Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, August 18, 2014
I knew precisely what I wanted, had known it since I was about six years old when building dens in the Cumbrian countryside. First of all, it should be remote. I don’t want to hear about pizza delivery or a helpful neighbour. In fact no neighbours or visitors are needed at all, and no tarmac, electricity, Wi-Fi or phone signals, not even an address. If there is running water, it’s a stream dancing past the veranda, coming down from the uninhabited savage mountains behind. In the water are rainbow trout with flesh as pure as melted snow and there is a lonesome wolf, looking down from the ridge. That’s all.
My search for the perfect log cabin certainly did not lack clarity of purpose. But where to get it? There was something rather uncommercial about that solitary dwelling in the mountains. And every time I searched online, there were plenty of people willing to tell me that they had my perfect cabin, for a price, and not too far from all the others they had built. Selling the notion of the little cabin in the big woods is a growth industry, and who ever made money from one lonely cabin? They’ll scatter a dozen of them under the trees, provide a central restaurant, maybe a playground for the kids, ample parking and a course in bushcraft. I’ve enjoyed those places, but this time I didn’t want pioneer pastiche in the Bear Grylls Butlin’s, I wanted true isolation in a real wilderness. What I wanted, I suppose, was authenticity.
I was thinking on these matters as we dropped down from the Bear Tooth Pass in Wyoming and drove north, heading for the small town of Big Timber in Montana. Maddy (10) had been reading Little House on the Prairie and knew pretty much what to expect of an authentic lonely cabin in the American wilds: deprivation, despair and death. This didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. “Could a bear come inside the cabin and kill one of us?”
“It must happen sometimes.”
My partner Sophie bit her lip and clutched the can of bear deterrent spray.
After years of searching for the perfect log cabin hideaway, I thought I’d found it on a website called VRBO where Americans advertise their homes for rent.“Hideaway Cabin – Remote, Scenic Mountain Paradise. Wildlife. Fishing.” But it was the photo that sent me rushing to the atlas. There was a single small log cabin backed by a vast forest and soaring rocky peaks. There was no sign of a neighbour or even a road. I’d been in touch with the owner, Barbara, who assured me that the cabin was four miles up a dirt track from her ranch, itself over 20 miles from the nearest shop in Big Timber and deep in the Crazy Mountains. How could I resist?
We now pulled in at that store and filled the car with food, drink and weaponry. Maddy was keen on the semi-automatic hunting rifles, and of course by Montanan standards she was certainly old enough to handle such tools, but we settled for a fly-fishing kit and a high-powered bow with a sheath of blunt arrows.
“Could this kill a bear?”
“It might annoy it.”
An hour later we arrived at the ranch and met Barbara and husband, Lee, Montanan ranchers to the core. “You’ve got 11,000 acres to yourself, you won’t see a soul all week.”
They escorted us up the long winding trail to the cabin, which was perfect: solid pine walls, a logburner, stout furniture. Lee showed us the generator in the log shed but I silently swore not to use it. I asked about fishing.
“We got a few miles of decent creek fishing – good-size rainbows and browns.”
I had never fly-fished before, but I knew that selection of the right fly was critical. I showed Lee the box of lures I’d bought in Big Timber and he picked out a likely contender. “This time of year, it’s hoppers everywhere. This fella will do ya.”
Were there any walks they would recommend?
“There’s the Lookout,” said Barbara, pointing east to a spur of mountain.
“And Black Butte,” said Lee, pointing into the Crazies. “If you get up there, try and find the old tobacco tin. Everyone who goes up signs the paper inside. I ain’t been up for years but there used to be names going right back to the old days.” We asked about a map but there was none.
Then they climbed on their quad bike and waved goodbye. We were alone.
As soon as they had gone Maddy and I decided to go fishing. We went down to the creek. First of all I couldn’t believe there would be any fish in it. It was too shallow. Then there were the overhanging branches and trees. But we attached the fly that looked like a hopper and tried to flick it out. I caught a tree. The line broke and we couldn’t reach the fly.
Back at the cabin, Sophie was sitting on the veranda holding the bear deterrent. We cooked our pasta inside so as not to attract ursine visitors. As darkness fell we discovered that we had forgotten to buy candles and so had to put the generator on. That was when Maddy found the DVD player in a drawer with a single disc. “It’s called A River Runs Through It. Let’s watch!”
I was cross with Lee and Barbara. This wasn’t part of my cabin dream. I put my foot down. “No way. We are here to be in the wilderness.”
Next day we walked up along the forest edge and high on to a ridge with fabulous views of the Crazy Mountains, named, so they say, for the old woman resident who went mad when her husband was killed by a bear. At night we read On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sequel to Little House on the Prairie. Maddy begged for the DVD player, but I turned her down again. Instead we lay on the grass and watched meteorites tumble to earth through the Milky Way.
The following day we walked to the lookout place that Barbara had recommended, a hilltop scattered with weird giant boulders and rock formations. There were bear tracks among them and vultures overhead. At night we read and Maddy whined. “I won’t hate the film, Dad. I like boring films about fishing.”
I took out the DVD case and inspected it. I’d forgotten that this particular Robert Redford film was about fly-fishing. Could there possibly be some benefit to us failed fisherfolk?
We watched in darkness, glued to the tiny screen as if we had never seen such a thing before. The two brothers, Paul and Norman, played by Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer, work out their rivalry in fly-fishing. Some scenes looked familiar – hardly surprising because it was, we later discovered, filmed nearby. When Paul gets a girlfriend with an annoying brother, they take him fishing and he turns up with a can of worms. The fly-fishing purist brothers sneer. Maddy and I exchanged a glance. An idea was hatched.
Next day we dug around on the creek bank and got some worms. We didn’t bother with casting but instead followed the brothers’ example, creeping like hunters upriver searching for dark pools and hidden underwater crevices. At last I spotted a dark flicker of something close to an underwater ledge of rock. I simply dropped the worm and hook in and let the current take it past the shadow. It took a couple of seconds and then, WHAM! The rod was doubled over and bouncing with life. I reeled in our dinner, but just as we were about to land the fish, it escaped. No matter, within half an hour we had three magnificent specimens landed: one each for the frying pan.
A week in the cabin went by much too fast. We stopped worrying about bears and cooked outside. Maddy and I spent hours practising fly-casting like Paul and Norman, except that one of us had to play the part of the fish. On the last day I left Sophie and Maddy and set off alone to reach the summit of Black Butte.
It was a long hard slog without a path. I ate huckleberries and found an elk antler. All the time I kept thinking about the old tin: how there’d be the yellowing paper inside with names written in copperplate handwriting, the true old-timers, living the log-cabin life for real. I wanted that connection, to put my name below theirs.
There were several points where I had to double-back around cliffs, but eventually I reached the summit. It looked like a hurricane had passed through: trees, whitened by the sun, were scattered everywhere. When I found the cairn, there was no tin, but a long search finally located it where the wind had flung it, a rusting artefact the size of a half brick with a few splodges of fading yellow paint. The lid was there too but the paper had disappeared.
I sat there on a log looking out over Montana. A gang of vultures drifted over my head, checking out the lone vulnerable humanoid.
When the sun began to dip a little, I took a page from my notebook, scrawled my name and the date at the top, then buried the tin securely under the cairn where no wind could touch it.
• The trip was provided by Brand USA. The three-bedroom Crazy Mountain Hideaway Cabin sleeps six and costs from $195 a night through homeaway.co.uk (property ref P239818vb). Guests aren’t left to fend for themselves completely – owners Barbara and Lee Langhus are perfect hosts and will escort you to the cabin in its isolated location. Flights from Heathrow to Denver were provided by British Airways (0844 4930787, ba.com); fares from £551 return including taxes. For further information see: discoveramerica.com and rmi-realamerica.com. Holiday Extras provided airport transfers and parking
More cabins for getting away from it all
There is a whole range of cabins out there with varying degrees of isolation involved. You don’t need to travel as far as Montana to feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and likewise some Montanan cabins can be very close to civilisation.
Bob and Diane Kirkwood do some gorgeous little cabins, full of quirky character, in the Dordogne in south-west France (covertcabin.com). All over France you can find wonderful mountain refuges accessible only after some serious hiking. Choose the right location and moment and you can have a remote cabin all to yourself – with a marvellous view and no charge.
For me, fishing is an essential element to the backwoods retreat experience and Shanks Wood Cabin in Cumbria (fishinghideaway.co.uk) lies on a two-mile beat of the Lynne river.
If the old-style rustic cabin doesn’t appeal and you want a more modern take on the idea, Brockloch Bothy (brockloch.co.uk) sleeps four and is on a working farm five miles from Castle Douglas in Dumfries and Galloway. It’s the Jack London log cabin reinvented by astronauts.
A few miles up the road, Galloway House Estate (gallowayhouseestate.co.uk) has two wonderfully isolated cottages with great views of the Irish Sea, which give that away-from-it-all feeling. High Lodge sleeps two to four and Cruggleton Lodge sleeps four to six.
If getting away from civilisation means an escape in time, as well as place, Henley Cottage on Acton Scott (actonscott.com) working farm in the Shropshire Hills certainly did the trick for me. There’s nothing like candles, tin baths and an old kitchen range to transport you back to the pre-beep era. Mind you, they did sneak a hot shower into an outhouse. Softies!
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.