” she said soothingly, before going on to tell me that I was indeed just down the road from her house.
To get there, all I had to do was turn left out of the parking lot and retrace my steps for a mile. But for reasons perhaps fathomable only to other GPS-free drivers, I wanted to make doubly sure that I was where Mona thought I was. Directly across the two-lane road from the parking lot was some type of auto shop. I decided that, just to be on the safe side, I would go there and ask the proprietor the name of the road.
The moment I glided into the driveway of the shop, I knew I had made a truly stupid city-mouse mistake. In the first place, there seemed to be virtually no room in front of the shop to turn around my car, owing to the presence of two gas pumps and a number of other vehicles—all parked somewhat haphazardly and possibly in various states of disassembly. Even worse, the shop was just slightly below the level of the roadway. If I were lucky enough to turn around my car without hitting anything, I feared that I would still be facing a blind exit from the driveway onto the road.
With a sigh of exasperation at my ineptitude, I got out of my car and walked toward the shop. No sooner had I opened the door and looked at the woman behind the counter than I realized what I must look like to her: a city slicker in big sunglasses, little silver earrings, salon-cut hair and a “let’s go to the country!” outfit. She, on the other hand, had a rust-colored mop of curls and was wearing a shape-concealing, oversized white T-shirt and an expression on her face that showed she was thinking, none too kindly, “What have we got here?”
“Hi!” I said, brightly, in my best “a-stranger-is-a-friend-we-haven’t-met-yet” voice. “I got turned around driving, and I wonder if you could tell me the name of the road out there.”
As she continued to stare at me, a man standing in front of the counter—whom I had not at first noticed when I entered the dimly lit shop—offered the information I sought; it was indeed the same road that Mona lived on.
“Thank you!” I said, still using the bright tone that would have made me cringe if someone had spoken to me that way. “And now I have a huge favor to ask.”
This time they both gave me a long look, so I hurried on before I lost my nerve.
“I think I’m going to have a hard time getting out of your driveway, so I’m wondering if you could let me know if any cars are coming before I pull out?” In my slim defense, I toned down my chirpy brightness and, as I realized how absurd I must sound, my voice trailed off hesitantly at the end.
“You want me to stand out in the road and risk getting myself killed so you can get out of my driveway,” the woman said. As she phrased it, it was a statement, not a question. In my embarrassment, I thought I heard the faintest trace of sardonic humor in her voice.
“Well, kind of,” I started to reply, but she had already turned to the man and said something like, “What do you think, Ralph?”
By this time Ralph was smiling, but not in a menacing way. He was about 5’6”, compactly built and dressed in a dark T-shirt tucked into jeans. Through the gloom of the shop, I thought I could see a twinkle in his eye. Before I could mutter, “I’m so sorry; never mind!” they were both heading for the door, and we all trooped outside.
As I got into my car and started it, the woman walked to the edge of the road and waved for me to pull out. Ralph stood perhaps 15 feet closer to the shop, watching both of us.
When I made it successfully onto the road, I should have just raised my hand in thanks and scooted away. But I was so grateful that I risked getting hit from behind in order to lower my passenger window and call out, “Thank you! I owe you a beer!”
The second the words left my lips, I realized that I sounded like a fool.
“I don’t drink beer,” the woman called back, deftly parrying my clumsy city-slicker attempt at familiarity. “I drink Scotch.”
“Scotch is better!” I said, all chirpy brightness again.
This time, I didn’t wait for another reply. I waved quickly, then put the car in gear and drove off down the road in what I hoped was the direction of Mona’s house.
In a whimsical instance of country-road bookending, Mona was standing by the road in front of her house as I approached. She guided me off the road and into a small parking spot, just as the woman from the auto shop had guided me onto the same road a few minutes earlier. In spite of the unfamiliar surroundings, I began to consider the possibility that the worst part of this trip to the country might be behind me.
Mona’s house has an emerald-green lawn that stretches to the river I had glimpsed through the line of trees earlier that morning. We sat outside and talked until lunchtime, at which point she drove us to the nearby town with the attractions she had listed in her email.
When we parked in front of the coffee shop and I saw the town square, I had the distinct feeling that I had been magically transported back in time. The spare, two- and three-story brick buildings fronting the square and the wide, immaculate streets looked liked they belonged in photos of Pennsylvania towns from the 1930s. I would not have been surprised to see a Ford or a Studebaker from that era roll by.
Inside the coffee shop, however, were all the comforts of a café in the 21st century: free Wi-Fi, a menu offering “natural, organic and local ingredients” and—to my amazement—a wall with six long shelves displaying blends of loose teas in large glass canisters. If this is country living, I thought, sign me up!
I was equally impressed when we visited the art gallery, which is operated by the county arts council and features the work of local artists, and then stopped in the antiques mart and the health food store.
The farmers market that Mona recommended is the retail part of a family farm; it carries fresh-picked fruits and vegetables from the farm, as well as baked goods and plants. I selected two tomatoes so large I needed both hands to carry them to the counter, and so red and ripe I could hardly wait to get home to taste them.
I also chose four “Saturn Donut” peaches—strangely shaped, flattened peaches described lyrically by a sign behind the fruit: “Juicy white flesh boasts an excellent sweet flavor due to low acid content, with a hint of almond.” This struck me as sophisticated wording for a farm market fruit stand. As I read the sign again, I could almost feel another layer of my preconceptions about life in the “boonies” melting away.
On the last stop of her tour, Mona drove me to the small state park five miles away. It was my kind of “wilderness,” with an abundance of trees and walking trails, a scenic lake, a swimming pool, an amphitheater and even a butterfly garden.
When we returned to Mona’s house by the river, I took some photos, double-checked my directions back to the city, said goodbye with many thanks to her and her husband, and drove off with two solid hours of daylight left in the sky.
My return trip was blissfully uneventful. I was glad to be back in the city limits, although as a concession to my day in picturesque surroundings, I avoided the faster industrial route and made my way home through the slower but more scenic residential streets.
When I got to my apartment, I put the tomatoes and peaches on the kitchen counter and opened a window in my living room to let in the fresh air and the early evening breeze.
The slightly acrid smell from the city streets and the nearby train station, along with the sound of the traffic three stories below, reminded me that I wasn’t breathing the pure air of the country any more. To this city mouse, these were the sounds and scents of home sweet home. But I enjoyed my day in the country so much that I hope to make another visit there before the weather turns cold. And when I do, I just might bring along a small bottle of Scotch for a helpful stranger.
Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper
Canoe, Metal Chairs, Curved Tree and River Photographs Copyright © 2014 By Susan Hooper