It was the Eighties. It was “snowing” in our noses – especially mine, with a cocaine habit that was turning me into, “Willy Honka And The Nose Candy Factory.” As co-founder, Vice President and head writer of Asterix Productions, a company producing corporate entertainments, I was burnt out of what was left of my mind. For years, I had been writing three proposals a week, corporate shows, sketches, lyrics, speeches and award presentations while maintaining a career as a musical theater writer. Juggling more balls in the air than Cirque Du Soleil, I was often in meetings from 9AM-7PM and the only time I could actually sit down and write was between 9PM-3AM. So it was ‘coke’ that gave me the bump I needed to stay awake and keep on going.
I’d take a toot first thing in the morning just to get out the door and since the kick only lasted a couple of minutes I’d keep on snorting. Writing all those shows, I was making a good living that went up my nose and rationalized that the more I snorted, the more I could write, the more money I could make. My sinuses were clogged. I’m not a grumpy guy but my temper was growing short as I descended from the hamster wheel of artificial highs. I even took to stealing my mother’s sleeping pills to come down at night. Between weed and coke I was up and down like a toilet seat spinning out of control until I became the poster-guy for quitting.
Keeping all those creative plates spinning, the only way I could concentrate on writing my own labors of love was to disappear into the woods for a week or two. I had rented cabins up north for two years and this year, in 1983, I found a place up in the Haliburton Highlands where I rented a cabin in the woods for ten days.
My previous sojourns had been two-hour drives from Toronto, and Haliburton was almost four hours away. But to escape the eyesore of suburban sprawl you had to go that far to find those luxury items called, silence and fresh air. So, with nostrils worth a small fortune, I packed up my IBM Selectric typewriter and headed for the woods to quit coke cold turkey.
After a three and a half-hour drive, I came to a gated dirt road through the woods that lead to a cluster of cabins. The owner of the place greeted me at my car – Ditmar Arff, not a name you easily forget. He had a growling Doberman Pinscher with a spiked collar on a short leash. With a thick German accent, Mr. Arff pointed to my cabin and a homemade sauna with smoke sifting out of a chimney. A German accent, a Doberman on a short leash and a building with smoke curling out of the chimney was enough to make all my Nazi nightmares feel like they were coming true – and here I was to detox. Mein Herr handed me the key to my quaint little pine-paneled, linoleum-floor cabin a few yards away from a beautiful gushing waterfall.
I decided to embark on my rehabilitation while it was still light out. Walking deep into the woods, I stopped at a clearing. There, I put a curse on myself. I touched my nose and vowed out loud, “If you do one more snort of coke you are going to die.” “No! No! Weekends only!” protested the voice in my head. But I prevailed, “One more toot and I wish you death!” “No, no! How about Wednesdays from 6-11?” negotiated the addict voice. “No!” I commanded myself. “One more toot and you die!” It worked. The voice in my head shut the fuck up. My nose thanked my brain and I never touched cocaine again!
I don’t recall any particular withdrawal symptoms; maybe because I didn’t have enough discipline to also give up smoking marijuana that I brought along. But perhaps there was a side effect to my coke withdrawal after all – paranoia. The constant gurgling sound of the waterfall became white noise. But how could I hear branches crackle if someone was going to break in and stab me in my sleep? I decided that the only way to overcome such fear was to scare the shit out of myself, push myself to the limit and anything less than that, would not be scary. That night, I smoked a joint and happened to have the soundtrack of Psycho on my Walkman. (Who doesn’t?)
Stoned out of my mind, I put on my headset, grabbed a sharp kitchen knife and wandered out into the woods in the dead of night. Crazy? Uh-huh. But I thought it was actually a creative way to overcome fear. With Bernard Herrmann’s spooky score playing in my head, I stumbled through the pitch-black woods waving the knife in front of me in case I ran into a Nazi, bear or Sasquatch.
I made it back to the cabin alive and settled in to read at the kitchen table. Around 2AM I glanced over at the window, and there was a fat man with a red beard holding a flashlight under his third chin. But I didn’t jump. I didn’t scream. After walking through the woods, stoned, listening to Psycho, anything less than that, did turn out to warrant no more than a double-take. It so happened that the guy had driven on to the premises and couldn’t find his way in the dark. He saw my light on and wanted directions to his cabin.
I spent the week in exquisite solitude, reading, canoeing, swimming, barbecuing, hiking and writing an ambitious play called, “Kiss Me Goodnight, Eddie” – the history of America through the Ed Sullivan Show.
I’m a sunset fanatic and my cabin was facing east, so I couldn’t see my favorite end-of-day psychedelic spectacle. So every night, I would get into the car and drive to a clearing somewhere, in search of a spectacular sunset. Driving around the lake, I wondered how much a cottage cost. I’d been renting for three years and had no idea of the price of paradise.
Along a wooded country road, I passed a tree with a random For Sale sign on it and the name of the realtor, Dorothy Hewitt. I was inspired to write down the information and would call her tomorrow. As I scribbled down her number and name, a red pickup truck stopped. A skinny white-haired woman in her 60’s stepped out and said, “Hi. I’m Dorothy Hewitt. I was driving by and saw you writing down my name. Are you interested in a place?” I had always had a lot of synchronicity in my life, but this not only took the cake, it took the bakery! “What are you looking for?” Dorothy asked. Being a height and sunset freak I said, “I know it doesn’t exist. But I’m looking for a place on the top of a cliff in a pine forest on the lake facing west so I can watch the sun set.” Dorothy smiled, “Come with me, I want to show you something.” She lived down the road and led me into her living room. Pointing to a cliff across the lake, Dorothy said, “It’s the Rutherford Estate. It’s exactly what you just described. I’ll take you there tomorrow.”
The next evening, as the sun was setting, (she was no fool), Dorothy drove me to the other side of the lake. We rumbled down a mile-long bumpy, twisting, private road. At the very end, in the middle of a pine forest, was a dirt driveway. We passed two small guest cabins and at the end of the driveway, was a forest green structure that looked like Snow White could have lived there.
But I didn’t want to see the building yet. Instead, I went straight to the cliff. As the sun was setting, the air still smelled like warm pine and the plaintive cry of a loon echoed across the pink-purple lake that reflected the farewell blaze of a sunny day. I had to hold back tears at the serene beauty of this magical spot.
On a path of pine needles, we crunched our way toward the house. It was an historic large green building that had belonged to a wealthy logging family. This was their dining hall and they stayed in cabins, two of which remained on this property. The enormous room had twelve French windows, a cathedral ceiling, a huge stone fireplace and pine floors. There was a complete bathroom with tub and two sinks. The kitchen with a large pantry had the original stone floor from the 1930’s that had been laid right on the ground and had buckled over fifty winters. The place would need a lot of work, but I had the imagination to know what could be.
I hadn’t seen any other cottages to compare. So in the next few days, Dorothy showed me other places, small, dank, claustrophobic cottages slammed up against other similar cottages. They were cheaper, winterized and ready to move in. But none had the land, the view, the privacy, the history and the drama of what was to become Heen Acres! My heart, my soul, my romanticism and appreciation of solitude told me I must have this place. And so I returned for another visit to the enchanted six acres of forested paradise on the lake. I picked up a stone and etched into a rock on the cliff, “I’ll be back.”
As a realtor, of course Dorothy told me there were other people interested in the property and the owner, who lived in Chicago, would not take a penny less than the asking price – which was all the money I had in the bank. I was planning on using my savings to move to New York. But New York would always be there – this opportunity for a piece of peace would not. Amazingly, I didn’t need anybody’s approval except for my accountant who advised that I could not lose buying lakefront property. I took his advice and not wanting to lose my dream to another bidder, I offered cash. Being superstitious, I withheld my secret for weeks while the offer was considered. And then, in early September came Dorothy’s phone call, “Congratulations, you’re a cottage owner!”
Wanting to surprise my mother and sister, a week later, I invited them to join me for an Autumn drive up north. They thought we were going for a little spin to see the Fall colors. Almost four hours later, I led them on to the property, saying I wanted to show them the beautiful view I discovered while on my trip there last month. The three of us walked the path through the woods to the cliff overlooking Haliburton Lake. My sister spotted a faded wooden sign warning, “Private Property.” She said, “We better go. The owner will kick is out.” “No, I won’t.” I said calmly. And then screamed, “I OWN IT!” Needless to say, they didn’t believe me. But after cracking a small bottle of champagne on the rocks and excitedly giving them a tour of the property, they believed me – although I could hardly believe it myself.
Three decades later, Heen Acres has become part of my life cycle. Having lived in major cities of Toronto, New York and now Los Angeles, I treasure every warble of a loon, every sun-drenched day, each breath of pine scented air and shooting stars that wink across the night sky. Every sunset, I’m perched on my cliff front row center for the best show in town.
Dorothy Hewitt died recently. But I’m sure she can hear my sighs echo into the skies, grateful for the embrace of fate that stopped me at that tree to jot down her phone number – and thirty-four years of bliss.