In the late 60s, I take a contemporary poetry class with Jocelyn, the only female professor in the English Department. She acquaints me with the imagist poets and the lyricism of colloquial speech ("Come on! Wassa ma'? You got broken leg?" in William Carlos Williams's Paterson). I don’t know it then, but it is my first step toward a life in a direction I never even considered. Her husband, Dave, teaches English at Albany State. When he is turned down for tenure, students protest, to no avail.
Jocelyn and Dave do what many people talk about: drop out. She resigns her position and they buy land in Barry’s Bay, Ontario, Canada, embarking on a life as farmers.
In September 1970—a few months after graduation—my roommate Rich and I decide to visit them. Jocelyn sends us a hand-drawn map of the area; the destination is a mailbox labeled “Gopherwood.” Early on a Sunday morning, we fly half-fare to Ottawa on our expired college ID’s and start hitching from Ottawa at 9:30 a.m. At around noon, we get stuck in an intersection. Cars slow down, look at us, and drive on.
Finally a man picks us up. He has a French accent and is drinking beer. He talks about how he’ll pick up anybody because he was in the army for 22 years and was on the road a lot. He curses out the farmers in the area, and says they won’t pick up anyone who looks like a hippie. He drives us around town so that everybody can see he’s picked up two hippies.
He tells us he is an outcast because “I drink and I’m free. I get money from the army, and people are jealous because I don’t have to work my land hard.” He was wounded several times and his “legs are almost useless.” He drops us off a few miles outside of town, where we’ll have a better chance of getting a ride.
When it looks like there is no way we’ll make it to Barry’s Bay by dark, a bus appears with Barry’s Bay posted above the front window. Rich and I look at each other to confirm that it's not a moving mirage, then frantically flag it down. The driver points to the empty bus and says the only reason he is completing the run is to deliver newspapers. “I don’t know what to charge. How about a dollar?” Deal.
We get to Barry’s Bay at dusk, but the only cab driver in town has to deliver the newspapers. He gives us directions to a man who might take us out to the farm. The guy isn’t home but his father-in-law invites us to come in and wait. He is in his seventies and is chain-smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. The only thing that interrupts his smoking is his convulsive coughing.
The son-in-law never shows up, so Rich and I head back toward town, to spend the night in the one hotel. We stop at the bar, where we meet some teenagers. They were raised in Barry’s Bay but now live in nearby towns and only come home to get drunk at the hotel.
The kids volunteer to take us out to the farm in their truck. It is a moonless night, and the driver speeds along the narrow gravel road, mostly on the wrong side of the imaginary white line. Everyone whoops each time the truck skids around a curve. Rich and I say nothing. If another car comes along we have no chance. We choose to risk death rather than be uncool with strangers (who may choose to kill us anyway).
We make it to the end of the road; we have to go the rest of the way on foot. Rich and I grope toward the light of the cabin, which seems a Christina’s-World away. As we get closer we hear a dog bark, then see a flashlight, which leads us to Jocelyn’s welcoming embrace. I have never hugged a teacher before.
Things aren’t working out well for Jocelyn and Dave and their three-year-old daughter. They have been working for years on a major anthology of contemporary poetry, and were counting on the royalties to subsidize the farm, but their publisher has been sold and the new owners dropped the project. Some relatives sent them an expensive shortwave radio to link them to the world, but they are going to sell it to get them through the winter.
Rich and I help harvest the last of the vegetable garden. Dave asks me to ride along with him to shop at the nearest supermarket. He parks in the back lot and takes me to the dumpster, where we scavenge for sealed packages of recently-expired chicken.
One morning Jocelyn finds part of a bear carcass near the front door. She deduces that a neighbor, knowing they can’t afford meat, left it there. Jocelyn marinates the meat for days, and my mouth waters whenever I pass it. Finally, on our last night, with winter setting in, the garden barren, and the radio gone, Jocelyn serves the bear meat. I chew and chew and chew until I can swallow, thinking of Chaplin eating his shoelace.
When I get home, I look up gopherwood and discover the only known usage is God's instruction to Noah: “Make thee an ark of gopherwood…”