Spire among crabapples

Spring is the season when I fall in love with Keene all over again.

Like any love-at-first-sight affair, I recall the first time I drove into downtown Keene. My ex-husband, Chris, and I had been living in Hillsborough, NH for several years, and we passed by Keene every time we drove to or from Vermont, where his brother and sister-in-law live. Every October, I’d want to check out Keene’s famed Pumpkin Festival, but every October, we’d have other plans for that weekend. And so it somehow came to pass that in the several years we’d lived a half hour away in Hillsborough, I’d never actually seen the downtown heart of Keene.

Keene sentinel

In the summer of 2001, right before the attacks of September 11th sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin, I had quit my part-time teaching job at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH and was looking for a “real job” outside academe: anything that would pay a full-time salary and provide health benefits. My search was ill-fated. Nobody wanted to talk to (much less hire) a grown woman with absolutely no experience in the corporate world: simultaneously under-experienced and over-educated, I was virtually unemployable. Years before, I had sent my CV to every college within 45 minutes of Hillsborough, which is how I’d gotten my job at Saint Anselm in the first place. So by either luck or fate, at the end of June, 2001 the phone rang with a tasty offer: a full-time adjunct position at Keene State that would provide a much-needed salary if not health insurance.

As I drove into downtown’s Central Square on my way to a job interview at Keene State, Keene was boasting her summertime loveliness. Keene’s Main Street is so lovely that it impressed even Thoreau, whose mother was born here and who passed through town on his way to Canada in 1850:

    Keene street strikes the traveller favorably, it is so wide, level, straight, and long. I have heard one of my relatives who was born and bred there say that you could see a chicken run across it a mile off. I have also been told that when this town was settled they laid out a street four rods wide, but at a subsequent meeting of the proprietors one rose and remarked, “We have plenty of land, why not make the street eight rods wide?” and so they voted that it should be eight rods wide, and the town is known far and near for its handsome street. It was a cheap way of securing comfort, as well as fame, and I wish that all new towns would take pattern from this….Keene is built on a remarkably large and level interval, like the bed of a lake, and the surrounding hills, which are remote from its street, must afford some good walks. The scenery of mountain towns is commonly too much crowded. A town which is built on a plain of some extent, with an open horizon, and surrounded by hills at a distance, affords the best walks and views.

Keene is a great place for walking, both in and outside of town, and I sensed that from the first moment I drove through Central Square on my way to Keene State. Central Square is a circle fringed with quaint shops in historic buildings and set with a flowering gem of green at its heart. From that hub, Main Street heads straight south toward campus, a wide, tree-dotted boulevard that makes for great walking. From the moment I first drove into downtown Keene, I thought to myself, “I could picture myself living here.”

Sentinel with spire

As either luck or fate would have it, I felt similarly comfortable on Keene State College’s lush green campus, which looks the most alluring during summertime when few students are around to appreciate it. I remember the day was sunny and I wore a kelly green dress; I remember the grass and trees were gleaming with the same brilliantly verdant color. Although I knew Keene State couldn’t provide the health benefits I sought, I also knew that I had promised myself in the spring to find gainful employment by July 1st. As either luck or fate would have it, my interview at Keene State was on June 21st, giving me a whole week to decide whether to accept or decline the job.

As you have probably surmised, I accepted that full-time adjunct job; since then, I’ve paid for my own health insurance. For the first few years I worked at Keene State, we still lived in Hillsborough, so three days a week in all sorts of weather I drove the 45-minute one-way commute over a ridge of mountains. It was a lovely drive as commutes go: on my way to and from Keene, I saw wild turkeys and deer on the sides of the road, a lone coyote carrying a dead groundhog, and a bald eagle silently winging its way over a mountain lake. In winter and at night, though, the commute could be tricky: one morning I saw the driver of a tractor trailer truck standing helpless as a local emergency crew tried to retrieve his truck from the river embankment it had slid off, its nose skimming the water while its tail hung from a mangled guardrail. It was during those white-knuckled winter commutes over icy hill and dale that I started calling my 1993 blue Subaru the “Little Tank,” for she kept me on winding mountain roads while cars around me fish-tailed, spun-out, and landed in ditches.

A-spiring

In the summer of 2003, Chris and I decided to sell our house in Hillsborough and move into an apartment here in Keene: a conscious decision to downsize. Chris was trying to make it as a full-time musician, and the house that seemed modest on his tech salary bore more mortgage than I could handle with even a handful of adjunct teaching gigs. In retrospect, that decision to move to Keene was a fateful one, for the house we owned together was the biggest commitment (lacking kids) that held us together. Last summer when Chris visited Keene to close our joint checking account after having moved to Vermont, I remarked that dividing our assets and getting a uncontested divorce was easier, legally speaking, than selling our house had been. “Selling our house was the best thing we ever did,” I remember him remarking. “If we hadn’t done that, we’d never be doing this.”

I often remember that moment as we drove in my car (the Little Tank) to the bank and then to the lawyer to drop off another set of paperwork severing our legal ties. I remember that moment because it affirmed that yes, we were both on board with this decision: yes, moving to Keene, separating, and ultimately divorcing was all part of the plan, painful as it might be. Earlier this week I spoke with Chris, and he mentioned he’ll be leaving Vermont in June; after trying to decide whether to wander the country a while or move straight to San Francisco, he’s decided to move back to Boston, to the Cambridge Zen Center…at least for now. “Are you planning to stay in Keene in the fall?” he asked, and I said yes. Although I’ve no family keeping me here, and although I can’t say with certainty this is the town where I’ll someday die, for now Keene is perfect: a place with blue skies and flowering trees where I have a sunny apartment within walking distance of a job I love. Although I adore both San Francisco and Boston and countless points in between, for now I’ll let Chris be the wanderer. For now I’ve found the prettiest town on earth, and I’m perfectly content to stay a while.