Guest journals. Photo: Timothy Harper

Some people with vacation homes keep a guest book, where names and dates are signed. But what about a guest journal where experiences are shared? Escape Home contributor Timothy Harper talks about why he chose the latter for his guest house in the Hudson Valley in New York.

People paddled, sailed, swam, cooked, ate, drank, worked, created  and generally had a glorious time. Many marveled at the open sky and wide lake views and the varied flora and fauna, including snakes and snapping turtles. There were reports of the supernatural, including a well-groomed ghost. 

For some visiting from the big city, it was too dark. And too quiet. Or the night sounds of owls and coyotes and bullfrogs were unsettling. Raccoons were especially scary.

Some were thrilled to walk on a frozen lake. Some refused to get near a frozen lake. Some got to cook. Others had to clean up. Some split wood or made a fire for the first time. 

We know all this about our guests because we’ve got a journal at our little friends-and-family guest house on a small lake up the Hudson Valley. It’s not a guest book. It’s not a thank-you book. It’s a journal — that’s what it says in our welcome note, and in front of the volume prominently displayed on the coffee table, with a good pen.

Tell us the story of your visit. 

If you have guests, you should have a house journal. Instead of a mere list of entries noting who visited, when, and where they are from, our guests’ entries — their stories — let us learn a lot about our visitors — who they are, what they did. Often we smile or laugh at the memories. Yeah, Kelly and I swam a mile, but she did it in half the time. Sometimes we cringe. Yeah, we should have warned them that there are turtles and snakes in the water.

For us, the house journal has become an integral part of the whole experience of having visitors. And visitors seem to love reading what other guests have experienced. We love reading guest’s stories, and guests love reading each other’s stories. We make entries, too, of things large and small: when there was a big snowfall, or we saw a herd of deer on the lake, or we were dismayed to lose the shade when a big tree was taken down.

Some prose soared poetically: “The sun slowly moves across the lake, creating shimmies and sparkles as the leaves dance in the breeze and laughter floats across the water.”

Some kept it simple: “We swim, we walk, we grill.”

But even the wordsmiths often had a practical afterthought:

“The cold and frozen lake caught the pink and purple sundown and pulled it down under the surface of the world and gave most of its dreamy light back to the sky.

“And then we went bowling.”

A relative from the dusty plains of north Texas wrote, “Waking up in the morning, the first sight of the trees through the windows — like sleeping under a forest canopy.” 

The lead singer of a rock band left his guitar pick in the house journal. He also sketched in a new floor plan for rearranging the furniture, which we mostly did, eventually. A Broadway actor broke in her new ukulele on the deck.

Indeed, there was apparently a lot of creativity. Some movie people seized an opportunity to use their phones and a big fuzzy insect to make a movie, “Clan of the Cave Centipede,” which they screened for each other that evening. While mildly abusing mostly legal substances, of course. 

“The lake is giving off good creative vibes this weekend,” an aspiring screenwriter noted. “I feel like I understand my characters more now.” 

One couple described making a lifeguard out of snow and perching him in the lifeguard stand, complete with hat, scarf and snow shoes. “His name is Sal,” they said.

A number of people waxed — sorry — nostalgic over our turntable and collection of records. Several visitors found the record store in a nearby town, bought a bunch of albums and left some of them behind as contributions. “We are a vinyl family,” they proclaimed.

One entry reported seeing a ghost in the middle of the night. A few weeks later, someone else heard the ghost — clipping its toenails. 

One guy left a sketch of an angry Ned Flanders from “The Simpsons” — why, we have no idea, but it is definitely Ned, and he is definitely pissed off.  Someone else drew a picture from the viewpoint of the second person in a kayak; it appeared to be the back of her husband’s head.

Kids left some of the best entries, of course. One 6-year-old said he didn’t want to go home because his back garden in Brooklyn was “too boring.”

A 8-year-old from Washington entered a full-page illustrated story of his leg being nibbled by a mama fish when he stepped too close to its nest. He told it from the point of view of the mama fish.

Two couples delighted in their toddlers getting into the boxes of games and “making it rain” with Monopoly money. 

Many entries were devoted to hiking, rock climbing, swimming, paddle boarding, towing, sailing, big meals, and firepit discussions (“Brownies, especially warm ones, are a great replacement for chocolate if you’re making s’mores”).

A fair number of guests who grew up in cities marveled at nature. “I took a picture of a fruit tree, turned out to be a quince, according to my friend’s app,” one wrote. 

One guest chronicled the birds she heard before getting out of bed one morning: cardinals, hawks, magpies, sparrows and finches. Another spent much of an afternoon watching a small snake shed its skin. A group of hikers found an abandoned fire tower — and climbed it. A musician described a “symphony of tree frogs” at dusk — also a popular time for bats, which prompted wildly divergent reactions from people. But everybody liked the fireflies. 

Some city dwellers leaped at the opportunity to do some rare physical work. Two couples with soft hands borrowed some of our good gloves and happily described a morning splitting and stacking logs  they called themselves lumberjacks and jills. 

One woman got too close to the roaring fireplace and caught a few strands of her hair ablaze, briefly — resulting in no harm but a lot of excitement for a few seconds. One guy was surprised by a raccoon on the stone steps to the lake and stumbled backwards, breaking a toe. (We buddy-taped the swollen toe firmly to the next toe, and he was walking normally the next day.)

It took one group of autumn guests a few minutes to get organized when the power went out as dark was falling and the temperature was dropping. They finally took the half-baked cookies out of the oven and ate them, and then snuggled down under the covers. “An adventure,” they called it.

One man who went out in our rowboat couldn’t identify our house when he came back. He had to row to another lakefront and ask some neighbors which dock was ours. An English grandmum accustomed to indoor pools back home in Yorkshire exulted in the “wild swimming” of the lake. 

There were brief entries about sunburns and scratches and strains and stomach bugs and occasional hurt feelings. One guy’s car slid off the icy driveway and it took two hours to get it back up to the road. 

The entries are especially heartwarming from people getting together for an occasion like a wedding or reunion. “Surrounded by love,” one of those entries read.

One group of 1990s  college roommates gathered from several states as far away as Michigan and New Hampshire — “our first time in the same room in 15 years.” 

A couple of entries hinted at night time skinny dipping, but stargazing was more common: constellations, satellites, meteors and once in a while the International Space Station. One guy who had been grieving noted that when he went down to the brightly moonlit lake, alone, he felt a peace that allowed him to weep for his dad for the first time. 

We encourage our guests, all friends and family, to treat our guest house like it was their own, and some do. “So quickly a space can feel like yours,” one wrote. 

Another appreciative guest concluded: “I love that there is a journal in this house where people leave behind tidbits of their experience.”

Well, we love it, too.

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