I am not sure I know why I went to live all alone in a small cabin in the Maine woods in 1972, when I was 22 or 23. Maybe it was some sort of a delayed rite of passage.
I recall that I felt like I did not have much practical knowledge after growing up in a household in Nyack, NY where my businessman father introduced me to sports like baseball, sailing and skiing. But since he was neither an athlete, and had never sailed or skied before trying to teach me, these father-son outings were more often embarrassing than empowering during my high school years. I had four years of headiness at college and a stint teaching at a private boarding school in the mountains of northern California, but still no hands on experience, before deciding to move back East with a yellow Labrador, Jesse, in tow.
To an Easterner, the West’s wide-open spaces had been thrilling, but it struck me that the first question everyone asked each other in California was “Where are you from?” Everyone seemed to be from somewhere else, on the way to someplace else. The only state in the cranky East that offered both rootedness and a sense of space seemed to be Maine, and two years later, that is where I landed. In January. In a one-room cabin in without heat or running water. If I was looking for hands-on life experience, this place would not disappoint.
I bought a chainsaw and began cutting pulpwood with a partner who owned a “skipjack,” a two-and-a-half-ton four-wheel drive truck stripped down to its frame that we drove deep into the woods each morning. Four days a week during the winter, we would cut and load two cords of four-foot wood on the skipjack. Then we would climb up onto the seat of skipjack – from which the cab had been stripped off – with a couple of tons of spruce and fir piled behind us. My partner would fire up the engine and we would slowly (and literally) lumber out of the woods as if we were riding on the back of a prehistoric beast very carefully so as not to lurch over a stump and dump the load. At the edge of a woods road an 8-cord pulp truck with a hydraulic loader would retrieve our week’s work of neatly stacked pulpwood.
The cabin had an old cast iron wood cook stove that I would slowly coax to life, but most of the firewood I cut was green and wet and took a lot of smoky patience to catch fire and burn. I quickly learned that the fastest drying wood was white birch, which produced less heat than oak and maple, but when you are desperate for dry firewood, the birch was a gift from the gods.
Before crawling out of a sleeping bag the following morning, I would look over at the shelf next to the woodstove at the bottle of cooking oil. If the cooking oil had gone cloudy and solid at the top of the bottle, that meant it was zero to five below outside; a half cloudy bottle meant 10 to 15 below and frozen down to the bottom it was 25 below outside. I never lingered over breakfast or waited for the balky woodstove to come to life. It was best to get right to work. The old adage that wood warms you twice – once when you cut it and once when you burn it – was absolutely true. It felt good to warm up in the woods.
I suppose this trial by ice was my way of learning how to take care of myself – my rite of passage from suburban incompetence to rural independence. As a child, I had never learned to hammer a nail, saw a board on a straight line or much else of practical value. But in my new remote corner of Maine, it was a matter of survival to learn how to change the oil, adjust valves and gap the points of the vehicles in order to stay employed. I even learned to how to cook, sort of – the hard way – by trial and inedible error. No one asked me for the recipe for my tuna noodle casserole topped with government-issued canned peas and melted cheese when I took them to potluck dinners. But then I did not go empty handed.
I went back a few years ago to the site of the cabin to show my adult sons where I had done all this growing up, but someone had burned it down. I think they were sort of mystified, because there was not much left for them to try to visualize what their father thought he was doing there. We stood around a slight depression in the ground and uncovered a few rusted pieces of the old cook stove. Ashes to ashes.
Rites of passage are as old as Australian aboriginal walkabouts and as recent as Outward Bound courses. They occur in all cultures, sometimes combined with solemn religious rites, like Bar and Bat-Mitzvahs, or Confirmation ceremonies. These rites supposedly mark the transition to adulthood. Four of my five boys took Outward Bound courses and each of them learned something important from those experiences (though not necessarily what we, their parents, thought they would learn). The fifth one spent the winter in an unheated house on a Maine island, much like I had decades earlier. I guess you don’t feel like an adult when you are 20-something, because you have never really had to take care of yourself. Maybe that’s when you go spend a winter alone in a cabin in the woods.
Philip is a consultant who works with non-profits. He still lives in Maine.
Image: The False Mirror (Rene Magritte, 1928)