It’s an annual pilgrimage for me—October, Skyline Drive, a cabin in Shenandoah National Park. I hike until I feel like my legs are about to fall off, then sit in my cabin or in the lodge tap room and write. There’s no internet (at the lodge, but it’s spotty) and cell signals are pretty much nonexistent, so I get a lot done. But it’s not just about work, it’s about getting out in the fall air, seeing some breathtaking vistas, and hopefully a bear or two.
Yeah, a bear. Last year I saw one at about mile 40, unconcerned as he munched on vegetation along the side of the road. There was a back-up of cars making their careful way around him, snapping a few pictures. On the way back home last year I also caught a rare glimpse of a bobcat dashing across the road in the morning fog and pausing to eye me before dashing off into the woods.
So I arrived, hoping I’d get another bear sighting this year. I unloaded my bags into my cabin, sat outside with some summer sausage, cheese, and a beer, and eyed the enormous groundhog hole under the section of the cabin that housed the bathroom.
This year was colder than normal. That first night, the heater shut off around 10pm and never came on again. Around midnight I realize it had dropped to about 55 degrees in the cabin. By morning I figured it had to be upper 40’s and I don’t want to get out of bed.
I’m used to winter camping, but that was thirty years ago and I’m a bit of a wuss now. So I get up, fix a pot of coffee (priorities) and find the remote for the heater. Then I proceed to push every damned button on the thing but I can’t make the heater come on. Giving up, I crawl back in bed to drink my coffee, then get dressed and go to the lodge for breakfast, telling them to send maintenance for the heater. By the time I get back to my cabin, I see the heater seems to be working and is set on 68. It’s still cold, but I figure give it time while I go for a hike.
It’s a gorgeous day, so I end up taking a five hour hike on the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t what I’d call strenuous—steady ups and downs but nothing where I thought I was going to die. The biggest challenge was the rocky parts where I had to step carefully and not aggravate the neuroma on the ball of my right foot. I had lunch on a lichen covered rock looking down at the valley below, then returned back with tired legs but invigorated spirit to find my cabin cold. Not 45 degrees cold, but definitely not the 68 the heater is set at. I take a hot shower, grab my laptop and head for the lodge, telling them once more about my heater problem and deciding to spend the afternoon working in a rocking chair positioned in a sunny spot looking out over the valley.
At this point you may ask why I didn’t start a fire. I mean, I did rent a cabin with a fireplace, and next to the fireplace was a stack of wood. There’s a reason why – I can’t manage to start a fire without a gallon of gasoline and a flame thrower. Years of Girl Scouts, decades of camping and backpacking, growing up with a well-used fireplace in every home my parents own, and I can’t start a fire. Don’t start giving me some shit about kindling, making a teepee with the wood and all that crap, because that doesn’t work for me. I’ve got some curse. Someone at one point in my life cursed me and I can’t start fires.
But desperate times called for desperate measures. I tried. I sacrificed an entire notebook full of paper. I tore up a box I found in the cabin. I even tried a roll of toilet paper. Nothing worked. I’d get a good flame going, the wood would catch, then three minutes later, nothing. I seriously should get a job volunteering for the local fire department. All they’d need to do is have me show up at a four alarm blaze and my presence alone would put the damned thing out.
I’d had hopes of success with the toilet paper roll. That was the longest my little fire lasted—all of five minutes or so. Then my hopes were dashed. I seriously contemplated going to the lodge and offering to give someone a twenty if they’d come and start my fire for me. The only things holding me back were embarrassment and my ineptitude and the knowledge that ten minutes after the staff left, my fire would probably die and I would have wasted twenty bucks.
But back to my heater. I rocked in my little patch of sunshine, wrote a bit, then went in for dinner, figuring I deserved a hot meal. When I got back to my cabin, the heater was indeed working, now set at 76 degrees. Clearly something was wrong with the thing because it was about 60 degrees in the cabin. I figured it was an improvement and tried once more to start a fire. And failed.
I could learn to live with 60 degrees. It wasn’t that bad. I was only borderline miserable. I hated to keep complaining. These cabins weren’t made for this sort of weather. The park service shut them and the lodges down in mid-November, and it was unseasonably cold this year. I’d survived worse, I just wasn’t used to paying for the privilege. Determined to make the best of it, I got out of bed Wednesday, made coffee, and got back in bed to work under the warm covers. Heading to the lodge, I lingered over breakfast, getting some writing done in the warm dining room before heading back to my cabin where I once again attempted to start another fire.
Next year I’m bringing a box of fatwood kindling and lighter fluid. I don’t fucking care what the rules are, I’m going to do it. Maybe then I can actually enjoy a fire in the fireplace and a cabin that’s warmer than 60 degrees.
My last attempts at a fire had failed so I was writing in a cold cabin and thinking about going for an afternoon hike when I heard a crackling noise over to my right. I look over, and am astonished to see a FIRE in my fireplace. It’s not very impressive, but one of the small logs does indeed seem to be burning. Now I’m afraid to go for my afternoon hike, not because I’m worried about burning the cabin down, but because I’m afraid if I leave this fire unattended it will go out. This is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. I must stay and enjoy the fire while it lasts. Which with my luck will probably be ten minutes tops.
Five minutes. I stare at the fireless fireplace and go for another hike before heading into the taproom.
The tap rooms up here are awesome. They’ve got some decent local wine, a ton of local craft brew, and fancy-schmancy moonshine drinks. I choose something called Prohibition Punch—which is a whole lot of prohibition and not much punch. In spite of the pink color, the moonshine in this sucker is….yeah. There was also a drink called The Missionary’s Downfall, one called Blackberry Flapper Frappe, a Woodford Reserve Bourbon Punch and something called The Debbie. I didn’t want to end the evening drunk because I had to check out in the morning and go ride a horse, so I kept it to the one drink, but next time I’d going to have to at least have The Debbie.
I usually book my stay for Monday through Thursday, checking out Friday morning. I can never stay over the weekend because even though I come this week in October every single year, I can’t manage to get off my ass and book the cabin until every weekend is full. This year it was even worse and I couldn’t manage to book a Thursday night. When I checked in, I asked them if there had been a cancellation, but in spite of the cold they were completely booked and I found myself having to check out Thursday morning.
There was no rush to get back, and I was heading north anyway, so I called to see if the stables could fit me in for a trail ride Thursday morning at Skyland. Luckily they could, and I found myself heading out at 9:45 on a very nice paint named Tanto. I don’t know if they selected him specially for me because I showed up with my own riding helmet or not, but Tanto went when I asked, turned when I asked, stopped with the lightest of rein. And when we went through the old apple orchard that had been abandoned back in the 30’s when this place became a national park, he didn’t bat an eyelash at the fat, furry black bear not twenty feet from us. No, I did not get a picture because I had a vision of my getting my phone out, the bear charging, Tanto springing into a gallop, and my phone falling to the ground only to end up in some bear’s belly.
The bear did not charge and Tanto was rock steady, and by the time we came back through and I was ready to snap a pic, the bear was gone.
And so was I shortly after that. I did a brief hike, then enjoyed the gorgeous drive home where the hellhounds were excited to welcome me, I had an overflowing e-mail inbox, and I decided I needed to definitely do this sort of thing more than once a yea