It was the outhouse that worried us the most, when we accepted our friend's offer of a week-long retreat at his isolated cabin in the mountains of southern Virginia.
As outhouses go, it was more or less ordinary. The low-slung ceiling was coated with a forest of moths, the floor spotted with mouse droppings, and the paneled walls covered with the largest bugs we had ever seen.
It tilted slightly on its rocky perch, facing west, toward the setting sun. And with the door closed the inner darkness rivaled that of the Hayden Planetarium. Before the show starts.
But we accepted the outhouse and the challenge it represented, because our family of four more-or-less urban Washingtonians wanted to "encounter some experience close to the edge of adventure." And we wanted to prove to ourselves that there is something better to do than join the mass summer exoduc to Chevy Chase-by-the-sea at Rehoboth -- or the annual fall traffic jam to the upper reaches of Shenandoah National Park.
So, with a certain amount of trepidation, we canceled a long-planned trip up the gas-constricted New Jersey Turnpike to a comfortable Maine A-frame, and set off instead to the secluded two-room cabin, 25 miles from Charlottesville. It was equipped with the outhouse, a creek for washing and bathing, two pots, eight plates and four cups, two of which were the sugar and creamer.
We were equipped with a certain amount of fear, a tremendous determination to overcome our unnatural concern about nature, and far too many sweatshirts.
We knew the week ahead would have been child's play for the more adventuresome of our friends, who always seem to be backpacking to distant camp sites, blazing mountain trails or finding themselves dropped into canyons to see if they could get out.
For us, the experience was daring because we would be totally alone. Our prior efforts were at civilized camp sites with showers, toilets and at least one other similarly citified family.
This time we brought along no mediator. It was us against nature. And despite our fears, we were eager to plunge in.
Twenty minutes after our arrival -- even before unpacking the toilet paper -- we were on the mountain. Our mountain. We masked our fear of snakes by boldly tapping logs with a long walking stick, as we bushwhacked 1 1/2 miles to the top.
Luckily, no snakes emerged. But the children located many other indigenous pets: lizards, frogs, salamanders, crayfish, and seven unfriendly yellow jackets, who stung two of us when roused from their unrecognizable underground nest.
Then, baptized as it were, we set about making the decisions.Should we drink the creek water, risking contamination from some decaying animal that might have perished upstream? Should we hike again, without trails, risking copperheads . . . or a bee bombardment? Should we worry about the one large local bear, who left his calling cards -- enormous overturned rocks -- scattered around outside the cabin?
With some effort, we turned our backs on Washington and on vestigial material admonitions and opted for nature, for a change, with caution. We would drink the water, letting sticks and mud settle first. Hike, but in sturdy boots. Note the location of the rescue squad, reachable by phone from the general store four miles away. And rely on each other.
It was the last decision -- mutual dependence -- that provided the greatest pleasure on the trip. Accustomed to spending vacation time with mindless plunges into the surf, or isolationist escapes into vacation reading, this time we had to confront one another. We had to stick together to develop rational living systems, to order our new environment.
And not only did we experience the pleasure of succeeding, we also found out we were pretty good company.
The necessary survival skills, which must have been commonplace to our less sophisticated ancestors, came slowly to us. But we learned.
We learned to enjoy bathing -- initially all suited up -- in the cold mountain stream, watching the crayfish and minnows race between our toes. We learned how to do toothbrushing in the cold stream. And dishwashing in same. Sand, we found out, does a better job than Brillo. And it works in cold water.
We finally accustomed ourselves to using the outhouse (which for me involved the triumph of fear over modesty -- the door was wide open to provide immediate escape from any inconsiderte bug attack).
There were just plain pleasures.
There were long hikes in our own woods, berry-picking expeditions before breakfast, treasure hunts along our own winding creek, often in twos so that parents and children could experience one another more individually than in the constant foursome of home.
There was the game of actors' studio my husband played with the children near a newly discovered waterfall. My daughter was a lonely giraffe, my son an empty Coke machine, and my husband the director, when I came across them and joined the audience.
For "popcorn," we found a patch of red raspberries and munched them on the way home.
There were also visits to the local orchard in Crozet, run by Bourne Wayland, who was a generous with his local lore as he was with his peaches, and a swim two miles from the orchard in Mint Spring Lake, one of Albemarle Country's two recreational swimming areas.
By midweek, the barebones cabin was transformed. What initially had seemed lonely and hostile was changed in time into a source of warmth and security, particularly at simple dinners when conversation and human contact filled the unusually placid evening hours.
Family closeness was not the only bonus. My husband and I found that being alone outside a mountain cabin is really being alone. Even with the shallow water, the salamanders and a hovering bear, there is nothing quite like a moonlight swim in a very cold creek . . . with no company but yourselves. And no rating system.
As the week ended, civilization's anxieties began to intrude. The crayfish in the bathtub-creek seemed to develop the capacity to bite. The bugs in the outhouse grew larger and visits there were more efficiently executed. The bear seemed noisier the last night, and we didn't sleep well.
But we had, for a time, as my son put it, "had the fun of making our own sources," the pride of relying upon ourselves and on one another. Along the way, we had a glimpse of peace, a dose of tranquility, and a special measure of family harmony. Those visions should stay with us, even as civilization returns.