The Cabin by the Lake
On a trip to her family’s Idaho retreat, Aria Beth Sloss relives her girlhood through her daughter’s eyes, and remembers the bliss of summers spent on the water.
I’ve lived in New York for 14 years now; Massachusetts the 23 before that. But there’s a pin stuck in a skinny finger of northern Idaho, a red dot blinking at me from across the country like a beacon. It doesn’t matter how deep my roots have planted themselves here in the northeast. Doesn’t matter that this is where my friends are, my husband, our daughter, our life. The cabin in Idaho belongs to that other, older geography, the kind that runs through you like blood.
My maternal great-grandparents built the cabin in the 1930s, when the roads to Priest Lake from their Spokane home were rutted and indeterminate. Even then, the area emitted a subtle, glorious pull: the water was pristine, the sunsets legendary. Conceived, as most summer homes are, with escape in mind, the cabin is a study in essentials: a roof, two small bedrooms, a rocking chair deep enough to lose consciousness in. Nothing much has changed. The stove is still wood-burning, the moose sightings only a little less dependable. The chipmunks are the loudest things for miles.
Getting there remains a Herculean endeavor. There are no direct flights to Spokane from New York. You end up stopping in Denver or Salt Lake City, where your flight is inevitably delayed. Once you get to Spokane, there’s the car rental to deal with, a lost bag, the shock of the midday heat. Everything is a little strange. The sun is a bigger creature here: orange, relentless, the size and heft of a Mack truck. Stocking up at the Safeway one hour in, you appear to have already relinquished crucial faculties of the adult you thought you were and come away with grape Fanta, marshmallows, powdered pink lemonade, an industrial-size squirt bottle of ketchup. Another hour of driving until you hit the final stretch of dusty road. Half a mile out, you catch a flash of the cove—all sparkling water and promise—before the road curves back to hug the mountain. As kids, our backseat barometers registering murderous levels of travel fatigue and sugar, my brother and sister and I briefly truced to hold our breath from that first sighting until the car rattled to a stop. Oxygen deprivation put a nice edge on the dizzying sensation of arriving, finally, home.
I don’t know why I ever let going back get more complicated. That’s what home is, the place where history meets flesh. Where packs of former selves skulk among the trees like wolves—now you see them, now you don’t. It can be tricky, recognizing the body that was once yours. But yes, it’s you, just less bruised, less world-weary, less tired. There you are at 17, newly deflowered and certain everyone can tell. At 20, with your best friend; you take long walks up through the huckleberry-glutted hills together and decide, with the ruthlessness of the very young, that you’ve been doing everything wrong. Twenty-three, after a breakup that leaves you sulking in the hammock for days until your sister suggests waterskiing—remembered most famously as the sport that broke your mother’s nose. Twenty-six and in love. Thirty-two and married. Pregnant and then, suddenly, not. The place is crammed full of former selves.
Which is why, this past summer, I made the trek with my husband and two-year-old daughter, who—released from her umpteenth mode of travel that day—raced up and down the strip of beach with a lunatic joy I recognized from my own childhood. Another little ghost. Only this time my joy was dosed with anxiety. Six years ago, the state of Idaho decided to auction off a slew of lakefront lots (all of which, including ours, are leased from the state) in the name of increasing revenue. A general cash shortage compounded by some tricky family politics means we’re in danger of losing the cabin for good. I know my daughter won’t remember the sweet-smelling pines or the cool, blue-black water, but I can’t shake the idea that the visit will leave its mark, that even if these days here are our last, I’ve done what I can to ensure she—a native New Yorker, God help us—will not grow up without this place committed to memory.
The formula for happiness is simple, after all. Read, swim, eat. Repeat. Everything here conspires toward torpor: the puppet show of distant, bluish mountains slipping in and out from behind low clouds; the rustle of the lake advancing and retreating along the shore; the overnight drop in temperature, swift and merciless. Even in August, mornings are cold enough to demand we break out ancient flannel bathrobes and woolly slippers, the cabin’s only permanent tenants. That old stove is cranky, though once you’ve coaxed it into a steady burn, it will warm the kitchen and eating porch for hours. Hot
water is unpredictable. If you’re not a fan of arctic wake-up calls, your best bet is the lake, where the liquid strata hide nuggets of warmth like gold. My mother and I like to wait until evening, when the surface is aflame with Crayola colors; we soap up onshore, wade in, and dive under. One night, we took my daughter in. It’s what my grandmother did, and her mother, too. We are never without company here. Maybe that’s what it is about these places, the ones you return to year after year—you are never alone.
One morning in early May of 1945, my great-uncle John stood down by that same water, chopping wood for the stove. His wife, Constance, called to him from the porch. Word had come over the radio that the war in Europe was over. John dropped his ax and bowed his head. “Our Father,” he intoned, “who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” The trees are still full of that prayer. I feel it when I walk through every August, his gratitude still pungent as pine.