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So you want to live in a cabin in the mountains - #47
Is it more than you bargained for yet?
Ahhh, cabins. Architecture’s hygge. A place known for romance, ruggedness, and dying in the woods. And now, everyone wants to die in those woods. As self-checkout and Amazon and Doordash and every other horror that came in the last ten years quickly sucked the last drops of community-thinking from American culture and instead sold us the idea that we could literally always be working, many people reached a breaking point, looking around at their succulents and their Tinder and thought, “fuck.”
The uptick in Americans returning to rural locations actually started in 2016. It was small, but it was there. Capitalism drove jobs out of rural communities and now it’s driving people right back as they lose their minds working shitty wages for shittier employers. If I’m going to sell my soul, I might as well live somewhere I can grow a zucchini.
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And so, the idea of moving to a cabin (or worse, buying one to Airbnb) has risen within the zeitgeist. I mean there’s even a book called Cabin Porn. Normally I’d be writing this from an actual cabin but this time I’m writing it from a van in a field. (Even worse?) Shake the shackles of modernity and take a road trip to the past where you do things like chop wood and tend to animals. But lest this newsletter convince you to give up your East Village apartment with a dishwasher, I wanted to set some things straight about living in a cabin in the mountains.
It’s form over function
Do you know how challenging it is to run plumbing through logs? What logs win for their beauty they can sometimes lose for their difficulty. Of course, logs and log homes can come in many varieties. The r-value of logs can, at times, even match the insulating value of modern construction. Shangrilogs is a full-scribe cabin, meaning the logs are stacked horizontally with grooves cut into the bottom so they fit snugly atop the log below. But they only fit snuggly for like a year — then they twist, warp, shrink, settle, and check. What you built will change. And when you want to change it, it will fight you. Do you want to know how hard it is to tile around logs? To wallpaper around logs? When you pick a floorplan, by golly, you better like it.
Some thirty years on from when these logs were fit together, half the windows don’t open, the doors require a body slam to close, and you can see daylight more places than you’d like. Like the trees from which this cabin came, she is sturdy, but the wind moves through her like bad takeout.
What lives outside will live inside
We have a contract killer on the premises. We paid an $80 deposit for his skills, and in exchange for room and board, he leaves a trail of death in his wake. Tiny, tiny death. His name is Snoots and he is our cat. Our older cat, Finn, likes to bop a mouse on the head every once in a while, but Snoots likes to bop them on the head, throw them into the air like a popcorn kernel, and then rip that kernel’s head off. Then he curls up with his stuffed banana and falls asleep like a sweet little bebe.
Living in a cabin means living with nature. These logs don’t seal. You can hear mice at times living inside them, nevermind the bats that live in the primary support beam. Porcupines under porches, coyotes howling out back, bears ushering their cubs down the road. Wildlife can be a part of your life no matter where you live (I once woke up in my studio in Santa Monica to find a possum on the kitchen counter), but there’s no exterminating the 100 mice that live in your house because 1000 of them live on your property just outside and there’s all this food inside.
If you can’t pick up a beheaded rodent, I suggest trying it before mortgaging a place full of them.
You need to be patient.
Have you ever heard the phrase “island time”? When I lived on Virgin Gorda, the running joke (and reality) was that sometimes the ship carrying toilet paper just wouldn’t show up, so you’d better learn to clean your butt in the shower.
Patience in the mountains needs to extend to tourists, to errands, to wants and desires, and to yourself. Do you know who delivers pizza here? No one. Because you can’t get delivery here. There’s no Doordash or Grubhub or Uber or Lyft. I’d say delete the apps, but you could just delete your whole phone because there’s no reception either. From the edge of my property to the top of the mountain, no one can talk to me unless they’re in front of me and it’s fucking incredible. (Of course once you’re at the top of the mountain, T-Mobile finds a way. The nice part of this though is that when you get up there and that Slack from work comes through, you can just throw your phone down the talus field.)
The plumber is always booked out. The book is always checked out. And the cream cheese is always sold out. You butter your bagel and move on, assuming the everything bagels for the week also haven’t already sold out. We plan more here than we ever did, thinking carefully about what we might need when and how we might get it.
Weather rules everything around me
If there is one true combatant in the high mountains, it is the weather. A beautiful day will burn your skin off. And when the relief of clouds roll in, beware because they invited their friends: rain, hail, thunder, and lightning. And we all know lightning is a blast until they, you know, blast someone.
But honestly, if you have lower back pain, maybe figure that out before you’re shoveling what feels like the same three feet of snow from your front door every day. While you figure that out, you can save for a lift kit for your car, snow tires, snow boots, a parka, enough wool to stock an REI, and a chisel to get the ice off your windshield.
Survival needs to sound at least a little fun.
Whether you’re scraping mice off the carpet or ice off the car, those both have to sound somewhat bemusing. Do you like the idea of getting stuck at your house because there was an avalanche on the road? What about fleeing that house from a forest fire? Do you know what to do if you come face to face with a bear? With a mountain lion? What about if you slip and fall into a ravine while hiking, breaking your leg? Or if you lose control of the car in a snowstorm?
Or what about something a little closer to reality? Do you like the idea of the internet going out? Or making every meal yourself? Of an hour of driving just to get one cup of coffee? Can you wait the extra few days or weeks to get packages? Can you drive to a post office just to get your mail? Would you like to book a hotel whenever you get concert tickets because your favorite bands don’t play anywhere closer than 6 hours from your house? Would you want to live somewhere where the “good hospital” is three hours away?
So why live here?
It’s easy for me to describe why I moved here (nature, sky, trails, quiet) but I’m not sure I ever addressed why I left where I was. What I left. Mostly, I left noise. Just an unbelievable amount of noise. I left mufflers and sound systems and peeling out. I left airpod zombies and stereos at the beach and horns. I left the endless hum of HVAC systems and transformers and other people’s arguments. Here, I can hear the mice in the walls. I can hear the snow shelf break on the ridge above. I can hear a dog’s footsteps outside before my own dog can. But my favorite sound here is silence. That moment when I close my eyes at night and there is nothing. Nothing. And in the winter, a nothingness so profound that it sounds like it’s inside of you.
There were several years when the woods of my mind were too scary to wander in, like a mine waiting to collapse behind you just so it could watch you rot on the wet ground. Then, noise was my lantern and my canary. I could follow it back to reality. Now, when I lay down to fall asleep, in the silence of a valley far from flight paths and fancies, I head straight to the mine. There is a way in, and there are many ways out. I can hear it like a bat, calling into my own darkness to see what’s there, mapping and memorizing.
That, I think is the biggest thing to know about moving to a cabin in the woods. Or to a shack on the beach. Or to a cottage in the country. If you’re moving away from new construction and Grubhub and public transport and all the things we’ve made to make life easy, the one thing you’ll still find wherever you escape to is yourself. Peace and quiet aren’t a state of mind, they’re a state of environment. Where’s Waldo is fun because it’s hard to find Waldo in the cacophony of space shuttles or city dwellers or ancient Egyptians. If you turned the page and Waldo was just sitting on a rock, the time you would have spent seeking him is instead spent just seeking. The only cacophony to investigate is the one in your head.
So if you like challenges and mice and shoveling and inconvenience and making your own food and concerts counting as vacations and most of all, you like what’s in your head, try a cabin. If you don’t, just leave the windows open on a cold night, put on some noise canceling headphones, and try to make dinner from whatever’s in the fridge. That’s close enough.