4:13AM I awake to the insistent gnawing of a rodent. Though I’ve been here since Wednesday, at the Sierra cabin of my sister-in-law’s family, evidence of past residents has been plentiful. But lying in the dark, I know that my deep cleaning hasn’t reached the little bugger in the corner, who is now vociferously chowing down. I clap my hands, certain in my humanoid supremacy that that will be sufficient to send the field mouse to bed so that we can both get back to sleep. No such luck. He continues his rhythmic chewing. I sit upright, turning on the light in the room. I take advantage of this to get up and go to the bathroom, conveniently located across the hall. When I return, I tell him to knock it off, then lie down, covering my head with the sheet and loose comforter. Outside, the clean, clear mountain air wafts through the open window, one of which I’ve yet to clean. The desk corner of the room where I’ve been sleeping is the most cluttered, spiderwebs looping through most of the bay window to and from a central straw lampshade. As I settle, I hear my friend has resumed his activity.

Oh, for crying out loud. You do know I’m right over here, right?

Then, suddenly, merciful silence. Or at least enough to pretend there’s nothing going on over there.

This is my fourth day in paradise. Wednesday morning, I clocked the old Lake Hollywood High Route with MKH, gamboling around the high loop in a mere hour and ten minutes. Popped home to grab my bags and jumped in the car to drive to North Fork, the exact center of California, where my brother’s wife’s family has a cabin – you may remember the Thanksgiving trip which was quite memorable.

Since arriving on Wednesday, I’ve settled into the hermit existence. Call it a test run for the eventual lake house and retirement. But lest you think I’ve been truly idle, I’ve made myself a daily agenda of about three hours of cleaning, three to five hours of work on my syllabi, two hours hiking. In the cabin, alone, I am surrounded by a stole of trees. There is nothing quite as restorative as a verdant vista. Sitting on the porch in the morning, shielded by the umbrella hoisted over the picnic table, I drink my tea, hoping the family of deer who traipsed through the yard yesterday will return. Late in the afternoon, I walk down to the falls nearby, the first night encountering a rafter of turkeys in the road, who scuttled into the brush as I approached, their wattles red, their bodies lean. Always the consumer, I calculated their heft by the time left til Thanksgiving. I know, savage and inappropriate. Reference the afore mentioned human supremacy problem.

North Fork is the exact center of California, four hours from urban center to nature is perfect during a pandemic where stopping at rest stops causes angst.

Arriving at the cabin, I didn’t realize the work needed to open it up. Last summer I had asked permission for my colleague, Hannah, to use the cabin one weekend with her family and there were a series of unfortunate events which caused them to relocate at a motel nearby. Like the water not working. When I arrived, the task of turning on the water involved a hilarious FaceTime with my brother as he talked me through the excavation of the valve in the meter box.

Watch out for scorpions!

I think I pulled out about 3 hectares of earth from that meter box before finding the valve. Okay, so I just did that calculation and anyone can see I don’t know diddly squat about earth measurements. I obviously didn’t dig out 71/2 acres of earth. Maybe the equivalent of three sand buckets. This was after my first attempt, where I took a curtain rod down instead of the appropriate tool and started messing in the wrong water box. I don’t think I would have made a very good pioneer. And just so I can avoid having to impose on my brother next time I come up, here’s the order of opening:

  • Find the black iron doohickey and walk down the driveway. Turn right at the bottom
  • Find the water meter – it is to the left of the driveway as you face up the driveway, the box on the right of the two (marked with a blue plastic stick)
  • Lift the small lid inside the larger lid. Scrape dirt off the top of the lid and then remove the lid from the meter box.
  • Excavate until you find the glass meter. Take a digging tool – I found the ice cream scoop to be particularly satisfying. The valve is just below the meter in a straight line.
  • Use the doohickey to turn the valve gently to the left. You should see the meter start to turn.
  • Come back up the driveway and turn off the hose bib under the cabin which has been left on so the pipes won’t freeze.
  • Go inside the house and find all the faucets that are on and turn them off.
  • Turn the valve on the water heater from vacation to Hi – you should hear it kick on.
  • Open some windows around the cabin to get the air moving.
  • Sweep the deck and put down the picnic table from it’s vertical position to a more accessible horizontal one.
  • Put the umbrella in the hole in the table into its base.

The initial impetus for a city dweller arriving at a cabin is to go into full Chekhovian opening-the-house mode. But after the turning-on-the-water moment, I needed to relax, so pulled out a cushion to lounge on the deck facing the trees, and listened to the babbling brook below. The late golden afternoon light on the opposite ridge illuminated a shocking number of dead trees scattered on the surrounding hillsides. The air was starting to chill, and I rebuffed the advances of dozens of gnats or mosquitos with a clever dual lantern my sister-in-law had directed me to – LED on the bottom, and mosquito repellent on top. It seemed to be doing the trick until the second or third day when the butane cartridge ran out.

I’m truly fortunate to have such an idyllic spot to retreat to. A place where I haven’t had to use a mask in days, and the satisfying work of returning the cabin to habitability is balm for the soul of a fixer. Mind you, the work of this college professor is not paused. I’ve learned a little more about my OCD ADHD self. By coming to a place where ostensibly I should be able to work through the syllabus week by week without interruption, I’ve gotten waylaid by the projects of cleaning, and later in the days, after dinner, a hankering for a few episodes of Designated Survivor. That’s okay because this is the break I’m taking this summer and it’s important to put my feet up and my brain down. There’s still so much to get done, and look, I’m spending time blogging this morning, just because of my little mouse friend last night.

Other highlights of the week – a visit to the North Fork Transfer Center, which is the disposal site for the local area. Most of my trash was recyclables, and it was satisfying to toss it into the big metal pit that chewed up the cardboard and glass and aluminum. I continued on to nearby Bass Lake, driving the perimeter until I found the trail I’d identified I could hike – moderate by the All Trails standards.

I took the hike up Willow Creek, such a city slicker, clutching my All Trails app on my phone and climbing up the trail which kept diverting, causing my phone to shutter – you’ve gone off the trail, and me, oblivious to the signs of a trail. When I finally got back, I talked to my son, who said,
“Mom, did you see any piles of stones along the trail? Those are indicators of where the trail is.”

“Yeah, I saw a whole lot of them at one point.” Rookie mistake.

Lest you think I spent the entire weeklet cleaning up mouse droppings and stumbling ineptly through the woods, the larger plan was to toy with the question of “What’s next?” It is the inevitable question for those turning the corner into their sixth decade. I think that as one begins to weigh the question of when it is time to retire, it’s important to take some sojourns to the place you might imagine doing so. Even if it’s not the place but something similar to the place you fantasize about. Mine, as I’ve shared previously, includes a body of water nearby. But this week has made me realize I’m not quite ready. In the past four days, I’ve attended three zoom meetings, which demonstrates I’m not ready to untether from my workplace. I like to think I still have usefulness there.

But oh. The quiet of the spot here is so appealing. Being surrounded by nature is seductive and restorative. The view from this deck couldn’t be further from the view from my home in downtown LA. Four days of not talking with anyone is a big adjustment for me. I’m not sure complete solitude is ultimately the right path for me at this time in my life. But I will continue looking for the stacks of stones to guide me to what is the right path. And in the meantime, what a great place to practice my readiness. One day I could get used to this.

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