The barn on Bear Hill was already old when it and the fifteen remote acres on which it stood were acquired by our family as a part, albeit a disconnected part, of our Vermont Home Place. It crouched in one downhill corner of the hilltop property, beside a tree-lined and deeply-rutted old road which climbed Bear Hill, and which in some distant past had actually served as a thoroughfare for the horse-drawn traffic of an earlier time.
The barn itself had been built of wide plain spruce boards over a skeleton of hand-cut beams and joists and roofed over with rough cedar shingles. It had originally served to house hay in one half of its interior, with tie-ups for a half-dozen milking cows in the other. There had been nothing grand about this primitive piece of New England barn architecture, even in its pristine youth. It had never been intended to impress anyone. Rather it told the story of some earlier settler who wished only to house temporarily a hillside herd of young stock with perhaps a half dozen mother cows mixed in. It was thoroughly unprepossessing, and I doubt its weather-worn exterior had ever seen a coat of paint.
The entire structure sat upon a three-foot-high foundation of hand-fitted flat gray slates, obviously gathered from the pastureland nearby and assembled without the aid of mortar. Although sunlight seeped into the barn’s interior through the widening cracks in the building’s siding, the roof remained relatively sound, and we were able to store June hay in the upstairs loft. We too grazed young stock in the adjacent 15 acres of steep pasture and heirloom apples trees, often making twice-a-day trips to the old barn to milk the handful of first-year heifers who summered there, keeping company with the white-tail deer who shared the wild-strawberry-dappled pasture grass.
I don’t know if it was because of the remoteness of the location, the way the breezes sang a whispered song when passing through the old timbers, or just the quiet, undisturbed hours of lone contemplation I enjoyed there; it may have been the sense of pastoral history I always felt while in its embrace, or the sound and fury of a sudden thunder shower passing overhead while I sheltered in its shadowed interior surrounded by the smells and very aura bequeathed by years of honorable service; whatever the reason, my sense of connection with the old gray barn was a real and tangible part of my coming of age. I loved the old piece of history – sagging roof, droopy sills and all. Over the years, my memory strings would come alive, even from great distances, at the very recalled image of that time and place.
Long after the ownership of those fifteen acres along with the Home Place itself had passed to others, I would make my annual pilgrimage back to the old barn, noting each time the accelerating rate of decay, now in complete abandonment. For more than 35 years I would make that climb up the rain-gutted road, now no more than a trail to the spot where so many memories slumbered. Then, after an enforced absence of several years, I returned on fear-slowed feet to find the barn no more than a heap of rotting shingles and siding, being swallowed by emerging wild berry bushes and baby conifers. Only the old foundation remained intact. I think I actually wept a little, standing there in the midst of a red and gold Vermont Autumn. Gone now were not only my mother and my father, and the friends and neighbors who had been so much a part of all those old memories, but now too the old gray barn which had been a refuge and a fortress for so long.
Before leaving for the last time that lovely fall day, I gently lifted one of the ancient slates from the old foundation and held it lovingly in my hands. When I retraced my steps on that final descent from Bear Hill, I carried it with me. In today’s Utah home that piece of timeless Vermont slate occupies a place of honor near my wood stove where my glance often finds rest. Sometimes I even hold it in my arms for long, thoughtful moments. For me it is not just a random chunk of Earth’s mantle. It is a “time machine”. And I am a traveler.