Two hours and fifteen minutes. No fewer than two hours and thirteen minutes; no longer than two hours and seventeen minutes. That’s how long it takes to get from home to my family’s get-away spot in Hancock, Massachusetts. One hundred miles almost to the tenth of a mile north up the Taconic State Parkway, a right at the RadioShack, past the hotel which may, or may not have a “NO” to accompany their “VACANCY” neon, fork left, and wait for the dogs in the back seat to perk up, recognizing the unique air. From there, the quality of the pavement changes: the right turn onto Whitman Road brings with it an abrupt switch to a rockier terrain that has gotten little if any attention in past years. The continuous jolt of the tires coping with the uneven road goes unnoticed; no one can sit still anyway. As my father makes the turn into our driveway—rougher still—we open the car door to let the dogs set the pace up the hill to the house. They wait for us, ‘dog tired’ at the top and the few days of peace ceremoniously begin.
Each time we make the trip—three or four times a year if we’re lucky—I know for sure what my father will do as soon as we unpack the car. In a sweaty, defiant thrust of his arms, he’ll take his sweater off, muttering some wordless complaint about his weight; he’ll then set out to make a fire. The house is missing something until the inferno begins to envelop its walls; it’s the center of the house in every way imaginable. The only doors in the house lead to bedrooms (that is, the rest of the house is essentially one large, two-story room). From upstairs, the fireplace is in plain sight as you lean over the off-colored wood railing of questionable stability. The stone of the chimney, charred to match the unlit streets of Hancock at night, shows itself proudly to all corners of the cabin. Entering the house, the pleasant gust of warm air greets you with open arms. The flames billow, insatiably hungry, and hear anything anyone says in that house. The perpetual blaze has seen the best of times and the worst. The worst I’ve ever seen was when I was no older than twelve, and you can bet that the epic screaming match took place right in front of the fireplace with the hot coals on the bottom doubling in some sort of divine pun as the heat of the argument. Each of my Thanksgiving evenings have been spent around the fire fattened up by my grandmother’s turkey and stuffing—so good I’ve actually dreamt about it in mid-March—letting the hours pass with a crossword puzzle or a book. There are often no words said around the fire.
There are certain sensations that can be recognized using only one or two senses. You could lead me blindfolded to a general area, like the Rocky Mountains, and the air quality and labored breathing that the altitude induces paired with daydreams of legendary powder-packed ski days would allow me to place myself with relative ease. I’d know the silky fur of my dogs on the ragged but impossibly comfortable couch in my basement with near perfect accuracy. If you put me near the fireplace in my country house, you could take away everything except my nose and I’d know where I was within a few feet. The combination of smoke and heavenly leftover buffalo style wings from a nearby restaurant—to be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—that are guaranteed to be wafting in the refrigerator have a permanent stain in my memory.
When my father begins to put together the fire, he does so knowing that the world is watching. A tremendous amount of pride goes into the construction of a fire and there is no bigger stage than my country house. The rules are simple: there will be no chemically created fire starters or enhancers (“-enhancing drugs”); the use of old newspaper, to be taken from the thick stack sitting at the foot of the stone, is allowed and encouraged; fires will be started using matches only, and bonus points will be awarded to the most exotic or elaborate fire design. The log cabin is a personal favorite of mine, with the crevice in the middle created by the empty spots in between thick, aged logs useful in the necessary escape of air up the chimney. The judges—critical family members—scrutinize the architect’s every move as they watch stone-faced. One slip-up could signal the end for a timid creator, with onlookers no more than a few feet away ready to prove their worth.
Whenever we go up north, we take firewood from the ring that sits inside the house. The amount of wood in the cold steel circle is usually enough to last about a weekend’s worth of steady fires, but it must be replenished. Though my grandmother, who spends more time in the house than anyone, is the youngest 80-year old I’ll ever know, it would be wrong to make her fill the ring from the larger deposit that sits outside, so my brother and I have the job of filling it up before we leave. At the end of a weekend in the country, we throw on hundred-year-old gloves, sling the tattered canvas carrier over our shoulder and trudge out to the back. It seems that the temperature is never comfortable, and my brother and I are much too prideful to adjust our clothing. Often not daring to look at each other for fear of breaking character and laughing at the deep, untold secret I know we share—that we actually like this job—we fill up the sack outside and sidestep awkwardly into the house toward the ring, doing our best but always failing to avoid tracking the season’s bounty of snow, leaves or mud into the wooden floors. My brother and I work admirably, taking our nasty splinters without complaining because we know what means to our Granny to see the ring filled and wood arranged (log cabin style, if I have my way) ready to go at the strike of a match for the next time she comes up.In all my life, I’ve never seen the bottomless pile of wood out back less than half full. When my responsibility to take care of the house grows, I may learn how it manages to silently refill itself. For now, though, I’ll rest easily—if naively—knowing that there is always another fire to be made.