Winter in Kentucky can be hard to love. Besides the occasional burst of white, a Bluegrass winter is that colorless color between gray and brown, the color of mud, bare beech trees and sleeping grass.
That's why I felt skeptical when my parents suggested a post-holiday family gathering at Lake Cumberland State Resort Park.
What is there to see? I thought.
I remembered visiting the lake years ago, though the weather is warm in those memories, the hills green, the water filled with boats. I expected nothing so dynamic as my sons and I made the long, bland drive from Louisville to Jamestown. When we topped the last hill just before arriving at the lodge, we looked out and down as land and water spread out before us.
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That's when Lake Cumberland changed my mind about winter in Kentucky.
Created by the construction of Wolf Creek Dam in the 1950s, Lake Cumberland draws roughly 4 million tourists a year. Visitors are fewest in the winter; though even on the last weekend of 2013, the place wasn't deserted. My parents and aunt hosted my 9-year-old triplet sons, Luke, Leo and Ace, in one of the park's two-bedroom cottages ($109.95 a night, though rates vary). My wife had stayed home, and I decided to make the trek only when my aunt offered me a solo room at the lodge ($64.95 a night — thanks, Lynne!).
A little solitude, we've discovered, can be a crucial ingredient to a family's long-term happiness. Christmas had been fun (as usual) but emotionally taxing (as usual), and I'd been grumpy and insufficiently appreciative of my many gifts, wrapped and otherwise.
My room was simple, but the real value lay outside its window. From the balcony, I could see the marina, which glowed like a city at night. My room faced east, so I went to bed early and slept with the curtains open, hoping I'd wake up to a spectacular sunrise. Instead, I woke up in a cloud — fog so thick, it had erased the lake, the hills and the sky.
The mists lifted gradually but skewed my depth perception. I could see a narrow strip of water at the bottom of the cliff below, but I couldn't discern where the lake ended and the fog began. From the marina, a motorboat buzzed into the water-space, then turned and seemed to just take off at an impossible angle into the vapory air.
My family and I met for lunch at the lodge's Rowena Landing Restaurant, whose food is, well, not the reason you'd drive three hours. It's traditional cuisine: Kentucky country ham ($10.99), catfish filet ($9.49), and an offering called "Kentucky country fare" — pinto beans, fried potatoes, corncakes and cole slaw" ($6.49). There are a few wraps, salads and other items identified as healthier options.
Everyone else liked it OK, though I shared Luke's assessment: "They should make the food have a little more flavor because it's a little bland."
The service was good, though; in fact, every member of the lodge staff I spoke with was friendly and helpful. My one quibble is that even though most of the lodge's 63 rooms were empty, the front desk staff placed me next door to an occupied room loaded with a noisy family enjoying a weekend of intergenerational fun. I asked to switch to a quieter, more isolated room, which the staff agreed to with no hassle. Soon, though, another boisterous guest arrived to occupy the space next to mine.
I'm sure it's easier (and sometimes unavoidable) to corral visitors in this way, but it can diminish the experience. That's because the walls at Lure Lodge are so thin you could conduct surveillance through them.
Here's part of a conversation I overheard while lying in bed, with my TV on:
"Did you know there are only two people in the whole world who know the formula for Coca-Cola?"
"Yeah, and they never fly on the same plane."
OK, wonder what the kids are doing?
The cabin was, in Ace's terms, "really cozy with big comfortable beds." Located at the end of a lane, it featured water views on multiple sides. At sunset the previous night, he said, "You could see the colors of the sky, pink and orange, reflected on the lake."
He'd played checkers with my aunt at the lodge, and all three boys had taken a hike with my dad. Leo described their discovery of woodsy delights, "We found a fox den! And a fish skeleton."
Clouds had brought light rain, obscured the sunset and made things feel a little gray when I decided to build a campfire. I got a few pieces of free cut wood provided by the park and some old papers from my office.
My family pitched in, finding a lighter and some old newspapers, but they looked a little skeptical as I tried to keep the wind and raindrops at bay long enough for the lighter flame to catch hold of an old insurance pamphlet or football preview magazine. I noticed, again, the easy, pure affection that always passes among my children, parents and aunt, their own intergenerational fun, the kind I remember from visits I made to this lake with people and a season long gone.
I flipped a magazine on top of an old birthday card, and flames emerged like a mini sunrise lighting up the faces and the winter trees around me.
I tell you, it was something to see.