Writing Alone In the Wilderness
It sounded like a good idea at the time: a week at a cabin built in 1890 on Raquette Lake, NY. The perimeter of the lake is 95% public land, part of the Adirondack Park wilderness and the cabin is part of a compound owned by a state college. It has no electricity, no wi-fi, no cell phone coverage, and is only accessible by foot or boat. It would be idyllic, a haven of peace away from the tumultuous clamor of modern life. A place to write my novel.
Years earlier I’d stayed there with friends and heard the story about the cabin’s owner. It was the place where a wealthy architect of Great Camps in the region, William West Durant, had kept his mistress, Minnie. It was their secret hideout; their clandestine lair. While he lived with his wife and children at the main camp, now owned by the college, he would launch his wife out on the family’s houseboat, hop on a bike and pedal a mile path leading through the woods to meet up with Minnie. Every room of the cabin has a door that leads outside—built that way on purpose, so the story goes, for easy escape in case of intrusion. The folklore became my obsession of mine. I kept thinking it would make a great love story. And two years later, I was heading back to the cabin to finish a draft of my novel about Durant. What better place to write than where it all happened?
I asked another writer friend if she wanted to come with me.
‘Sure! Sounds wonderful,’ she replied.
However, when the time came in August for us to make plans for the impending departure, she waffled. The summer was almost over, she realized, she’d spent too much time away and couldn’t justify another trip. I tried to corral other friends into service so I wouldn’t be alone in the woods, but I heard the same excuses.
Since I had plunked down six hundred bucks for this retreat I wasn’t about to give it up. Besides, I had spent hours taking the online, New York State boating safety course and had learned all of the horn signals used by yacht captains while navigating the Long Island Sound, a talent that was going to be very helpful to me in the small, eight-foot outboard motorboat I was renting for the week. Alone or not, I was going.
My daughter drove me to the Adirondacks and stayed one night at the cabin before heading back with the family car. She wasn’t impressed with the accommodations.
‘You’re staying here all week by yourself?’ she said with disdain after returning from a trip to the outhouse to use the composting toilet. ‘Can you manage it? What will you do all week?’
I took her for a ride in the small outboard. We passed through marshland filled with grasses and cattails, tamaracks and red maples, winding our way through a meandering stream that ends at a waterfall.
When we reached our destination we climbed ashore, sat on a granite boulder and gazed at the frothy, tannin-stained water. ‘Maybe I’ll just enjoy this,’ I said as a kingfisher flit overhead with a fish in its mouth.
The next morning, I dropped her off at the dock where the car was parked and as I pulled away in my small boat she gave me a sympathetic if not apprehensive glance, although she knew Dad was arriving only four days later to rescue me from the loneliness I would inevitably experience. As if waiting for me to be alone, the storm clouds came rumbling in, and the waves on the lake turned to whitecaps. My small boat rocked up and down in the waves. Barrels of water came over the gunwales, soaking my feet and drenching through my jeans. By the time I reached the cabin I was soaked, cold and sea sick. I peeled off my clothes, toweled myself dry and spent the rest of the day writing my novel under the glare of a propane lamp. When my laptop ran out of juice, I put it in my backpack, covered myself with a plastic poncho, and hiked the mile path to the main college compound to plug-in and check-in with reality.
The wind whipped the tree limbs overhead as I walked the path, creating an eerie sound like the opening of an attic door that hasn't had its hinges oiled in decades. It shattered my calm. I wondered if William would have heard the sound as well when he biked this path to visit his mistress Minnie. Did he think the trees were warning him? Telling him to turn back? Did they make him question his motives and actions? In the background, I could hear the undercurrent of waves lapping against the shore.
That first night alone I couldn’t sleep, thinking there was an unknown presence lurking beyond the walls of the cabin trying to get in: a branch whispering against the side of the cabin; a mouse scurrying in the loft above. The rain, pelting against the tin roof; the waves thrashing the shore, sent my imagination whirling. My thoughts wandered to the ghosts of the place. What happened to Minnie, the mistress of the cabin? Did she pine away every night, waiting, longing for her lover, William, to return? My mind wouldn’t shut up. I had to let it go. I had just spent the day writing about these characters. Quickly I flipped on my battery-powered lantern and poured my thoughts into a journal. I reached for my iPhone – one a.m. I was wide awake.
I woke to the echo of loons wailing somewhere in the distance. The lake was calm, the sun climbing, steaming the pools of rain that had gathered overnight. A promising day. After making breakfast, I bailed the water out of the boat with a plastic measuring cup I had found in the kitchen. There was still some water swishing around the bottom when I climbed in later with my backpack and laptop. It soaked my sandals and feet as I puttered to the main camp to work in the library for the day. Even with the wet feet, I felt part of humanity again seeing students, faculty, and staff wandering around the shore and in and out of the many cabins owned by the college.
While at the main camp, I took a private tour of William’s cabin. His bed, still intact, was waiting for someone to sleep in it again, his desk, with his initials—WD —carved into it, stood forlornly facing the paned-glass window overlooking the lake. I fingered the dust settling on his books and placed my hand against the cold, stone mantel over the fireplace. I wondered what it must have felt like to own this place and command a battalion of servants to feed the fires, make the beds and cook the food. I went to the library, plugged in, and wrote another ten pages of my novel.
At lunch, I was sitting on the porch of my cabin contemplating whether to take the afternoon off and go for a boat ride when a young man strode by, within five feet of me. Startled, I called out to him and his head shot up.
‘I work for the college,’ he stumbled on his words, ‘was just going for a hike.’
I was suspicious, but then shook off the thought that he might attack me when I realized there were trails all around the cabin and any guest or staff person from the college had a right to walk them. But his presence lingered into the evening as I sat out on the dock reading by the glow of the setting sun. I looked up at the dark cabin and knew I had no choice but to go inside. There was only one way I was going to be able to face another night alone in that cabin: Cabernet.
After drinking half a bottle, I felt liquid enough to relax in bed reading Geraldine Brook’s book about the bubonic plague: Year of Wonders. When I picked it up at the library the week before I hadn’t thought about how the night sky would shroud the cabin in complete darkness. The only thing I could see out the many windows of my bedroom was the twinkling lights of the marina across the lake, blinking into the inky blackness. As I finished reading about the first victim of the epidemic: a tailor, who accidentally imported plague-infested fleas into a remote English village with a bolt of fabric, I heard something stir in the loft above my head. I waited in silence. When nothing happened, I returned to the story. Just as the tailor’s crusty bubonic plague sore burst open, covering Anna Firth in pus; the mice above my head went into full feeding mode—scurrying in and out of the loft, up the walls, behind the fireplace. By the time I got to the scene in the book where the villagers were about to crucify a witch, the screen door leading from the kitchen to the outhouse rattled as if someone was attempting to get in; the small latch on the door keeping it from swinging wide open.
My heart leapt to my throat, blood raced to my brain and my breathing became shallow. Whomever was outside the cabin might hear me exhale. I was going to die in this cabin and nobody would know it until my husband, wondering why I hadn’t picked him up at the dock on the appointed date, called for a search party.
It must be the young man trying to get in, the one that walked by earlier in the day. His eyes had looked glassy to me. He had been stoned. I turned off my lantern, picked up my phone, and using the flashlight app (which was about the only thing it was good for at this point since I had no bars) I crept out of bed and went to the kitchen. I tried not to think of those horror films where women dressed in nightgowns get attacked by the psychopath. I slammed the door shut and bolted it, then walked around the cabin cursing the fact that every room had a door leading outside. What the hell was the architect thinking? Oh yeah, how to escape getting caught in bed with your lover. I made sure they were all shut and bolted. I waited. I listened. I crept back into bed and stared up at the ceiling. I needed to use the outhouse.
I woke up at first light with an aching bladder, realizing I had survived another night alone. My phone was dead, so was my computer. I had no idea what time it was. Now that there was light, it felt safe enough to make a dash for the outhouse. I continued my morning ritual by making coffee in the percolator. As the water boiled, seeping the coffee grinds in heat, and bubbling up in the little glass cap at the top of the aluminum vessel, I decided this was the best way ever to make coffee. Taking a mug with me, I sat on the front porch waiting for the fog to lift and wrestled with the idea of taking a bath in the lake. A swim and shower would clear my mind. But what if I drowned out here and nobody knew it? Quieting my over-worked imagination, which had been playing with my head all night, I walked down to the dock and jumped in the lake.
The day passed by like the others, writing, swimming, boating, breathing and eating. Since I had spent the night finishing Year of Wonders, I needed a new book to read. Above the mantel in the parlor were a row of books left by past guests. My choices included a Stephen King novel, a collection of short stories compiled by Alfred Hitchock, a James Patterson novel or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. When I was in high school I swooned over Hemingway’s book. I remembered giving a copy to a boy I had a huge crush on. I flipped it open to read a passage and was greeted by a waft of mildew. Hitchcock beckoned.
Another dawn and I was still alive. The first draft of my novel was done; my husband would be waiting for me on the dock and my solitude was over. It was time to pick him up. Breathing in the citrus smell of balsam that lingered in the air, I lifted myself off the porch chair and climbed into the small outboard. I glanced behind me at the shimmering wake and couldn’t help but regret I might be leaving something behind.
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Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.
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