So, hitting the pause button for the 154th time in 43 years — there, in the river that is effectively a moat, making the swim to the cabin beyond — I pondered global cooling: It just might be getting worse.
Never, in August, has the river been so cold. And rarely have the temperatures been so cool — lower 70s over upper 40s, meaning crackly fires every a.m. to ease the morning out of the night.
This is our cabin, distantly north, “exempt from public haunt,” and purchased for peanuts the first summer out of college with money earned working ore boats plying the Great Lakes.
Made of cedar logs harvested on site, it hardly is a shack but hardly the Plaza either: no electricity, no running water, no TV, no turn-down service, but propane lights, stove, refrigerators, and — to avoid late-evening encounters with the wolves or bears – toilette. (Without venturing into theology or epistemology, let’s just stipulate that propane toilets apparently are hot items with the Amish.) The nearest neighbor dwells, oh, 10 miles away.
She loves the cabin, but she sort of has to because she married it when she linked up with him. Yes, she is a very good sport.
Given the fugitive quality of man and his enterprises, we repair at least annually to this refuge — this sanctuary, this wilderness sepulcher — to reacquaint with family, with ourselves, and with the values central to man’s tentative planetary tenancy.
Time out. Down time. The mute or pause button pushed during noisome ads. None of the stress that wreaks havoc on our well-being. No brooking of the bogus. Instead of the laid-on cacophony and complexity of contemporary life, instead of too much deceit and too many over-stuffed egos, instead of frantic channel-surfing or frenetic trips around the Internet highway — a pace unhurried, unflustered, old-shoe.
It takes 22 rolling hours to drive there; recorded books and conversation, actual conversation, make the trip zip along. But once settled in, life reduces to simplicity, elemental truths, hammock lazing, slow moonlit paddles, fireside fantasies, and prowling woodlands and streams.
Overhead, the season’s first flocks. In the birches and aspens, the first dapples of yellow; in the maples, the first screams of red.
Coyotes yapping in their pre-adolescent voices, far but seemingly ever closer. Pileated woodpeckers and cedar waxwings. Bald eagles soaring on updrafts, eyes locked on the river’s surface for flaring trout.
Along the riverbank, gentians, goldenrod, lupine, cornflowers, cardinal flowers, grass of Parnassus. On the forest floor, maiden-hair ferns, vagrant trilliums, tracks of deer, porcupines, and timber wolves.
And on the cabin, again, for about the thirtieth year, black-bear claw and incisor prints marking it as his (or hers) — along with, on lower logs now, similar markings by baby bear.
Novelist Robert Traver, also a judge, wrote lovingly of this his native area oddly missed by the westward migrations. He said he learned there — fundamentally — a respect for the myriad mysteries of the natural world, a detestation of pretension, and a determination to lie only to protect his solitude.
In many ways nature is simplicity — life pared to its essence yet its poetry retained. Paul Theroux has written of the freedom he felt in the woods near his boyhood house: “It can be a blessing to be cut off and disconnected.” His travels have found him seeking to reclaim a degree of youthful innocence: “In the remotest places, the ultimate rustications, I [am] a child again, renewed, with the freshest instincts.”
The cabin is called Rivendell. Tolkien readers know it well as a place of retreat and restoration — overseen by Elrond, holder of one of the three rings, and the site of the formation of the fellowship that destroys the One Ring.
“Elrond’s house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all.”
A perfect place over 43 years to swim a moat, rinse off cultural grime, and push the button on the remote marked “pause.”
Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.
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