How to Be...Up North at the Cabin

I recently returned from a two week trip to Minnesota after moving to New York City.  I stayed in NYC for six weeks and then flew back home for two very important reasons.  1) To get my dog who’d been staying with my parents and B) to go up North to the cabin. This is a specialized post, I suspect.  Relatable to those who’ve grown up in an area of the country where the term “Up at the Cabin” is part of the vernacular.    Not quite camping, not quite roughing it, “Up at the Cabin” was and continues to be a staple for many children who’ve had the privilege of growing up in a place where lakeshore cabins are the go-to summer destination.

My family has been vacationing at Vermillion Dam Lodge in Cook, Minnesota about four hours north of the Twin Cities since I was at least ten years old, probably longer and probably I’ll soon hear from my mother who’ll say again that I don’t remember anything from my childhood.  And that may be true.  I remember little of birthday parties and special events and schooling, but for some reason the childhood memories I carry with me are predominantly of our time spent in Northern Minnesota.

The annual trip up north was a big deal in our family.  It was the only family vacation we took during the year and was one we’d come to expect as we expected Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It was part of our calendar year, and something we counted on and looked forward to.

For many years we vacationed with another family.  A family my siblings and I had grown up with- so close to us that the three kids in that family felt like my siblings and their parents like my parents.

The memories of these times comes in fits and starts--like my mad crush on the eldest boy in the family lasting for years until I realized that I was well on my way to playing out some story line in a Greek tragedy by lusting after a guy who was akin to a brother.

Or the time one of the boy-like-brothers and I got in a “pillow fight” (read: massive case of teenage hormones on the fritz) and we ended up busting through the huge front window of the lodge, breaking the glass into a million shattered pieces while the rest of the crew looked on in horror.

And the times I would, in a wash of teenage angst and misunderstood-ness retreat to a solitary area of the resort and sit on a big rock madly scribbling in one of my thousands of journals about how terribly hard it was to be me.  I’d press play on my clunky walkman and the sounds of the musical RENT would fill my ears and I’d long for the day when I would live in New York City and be a working actor and how sorry everyone would be for all the times they’d “mistreated” me.

Then there was the time we locked the youngest members of our tribe in dog kennels claiming it was a crucial part of the “game” we were playing.  A Minnesota version of Lord of the Flies at it’s finest.

Or the time I stupidly followed boy-like-brother to the lodge down the street (essentially hi-jacking a parental unit’s car) so he could use the pay phone and I could stand there listening to him call his girlfriend of the moment.

Or the years when we were finally old enough to drink and discovering that drinking in front of your parents, especially when alcohol is relatively new to you is both incredibly liberating and weird as shit.

For many of these years I was struggling to find myself, to fit in and to be the person I so desperately wanted to be.  I’d drag the biggest suitcase out of our closet and cram four weeks of clothes inside in order to play the incredible game girls play called “How many times can I change my clothes in one day.” I’d be taunted and teased and for the most part handled it with grace except for the times I didn’t and became somewhat “dramatic” in response.

We vacationed with this lovely family for many, many years until- as life is want to do-- our two roads diverged and we went one way, they went the other.

Recently, our vacation dynamic has shifted with our dear Aunties now accompanying us each year.  My siblings and I making it to the cabin when we could but with work and marriages and divorces and moving (yeah, that’s mostly just me) it’s been difficult but somehow a couple of kids always make it up there for a bit.

The card games and the lazy days and the jumps off the dock and coffee cruises in the morning make for a week of nothing-ness, and the very best kind.  With cellular service sparse and not a television in sight, it’s the perfect kind of remote-ness and a constant reminder of the beauty of quiet.

There’s the new memories, new members of the family---first a boyfriend, then a husband, then another boyfriend and a fiancee and a husband and now an ex-husband, no longer along for the vacation but still prevalent in the minds and memories the place holds for us.

And maybe the reason I so looked forward to going this year was because this year is a year I’ve been waiting for, looked forward to as the marker of a fresh start for me.  A fresh start for me and a chance to remember that it shouldn’t take a vacation to remind you to live in the moment, neither looking forward or back, but directly at the giant ball of sun descending in front of you on the lake.

A reminder that even at 8pm at night after a heavy meal and two cocktails, when the water is smooth as glass, it’s not time to dredge up excuses but to walk out the door and grab the skis on the way to the dock for a sunset ski.

It’s the time to take the shot of Absolut Pear that your Aunt (see why she’s precious!?!?) hands you as you sit at the edge of the dock and put the skis on.  It’s the gentle, easy lift out of the water reminding you that even though it’s been a year since you did it, if you stop thinking so much and just let it happen, it will.

And even though in your half-drunk Absolut Pear induced haze, you mistakenly strap the wrong ski on the wrong foot, you’ll figure out when you drop your right ski and begin to slalom on your left that you’ve never done it on this side before, and hell, it may be a little bumpy, but you’re fucking do it---and if you can do this, what else can you do?

And then it’s tossing the tow rope to the side as you begin to descend into the water nearing the cabin, with a spectacular sunset in the back and people you love in the boat.  And they ask you if you want them to come get you to take you back in, and you look at the dock, far, away but so worth the swim so you shake your head and begin to head back to the dock and back to the cabin.

And then halfway through the swim you realize that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea especially because you’re reading a book on a rogue shark who attacked people in freshwater and even though it’s silly and illogical to think that there would be sharks in a lake up North in Minnesota, stranger things have happened like Sharknado and what the hell was that thing that just touched your leg and ohmigod-no it’s not a shark, it’s definitely not a shark but those northern type fish and they’re practically prehistoric and oh jesus, maybe you should get the boat to come back--or just swim faster jackass!But that’s hard to do with this life-vest on and if you abandon that and the northern fish-shark-dinosaur-type creature starts eating your leg and pulling it under well then you really don’t stand a chance so probably just keep it on and swim like hell and WHAT’S THAT on the dock? It’s your auntie and she’s holding, yes that’s right she’s holding that magical juice known as Absolut Pear and just focus on that and get to the dock, and you know what maybe next time you should lay off on pre-cocktail-ing BEFORE skiing.

And then you hoist yourself up and out of the water and onto the dock not caring that you likely look like a beached whale struggling to get back into the ocean, and you’re face down on the dock with you’re butt dangling over the edge in order to get another burst of energy to complete the move out of the water and then you do and you sit on the edge of the dock, feet skimming the non-shark infested waters and with the cabin behind you and the lake in front of you you realize that vacations don’t get a whole lot better than this.

***Post Script: I was going to include the memories about the ridiculous black flies and mosquitoes and insects up North and how they’re really the only complaint I have about the place, especially after I woke up one morning with a spider bite on my lady parts.  But I didn’t. You’re welcome.