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There’s an art to relaxing. The first rule is not to make matters too complicated. Especially in summer, everybody finds their right balance of doing just enough while taking it easy. A good equation is being outside near water. Add a grill and some white wine, and you’re in business. For me, that means returning to our family lake cabin in Chippewa County, Wisconsin, a two-hour drive from my childhood home in Minneapolis.

I’m embarrassed to say that as kids, my sister and I made our parents listen to a cassette of the Cats soundtrack on the way there. I’m also embarrassed to say that I still remember all the lyrics to “Macavity” (the mystery cat, for those lucky enough never to have been afflicted with this). I now realize that these songs were the cost of keeping us relatively quiet as we made our way, with a car full of bags and food and wine, out of town. 

These days, I have a longer way to go, all the way from New York City. Though I still often drive (a cool 16 hours). I still love arriving for the first time each year. I used to run straight from the car, stripping off clothes as I made my way down to the lake, and dive right in wearing nothing but boxer shorts, regardless of weather or water temperature. Now, I’m a little more measured. But I still do try to swim every day.

What I loved about our cabin as a kid is what I love about it as an adult: being on the water, swimming every day, eating lunch outside. Trying to read a meaningful biography in the hammock, which somehow evolves into a nap. Taking our temperamental motorboat out on the lake — or the rowboat or the canoe. The boats have multiplied over the years.

Now, I’m more obsessed with grilling, and my sister and I plot more elaborate meals. I cook over a wood fire on an outdoor stone fireplace, sometimes for hours. Usually it’s very good, except for on one infamous occasion of the over-salted brisket, when it was very bad (why would a recipe tell you to make a salt rub then expect you to only use a quarter of it?!).

Artful Living | David Coggin's Ode to Midwestern Cabin Culture

Illustration by Hilbrand Bos

These traditions vary from family to family. Some come and go. You have to have a very sturdy relationship with your siblings to play Monopoly year after year. So we’ve put that board game in the closet, which turned out to be good for comradery. Though we still occasionally play Casino, the card game my grandfather taught us when we were children. 

At a cabin, I fully support any ambitions or unusual traditions. They don’t even have to have a reason. Somehow my sister started cooking what we call Greek Fest. For one night, we have spinach pie and something that involves chicken and pita, and listen to the Zorba the Greek soundtrack. Nobody quite remembers how this started, and we are decidedly not Greek (and the chicken recipe might not be either), but now it’s part of the summer and it’s festive and fantastic. 

I learned to fish and learned to love to fish on this lake. Then I started going on trips to nearby rivers with friends of my grandfather’s. When I return now, I think of them and our time on the water. When I see kids fishing on the lake, I remember the feeling I had when I was young. Even though most of my fishing is done in more remote parts of the world, the instinct remains the same.

Over the years, there have been changes. At one time, my grandfather had the longest phone cord anybody had ever seen. This allowed him to bring the phone all the way from the cabin down the hill so he could answer it by the lake. He did this when he was expecting an important call from Chicago. When my mom was a girl, they still had a party line. These days, we have the Internet, which was at first a controversial decision within the family. But it allows us to spend more time at the cabin. I can work and write, and I’ve even recorded podcasts there. This would certainly have surprised my grandfather. 

Our family likes to watch Mr. Hulot’s Holiday each year. The great French film is about vacation and the desire to relax, though of course Jacques Tati makes relaxing more complicated. And there are always complications — weather, relationships, schedules, the fast pace of modern life. Yet the allure of the cabin remains, because we still seek simpler pleasures and yearn for that feeling of diving into the water for the first time each year. 

A Minnesotan turned New Yorker, David Coggins is the author of the New York Times bestseller Men and Style and writes a column for Artful Living.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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