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Only in a place like this

It was a gorgeous afternoon. Blue, blue, blue sky and 50 degrees. I decided to drive Ava into the hills to an off-the-beaten-path place where all the trees have been clearcut in the last five years and we’d have that glorious sunshine beaming on us for the entire walk.

About two miles up the main road I spotted an ATV off to the side and a young man standing behind the trailer that was hitched to it. That was a little unusual, so I stopped and rolled down my window to ask, “You okay? You broken down or anything?” He gave me a wave, a smile, and said he was fine, thanks. But before I could get moving again, he crossed to Old Blue for a chat.

As he approached I could see that he had Down Syndrome and eyes so badly crossed behind his thick glasses that I wondered how he could focus on anything but the sides of his nose. I noticed he’d left a shovel behind him on the roadside.

“I’m just filling the …” he groped for the word, but as he gestured up the hill I saw a row of potholes heaped with fresh black gravel.

“Oh. Are you from the school?” I asked.

Apparently my feat of deduction struck him as positively Sherlockian.

“How’d you know about the school?”

A lot of people in town know about the school, but hardly anyone knows its location — the school in question being a tiny, private, off-grid gem so carefully hidden in the woods that you have to know exactly where it is before you can find it. It began as a Christian home school for two families; the first students were all cousins. Now it specializes in kids who aren’t making it in the local government institutions. Sometimes they’re smart kids, but troubled. Sometimes they’re big, physical boys, sons of loggers and fishermen, who can’t bear sitting still all day. Sometimes they’re mentally impaired. It’s a tremendous place in a sublime spot, run by amazing people.

I explained I’d been to the school, even taught a two-day class there a few years back. He thought that was just wonderful. I’ve never before felt so appreciated for so little.

“But how did you know I was from the school?”

“Because you’re out here filling potholes.”

Once again, he seemed to find the deduction astounding.

The road officially belongs to the county, which does major maintenance on it once a year. In between, it becomes a mass of mud and ruts. So every once in a while, the owner of the school brings a pickup load of gravel and the heftier students get to work. (In fact, half a day on academics and half on physical labor or community service is often their norm.) This is the first time I’ve seen one of the kids doing the work alone, and when I asked him about his connection to the school, he happily explained to me that he wasn’t a student, but an intern.

“Oh. And before I forget, I’m looking for other work, too. I’m starting my own business.”

We talked about the type of work he was looking for. Yard work, construction, anything I needed. Anything at all he could do, he was ready and willing. Said he was raising money for a small tractor with a backhoe. The kid was so ambitious, eager, and bright I quickly forgot his obvious problems. I only remembered again when I gave him a piece of paper and he struggled to write his name and couldn’t manage his phone number (“It’s the house at the school” — which number I already have in my phone.)

Another car needed to pass by then, so I said goodbye and drove on to that sunny walking spot.

I know people with Down Syndrome are often very personable. He certainly was that. But I was impressed that in a place where so many young men are just coasting along with no aims and little energy, this individual with so many strikes against him aimed to work for a living, save money, and build a business of his own. I won’t be surprised at all if he’s got that tractor soon.


It was a lovely walk. About 2/3 of the way in, we met a possum sitting calmly in the middle of our path. Ava was a short leap away — and very interested — when I noticed the critter. Mr. or Ms Possum seemed quite unflapped by encountering a dog and a human and continued to sit in the sun, regarding us calmly.

Ava, who’s always had a killer prey drive, once again, for the second time, allowed a strange animal to go unmolested when it was within reach of her jaws. Miracle of miracles, my good girl-dog allowed me to call her off so the possum could get up and crawl away. Actually, Ava let me call her off three or four times, because when she saw the little guy moving, she took it as a renewed invitation to investigate. But she was so good; she always stopped and came back to me, tail awag. The possum finally ambled — with that funny, unhurried possum gait — into the young trees and we went on.

After reaching our turnaround point, we returned to find the critter back on the path. Apparently it was enjoying the sun as much as we were. This time it stayed right where it was as we circled within five feet of it (which caused Ava to ache with frustration, though she obediently never moved from my side). Possums are amazingly calm for creatures whose main defense mechanism is dropping “dead” and hoping predators won’t eat them. Of course they have impressive mouthfuls of teeth, too, and I’m glad Ava didn’t have to learn that the hard way.

Really a very pleasant afternoon. I was impressed with my companions.


  1. Pat
    Pat January 24, 2017 4:00 pm

    More and more, it sounds like a real nice area. Sorry I never got to explore south of the Big City.

  2. M Ryan
    M Ryan January 24, 2017 4:42 pm

    Sounds like you really have found a little slice of the good life. The kid you spoke with sounds like a good guy. I’ve had the opportunity to deal with some down kids over the years while I was still working and I can’t think of one that I disliked. Enjoy the day and have as much fun as you can.

  3. rochester_veteran
    rochester_veteran January 24, 2017 5:23 pm

    My uncle was a chaplain for a state colony that cared for those with Downs and what was called at the time (mid 1960s), mental epileptics. He was on a NYS board that advocated for getting folks like that out of institutions and into the community.

    BTW, the opossum is North America’s only marsupial.

  4. Claire
    Claire January 24, 2017 5:34 pm

    “BTW, the opossum is North America’s only marsupial.”

    🙂 It also, according to an acquaintance of mine who is a possum rescuer, has no corpus callosum. Which I just learned is a marsupial characteristic ( The two halves of its brain don’t “talk” to each other.

    And yes, Pat and M Ryan, this is a wonderful place. Great people, good life. If only the weather were less dreary. But of course if the weather were less dreary, we’d be invaded by Californians.

  5. FishOrMan
    FishOrMan January 25, 2017 3:49 am

    Yes, now that is an adventure I could enjoy, (and not recorded by a single “security” camera). The family and I walked around Westminster in London yesterday. Rode the underground and all. Must have been filmed by nearly a thousand cameras during the three miles of walking the kids barely endured.

  6. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty January 25, 2017 6:15 am

    What a beautiful experience it is to encounter Down’s folks – especially those not warped by ugly people and situations. I’ve seen enough of THAT in my travels. On the other hand, we had a cleaner in our office there in Calif. who was pretty much average Down’s impaired. She was a delight to talk to, and would simply do anything possible to help. And hugs… Oh my, the wonderful hugs. I miss HER more than all the rest of the people I left behind combined.

    We have a “home” here in Newcastle where the Down’s people work in a cardboard recycling operation next door. They have a bus, and one can often encounter them in the grocery store, the library and so forth. They all seem to be content, and many are very vocal in their happiness.

    I don’t know how this operation is funded, and I doubt the cardboard supports them, but I am inspired to learn more about them now.

  7. coloradohermit
    coloradohermit January 26, 2017 2:07 pm

    What a lovely afternoon! I thoroughly enjoyed your telling of the encounter with the Down’s fellow. On f@ceb**k recently I saw a post about a young Down’s woman who couldn’t get a job so she started her own business.

    It’d be nice if more young people had any motivation to overcome setbacks.
    DH had an uncle who was fairly severely Down’s syndrome. When all the family caretakers died he went to a home with a job program like was mentioned by ML where the residents recycled film by pulling the film out of the canisters. We went to visit him and he kept the visit short because he had to get back to work. He was so proud of having a job.

  8. Claire
    Claire January 26, 2017 5:40 pm

    coloradohermit — What a wonderful story. Too bad her fundraiser isn’t going better. But she seems like someone who’ll manage to overcome the odds in any case.

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