Our Legend of Sleepy Hollow: A Tribute to Weekend Adventures and All Things Fleeting

There is a place we go. It is a lone but semi-modern house, unreachable by car and perched on a hillside deep in the valley where we once lived.

It’s unlike anyplace else. It’s not a county-maintained backcountry hut. It’s not a decayed mining cabin. It’s a home: A home where the owner is never present, but the door is always open. And someone is usually there, whether visiting for a moment like us, or staying for a day or two on some kind of exotic life journey, which they are generally willing to tell us all about.

The front of the house is almost entirely glass, smeared with old smoke, which filters the sunlight and makes the view hazy and ethereal. And the view from the living room couch is jawdropping: jagged peaks 14,000 feet high soar skyward on either side, dwarfing the river that roars down the valley below.

People of all ages come to this home, which we have always called Sleepy Hollow, and it’s hard to leave without making a contribution of some kind. One year, we brought a swing to hang near the front door. Just a simple rope and a fingerpainted slab of cedar.

Other visitors’ contributions are poetic in nature. Quotes from Thoreau and Lao Tzu are scribbled in blue and red and green Sharpie all along the interior walls. These are scattered in amid a variety of drawings: sketches of mountains and spruce trees, portraits and caricatures, mushrooms and dancing Grateful Dead bears.

I have photos of each of my three children holding a Crayola marker in their tiny hands and writing in their own way on these walls about their love for this place and this valley.

On each visit, we stay just long enough to note the changes since the time before and to read the entries in the guestbook that is tucked into a shelf by the woodstove.

Since we moved from this area, we have the intention of coming back every summer – and then something happens and we often don’t. But this past weekend, we realized that this was our chance to do it before the snow started to fly, so we shoved a dozen markers in my camera bag and made the half hour or so drive to the trailhead.

When we arrive, it seems everyone remembers the way. We scramble across sheets of rock to the trail, where roots have surged through the earth in great gnarled lumps. The kids see this as a kind of staircase, a red carpet, an invitation to explore deeper into this mysterious woods. This is a forest they don’t know in the same way they know the forest around our home.

We walk, and we walk, and we walk. Soon, the roots have disappeared and there is only hard packed trail and rocks. We are close to tree-line now, so high in elevation that the only trees able to survive in this oxygen-starved place are stick-like, their trunks poking like shards of glass from the rocky ground.

“We must have missed it,” Ty says. “Let’s turn around and everyone look a little harder.”

We missed it? How can you miss a house that you know is just off the trail and that five of you are looking for? Were we too busy talking and walked right past it? Did the spruce and shrubs grow up thick around it, hiding it from view? Did it burn down? I suggest maybe we dreamt it and it never existed at all. My son suggests maybe aliens took it.

So now it’s a mystery. What was once a simple hike has become an adventure of mythic proportions for my little hobbits, and they are starting to skip. After walking awhile, I see a knoll that looks like the one the house used to stand upon, so I tell the rest of the family to find a comfortable spot to wait for a minute. “Mama’s goin’ in.” I say, and I slash and stomp through the brush. At one point I have to get down on all fours to duck under some low branches, and my Labrador leaps around me and licks my face like he’s so glad I’ve finally come to my senses and left those lanky two leggers to join him in a more primal sort of life.

Finally I emerge at the top of the hill, but there’s nothing there but more trees and shrubs and dried grass. There’s no house and no clearing and no empty burned-out foundation, so I half-tumble back down the hill and meet my family down the trail a bit. They are sitting on an outcropping and taking turns sucking water from daddy’s Camelbak.

That’s when my husband sees a tiny break in the trail we hadn’t seen before. He jumps across it, and we follow, matching the length and rhythm of his stride like ducklings. My kids are no strangers to breaking trail, and I watch how they point out the muddy spots to one another and hold the branches as they go so nothing snaps back on the hiker behind. This makes me proud in a mountain mama kind of way.

We duck and jump this way for 10 or so minutes. And that’s when we see it.

Sleepy Hollow. The house is standing there, plain as day, about half a mile from the parking lot where we started. We had overshot it by 7 or 8 times. We all laugh because hiking as a family is much, much easier  than it was on even our last visit. We no longer have to carry a kid on our backs. We no longer have to stop twice for a snack break. What used to be an ordeal would have now been a quick jog from the minivan in the parking lot.

But now we’re here. We start to scramble headlong up the hillside like goats, but it doesn’t take long to realize that something is different.

A black and red sign hangs in the front window. “Private Property. No Trespassing.” From where we stand, we can see the walls inside have been painted a semigloss white. The grass has grown around the property, concealing the once well-worn path. The swing is gone altogether.

We all just stand and stare. Ty says something about how you never know when things are going to change and you just have to enjoy them while you can. My oldest daughter nods and looks at the dirt. My other daughter shares a memory. My son wants to know if we can get our swing back.

I don’t say anything because I am filled all at once with a kind of longing. Raising my kids — out of their infancy and toddlerhood — has been kind of like this. The memories take on the cast of a dream. It’s all so wonderful and yet sometimes so strange and so distant that I can start to question whether I really lived through all those years at all. It just doesn’t seem possible.

And then I realize that I’ll probably be saying the same thing about the place I am right at this very moment in five or so years – and so there’s nothing to do but get on with the business of living this part of their childhood and enjoying it as much as I can before it, too, feels like a dream.

Today, that means a hike in the woods with my family and a hot cup of cocoa with double the marshmallows back home.

Susie Michelle Cortright is the founder of Momscape.
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