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Tracks...or "When the Opioid Epidemic Reached My Country Road"

An excerpt from Woodsqueer.  Maine Magazine. January 2022

One morning I woke to deer tracks crisscrossing the yard—delicate proofs in the snow, a step here, a step there, a chain of steps entwined with more chains of steps. They had come in the night, lit by stars and moon, when the woods and yard were still. We had always known there were deer in our woods. I hunted them in the fall and knew some of their routes and resting places. But they had never before come so close to the house. I felt an excited delight and a strange chill—these creatures had been awake, circling the house, while we curled under our covers, dreaming, unguarded.


I found myself at the upstairs bedroom window after dark for many nights after that. I wanted to see the deer, moving in the moonlight, unaware that I was watching. I would check at 10 p.m. just before going to bed. I would glance out at midnight when I got up for the bathroom, and I would check again at 4 a.m., an hour I habitually stir. I thought I might keep vigil all night with a cup of coffee and a book, but I didn’t. I never saw the deer; they eluded me.


The day before, out walking on the country road that runs past our house, [my wife] Ruth and I found four hypodermic needles scattered in the sandy gravel beside the blacktop. The orange caps over the needles and the plungers stood out in the monotone winter landscape of white, brown, and gray. Some of the syringes were uncapped, some not. I’d never seen that before. I’d heard of needles washed up on New York City beaches, but now here they were, dropped beside the road so near our home.


The scattered syringes brought to mind the son of a neighbor who had nearly died of a heroin overdose. We had known him since he was a boy. He’d helped take care of our goats and chickens while we were away the year my mother was ill. His mother told me he’d gotten addicted to prescription painkillers after he’d been severely injured in a terrible car accident. When his refills ran out, the boy turned to heroin. After he was released from jail and started treatment, he asked his mother to take him to his appointments. “Mom,” he said, “the dealers drive up and down the roads looking for guys like me.” They’d track him down, he told her, and offer him the stuff for free to get him hooked again. They knew his routines, his hangout spots, the places he was likely to show up sooner or later. It unsettles me—dealers in their pickup trucks, their ball caps low over their faces, their glove boxes full of needles and drugs, cruising the back roads. I waved at someone I didn’t know the other day, that casual country wave, and he didn’t wave back, not even two fingers raised off the wheel or a nod of his head. Could he have been one of them? I don’t like feeling afraid. Do we need to start locking our doors?


Maine, it turns out, is a perfect place to be a drug dealer. With the closures of the toothpick and clothespin and paper mills, the shoe and shirt factories, the sardine canneries, the job prospects in rural Maine dwindled. If you were young and jobless and could not afford college or were afraid to be the first person in your family to try, you might get bored. You might feel isolated up there in the country where they grew potatoes, and you might try any drug, just so you felt you were a part of something bigger than your little Podunk town in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe you just needed the money that selling drugs would bring. Or maybe that’s not the story; maybe you worked at a mill, or in the woods, or you fished for lobster. You did hard, dangerous work with your body. You did okay, moneywise, until you got hurt. When you were out with a bad back, there was no money coming in. So, you took this wonderful painkiller that made it all okay. No wonder drug dealers set up shop in rural Maine.


When I went out after that, across the yard to the barn for chores, into the woods for a ski, or for a stroll along the road, I was even more alert to tracks. I felt surrounded by invisible presences, some benign, even lovely, others malevolent. I thought it strange that I should find deer prints in my yard, that deer would come out of the woods and circle the house at night, just as I thought it curious that my path and my neighbor’s son’s path should intersect with the paths of opium poppy farmers from Central America, drug lords from Mexico, dealers who’d come from New York City to launch heroin start-ups. But perhaps I was being naive. There must be no limit to the lives that exist unbeknownst to me and that connect with mine, no limit to the number of beings that go about their usual business while I am somewhere else, asleep, or not paying attention.


This is excerpted from the essay “Tracks” in Gretchen Legler’s new memoir, Woodsqueer: Crafting a Sustainable Rural Life, to be published by Trinity University Press in February 2022.

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