Last September, we drove to an empty lake deep in the Appalachians for a short vacation, a much-needed chance to relax. I longed to escape writing and house chores and cats and reconnect with nature.
When we arrived, clouds draped over the peaks and our room was gloomy. I missed civilization instantly and forced my husband to drive the seven crooked miles back down the mountain to the nearest hamlet so I could hit the Dollar store (the biggest concern). I raced through the aisles grabbing snacks, notebooks, pens, and word-search puzzle books. We’d come to unwind, but I’d dragged my Restless Self with us.
I chose this spot not just for its seclusion but also because of the lake’s mystery. Every 50 or 100 years, Mountain Lake performs a disappearing act. Scientists believe it drains itself and, when conditions are right, fills again by springs beneath the lake bed. Yet after years of tests, they still aren’t sure. Well, I wanted to know for sure. In addition to Restless Self, I also brought along Nosy-Got-To-Learn-More-Right-Now Self (yes, the car was crowded). Why did the lake empty? I grilled the poor guy running the gift shop. When was it coming back?
Like many of us, I look up stuff before I’ve finished thinking of it. Lack of a smartphone doesn’t slow me down — I run upstairs to my computer so fast I could medal in track. But the satisfaction of ferreting a fact in seconds doesn’t last and sometimes flat-out ruins the wonder of not knowing.
On the edge of sleep that night, I realized why I’d picked such a remote place: a children’s book, of course. Gone-Away Lake (1957) by Elizabeth Enright was one of my favorite books, along with its sequel Return to Gone-Away (1961). A community of summer houses were built around a lake in the late 1800s. The lake dried up in 1905 and the houses were abandoned. Present-day kids (well, in the ’50s) discover the “ship-wrecked” houses and two elderly people living there. These aren’t slam-bang, cliff-hanger stories, but a rich, luscious summer idyll with just enough mystery and the most gorgeous writing in children’s literature.
Each day, rain or shine, is packed with wonder at Gone-Away Lake. Brimming with curiosity, the kids discover plants, animals, insects that changed the landscape after the lake vanished. They listen to stories about the good old days when the community was in full swing. They pick out a not-too-falling-down house and make it their own.
When I woke up our first morning at Mountain Lake, the sun was bright. I left Restless and Nosy to the word-search puzzles and went exploring. I waded into the 55-acre site, marveling at the variety of plants and tiny critters that had adapted within the last five years. I paused by dry-docked rocks with strange formations. Overhead, the sky was paint box blue and I felt content. I didn’t need to identify that slug, or those purple flowers, or the snake that whipped nearly across my shoes. It was enough to let unexpected wonder wash over me.
Suddenly I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to explore every inch of that dried-up lake and wander the back roads that crisscrossed the mountain. I wanted to give myself over to wonder.
In Gone-Away Lake, ten-year-old Portia weeds the garden with her Aunt Hilda.
“If you could just hold onto it,” said Portia, sitting back on the warm grass. “Summer starting to be. Everything just exactly right.”
“But if it were this way every day, all the time, we’d get too used to it,” said Aunt Hilda. “It’s because it doesn’t and can’t last that a day like this is so wonderful.”
“Good things must have comparers, I suppose,” said Portia. “Or how would we know how good they are?”
Those few, perfect days at Mountain Lake became my comparer. I didn’t find a vacant colony of Victorian houses, but I gathered odd pebbles from the bottom of the lake bed, possibly created millions of years ago. I took some photos. I did not take notes.
Back home, I fell into my busy routine. Yet I made sure I checked the morning sky when I fetched the paper, watched starlings at stoplights, lingered at the door to catch a rare southeast breeze. I quit looking up every single question that flashed through my mind. Some things should remain a mystery.