Special to the Tribune-Star
A few summers ago, my family traveled to New England to see what we could see. Along the way, we dipped our toes into Walden Pond, holy waters to those who have read Henry David Thoreau. My wife and I returned to the region last month to seek shrines that poets at heart revere: the Vermont homes where Robert Frost wrote magical words.
Our drive into southern Vermont was relaxed and winding, and we skirted the growing ridges of the Green Mountains, cruising much of the way alongside a rain-fed and rocky stream called Roaring Branch. We had left the interstate a few miles out of Massachusetts, and drove two-lane Highway 9 all the way to Bennington. There, we found Frost’s grave in the magnificent Old First Church cemetery, dotted with tall slender grave markers of Revolutionary War veterans, most of which that carried engravings of death’s heads, weeping willows, and inverted torches.
Frost’s grave, to the east and down a slope from the back of the church, is found in a simple plot. A white birch tree — an important symbol to the poet — and a view of the mountains only partially explain why Frost chose a gravesite for his family in a place in which he’d never lived.
After his wife, Elinor, died in 1938, Frost had originally planned to scatter her ashes on a farm he had owned near Derry, New Hampshire, a place we had to save for another trip to New England. When he returned to the old farm there, its owners were not enthused about the poet’s plan; the farm’s state of disrepair also bothered him. Instead, Frost waited two more years before deciding to create a family plot in Bennington, just a few miles south of another of his homes in Shaftsbury.
It was early evening before we left the cemetery and the growing shadows cast by its maple leaves for another nice but twisting drive up Highway 7 to Manchester, where we would stay the night in a lodge that gave us a misty morning view of the mountains. It was hard to explain, but neither of us was in a hurry to leave the old poet’s grave. He outlived not only his wife by a quarter of a century, but four of his five children (all are buried alongside him) and so we felt a bit sad. His famous line, “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world,” serves as his epitaph.
Our visit to Frost’s “Stone House” in Shaftsbury began the next morning, a day on which the sun was hazed by skirting clouds. Frost lived on the farm from 1920-1929, planting scores of apple and pine trees, and writing many of the poems — including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” — that were included in his first Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, “New Hampshire.” Built in 1769, the house sits just yards from the busy two-lane highway, which was a simple gravel road in the poet’s tenure there. The house’s stone walls are nearly two feet thick, so when we entered the place through its back door it was cool and quiet. The few other visitors who came and went quietly walked the broad pine floor planks with little comment.
As much as I enjoyed the inside of the house (we were allowed to wander through only a few downstairs rooms, but learned much about Frost), it was the yard and paths near the house I enjoyed most. A long stone wall stretched itself to the west of a small barn, and a mowed path took me back to an apple tree that appeared vigorously healthy from a distance, but was remarkably hollow when I got close enough to get a better look.
Walking the pasture gave me a sense of where the poet wandered and what he saw from his back door. I imagine he added a few stones to the wall and sat in a high-backed chair under the birch and maple trees along his driveway. It proved, however, to be a poor decision on my part to walk a while on the paths behind the house in shorts; the chiggers and black flies got the best of me, but the welts they left on my arms and ankles were still worth the trip.
It was a longer drive northward, out of, but then back into the mountains, toward Ripton, where Frost bought yet another farm in the summer after Elinor died. Unable to live alone without his wife, and nearly debilitated by his grief, Frost moved back to Shafstbury to live with his son for a while. But after a lecture at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Frost decided to purchase the Homer Noble farm, not far from Ripton on scenic Highway 125. The simple farmhouse, which sits at the end of a long and steep gravel lane, had a cabin behind it. Friends Kay and Ted Morrison eventually lived in the house, Kay taking on Elinor’s duties as a secretary of sorts to Frost. The Morrisons, and their two children and dogs lived in the house, while Frost stayed in the cabin; he did take many of his meals with the family.
Not knowing that the farm was just a stone’s throw away, we first stopped at the Robert Frost Trail to stretch our legs and heads a bit. It is a beautiful place, well maintained by the Green Mountain National Forest and dotted with markers bearing Frost’s words. It was an easy walk of less than a mile-and-a-half, and we passed over a bridge that spanned a fork of the Middlebury River, not far from a marsh that beavers and dragonflies call home. After a green-canopied and pine-scented hike, we reached several clearings dominated by blueberry and huckleberry bushes, and bird boxes. At about the time we headed back into the forest to meet up with the bridge again, we caught a glimpse of Frost’s farmhouse roof peaking above the trees to the north, so we knew where we’d be headed next.
As had become customary for this trip, Joanie and I made our way to the farm and the cabin late in the day. When we pulled up in front of the house, we could tell that no one was there, and it was unlikely that anyone would bother us. A sign on the door of the house told us that we could tour the grounds as long as we wished, and that we should simply leave things as they are. It is remarkable trust, considering that the cabin was vandalized just a few years ago.
We stayed in Frost’s yard for nearly two hours, but only near the house for a little while before we found the path that headed even further up the same slope past rock walls to the cabin, which is nestled under sugar maples at the edge of the woods. Later, we both swore we could feel the old poet lingering there, particularly, I think, as we sat on a cairn of granite that he surely sat upon too, looking southward to an orchard grass meadow and the mountains beyond. We each sat in that spot a long time, silent, taking notes and thinking thoughts, but mostly appreciating that we were able to make the visit.
We became inspectors of everything that we thought Frost had a hand in — the blackberry bushes and apple trees halfway down the hill, the bookcases and bathtub that we could spy through the cabin windows, the woodshed, now empty.
Eventually, we reluctantly walked down the hill, not wanting to leave the cabin behind, but instead of driving away, we sat again, this time on huge boulders near the drive, listening to no more than the ravings of a red-winged blackbird who thought we needed to go.
I fail miserably at memorizing poetry, but I do recall that Frost wrote a poem about leaving his 30-acre farm in Derry, which he sold in 1911 to finance his family’s move to England. It ends with these lines:
“It shall be no trespassing
If I come again some spring
In the grey disguise of years,
Seeking ache of memory here.”
Perhaps, some spring, or summer, we will come back to this place, greyer, no doubt, seeking our own memories…
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac” will be released this fall.