Zen koans, by their nature and intent, are riddles that defy logic. They are meant to be contemplated at length and require one to approach the puzzles with a clear, open mind. Hard to do in the average 21st century life, where work doesn't end until 6 p.m. (at least) and the weekend means some extra time to do more work. But I have recently discovered Zen koans, and I craved some breathing room in which to ponder them. (I'm single and sick of Match.com, OK?) Sure, I could've gone to Lake Erie, but I needed real breathing space the kind that smells like pine needles and pure ozone.
Enter the Savage River Lodge.
About five hours southeast of Cleveland, in the tip-top western corner of Maryland, at approximately 2,700 feet above sea level, down a bumpy gravel road/trail, lies the lodge in all its glorious simplicity. I had 24 hours to slow down and contemplate. Would the lodge really be able to exorcise my stress in such a short period? Would it be possible to walk a little farther down my own personal path to enlightenment? Or at least understand that most puzzled-over koan of all, the sound of one hand clapping?
As the dust from the road settled around my car, it immediately hit me: silence. A layer of stress drifted away from me.
Now, that's not to say I was fleet-footed and fancy-free. But that moment held a whisper of things to come.
Owner Mike Russell (who runs the place with his wife, Jan, and their dog, Bodhi) gave me a quick tour. Part family summer house, part upscale retreat, the main lodge had me torn between stopping beside the stone fireplace at the bar that Mike and Jan take great care in stocking with a dizzying array of quality wines or alighting on one of the three levels of a porch facing tree-filled valleys and rolling hills.
Instead, I took a nap in my cabin.
Afterward, lingering on my personal front porch in a wooden rocking chair, feet and a mug of tea sharing a precarious perch on an upturned piece of firewood, I leafed through an old magazine from the coffee table and really did it: I let my thoughts ramble and wander, took in the forest before me and listened to the silence. It was a chance to forget about my workload, my priorities and deadlines, but without putting any new, pressing thoughts into my head. See, at Savage River, there are no pools, no golf courses or tennis courts, no event planners or schedule boards, nothing plastic or primary colored, no logos. It's just you and the trees.
That evening I wandered down to the lodge for dinner. The Russells recently hired a former Maryland native and Johnson & Wales University graduate, Greg Carter, as their executive chef. He aims for a sort of high-class country menu, deftly listing blackened ahi tuna on the same menu with Savage River meatloaf. I opted for she-crab corn chowder, "salmon in a bag," which arrived wrapped in parchment pulled straight from their wood-fired oven, and a perfectly layered blueberry bread pudding. Right then and there, I decided I was never going home.
These rebel thoughts continued through the night, as I whiled away the evening in front of the fireplace (no TVs here) with a book I'd been meaning to get to and some hot cocoa I found in the cabin. I nestled into the queen-size bed in my little cabin's loft, and in the morning woke to a picnic basket outside my door with a mason jar of OJ, homemade blueberry muffins and a Washington Post. It was the fuel I needed for a morning mountain bike ride.
The lodge contains 15 miles of trails for hiking and biking. During the winter it books up fast with cross-country skiers and snowshoeing fanatics. But on the day I went out, I was alone on a trail that crept up steep ascents and plunged down toward the headwaters of the Savage River. It wound through a positively magical forest of frothy, spiky conifers and hugged thickets of jade, lime and rust-colored ferns. As I lazily explored the paths, I noticed the random sound of a single, quiet footfall. Pausing, I realized it was nothing more, nothing less than the sound of a leaf falling with a satisfied sigh to the forest ground. Don't call me Siddhartha just yet I still don't really get the answers to any koans. But I did release a load of stress that was a long time accumulating, and I found the time to recognize the sound of one leaf falling.