A Lifesaving Retreat in Maine
FOR three decades, Judy Scheffler followed the drumbeat of corporate America. But then she bought a simple two-bedroom log cabin in Maine. Doing so not only changed her life — it may also have saved it.
"I call it my magic mountain," she said about her cabin, which, even though it is within sight of the Appalachians — called the Blue Mountains in these parts — is geographically closer to a big lake, Cupsuptic Lake.
But Ms. Scheffler, 65, likes to reference Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain."
"Mann talks about time, and that's what I mean with my magic mountain," she said. "You have to use time for your health and sensibilities. Up here, it's so easy to see that."
Things weren't always that simple. In the mid-90's, Ms. Scheffler was promoted to a high-powered job at AT&T. Unbeknown to her and most of her fellow employees at the time, the company was about to launch Lucent Technologies. As a computer executive, Ms. Scheffler had to help with the separation of the two information systems.
"I had my one job, plus five hours a day extra for Lucent," she recalled. "It was hectic and wild."
After a brief vacation on the Maine coast, she and her husband, Art, detoured inland to the vast but little-developed upper half of the state known as the Unorganized Territory, which has no local or municipal government. Zoning and planning in the area are handled by the Land Use Regulation Commission, known by its acronym, LURC. The commission oversees more than 10 million acres of mountains and forest running up as far as the Canadian border.
Mr. Scheffler, a sales manager for trade magazines who had studied wildlife management and forestry at the University of Maine, was convinced that a lakefront property in the Unorganized Territory could be had for less than $50,000. The couple looked at various homes where the price was right, but the houses were on minuscule lakes and were so far into the mountains they would have been snowbound and inaccessible in winter.
Then Ms. Scheffler saw a picture of Fox's Den, a cabin down a logging trail and right on Cupsuptic Lake, one of a string of interconnected lakes that had been named by the Abenaki Indians. The property was unusual in that it was close to the water, and not closed in by trees to make it invisible from the water, and had a permanent dock — features now disallowed by LURC but grandfathered in. Within a year, Ms. Scheffler bought it for $140,000.
"Art thought it was too far away," she said, "but I knew that I was very stressed at work and needed to do something about my life. Art agreed."
The drive to the cabin from their home in Summit, N.J., took nine hours — in fact, the local bank extended its hours to accommodate Ms. Scheffler's schedule for the closing. But the couple went north as often as possible, even in winter, when the temperatures on the lake can drop to 20 degrees below zero.
With the drive taking a day each way, they could usually squeeze in only three full days at the cabin. "But even in three days you can get in touch with things," Ms. Scheffler said. "When I go up there, I forget life in the city."
The intense quiet around them also helped her notice an inner noise that turned out to be a symptom of something that was going on in her body — an acoustic neuroma, a tumor that affects one's hearing.
"I believe that if I hadn't gone there, I never would have calmed down and would have never found my brain tumor," she said. "I found it by being very quiet and listening. It was a teensy sound. It sounded like swish. Shshsh shshsh. Sometimes twice, sometimes three times. Like a coded message."
The tumor took five doctors six hours to remove, but it was benign. Only a month after the operation, Ms. Scheffler, albeit a bit unsteady on her feet from the loss of hearing in her left ear but otherwise healthy, was back at work. Yet the combination of stress, the tumor, the knowledge that both her parents had died relatively young, and buying the cabin made her reassess her life.
"I realized that I didn't need that much money," she said. "I asked myself what's important in my life and what matters and I realized what it was — my daughters, my husband and myself." (Ms. Scheffler has two daughters from her first marriage.) So eight years ago, at age 57, she retired.
At the aptly named Fox's Den, where foxes have actually bred under the wood-paneled cabin, the Schefflers can be as remote as they want. This is an area, after all, where moose outnumber people two to one. The cabin is 15 miles from the nearest town, Rangeley, which turned 150 last year but still has a year-round population of only 1,500.
Closer to the cabin is the crossroads of Oquossoc, said to be the site of the first dogsled mail run in the Northeast in the days when anglers took the train there for vacation, though better known today for a restaurant called the Gingerbread House. Between the cabin and the Canadian border, 25 miles away, there's a forest of spruce and balsam that's almost impenetrable. When the Schefflers drive or hike along the tote roads in the forest — something the lumber companies let them do at their own risk — they are almost always alone.
Now that they are both retired, they spend more days at the cabin and take their time getting there, moseying along the scenic Route 91 and overnighting at a favorite inn in Vermont. They have slowly worked their way into the local community, and Ms. Scheffler is a member of the Rangeley Lakes Region Historical Society. But she still gives out their phone number rarely, and cellphones don't work in the area.
MS. SCHEFFLER doesn't regret giving up her career, although it wasn't something she did easily, having been among the first wave of female corporate executives in the country. Born in Canonsburg, Pa., a mill town not far from Pittsburgh, where her father worked for Pillsbury, Ms. Scheffler joined AT&T in the 60's. She had received a full scholarship toCarnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she studied electrical engineering. She got her master's in computer science at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
In 2004, she edited a book of essays, "Beyond the Corner Office," by pioneering female executives in which they recounted the obstacles and challenges they faced in male-dominated corporations.
Now she is writing about how her own wild days in corporate America led her to the wilderness of Maine, and taught her that time is precious. The book is called, appropriately, "My Magic Mountain."