Most commonly, people tend to think of their home as simply providing shelter. I’d like to suggest that you instead think of your house primarily as providing food. No, I’m not trying to channel the inner-termite in you, but rather plant the idea that the purpose of your house is to nourish you – in body and spirit. Dwelling, like eating, is immeasurably more satisfying when undertaken as an engaging, sensual experience.
So, let me ask: When was the last time you ate something memorable – truly memorable? It needn’t have been a multi-course meal with wine parings at a five-star restaurant. It might simply have been your grandmother’s secret-recipe soup, or a freshly smoked rainbow trout, or wild berries you picked by hand that captivated you. I’m willing to speculate though, assuming you’ve reached voting age, that it’s unlikely to have been fast food.
Too often, I feel that prospective homeowners ask for what is analogous to fast food take-out – hoping that, by simply adding more rooms or newer technologies, their hungers will go away. Yet, we all know the difference between a fast food fix versus a culinary experience! Fast food serves an immediate hunger; enabling people to get on with whatever else in life they value more. A culinary experience, on the other hand, engages one holistically in the moment. The same diverse spectrum exists relative to how we can choose to dwell.
While I was tempted to write an essay inspired by the analogies between food and architecture, I decided to heed longstanding writers’ wisdom: stick to what you know best. So, the balance of this piece is grounded in my experiences as an architect and backpacker. It is intended as a tone poem of sorts — meant to convey the sense of potency that an aesthetic and emotional experience of place can achieve. In lieu of my accompanying you on an actual field trip, I hope this 3,500-word fictional journey about an overnight stay will evoke some of the potential of an engaged architectural/aesthetic experience that sustains an owner holistically, rather than just serving short-sighted interests.
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By late summer I’d been feeling the need to get away from the grind of daily deadlines. With so much work though, going on an extended vacation didn’t seem to be an option. Thus, when I spotted a blurb about an entrepreneur offering “curated” overnight dwelling experiences, my interest was piqued. After inquiring about the details and securing my reservation date, I was given an admission time and GPS coordinates to the place where I was to park my car. I was informed that after parking, all I had to do was follow the signs.
In advance of my arrival, it was clear that the general area was a forest of great natural beauty. When I arrived at the appointed time to where the GPS navigator led, I was met with a perfect 2:1 proportioned rectangle of violet gravel, contained by a thin ribbon of plate steel edging. Obviously, this was my designated parking space. Stepping out of my car I heard the crunch of the gravel under my feet. The sweet fragrance of the mature hemlock forest enveloped me. I breathed deeply. Simply by arriving here and breathing, I felt relaxation entering my shoulders, replacing the tensions of the past week.
Although it was late afternoon when I arrived, the sunlight was still strong. What a beautiful day, I thought to myself. Now, where are those signs that they said to look for? Stepping off the gravel bed, I nearly stumbled, immediately sinking into the organic compost of a thick forest floor with a covering of light brown pine needles. Straightening myself, I could see no visible signs. Perhaps they’re on the other side of the car, I thought to myself. I started walking around the car. Soon, the sound of tree branches rustling in the breeze was interrupted by one of creaking wood. I realized that I’d stepped onto some wooden planks, concealed beneath a layer of pine needles. I thought, perhaps the original trailhead sign has been stolen and this is the starting point of the trail to my overnight cabin.
Sure enough, the path of boards led directly into the forest. My confidence having been somewhat restored, I took my time wandering along the path, following the gentle curves amidst the trees. As I went further, the air took on an earthier, moister scent. Occasional staccato bursts of woodpeckers, searching for food in tree trunks, punctured the stillness of the forest. Soon I was lost in my own thoughts — not about anything in particular — just feeling happy to be alive.
Then, without warning, I found myself standing face-to-face with a huge boulder. Shortly after entering the forest I’d noticed that there were a number of “erratics”, as such boulders are called, left behind by the retreat of glaciers long ago. Had I absentmindedly strayed from the path? I stomped my feet. Nope, the hollow sound confirmed that I was still on a wooden boardwalk. Well then, what the heck? I kicked my feet side-to-side, clearing the walk of pine needles abutting the boulder. The wooden planking, once exposed, revealed that the boards had been neatly trimmed to match the outline of the base of the rock. This was no accidental collision of rock and path! Someone’s idea of a cruel joke, I muttered to myself. Some jerk is testing me. They want to see if I’ll climb over or go around. Well, there’s no way I’m going over!
I looked side-to-side, assessing which direction offered easier passage. Having almost lost my balance earlier when stepping off the gravel, I moved with care into the thick bed of moss encircling the erratic. At about halfway around the boulder I expected that the wooden pathway would resume, but alas, no. I continued the rest of the way around just to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. After ending where I started, without finding another traceable path, I felt really annoyed. Maybe there are signs farther out, away from this rock, I postulated. I decided to retrace my steps around the boulder again, but this time looking outward from the rock mass instead of groundward as I had previously done.
I took my time, occasionally stopping to look side-to-side, but still encountered nothing that offered promise. Should I simply do an about-face and walk the planks back to the car? The phrase “walking the plank” struck me as an amusing pun under the circumstances. Why don’t you just admit that this whole idea was stupid from the beginning, I asked myself. For starters, though, the reservation fee wasn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination, so the idea of throwing money away was not particularly appealing. Neither was the notion that I was an idiot who had failed at what I had set out to do.
The sun was starting to set, making it harder for me to resist the urge to panic. Okay, I told myself, no one is going to die. There’s no need to get yourself worked into a tizzy. Even in pitch-black darkness I was sure I could feel my way along the boardwalk to make it back to my car. Get a hold of yourself, I muttered aloud. Somehow the self-assurance of having a tangible lifeline back to my car left me with an eerie sense of calm. Suddenly I felt strangely detached – as though I’d just stepped outside myself. I found myself as an impartial observer, like an anthropologist dropped into the site of an ancient civilization.
I turned to the boulder again, examining it clinically, as one would an artifact. Of course, I immediately chastised myself for not having paid more attention during geology class in college. Nonetheless, my eyes and hands found their way along the contours of the ancient metamorphic fragment, searching for something, anything, that might have meaning.
Three quarters of the way around I stopped. Traces of human tooling? Why hadn’t I noticed this before? Although I couldn’t be certain, it appeared that the natural contours and fissures of the boulder and been shaped and widened to form hand and foot holds. Cautiously I began climbing upward. Yes, I remember thinking, these are too perfect to be anything but intentional. Soon I was on top of the great rock.
Oh, but nighttime really is coming on. Am I prepared for descending the rock “by braille” as it were, I wondered, still contemplating the very real possibility of defeat. With the remaining dim light of the day, I quickly did a 360-degree survey of the surrounding forest — wishing I had the lamp of a lighthouse to accompany my visual sweep. Alas, still nothing of note was to be seen.
My focus was interrupted by stepping into a hollow on top of boulder. In the oblique light, I could see the depression clearly as having been man-made. Actually, it was a pair of depressions. They had been honed perfectly smooth, strongly resembling the metal seat of an old farm tractor. I reached down to feel them. Cool and smooth. I really did feel like an anthropologist now, having found conclusive evidence of earlier human efforts. With no other immediately obvious actions to undertake, I decided to see if their seat-like shape actually was comfortable. It felt like it was made just for me. Not only did it provide a comfortable seat of natural stone, but a fissure in the boulder left a gap large enough for me to let my legs hang freely. I wish I had found this earlier, I remember thinking, so I could have enjoyed the view and sunlight.
Nonetheless, my trail had come to a dead end. Soon I would have to reconcile myself to defeat and retrace my steps back to the car. For now, though, I was going to salvage something out of this ill-guided adventure. I had to admit that the setting sun was enchanting, even magical, shifting progressively to a more intense hue of orange. It was as if the light of the setting sun itself had become something solid, piercing the trees like swords. I lost myself in that moment — a transcendent moment of beauty.
After the moment had passed, I found myself cloaked in the darkness of night, a darkness unlike that of a city or suburb, where light refracted from streetlamps and homes maintains an all-pervasive glow. In the forest it was an inky, full-on blackness. A shiver ran up my spine. Suddenly I felt so alone and unprotected, yet surrounded by the sounds of nature — sounds big and small. I closed my eyes to listen. There were branches rustling, the muffled whoo-whoo’s of owls calling out, tree trunks creaking, insects buzzing. The sounds of the forest became intimate and rich, a musical symphony for an audience of one. I decided to just sit with the sounds for a while before giving up and heading back to my car.
Reluctantly I opened my eyes to start the journey back home. But wait — now there seemed to be a flickering point of light in the distance. Some sign of civilization at last, I rejoiced under my breath. Had the light’s position seemed random, I might have ignored it. However, it was glowing directly in front of me, perfectly aligned with the stone seat carved into the boulder upon which I sat. I was tempted to shout “Eureka!” — tempted to think it might be the porch light of my cabin, but I thought it best not to get my hopes up.
I climbed down from my boulder perch and begin working my way toward the spot of light that was perhaps 100 meters or so ahead. Although my eyes were adjusting to the darkness of the forest understory, I proceeded slowly to avoid tripping over any unseen obstacles. Perhaps it was no accident that the path forward was unencumbered by projecting roots, stones or fallen branches. Slowly I started hearing the sounds of water, the sounds of a stream or river. Now it’s time for Eureka! At last I could make out that the light source was a camping lantern set atop a wooden post that had been installed beside a stream. If ever there was a sign, this was it, a lantern purposely set out for me! As I stepped up to the lantern, I could see ripples in the stream, the width of which was perhaps three meters. A course of stepping-stones had clearly been set up to make for a dry stream crossing. I reached for the lantern and carefully guided myself across the stones to the far side.
Once across, I could see that the stones continued, no longer as rounded projections emanating from the water but as flat faces, set flush with the ground. The sandy soil at the stream’s edge quickly gave way to a thick grove of ferns surrounding the stones ahead. As I proceeded, they gently guided me on a curving, now increasingly uphill, walk. Before long, the individual stones ended, terminating at the base of a narrow set of stone stairs, set into a steep, forested hillside.
With lamp held high, I climbed the stairs. Attentive as I was to avoiding a misstep, it wasn’t until I was nearly at the last step that I finally looked up. There it was – a building that had to be my destination! In the meadow clearing that lay before me stood what reminded me of an Asian temple. It emitted a golden orange glow from within. At that moment it struck me as the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I set down the lantern, pausing to admire what stood before me. I realized that I hadn’t been aware of any sounds since leaving the rushing waters of the stream. But standing here, at the edge of the meadow, I felt as if I had been transported to a wholly different kind of environment, home to grasses and insects – noisy insects. Although I couldn’t tell you what kinds of insects were producing which sounds, the overall effect of the loud chorus was surprisingly soothing.
Turning my attentions to the structure again, it really did resemble a Chinese or Japanese temple, but without the upturned roof corners. It appeared to be a symmetrical wooden pavilion, raised about a half meter or so above the ground, encircled by a broad cantilevered veranda. The overall warm glow of light emanating from within the pavilion was made all the more tantalizing by a scrim of patterned latticework, stretched between floor and ceiling. My first impression was that of the geometric arabesques of Persia, designed to filter the intensity of the desert sun. However, this particular pattern betrayed no overt geometric structure. Instead, it more closely resembled the liquid traces of a Jackson Pollock drip painting, very evenly applied, yet without presenting any recognizable shapes.
Undeniably, there was a sense of the spiritual that the edifice exuded. It seemed to have a gentle living spirit about it. Allure. That was certainly one thing my temple had. I paused to consider if the building had a gender, as it suddenly seemed to possess qualities often described as feminine. It’s best to leave this line of thinking and declare it gender-neutral, I decided. Nonetheless, I had to think of something more personal and intimate than it. I chose sanctuary. I had arrived at my sanctuary for the night.
I’d lost track of how much time had elapsed since leaving my car in the parking space, but by now I was becoming aware that it had been a while since I had either drunk or eaten anything! Also, I was becoming aware that I was serving as host to other’s dinners — those “others” being mosquitoes. I made my approach quickly to the four low, broad wooden steps centered on the veranda. Bounding up them, I found myself sheltered beneath the broad protective eaves of the roof, face to face with the abstract latticework screen that stretched floor-to-ceiling. The shapes, in their intensity and fluidity, were mesmerizing, yet I was no longer in the mood to contemplate their splendor, thanks to the ravenous mosquitoes.
To either side of the lattice wall, also stretching full height, were panels with insect screening – a clear signal that I would be able to find refuge from the world of mosquitoes. Seeing no signs of hardware that would help me gain entry, I simply pushed the closest edge of the screen frame. The panel pivoted open soundlessly, revealing a square, screen-enclosed room, with a pyramidal wooden ceiling. Situated on the floor, centered beneath the apex of the high ceiling, was a large, sumptuous bed, covered by a comforter appearing as soft as a cloud, and a double-row of plump pillows. The head of the bed backed against a partition of river-washed stones, similar to cobblestones, but translucent like milky quartz. Within this “headboard,” above the pillows, was a horizontal recess stretching the full width of the bed, holding a bountiful array of flickering votive candles. They were what animated the sanctuary interior with so much life and character.
Having glimpsed the overall splendor of the room, my eyes came back to what lay immediately before me: an asymmetrical vase of fragrant, colorful flowers. I breathed deeply. I had arrived. The pedestal upon which the flowers stood was a solid block of stone, standing upright. From a thin slit, cut into the front top edge of the stone, water emerged. The water flowed down the roughly chiseled front face of the stone, producing a soothing, trickling sound, before disappearing into an even larger slot in the floor.
It was then that I noticed the flooring. In color it wasn’t too different from the weathered wooden planks of the exterior veranda. However, inside the chamber, the wood gave way to natural stone, dead flat, with a soft, sandblasted matte finish. Nearest the entrance door, raised by only a millimeter or so but polished to a gleaming luster, were the “prints” of a pair of men’s dress shoes. I took their presence as a sign from my hosts that my experience would benefit from removal of my shoes. As I did so, I was immediately surprised as my bare feet touched a warm stone floor, rather than the cold surface I’d expected. Ah, a radiant floor, I exclaimed to myself!
Despite my growing hunger, I felt an eagerness to explore my newfound sanctuary. Granted, at first glance it seemed simple enough: a single-room pavilion. Yet the sheer amount of detail convinced me that the room could sustain a rather lengthy investigation. I conceded that there would be more than ample time to contemplate the finer aesthetic nuances tomorrow. Far more pressing was the need now for some vital functional questions to be answered. For instance, did this place have a toilet? Or were they expecting me to have to stumble outside and cozy up to the nearest tree? I cringed as I recalled an urban myth about the consequences befalling a hapless backpacker who had the misfortune of using poison ivy as toilet paper!
The only apparent place to investigate was behind the stone headboard wall. I slipped around the right-hand end of the wall. Perfect is how I’d describe the toilet alcove I discovered, with an elegant wall-hung seat. It had no visible water supply, so I searched out what looked to be a flush control and immediately depressed it — just to make sure it had running water! Hooray, I can cross that off my worry list, I thought to myself.
Next, it occurred to me that, come morning, I would be wanting a shower, or a bath at the very least, if showering wasn’t an option. I found myself hoping that I wouldn’t be trekking down to the stream I’d crossed earlier to do some skinny dipping! I was sure it would prove invigorating but wasn’t sure that I wanted such a cold start for the day. Thankfully, a trip to the alcove around the opposite side of the headboard revealed what looked to be a perfectly delightful rain-head shower, with a well-stocked niche of body and hair lotions. Since the controls indicated hot and cold, I was satisfied that I didn’t need to prematurely test them for water temperature.
With the means for addressing several of the essentials of life satisfied, it was finally time to quell the rumblings of my stomach. Looking back diagonally across the bed toward where I’d originally entered, I saw that a table was positioned behind the stone pedestal supporting the flower vase. On the tabletop were three large rectangular baskets, woven from some form of woody plant. Below were two drawers. I made my way over to inspect the baskets more closely. They were individually labeled, from left to right, sequentially as dinner, breakfast and lunch.
I opened the first basket. A handwritten note explained the nature of the locally sourced picnic dinner I was about to enjoy, and which drawers contained utensils and other supplemental sundries I might need. I have to admit that I was so curious as to how my next day was going to start, that I had to open the second basket and read the breakfast menu: Fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, sliced meats and cheeses, coffee and tea.
What a remarkably simple and elegant presentation! I closed the breakfast basket and opened a bottle of wine from the dinner basket. I breathed a sigh of deep contentment. I didn’t feel that the day had unfolded in the most straightforward of ways, but the richness of the journey — and the clear thoughtfulness of how it had been planned by my hosts — made the present moment so rewarding… so simple in its unique way, yet so profound. I knew that the experience of this day would continue to satisfy me for years to come.