An Ode to the Imperfect, 21st-Century American Cabin

We all dream of buying that secluded wilderness retreat. But what does it have to offer when the seclusion and wilderness turn out to be mostly in our imagination? Actually, a lot.

The American cabin is the perfect home base. (David Hanson/Aurora )
Architecture

At the end of 2015, I had this idea that I’d toss away my life. Give up my job, break my apartment lease, disconnect my phone. I’d sell my possessions, stuff what I could into a pack, and disappear into the wilderness—away from the world forever.

This, ultimately, terrified me. What would I do about money? Where would my cat go? Could greatness be felt in a place where it was not seen? I wondered whether anyone would miss me. 

For a long time, perhaps an occupational hazard as a writer, I’ve felt the need to separate entirely from the city where I'd lived for almost all my life. I had this deep love for the North Country. It was a place I’d known intimately in my youth. The smell of pine needles and late-October frost, the yowl of a loon scuttling across the lake, brought for me the same fulfillment as any professional achievement in the city. It is that familiar loss felt on returning from vacation, wanting to be where we are not. Every time I returned from upstate to the city, I felt that I had left home and was lost in a blight of slate-grey, an unnatural silhouette—held against my will.

People made me feel claustrophobic and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard birds outside my window. I also felt like I wasn’t getting enough work done: my phone buzzed too often, I found myself aimlessly switching between browser tabs.

Perhaps, I thought to myself, I’ll buy a cabin.

The phone rang twice and Pete answered. He was on the western fringe of the Adirondack Park. He was a realtor, selling hunting lodges, cabins, land. I’d seen a listing online and said I’d like to place an offer on a cabin.

“Do you want to come see the property first?” he asked.

“Nope,” I said, “No, thank you.”

The listing and photos online were enough for me: a hunting cabin, abutting state forest, on about five acres. 

“Is it secluded? I mean, really secluded?” I asked, as if there are degrees of seclusion.

“If you don’t want to see anyone for weeks,” he said, “this is the place.”

Still having never set foot on the land or seen the cabin, I closed on it in January. It would be some time before I could make it out to my land. Until the snow melted, without the use of snowshoes, the cabin was virtually unreachable.

When finally I went to inspect the cabin in spring, I came to pass a Log Homes Sales Center. The homes are set in a cleared field of manicured grass. Where the logs meet at the corners and up near the roof gables there is the distinct fit of Lincoln Logs: perfectly mated and set atop one another, the notches machine-fitted. The roofs are sometimes constructed of a lurid green, stamped metal. Some have tarpaper tiling. They are austere and inviting. But they aren't true cabins. For me, a true cabin is swaddled in romance: a wilting little structure, covered by a mossy roof, a battered tin stove pipe etching its way skyward, the whole of the home and its accouterments—the axe stuck in a chopping block, the saw hanging from a post near the front door, a lantern to light the way—made perfect by its imperfections. It's a way-station, a conduit to your old life and into the wild.

Though the origins of the cabin structure are unknown, they are believed to be the expression of American architecture, a product of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion. The designs and utilities found within the earliest, modest log cabins were adopted from Europeans—Swedes and Finns who found themselves settling along the Delaware Valley.

These were crude homes. Hacked from virgin timbers, these cabins were laid out in small squares, 15-by-15 feet, sometimes bigger, often smaller, on land cleared by families passing through. They were meant to be temporary. The notches were carved out with an axe, and logs were hoisted atop one another to form the walls of the family dwelling. There were no windows, and sometimes only a small loft for sleeping. Light came from the fireplace.

Long associated with the hermit or recluse, the ancestral roots of a solitary cabin dwelling did not “attenuate the American family,” as C.A. Weslager wrote in The Log Cabin in America in the 1960s. It instead “contributed to its vitality and integrity.” The log cabin also became a communal project: those who could help, did. And without serious plans, a cabin could rise from local hardwoods within a week or two. Then the family moved in.

On my drive, I may have passed many of these traditional cabins without knowing it, the last existing log and wood cabins obscured now by new construction, hidden in plan view. Travel through the North Country, the Finger Lakes or Tug Hill regions, and know that if you look closely enough you may discern an old log home, covered now in wood shingles and aluminum siding, obscuring a verdant history. 

By all definitions, the cabin I’d bought and was driving toward wasn’t much more a "true cabin" than the shiny Lincoln Log homes for sale off exit 20. It wasn’t hewn from logs, and it wasn’t originally built by settlers. But it was remote, it had no plumbing or electricity, and, for the purpose of seclusion, it would resemble the spaces in which families, centuries before, used as stopping grounds before moving west. 
 
When I finally reached the cabin, I surveyed the land. Toppled cedar and hemlock. Tall weeds and grass slithered up the sides of the building, which had been constructed sometime after the millennium. The tarpaper roof had holes visible from the outside. Wood splintered off the siding. The porch was all but rotted. This was no soulless Log Homes cabin, but it wasn't a frontiers cabin, either.

Then the chainsaws stared. Followed by a lawn mower. An axe splitting wood. I could not escape the world. Somehow it had followed me.

My legs hung over the porch where I sat, listening as the clamor of workers and hunters, elsewhere in the woods, simmered and died as night approached. It was only quiet for some while. Then laughter, glasses clinking, beer cans crunching. Howls and giggles came from every direction.

Damn you, Pete, I thought. I was heated. I wanted seclusion. I was set to call him the next morning, as soon as I regained cellular service. But what I didn’t know then was that the American Cabin was the essence of this familial bonding. That these people, like me, were escaping the same tired, vexing technologies and social abrasions we faced in urban living.

The log cabin had always been a product of community cooperation. As Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote of his time in a stranger’s cabin on the frontier, “The whole family comes to seek shelter of an evening in the single room which it contains. This dwelling forms as it were a little world of its own. … A hundred paces beyond it the everlasting forest stretches its shade around it and solitude begins again.”

Up here in the North Country, we call these places camps. I understood why, initially, that meant a base camp for hunting. But really, it’s much more than that, and it echoes a longstanding American tradition. First, it enables us to hunker down before we move forward—whether that be on a hunt or revitalized after a weekend before returning to work. Second, the confines and intimate space of a cabin harbor deeper connections to friends and family. 

Large cities, though densely-populated, imbue anonymity. Far as I can tell, the proximity of city life is not one of intimacy but inherent distance. You can't be tuned into a place or person that shuffles past. The cabin slows everything into knotted hardwood and fosters deeper fellowship—the kind of fellowship I'd missed in the humdrum of urban life. 

In the morning, I woke to the frost and cozy fog that made the forest surrounding the cabin both mythical and terrifying. I listened for others but heard none, and became excited by the notion that I could bring friends and family here. I started to see the space differently: over there, a fire pit; some Adirondack chairs for every one; a hammock for my sister; a guitar for anyone who knows how to play.

It wasn’t solitude I was seeking. Not exactly. Instead what we often want in returning to the woods, a place of unencumbered solitude and holistic melodies, is the chance to be alone, together. To share in each other’s presence, rather than juggle the distractions of workaday life. The American cabin, a remote parcel that echoes our ancestral passages, is the perfect home base on which to build those connections.

I moseyed downstairs, ascending the ladder from the loft. I made a cup of coffee, using the wood-burning stove which fiercely crackled as it awakened. I was met by several field mice, scuttling about the upstairs loft, munching leftover tortillas. 

I was not displeased by the intrusion. I welcomed them and watched them play for hours.

Kenneth R. Rosen works and writes for The New York Times.

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