Thursday, October 28, 2010

City vs country

Last month I visited New York City with my partner, and managed to squeeze five blog posts out of a week during which we visited eight art museums. Never did get around to blogging about the two Off Broadway shows we saw, each of them compelling and flawed in ways worth blogging about. Oh well. Maybe I'll work 'em in someday.

This month I spent a weekend with an old friend in his primitive Forest Service cabin on the south fork of the American River. The whole trip, including a few hours up and another few hours driving back, advanced the clock by a bit under 36 hours.

Having a blast in the city, kicking back in the country: all in a season's healthy appetites, I'd like to think.

By "primitive Forest Service cabin" I mean what exactly? Well, the cabin in question -- on Forest Service land, leased not owned -- has no plumbing and no insulation. There's a nicely engineered, self-contained composting toilet that never seems to work quite as advertised, but it beats the heck out of the old outhouse-over-a-pit that the Forest Service insisted be shut down not many years ago. (You really didn't want to go to the outhouse after dark ... for fear of ... The Butt Scratcher, lurking in the muck! Legends were built around The Butt Scratcher ... in actual fact, somebody probably got startled by a mouse once. There were about a trillion spiders, I swear.)

In the absence of plumbing we haul water up from the river in 2-1/2 gallon containers (I prefer two at a time, for balance when walking back up the granite slope). For heat we burn wood in a well-made stove that, weekend before last, kept the embers from Saturday evening's almond logs aglow 'til morning. It was a one-match weekend, there's got to be a merit badge for that. The cabin has electricity, and a two-burner hot plate. We ate very well. It's amazing what you can do with a couple of burners and made-ahead soup and a galette from the bakery down the street from where I live when I'm not skipping among the Jeffrey pines. Oh, not to mention pancakes cooked on an electric griddle in the morning. Bathing? That's what the river is for. It's cold. This is the warmest time of year for a dip in the river, with last year's snow melted and this year's not yet arrived, and it's still a get-in-get-the-hell-out-quick-as-you-can sort of thing. In May there's no way to escape brain freeze.

Let's be clear. I am so so so far from complaining. This little cabin is about as close to a certain sort of paradise as I'm likely to get in the rest of this lifetime, now that I'm too creaky to pack into real back-country. The cabin is quiet, it's comfy, it's got a fabulous deck, there's a great swimming hole just downhill, and it's saturated with great memories of hanging out with some of my best friends in the world. Yeah, sure, there are ghosts. I never saw them myself, but others have. Whatever. I wasn't there (and so I wasn't traumatized) when the bats got in, or when a garter snake slithered out soon after somebody's arrival. (There are rattlesnakes in the 'hood, but we've only spotted them on the far side of the river.)

Best of all in this day and age? In three words: no internet access.

Yeah, there's cell coverage, not that I've ever brought along means to take "advantage" of it. This is not way out in the boonies, you can hear Highway 50 from the deck. If you looked hard I'm sure you could spot the cell towers dressed up as conifers (but why spoil the view for yourself?). So, cell coverage at three or four bars, but I don't have an iPad or any other 3G or 4G or any-G devices, so as far as I was concerned: No. Internet. Access. O, bliss.

In New York last month, Matthew and I stayed in Nolita, a real estate agent's moniker for the blocks NOrth of Little ITAly, west of the Lower East Side, and east of SoHo. It was a great neighborhood, the street we stayed on was quiet as you could reasonably wish for and still be in Manhattan. Great coffee, restaurants, book shops, whatever-you-can-imagine shops, access to transit ... and all those museums & shows. The flat we rented through was comfortable, we had a kitchen ... and ... wait for it ... wireless network too!

My partner has never been up to the cabin on the American River. He doesn't do primitive, jumping into freezing cold river water is not his idea of a good time, and the switch from The Butt Scratcher's pit to the composting toilet didn't change his hell-no attitude. Not even a little bit. City slicker, all the way.

Funny how that is. I wolf down those art museums almost as tirelessly as the painter I travel with. But there's nothing that clears my head better than sleeping surrounded by the sound of a rushing river. With no internet access, thank you very much. (Of course, I do admit it, the return to 'civilization' is part of the fun. The internet and proximity to that bakery down the street does have its advantages.)

Here's a story that, for me, epitomizes the differences in outlook I have with Matthew about vacations in "natural" settings. Imagine your way to Brugge, in Belgium ...

There's a little park in Brugge whose center is "Lover's Lake" in a southern part of the city called Minnewater. Now, if you haven't been there, you'll have to take my word that Brugge is a lovely city, one of those fine, survived-WWII-without-massive-destruction small cities in which it is easy to imagine oneself in an earlier century -- it reminded me, in that respect, of Prague or Perugia. It is not a big city by any stretch of the imagination. Nor is it a village. Minnewater is a park, it's not the countryside. In fact, Lover's Lake is not actually a lake. It's part of the system of canals that encircle and cut across the city, only widened a bit. The edges of the "lake" are paved. The "lake" is rectangular. The trees alongside the "lake" are planted. They are planted in rows. Straight, neat, unwavering rows. So imagine walking in this lovely, well-groomed park, with one's lover alongside a lake called Lover's Lake, in a charming city in which one's hotel is installed in the building that was once home to Giovani Arnolfini, whose wedding portrait one saw in London a couple of weeks before in the National Gallery (it was painted by Jan Van Eyck in 1434). That's just where Matthew and I were some six years ago when he turned to me and said, "I love this place. See? I do like nature!"

I nearly fell in the canal laughing.

To Matthew, "nature" is a meticulously groomed park in a pretty little tourist city. Forest Service cabins within earshot of a federal highway, then, are uncharted wild wild wilderness? And actual wilderness? Nice people who grew up in cities of eight million people don't think about things like that, I suppose.

Our differences aren't the problem one might imagine, actually. We had a great time in New York together last month, as I said, and even took a walk across Central Park (which is less not-nature than Minnewater, but, sorry, it's still an artifact of city planning). I'm permitted to visit the Forest Service cabin wilderness with my granola-head California friends, so long as nobody exerts pressure on anybody else to come along.

It is remarkable how universally it's true: there's no accounting for taste.

For the record, Matthew gave me permission to tell this little story on him, though he maintains that there's no story to tell and that our experience in Brugge did indeed demonstrate his love for nature. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the cell phone tower image. Yeah, it's from New Hampshire not the Sierra Nevada, but it sure gets the point across. Also for the photo of Minnewater in Brugge.

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