Susan Harlan in The Morning News:
Last year, I opted out of Thanksgiving. I had never failed to celebrate a major holiday before. When I used to live in New York City, I was accustomed to spending Thanksgivings with friends and their families as my own family was far away in California. This usually involved waiting amongst crowds in Penn Station and then taking the train out to New Jersey. Now that I live in a small city in North Carolina, I receive generous offers of holiday festivity that usually involve large quantities of bourbon. But last year, I felt the need to be elsewhere.
So I set off.
This was not my first retreat, as I had started to call my weekend getaways. Since the beginning of the school year, I had been taking long drives over the weekends get to know North Carolina better, but also because I found myself restless at home. I didn’t necessarily have to go anywhere in particular; I just liked to drive along two-lane highways, past small-town cemeteries, BBQ joints, and rummage stores. “What are you up to this weekend?” friends would ask. “Going on a retreat,” I would reply. I found old lodges, log cabins, inns, and motels in the mountains. I brought my dog Millie, lots of books, a notebook. A flashlight and bug spray. Some groceries. Red wine. Blue rubber rain boots and several good sweaters that I left in the car.
“In the mountains, there you feel free.” So says the first speaker in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was among the books I brought with me, along with Dylan Thomas and Walt Whitman, Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, and M.F.K. Fisher’s As They Were. These books were my supplies. And in the evenings, in the mountains, I did feel free, even if I knew I was not. One afternoon in late October, I sat on a bench on a sloping hillside and watched the wind blow red and yellow leaves off the trees in the distance, a declaration of the end of fall. I liked to rent cabins in the woods, and some people asked if I was scared of being murdered in one of these isolated places. Sometimes they were joking, but sometimes they weren’t. They genuinely found the idea terrifying. Before I went away for Thanksgiving, I showed a friend a picture of the cabin I had rented. She gasped.
“That looks like it should be in a horror film,” she said.