Back To Basics

My Practical and Economical Vacations

Most people view vacations with great anticipation. Which relatives should we visit? What part of the country — or the world — do we want to see and experience? Some use vacation time to catch up on maintenance work around their home and property. Others, after working all year, like to just relax and do nothing.

For some, like me, vacations are a change from the normal everyday routine. Some people spend time in house trailers or cottages which have all the modern conveniences. But, if you have to carry all the comforts of home with you, isn’t it just as well to stay home?

As a (divorced) single parent with two sons, and a part-time job, vacations were a luxury I could not afford. However, as they began to pursue their own interests and develop their own lives, I had more free time on my hands. So I got involved with community affairs. Pretty soon, the problem was that I no longer had time for a vacation!

I knew that wasn’t a healthy situation and in 1995, I decided to take a break. I needed to get completely away from everything. So I planned a few days camping in a nearby provincial park. As my scheduled vacation drew closer I looked forward to it more and more.

Then, the hot dry weather we had been enjoying turned to rain and high humidity! Sure, we needed rain, for the ground was parched, but why now? Couldn’t it have held off for another week or two? The prospect of spending a week confined to a tent that was set up on damp ground was not very appealing. Not to mention unsuitable conditions for writing.

My daughter-in-law, Valerie, came to the rescue. Her family owned a small cabin which was seldom used anymore. She felt certain that I could stay there as long as I wanted — and she was right! Hooray! Problem solved!

'Oh yes, you’re welcome to use it,' I was told. Then, in a cautionary tone, 'It’s not much of a place, mind, not wind proof, but the roof doesn’t leak.' That was okay. It would still be better than a tent on damp ground, especially when it rained.

'There’s no electricity, and no generator for power.' Well, I’ve always thought kerosene lamps created a cosy, old-world kind of atmosphere.

'Uh... no bathroom facilities, either inside or outside.' No problem. My parents had a portable, chemical toilet which they’d used in a home-built trailer years ago. I’d take that with me.

'You’ll have to take water with you for drinking and cooking,' I was told. 'The nearby brook water is only suitable for utility purposes.' Hmm… okay, there’s a natural spring just a couple of miles farther down the highway. I could get a good supply there and use it conservatively.

'There’s no source of heat for cooking, or if the evenings and mornings turn chilly. The stovepipe isn’t safe and the cabin is too close to the trees to risk lighting a fire anyway.' Another minor inconvenience - I’d just take some warm clothing along and the camp stove for cooking. It looked promising so far.

Of course, there was no source of refrigeration either, which meant that certain foods could not be taken. My supplies had to be carefully planned. Basic vegetables like potatoes, carrot, and onions would be okay but all other things must be in packages, bottles, or tins. Well, today’s packaged foods come in a wide variety and a creative person can usually find substitutes in some cases. Besides, rice is easy to store, can be used with just about anything else, and also happens to be one of my favourite foods.

Unlike the turtle, I didn’t have to carry my house on my back — just everything else I needed! Including the bedclothes! Sound intimidating? Maybe, but I was determined. I wanted some time alone. The peace and quiet of nature, where I could relax and write, seemed like the answer to a prayer. The idea of getting back to basics — to a point — promised to be quite an experience.

I could cope with any inconveniences. The pioneers had often dealt with much worse conditions. If they could do it — so could I! And so I prepared for my very first vacation alone.

Of course, nearly everyone thought I was absolutely nuts to be going there alone, miles from town, with no car. However, I still haven’t been judged crazy enough to be put in the mental institution. I am still on the outside!

'I wish I had your nerve!' was a comment I heard often from those who knew me fairly well. They thought it took an extraordinary amount of courage to be doing this. Well, I don’t think I’m any braver than most people. Besides, what is there to fear?

This is not bear country. Newfoundland has no snakes, skunks, poisonous spiders, or even poison ivy. I saw birds, squirrels, rabbits, a few shrews, and lots of insects. Oh yes! Also a horse and a goat!

We do not have cyclones, tornadoes, or severe hurricanes. I do not view thunderstorms with fear but rather with respect for the tremendous power of nature. I did, however, keep watch for dry lightening strikes, since the area has some very tall trees, some of which are also very dry. Being unafraid doesn’t mean being careless.

'I suppose it’s not so bad in the day, but don’t you find it lonely at night, when you look out the window, with no houses nearby, and no lights to be seen?' Actually, I enjoy being alone. I like the solitude, the freedom of being able to do what I want, when I want, with no deadlines for anything. The darkness doesn’t bother me – I’ve always been a “night person” – and I’ve always been able to keep myself occupied. Let’s see, there’s knitting, crocheting, crossword and jigsaw puzzles, reading, writing and so many other things one can do alone. Believe it or not, the only card game I have ever liked is solitaire!

For five years running my son delivered me and my supplies to this little country retreat. We fetched enough water from the spring to last at least a week. He hooked up the propane camp stove and then I was on my own. Of course, family members did come and check on me periodically — just to see if I needed anything!

On my very first night there, I was awakened by a loud scraping sound. At first I didn’t know if it was coming from inside or outside the cabin. I got out of bed and took the flashlight to investigate. A large paint-by-number picture had slid down the wall when its hanger gave out. There’s always a logical explanation for “things that go scrape in the night!”

Their description of the cabin was no exaggeration. It was rustic, maybe even a little bit primitive. More like a shack than a cabin really. The differences between this cabin and a tent were in having a dry floor that was up off the ground, a watertight roof, a little space to walk upright, and a bed to sleep in. All the comforts of home!

It sits on level land, in a shallow valley. In past years ice blockages and spring thaws have often caused the nearby brook to overflow its banks and flood the area. Water sometimes rose to more than twelve inches above the cabin floor. The water damage to this cabin, and others in the immediate vicinity, are obvious.

First you noticed that the entire structure looked just a little off plumb and sagged in the middle; as if it was grasped and twisted out of shape by giant hands. The bridge at the front tipped back toward the cabin slightly as if they felt a need to lean on each other for support. The wooden shores beneath the cabin looked as if they were held in place only by the numerous spider webs that were attached to them.

The doors were neither airtight nor mosquito proof, with gaps on both top and bottom — at opposite corners. Inside, the counter top followed the slope of the floor, leaning away from the wall. Meanwhile, the top cupboards were partly supported by posts resting on the counter top. Some of the cupboard doors wouldn’t stay shut unless you jammed a stick in the handles.

Everything leaned slightly toward the center of the room. There were loose floor boards that creaked in protest each time you walked across them. And there were several slight indentations in the floor where you trod very carefully.

It was hard to balance on one foot when removing your shoes upon entering. But you got used to that and, when you returned home a week or so later, you felt like you’d been at sea. You had to adjust to a solid, level surface all over again.

When it was windy the shutters banged and there was a shrill whistle in the rusty old stovepipe. The entire place creaked and groaned like some aging creature with arthritic bones from long years of exposure to the elements.

Still, despite all the negative things, there were some good points too. It was located close enough to the highway to have easy access. The winding driveway and tall trees provided adequate privacy. I could do without the noisy, almost constant traffic, especially at night, but nevertheless — solitude had never been sweeter. And boredom did not exist.

There was music in the singing of the birds, the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, or the running brook. There was beauty in the flowers and other plants, fluffy white clouds in a bright blue sky, a spectacular multi-coloured sunset, or a black star-studded sky. There were trees so old and weathered you wondered what changes they’d seen and what stories they could tell.

No electric house lights or street lights interfered with star-gazing on a clear night - it was like looking into infinity! I saw the Milky Way, shooting stars, and comets, as well as the flashing lights of distant airplanes. I witnessed awesome storms when the dark night was momentarily transformed into daylight by powerful blue-white lightening; and the cabin trembled from the force of crackling thunder. I watched clouds changing shape, like celestial beings with grey underbellies and snowy white backs.

I watched robins pulling worms from the ground to feed their young; saw a young rabbit eating clover, just inches from the doorstep; and was scolded by a cheeky squirrel. I watched bumblebees going from flower to flower gathering nectar. I saw butterflies as colourful and beautiful as a rainbow, while dragonflies soared and dived like B-52 Bombers on transparent, greenish-tinted wings.

There were also some unexpected visitors. I was startled by a shrew skittering across the floor, looking for a place to build its winter nest. I drove it out and plugged up its entrance. I was pleasantly surprised by a runaway horse looking for greener pastures. When I tried to drive him away, he simply pushed his nose against my hand. And I learned that a family of squirrels had taken up residence in the attic.

Without going into personal details, the outhouse also held surprises. (I had one installed in 1996, some distance up behind the cabin.) I went back an hour after cleaning to find a large resident spider had already attached a web to the paper towels. It can be uncomfortable, to say the least, to sit on the seat at night and hear a fluttering sound beneath the bench! Needless to say, you don’t waste any time getting out of there!

Nature provides many interesting sights if one takes time to look. Did you ever look closely at a spider web when the sun shines on it after a rain? The sparkling drops of water clearly define the delicate and intricate patterns. Every strand of web and every space is very precise — the work of a master weaver.

Have you ever noticed how fresh and alive the whole world looks after rain? Or how fog changes the appearance of everything so that it almost looks like an entirely different world? It captures your attention and imagination, providing food for thought. I found inspiration all around me there. I was relaxed, at peace with myself and the world.

I saw diamonds in glittering dewdrops on the petals of a wild rose. I saw the homes of fairies and gnomes beneath the moss-covered exposed roots of large trees. I saw giant mushrooms, arched bridges, and fairytale castles in the clouds. There is no limit to what the mind can create when the circumstances are right.

Even now, others can’t understand how I could be content there all alone, day and night. Maybe I have a trace of the pioneering spirit in me. Maybe it’s because freedom from a normal daily routine lets my creative side take over. Maybe it’s as simple as getting away from ringing telephones and doorbells, and demands on my time. There, in those peaceful surroundings, was where I did some of my best writing — in my opinion at least. I went for walks and enjoyed the sounds and sights of nature.

Unfortunately, my solitary sojourns at that cabin have come to an end. The passage of time and the elements have taken a toll on the cabin and other commitments make it near impossible for me to get away. I miss those short retreats. There’s a lot to be said for simple living, without the clutter of modern technology, even on a temporary basis.

Getting back to basics in a dilapidated cabin with an outhouse; small camp stove for cooking; kerosene lamp for light; no radio, TV or electrical appliances; and having to conserve drinking water, can be quite an eye-opening, educational experience. It gives you a whole new appreciation for modern technology and all the convenient, time-saving devices we enjoy and take for granted.

It also makes you realize how dependent we have become on these advanced technical inventions and the “progressive” lifestyle they allow us to indulge in. However, I wonder if all this “progress” is positive, or even necessary? Many of us have become so conditioned to a life of comfort, bordering on luxury, that simple things no longer appeal to us. In short, getting back to basics can be downright fun for anyone with a sense of adventure and curiosity. I would recommend such a vacation for anyone remotely interested in understanding what the “good old days” were all about, for this is the way it used to be. Who knows? Maybe we would all be better off if we could somehow gain a deeper understanding of the world around us.

Postscript: Since this was written, about 15 years ago, Newfoundland has experienced a severe hurricane – Igor – but that’s for another story.

© Fay Herridge
Published in Canadian Stories, Dec 2002/Jan 2003

Non-fiction 1

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