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Cabins, Naturally
Rustic shelters glow with a certain warmth, even when you're down to your last match

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

A cabin in the woods is never just a cabin in the woods. This I've learned over time, after years of renting cabins alone and with friends, of late-night drives up winding mountain roads, of hikes along precipitous ridges, of relationships forged and tested. A cabin sounds simple, and in many ways it is: a stand-alone shelter with a bed and a roof, sometimes kitted out with city comforts, sometimes nothing more than a place to sleep, out of the elements but nestled in nature.

State parks, national parks and private owners rent cabins to visitors, some with week-long requirements, some open for overnight pop-ins. With a group, cabins are almost always cheaper than hotel rooms, and the element of privacy creates the feel of a secluded retreat for those in the know.

* * *

When I booked my stay at Lake Anna State Park in Virginia, it would be just me, all alone in a camper cabin 100 miles south of Washington on a Sunday night in May. I was sure it would be a simple affair: Roll in before nightfall, take a hike, cook my dinner over a campfire, sleep restfully in my sleeping bag, explore more in the morning, then head back to the city. No friends, no family, no snags. Yeah, right.

After nearly three grueling hours in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 95, I turn onto narrow Route 208 and wonder how long a body needs to recover after being on the highway. Does it take 30 minutes of traffic-free scenery? An hour? Farmland rolls by and signs for new housing developments dwindle as I pass churches, small restaurants and, as I get closer to Lake Anna, billboards for boat shops and lakeside houses. The lake is a popular second-home and retirement area, the state park claiming nearly 10 miles of shoreline.

Lake Anna State Park, like many other parks in Maryland and Virginia, has both full-service cabins and smaller "camper cabins." The big cabins have two bedrooms and can fit up to six people. They're winterized, have bathrooms and kitchens, and are similar to cabins I'd rented in other parks, perfect for a group of friends or a family looking for a budget getaway in the woods.

But I'd booked one of the one-room, four-bed cabins, with no bathroom and only a fire pit outside for cooking. I purposely chose the one closest to the communal bathrooms.

At the park office, I find an envelope with my name on it just outside the door, with my cabin key and park brochures inside. Peering into the locked office, I see bundles of firewood, and my heart sinks a little. In addition to the cheese sticks and almonds I'd brought for snacks, I'd packed a pair of hot dogs, some buns and a bag of marshmallows for dinner, but I'd need to build a fire, and for that I'd need firewood. (Bringing your own is forbidden, since an invasive beetle has prompted a firewood quarantine in many local parks.) The office doesn't reopen till 8 the next morning.

Maybe I can find some firewood lying around, I think as I climb back into the car, and this thought nags me as I begin the drive toward the campground. When I unlock the door of the cabin, I'm at first taken aback, then charmed, by its tininess: bunk beds on either side, a wooden table and chairs pushed up against the back wall, two rocking chairs stashed in one of the corners. Outside, there's a fire pit and a gray plastic picnic table bolted to the concrete patio. It's more than a girl needs for a night in the woods: four beds, windows all around, a ceiling fan and even electrical outlets -- how modern! With my stomach starting to growl, I realize my only chance of a hot meal is finding firewood. I head out on foot while the sun's still up.

* * *

At a cabin in Maryland's Herrington Manor State Park a few winters back, I remember there being stacks of firewood in a shed near the cabin, all of it dry and ready to ignite at the touch of a match. The cabin's fireplace was small, but every chance we got, we stoked a roaring blaze that snapped and popped and made all our clothes reek of smoke.

That was a six-person, winterized cabin that had one room with bunk beds, a loft with two twin beds and a sleeper sofa in one corner of the large living room. The heavy log construction and ample porch space gave it a charming and cozy feel, though that November weekend it rained nonstop, and the cabin started feeling a little too cozy by the second night.

Once the rain finally took a break, we went walking through the woods to the lake's boathouse, where skiers could warm up around a fire in the winter, and swimmers and boaters could play in the summertime. That dreary day, though, there were only the pops of hunter's rifles coming from private land nearby; safely back in the cabin, we listened as the raindrops drummed staccato on the roof all night.

* * *

The Lake Anna campground is quiet on the night I visit. Most of the campsites have RVs, not tents, and a couple of them cast blue glows from the TVs inside. A handful of kids ride bikes on the asphalt that meanders around the campground, and a trio of grown-ups stands next to a roaring fire a few campsites down. I consider asking them for a log or two, but I decide, Nah. How hard could it be to find some firewood on my own?

As I stroll along the edge of the woods on my quest, a sign points toward the beach, concession stand and visitor center, and I turn onto the paved path.

I start snatching up sticks on the edge of the path. Some are wet to the touch, thanks to the previous night's thunderstorm. I see fallen trees sprawled across the forest floor, and I wish I'd brought an ax for those limbs too big to snap off with my hands.

As I walk, I'm juggling an armload of sticks, and the light's fading rapidly. Do I even know where this path is leading me? The flashlight in my pocket needs a new battery, and it casts a weak yellow halo only a foot in front of me. Unable to read the trail markers, I take a few blind turns, and I'm starting to feel like horror-story fodder ("Why was she hiking alone at night?") and I consider turning back, but then I see it: Pink sky over glassy lake, an unreal sunset. It reminds me why I'm here: to slow down, to stop worrying, to appreciate nature.

The sandy beach leads to the lake's roped-off swimming area, with picnic tables and grills along the wavy, tree-sheltered shore. Birds trill shrilly as they swoop low across fields, ghostly in the dusky light. The shuttered concession house and visitor center, both open Memorial Day through Labor Day, anchor each end of the beach area. After a brief look around, I head back into the woods with my firewood. Despite the growing darkness, it's easier to find my way back to the campground than it was getting down to the lake.

Back at my cabin, I get busy arranging the twigs in the fire pit, weeding out the sodden ones, then twisting some newspaper into a fire starter. My hot dogs and marshmallows are on the picnic table, and I'm getting hungrier by the minute.

As I hold the flaming newspaper to the sticks, a few twigs burn promisingly, then hiss and go dark. The wood's making popping sounds, which seem encouraging until I realize that it's the sound of damp wood squelching fire. Halfway through my matchbook and getting sleepy, I give up.

I wrap a cheese stick in a hot dog roll and grab a handful of cold marshmallows and some almonds. Then I drag a rocker to the porch and eat my dinner in the dark, listening to the wind in the trees.

* * *

In a full-service cabin, it's tempting to go a little overboard in the kitchen, especially among my friends, who veer toward the gastronomically curious. Most full-service cabins come with pots and pans, a full-size fridge and cooking utensils. Cabin weekends routinely mean good food.

My first cabin weekend with friends established the pattern: Several of us took charge of the menu (each member would pitch in on a meal) and the shopping list, then there was one big grocery stop at the start of the trip. Over a weekend in West Virginia, I furtively made a tofu run, having forgotten to bring along the requested item. It took me two hours on small country roads to find a grocery store that carried tofu, and I still find it amazing that it was Wal-Mart that saved my vegan friends' supper.

A few years later, at a different cabin, a pair of new friends planned the Saturday dinner. It was a feast: potato-leek soup, pork cutlets and roasted root veggies, each course with its own wine pairing, much of it assembled beforehand and brought to the cabin in coolers. It was fancier than meals at cabins past, but the cooks had such a good time in the kitchen, and we all ate with such gusto, that it cemented the notion that cabin weekends revolve, at least partly, around meals, languid evenings with nowhere to be except around the table with friends.

* * *

That night at Lake Anna, I dream about blankets. Specifically, I'm shopping for blankets, wrapping up in them while I browse in drafty stores. I wake up to find my blanket has fallen to the floor, and my thin sleeping bag isn't doing the trick on this unseasonably cold spring night. I tuck the blanket around me and go back to sleep. (Lake Anna's full-service cabins come equipped with sheets, towels and blankets, but the camper cabins don't.)

I'm still a little chilly when the sun streams through my window, and I'm faced with that classic camper's dilemma: Brave the cold morning on a jaunt to the restroom or stay in the cozy sleeping bag despite the urgent call of nature? I wriggle into my fleece and jacket while still in my sleeping bag, then hop out and hurry to the bathhouse in my pj bottoms. The sun is out and fiercely trying to warm up the campground. Back in my cabin, after changing out of my pj's and having another cheese stick sandwich (and, I'll admit it, a few of those marshmallows), I start walking to the park office to buy firewood.

On a trail in the woods, it's just me and the occasional chipmunk or squirrel, and I reach the office nearly 30 minutes later. I plunk down my $4 for the wood, and as I choose a bundle from the wagonload, I realize that I should have driven, or at least brought a backpack. The wood is wrapped in plastic and has a webbed handle stapled to one of the logs; nevertheless, it's heavier than I expected and awkward to carry. I'm a little embarrassed as I fumble to hoist the load on one hip, and I'm tempted to try carrying it on my head. I decide to walk back along the road, since it'll be more direct.

After a few minutes, a white pickup truck pulls up beside me. A bearded park employee leans out the window. "Want me to drop that wood off at your site?" he asks. "Sorry we can't fit you, too," he says, and a young man in the passenger seat shoots me an apologetic smile.

* * *

On one cabin weekend, two friends brought their two dogs, one of them barely out of puppyhood. Many state parks don't allow pets. That particular cabin was privately owned (we found it on a cabin-rental Web site), and we paid a small fee to bring the mutts.

While on a hike one afternoon, we gathered kindling for the fireplace. As we walked, though, the dogs kept nipping at the sticks. To keep from losing our sticks to the fetch-crazy dogs, we had to carry them on our shoulders, out of reach, and that night I kept picking pieces of bark out of my hair.

* * *

I make a new firewood tepee in the grill, peel off thin strips of wood for kindling, twist more newspaper fire starters and get out my matches. But even the most promising flames sputter out. I start in on my second matchbook, unable to figure out whether it's the gusting wind that's killing the fire or that the tiny flames need more oxygen to spread. I try sheltering the fire with my hands, and when I get a small blaze going, fan it furiously to keep the flame growing. Again and again, the flames die out.

Now I'm down to one match.

I take a deep breath, rearrange the wood in the fire pit and resign myself to the possibility of another cheese stick sandwich for lunch. I light a piece of newspaper and touch the flame to the kindling. The pieces ignite, as they have before, and this time I blow on them gently, a last-ditch attempt.

Then, all of a sudden, one of the logs is on fire. There's a flame, a real flame, not just a glowing ember. Now the fire flares up, the flames licking the sides of the logs, racing through the kindling. I feel like Tom Hanks in "Cast Away": "Look what I have created!"

Toasting my hot dogs at last, using a stick I'd whittled into a point, I grab my rolls and my ketchup packets and have one mean hot dog lunch. Then I roast (read: scorch) some marshmallows for good measure. The fire is burning high, and I keep adding logs till I use up the whole bundle of firewood. Smoke from my campfire is wafting across the campground, thick plumes of it, and I know I'm going to smell like wood smoke all day.

It's the smell of victory.

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