Our only guest book occupies a small, one-room hut tucked in a forest that canopies the invisible boundary between our 80-acre farm and a city nature preserve. The hut is technically ours. I bought it at an auction for $10 (it had been the laundry shed of a once-thriving little family farm), and Charlie and I carefully disassembled it and brought it home that autumn.
Our team of Belgian draft horses hauled the labeled posts and beams and the beautifully weathered siding across cow pastures, down a steep wooded ravine, and up the other side to a site preselected for the reconstruction. Fitted with a new roof, a small woodstove, and some rustic furniture, it was to be our private retreat, a rude but secure shelter amid trees we'd often walked under and would now be able to enjoy for long hours in all weather.
Its only security was a stick placed where a padlock might go, wedged there simply to keep the door shut against wind and rain until someone came to open it. We decided to leave a note and pad welcoming hikers who wandered here from the city preserve, inviting them to enter and rest, and beseeching them to leave the hut as they found it for the next user.
The choice against barriers has proved to be a good one. The folks who discovered and enjoyed the place that first year not only respected our little retreat, but enthused over it on paper and became warmly protective of it themselves. They came back, often with special friends, and left behind an assortment of small gifts: a pile of dry kindling, plank steps, a hand-carved flute, poems, notes of thanks, candy, a freshly swept floor. I shared some of the first year's guest-book messages on these pages two springs ago. (See The Home Forum for March 16, 2000.)
Since then, judging from the growing number of new entries, the hut has come to have a full life of its own, apart from us. I have yet to meet anyone back there when I enter for my own solitude; yet sometimes I miss the last visitor by a matter of hours. I feel an affinity with the strangers who find comfort and leave their marks here. All seem to belong to the same gentle, restless clan:
1/28/01 Beautiful, snowy Sunday morning. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
2/28/01 What a little hidden treasure! It's always fun to find rare landmarks such as this.
3/9/01 Out walkin' the dogs stumbled upon this wonderful place....
4/1/01 I been in Babylon too long. Thanks for the peace.
7/15/02 Beautiful day and my son brought me to this jewel in the woods. There was such an intricate spider web we couldn't tear it down.
The first entry after Sept. 11 was simple: "Thank you for this respite in a crazy world." The next one seemed distant from the nation's trauma, like the place:
10/7/01 Green ocean /Leafy waves /Gentle wind /Smooth sailing...
Near the end of the month, a perhaps nervous traveler penciled, "What a peaceful haven to be in before flying back to London tomorrow."
1/11/02 Out for a birthday hike with my pup and happened on this little time nugget. Zoppler's not quite sure what to think of it. He just ate the 'key' (I'll find a new one) and stares at me from the door. I noticed this little pad o' paper is almost done. Will return with a new journal for everyone in a couple days. Happy hiking to all!
A pretty little bound journal was duly delivered, and began to fill:
1/14/02 How can there be /places where no one is? /Places sacred? /places unscarred? /The answers /are in your hands.
2/14/02 It's spots like this one that make the road less traveled so much more enjoyable.
In late March, I visited the hut, and wrote in the journal of the gentle demise of one of the draft horses who had helped bring the timbers to the site. "Doc" had reached a ripe old age, and I felt like sharing something of his benevolent spirit and stalwart work ethic with the hut's people. A response came almost immediately:
4/10/02 I send my prayers to Doc and thank him for the labor he provided to make this quaint hut.
My favorite entry this year predated my Belgian's death by a few days. It has nothing and everything to do with him and with the special place he helped to create:
"I came to the woods to make a decision ... what to do with my life. Should I leave [this city] and try to make it elsewhere? I came by way of the lake on a cool, rainy day. I looked at this little path and finally gave in to the urge to follow it. I found this place ... reflection seems to set in as you enter.
"P.S. I'm staying."
I suspect that Doc, thoroughly at home here, would have approved this resolve to make good locally. As for the hut, it stands ready for the next visitor who needs a quiet space in which to ponder such things. It's not exactly why we put it there, but it's come to be what the refuge is all about. The little hut is bigger, somehow, than it was when we briefly had it all to ourselves. And waiting in its quiet patch of woods.