WEST CUMMINGTON -- Fridays at noon, when she's completed another week's political battles on the national airwaves and ceded the microphone to Al Franken, Rachel Maddow retreats to her black Subaru Forester and heads, with her partner, Susan Mikula, from Manhattan to the Merritt Parkway, past Hartford, to Northampton, where she stops for groceries, and eventually lands in the West Cummington house she has called home for the past four years.
A co-host of Unfiltered, Air America Radio's morning show, Maddow has been leading a dual urban/rural lifestyle since the liberal talk-radio network launched last March.
Mikula, a diehard gardener, artsy photographer, and part-time accountant, closed on the vintage (1865) rectangular box of a house in December 1998 as part of her bid to leave apartment life in Northampton for the isolation of a small village. Four months later, Maddow walked into her life after Mikula told mutual friends she needed a ''yard boy" to help her manage the demands of a creaky old structure that had stood empty for almost a year as well as the 2 acres of vegetation that were threatening to take over.
''Zing went the heartstrings," according to both of them, when Maddow, 31, a Rhodes Scholar and gay activist, arrived for the job. Maddow had moved to the area to write her doctoral dissertation comparing AIDS policies in the California and British prison systems, but also needed to earn some money. A year-and-a-half later, on Halloween, she moved in.
Banter, rather then scholarly research, is now Maddow's stock in trade, and home life includes plenty. ''It's a high-maintenance house, but we love maintaining it," Mikula earnestly intoned. ''Just like you," Maddow snapped back with a smile.
In the winter, faucets need to be left dripping when the temperature dips. ''There's a very thin membrane between the outside and the inside," said Maddow. Summers provide a constant battle to keep the vines, grass, weeds, and hedges in check. If you leave the grounds alone, ''the earth will take them back," she said.
Among the best features of the 1Â½-story house are its 15-inch floorboards, which are so attractive to Maddow that she doesn't object to the regular waxing they require. The second level, with bedroom, guestroom, and Maddow's office, is directly under the slanted roof, so you can stand up straight only near the middle. They have a clutter-free philosophy toward furnishings and knickknacks. They eschew curtains, and ''If something comes in, something has to go out," said Maddow. They limit art acquisitions to living local artists.
Just beyond the yard is the Westfield River, one of only a few waterways in the state designated as both scenic and wild. Summer days will often find Maddow and Mikula lolling on inner tubes with cocktails in hand.
As isolated as they are at home on weekends, Mikula and Maddow are in the thick of things during the work week. Maddow takes the train to their apartment in Manhattan's West Village on Sunday afternoons. Mikula and their 10-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Brewster, follow by car on Wednesdays. Their rent in New York is three times their mortgage in Massachusetts, their entire dwelling is half the size of their living room in the country, and more people live in their five-story walkup tenement than in all of West Cummington.
''We can psychologically afford to live in a broom closet because we have this beautiful house to come back to," said Maddow.
''Unfiltered," which broadcasts weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon, is available over the air in seven New England locales, as well as on satellite radio and at airamericaradio.com.
Eric Goldscheider can be contacted at email@example.com.