This cabin essay is a part of an application I’m using to become part of the Roots Rated team, based out of Chattanooga, TN, which is a forum for people to discover new places for awesome outdoors adventures. The writing prompt was to describe my greatest outdoors experience, and I’m publishing this essay to provide an intro into my own experiences and hopefully this will be the first piece of more material to come. My intent for “in extremis” is to be a running blog, but this initial piece captures some good old fashioned cabin life!
When I think of the outdoors, I think of spectacular mountains, piney forests, wildlife, and adventures. I’ve had some fantastic outdoors adventures: hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, skiing the Swiss Alps, and trail running in the Rockies. But in reality, my greatest outdoors experience was a little more rustic and underwhelming, although still an adventure in its own right.
This experience was living in a remote log cabin in northern Washington State.
In his 1854 memoir, Walden or, Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau muses on his two and a half year experiment of solitary living in a cabin he built at Walden Pond in Massachusetts. When he moved into his cabin in 1845, it was unfinished, “merely a defense against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night.” When I moved into my parent’s two story log cabin in 1999, just 20 miles south of Canada, it was also unfinished with a concrete floor and a metal stove on the first floor, and a ladder that went to an upper story loft where we slept.
A couple years earlier, my parents were inspired to purchase a 40 acre lot of forested land with a stand out feature, the ruins of a 19th century settler cabin. And then they pursued a brilliant idea – restore the ruins into a cabin with a newly built loft and move myself, my brother, and our dog Sherlock right in. I was 15 years old at the time, and the cabin had no running water, no kitchen, no insulation, no electricity, and no toilet. I’ve never directly asked my parents, but I occasionally wonder if they were influenced by Henry David Thoreau to pluck us from the conveniences of modern urban living and move us all deep into the sticks. Honestly, I believe my parents were slightly entranced.
The first months of cabin living was misery. I had grown up mostly in Hawaii and South Carolina where the probability of snowfall is miniscule. Yet living in Washington State in the early summer, I was stunned that snow and sleet were regularly present. On the first morning, I recall how viscerally cold it was. I was sleeping in a sleeping bag on a wood floor, and I had as much desire to exit my sleeping bag into the chilly morning air as I would to sit middle-aisle coach surrounded by screaming children for 14 plus hours. Without utilities, we had to figure out how to improvise. For water, we relied on our snow runoff stream for the first couple months until we had a well installed. Unfortunately, the well turned out less than consistent when it was up and running, thus we continually hauled water to live off of. For cooking and heating water, we used our small firewood stove. Our bathtub was a plastic storage container in which we wired a camping shower bag to take mini-baths to conserve our water supply (by the way, I was already over six feet tall). My mother was intensely driven to develop the property, and my brother and I felt the sting of her whip. Every day we tackled laborious chores which ranged from chopping wood, building retaining walls to digging pathways and hauling many, many rocks. In a sense, my mother was finally unleashed to return to her own country roots and smack out any fragile longings for city comforts that my brother and I still harbored.
Over time, our cabin evolved into a livable property. The day we installed power and a hot water heater was an utter game-changer. Shortly thereafter, we installed a septic tank for a latrine, running water, and we even set up satellite television. My parents proceeded with building a modern house at a perpendicular angle to the base cabin, and eventually our cabin was a livable house with enough modern conveniences for the winter. Despite my natural resistance to go country and embrace the outdoors as a permanent resident, I did find something very rewarding about watching a pile of logs and scrap turn into a home.
Much like Thoreau, I too only spent two and a bit years living in this environment before heading off to college. Nevertheless, I still have many fond memories. I really miss the ability to go for a spontaneous walk or run in the woods. I long for the beauty of watching the forest change through seasons. I’m definitely person who longs for the outdoors and today I jump at any opportunity to escape. I often reflect on those years of cabin living, and I still wonder about how the outdoors shaped who I am.
Dwight Rabe doesn’t have a hometown. He’s a runner who loves being outdoors, and is often looking for a new challenge. He loves his wife. He makes a pretty mean cocktail and can cook up a storm.