The moon shone at just the right angle and intensity and painfully tart gray-blue. It was the middle of the night, the sun as distant as it could be from this scene. My view out the front window of this bedroom where my wife Denise and I took our rest was through a freshly-washed modern glass. The building, however, was about 150 years old. A recent construction, in these parts.
This was England, 1997, a mere two weeks after a Princess of theirs died in a car crash in France. It was hard to picture such a glamorous globe-hopper as Diana ever setting foot in the Cotswolds town of Moreton-in-Marsh, on the northern fringe of which sat this bed-and-breakfast, shielding us from gentle October winds. On the map, it was tantalizingly close to a dot, a place-name, not even a town, but an intersection of two mysteriously tiny roads. Dorn, the dot said.
It had already been one of these overstuffed, overplanned, whirlwind vacations, the kind everyone has on their first major trip far away from home. We had seen some of London (mostly the outside of the Victoria and Albert Museum), Canterbury, Leeds Castle in Maidstone, Salisbury’s Stonehenge (but not Salisbury), and the lesser known town-in-the-henge of Avebury. Now we prepared to lay seige to the Cotswolds, with an early departure the next morning. Quaint names, not only Moreton-in-Marsh, but Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water, were on the short list of stopovers. It was on seeing these that I appreciated the lineage of my own New York home town of Croton-on-Hudson.
We made our way north along A-429, previously Fosse Way, and before that, whatever the Romans named this road of their making, 2000 years ago. We pulled into the complex, The Old Farm in Dorn, in our rented subcompact with the steering wheel on the wrong side, which made every mile a harrowing experience (there are no atheists in Vauxhalls, we joked). I don’t remember taking note of the fact that it was on a working farm. It’s possible that it wasn’t in 1997. But we were merely stopping over, sleeping, then shoving off at daybreak. This was the agreement between us. At a bed-and-breakfast it was bed, followed by breakfast.
But as we prepared for sleep, I couldn’t get from my mind the view out the window. Nothing but empty field directly across the little road passing in front. But when I craned my neck to the right — west — there was a barn. It was made of stone. That seemed astonishing to me. It looked as if it was made from a centuries-old plan, passed from father to son, remembered and implemented by word of mouth. Within the stone enclosure stood a horse, unmoving, dark hide absorbing the moonlight. I pushed my cheek against the window, but it was all I could see.
Farther, beyond my vision, lay Dorn. Whatever that was. Could it have been the smallest thing in existence that still considered itself a town? Was there a post office? A pub? Was there an amber candle or lamp in a doorway, spilling light into wheel ruts and puddles? Did the shops have carved pictorial shields hanging above the doors? Were there craggy old faces of people who remembered how to tell a story, and knew just enough about Americans to know how much we crave them? And the stories my mind’s ear heard: they’d be all about what Dorn was, and what it had been before that. Back through history, ages many times older than even my country. Back when people spoke the language they spoke before English. And lived the lives we forgot anyone lived.
I returned to the window in the middle of the night. With the heat of my imagination firing my body, I was now more awake than I’d been the previous mid-day. My eyes, rather than squinting against the moonlight, opened all the more, as if to drink in all there was to see in the deep shadows of that barn, and the indistinct buildings beyond.
The thought had occurred to me, to put on my clothes, pad down the stairs, ease out the wooden door, and go see Dorn by myself. But I didn’t. And there was no time in the morning, as we agreed there wouldn’t be, even to drive down and look.
To this day, my musings at the window, and my regret at not seeing Dorn in the moonlight, are the most vivid memories of that trip. To this day, in my own personal mythology, it stands as the symbol of the missed opportunity, the adventure denied, the road not taken.
And even though today we can see an aerial view, and a YouTube video of the farm in operation, I still remember Dorn — the way I never got to see it.