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Susan Orlean

Out of the Woods

It was an awful house. A broker would have called it a charming Swiss chalet; what it should have been called, really, was a dingy A-frame, mud-brown, damp, afflicted with an air of unrelieved gloom. An ad might have claimed that it was nestled in the Oregon mountains -- in fact, an ad did claim that it was nestled in the Oregon mountains -- but would fail to mention that it was nestled in what was possibly the only cramped, cluttered, suburban subdivision in the Oregon mountains. It was probably when we saw a gang of children furiously pedalling their bright-orange-red Big Wheels up and down the sidewalk -- Big Wheels? A sidewalk? In the mountains? -- that we realized that this vacation house, which we had rented for a four-day getaway, might not be quite as dreamy as it had sounded.

This was the first actual vacation that my boyfriend and I had ever taken together -- the first official, grownup type of vacation, rather than our more usual short-term residences on friends' sofas. We weren't very old, and neither was our relationship, and the visit to the mountains was a watershed moment to see what it felt like to have a place of our own. The chalet had sounded ideal. It was also inexpensive, and since we had only a couple of nickels to rub together, we thought it was quite a find.

The inside of the house did seem tolerable. Granted, it was a worn-out, weary place with lots of aches and pains -- floorboards that complained, mattresses that wheezed, windows that shrieked when you pushed them open -- but it was decent shelter. We walked around, opening cupboards and checking behind doors, taking inventory. Bedroom, fine. Bleak little kitchen, fine. Living room, fine. Bathroom, we must have missed it. We walked through the house again, opening every door a second time, then a third. There appeared to be no bathroom. Had either of us inquired when we arranged to rent the house whether it had a bathroom? Of course we hadn't -- who would? It would have been like asking if the place had, say, a roof. We glanced out the kitchen window. In a mangy patch of yard, there appeared to be a heap of two-by-fours, which revealed themselves, upon investigation, to be the remains of an outhouse that must have been blown down in a storm. There was no righting it; the structure hadn't just toppled -- it had exploded. So the house had once been equipped with a bathroom-type facility, although the fact that it was an outhouse seemed like something a broker might have wanted to mention.

I had been a pretty good Brownie in my day, and my boyfriend had been an avid camper, so the idea of peeing in the woods was not new or discomfiting to either of us. However, we were not in the woods. We were in a kind of Levittown, relocated to the lovely Oregon mountains. There was no leafy glade nearby; there was no private little thicket. Instead, there was a family just a few yards away in the house next door, with a whale of an R. V. parked in the driveway and a swing set that gave the kiddies a good view of our comings and goings. Furthermore, the weather was turning grim, the sky dropping lower, the clouds starting to spit a chilly rain, all of which made our moldy mud-brown dream-vacation home seem moldier and browner and more bathroomless by the minute.

Town was a couple of miles away. There was a Gas-N-Eat or a Stop-N-Fuel, or whatever it was called, at the end of the main drag. It had bathrooms, but it was one of those joints where you had to go in to the cashier and ask for a key and then go back outside to the bathroom, a cold, dimly lit concrete-block cubicle that a truck-stop prostitute might have found homey and familiar. We were, of course, not in a position to fuss. We made use of the Petrol-N-Go, had dinner in town, and then stopped in again, just to be safe. In the morning, we threw jackets on over our pajamas and made a beeline for the gas station. The rain, intermittent the day before, had turned apocalyptic. We holed up in the house for the afternoon, limiting our liquids. We had counted on the changing shifts of cashiers to keep our very frequent visits from being totted up, but the cashiers, evidently, chatted among themselves. By the third day, racing in at seven for our morning constitutional, wet coats akimbo over our nightclothes, we felt -- how to put this exactly? -- not welcome. Even the house had turned against us, beading up with wetness on nearly every surface, little rivulets of rain threading their way across windowpanes and walls: so much water, and none of it running. But we were. With one more day coming to us, we finally gave in. We packed our damp belongings, stopped in for a last visit at the gas station, and headed home.

 
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