For the past 7 years, I have spent the last few days before Christmas with my husband’s family at a cabin in the woods in the Adirondack Mountains.
Even though it takes more than 6 hours to drive there from NYC (on an often icy and gridlocked roadway), and I usually contract a horrible cold – undoubtedly from collecting germs at the rest stops on I-87 N along the way – it is the highlight of my year.
We usually pull up the driveway just as they are ringing the dinner bell, just as homemade soup and fresh bread are being set out on the table. Lugging our bags, we shake the snow off our boots and trade the biting cold and stillness of the snow for the hush of the great room, with its fireplace, window seats, and rocking chairs, and the kitchen humming beyond two swinging doors. Then, after unloading the rental car of duffel bags, coats, and snow shoes, and settling into our new rooms, we slide down the bench at the communal table and feel that – after all that rushing, driving, packing, and unpacking, after a year full of working, planning, hoping, trying, fighting, crying, we have finally, and again, arrived.
Because the Loj is nestled in the valley of the Adirondack High Peaks region, it is a perfectly situated refuge for hikers and skiers. They wander through the Loj doors to warm up with tea or share a meal or stay the night before heading back out onto the trail. As a consequence, we have broken bread with people from all over the world who are mid-adventure, people who are in the midst of ticking several of the 46 nearby peaks off their list, people who are just passing through.
After dinner we sit by the fire and stay up later than we should, playing games, reading, telling stories, and sharing hot chocolate and wine. We know that too early we’ll be woken by a ringing triangle for breakfast. Usually it consists of scrambled tofu and Maypo, but sometimes they make gingerbread pancakes.
I slip a skirt over my pajamas, so that after eating, I can burrow back under the covers.
The bell is early for the hikers – those aiming to reach Mt. Marcy and beyond to their next destination before nightfall. I, however, spend the afternoon at the window seat, working – yes- but also watching the snow fall. And every day I make at least one loop around Heart Lake.
I have a habit of reading mystery novels in the winter. For example, one year I submerged myself in The Savage Detectives; another year, 2666. The first year we spent at the Loj, however, I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was my first year in graduate school, and already I was unsure whether I was doing the right thing. By night, I tore through my book, on a hunt for a missing person. By day, I circled around and around the lake, trying to locate myself. The book and my mind seemed to echo the landscape; cycling through clarity and confusion, I emerged out into clearings and walked into the woods.
The hike has become meditative for me. As I revolve around the lake, I recalibrate and reflect, take stock of the year that is closing and make plans for the year to come.
The repetition lends comfort; throughout each round I am assured that up ahead there is another opportunity to pause amidst the otherwise constant motion.
This year, however, we won’t be returning to the Loj (more on that Friday – I promise). In the mean time, we are working to bring that warm, reflective spirit into our home.
One method we have found to be effective, if even in a very small way, has been to make French onion soup (adapted very slightly from another favorite cookbook).
4 cups thinly sliced onions
1/4 c. butter or olive oil
2 or three sprigs of thyme
1/3 loaf day-old bread (thinly sliced)
1/3 c. Parmesan cheese (grated)
1/4 c. Gruyère cheese (grated)
3-4 c. beef, chicken (or vegetable!) broth (heated)
salt, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 350 F
2. Heat butter in a heavy-bottomed pan
3. Add onions and thyme
4. Cook over medium low heat until soft (about 30 min.), then turn up heat to brown (~15 min.). Add salt.
5. While browning the onions, toast the sliced bread on a cookie sheet in the oven (~ 5 min.), then layer in the bottom of 1.5 quart baking dish
6. Spread 1/2 browned onions over the bread, cover with 1/3 of the cheese
7. Cover with another layer of bread, the rest of the onions, and a second third of the cheese
8. Complete with a final layer of bread and the remaining cheese
9. Ladle the broth over the layers until the top layer of bread begins to float
10. Dot with butter (~2 T.), cover, and bake at 350 F for 45 min. Uncover and bake for another 20 – 30 min., or until the top is golden brown.