Backwoods warmth

Vermont was a long way to go from Indiana to confront the essentials of living. With the winter off from people-oriented work, I wanted contrast. ''Find a cabin in Michigan if you want it cold,'' coaxed my family. But I needed the right setting. Hard work and few frills were built into the character of New England farm folk.

''Don't tell them you're a writer looking for solitude,'' coached my friends, prophesying tight-lipped suspicion. But I did - in general stores, post offices, lumber yards. And right down to the clothing store clerk who shyly confessed to wanting to be a science fiction writer, one Vermonter after another awed me with their willingness to help. Especially Ruth, Burt, and Horace.

Horace lived alone in a self-built shanty. He milked cows, crafted canoes, and sat by his wood stove on cold winter days, telling stories spiked with humor to any listening ear. As soon as he learned of my search for a cabin, he dropped his own work to show me a place deep in the woods.

From the moment I stepped into the clearing, the little cedar cabin became synonymous with my dream. Horace cautioned me not to get my hopes up. ''It depends on whether Burt likes you,'' he warned, and I prepared to meet the cabin's owner.

My nervously anticipated conversation was neither lengthy nor gruelling. We stood beside the barn where Burt's Guernseys were milked twice a day. ''So you like the cabin?'' Burt's rich accent delighted my Hoosier ears.

''Oh, yes!'' I cried with unfeigned enthusiasm, thereby passing the ''interview.'' But there was one thing for which I had not prepared myself: residence in that sturdy, exquisitely constructed cabin in the woods - for free.

The shelter secured, Horace next felled a huge beech tree, bucked it into slices, split the slices into wedges, hauled the wedges to the cabin, located a wood stove, crimped a length of stovepipe, and told me how to assemble this foreign device. Four days into my adventure, the temperature plunged to zero. Eagerly anticipating the sight of smoke curling from the chimney, I scurried to install the stove.

But my fire shed no warmth. Crestfallen and baffled, I nibbled some very firm fruitcake and crawled into my frosty sleeping bag, hoping that during the night my tears would not freeze my eyelids shut.

When Horace found me on his doorstep the next morning, he once again dropped his own work to demonstrate the art of authoritative fire-building. That afternoon my candles melted into green puddles without being lit.

After I learned to regulate the stove settings, I often wrote by candlelight late into the night. There were few distractions. Occasionally, though, I ran to the door to hear a chorus of coyotes. The resident shrew sometimes snatched my attention as did the insects in my woodpile. But I was especially surprised one evening to hear a ''Halloo!'' outside. ''It's the UPS man!'' I opened the door as my visitor unstrapped his snowshoes and straightened. Grinning, he handed me a package. Horace had worked all day, performed his evening chores, and now, because UPS wouldn't deliver to an addressless cabin in a roadless woods, had covered the distance himself.

When he left, there remained on the table a sack whose contents rivalled those of any Christmas basket - or so it seemed to one who had discovered how many ways rice, beans, and lentils could be varied on a wood stove.

Relief from these stove-top dinners also came by way of Horace's neighbor, Ruth, whose home I could not visit without consenting to stay for a meal. Originally resounding with the activity of seven, her house now sheltered Ruth and one daughter, and provided a quiet place for her own writing.

When the demise of my wood supply signalled the end of my cabin sojourn, Ruth eased me back into civilization by having me stay in her home, where heating water on the stove and stoking the wood-burning furnace were still the norm. But time in Vermont was drawing to an end and gloom struck and remained. I apologized for my black mood.

Ruth stared in surprise. ''Everyone's entitled to that once in awhile.''

It was my turn to be surprised. The gloom vanished. A warmth blazed within me that made my wood stove's output seem lukewarm by comparison - even with a properly built fire inside. When I headed west at last, it was with the resolve to repay Burt, Ruth, and Horace in the only way I knew how: to learn to give, not ''until it hurts,'' but until it stops hurting.

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