As the mileage ticks on the odometer and I hear the bwap bwap of a motorbike, my Subaru’s tires hugging the road around another tight rocky curve, for just a second I’m cruising along the heart-stopping road into Cinque Terre. A trip from a former life and a different world. I’m not in Italy. It’s locked down, just like the City of Angels I choose to call home.
The reality of this alternate universe we’ve stepped into is starting to hit home. The local trails in Griffith Park, near my 1920’s apartment in Silver Lake, have just closed. My early morning diversion is not an option anymore. The running trail around the Silver Lake Reservoir, that the Spanish style townhouse I reside in sits upon, is now overrun. Everyone is here. Some wearing masks, but most not at this point. The Great Mask Wars of 2020 are just starting to unfold under the aged French doors of my lake facing bedroom.
I decide my daily walks around the lake are too dangerous to proceed with, so I look to our local forest. When I first moved to Los Angeles twenty years ago as a young New Orleanian, I was fascinated by this wilderness within the county lines. Having grown up below sea level in a flat expanse of swamp and river, the reality of having a mountainous wilderness within a half-hour of home was unfathomable. I spent every weekend that I wasn’t working on film sets as a production assistant, exploring. I would proudly display my Angeles Crest Forest Adventure Pass on the dashboard of my late 90’s Dodge. But somehow over the last two decades and the expansion of my California journey, I forgot about this passport to another world, right in my backyard.
My first trip out I played it safe. The forest is legally open and only some large trails are closed. I find my way to a locked gate, leading to an obscure track on the Silver Moccasin Trail that I so often explored in the early spring season with my first roommate. The dirt trail led to a favorite campground, then to the peak of Mt. Hillyar. I had my gator, I was using as a mask, around my neck, ready for any trail interactions. In four hours, I saw no one, except one mountain biker I crossed on the campground road.
A couple days later I went back. I did another low use area, and then another. I dug out my ragged, twenty-year-old Trails of the Angeles book, and started diving deep. Modern Hiker’s website became a pandemic essential for me. Mt. Hillyar led to an obscure Charlton Flat hike. Charlton Flat led to Mt. Williamson. Mt. Williamson led to Mt. Islip. Mt. Islip led to Cooper Canyon Falls.
Every other day I was escaping to the Angeles Forest to cope. My morning commute became a cell-free drive down an empty canyon road to a five to seven-mile hike. For the first time in my career I wasn’t worried about missing a work email, because there was no work. I didn’t stress about missing a call from a director or client. I just checked out into the empty forest every couple of days to explore a new trail. The excitement of seeing something new in the forest became the therapy I needed to survive so much uncertainty. Financial stresses, endless unanswered calls to the unemployment office, bill juggling, trips canceling, projects disappearing into the Covid-19 abyss. None of that mattered on the trail. There was just the winding road and motorcycles whipping past me on the way to another soul cleansing, thigh-burning hike.
The foggy, chilly mornings from early in the pandemic, became blazing hot spring days. That raw smell of California chaparral heavy in my nose as I climbed from one rocky mountaintop to the next. My skin chapped and wind burnt from longs hours on exposed ridges. The paleness of my arms and legs, transformed into tan limbs normally not seen till summer. Socks wet from crossing streams laden with spring’s runoff.
The soft sounds of bird chirps were my new conference calls. The crunch of boots scrambling on rocks and dirt had replaced walkie chatter and shouts of “action”. Instead of a color correct playback monitor, I was staring at expansive vistas. Identifying peaks, instead of issues with product placement or logos.
I do miss the adrenaline rush of our rapid work lives, but maybe this pause is also a lesson. If an email isn’t immediately answered that’s ok. If an after-hours text is missed because you are putting your kids to bed that’s ok. If you are offline for a minute because you went for a walk, that’s ok too.
It’s a reminder that we are all humans and not machines, and the world doesn’t end if the wheel stops spinning so fast. How do we take these lessons and move them into our future? How do we make the amazing technology that we’ve been given work for us, instead of us working for it?
In the meanwhile, I’ll be on the trail searching for answers….
I hadn’t realized I had been unknowingly practicing social distancing since I bought the cabin four years ago. This hadn’t been in my consciousness until it became a government mandate, and as I watched all of my friends trying to figure out how to adjust to this new reality. Suddenly thrust at home with their partners and children on a twenty-four hour a day basis, I observed them trying to figure out how to handle work amidst the constant disruptions, and their lives without social distractions.
Nothing had really changed in our house. My boyfriend and I both worked from home and were used to being in each other’s hair all day. I wonder if couples with out of the home jobs, were now dealing with the inevitable “Stop talking to me I’m working!” that was a daily occurrence in our lives. Our biggest adjustment had come in having to deal with the run on grocery stores, and the sudden need to make meal plans that didn’t involve just walking down to the store to pick up food for a couple days, now we were trying to make sure we were covered for a couple weeks.
When the news struck of the coronavirus, friends across the country reached out to see if we had “Escaped LA” to the cabin. I had always jokingly referred to it as my zombie apocalypse plan, I had no idea it was a pandemic that would send people running for the hills.
The off-grid winter cabin has always been the ultimate exercise in self isolation, and as there were very few takers each year (including my boyfriend) to spend time in a snow-covered igloo with no water and an adventure minded folks only compost toilet, I had had lots of practice in complete seclusion and self-entertainment.
Being that it was snowshoe in only in the winter, with no road access, we always fully stocked the cabin at the end of fall. There was plenty of bottled water, hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes, and TOILET PAPER! I could probably rent it out right now for a fortune just for its healthy supply of those items.
I loaded up on food supplies in LA, so I wouldn’t have to visit any stores in town and could just go directly to the cabin. I was very conscious of the fact that Mammoth was a small mountain community and planned my trip with that in mind, although in so many ways I considered myself more a part of the Mammoth community that I so loved, than the one in Los Angeles. I guess that happens when you live in three cities and don’t spend your main time in any one location, but Mammoth has always felt like my special place.
What’s ironic is that while I was busy making sure I made no impact or contact, as I drove through town without stopping on my way to the cabin, I was surprised to see the lakes basin exploding with cars jostling for position along Lake Mary Road. It seems as if the town had come to me. The mountain was closed for skiing and boarding so everyone had flocked to the lakes to get into the back country. As I trudged my way to the cabin through the feet of fresh powder, I was impressed that someone had already carved a trail through the snow. When I got to the cabin, I found out why. As I was loading in, a half dozen snowboarders passed by dragging their boards after skiing down the hill behind the cabin. Here I was trying to be respectful and keep my distance and now my yard was basically a ski slope!
If it was a different time, I would have put out a coffee station and some backcountry craft service.
In the end though, with the mountain closed, our area had become an out of bounds playground, culminating in me having to have some gentle words with a group of boarders who were doing jumps off my neighbor’s roof. After explaining that they were privately owned residences, they apologized and went on their way.
While isolation has been stressful, I wonder if we all needed this time out in a way. A time to get perspective on our lives and where they are going. With the lack of cars on the road, LA was suddenly almost smog free, with crystalline blue skies. Maybe this virus was nature’s way of saying “Hey, the Earth needs a break too…” “And this is what the world could look like if you all took better care with her.”
But, we should all take better care of ourselves as well.
The sun was shining this morning after the beautiful snow storm of the afternoon and evening before, so I elected to take a snowshoe down to the waterfall outlet. The sun was beaming brightly down on me, and as I joyfully inhaled the blast of vitamin D and looked back across the frozen, snow covered lake, I took a deep breath, and then another. I decided to do some gentle yoga in the middle of that vast expanse on the edge of the lake in my snowshoes. Right as I peeled myself down into my first forward fold the clouds came in, and large fluffy snowflakes started falling, like someone was dumping feathers out of a box in heaven. As I finished with some deep breathing and gently opened my eyes and took in the vast beauty around me, I felt warm tears sliding down my icy cheeks. Maybe in our overworked and over stimulated world, self-quarantine is something that should become part of our yearly habits, instead of just a sojourn in crisis.
As I write this, the snow is falling softly outside, the flakes so repetitive that it feels like a glitch in the Matrix, the fire is snapping in the background, and I’ve got a hot water bottle tucked under my knees on the lace covered sofa. I needed this break away from the news, the worries about how we film freelancers are going to pay next month’s rent, and the fear of someone close to me getting ill.
I also needed to step away from the anger and anxiety that was trickling in through the window every day from the reservoir jogging path outside our window. I had already heard people screaming at each and almost getting into fist fights about social distancing etiquette, which reminded me of school yard bullying. It felt a bit like the entire world was becoming a high school cafeteria; complete with finger pointing, shaming, and general mean girl / guy behavior. A friend, who is a nurse, was getting harassed so heavily at grocery stores for wearing scrubs and masks, she had been forced into tears on multiple occasions. In the face of stress and catastrophe there will always be people who step in with kindness, offset by an equal amount of people whose base ugliness shows itself.
But out here amidst the cleansing snowfall I’m reminded that the virus is just another part of the natural world and natural order of things, and nature always resets itself. This isn’t the first time it’s delivered up something terrifying, and it won’t be the last, I just hope this is a short sojourn in the unknown and that we all take this time to make our tomorrow’s more meaningful and rewarding.
After four weeks of perpetual motion and three shoots stacked on top of each other like a game of gin rummy, I can barely monitor my thoughts. Yesterday a friend asked how I was, I said I didn’t know. I hadn’t talked to myself in weeks.
Having time to think felt like it would fall under an “Act of God” in the production insurance claim. We live such busy lives where even trying to see a friend requires the skill of a chess master and here, I was, hosting my first cabin Thanksgiving in less than a week.
After back to back shoots with child influencers who make more money in a year than I am likely to see in a lifetime, I had decided to race the weather and on my first almost day off in a month, fly up to the cabin with some last minute supplies before the snow set in.
On the list; a large roasting pan for the turkey, a rug my mom had bequeathed me that I dragged back from New Orleans to protect the new floors on this, their first winter, half a case of holiday wine, a festive wreath project, brown sugar and butter for my required “Queen of Yams” dish.
We had shot on Friday and Saturday, so Sunday was spent in a coma with minimal emails to deal with. Monday was busy playing catch up, and Tuesday as I jumped in the car was almost preternaturally quiet.
I had gotten lucky.
As the 395 north unfolded under the wheels of my tires, I managed to have only one work call and a couple of easy emails.
I slipped into the Limetown podcast as I was curious about the new Jessica Beil show, and then eased my way into one of my boyfriend’s “Frame & Sequence” podcast episodes. I was so behind, but wanted time to absorb each thought expressed, understand each careful question. The joy of the Eastern Sierras, my old friends, welcoming me as I went from advanced bio tech drama, to the skill of a paintbrush, the eye behind a photograph, the creative mind of a magazine empire.
I arrived in Mammoth as the first tendrils of the storm started whipping through the brown, desolate, late fall town.
The padlocked daisy chain on the gate was done properly, which I can only imagine was due to my neighbor Greg’s diligence, and the storm hadn’t quite hit as I rolled through the deserted campground.
It felt a bit like one of those clown car scenes from the old circuses where every door springs open, and bodies and props come flying out in every direction. It did seem like a fire drill as I threw open every car door and started hurling things into the cabin.
I had a mental checklist I was working through as the first barrage of sharp sleet starting hitting me in the face, the wind creating medusa like tendrils out of my hair.
First, get the food in. Drop the shutters. Turn all the heaters on. Unload the new rustic bench and vintage folding chairs I had discovered in the little town of Clovis. Return the borrowed table to the mudroom. Close all the faucets in the cabin. Run up the hill and reconnect the water system. Load in extra drinking water and clean towels.
It was a sprint, and as I finished the first soft snowflakes started to fall. I didn’t want to risk my car getting stuck inside the campground if they closed the second gate, so raced to dash back to the lodge and back before the storm worsened.
My timing was at once amazing and also a little scary. One-hour delay and I wouldn’t have made it. But I was in and all was well.
I step outside with a glass of chilled Rose, tis the season. The snow settles on my closed eyes as I turn my face to the sky. I breathe in the cold air, it drenches me. Calm finally. There is yoga and there is cabin.
And then there is cabin.
The fridge isn’t working.
Was it broken? Did I make a mistake buying it off of Craigslist? Is the breaker tripped? Could I get anyone out here to fix it before the road was buried? Did the endless, much publicized, fire prevention power outages by Edison break the Italian fridge? I mean it was of “Good Italian quality” after all!
By morning my milk was frozen. As well as my salad.
The opening of the season was upon us. The snow was finally melting excluding a stubborn four-foot patch over the fire pit on this the 1stof July, and the chores were many. Sheets to be washed, power to be restored, spiders to be murdered. Many, many spiders.
With so much late season snow, the mountain was still open for skiing, high trails were buried under a stubborn white blanket, and Christmas in July was an actual option this year in the Sierra Nevadas.
I was in the midst of the many summer opening chores before the first guests landed for the 4th of July holiday, when as I reached to fling open a window and let the fresh mountain air wash into the cabin, I inserted my face right into the middle of a nauseating, fly filled spider web.
My grandmother always told me “Spiders mean money, don’t kill them.” If spiders mean money than the cabin must be built upon a yet undiscovered gold strike.
We do try not to murder them unnecessarily. Although I have been known to throw a shoe or two, and have a special high-pitched shriek I make that always translates to SPIDER. They were everywhere, and seemed to build new hair catching webs overnight. If I ever find a word written in one I will probably call an exorcist. Or buy a pig.
But spiders weren’t the only creepy crawly that liked to shock me into fits of nerve wrenching screeching. Most recently I pulled the sheets back on the bed and found a cricket sitting snugly in the middle of my freshly washed sheets. At least the aerialist Pika hadn’t been back again. Cabin life did have such joys!
And oh look….
There’s a bear in the yard. Again. One of many that have been present this season.
As a group of French tourists with very large cameras inquired “Where did he go?”. I pointed the path to the waterfall and suggested maybe not following him into the brush. He was a very big fella, and well, no photo op was worth being cornered on a muddy path by a large clawed mammal.
I had watched one charge a camper who was trying to scare him away from breaking into an old, beat up mini van. I observed as he methodically tried all the door handles with his paws. The neighbors at Cabin #1 had a mama and two babies in their SUV after forgetting to lock a door. My boyfriend sitting on his favorite boulder behind the cabin, had one ten feet away who acknowledged his presence, and then casually scratched his tush on a tree for ten minutes. Then there was the bear family that made it’s way along the shores of Lake George happily enjoying the dinner the local fisherman had unknowingly caught for them as these anglers scampered out of their way. These Mammoth Lakes bears were smart and knew how to work their territory!
I had never seen so many bears in the neighborhood. I mean the neighborhood was the wilderness, but still, this was quite a lot for a season!
Spiders, and crickets, and bears oh my!
If the elements weren’t busy enough keeping us on our toes the critters were there to take up the slack. It was bordering on ridiculous to be shoveling snow in July, and not just a little tiny bit of icy whiteness, but several feet. The cabin elevation being around 8,700’, meant that the snow often came early and left late, but this year was a little unreasonable. We managed to clear the mound burying the fire pit just in time for the holiday festivities. This was a fitting start to what ended up being a summer of endless chores.
The cabin purchase had come with a lifestyle that hadn’t factored into my original plans. I had imagined cozy nights in front of the fireplace, mornings kayaking on the lake, long afternoons reading Hemingway in the forest with a chilled glass of champagne. While all those things were a part of cabin life, I didn’t expect that the homesteading aspect of it would be so all consuming.
I also didn’t expect how much I would love it.
Maybe there is a secret lumberjack hiding in all of us? The sheer exhausted pleasure of working with your hands and being able to see your work unfold in front of you. So many of us spend so much time blindly typing endless emails that lack the satisfaction of watching a pile of chopped wood grow around your splinter covered boots and sweat soaked face.
As the summer wore on we had a carpenter from Louisiana that came out to stay and do a work / trade for summering at the cabin. An escape from the heat was a good motivator and on our end we had some help with chores that had been loitering about since last season. The demolished cabin door being chief among them.
After a trip to the mill in town, the door was sturdily constructed, and we spent hours applying coats of Tung oil to hopefully seal it for the quickly approaching winter.
New shutters were created for the large front picture windows, and the original floors were sanded and refinished. The amazing red Smeg refrigerator Craigslist find was standing by waiting to be installed, replacing the massive white box we had been squeezing by in the galley kitchen for four years.
But yet we were still waiting.
Last summer’s project of sourcing vintage Douglas Fir shiplap floors and then taking a mad dash late season road trip across the pass to Heritage Salvage in Petaluma had been a fun adventure. But, after a year of curing the wood in the cabin rafters we were anxious to get the install done.
A local flooring company had come out the previous fall, surveyed the project, and told us they would put us at the top of schedule for the next season. As June bled into July and we were assured they would get us on the calendar for sometime that month we were cautiously optimistic.
Optimism while trying to get any project done in a small mountain town is often a very futile concept. August rolled around and the company’s owner had completely ghosted us like a bad boyfriend at a bachelor party. What now I thought?
I did not want to endure another season with stacks of wooding literally hanging about, or the dirty kitchen linoleum and dilapidated sisal rug with fifteen years of filth encrusted on it in a hantavirus dreamscape.
We had also managed to get our water system working properly after four years of playing Russian roulette with the pipes. Thanks to our Neuroligist friend who in his spare time had designed a water collection system that actually worked. If you ever see “gravity fed water system” in a reality listing run, don’t walk.
The water finally flowing properly though came with it’s on set of problems. Now that the water was actually running a leak had materialized in the bathroom wall. The Murphy rule of cabin life, fixing one problem created another. The wall was pulled out. A delightfully disgusting array of dead mice were found. The plumber was called and the pipe was repaired. Hallelujah!
Unfortunately, a few days later water was on the floor again. Heavens. Kevin the plumber kindly came back out again, only for it to be determined that this new water was from the rain storm and coming in through the wall. As mentioned, each problem that is solved creates another! Murphy reigns supreme.
As Kevin was departing and I looked down at the shabby sisel rug I was suddenly inspired to ask him if by chance he knew anyone who laid floors and was looking to pick up some work?
Cabin miracles do happen. Enter Kevin the plumbers good friend Mark. He came by the very next day to have a look at the floors.
Mark’s 12-year-old daughter was in the top 5 downhill skiers in the West. Mammoth Mountain, under new ownership, and no longer having the patronage of original owner and developer Dave McCoy, had inflated the ski teams costs so much that it was pricing local kids off of the team. Mark reminisced as a former Mammoth instructor, that when Dave McCoy was involved he always made sure talented kids could be on the team no matter what they could afford. Mark was looking to pick up projects on the side to make up the difference and our timing was perfect for him.
Within two days we had a plan in the works, all my flooring dreams were about to come true……
As I sip my steaming espresso in front of the raging fire I’ve just started in the wood stove in an attempt to take the deep chill out of the cabin’s wood paneled living room and watch the blizzard unfolding outside of the large picture windows I can’t help but think “This can’t be normal”.
It’s Memorial Weekend and five short days away from June. As everyone else packs up their bikinis, umbrellas, and unicorn pool floats to head to the beaches and warm lakes I’m here in a tattered wool sweater, fleece pants, and using my hot coffee mug to warm my icy fingers.
Being fairly new to mountain cabin life I wonder “Well maybe this is normal?”.
I came up this weekend after a grueling travel and shoot schedule to get a jump start on summer chores and to start prepping the cabin for my mother’s visit at the end of next month- Check the snow level, retire the compost toilet for the season, walk out the bedding to be washed for summer.
Having arrived at the cabin to my compromised door (high on the list of the repairs for the season) metal latch having snapped from the snow pressure and the door having collapsed in on itself yet again I wondered if my mother’s June 29th arrival was going to have to be a hike in? Having advised her against her original plan of coming in May she had settled on late June as that seemed “safe” for having an open road. As the snow keeps pouring down this late May morning I wonder if end of July is even safe…
I think about the early settlers of this area and how depressing it must have been to have had a couple of brief peeks of summer sunshine to then be buried under multiple feet of new powder and realizing it was too early to retire the snowshoes and start planting their summer vegetable gardens.
I thought ahead for a moment to our 4thof July guests this year and that they may also be faced with the situation of wading through the extra river that comes after a big snow season for the second time in three years. I heard the mountain reported is was the snowiest May on record. It certainly was some of the best conditions of the season when I took my last spin along the slopes and delighted in the clear skies and Memorial Day powder.
If this isn’t the old normal, I wonder if along with so many other global warming repercussions this was the new normal. I mean was Christmas in July going to be an actual thing now?
My Canadian guests after an initial moment of PTSD having just recently moved to sunny southern California to escape from the snow, took the high snow levels, power outage, and broken door in stride.
At least we could use the inside toilet! Having opted to retire the compost one before it warmed up too much and became rather unpleasant we decided to just roll the dice on inside plumbing with melted snow and ample doses of anti freeze. Fingers crossed come the thaw this was a wise decision! As with all things cabin it is always a game of risk versus reward!
But the rewards are always ample so mayhap the risks are worth it….
“You can’t be here right now” the snowcat driver hollered at me over the purr of the engines. Ain’t that the truth I thought to myself as I struggled the last quarter mile to the cabin in the dark with a fading headlamp.
Why in God’s name did I let my 5pm before dark quick dinner escalate into a 4 course meal with a total stranger? A lovely total stranger who I had met at the chef’s table at Skadi, a local Scandinavian restaurant tucked into a strange business park on a residential street in town. We poured through stories and courses and before I knew it deep dark had settled into the snow covered streets.
As I was huffing along the snowy path, my freezing breath exploding out of me as I tried to race my headlamp’s battery reserve to the cabin, all I could think about was the story I had heard recently from a friend that Mammoth’s hills were covered in mountain lions and that they were more to be feared than the healthy local bear population.
I was pretty sure I had been stalked a couple winters ago on a very similar night. That night I sung “hey bear” loudly for the entire half mile walk to the cabin, being careful not to run or appear panicked. The next day when I saw fresh tracks littered around the back side of the campground I knew I wasn’t just scared of the dark.
I was relieved to see that snowcat and it’s glaring headlights cutting through the pitch black of the campground. It felt so alien seeing such a large vehicle in the middle of the backcountry trek to the cabin and I had a momentary flash to The Shining and Dick Hallorann barelling his way to the Overlook Hotel.
I crossed the track well in front of the cat to make sure the driver saw me and wouldn’t inadvertently knock me into a snow bank.
I can only imagine what was running through his mind as he opened his door to reprimand me. As I explained to him that I was just trying to make my way to my cabin he grinned and exclaimed “That’s your cabin back there with the lights on?”. As I explained yes, I am the idiot trying to make my way in the pitch black after a 4 course dinner to an isolated cabin alone, he responded “Well, yes you are allowed to be here!”.
I explained to him I was rarely out on the path after dark and that it was good to know what time they normally groomed now, since in three years I had never even heard the snowcat on the snow muted cross country ski trail. As I wandered forward into the night I was grateful to have had that brief contact with someone. To know I wasn’t “Alone, in the night, in the dark” to quote a line from one of my favorite scary movies.
The isolation of the cabin in winter is one of it’s greatest advantages but at the same time is also it’s greatest disadvantage when alone. Every time I take that walk back in the frigid dark alone and terrified I ask myself over and over “What were you thinking?”, and every time I awake to a pristine, silent, snow covered lake and take my first step outside to the hush of the winter forest I remember it is all worth it.
The rain is pouring and hitting the tin roof with a rhythmic patter as a light rumble of thunder breaks over the red mountain who’s name I still don’t know for some reason.
I slip another savory bite of buttery salmon with a delicate snap of citrus into my mouth and take a sip of the chilled cremant bubbling in my glass. If a deer or bear walks casually by the window I think I’ll call Disney because this can’t possibly be real life. (I won’t of course mention the fact I also got a splinter in my foot walking to the kitchen in my socks, they don’t need to know these things.)
I think back to two summers ago when I was just another sweaty Angelino sleeping on a cot in front of a fan suffering through another record setting heat wave in a city where air conditioning is rare.
Here I am now in a sweater watching the rain fall, debating if I should start a small fire in the wood stove, and thinking with all of it’s headaches, spiders, bruised legs, lack of oxygen, and the occasional rodent boarder today at this un-sweaty moment what a delight it all is.
I got a late start this season with so much work travel and non-cabin adventures that I was dreading the list of chores that were piling up. The biggest one being an actual PILE of wood that had taken over the whole yard and half of the driveway.
Five trees had be downed as falling hazards and not a moment too soon since a couple of them were positioned to freefall directly onto the cabin. Normally in this case the tree removal company would haul them out and sell them to a lumber company, but being that our cabins were across a historic wooden bridge with a minimum weight load they couldn’t truck them out.
We organized a wood splitting day with our neighbors and an old timer named Cliff who does some handy man work on the cabins in our tract.
In our society of ease and leisure it’s hard to imagine that splitting wood could actually be FUN. I don’t think the smile left my face for six hours. I now completely understand why men love power tools.
The smell of the engine oil, the rhythmic hum of the blade chugging up and down, the ripple of my shoulders as I muscled another log into place. That distinct joy of simple purpose and camaraderie.
I recently had a conversation at a friend’s book signing for a book he wrote about empathy. We discussed how many people are constantly questioning their existence, their happiness, are they accomplishing enough, are they living their best life. My theory is that because everything is done for us now and we no longer have to work to just survive like our forefathers did, that this idleness of time has led to our deep questioning of everything. The simple act of chopping wood and feeling purpose and accomplishment has been lost for our generation.
There was an addictive rhythm to the splitting. A desire to keep going. Push harder. Roll in more logs. Bigger logs. An amazing satisfaction to hurling the split logs into the ever growing wood pile.
Then the next day the stacking. (Which is actually a lot more challenging than the splitting. ) We had some spills and thrills. Bruises everywhere, skinned legs from my habit of throwing myself in front of runaway logs. But the pain seemed somewhere else. I was in the zone and it didn’t matter.
My boyfriend likes to sing this little song “Chores, chores, Michelle loves chores…” And I do!
It quiets the mind.
We have these amazing souls and desire to be something. Sometimes being something is just being.
That same boyfriend had the same stupid grin on his face everytime I looked up from the splitter. He was talking to the old timer about birds and trees, while they shimmied up the biggest logs with a crowbar and rolled them down to the splitting pile where my neighbor Greg and I were manning the machine.
Aren’t we all manning the machine in the end. The machine of our minds. Our constantly questioning and searching minds.
As I sit at a pool on the North Shore of Kauai I find myself obsessing about the cabin.
I barely made it up in the winter and then traveled for work through the entire spring.
I find the Sierra’s now slipping firmly into summer and I still have yet to make an appearance to check for winter damage, turn the water on, and see the waterfull at it’s full snow melt splendor.
I miss it so much!
Like a first child away to college I find myself wondering how it’s doing. Dreaming about opening it up for the season, painting the trim on the new window, worrying about getting the water on, and chopping wood till my arms hurt. It’s strange how much these cabin chores bring me such pleasure.
I’m in Hawaii for my step sister’s wedding and yet still the cabin is never far from my thoughts. As we were sipping mai tais at the reception and mingling with the family of her new husband I chanced into a conversation with my new brother in laws uncle who’s had a cabin for over 40 years near Lake Tahoe. When I asked him about it he blurted out “I love it!”. It was refreshing to see after 40 years of cabin ownership it’s luster hadn’t faded for him. We chatted about our different cabins, when they were built, and what to do for the next generation of family cabin owners.
As the light drifts across the green hills of the Na Pali coast and the palm trees dance in the South Pacific breeze it’s hard to believe my mind is adrift in the Sierra’s.
As John Muir said “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
As I pass the time on the verandah of the New Orleans apartment I review the morning news over a steaming café au lait in the muggy post storm air, listening to the swish of the verdant pecan tree foliage across the rutted street. Devastating wild fires in various regions of the country, massive hurricanes tearing through the overly warm waters of the gulf, Napa in flames, Puerto Rico cut off from the world, New Orleans with an unusual October hurricane that shut down the whole city on a Saturday night, what runs through my head is “I can’t remember there ever being a hurricane in October….”. I also can’t remember there ever being a summer blizzard in drought ridden California.
Global warming for some is a political catch phrase, a path to elicit much needed funding, a potential motive for mass hysteria, an easily used scape goat to deny things that aren’t beneficial to your businesses bottom line. To me at this moment it is simply what is actually happening.
It feels odd to be sitting here and seeing the real physical outcome of years and years of ignored warnings. It seems like when scientists are advising you that global warming equals a rise in temperature, which equals bigger storms, that what runs through your head is “Well that’s going to happen sometime…to someone else”.
As I observe and reflect on the succession of things that have happened just this one summer you start to realize you are living in a science fiction film and that sometime is now.
Having grown up in New Orleans a town infamous for the most famous hurricane of all you rarely saw a storm bigger than a category 3. You never saw multiple category 5’s lined up in succession one after each other like children in line on the playground of adolescence. In the historic tragedy of Galveston and the aftermath of Katrina we never would have imagined a storm that broke out above the actual categories.
As summer unwound itself in a virtual wave of natural disasters, an unclassified rating of Category 6 was something it’s waterlogged southerners had never dreamed of. Just like in all my years of traveling to the Sierra Nevadas I’d never heard of a full on blizzard in summer…until now.
Not to say these things have never happened historically, or couldn’t just be freak weather patterns, but it does cause alarm to see them all happening at once in a live and in person replay of every fictional end of days movie ever produced.
Since the temperatures were dipping rather ahead of schedule we wanted to make sure to get our wood stocked up early. The menacing dead tress behind the cabin had finally been felled and since the weight of them was too heavy to take across the old Twin Lakes bridge the logging company had left them for us to use.
It was very exciting to arrive at the cabin and see these stacks of timber lined up all around the cabin waiting to be chopped! We wouldn’t need to purchase wood in town this year or for the next couple years to come, we just had to “log” in some hours of manual labor in another round of cabin boot camp…!
Having purchased my first real axe I was very excited to be getting into the swing of things so to speak….
After some trial and error with the swing and trying not to chop a foot off I discovered that there are few things more satisfying than the swish and crack of hitting the log just right and taking the blade straight through the block. It became an almost addictive high and a desperate desire to get that perfect swing in again.
We live in such a modern society where very few people get to experience the joy and satisfaction of accomplishing something with just your hands and force of will. I’m so grateful for these moments where I feel like I have this singular purpose of just completing a simple task and feeling useful.
Having spent the first 24 hours at the cabin chopping and stacking wood I was ready to give my arms and back a break and had planned a hike or bike ride for the last official day of summer. The weather service had mentioned that we might get a dusting of snow in the morning and I was delighted to actually be there for the first snowfall of the season, albeit a month earlier than expected. We awoke to not a dusting but a full on winter blizzard!
The dusting quickly became inches and the powder kept falling for the rest of the day and into the night. I wondered if the campers in the adjacent campground when they awoke to the inches of snow were excited by the unexpected winter wonderland they awoke to or annoyed by the wet gear and changed plans.
This snowy September marked the two year anniversary of cabin ownership and in those two years only a handful of friends have made it up for a visit. Outside of the long drive the question I always hear first is “Does the cabin have wifi?”. It’s so hard to step outside of our daily lives and routine, step away from our cell phones, televisions, computer monitors, and simply live in a different more simple time for just a minute and experience the incredible joy of a perfect axe swing.
As I sit in my salvaged adirondack chair rescued from a neighbor’s thrift pile, with the heavy reassuring weight of my porcelain mug in hand I find myself catching my breath and sighing into the peaceful morning after the insanity of last night.
I’ve come to realize along with the joy of cabin ownership there are also deep moments of despair and self doubt.
This past winter with the severely needed snow pack also brought extreme amounts of damage to so many cabins. My immediate neighbors and I got off light. Minor deck damage, some broken shutters, my disintegrated door, flooding in low zones, and various swelling and shifting of wood. We were so lucky. Some neighbors across the lake had massive structural damage, a resort on Tioga Pass looked like it had been wrung like a dishrag by a passing giant.
The weather was crisp yesterday afternoon when I arrived, it almost had a touch of fall in it already, warning signs of a possibly exceptionally short summer. I loped about the cabin opening windows and inhaling deeply. It always feels so incredible to be out of the car after that 5 hour drive. There’s a deep layer of delight in lowering the heavy wooden shutters and opening the cabin up for the week.
When I reached the bedroom and went to open the window I realized after much pulling and pushing it was stuck firmly shut.
As the summer progressed the wood of the cabin had been on an ever evolving journey of self discovery. In most cases it seemed best to just let it go through it’s paces like an emotional teenager trying on it’s personality for the first time. Best to give it some space and hope it all settled in for the best of all involved.
When it didn’t budge after an acceptable amount of trouble shooting I let it be with the patience of an indulgent grandparent knowing that at some point the toddler will stop blowing the whistle. Acceptance is sometimes the best defense.
Per my usual routine that evening I went about the cabin switching on lamps and enjoying the glow of light bouncing off the wood beams.
I was busy flitting about doing some first night chores so failed to notice the festivities unfolding around the lamp in the bedroom.
By the time I waltzed into the room book in hand, ready to collapse into an evening of chivalry and poets a festive monster’s ball had unfolded around my bedside milk glass lamp.
The window that wouldn’t open had contracted in such a way that a small gap existed between the outside and the box the window dropped into, causing a tiny speakeasy door for the thousands of gnats beating against the pane of glass anxious to get close to the belle of said ball, the warmth of that stylish 40 watt light bulb.
Scarlett O’ Hara never had it as good as Ma Bell this evening.
The image that flitted through my mind as I watched them enter in, one and two at a time from the corner of the window, was that scene in The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland of the ghosts in the ballroom waltzing in and out of vision, floating in and off through the wall.
As they entered through the window I watched them dance their way up and under the shade and descend serenely into their deaths. The amount of tiny carcasses dropping onto my nightstand and pooling in the bowl of the lamp were too numerous to count and disgusting to behold.
There were so many in the room there was that brief moment of thinking “Are they going to suffocate me?”
I didn’t think I needed to add “Death by insect suffocation” into the hazards of the cabin but who knew at this point? After quickly scanning the insect party busting options it seemed the most effective line of defense was to shut off the disco ball and plug the hole. That seemed to stem the bulk of the tide and I drifted off to sleep with the smell of burnt gnats tickling my nose.
I awoke and started my day with a firm resolve to resolve this issue with the window. After my morning coffee I pulled together my little cabin assistants- Hammer, screwdriver, wrench, and an old beat up coffee can full of nails and the rusty hum of tetanus.
I figured I should start with getting the window to actually open and go from there.
The wood around the window had swollen so much from the moisture that it was pressing the window in a crushing grip of immovability. The remnants of the wet dog atmosphere of the winter of no power in the snow buried bedroom.
It was an easy enough fix. Although it was a trick to not break the window with the hammering, a couple of nails to secure the loose bits tighter resulted in a window that now functioned the way that it was designed.
Plugging of the gnat hole proved to be slightly more challenging. I tried hammering in a new exterior sill in the hopes that this would block the little guys entry, but alas that night it was back to a stuffed shirt and a miniscule dance party. In the end a piece of wood inserted into the inside sill worked as a temporary fix until the day I could finally get real screens installed.
As I was working next to the house, hammering and perspiring in the morning sunshine I was amazed to observe a man casually walk up to the open window and nonchalantly stick his head in and take a look around. I was relieved I was outside when this event took place since if I was inside he likely would have been greeted with a scream and a blast of mace in his face!
As I looked at him in astonishment he turned and shot me a beaming grin, I smiled and quizzically inquired “If someone did that at your house you’d probably call the police right?”
His smile faltered and he looked towards his girlfriend and back at me and questioned “This is your house?”
I replied amused “Yes, hence the hammer, nails, and manual labor.”
He then responded “I thought you worked for the resort and I was curious about the inside.”
My internal thoughts at that comment were “You thought I was an employee of the resort and still thought it was ok to stick your head in the window?”
He was extremely apologetic and I realized this fell in line with why people think it’s ok to sit and then move my lawn furniture around and occasionally walk into my mud room to have a look.
They don’t consider it someone’s property or house, while if I walked into their garage to have a poke around they would probably call the swat team or at the very least scream very loudly at me. To them it’s just part of nature’s Disneyland. Like the row of art directed shop fronts on Main Street Disneyland, something designed for their own personal entertainment and perusal.
We had a good chuckle over it and I gave him and his girlfriend a tour of the cabin but since this encounter I’ve considered getting a life size print out of Jason in his hockey mask, or maybe a half undressed woman with a scream on her face. Just something to advertise that peeking in people’s windows isn’t good for anyone involved!
After this interesting interlude I continued down my path of small cabin fixes and tweaks. I was excited to have my first batch of summer houseguests coming out the next week and anxious to get it in tip top shape.
I shouldn’t have bothered. If I had know I was going to have the Dr. & Dr. team of Mr. & Mrs. Fix It come out I would have just sat on my laurels and waited!
A person has never been luckier in the selection of cabin guests. I will not disclose their names as then everyone would be competing to have them out for a visit. (Or perhaps a remodel!)
As the weekend rolled around I informed the upcoming guests of two caveats.
That the water still wasn’t working. As a point of fact it had barely worked the whole previous summer and the toilet had also gone on the fritz to complicate things even more.
That because of all the heavy snowmelt there was a river flowing across the road courtesy of Horseshoe Lake overflowing and creating the only 3 time in 50 years “Horseshoe Falls” that was now raging down the backside of our cabin tract and while creating an absolutely stunning scene it was also now impossible to drive to the cabin and one had to wade across ankle deep frigid water with all of their baggage.
My adventurous friends were not put off and after the usual pleasantries and guest welcome cocktails the surgeon turned to me and asked “So tell me, what’s going on with your water system?”
After laying out the basics he looked at my boyfriend and suggested they take a walk up the hill to have a look.
An hour later while all the ladies in the cabin napped in an ode to Victorian times the men rejoined us having solved “The problem of water.”
After realizing that the old pipe was completely corroded and unsalvageable the boys cleverly used a piece of rubber hose to re-run the line and came up with a crafty solve to sediment seeping into the pipe. We now have this handy system of just lifting the hose out of the water basin each time we leave. Presto chango!
It was with great excitement that we started to connect the inside pipes and reconnect the new water heater to our in house system. I knew it was going all too well. As we pulled the heater out of the box we found it needed to be wired together by an electrician.
No hot water was a set back but I was thrilled to have any water, icy or otherwise!
The toilet however having suffered damage to the inside workings from sediment was filling at a snails pace. Dr. Fix It securing his place as officially the best houseguest in history took a look and told me if I went into town and grabbed the part he could fix it in 10 minutes.
The water system problem solved and the toilet repaired, it was like homesteading Christmas in July!
Bug invasions, no water, too much water, power, no power, peeping toms, bumps in the night, flooded roads, snow shoveling….was it all worth it? I imagine so.