Every year, my husband and I spend two weeks at a 70-year-old cabin in the Allegheny Mountains, west of the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. I have been going there since the summer after I graduated from college, when the cabin had no electricity, plumbing or running water. But 100 feet off our back porch was the constant, comforting sound of the Maury River flowing through the mountain pass where the cabin was built—a sound that more than made up for the lack of 20th-century conveniences.
Now, 40 years later, the cabin still has no plumbing or running water, and there is no Internet/cable connection or cellphone service. Nor have the cabin’s furnishings shown any major signs of disturbance. There is the Pawleys Island rope hammock on the porch, the ancient metal bed frames, the oak cupboard with its motley collection of chipped dishes, the outhouse, the clothesline stretched between two trees, and the weathered wooden pegs for hanging up river shoes.
And of course the river hasn’t changed, except for a few boulders that were relocated during a hurricane in 1985.
What’s different is what the cabin has become. No longer is it just a beautiful corner of my world. It is also “The Place,” a familiar, quiet retreat where I can sit for long periods of time and reflect on recent and not so recent events—from the past few months to the past four decades.
Like the marks on a door jamb that record a child’s growth, the cabin is a measuring device. While it hasn’t changed, I have. From my seat on the porch, I note those changes from year to year, not in feet and inches, but in memories and insights, feelings of contentment and some of regret. In the background, there is always the sound of water rushing downstream over rocks and through small whirlpools. I have a sense of belonging, of inclusion.
Of course, not everyone needs a four-bedroom, no-bathroom cabin in the Virginia woods as The Place. For some, this mooring may be not a physical location at all, but a group of people who meet to share common memories, or a special mantra for meditation. The Place could be a favorite seat—a bench in the garden, a rocking chair in front of the fireplace. It’s wherever you can find quiet moments to remind yourself of where you have been and where you are now.
The older I get, the more deeply the cabin becomes embedded in my life story.
My visit that first summer lasted three months, time spent with the college classmate I would later marry. His parents, long before I met them, had rented the cabin for $120 a year from a local farmer who resisted offers to buy his land—including a big homestead used as a base for soldiers in the Civil War—so that he could pass it on to his heirs.
During that summer, I kept a journal and wrote letters in cursive longhand to friends scattered around the country. My cabin mate and I read “The Odyssey” out loud by the light of kerosene lamps, and we cooked huge meals on an old propane gas stove. When we broke up that fall and were out of touch for six years, the cabin disappeared from my life. When we reconnected and got married, the cabin reappeared, exactly the way it had been that first summer.
As soon as our two sons were old enough, we introduced them to cabin life—the best bathing spot in the river, proper outhouse etiquette, the resident bat that hung from the living-room rafters, the spiders that occasionally crawled out from under the beds.
We went tubing down the rapids, played poker at night—a towel on my head to keep the bat from landing on my hair—and identified constellations from the river’s edge. We told our children that all rumors about a bear in the woods were false. We read a lot; some of us wrote articles, kept journals, started on book outlines.
Eventually, our sons’ busy summer schedules and our own full-time jobs meant that the visits became intermittent rather than annual. Somewhere along the way, the farmer died and we were able to purchase the cabin from his heirs.
Our sons are now grown. My husband and I come to the cabin every summer. We drink coffee out of mugs I bought 40 years ago. There is now electricity, a compost toilet and a thin stream of water that feeds into the kitchen sink from a 500-gallon tank outside. We have family reunions on the back porch, watching a new generation of children as they jump from rock to rock in the river and set up piles of stones to knock them down.
I think of the people who have spent many days in this place: my husband’s parents before and after my arrival on the scene, his sisters, various nieces and nephews, my brothers, our friends and the local families we have shared the cabin with during the weeks we aren’t around.
Our sons, no matter where they are in the world, try to come for a few days every summer. The cabin will be theirs, and they will form their own memories as they watch thunderstorms roil the usually tranquil river, catch sight of a heron as it swoops down the pass, spend an afternoon swimming at Indian Pool a quarter-mile upstream.
At home in Philadelphia, when I can’t get to sleep, I sometimes imagine myself walking into the cabin, down the long hallway into the living room, shedding suitcases and other baggage with every step, emerging unencumbered onto the back porch and then settling into the hammock, listening to the river and the cicadas and the occasional rustle of branches, looking up at the sky through a cover of trees.
While the image never quite lulls me to sleep, it does provide reassurance: There is a cabin on a river in a mountain pass that will be close by as long as needed, its foundation built on firm ground. I will be there at dusk, immensely grateful, watching fireflies as they light up the night.
— Robbie Shell
Reprinted with permission from The Wall Street Journal.
A Philadelphia writer, Robbie Shell has spent many years in Virginia.