Rustic ranges from flat-screen televisions to outhouses

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
If you go Falls Brook Yurts 518-761-6187; 1926 C&O Caboose 540-463-2521; Primland The Golden Eagle Tree House is just one of several accommodations at Primland. 866-960-7746;

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A man dangling 65 feet up in a poplar tree is a man with a new perspective. Not just because of the view, although it was impressive, since this particular poplar was atop one of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. The dangling man suddenly could see a lot of things differently.

I had ended up in that tree with the help of Bob Wray of Blue Ridge Tree Climbing, who has made a business out of getting the earthbound aloft. Plenty of people can climb a few branches’ worth of a cooperative tree, but Wray, using rope and a harness, teaches you how to get up to heights usually visited only by birds.

Conquering this tree was especially important to me because in November I had broken two ribs when a stepladder betrayed me while I was stringing Christmas lights on a big pine in my yard. I intended for my brother Dale, who joined me in the poplar, to take a photograph of me in the treetop, which I would then show to the pine tree back home to remind it who is boss.

My experiment in rusticism included a weekend in a fairly primitive yurt in the Adirondack Mountains and a stay in a treehouse at a well-appointed resort in southern Virginia. In between I slept in an 87-year-old rail car. These types of alternative accommodations are hard to avoid nowadays. The wilderness resorts of old, which tried to reproduce the lifestyle of the landed gentry, have been supplanted by a raft of quirky rentals.

They hold out the promise of something different, something that connects the jaded traveler to either a personal or a collective American past — the past of the frontier, of On the Road, of backyard tree forts. But beyond that, they vary widely. There is rustic rustic, and there is not-at-all-rustic rustic.

I decided to start on the primitive end of the spectrum.

Round-roof inn

Yurts, circular structures with domed roofs, have been favored by nomadic peoples of Central Asia for centuries, but you don’t have to be a Mongol to feel the call of the yurt in your blood. In this country (and many others), they have become an into-the-woods option: more stable and less buggy than simply unrolling a sleeping bag on the ground, but more exotic and fun somehow than a tent or a log cabin.

You can find luxury yurts with hot tubs and Wi-Fi, but bare-bones seems more in the yurting spirit, which is what led me to Falls Brook Yurts in Minerva, N.Y., operated by Michele Quirk and Jim Hanley. They rent out two furnished yurts, which are not within sight of each other, well into the trees of Minerva, population 778 as of 2009.

If what validates your travel is an obsequious welcome by a desk clerk, prepare to be unvalidated here. Check-in consists of pulling your car to the side of a dirt road and hiking two-thirds of a mile into the forest with your bags and supplies, then letting yourself in using the lock combination you have been given.

A heater kept us perfectly comfortable inside the 20-foot-diameter yurt despite intermittent rain and snow and nighttime temperatures in the low 30s. But it did nothing to cut the chill in the bathroom, which was an outhouse a modest walk through the trees away.

Our planned adventure for the trip was to climb the delightfully named Vanderwhacker Mountain, which rises almost 3,400 feet and is said to have a fire tower on top. I add the qualifier because, alas, we never saw the fire tower, nor the top. We hadn’t counted on finding the access road to the trail impassable with snow. We had to hike 2 1/2 miles just to get to the start of the hike.

Five hours of trudging through snow that was sometimes knee-deep left us short of daylight and short of the summit.

Plugged back in

A few days later, I was driving down Interstate 81 on my way to Primland, a mountain resort in Virginia where I hoped to sample the other type of rustic, the one for people with lots of money and little interest in discomfort. But on the way there I grabbed a night in an old caboose. It’s a Chesapeake and Ohio car from 1926. Now, it sits incongruously amid hilly farmland in Natural Bridge, Va. A substantial herd of cows lives across the street, and out the back window you can see horses grazing.

When you pull up for your stay, a railroad-crossing sign starts flashing. There are cars like this all over the country, available for travelers with a fondness for railroads. This one was lovingly restored by a man named Tom Bradshaw, who stripped it down and gave it a sporty red exterior and interior of welcoming cherry wood and red cedar, and outfitted it with a double bed, a kitchen and a patio with a fire pit, along with amenities like air conditioning and satellite TV. It is also filled with railroad-themed lanterns, books and more.

Those who want to keep the transportation theme going can eat at the wacky Pink Cadillac Diner, which has at least 100 photographs and posters of Elvis Presley on its walls. Also nearby is an attraction called Foamhenge — yes, a reproduction of Stonehenge made of plastic foam.

From there it was on to Primland, a 12,000-acre resort in Meadows of Dan, established by French-born billionaire Didier Primat, although he died in 2008, a year before the main lodge opened. If my yurt was back to nature, Primland is back to nature with benefits. The lodge has a pool, a game room, a theater where you select the movies, an observatory for viewing the heavens, a nice bar and a fine-dining restaurant called Elements. The premier suite goes for $1,000 or more a night. For a detached experience, there are cabins and homes for rent. And there’s the Golden Eagle Tree House.

This word — “treehouse” — conjures all kinds of memories of childhood, or at least of the childhood you wish you’d had: rickety rope ladder, secret password to be admitted, arsenal of squirt guns and water balloons to keep out invaders. The Golden Eagle has its own sort of gantlet: Getting to it required a drive over a road so rugged that when you check in at the lodge, your car is taken away and you’re given an SUV. That, however, doesn’t cut you off from amenities. The treehouse has that television, a bathroom with soaking tub and shower, and a minibar. You can even order up food, like the house club sandwich, which is too fat to eat gracefully.

The treehouse also has an actual tree: The place is built around a formidable one. Although not off the ground in the branches, the treehouse comes with a heck of a view. It is on the edge of a steep slope that just keeps dropping. From the deck, you’re looking down, down, down, so far that distance is hard to calculate — those tiny buildings in the ravine might be a half-mile below or a hundred miles. On the drive in you might have seen hawks and other birds of prey soaring overhead. In the treehouse, you’re above them.

In good weather you could easily spend your whole time at Primland on the deck of the treehouse, sipping something and watching those birds. But the resort offers a number of activities (the more elaborate ones for a fee), so my brother and I naturally had to compete at a few, because that’s what brothers do.

I lost at table tennis and pool. I was outshot on the sporting-clays range. Those failures, though, were nothing compared with my performance on the golf course. Golf in no way belongs in a rustic vacation, but Primland put in a course a few years ago to provide a diversion during times when hunting, its main recreational offering, is not allowed, and since my brother is a serious golfer, we had to play it.

When we came to our final activity at Primland, the tree climbing with Wray, I was carrying a lot of negative baggage from my three-stop experiment in rustic travel: a horrendous golf score, vile socks, an incomplete hike, a suspicion that I’ve attained railroad-memorabilia-loving age. A trip up a tree was just what I needed.

When you’re high in a poplar, there is a point at which you want to just lean back and savor the view. But your natural instinct is to cling to the tree, not lean away from it. You have to accept on faith that your harness and rope, carefully tied, checked and rechecked by Wray, will hold you. It’s about trusting your knots.

So 65 feet off the ground, I trusted my knots. And all that baggage fell out of my pockets, as it were. Now, I no longer obsess about whether my socks are clean; dry is good enough for me. I view shooting a 160 on a par 72 as getting a round and a half free.

A rustic vacation, I now realize, isn’t necessarily about getting back to nature, or American roots. It’s about identifying the trappings of civilization in which we have imprisoned ourselves — dignity, pride, competitiveness — then letting them go.

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