The last day we were up nort’, my folks, Scott and I spent the day visiting family landmarks, starting with my mother’s family cabin on the Brule River, a river that starts from Lake St. Croix, the shores of which, you may recall, is where the paternal family cabin sits, and empties into Lake Superior. The country seemed so vast to me as a child, and in memory, but driving from our cabin at Solon out to Port Wing where my brother’s farm is, and then on to the mouth of the Brule this time, I realized how short these distances were. This is my family’s home territory; my dad was born in Superior, and my mother was from Maple. It used to seem like it took forever to make any one of these trips, but we did them all in a couple hours, including stops. The world gets so small once we get big.
Our little cabin in the big woods of northern Wisconsin is the last one on the dirt road out to the mouth of the Brule River. We own land on both sides of the road, and both sides of the river, but most of that is steep hill and swamp. There’s no river access per se from our cabin, but you can see Lake Superior past all the green.
My mother’s father built this one-room cabin in 1937. Over the years it has been reroofed and painted multiple times, and every decade or so it has to be hoisted up and supported to fight the inexorable gravity that tries to pull it down the hill. The porch was added in my lifetime; when I was small, it was ground all the way up to the doorway, with a worn spot where the door scraped against the ground.
Since Scott and I moved to Arizona 11 years ago, my brother and my parents have made other significant improvements, including 3 new, large windows. Now there’s a view out the back window and you can see the lake from inside the cabin. The old woodstove my grandmother cooked us meals on and lit to warm us on the days we came back from Lake Superior shivering is gone now, replaced with an electric one. The electricity also runs the lights, a small refrigerator, and a TV that gets good reception of Duluth stations whose signals cross the lake largely unimpeded. The old kitchen table is still there, thank goodness, but the old swayback brass bed is long gone. It was the only bed for years, and when my Grandma Mae would take my brother, Daniel, and me out there, we’d have to sleep sideways, with my grandma in the middle, Daniel and I on either side of her, forever rolling into the middle of the bed, and chairs at the bottom for her feet; ours didn’t reach past the edge of the bed quite yet. Now there’s a nice bed and nicer bedding on a firm–and flat–mattress that no one has to fight the slope of.
I happen to think this little cabin is wonderful, and it has only become more luxurious over the years. It’s about as peaceful as you can wish for, the sound of the wind through the trees only rarely broken by a car or truck headed down to the beach. I have, over the years, often imagined pulling a Walden and enjoying the solitude of that cabin for a year, eschewing all clocks, and living life by the rhythms of the sun and my own body. The only thing standing in the way of my idyllic retreat to nature, the only thing that’s missing, is internet access.
Well, and indoor plumbing.
This cabin has no plumbing, and all water has to be carried in. It’s always been this way. To sink a well on this land would require digging through a umpteen feet of red clay to the water table, a process that is not only too spendy to be feasible, but I think is probably impossible due to current codes, if I understood my folks correctly.
However, we have always had our trusty outhouse down the hill from the house (natch) to meet our bathroom needs. It’s a one-holer, with a wooden seat worn smooth by 5 generations of butts. And if I may say so, I believe it is, thanks to my mother, the fanciest outhouse in existence.
This outhouse was also built in 1937. In 2009, it’s sporting a partially finished paint job and a brand-new roof. And a welcome mat. But the beauty does not stop there, oh no…
When you open the door, you see a festive dried flower spray over a decorative mirror, a sweet little basket for paper products, and a coordinated rug. And check the two-tone paint job. But wait, that’s not all!
To the left when you open the door is a little hanging vase of silk flowers, too.
Now, with all this potty pulchritude, I suppose one could happily shut the outhouse door. Personally, though, I prefer to leave the door open and enjoy the view of nature. Occasionally, a deer will walk by. Plus, it’s still an outhouse, and after 72 years of use, it is, shall we say, slightly funky even on the best of days, and leaving the door open allows for a cool, aroma-mitigating breeze to flow through. While I can deal with the outhouse, Scott cannot. In all the years we’ve been together, I’m almost sure he’s not used it once. When I told him we take our baths in Lake Superior with a bar of Ivory soap (it floats), I think he nearly fainted.
The day we went out was a gray, blustery day, which is my favorite kind of day on Lake Superior. The waves were rolling in, and the wind was blowing so hard, you had to shout to be heard above it, and even then, it was dicey. My legs were sandblasted by the wind whipping the beach up and carrying it eastward.
I grew up on this lake, and Lake Michigan, and they have stayed in my blood and bones my entire life; standing on this beach is one of the few places in the world I truly feel “home.” Some of my best memories with my grandma, my cousins, my parents and brother, happened on this beach. The first time I saw the Northern Lights was here, as my family sat around a campfire singing Peter, Paul, and Mary songs and burning marshmallows. (I like to set them on fire and let them burn until there’s a black crust that I pull off and eat whole, and then eat the melted remainder of the marshmallow as a chaser. My brother just liked to play in the fire.)
The first time I took Scott out here, back when we were dating, I walked to the end of a beach very much like this one (it changes all the time, week to week and year to year), where the water and sand were churned up as the river met the lake, and sunk in to my knees. He had to pull me out. The job was made harder because I was laughing.
Scott has never gotten that close to the water. As I walked the beach, the cold waves teasing my bare feet, he stayed safely on the drier sand with my dad.
The other nice thing about being at the beach in late July is that there are plenty of good eats. The raspberries were just coming ripe, and the beach was crawling with wild sweet peas.
Scott refuses to eat wild food. He’s such a city slicker, and despite the fact that I was taught by my parents what was safe and wasn’t since I was a child, and don’t go about eating stuff willy-nilly just to see what’ll happen to me, and despite the fact that he can see with his very own eyes that they are, in fact, raspberries and peas, he thinks they’re dangerous and I’m just one berry away from death every time I insist on eating foods fresh from the vine. Hey, that’s fine. More berries for me.
I love living in the desert; I really do–the wildness of the desert and the grandeur of the mountains and the Wild West coyotes that howl at night make me glad every day that we moved here. I don’t even remember how much I love the lake, how much I’ve missed it, until I’m standing in it, and remembering how deeply it runs through my soul like a half-forgotten lullaby. It’s always a little harder, once reminded, to turn my back on it and drive away.