Roughing It All Wrong In the Maine Woods
There's a right way and a wrong way to rough it in the Maine woods — an entire literary sub-genre has grown up around this — and for the last week I've been doing it all wrong.
Before getting into the sordid details — for we must speak of such unseemly things as lack of bathing — let me lay before the court of public opinion the fact that I am no stranger to roughing it, either personally or vicariously. I know a man, nowadays a notable local business owner, who lived with his wife and three kids in the back of a truck. (He did not, at least, saddle the children with names like Starshine and Gloop.) I knew a couple who lived for a time in a tipi, complete with a fire pit and a flap on top to shut out the snow, and for a longer time on a sailboat in Rockland Harbor. Sailboats, you know, are seldom built with winter insulation, and this particular craft was heated by a tiny wood-burning stove fed with scrap wood from the Maine Penitentiary's craft shop. Nothing larger would fit. The fire lasted maybe ninety minutes and then you had to feed it again, or freeze. We must assume these people never slept.
As for personal experience, my ex and I moved about twenty years ago — just before the birth of our daughter Callie — into a two-room cabin with no running water, ergo no bathroom. We rigged up a pipe to draw water from the nearby pond and I drew up (with MacDraw, if memory serves) a scheme to enlarge the place by the 30 percent allowed under shoreland zoning. This was still a work-in-progress when the baby arrived. The pond water was adequate for washing, though we had no good means of heating it; I shlepped drinking water daily in a collection of plastic milk jugs from the home of the former truck-dweller. I do not doubt that our friends were sincere when they told us we were crazy.
I should point out here that Callie is now a sophomore at a respectable university and seems normal in most respects.
When the opportunity finally arrived to build my Maine dream house — a cottage of some 980 square feet perched on a hill among old trees with a glimpse of Penobscot Bay — I was in no mood for roughing it any longer. I did not, for starters, want a wood stove. I know these things have their charm and the heat from a wood fire is wonderfully cozy and all that. But I felt I had logged enough hours for one lifetime stacking cordwood and hauling it indoors and fussing over the flames and dealing with messy ashes. I wanted a thermostat. I wanted hot water coursing occultly through a maze of pipes concealed beneath the floorboards. I wanted to set it and forget it.
Now I realize there is something un-Maine-like about a cottage without a woodstove, and also that I was placing myself at a certain risk. I would be utterly dependent on electricity, which in Maine can be a uncertain commodity. We regularly have storms that knock a couple hundred thousand Mainers off the grid for days at a stretch — it happened the winter before last in the genteel environs of York County, which is practically Massachusetts. But I reasoned as follows: first, that I live barely a quarter-mile off U.S. Route 1, which ought to count for something; and second, that our town is attacked every few years by arboriphobic strike teams under contract to the power company who slash down as many venerable trees as they can get at before a mob of angry citizens assembles with pitchforks and Powerpoint presentations to drive them off.
I wasn't counting on the flaky boiler.
The guy who installed my heating system is an old friend who has lived for many years in a 200-year-old cape that needs work and will continue to need work until Doomsday, at which point my friend will probably be in no mood to attend to it. This guy is a walking exemplar, now that I think of it, of how I no longer wish to live. Nonetheless he did a conscientious job of installing a fine heating system which would keep the house snug and warm if only it were attached to a working boiler. It is hooked up instead to a new-fangled computerized machine so sophisticated that it could calculate the exact length of its warranty period and break down six hours later. It has been breaking down ever since.
Until last week, I've always managed to get the thing back up on its spindly Korean legs cranking out hot water, often for several hours or even days at a stretch before it crashes again. Last week it died for good. My old friend was out back sharpening his pitchfork and not returning phone calls. So I called another old pal — a surfer turned mechanical-services magnate — who sent around a nice fellow named Brian who spent a couple of hours performing an autopsy of the ex-boiler and then vanished into the coastal mist.
Certain species of irony are so blatant as to require no comment. Shivering, unshowered, in a tightly-insulated and almost brand-new cottage, while spring buds are fattening all around, falls into this category. So just take my word: this is not the right way to rough it.