“Usually the people who come here are pretentious” he shrugs turning away from me. The rain pelts down on the windshield, the car shakes from the wheel well up to my teeth. As strange as all his other comments have been, this one strikes me differently because I really can’t think of anything more pretentious than the last few days.
I’d gone on this “retreat”. The perfect encapsulation of what you imagine a real writer to do: travel to a place where the population of cows on one farm is more than people in a 50 kilometer radius. Alone, in a cabin in the woods where all there is to do is hike through a barely managed forest, have a mental crisis, or start work on your next terrible novel. Since he’s the man who rented me the cabin the middle of nowhere he has to know this. But it raises more questions: what else do people rent a cabin in the middle of the woods to do? What purpose would traveling to the ends of nowhere serve? And how is it somehow more pretentious then what I was doing?
Every few months The New York Times runs an article about how we should all unplug from the world, or at least from the internet for a while to learn how to be people again. It’s some modern form asceticism and flagellation. If we just break our dependence on the internet that should lead us to better selves and cure our addiction to fast ideas and with them whatever ails us in the modern age. If this unplugging comes in the form of rolling up your busy city life and trekking out to a lone cabin like a modern day Walden, well then, all the better to get started on our cookie cutter wellness journey to tearing down our dependence on modernism.
In this way there are few things less romanticized than renting a cabin in the wood and writing the next great novel. The funny thing is that before the pandemic I might have had more of a monopoly on this reality but every weekend I see all the people around me, some for the first time in a long time, travel great distances to become one with nature as a form of social distancing. Except that I traveled alone without a car to a place people just don’t go. It’s not because I love nature. I live in a city, I’ve lived in a practically city all my life and I’ve never had a particularly desire to be anywhere other than a hub of humans. Famously I think every camping trip I’ve ever been on I have returned back to my house early where I immediately washed myself in the hottest water and with the fullest scale usage of modern indoor plumbing. But this trip wasn’t even like that.
It’s funny because in some ways the past six months have been spent in a way that weren’t so dissimilar as my time in the cabin in the woods. Even avoiding pubic transit I can reach quiet, wooded areas near my house on foot where I can spent the day unplugged from the internet with a flick of a button on my laptop or phone but I would still be in the city, I would still be reachable by other people on foot, I would still be going home to share a fairly small living space with my husband and most of all, all of the chores and responsibilities that I passively have.
So the longer the plague lasted, the more I question what travel is for but the thing is I’ve spent six month having been largely confined to my house and then when the weather got good enough, the small walk able radius around my house and I found myself yearning for a little change of scenery. A new experience.
So I rented a cabin on AirBNB, packed everything that I needed for four days in it and took the train into the middle of nowhere. The host picked me up at the nearest train station, nearly 15 minutes by car which was great because the bus ran about twice a day and there wasn’t a local cab service. The cabin itself was simply a bed and table inside of a hut, the shower and compost toilet located in another small hut across the law and an outdoor tent with kitchen equipment on the other side of the lawn.
The cabin had internet in the theoretical sense more than the practical. Fast enough that I could load a page of mostly text but I’d have to let it buffer for 10+ minutes if I wanted to watch a Netflix video at the lowest quality. But I had more regular internet on my phone at all times except for me, the purpose of this trip wasn’t really to disconnect. I don’t actually view the internet as a problem or a crux for myself. I don’t really remember the time before the internet and unlike every think piece I don’t have problems getting my work done because of it, I don’t have a shorted attention span and I’m more than capable of laying down to study or read or do activities disconnected without checking my phone every five minutes.
But the thing is, I’m almost never alone. I have lived with my partner for 12 years and I had roommates for years before that, and I lived with my mother before that. Moreover, I have always lived in cities, in areas where you couldn’t go even 2 minutes without seeing another person, and then another, and another until you can feel lonely but never be alone. Even the height of the pandemic, I saw more people out my window walking around in any given hour than I saw in all three days on the trip.
Which is why after the host dropped me off I put my things in the cabin, locked the door behind me, and very brazenly walked down the street to the right towards what I assumed was the trail. The road was dirt and gravel, no sidewalk to speak off and flanked by hay farms, patchy woods, and large areas of disused land. After passing by a particularly strange stretch of farmland where acres of green beans had been left in the field, dried into brown husks in the blazing summer sun, I finally reached a trail head.
There’s something you should know about me before reading further and it is that, while I can read a map, I have very little sense of direction. I’d like to tell you that this trip was a poetic one, where I got lost but I found myself or some other convenience of narrative but honestly, I just got lost a lot and kept walking in a vague direction because I assumed eventually I would find my way back. Maybe that’s its own beautiful narrative. Maybe not.
I eventually after nearly a half hour of walking reached what I supposed was a trailhead: it had a big map board, it had information posters, it had a footpath through tall weeds that seemed to lead over a wooden foot bridge so despite the narrowness of the trail and then, despite, my own hesitations I waded into the bush.
My goal, if walks have to have goals, was to see both towers which appeared on the map and to walk through Männikjärve bog. I spent 6 hours walking the first day and accomplished none of that. After a small success in finding a boat dock early on in the walk I somehow veered into oblivion for a full four and a half hours where I stood in a marsh area and wondered if it was just better to try to turn around instead of the new path I calculated might get me outside of the woods in a little bit over an hour.
You see, the Endla Nature Reserve is maintained in a extremely vague way. There were posted signs at the start of the trail about the “2+ 2 Coronavirus distance rules” but trails had mostly been left to grow over and actual boardwalk over the many bogs and mires was only around swimming areas and the most dense part of the bog.
The entirety of the first day I was completely and wholly convinced I was headed towards the main bog when in fact I had mostly wandered into a wet, dense middle part of the reserve and as such ended up having to wash my jeans and shoes in the sink when I eventually got back to the cabin.
The second day of walking I actually looked at a map before leaving the cabin, which did not actually seem to help me. I spent nearly 40 minutes after finding the trailhead on the other side of the reserve but not being able to go inside because it was on private land closed due to the virus but it wasn’t marked well enough. Eventually I walked along an unmarked road, found the new trailhead and about two hours later I was in the Männikjärve bog. This bog was more inline with the bogs I’ve been to before with a well maintained board system over the bog and a large viewing tower and a big loop trail. I saw exactly three people in the hours I was walking in and around the bog trail and I decided to do another smaller loop trail after I left the bog, in which, if you can believe this: I got lost again and spent nearly two hours begging the sky for a sign.
My third day I decided to take a walk towards the town of Kärde. There’s a small hut in a small park and a few abandoned buildings right outside where I was staying which I walked to within 15 minutes and then I decided to just keep walking along the road. I walked along what felt like a lone highway for nearly 2 hours. I didn’t reach town, or anything that could really be considered much of anything but I eventually decided to turn around and walk back. I wanted to say there was some grand reason for this, both for going and coming back. For the long aimless walking I was doing or the ebb and flow of fields of wheat untended in the sun but there wasn’t. I thought it would make me feel lonely, I thought it would make me feel empty and sad but instead I found that because there wasn’t anyone around I didn’t really have to feel much of anything. I know there’s a lot philosophically to say about how people are just reflections that we see of each other but it felt true. Along the long stretch of road, I was just existing.
It was harder walking along the road, to ignore that I was a part of society and the modern world. It’s easy to lose yourself in nature, in the natural world even if there’s a cut path under your feet telling you otherwise but on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere it’s somehow hard to block out that someone deliberately put this road down. That every inch of this world has been manufactured to connect humans to each other. The closer I got to the cabin the more bewildering the modern world became. In the fields besides me I could hear crickets and birds all bubbling up in noise, a whole world beyond me and yet none of that could even touch the amount of effort and difficulty and complexity it took to lay this road. How many years and ancestors and wars and plagues and joys and sadness to pave a road under the big blue sky in the middle of nowhere.
Aside from the distressing amount of walking that I did on this trip the other reason that I wanted to go to a cabin in the woods was to write. I’ve written a few bad novels in my time but I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I’d actually like to write something I’m at least proud of doing so I spent three months leading up to this working on notes and story boarding a novel that took a few failed ideas that I just couldn’t kick and rolled them into something I vaguely liked. While I got about as much writing as could be expected done if I had to do it all over again I don’t think I would have spent my focus on writing. I’m not a particularly fantastic writer and it made the entire time I was lost in the woods feel strangely irresponsible. Maybe if I’d have a longer time frame (which I would not have wanted I absolutely and desperately wanted to go home by the end of the third day) then I wouldn’t have felt such pressure but I think it was just silly of me to write while on vacation basically. I was productive while I was there but not to any notable degree and it burnt me out on writing for a few days after also.
As you can tell, not much actually happened on this trip. It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that I mostly hiked, wrote, and laid in the cabin watching movies. That’s what it was for. I think that travel, like most modern things, has become a type of checklist that we have for status or bragging rights or whatever but in a time when we can’t travel (or at least it’s ill advised to travel the way one normally would) it makes me stop and wonder what all this was for. I can write in my house, I can experience nature in my own house, I can be alone without leaving and without the cultural experiences of travel or even the interactive part of travel – what was I doing? In the end I think the experience was kind of a failure and I’m not sure I would repeat the experience of going into the woods by myself since not having a car or any way to really get around other than walk is extremely limiting without access to…anything. I was 15+ kilometers from anything really, the nearest store was over 4 kilometers away making me anxious the entire time that something terrible would happen and I’d be unable to get home but I did like being by myself so maybe next time I’ll try traveling to a city setting.
I enjoyed my time in nature, despite getting lost constantly but in the end I’m not sure there could have been anything more pretentious than getting to live out the novelists dream and just not enjoying it enough.