THIS summer I considered buying a cottage and even got to the point where I went out and looked at one. Of course, I am always admiring cottage properties from my canoe, but this time I actually got a real estate agent and a key, and we drove out. Mind you, like most people, I have a limited budget for cottages - the one we were going to look at was definitely on the cheap side. It was a fine afternoon for an outing, and the weather and the time of year, combined with the act of having sneaked away from the office, made for a festive feeling. Even my real estate agent seemed to be happy to be out of the city.
He had never seen the property before and he was not very good at navigation, so it took us quite a while to find the place. We kept getting diverted onto narrow, winding, hilly roads that, in all fairness, even his photocopied square of topographical map did not show. We had to keep backtracking to where we had branched off. It was fortunate that I had volunteered to bring my truck, because the road kept dwindling. From smooth gravel, overhung by trees, it became two deep ruts across an abandoned pasture. Near the end it climbed ridges back into the forest.
At the ridge crests, the granite, like dinosaur bones, often erupted through the gravel and transected the road. We fishtailed up the hills in the loose gravel and then braked at the top, to ease over the pinkish stone ribs, cringing, waiting for the squeal of rock against the oil pan.
The description of the property said it was secluded. We parked the truck on the grass and took a steep footpath up the ridges. Leaves rustled overhead, vibrant with sunlight, and the big dragonflies diving in the air had eliminated most of the black flies. For about 10 minutes we followed the path, skirting a swamp and crossing a pasture overgrown with junipers and lilacs, until we came to an old dam where a long, thin bay drained into a creek. We crossed the dam, stepping over a break in the middle through which the torrent plunged into a beaver dam. Torpedo-shaped suckers circled in a pool of tobacco-brown water above the dam.
On the other side of the dam there was still no sign of the cottage. In fact, even the path had vanished. We rammed through the undergrowth until we broke into a clearing sloping down to the lake. The cottage stood at the center of this space, its white walls glowing with sunlight, clumps of birch trees at its front corners. The bark of the birch trees gleamed softly, like white gold, and the water danced in sun and breeze.
Like successful explorers at the end of a long, difficult quest, we were immediately enthusiastic about our grail, this small particleboard structure with its green tar-paper roof. Zealously we inspected the sturdy concrete footings, the three tiny, uninsulated, unpaneled rooms. (``It's unspoiled,'' we said.) We looked up into the rafters at the kerosene lantern hanging there. We extolled the solidity of the stone fireplace and said how quickly it would heat the small rooms. We noted with approval how close together the studs were. We were amused by the smooth yellow hole the chipmunk had chewed in the particleboard beside the fireplace. We inspected the outhouse, noting that the porcupines had not attacked it yet, and the steel storage shed. We leaned against trees on the shoreline and pointed to the islands on the dancing water. We praised the cottage's perfect privacy.
``I'd put on siding,'' I said, ``and insulate the walls.''
``You could just staple plastic over the insulation,'' my real estate agent said, ``or buy the cheapest wall paneling from a lumberyard. You don't need it to be fancy.''
``I'd transplant some of the lilacs from the pasture to the clearing.''
Cottage fever had gripped us. Standing by the water, looking across the lake, even my agent, normally phlegmatic, said, ``If you don't buy it, Terry, I will.''
Of course, I didn't buy it, and neither did my agent. As I said, it was cottage fever, a condition brought on by summer after a long winter in Northern latitudes, and by memories of endless summers at the lake, of calm, mirror evenings when voices carried across the water, and of moonlight walks along the beach. The activities of these memories occurred at cottages where our parents or hosts were responsible for most of the work a cottage entails. The enthusiasm abates when one contemplates the work or removes oneself from the vicinity of the water - usually a combination of the two works best. (In the fall it cools of its own accord, as you can tell from all the ``for sale'' signs that sprout in front of cottages after Labor Day.)
No, I did not buy that secluded cabin. Once I was back at my suburban house, I thought of my friends with cottages. Waking up at 4 a.m. to a gnawing sound outside the bedroom wall and stumbling outside in pajamas to find a beaver about to drop a poplar tree across the roof. Or discovering in the spring that the ice has swept out the dock, or the center supports of the boathouse, or (the very next year) its entire foundation.
In the case of the cottage I looked at, I realized, once I was back home, that it would take about three trips loaded with luggage and groceries for the novelty of the lovely walk to wear off. Or the first time I left something I needed back at the truck, in the pouring rain. That said, it took a while for cottage fever to abate this year. It started to when I met a friend I hadn't seen in a while.
``How are you?'' I asked.
``I'm happy as a lark,'' he crowed. ``I feel as if a giant burden has been lifted from my shoulders.''
``How come?'' I asked.
``I've just sold my cottage.''