“Look at this one,” Rich said, handing me his phone. “A cabin offering an off-the-grid experience. It’s disconnected from all public utilities, so no phones, Internet, TV — none of the distractions of modern life.” I was hesitant at first but gradually warmed to the idea: an oasis of rustic tranquility in the chaos of our annual family reunion in the mountains of northern California. As the date drew nearer, our friends began asking, with increasing incredulity, what we were thinking. “Yes, it says there’s indoor plumbing,” I kept reassuring them. “Probably a bucket,” replied one. “An outhouse,” said another. “The woods!” suggested someone else.
Far more worrying than the bathroom arrangements was the fact our hosts had written urging us to bring insect repellant, which I'd never bothered with in previous years. This time we'd be deeper in the woods, so I ran out and bought three kinds of protection (skin-friendly herbal, high-powered Deet, some clip on thing) and two post-bite soothers. I also bought a new kind of M&M calling itself “Emotional Support Candy.” I thought it might come in handy — and not just for the outhouse and the bugs.
For decades, my large, boisterous family has gathered for a week every summer in a small mountain town in the Sierras. We spend lazy days “getting back to nature” on an artificial beach by a man-made lake and take turns cooking huge meals every evening. But mostly what we do is talk.
There’s always an abundance of news to exchange, and to save time, my family speaks subtext. For instance, some years ago when asked about a distant relative’s new romantic partner, the response was a shrug, an eye-roll, and “a nice enough guy, kind of quiet.” Which we all understood to mean he was dull as dishwater and unlikely to be around long, so we shouldn’t get attached. If there are three of us in a room there will be five opinions about everything from religion to politics to whether the moon landing ever really took place, not to mention the pandemic, climate change, and the future of bitcoin. So far nobody has tried to convince me reptilian aliens are taking over the government, but every year I wonder when it will come up.
“If things get too intense, we may need a way to deflect the conversation into safer channels,” I told Rich. A few minutes later, I remarked, “By the way, did you hear they’re moving Area 51?”
“They are?” he exclaimed.
“No, I just made that up. But it’s an attention grabber, isn’t it? Maybe I can use the question to deflect any discussion that seems headed toward a conversational landmine. I think we should keep Area 51 in our back pocket. Along with the Emotional Support Candy.”
Area 51 is a remote, highly classified US Air Force installation in the Nevada desert. Some say it's where the government is hiding a crashed alien spacecraft, alien artifacts from Roswell, New Mexico, secret meetings with extraterrestrials, time travel experiments, teleportation technology, and weather control experiments.
As it happened, our reunion fell on the hottest days of the year, and as the three-hour drive took us across the flat Central Valley, the car’s thermometer registered 108 degrees. Even in the Sierras, surrounded by towering redwoods, temperatures were in the low 90s. I wondered if this was the best time to be renting a cabin with no air conditioning. But then we pulled up at Love Creek Cabin.
Built in 1934 and recently renovated by our hosts, Desiree and Jim, the cabin had the original wood shingles and a long porch with a row of comfy rockers and gliders that were perfect for gazing out over the forest and creek. A local woodworker had fashioned thick, wide planks for the floor, and there was slate underfoot in the kitchen and bathroom, which (my naysaying friends will be amazed to hear) featured a flush toilet and a shower with plenty of hot water. There was a big comfy Murphy bed (the kind that folds into the wall), a wood-burning stove, faded rugs, and a red sofa that whispered alluringly, from the depths of its many pillows, “Join me for a siesta?”
“This is my kind of roughing it,” said Rich.
I realized going off-grid wasn’t so different from how we’d lived for twenty years in Ohio: using well water, a septic system, and natural gas (only here, it was propane tanks). Behind Love Creek Cabin was a shed with a generator that ran for a short time each day to power up big batteries providing a steady supply of electricity, which ran lights, a small fridge, and a fan to keep the air cool. It was all highly efficient and offered a surprising array of creature comforts.
Perhaps the most astonishing moment of the entire reunion was arriving at the beach late that afternoon and standing among 17 members of my family and dozens of other beachgoers with not a single mask in sight. The governor had lifted the mask mandate two days earlier, and seeing all those bare faces was surreal, like stepping back in time.
Twenty minutes later, after I’d hugged everyone and been handed a glass of wine, someone at the far end of the picnic table called out, “Hey Karen, we’re talking about spiritual beliefs. What are yours?” So much for small talk! During the days that followed, I was drawn into discussions on topics such as “If you could change one thing about how you were raised, what would it be?” and “What’s one thing you can say about yourself that nobody knows?” and “What does it take to have a meaningful life?”
Naturally, the conversations occasionally got heated, and once Rich leaned over and whispered to me, “Time to go to Area 51?” Instead, I rose saying brightly, “You’re so right! I promised to help with dessert,” and slipped out of the room, leaving the others to sort themselves out.
On the last night some of my relatives stopped by to see the cabin, and after all the kidding we’d taken about roughing it off the grid, it was gratifying to see everyone instantly smitten. “I love it,” said the sister whose rental “cabin” this year included cathedral ceilings, a library, and a billiard table. “I could write here for a year,” said my poet-filmmaker nephew.
On our last morning, Rich and I spent a long time in the comfy porch gliders, eating homemade granola and drinking French-press coffee, talking about how lucky we were to grow up in the pre-digital age. We had lived happily for decades without personal electronic devices and found it refreshing now to stop being at the constant beck and call of the entire world, if only for a short while. Packing up, I realized I’d scarcely used the bug spray and never opened the Emotional Support Candy. Like Area 51, they'll be kept on hand for the next time I may have to finesse a delicate situation. I didn’t need them on this occasion, but there's no telling how long can I go on being that lucky.
Are you attending any family reunions this summer? Have they changed due to the pandemic? Let me know in the comments section below.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
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