A Sense of Place

“There it was, there it is, the place where during the best time of our lives friendship had its home and happiness its headquarters.”
— Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety)

For many of us the mere mention of a particular place brings forth a wave of pleasant memories.

My wife Pam’s family has one such place that fits prominently in their collective memories and it is affectionately called “the ranch”. The property was purchased by Pam’s grandfather and briefly converted into a riding ranch where a stable of horses gave trail rides to passing tourists. The riding ranch didn’t last more than a year or two, but the name stuck and it became a place where family congregates in the summer months to enjoy the area and each other’s company.

For Pam this place is a retreat and refuge from whatever is going on around her, and a place where she always feels welcomed and loved. Despite it being a 1000 miles from our home we try to get there most years for a week or so around the anniversary of her grandfather’s birthday.

I remember the first time I was invited to go to the ranch. Pam and I were in a long distance phase of our relationship and I was unsure of my immediate prospects. So when Pam invited me “to the ranch” and shared with me the fact that it was her favorite place on earth and one that she didn’t share with many people I took it as an encouraging sign.

Still I didn’t really know what to expect, as “a ranch in the Adirondack mountains” sounded pretty extravagant. When I got there the setting was certainly beautiful, 100 acres of wooded hills and fields including a pond with fish, beavers and various other critters. It is about a 10-20 minute drive into the mountains from the nearest town depending on who is driving, but this is far enough to feel away from it all.

On a clear night the stars seem to explode like fireworks and you realize infinity is more than just a concept. At night, the spaces between places on the property are dark and campfires are most welcome both as the center point for the evenings entertainment, the means for roasting marshmallows for S’mores, and as a natural source of heat and repellent to bugs and legendary creatures (bears, wolves, etc.).

The accommodations are simple but nice. The first time I went there, three families totaling about 20 people shared “the cottage” which is about a 600 square foot no bedroom house with an attic loft, one overused bathroom, a small galley kitchen, a cramped dining area and a living room with a few old (not antique) pieces of furniture. A certain dilapidated chair still sits tucked in a corner because it was “Pops” chair and nobody has the heart to take it out.

When it was time to sleep my first summer, we claimed a few precious feet of floor space in the living room wedged amongst others also sleeping there. Regardless of the cramped quarters those 20 people loved those 600 square feet like nothing else.

I have been there many times since, and our kids always look forward to a trip “to the ranch”. It was a special place for Pam’s grandparents, and remains a special place for Pam’s parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our and their kids.

It is the kind of place where would be spouses get invited to have their tires kicked and their sense of humor tested by the family. If they aren’t scared off (and a few have been over the years) they get to come back to take their seat around the fire. Our oldest son Jake just took his first trip as an adult with three other friends and we were all very pleased and proud when he announced that they would like to include an extended visit to “the ranch” on their trip.

I know many others have places like this. There is one on my Mom’s side of the family called “The Cottage”, and one on my Dad’s family called “Bjørkum” (Norwegian for birch).

And around town I have heard several folks fondly discuss in their heavily Wisconsin accented voices their imminent plans to “HEAD UP NORT”.

Many of these places have persisted in families through multiple generations. They endure longer than the people who enjoy their turn around the campfire, and if we are fortunate these campfires will keep burning for many generations to come.

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