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Giving Thanks

Carolina Raquel Antich, Us, 2014. Courtesy LYNCH THAM, New York.

The Retreat

How to spend a holiday alone and not get lonely, with adventures in BBQ, books, rummage shops, and cabin porn.

Last year, I opted out of Thanksgiving. I had never failed to celebrate a major holiday before. When I used to live in New York City, I was accustomed to spending Thanksgivings with friends and their families as my own family was far away in California. This usually involved waiting amongst crowds in Penn Station and then taking the train out to New Jersey. Now that I live in a small city in North Carolina, I receive generous offers of holiday festivity that usually involve large quantities of bourbon. But last year, I felt the need to be elsewhere.

So I set off.

This was not my first retreat, as I had started to call my weekend getaways. Since the beginning of the school year, I had been taking long drives over the weekends get to know North Carolina better, but also because I found myself restless at home. I didn’t necessarily have to go anywhere in particular; I just liked to drive along two-lane highways, past small-town cemeteries, BBQ joints, and rummage stores.

“What are you up to this weekend?” friends would ask.

“Going on a retreat,” I would reply.

I found old lodges, log cabins, inns, and motels in the mountains. I brought my dog Millie, lots of books, a notebook. A flashlight and bug spray. Some groceries. Red wine. Blue rubber rain boots and several good sweaters that I left in the car.

“In the mountains, there you feel free.” So says the first speaker in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was among the books I brought with me, along with Dylan Thomas and Walt Whitman, Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and M.F.K. Fisher’s As They Were. These books were my supplies. And in the evenings, in the mountains, I did feel free, even if I knew I was not. One afternoon in late October, I sat on a bench on a sloping hillside and watched the wind blow red and yellow leaves off the trees in the distance, a declaration of the end of fall.

I liked to rent cabins in the woods, and some people asked if I was scared of being murdered in one of these isolated places. Sometimes they were joking, but sometimes they weren’t. They genuinely found the idea terrifying. Before I went away for Thanksgiving, I showed a friend a picture of the cabin I had rented. She gasped.

“That looks like it should be in a horror film,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “No way. It’s nice.”

“Well, I can’t imagine it. I like to be closer to civilization.”

Aren’t you scared? What if something happens to you and there’s no one around? These were the questions I faced. It wasn’t clear what was going to happen to me, but something was. I wondered why going off by myself was so strange and frightening. Almost everyone I knew was married, and most had kids. They did not go off to places alone, even if they might have wanted to.

The connotations of retreating are not overwhelmingly positive. The Oxford English Dictionary defines retreating as withdrawing. It is a movement backwards, a movement away. We say that troops retreat. This signals defeat. There is a domestic violence support center in East Hampton, NY, called The Retreat. A bar in Manhattan’s Flatiron district called Retreat.

Sometimes we say that people retreat from humanity: a drawing away, a folding into oneself. The embrace of misanthropy. Not a good thing. Something to be judged.

I once attended an all-day faculty meeting at a conference hotel that was referred to as a “retreat.” We sat at a big, shiny mahogany table and discussed departmental needs and plans for the future, then we took a lunch break, then we discussed things again. A 2009 episode of 30 Rock spoofed the often absurd rhetoric of corporate retreats when Jack Donaghy dragged Liz Lemon to a “Retreat to Move Forward” in Croton-on-Hudson.

When my sister got married on Lake Tahoe several years ago, we shared the hotel with a Microsoft retreat. Corporate retreats tend to take workers out of the office and place them in a controlled version of nature, where they can be indoctrinated with the values of team-building and problem-solving. I watched the Microsoft people do hours of trust exercises on the lawn, up from the edge of the sparkling lake. Inside the hotel, booths had been set up and stocked with water bottles, fleece pullovers, and T-shirts emblazoned with Microsoft. In the evenings, we saw people in these uniforms at the casino across the street.

Some resorts now call themselves retreats, perhaps because retreat is a verb—it is an activity, or a non-activity, a resort can promise the customer. It’s difficult to imagine what it means to resort, at least in the sense of what you do at a resort, but to retreat: you leave the world behind. Whereas, at a resort, you encounter words like “oasis” and “pamper.” You wrap yourself in seaweed. You drink lots of chardonnay. You do early-morning yoga and attend sessions on how to live mindfully. The resort that masquerades as a retreat promises no less than the spiritual rejuvenation that comes from blocking out the world. There is nothing beyond its walls. There is only here.

 

As I drove up into the mountains with my dog Millie for my own Thanksgiving retreat, I wondered which of these versions of retreating I was doing. Sometimes I retreated to write, but sometimes I just retreated to be away. A retreat that was a no-place, a place that was nowhere.

I wanted to find this place.

I’d rented a little red cabin in Spruce Pine, NC, close to Asheville, for most of the week. There had been a snowstorm a few days earlier—a big one by North Carolina standards—and a white world awaited me. I pulled up to the house and put on my snow boots on and unloaded the groceries into the kitchen. It was dusk, and the light was the kind of light you would make fun of if it weren’t real: the intensely kitschy glow of a Bob Ross painting. Millie ran around in the snow, occasionally stopping to lick it.

A creek wrapped around the property, and by the creek was a small stone table with two little benches. I could see this picturesque scene from the kitchen inside. That evening, I made pasta and drank red wine and worked at the kitchen table, looking out past the gingham curtains held back by fabric ties. The field was a wide expanse, covered in snow. No neighbors. A blank slate.

The next evening, Thanksgiving, I roasted a chicken and made mashed potatoes and broccoli. The chicken’s skin was salty and crisp. I drank champagne on the front porch, in my red puffy parka, the hood pulled up tight around my face. I had brought a pretty coupe glass with me, and it cut a circle in the snow on the table when I set it down.

I walked Millie out in the field. She liked being off leash, and she jumped around, as if surprised by the depth and cold of the snow. On the hillside behind the cabin were three horses, and they moved slowly, exhaling hot breath into the winter air, their brown bodies like paper cutouts. We walked up to them, and Millie stopped a couple of feet away from the fence and stared at one. Her eyes were fixed. There was no fear, just attention, and she didn’t approach the horse or bark at it. I didn’t call to her; I just watched her watch the horse, who seemed uninterested in us, unaffected by our presence. But Millie knew she was encountering a beast.

Sometimes I retreated to write, but sometimes I just retreated to be away. A retreat that was a no-place, a place that was nowhere.

We walked back to the cabin. The windows of my car were covered in ice, and I scratched a line into the windshield with my fingernail. It was getting dark out, and it was quiet.

In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck wrote of his cross-country trip in his converted truck Rocinante that, “…two or more people disturb the ecologic complex of an area. I had to go alone and I had to be self contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.” When you retreat by yourself, you don’t disrupt anything. There is nothing to disrupt. Unlike Steinbeck, I didn’t have my house on my back, but when I stood out in that field, or by the horses on the hill, I understood what he meant. I caused no disruption at all.

The next day, I put on my rubber galoshes and stood in the creek and watched the water flow around my legs. Black Friday. I thought of all the shopping malls far away.

Opting out of a holiday does make you feel free. Perhaps it is the ultimate realization of Eliot’s line. You know that almost everyone you know is doing the same thing, at the same time, and you are not. This could be lonely, but it wasn’t for me. Even a person who loves people needs at times to be away from them.

But sometimes you have the urge to retreat with someone, and so you choose a partner, or partners, in this project. When you retreat with others, you are bound by a common desire to find something that you all believe to be different. Extraordinary. You understand, together, what it means to go off to wherever you are going off to. And like road-tripping, retreating is not something you do with just anyone. You have to choose your company wisely. There are dangers you can never anticipate.

 

At the end of classes the following May, my friends Jo and Sarah came to visit from New York. I had finished all my grading, and it was just starting to feel like summer, the air warm and heavy, like a person hanging on your arm. We drove along a two-lane highway that hugged the banks of the Toe River, past old white clapboard houses, abandoned gas stations, and barns that lilted out in green pastures. The river was washed white and opaque by the sun, as if there is no sky above, nothing at all to reflect. We crossed train tracks several times, tracks that stretched off into the mountains, leading to who knew where.

The cabin we had booked for the night had shag carpeting and motel-style landscape paintings. On a small shelf by the big-screen TV were a dozen VHS tapes. Some classics: Groundhog Day. Back to the Future. The living room was decorated with a not insignificant number of bear-themed objects: bear thrown pillows and statues. Bear wall art. Outside, a creek wound past the house. We walked around in the water, stepping from rock to rock. Millie tried to follow us around while staying as dry as possible.

It was only when we went inside to get a bottle of wine that we came across the binder. This was not just any binder. This binder embodied all fears that had even been communicated to me about retreating. And more.

It sat in the middle of the kitchen counter, placed there so guests would see it. It was stuffed with single-spaced typed pages in clear sheet covers, several of which had been removed and edited with a blue pen and then put back in place. We opened this tome and flipped through it, looking for nothing in particular. We thought we might find out some information about the area. But this was not the binder’s focus.

Its pages were marked by the extensive use of capital letters. Entire sentences and even paragraphs in capital letters. Warnings. These warnings were organized and divided by headings and sub-headings. Worrisome insects were a particular focus. IN THE SUMMER, WASPS ARE A PARTICULAR PROBLEM. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT LEAVE THE FRONT DOOR OPEN. Sometimes a section began informally—“Let’s talk about the Asian beetle”—as if the owner were right there with us and wanted to have a chat. Have you always wanted to know more about how the Asian beetle can harm you? Well, pull up a chair.

Sometimes the warnings began with the threat of imminent death: “If you walk in the long grass with your skin exposed, the ticks will get you. You should check yourself for ticks regularly.” Another paragraph outlined what happened to your body when you contact Lyme disease. On the subject of this particular danger, the binder noted that, “A young boy died Recently.” We didn’t know why “recently” was capitalized, but it made this local trauma all the more sinister. He died. Recently. And so may you.

Several pages were devoted to the animals in the area that might eat us. Lots about bears. “Stay close to the house,” the binder instructed. “The woods are filled with bears.” At the end of the bear section, as in virtually all other sections, the voice of the binder reinforced that it was serious and we should not underestimate the threats that lay all around us. At the end was a page of emergency numbers: the fire department and the police, obviously, but also neighbors who could be contacted in case one of us was horribly maimed.

Nature is understood to be free from distractions in a way that cities are not, so nature tends to be the space into which writers retreat.

We poured ourselves more wine. We had planned to take a walk up to an abandoned cemetery in the mountains above the property, but now we weren’t so sure. We flipped through the binder. Were there really a lot of bears around? I mean, really?

It would be fine, we concluded. We would go on our hike. The binder was insane. Wildly exaggerated. In fact, I should have known that the owner was a bit of an eccentric as he’d insisted that I fill out a lengthy rental agreement and fax it back to him even though I had already reserved the cabin online. “Just to be sure,” he wrote. “Please fill it out and initial each page and send it back to me right away.” In another e-mail, he added helpfully: “It is for legal purposes.” I don’t think he trusted the Internet.

We walked to the edge of the property, where the trail began, and discussed whether we should set off into the woods. Sarah said she wanted to go and was happy to walk by herself. Jo and I decided to stay behind, in part because of a lack of proper footwear, but in part, perhaps, because the binder. Sarah said she would be back in an hour. If she was not, we could conclude that she had been eaten by a bear and contact the necessary authorities.

Jo and I sat at the picnic table outside, listening for the sound of creatures. We had becomes a study in how quickly paranoia sets in. The very real power of fear, a sense of the possibility of violence in an otherwise controlled world.

Millie sat on the grass, looking at us, as if disappointed that she wasn’t going on a long walk. In a few minutes, Sarah came bounding back down the hillside.

“Screw that,” she said. “I heard rustling in the bushes.”

A chipmunk? A bear? We didn’t know, but we knew the power of the binder. A dull sense of terror had settled over our cabin in the woods. Our retreat had become a fearful thing.

That evening, we stayed close to the house. The next morning, before we left, we read the section of the binder that outlined cleaning instructions, including stripping and laundering the sheets for all three beds and then making them up for the next guests. We were also instructed to scrub down the kitchen counters and to sweep and mop all floors. If all of this was not completed, we would be charged a fee of $75, the binder proclaimed. The laundry and cleaning would have taken half a day, so we just tidied the cabin and made our beds, flouting the binder. Take that, binder. You have no effect on us. We are not scared of you.

Before left, we checked one another for ticks.

 

The next day, we drove to the Charlotte airport, where Sarah caught her flight home. Jo was staying for another week in order to undertake another kind of retreat: a writer’s retreat at Wildacres in Little Switzerland, NC, a bucolic conference center founded in the mid-forties on Pompey’s Knob, a 3,300-foot peak in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In her 1929 A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf argued that if a woman is to produce art as men have, she needs 500 pounds a year and a room of her own with a lock on the door. This is what men have had historically, and this is what is required. Woolf herself retreated in order to come up with this argument: she went to the banks of the river, where she imagined the process of thinking as similar to fishing. Only Jane Austen managed to produce art without a room of her own, Woolf says. Austen wrote in a drawing room as other people came and went, and Woolf can find no evidence that this environment was detrimental to her work.

More writers and artists probably agree with Woolf than would care to admit it. It’s easy to critique her unquestioned privilege, but it’s harder to resist the appeal of a space that belongs only to you. A place apart. There would be no writer’s retreats if a lot of writers did not want to, well, retreat. And all such retreats today are in some ways influenced by this understanding of space.

Sometimes writer’s retreats are called residencies, as Jo’s was—a term that implies a home for a determined period of time, a temporary state of belonging. And they tend to be in rural locations: pastoral worlds that allow the city-dweller to flee to the country. The writer’s retreat fetishizes the natural world as a space conducive to focused work, and it offers the writer temporary access to this ideal. Vermont. Maine. The French countryside.

There are a few exceptions to this pastoral rule, perhaps most notably the Paris Review’s residency at the Standard Hotel in New York. “The Standard, East Village will provide a room free of charge to a writer who has a book under contract and needs three weeks of solitude in downtown New York City.” Solitude in the city: a variation on withdrawing from the city. The M Restaurant Group offers a three-month residency in Shanghai, although the winner is not entirely isolated: (s)he is “required to participate in two events in the community.” This year, the Ace Hotel in Palms Springs, California inaugurated a 10-day residency in conjunction with TinyLetter. On offer is the opportunity to be “free from the distractions of everyday life.” Palm Springs might be characterized as both city and desert at once. But generally speaking, nature, or some version thereof, is understood to be free from distractions in a way that cities are not, so nature tends to be the space into which writers retreat.

Wildacres was very much in keeping with the rural ideal. I half-expected to find shepherds and shepherdesses lounging under tress. Perhaps the return of a Golden Age. We turned off the two-lane mountain highway and drove several miles down a well-kept dirt road to the main lodge, a huge log structure with a glamorous-rustic ‘70s vibe and a wrap-around porch that overlooked endless green mountains. As Jo checked in, I walked around outside and watched people sit in rocking chairs and fan themselves with their books.

Jo picked up her key and a map of the property that indicated that she would be quite far from the lodge. We tried to figure out the distance she would need to walk to get to the cafeteria.

“They probably assumed I’d have a car,” she said, as we drove back along the dirt road to her cabin.

“Probably,” I said. “Let’s see where you are.”

“It should be up here,” she said, pointing off to the right.

We turned onto a narrower dirt road that led further back into the woods. Her cabin was off a little ways, far from any other structures.

“There are definitely some wild beasts in these woods,” I said, smiling.

“It’s pretty isolated, isn’t it?” she said, looking at the map.

“It’s pretty isolated.” It was a little too far to plan to walk to the cafeteria three times a day. We resolved to go on a grocery run. Supplies would allow her to retreat from the retreat and mostly keep to her cabin.

The cabin itself was sparsely but comfortably furnished with hand-made furniture and lined entirely in windows, lending it a fishbowl quality. The kitchen was stocked with everything she would need to cook, and the screened-in porch reminded me of old summer camp movies like The Parent Trap, in which the dueling twins are sequestered off in a cabin in the woods until they can learn to get along with one another.

Jo wondered if people would look in through the windows. They weren’t any curtains.

“Who’s going to look in?” I joked. “You’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s unlikely you’ll be murdered. Probably just eaten by a bear.”

We sat on the screened-in porch and drank wine and made a grocery list. Coffee, pasta, broccoli, an onion, cheese, eggs. A phone card for the landline as there was no cell phone service.

The thing about retreating is that you can never really retreat. Your problems follow you. Your thoughts remain the same, despite a change in location.

“No Internet either,” Jo said.

As the school year was over, I had decided to stay several miles down the road form Jo at a retro place called the Big Lynn Lodge. We would write during the days and meet up at night for dinner and bourbon.

Switzerland itself is not large to start out with. Little Switzerland was very little indeed. It comprised a few lodges, shops, and a café in the mountains, all on the 226A, a windy two-lane highway popular with bikers (of the motorcycling variety). The “A” stood for “Alt.,” and although I didn’t quite know what this highway designation meant, it struck me as apt. We had clearly embraced some sort of non-normative route. Another approach.

Driving to my place, I noticed big, bloated cream-colored sandbags along the side of the road. Some sort of protection against flooding? They resembled dead sheep, spaced out evenly.

The inn was old-school. It hadn’t changed in decades. The woman at the check-in desk gave me a real key with a red plastic motel tag on it. I settled into my room and took Millie for a walk before heading back to explore the main lodge. There was a sitting room with several large striped sofas and bookshelves stocked with Reader’s Digest anthologies, Bibles, and board games. In the Activities Room downstairs were more board games, as well as a group of teenagers. When I poked my head in, they looked up and stopped talking.

“Sorry,” I said, and fled.

Most of the guests were bikers, their motorcycles lined up in front of the cabins. Almost all men, some women. The bikers were retreating, too, although I didn’t know from, or to, what exactly. I drove into town for lunch, where virtually everyone other than myself was dressed in leather jackets and pants. It was swelteringly hot outside, and I couldn’t imagine being wrapped in these thick hides, but once they got on the road—maybe then it was perfect.

I sat in my room and wrote, and I didn’t fear anything out in the world. Outside, families played horseshoes on the lawn. I wondered how Jo was doing in her cabin. One afternoon, there was a violent thunderstorm, and afterwards, the clouds seem to cast strange fields of light, anti-shadows, on the distant mountains.

 

Some people say that the thing about retreating is that you can never really retreat. Your problems follow you. Your thoughts remain the same, despite a change in location. I have never believed this. It strikes me as naïve and preachy, a vote for planting yourself in one place and refusing to move. It relies on the assumption that there is no relationship between external space and the mind. But of course there is. We think differently in different spaces. We think about different things.

You can only really know what the retreat has meant when you come home.

During our week in the mountains, Jo was not eaten by a bear, and I drove her to the Charlotte airport and then headed home on the Interstate. A dull drive. Pulling into my driveway, I saw that my yellow flowers on the porch had died. But I didn’t mind too much. This was the price of my time away in the mountains: the neglect of the natural world at home. I unloaded the car, carried the pots out back, dumped the dead flowers in my yard waste bin and resolved to go to Home Depot to replace them.

Back inside, I turned on the AC, and the house slowly cooled as I sat on the couch and petted Millie’s head, and she hung her mouth open happily, showing her teeth out of a laziness that looked like ferocity. Then I took my bag upstairs and put my clothes back in the closet.

If the retreat posits that there’s an ideal place apart from the world, this would suggest that there’s something wrong with the world itself. That it is in some ways unpleasant. At times, this is true, but there are few of us who really want to throw it all over and withdraw. Not permanently. We just want some time away, a circumscribed period with the promise of return, a time to think, so we understand our everyday existence a little more sharply. This Thanksgiving, I’m retreating to the Smokies, but then I will come home.

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Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Renaissance literature. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Toast, Literary Mothers, The Awl, Public Books, The Manifest-Station, and Skirt!, and she has a monthly column for Nowhere magazine entitled “The Nostalgic Traveler.” More by Susan Harlan