Leaving Suburb Behind For Rural Adventure

The Hartford Courant

Most summers, I sweet-talked some adult into making the long drive to East Haddam to visit Gillette Castle. William Gillette, the actor who built the place, had a child's aesthetics. He did, after all, construct himself a castle, one with a miniature railroad and a solarium where real frogs lived.

The grounds were magnificent as the castle itself. The woods and ponds seemed like the setting for some great adventure.

My family lived in a raised ranch on a manicured lawn. It never struck me as a setting for adventure — rather as a defense against it.

Once, as we walked down Gillette's grand stairway, a place where Robin Hood might have dueled with the Sheriff of Nottingham, my mother said, "I'd hate to be stuck here in a lightning storm."

I could imagine nothing better than being stuck in Gillette Castle in a lightning storm.

Fast-forward a few decades. My husband and I live in a 1950s house on a reasonably neat lawn in Hamden. Our kitchen is the stuff of magazines. "You have a lovely home," people say.

But the traffic noise drives my husband crazy. I love to grow vegetables and want more space for them, not to mention for chickens, bees and maybe goats. We heat and clean a house larger than a couple of empty-nesters need.

Plus, it has the personality of Tupperware. It is not a setting for adventure. We have not given up on adventure just yet.

We search unsuccessfully throughout the state for a new place — a small, antique house with a big lot on a quiet street. Either some fool spent the 1980s ripping out original details, or the house is on a major road, or something.

My husband talks me into looking at a contemporary. The reason I consent is whimsical: It's in East Haddam, locale of my childhood dream house.

When we arrive, I don't even go inside at first. I'm drawn to the backyard. A lawn stretches into a field of wild grasses where the birds sing for all they're worth. I find deer scat. Best of all, there is plenty of room for me to grow much of our food while keeping most of the land wild. The house is an afterthought. I don't find it beautiful. But it has a passive solar design that will dramatically cut our energy use. It has a solarium, where I envision a lemon tree, not frogs.

Significant drama ensues with mortgages and movers. Finally, the house is ours.

I pull into the garage and get my key to unlock the door to the house. I discover that the key I'd received at closing doesn't open this door, so I walk around to the main door. There is a screen door, also requiring a key that I haven't been given. This is not an obstacle, as the door handle comes off in my hand.

On this sweltering day, every window in the place but one has been left open. I open that straggler and go about my business, namely getting the grit out of the kitchen cabinets.

I hear a crash and find that the window I'd opened is lying in pieces on the floor. I clean that up, then decide to give myself a treat and gaze upon my koi pond. The pump that gurgled happily when we viewed the property is gone. It is now less a koi pond, more a mosquito hatchery.

The day continues in this vein.

Come evening, my husband and I stand on the deck as darkness falls along with our spirits. Was this a tremendous mistake?

Fireflies appear. We've seen fireflies before, though more rarely in recent years. But we have never seen lightning bugs remotely like these. They are enormous. They trail bright tails, as comets do. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them rendering the landscape fantastical. We look at each other, as if to ask: "Am I imagining this — or do you see it, too?" And then we smile at the wonder of it.

We are stuck in East Haddam, in a lightning storm. Clearly this is not a mistake. It's an adventure.

Colleen Shaddox now lives in East Haddam.

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