“Of all the places you’ve been, which speaks to you the most?”a close friend asked me recently. “What was the most memorable, most special?”
My mind toured some of the more stunning vistas, pulse-accelerating experiences and heart-warming encounters Gabi and I have experienced as we’ve made our way throughout the world. Varanassi, India. Machu Picchu, Peru. Angkor Wat, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Bagan, Myanmar. Venice, Florence, San Casciano, Italy, and all of Sicily. Belgrade, Sarajevo and Split, Croatia. Salamanca, Spain, where I proposed to Gabi, and, happily, she accepted.
As I reflected, I realized it’s none of those places, but some somewhere closer, more intimate.
It’s a place we visit once a year to rest among the quiet and savor simplicity at its finest and most pure. A tiny, unheated cabin devoid of creature comforts yet still capable of providing warm embrace and a feeling of home –as it has for over 50 years for a traveling adult-boy and his wife. A dusty deer head over the fireplace keeps watch as it has for decades. There’s a comfortable bed, a working stove and refrigerator, and sofas that invite a traveler to curl up, read and soak in the clean air and silence.
Crude windows slide open to allow daytimes breezes to wash through the cabin, tucked on a hillside beneath a mammoth, 300-year-old oak tree that provides the structure with its given name: Lone Oak.
A quiet, spring-fed lake rests at the bottom of the hill where a beach I frolicked as a child now greets my grandson with the same cool, clear promises. Tennis courts where I learned the craft of a well-placed cross-court winner no longer call to me as they do to two young boys who, like I once did, bat tennis balls against the plywood backboard to make a summer afternoon what it’s meant to be.
There’s a new generation of geese on the lake, of birds in the trees. What once were saplings lining our driveway are not sturdy trees; they, too, have grown up.
It’s a place where the hot sun gives way to cool mountain air at night time, and the stars hold court against a black sky undiluted by ambient light that ruins the vistas in most towns and cities we have traveled. Here, night sounds like peepers, bugs banging against screen windows in failed efforts to reach the burning lights within, and leaves brushing against one another in the night breeze. A nighttime rain storm thrums against the roof and takes me back to nights decades ago when a storm’s drumbeat lulled me asleep.
Sleep has a deep quality here, redolent of deep woods, earthy odors and the smells of bygone youth rekindled by the gift of memories.
Lone Oak is the “camp” of my childhood, a cabin in the woods bought by my parents in 1959 and left to our family as their legacy, their final act of love and commitment to all the good that “family” represents. Now that my folks are gone, Lone Oak is an important binding agent that connects a far-flung family, all of whom beam when someone evokes the image of “camp”.
This was a gathering place, the scene of endless parties, meals, barbecues and other noisy, confusing events where mom made vast amounts of food inside while dad barbecued and we all pitched in to clean up afterwards.
I have climbed the trees, hiked and biked the woods, swum the glass-like surface of Ashfield Lake and enjoyed the gifts of the mountain that persist through the years. It feels like family to me, and when I am there I feel close to our entire clan.
And so it is my “favoritest of favorite” places, a nondescript cabin where my youth and memories still resides. Like clockwork, it calls to me to visit each year.
We sit on benches we installed in my mom and dad’s honor at the Ashfield Community Golf Course, a round of golf concluded on a hilly course that can challenge, confound and frustrate even the most talented golfer. We are the only ones on the course as we stare down the barrel of the valley that stretches below.
I am on the bench created for my mom, inscribed “Enjoy the view”; Gabi, on my dad’s “Easy does it.”
The evening sunset splashes across the treetops in the valley, revealing a golden hint of color that soon will be brilliant reds and oranges, the colors of fall that come with night air cool enough to warrant a log on the fire and a sweatshirt to ward off the evening chill.
We will be long gone by the time fall and then the snows arrive. We’ll be far away in far warmer climes as the 1,700 sturdy residents of this hill town tend to the business of keeping their selves and homes warm. There will be pipes to keep unfrozen and roads to keep clear of snow and ice as they await the return of spring, of leaves on the trees, and of the summer that will soon follow and bring us back, once again, to the place of my past, where my heart sings special songs and the connection to my roots is unwavering and strong, to my “favoritest of the favorite”.