The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA
My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.
When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.
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