During the pandemic of 2020, after months of hunkering down at our vacation home in the Catskills of New York, my husband Nick and I hosted a socially distanced gathering around the scrappy little fire pit in our side yard.
Someone sat in one of the plastic Adirondack chairs that circled the fire and promptly tumbled sideways down the slope of the hill. This was at least the 21st time we had witnessed such a thing happen over the course of five years.
I turned to Nick and said, “We have got to get this fire pit sorted out.”
In the Mountains, Fire Pits Are King
In the Catskill Mountains, fire pits are a huge amenity. The weather is perfectly suited for outdoor fires all year long: summer evenings tend to cool off to the 60s, fall boasts spectacular foliage, and in winter and late spring, after a long day of skiing nearby Belleayre Mountain, s’mores around a fire are always a treat.
When we bought the house in 2015, we fell in love with the side yard. It was the one side of the house which was ultra-private—it had no neighbors and flanked no road. Instead, it overlooked Cathedral Brook, which you could watch gurgle—or rage—in all seasons except summer, when the trees and foliage were in full green.
Over the years, we took advantage of the space by building a deck. We propped up a $100 fire pit on bricks just beyond the deck and splurged on an LL Bean hammock. We lived with this set up for a few years, despite the problem of the side yard’s pitch. It sloped so gently that when it snowed in winter, our 6-year-old son Parker could sled down it. When you sat in a chair, you felt as if you were on a roller coaster ride going up.
No one complained, even when high winds blew over the plastic chairs. We righted the chairs, sat back in them and sometimes fell over.
Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly we were blessed with time to properly sort out the side yard and finally level it off.
“Do you think you can do it?” I asked Nick, who is the handy person in the family.
“No problem,” he assured me.
Plans Made and a Job Lost
I envisioned a three-tiered space: A white pebbled fire pit flanked with real Adirondack chairs leading down to a hot tub leading down to the hammock. It would be like the Hamptons came to the mountains. With absolutely no engineering nor even basic geometry skills, I drew out the vision in my head on a sheet of paper, slid the paper over to Nick and hoped he and his innate mathematical skills could make it happen.
We measured out the tiers using string and stakes. Nick used a level and a long two-by-four to determine the height. I tracked down someone with a backhoe who could dig out the rocky yard and level it out. We had already purchased a $500 smokeless, spark-less Solo stove, which would be the stunning centerpiece of the fire pit.
After much research, I opted against buying $250 Adirondack chairs on Amazon and instead splurged on two for $450 each. I wanted something that would last a lifetime rather than a few years. I planned to buy two more when I got over the sticker shock. Finally, I went on Costco’s website to find a hot tub. Because of demand during the pandemic, they were sold out of the one I wanted.
It was just as well, because like many fellow Americans, I lost my job. The hot tub would have to wait. The stove, chairs and hammock were already purchased, so those could stay. We decided to put our house back up on Airbnb to rent it out for the summer so we could make up for my lost income.
The day I put the house on Airbnb, it booked for the first two weeks. Two days later, I booked a six-week stay. Both groups were New York City people fleeing the pandemic and their tiny apartments.
“My eyes are actually welling up,” one of the booked guests, a newly single mom with two kids and a dog wrote to me. “This sounds magical. I am so relieved and excited at the same time.”
“I think we should forget about the fire pit,” I told Nick.
“No, we can do it,” Nick said. “Trust me.”
We would create just the first tier, postponing the two others. We had exactly three weeks before our guests would check in.
The Long, Hard Build
Here’s what typically happens in our part of the country: you find someone to do the work and they ghost you. The guy with the backhoe never materialized, so with the clock ticking until our first guests arrived, Nick went outside and started hacking away at the side yard. Up came little rocks and giant rocks. He chip, chip, chipped away for days. The neighbors came by to watch. The ones who grew up here thought Nick was crazy. The neighbors who, like us, were weekenders from the city, looked at him in wonder. I thought to myself, “we are never going to get this done in time.”
Everyone knows that no one works the rocky land in the Catskills by hand.
“Trust me,” Nick said, as I shook my head, watching him chip away at stone with the pickax.
After more than a week of hard, sweaty work, Nick had a perfect, dug up square. Over the next week, he lined the square with pressure-treated four by fours, which he staked into the ground and expertly drilled together. How did he know how to do this? I asked. The Internet, came the reply.
Nick filled in the square with rocks, then topped that with dirt.
We had just days before the guests would arrive.
The Final Touches
Nick and I drove to the local rock quarry to find the perfect stone to level the pit and settled on a gray, almost white pea gravel which matched the gravel in our driveway perfectly. It was harder on bare feet than the brown, round stones, but I much preferred the cool grays over the warm browns. The pea gravel was delivered that evening. Nick set to work filling the pit with it the next day, stamping it into place with a tamper borrowed from a neighbor.
When the Adirondack chairs showed up (after a two-week delay), we placed them around the Solo stove flanking the plastic Adirondack chairs, which would have to do for now. We stepped back to admire our work and realized the whole thing looked rather … stark. Very Hamptons. But very minimalist Hamptons.
We pulled over an old wooden bench that the previous owners had left us. It had come from the nearby ski area decades ago and was falling apart, but with a few screws, a good scrub and some outdoor pillows, it would be the perfect shabby chic “couch” for our fire pit.
With just a day to go before our first guests of the summer arrived, we rolled giant tree stumps over from our neighbor’s property to use as side tables, and I put throw pillows on the chairs and couch. Not very Hamptons. Very Catskills.
We stood back and took it all in.
“You did it, by hand, and it’s amazing,” I told Nick. “It’s like an outdoor living room with a fireplace. I’m kind of sad we don’t have time to enjoy it ourselves.”
The first guests stayed for two weeks and in their five-star review, they gushed over the fire pit. When I read the review to Nick, I could actually see his head swell.
The newly-single mom was the next guest. On our masked tour of the house, I showed her the fire pit, and she looked at me and said, “Can you tell me how to use this?”
The Solo Stove makes it so easy to build a fire, I assured her.
A week later, she sent me a picture. “I made my first fire—without a man. It’s a very proud moment for me. Thanks for making it possible.”
When she checked out many weeks later, she left us a five-star review and wrote that she and her boys experienced “the best summer of our lives” at our house.
I turned to Nick and said, “Imagine the summer of 2020 being the best summer of anyone’s life.”
And then I read to him the part about the fire pit, the part where she wrote that it “quickly became my favorite part of the house.”
“See,” he said. “I told you we could make it happen.”