Heading north toward Rockwood, Tom slowed the Subaru to a crawl. I’d been peering out into the steady rain since way before Greenville, picking faded memories out of old landmarks, retracing my way through the steely blues and mottled greens of a Moosehead spring storm.
Then, at long last, there it was. Mount Kineo towering up out of the lake, its craggy cliff face dominating the fir-lined peninsula on the opposite shore. My rock. My childhood center of gravity, back in focus again for real! And, even though I knew it was silly to think it somehow would not have stayed put since the last time I laid eyes on it, I was giddy. The old mountain was still there for me.
Turning toward the dog, I said what I’d been longing to ever since our daughter convinced us that a handsome, rugged beagle pup deserved a legendary name. “Look Kineo…there’s KINEO!”
He wagged his tail, no doubt wondering why we were calling him more than once when he’d been perched right between us the whole ride up from Rangeley. Woods, water, more woods—kinda like home, but not. Probably smelled really good, too, if only he could venture from the back seat, stop teetering his front paws on the console, and just get out and GO.
Pretty much my feelings, too. But instead of an instinctive need to scour and sniff every inch of this legendary terrain, mine were a mixture of dogged resolve and calm reclamation. After four decades, I could hardly wait to be back on my old stomping ground, to seek out what had changed, immerse myself in what never would.
“Almost there,” I said. Almost to the bridge over the Moose River, to the road into The Birches. Almost all the way back. From that part of the lake, Mount Kineo would show a different side, morphing from a barren, imposing rock wall to the forested gentle giant that stood front and center in my earliest memories.
Long before I heard the term “happy place” or ever had a need to return there in my mind, I had The Birches shoreline of Moosehead Lake and Mount Kineo. From the time I was six, my parents let me wander alone out to the dock without a life jacket or any concern that I was not being watched. I’d hop out of my sleeping bag before the lake got too riled up, fling a line as far out toward the mountain as my little casting arm was worth, and sit on an Army surplus canvas stool with one eye on my bobber for hours on end. Even then, I knew that my fishing pole was more or less something to do with my hands while I gazed across the water. “Looks like a giant, tree-coated woolly mammoth laid down beside the lake and decided to stay forever,” I remember thinking. And, despite being afraid of the boogeyman, the dark, and you name it, I felt as calm as the early morning lake, protected.
Life hadn’t begun to happen yet. I didn’t have anything to escape from, to overcome, no hurts that couldn’t be healed with a hug or a laugh. Yet something wise in my soul turned my time out on the dock into a teaching moment, instilled a promise in my six-year-old head. No matter what, lake plus mountains equals good. I was just learning to add and spell, to put thoughts and then words to the pictures my teacher flashed in front of me. But I already knew everything I really needed from the simple shapes and basic elements I learned to love that first summer. Go down by the water. Watch it pool around the rocks and ripple, as far as you can see, to the rolling hills and distant blue peaks. Stay. Rest. You belong here.
So began the indelible need to return, if only in my mind, to Moosehead and later, to Mooselookmeguntic. There, as life became sad or too serious, I could be six years old again. I could be whole, innocent, perfect. I could stare at the lake when I wanted to think—and when I couldn’t bear to think. I could stop myself from getting caught up in what I was supposed to be or do, and just be. I could remember my first pair of sneakers, of how proud I was to see them stretched out on the dock underneath me. They weren’t fancy, just plain old Keds. But compared to my “special” shoes (and the brace I’d be wearing by the following summer), those sneakers felt beyond average. They were magical. Never mind just looking at Kineo, I swore I could run all the way to the top!
“Kineo, I present to thee Kineo the wonder dog!” I said. We’d arrived at The Birches Resort long enough to throw our stuff into our cabin and turn around and gawk. Never having seen Roots, the dog was not moved by my Kunta Kinte impression. So I didn’t try to lift him over my head in ceremonial triumph and just let him plant his nose and all fours into the turf. Back inside, I marveled at how the little log housekeeping cabin had not changed much since the last time we stayed there in the ’70s. With its original field stone fireplace and log walls chinked with horse hair, the “Catch a Falling Star” cabin was only a few modern conveniences away from when it was built in the 1930s. Still “rustic with a view” as promised. And I was in heaven.
Not that Tom and I had gone without rustic with a view. Hardly. Thirty years ago, after selling our cabin way the heck up on the Seboomook end of Moosehead, our search for our next (and final) camp building lot brought us to Rangeley, to Mooselookmeguntic. We found the perfect spot, a gentle slope through the white birches down to a clear, cold, uncrowded lake. It reminded Tom of spending summers on Great East Lake, and me of my long, serene sojourns on my fishing stool. I couldn’t see Mount Kineo, of course. But I was surrounded by mountains in every direction. And I could definitely see us building a new legacy right here, tucked in the woods off the beaten track, but close enough to the picture postcard town of Rangeley.
Going back to Moosehead some day still surfaced in conversation from time to time. But how could we ever justify driving up there to stay in an old log cabin when we had our own good-as-new cabin on another big, moosey lake? The answer came in a serendipitous invitation from our friends in town. The same friends who remodeled our original Rangeley cabin into our dream home were building just up the road from The Birches. Would we like to come up and see their new lot? On my birthday weekend?
So there I was, Memorial Day weekend, sitting on a picnic table outside Catch a Falling Star, paying tribute, and realizing that booking a cabin as a birthday present to myself was a very smart move. Otherwise, once I saw that view, I’d have surely stayed right there anyways, immobilized, wonder struck. Had the image I kept in my mind’s eye really morphed from a crumpled Polaroid print—into the digital desktop wallpaper I found as inspiring as it was distracting—to materialize right in front of me?
On the morning of my birthday, I was still pondering. But in order to give myself the ultimate gift, I knew I had to step away from the picnic table and go a ways up the shore. Not way the heck up to Seboomook, but to a tiny log cabin just up the lake from where I sat. Back where it all began. To HOJET.
“Daddy, why’s the cabin called HOJET?” I asked, using my best Dick and Jane reading voice to sound out the wooden block letters that hung over the cabin door. It was 1962, my first trip to Moosehead, the first of many voyages down the Moose River and out across from Kineo onto the lake to dock in front of the two-room cabin. “Water-access-only” meant nothing to me yet, and wouldn’t for many years. Roads didn’t bring you to camp, not all the way. A 12-foot boat did, one crammed so full with boxes of canned food and the block of ice we had to buy in Rockwood to load into the ice box there was barely room for the four of us to bounce across the waves.
“HOJET,” my Dad said, “is the first letters of each person’s name in the family who owns this cabin.” Wow, I remember thinking. They built their own cabin here and claimed it forever with that carved sign. Way better than writing out “Joy’s Fort” (if I knew how to print that well) and hanging it above my special hiding place in the back yard. Everyone else, myself included, was a lucky visitor to HOJET, to this magical cabin with the made up name in the land of Bullwinkle and the beached mammoth mountain.
But who were they, this HOJET family? Some really nice people who let us stay there when they weren’t was all I knew. When and how money changed hands, I didn’t care. And did we need a key to get in? Or could we just pull on the curved branch of a handle, open the thick wooden front door and make ourselves at home? Who knew? All that mattered was it was ours. Mine.
For Memorial Day weekend and another glorious week after school got out, everything in and around the cabin became my place, my movie reel of the simply wonderful things that could happen just because it was summer, we had that spot, and we had each other. “Bare running through the woods!” my parents hollered each time my sister and I finally stripped off our wet bathing suits and scampered naked toward our PJs. Remembering the bears we saw at the Rockwood dump, we’d shriek with laughter, until the night one of them came to visit. Wondering what the commotion was on the front porch, Dad peered out through the diamond-shaped pane of glass in the front door and saw the neck fur of a really tall, fully upright black bear. They all figured I ‘d have nightmares, but they were wrong. I still loved to sleep in my bunk under the front window right next to the door. I’d snuggle in my sleeping bag, suspended on a log frame crisscrossed with rope, listening to my sister whispering from the opposite window bunk. “Don’t those loons sound like lake ghosts?” she’d ask. “Sssh! They’re just singing,” I’d tell her, and hunker down deep till the sun came back up.
“That was a looong time ago, honey,” Tom said. “A lot’s changed, especially with this road connecting the camps. Lots of people have torn down the really old cabins, built new ones. And, by now, even those new cabins are getting old.” Probably, I thought, as I followed him and Kineo up the road past The Birches. But possibly, some relics remained. And maybe, if I conjured up enough old birthday girl juju, I’d find what I was looking for.
“I’ve gone too far,” I said about an hour later when I walked down a driveway and looked across at Farm Island. Apparently the little girl steps I used to take in and around the string of cabins between The Birches and Black Point didn’t match the determined march of a woman in nostalgic overdrive. And my original path—through the Indian paintbrushes, around the spruce tree that Dad swore hid a nesting partridge I could never find again, past the front of the creepy “Boo Radley” camp—wasn’t easily translated to road miles. Maybe after we got the boat in the water I could re-calibrate, get my bearings. But that was doubtful, too. I’d found the Boo Radley cabin, its grayish-blue shingle siding and cobwebbed front porch no less creepy after another half century of disuse. Aside from that, though, I was lost in the Moosehead episode of HGTV Log Cabin Living. Tom’s advice to look for authentic, old-style—or added-on-to old-style construction—wasn’t workin’ for me.
So I did what I’d learned to do at times such as this. I called on my Spirit buddies, my Mom and Dad in Heaven. “Hey, guys, I know you know I’m here and it’s my birthday, and I’m hoping you can help me out a little, give me a sign. Wished I’d asked more questions years ago while you were still around. But if you could tell me now, that’d be great.” I’d turned around and was retracing my steps, noticing the “new” road signs at the top of some driveways that looked like they were from Anywhere Lake, Maine. Moose, loons, a black bear or two, cutesy plays on words about life on a lake with moose and….
I stopped, took a deep breath, and a long, hard look at a driftwood-shaped sign of a loon floating beneath vertical capital letters. From way back in my memory banks, a name surfaced to echo what I was seeing. THE DUNNS. I’ve got to get in touch with the Dunns and ask if we can use the cabin. My Dad’s words reverberated through me as I headed down the driveway, hoping I was right. Was the honey-colored natural log exterior now stained a chocolate-brown with an L-extension built off to the side? Could that small back stoop outside the kitchen window be the same one the bear tracked past as he ambled out of the woods? The location seemed right, the view across the lake to Kineo spot on, the pitch down to the lake the same.
And there it was—a front porch leading up to a weathered front door on a small original cabin. Above the curved branch of a door handle and the diamond-shaped window hung a block-lettered sign made of ancient wood: HOJET.
I froze. My body didn’t want to budge from where I stood bolted in place. And yet, I felt myself moving. Every cell—all that I was and ever would be—rushing, pushing, reaching out in larger and larger circles of distant memories that rocketed back to my very core. I was six again, running up the path from the dock in my magic Keds, dangling a breakfast-sized brook trout from my pole. “What a nice treat for your Daddy’s birthday!” I could hear my mother chirp, her smile so broad she always looked like the sun was full on her face. I could smell the fish frying with a side of eggs, could count the playful slaps I gave my Dad on his rump as he stood in the kitchen. “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. But you said you’re thirty-three years old today,” I giggled. “If I give you that many birthday spanks, my hand will fall off!”
“I found HOJET!” I cried out to Tom.
“What the heck is a HOJET?” I imagined him saying. He’d forgotten that part of the story and, I guess, never sat around Great East with his family stringing together initials for potential Clough camp signs like my family did after our reading material ran out. He brought the dog around front so they could see for themselves, while I cried happy tears, mumbled gibberish, and watched Kineo across from Kineo, exploring every inch of my beloved landscape.
I never did meet the Dunns, not that trip. But when I do, I’ll thank them. For my best birthday present ever. For their new and old signs that pointed me home. For giving me the foundation to “move up to camp for good,” to a home that still has the old, original cabin where my girls spent summers laughing and playing at its center. And then I’ll ask if I can look around some more. Hopefully, as kids and grand kids of the first Dunns of HOJET, they’ll understand why I need to anchor myself there now and again—to let my past flow from me like waves, soothing the rough spots, leaving me awash in pure peace. They’ll know, as I do, that you can’t really go back. But you can stand in a spot that has spoken to your soul forever and, just for a moment, feel the years vanish.