The first thing I notice when I get out of the car is the air. When you live in the high-altitude desert of Arizona, the humid Pennsylvania summer breeze, heavy in oxygen, scented with moss and grass and pine, is sweet relief.
The small lake in the southern Pocono Mountains has been a home and a haven for four generations of my family. I can’t row past the cement dock without trying to envision the day that my father proposed to my mother there, next to the tiny beach where a million sandcastles were created and toppled, at the bottom of the hill where my Poppop would load up a gaggle of his grandkids in an old plastic boat we’d packed with all of our toys, towels, buckets, and rafts for a day on the water. He’d give us a good push and away we’d go, right into the spring-fed water, screaming the whole way down. We’d only return to the cottage for a bologna sandwich at noon or to shuck corn-on-the-cob on the porch steps, under our Grammy’s supervision.
The sound of the old screen door slamming all day: A neighbor visiting, an aunt arriving, my dad coming down for a swim. That sound signaled the presence of family, coming and going but always around. The cottage had no heat, no air conditioning, no TV. Most meals were cooked over a charcoal flame. It was basic: a big porch, a long table, a stone fireplace, and our imaginations.
It’s different now: We have heat and air conditioning and TVs; we succumbed to Wi-Fi. But the stone fireplace stands, and the lake still heals. Grammy and Poppop and my dad are gone, but on the porch, somehow, they’re still there to toast with a Perfect Manhattan during cocktail hour, and a London broil perfectly grilled, devoured by yet another generation of cousins and neighbors and godchildren.
I fled to the lake as a 20-something New Yorker in the days after Sept. 11, 2001. I moved in temporarily after leaving a job in Washington, D.C., in 2009, to find out if I had what it took to make it as a freelance writer. Last June, I drove there from my home in Flagstaff, Ariz., 2,500 miles with two dogs in tow. Where else would I go during a pandemic? A four-week stay turned into four months.
But I’m careful now to not treat this place as an escape from society’s harsh realities, or my own problems. I’ve realized it’s a place that’s quiet enough to think, to plan, and to hear what I can’t elsewhere. The lake inspires perspective and awareness that with this privilege comes a responsibility—to use the time and space to find a spark that leads to something good out there.
The lake is where I fill myself up with the good stuff: Love, family, friendship. And where I leave ready, again, to take on the world.
Erin Strout is a senior writer at Women’s Running magazine.