Sunday, December 15, 2013

Nobody Threw Tomatoes

Sometimes I wish all of life could be one way, that perfect alignment of activity and desire, that I could wake up thinking: I can't wait to go to work! Or: Vacuuming sounds awesome! Conference calls rule! Going to get snow tires put on is gonna be the highlight of my day!

But, no. The rest is all background. The times I live for are little ones from this week: the blue light you only see in winter from a mountain. Racing after my friends who made the better choice, skinny skis instead of fat. A run along the lake with the mountains reflected in slate blue. Reading my story in front of a standing room only crowd, words I had churned through in isolation given wings.

The three of us who were the featured writers all read about the outdoors. Rick read about his Appalachian Trail thru-hike. Cam read poems about rivers and cats and love. I read about changing from a gypsy to someone with roots in a deep canyon. I wore a lace skirt. I read to ranchers and hippies and free-heel skiers and people who hate winter. Just your typical mountain town audience.

If you've read this blog for very long you have seen versions of my essay before. For old times' sake, here it is. Please don't steal it (I always hesitate before putting things out there for free).

This country, it breaks my heart. It holds its secrets close. It wraps itself up tight in prickly blackberry branches and oily poison ivy. You have to want it, more than anything.  It is all stony indifference. It could care less how badly you think you need it.

You need to live here longer, this country seems to be telling me. Four years and you expect everything from me? You need to earn it. A lover of instant gratification, I am forced to take it slow. I search for the old trails braiding the landscape, trails that are melting into the wrinkled folds of the canyon an inch at a time.  I look for the old homesteads, crumbling into dust and rotten boards. I piece it all together, a little bit at a time.

For years I made up my life as I went along.  I had no use for maps, floating like dandelion seed across the country each season, seeing what would stick. Slide in, suck the sweetness from a place, and move on. That is what I have always done. Everything I owned, everything worth keeping in the backseat of a Chevy Chevette, I was the girl driving barefoot high on Vivarin and cinnamon gum, nothing slowing her down. Old lovers in the rearview, a stew of regret and anticipation in my heart, an endless clock ticking, move on, move on, don’t stop. For years I followed the fire season from Alaska to Florida and everywhere in between, living in squalid bunkhouses with mattresses pressed flat from bodies before me. I rode the crest of a wave I thought would never end.

But everything ends. My friend Roger died high on a mountain called Storm King, trapped in a fire he could not outrun. I was luckier a month later, on a different fire, in a different state, making it to a road in time. Later still a doctor shook his head, saying, “You are so young to have knees this bad.” When I decided to trade in seasonal migration for someone I could love for more than just one season, for a dog, and a vacuum cleaner and a library card, I picked one of the most remote places I could find and still set my feet on pavement if I needed to. I wanted an escape route, just in case.

Four years here and I feel only a little closer to belonging. I am still a hesitant searcher. I am slow to open my guarded heart. I let people in with a trickle not a torrent. There have been too many years of moving, eleven states in twenty years, too much left behind. When you leave a place a door slams shut, the mountains move to fill the gap you have left. I have tried to go back to places I have left and there is no room there.  I tell myself that I am done with moving, done with giving everything away to the thrift shop and starting blank-slated in some new town, some new state. Instead I plant trees that will take years to reach my shoulders. I seek permanence. I seek home.

This country, though. it tricks me over and over. Like a man you can’t quite forget, it keeps me coming back for more., forgetting the desert-dry of my mouth and the desperate hope that there will be water in Somers Creek to save me one more time.  I forget the rattle of a fat-bodied snake near my ankle. I forget the icy breath of a sudden April snowstorm and the hiss of lightning as I climb high to the canyon rim, exposed. I remember only this: the blush colored kiss of last sun on the high rim, the endless silence.

When I got married for the first time, a brief and painful interlude when I was still on the road, or trying to be, my old friends in the seasonal tribe laughed and laughed. “The last of the great ones falls,” they said. The marriage didn’t last and neither did my resolve to stay put. The rest of my friends had all been married years ago, falling like bowling pins in a flurry of white dresses. They quit the road until it felt like I was the only one left out there.

This country, it has crept up on me without me noticing. Whatever you were before means nothing here. You can reinvent yourself, fall deep into the rythyms of a place ancient as time. I want to know what this old country knows. I want to feel its bones. I want to listen to the slow pulse of its heart through the canyon walls. I want to learn its language of summer wildfire and slow river carving deep into stone. There seems to be a truth here that I cannot quite grasp, something real and honest and plain, something lasting, something I have been missing in my headlong flight. It might be community. It might be refuge. It might be hope.

When I used to drive across the country, safe in my cocoon of turning wheels,  the  lights from the little towns spread out like glowing embers on the Texas plains. I could see them for miles, each little spark a house with people inside. I used to feel sorry for those people. They were like birds that had lost their wings and did not remember flight, I thought. Far better to be me, a wind-touseled girl with no attachments, slipping easily from one skin to another.

Now I am one of those kinds of people, my light burning brightly against the darkness. The years have piled up like snow. I know just enough to believe that I might be here forever.

I won’t lie. There are times I page through my tattered road atlas and think about trying it again. Filling up the truck and heading west, or east, or south. I remember the road, a quirky and beautiful place. I saw strangers like me at the rest stops, their cars stuffed with bicycles and boxes. We were brothers and sisters traveling the major arteries of America. To each of us, the road was as familiar as a neighborhood. It was a river, carrying us to freedom, away from anything that might want to tie us down. In the end, though, I take a breath and the thought passes. Another day goes by to stack up to forever.

This country, it breaks my heart, but only a little bit. It cracks my heart’s solid core enough to know what the fuss is all about. Love and community and staying in place. Potlucks and fundraisers for people in trouble. Someone who will feed your dogs or humor you with a mindless slog through knee-deep snow just because. That quiet, good feeling you get, safe in your house on a night crusty with stars and new snow when you hear restless tires passing by, all of the cars, all of the cars with people inside them looking for home.


  1. This is great! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. It is fine writing--from the heart--when we can feel it, too...out on the road and tucked into the beautiful valley. Thanks for sharing it with all of us who could not be in Joseph on that winter night.

  3. Thanks Mary- you contrast so beautifully those restless tendencies of flight and the homing desires to nest. Having chased every mountain dream I could think of and concocted many more that I have yet to follow, I find myself somehow grounded here in Joseph. What a place it is to be , so much of that because of people like you who share such amazing words and works. Thanks.

  4. Beautiful essay! I also think it is awesome you have a group of people that you can share your work publicly....and they don't throw tomatoes ;)

  5. How wonderful that you have a community to share your writings with. Your essay is so touching and really resonated with me. Especially how you describe the process of moving to a new place and finding a sense of home, how slow that can be for some of us.

  6. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. Handing you roses, not throwing tomatoes.

  7. Thanks everyone for your kind comments.


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