Rooting and Springing

Yesterday I planted a big sagebrush shrub (Artemisia tridentata) from a local nursery next to my glass prayer flag sculpture. Despite its common name, the shrub isn’t big, and they* looked a bit lonely, so this morning on my dawn walk, I collected some seed from the abundant native wildflower Palmer penstemon (Penstemon palmeri), also called wild snapdragon, and sprinkled the seeds around the big sagebrush.

*I’ve started using “they/them” pronouns for other species, instead of the objective “it.” Objectifying other beings denies their lives and personhood, and “she/he” doesn’t always fit, especially with plants, so I’m taking a leaf (pun intended!) from gender activists and using “they/them.” The big sagebrush shrub I planted is not a static “thing”–they are alive, breathing out the oxygen I breathe in, communicating, growing, adapting to their environment. By using “they/them,” I am honoring their presence and their life.

Tomorrow, I’ll go back to the nursery and buy another big sagebrush shrub to plant with the first. Eventually, I will surround them with the native wildflowers and grasses they have been in relationship with for thousands of years, their home community.

Big sagebrush is my totem plant, my closest “family” in the world of green and photosynthesizing beings. I first recognized these shrubs with the gray-green, three-tipped leaves (hence “tridentata” in the language of science) as kin when I was a child, on a June day as my family drove across southern Wyoming, headed for Yellowstone National Park.

An aromatic “sea” of Wyoming big sagebrush, green with spring

It had rained the night before, and the glass vanes of the jalousie windows in our homemade camper-van were wide open, allowing the morning air to pour in, cool and redolent with a distinctive combination of camphor and sweet orange–the airborne fragrance of big sagebrush. I looked up from the mystery novel I was reading, took a deep breath of the sagebrush-scented air, and said to myself, “Home.” Then I went back to reading.

That fragrance has said “home” to me ever since. For the past decade since my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer, I have wandered the skirt of the Rocky Mountains where big sagebrush grows, searching for who I am in this phase of my life and where I belong. In every place I have landed, I have sought out big sagebrush nearby to visit.

In some of those places–in particular, Cody in northwest Wyoming, where I have lived twice in the past decade and re-storyed two different houses–a sea of big sagebrush surrounds the town, its fragrance part of the air after spring and summer rains. In others, big sagebrush had been mostly plowed up for orchards and farms, or was only an occasional presence.

Hand-digging invasive weeds from a stand of big sagebrush in Yellowstone.

Sometimes I planted a few shrubs near my house to bring the plant home; sometimes I simply visited big sagebrush nearby. But always, I settled only where big sagebrush was a part of the landscape.

Now I live in a piñon pine-juniper woodland outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Big sagebrush was once scattered along the edges of the arroyo near my condo, mixed with rubber rabbitbrush–chamisa in local parlance–and spiny-stemmed saltbush. But 20 years of drought killed the big sagebrush around this arroyo.

So when the maintenance guys for my condo took out a dying pine tree planted in a too-small space between my garage and a retaining wall for the slope above, I saw my opportunity to return big sagebrush. And in the doing, to root myself here in this chosen home. So I asked the guys if I could plant some sagebrush where the tree had been removed, got their blessing, and headed to the nursery.

My new little big sagebrush on the left, a wild-grown but trimmed rubber rabbitbrush on the right. Greg Reiche prayer flag sculpture in the middle.

As I patted the red soil around the roots of the big sagebrush shrub yesterday, and shaped a circular dam to capture water, I promised the plant that I would be here to watch it grow tall and strong, the trunk thickening and twisting, the spring leaves sprouting green and fragrant, the evergreen winter leaves turning slowly each day to capture winter sunlight to make food.

“This is our home,” I said. “We will flourish here.”

And we will. I write this from my sunny living room as the day draws toward sunset on Easter, the holiday that has its roots in Eostre, the ancient goddess of spring and renewal. I am grateful to be in this beautiful place, to have sunk roots here both literally and metaphorically, and to draw on the community of this blessed land and of my human friends.

My living/dining room now complete, with ceiling fan and the hand-forged chandelier that has graced my last five houses.

I am grateful that spring has come, despite the climate whiplash we have created, despite wars and racism and troubles the world around. I am grateful to wake up breathing each day.

I do my best to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. Love is our species’ best gift; the practice of living with love can save us and this numinous earth. May we all embrace the promise of this season and walk onward with renewed hearts and spirits!

Blessings of spring to you all.

Plum tree blooming against a stucco wall in my neighborhood.

Home, Finally


“Wherever I hang my hat is home.” That’s not exactly true for me–I’m a very place-centric person tied to the natural range of big sagebrush at the foot of the Rocky Mountains–but today I hung my hat rack in my bedroom here in Santa Fe. So I guess it’s official: I am home.

As I said in my last post, Wanderings, I’ve wandered a lot in the past decade, in search of where home is in this final turn of my life. I’m 66 years old, closer to 70 now than 60, and I feel the pull to root and stay.

I thought I had found that place when I bought my Paonia house, but I reckoned without considering my age, which means I no longer want or need a house or yard to tend. Also, without considering my need for good healthcare, part of which is a need for nearby wild that I can easily walk to every day. Walking is my medicine, the therapy that helps me live well with Lupus and its associated conditions, Raynaud’s Syndrome and Sjogrens (often called dry eye).

All of that plus some other personal factors brought me to Santa Fe, to this beautiful and light-filled condo with views of the mountains in the neighborhood where I used to live.

The Sangre de Cristo Range after the last snowstorm.

This space makes me happy. I’m a story above the ground, overlooking a bit of wild piñon-juniper woods. The sun streams in the large windows during the day, supplying free heat in winter. The architecture is spacious, yet cozy enough to feel welcoming.

Come take a tour:

To the right of the garage door (yes, Rojita, my red Toyota Tacoma, has a garage to live in!) where I can admire it is the double column of glass prayer flags I’ve moved to five homes in the past, um, four years. We’re both settling here.

My Greg Reiche glass prayer flag sculpture, back in Santa Fe at last.

At the top of the stairs, my front door is graced by a Northern New Mexico chile wreath with dried garden flowers, made by a lovely Hispanic lady from Alcalde. I bought it at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

Chile pequin arranged around died yarrow and baby roses.

Inside is a small foyer. Turn right, and you enter the front bedroom, aka my office, where I am writing this blog post right now as sunset flames the western sky. (The photo at the top of the post is the sunset from the west deck, off my office.)

My office with the west deck beyond. (Note my saddle in the left-hand corner of the room!)

Turn left from the foyer and you pass the kitchen and breakfast bar, and enter the “great room,” the high-ceilinged dining/living area with its huge south-facing windows, and tall sliding doors leading to the east deck.

The great room with evening light and its east-facing deck. Welcoming, comfy, and totally me.

The kitchen is off the great room as you first come in, an easy connection with the dining area.

The kitchen is compact, but the design makes it comfortable to use. And I do eat breakfast at the breakfast bar.

Turn around to look back at the foyer from the living area.

Did I mention that Arabella has her own south-facing window? She’s a happy Christmas cactus.

The east deck has a view of the Sangre de Cristo range in the distance, over the ridge that hides Highway 285 from view. The main bedroom, also facing east, shares that mountain view.

Nothing to see here–just the mountains rosy with sunset.

I really did just hang the hat rack. I’m home.

Hats on the rack and all.

I am fortunate, and grateful to have found this place that feels just right for the “home stretch” of my life, as the Guy calls this time.

And what of my Paonia house?

That sweet place with its shady yard is still seeking someone to buy it and love it! Please help spread the word by sharing this link to a restored 1920s house in an artsy and progressive town surrounded by organic farms and orchards, at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in western Colorado.

This flyer is just a teaser; the full details are online at the link above.

Thank you, and many blessings to you and yours!


Eleven years and a few months ago, Richard Cabe, the man I had loved for almost three decades, died of brain cancer. We met in graduate school in Laramie, Wyoming, when I was in my 20s, went on one date, and a few months later, I married him and his four-year-old daughter, Molly.

And then promptly packed Molly and as many of our belongings as we could fit into a Subaru hatchback and left for West Virgina, where Richard had a faculty position at West Virginia University.

Two semesters later, we packed ourselves back into that same Subaru and headed west again, landing in Olympia, Washington, where we both worked in state government, and Molly discovered the joys of digging for geoducks, a treehouse in the back yard, and licking slugs (yes, they do numb your tongue!).

Until three years later, when we moved back to the Rockies, to Boulder, Colorado, so that Richard could finish his PhD. In our year there, I wrote my first book, Pieces of LightA Year on Colorado’s Front Range, a year’s journal of nature and humans in Boulder.

Molly, Richard, and me in front of our apartment in Boulder. (I was still a redhead then, with waist-length hair.)

From Boulder, we headed east to Ames, Iowa, for Richard’s post-doc at Iowa State University, in a rental truck with Molly riding between us in the front seat, and our old Volvo station wagon in tow. After two years, Richard scored a professorship at New Mexico State University, so off we headed to Las Cruces in our new (old) Volkswagen camper bus.

Seven years later, after I wrote five books about the North American deserts and Molly graduated from high school, we packed our household and our Sharpei, Perdida, into another rental truck, and set off to return to the Rockies and the small town of Salida, Colorado, where Richard had lived in his childhood. Molly drove our Isuzu SUV, towing a trailer loaded with overflow from the rental truck.

After fifteen years in Salida, I had written six more books and Richard had fulfilled two life dreams–building us a house mostly with his own hands and pursuing abstract sculpture. And then brain cancer altered our paths. (I chronicled that journey in Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, my 13th book.)

The house Richard built for us, with his historic studio behind.

In the aftermath of Richard’s death, I realized two things: I was deeply in debt and I needed to figure out how to earn a living in a hurry after taking two years off to care for him and my mom, who died in the same year. At least as important, after spending nearly three decades adapting to the people I loved and their needs, I didn’t know who I was as a solo adult.

Because of the debt, I had to sell the house Richard built for us, but never finished, and the adjacent historic studio, also not finished. (As a sculptor, mundane stuff like trimming windows, installing baseboard and interior doors, or building cabinet doors and drawers, and finishing bathrooms was not interesting.)

The front door at Terraphilia after the house was finished.

Friends patiently taught me how to use tools and materials to finish both the studio and the house over two years (you know who you are, and you have my sincerest thanks forever!). In the doing, I discovered that I loved learning how buildings worked, and envisioning what they needed.

So once I sold Terraphilia, the big house and the studio, I helped design and build a small house and detached garage with guest studio above. I had never designed a space just for me, and in the process, I learned as much about myself as I did about construction.

The front deck and door of Creek House, with Treehouse beyond.

Once Creek House and its companion, Treehouse, were finished though, I realized that Salida no longer felt like home. In fact, I was no longer was sure where home was–other than somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region where sagebrush grows.

My mid-century modern house in Cody, after re-storying both the house and yard.

So I headed back to northwest Wyoming, the last place I had felt at home before going to grad school and meeting Richard and Molly. I bought a once-beautiful mid-century modern house in Cody that, after three decades of neglect, needed a lot of love. My contractor and I spent the next two years bringing it back to life, and then, during the hard winter after my dad died, I sold it and headed south to Santa Fe, where the winters are milder and I have a circle of close writing friends.

The front entry of my Santa Fe condo (the one I lived in, not the rental), after re-storying. Sculptural basin by Richard Cabe, glass prayer flag sculpture by Greg Reiche.

In Santa Fe, I bought and re-storyed two condos, one to live in and one to rent, and then sold both and moved out of town to a house with good bones but in need of a lot of love. (The Guy, who I had met in Wyoming that August, drove to Santa Fe to help me move.)

Casa Alegría, my house in Eldorado, outside Santa Fe.

A year later, after finishing Casa Alegría, my real estate sense said it was time to cash out, and my heart wanted to make one more try at Wyoming, so I sold the Casa and headed back to Cody. (Are you dizzy yet?)

Where I bought an ordinary ranch house in desperate need of updating, overlooking the Shoshone River in Cody. I was partly through re-storying that house when, on Thanksgiving weekend, a couple knocked on my door and asked if I would consider selling.

The front porch of my River View Drive house in Cody.

Which I took as a sign from the universe, so I put the house on the market, and ten days later, it sold.

Which is why a year ago, I moved again, this time to the little cottage I had bought as a winter writing escape in Montrose, Colorado, about an hour from the Guy’s farm. The cottage had a partially collapsed foundation and other serious needs, so I spent the rest of the winter and spring giving it a new lease on life, and then left to work at Ring Lake Ranch for the summer.

When I returned to the cottage after Labor Day, I had to admit it was too small for me at 672 square feet. So I finished re-storying it, and sold it to a single-mom teacher looking for a cozy and affordable place to raise her daughter.

The new front door at the cottage, plus one of the new windows.

And I bought a hundred-year-old bungalow in Paonia, a smaller and quieter town than Montrose. Twice the size of the Montrose cottage, with a two-car garage and a shady yard, it seemed like a place I could settle. Of course, it needed a little work.

I happily thinned trees and shrubs in the overgrown yard, oversaw the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof, dug out under the floors so my contractor could crawl under and shore up sagging floor beams, and generally gave the place the love it needed. (Including the beautiful new front door in the photo at the top of the post.)

Only, and we’re getting to the end of the long story here, I realized that while I enjoy this house and yard, and the charming town of Paonia in this green valley of orchards and small farms, it is not home.

I’m a desert rat: I need sun and sagebrush and wildness nearby to walk. And at 66 years old, I no longer need (or want) the responsibility for a house and a yard. I need more time to write.

So I’m going to put my newly re-storyed Paonia bungalow up for sale and settle into a sunny condo at the north edge of Santa Fe, with coyotes singing from the nearby ridges, and a view of the Sangre de Cristo Range from my back deck. And someone else doing the maintenance!

My Santa Fe condo, a light-filled eyrie with views of the nearby wild all around. The Guy gave it an “A-plus” rating.

I’ll visit the farm and Paonia in summers, and the Guy and the horses will come south in winter to a barn outside Santa Fe, a seasonal migration of sorts within our mutual home range, where sagebrush grows wild and mountains line at least one horizon. For me, now, that all feels just right.


Re-Storying: It’s the Little Things

One of the major lessons I learned when I began “re-storying” houses a decade ago was to start with the structure: assess the bones of the place from foundation to roof, and repair or rebuild as necessary. And then look at the infrastructure, the mechanical systems like heating and cooling, the wiring and plumbing; plus insulation and windows and doors. Fix or update those that are failing or simply not functional–before you think about paint colors or floor coverings or hardware.

Because until the structure is sturdy and the systems work, spending time and money on aesthetics is like putting lipstick on a pig–it may look better, but that’s still a pig under the makeup.

Which is a good metaphor for most endeavors in life, whether creative work or career, friendships and relationships, hobbies and recreation, or parenting. Start with the structure, make sure the systems are working, and then pretty things up.

There’s no point agonizing over every word in a 75,000-word novel, for instance, if the narrative arc doesn’t make sense, or the characters aren’t fully-fleshed and believable.

So I checked out this house’s structure to make sure it was sound. Almost, but for an area of floor that was sagging badly from the weight of a quartzite kitchen that the century-old floor beams had not been designed for.

After my contractor and I installed new support beams in the claustrophobic crawl space, I had the plumbing and wiring assessed. Both are what might be charitably described as eccentric, as is common in old houses added on to or modified over the years, but neither is dangerous.

There’s too much going on here….

That freed me to get creative with the aesthetics, the little things (compared to structure and infrastructure). I started with the bathroom, which was busy-bordering-on-frenetic, with too many textures and patterns fighting for attention: brushed stainless fixtures, bright chrome handles on the blinding white lacquered vanity, patterned matte-finish tile on the floor, shiny white and black subway tile halfway up the walls…. I had to shut my eyes to relax in the clawfoot bathtub!

First I replaced the angular chrome handles on the vanity with curving, dark bronze ones to echo the floor tiles. Then I painted the end wall a soft sage green, and put a leaf-patterned film on the window add to the natural feel (and offer privacy).

Those seemingly small details created a much calmer and more soothing space.

Next came trading out the heavy gray drapes that pooled on the floor by each window throughout the house for fitted Roman shades with insulating backing. The difference was startling, making my small house seem lighter and brighter, and also keeping it warmer as the nights dropped below freezing.

My library/writing room with drapes….

… and with Roman shades.

Lighter, more spacious and more energy efficient

Next, a project to make my kitchen food-prep area larger: adding an under-counter light to the dark corner opposite the fridge. That added four more running feet of usable counter, a big deal in my small kitchen. And the light is touchless: I can turn it on or adjust the brightness by waving my hand under the sensor end.

Adding an under-counter light was a simple and inexpensive way to add usable counter space.

Next, I decided the all-white bedrooms could use a little color. After a good deal of playing with sample colors, I settled on painting the window wall in each a soft blue-gray called English hollyhock. (No hollyhock I know of has ever bloomed in this shade, but it’s a lovely color regardless.)

The guest bedroom looks much better! (See the photo at the top of the post for my bedroom.)

Then I tackled interior doors. The two bedroom doors and the bathroom door had been painted a vivid teal on the outside, and a sort of battleship gray on the inside. Plus, the painters had splashed teal and gray paint over the trim, the floors, and the door hardware.

I took each door off, carried it out to the library where I had space to paint, set it on sawhorses, and carefully painted each side. I went for neutral–the same off-white as the walls–but added new door hardware, dark bronze levers in a style that seemed appropriate for my 1920 house.

Creamy off-white replacing vivid teal. Much calmer!

I also touched up the trim and cleaned the old paint off the hinges and floors as best I could.

The new door hardware in a design that is timeless and accessible.

Re-hanging each door by myself was a little bit of an adventure (there’s a door-jack contractors use, but I don’t have one), but I figured out that I could wedge the door in place with a  moving blanket while I screwed the hinge screws back in.

Solo door-hanging involves inventing props….

For the final touch, I found charming door-signs on Etsy to identify which room is which. I can’t wait to put them up! (They’re coming from Slovakia, so it may be a while.)

Bedroom sign….
Bathroom sign–pretty cute, I think!

As I wind down the calendar year of 2022, I remind myself of this lesson: tend the structure and infrastructure first, before diving into the aesthetics. I also remind myself that the little things are a lot of fun, and they can make an outsize difference.

May your year-end be full of joy, and your new year the best yet! Blessings to you all.

Home Again

I left home the Tuesday before last on an autumn day so glorious that as I wound my way along the North Rim of the Black Canyon National Park, the aspens and Gambel oak glowed gold and copper in the sun, and I drove with the windows open, singing along with Emmy Lou Harris. It was so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave.

But I had promised to teach a workshop on landscape and language with my dear comadre, Dr. Dawn Wink, at the 28th annual Women Writing the West Conference in Oklahoma City, and also to help her run the conference, which involved wrangling nearly 100 writers, plus spouses and companions, and ensuring that a dozen workshops went off successfully, along with three keynote speeches, three awards ceremonies, banquets, a conference bookstore, museum tours, and the other events of a packed conference. So off I went in Rojita, headed 775 miles to Oklahoma City.

Dawn and I at the end of our three-hour pre-conference workshop. At that point, we just wanted lunch!

It was an intense four days, with a lot of last-minute glitches, and a few personal conflicts to defuse. But our mission of “lifting all voices” was superbly successful. Conference attendees left high and inspired, their perspectives on the women’s west enlarged, excited for new ideas, new friends, and new writing. Post-conference comments came in enthusiastic, like this one from fiction writer Sue Boggio:

This year’s conference was at the top of all I have attended! It impacted every sphere: intellectual, emotional, spiritual. So much gratitude!

Even the weather in Oklahoma City cooperated, with beautifully warm days. Until we packed up the event and set out for the long trek home, into a forecast of ferocious winds from the southwest, followed by the season’s first big snowstorm. Ugh.

I tacked cross-wind, Rojita steady despite 60 mile-per-hour gusts, as far as New Mexico, and stopped for the night. The next day, I drove cautiously over two mountain passes and along the winding North Rim in a world turned white with fresh snow. Quite a change from six days earlier.

Remember that view of golden aspen and copper Gambel oak at the top of the post? What a difference!

To say I was relieved to back Rojita into my garage is an understatement. I was so exhausted that I didn’t notice until the next day that I had left the charger and cord for my laptop in the motel in New Mexico, seven hours drive away. (No, I did not drive back to get it.)

I’m still catching up on sleep, emails and messages, paying bills, and the other minutia of life. But I have already settled back into writing. I’m 1,500 words into the new book, and that’s a lot for me. If you’re one of those who participates in NaNoMo (National Novel-Writing Month) where you aim to lay down 50,000 words in 30 days, good on ya! I’m a plodding writer, laying down words and sentences the way a good bricklayer builds a wall, leveling each brick before placing the next, troweling away the excess mortar, checking the whole to make sure it is plumb before moving deliberately on.

My writing desk on my sunny enclosed porch.

And I’m working away on house projects too. Doing something physical every day is crucial to my creativity, preferably something outside now that the weather is nice again. So yesterday and today, I climbed up on my roof to clear off debris from the valleys and gutters before it snows again.

I set up my eight-foot stepladder, climbed up to the very top step (you know, the one that says “Don’t sit or stand on”) and clambered up onto the roof with my rake and trowel. Once I found my balance, I headed past the solar panels to the long valley between the front section of the house, with a ridge running north-south, and the back section, with a ridge running east to west.

My new rooftop power plant generating clean electricity from the sun.

The valley between those two sections clearly hadn’t been cleaned in decades, because under the tangle of cottonwood leaves and branches was good black humus sprouting a few baby ash trees! Accumulating a soil layer that holds water is very bad for a roof, even a sturdy metal one. It’s a wonder the roof isn’t leaking.

Soil forming in the valley of my house roof. Not a good thing for a roof!

I cleaned out a wheelbarrow load of leaves and humus, and then crept over the ridge to the steeper front roof, raked it off, cleaned the gutter over the front door, and then raked and swept the leaves and compost from the valley on the north side of the roof. After which I carefully stepped back onto the stepladder, retrieved my tools, and climbed safely down. Whew!

I get a lot of satisfaction from tending this house and yard, and preparing both to go healthfully into their second century–the house is 102 years old this year, and I respect its history and look forward to its future.

The shady backyard in full fall glory–my colorful refuge.

Re-storying houses that need love is a sustainable thing to do, requiring much less energy and many fewer materials than building new, and is thus much lighter on this Earth. And it’s healing, giving existing houses another life, a new story, another chance to provide a nurturing home for someone.

It’s one way I practice terraphilia, living with love for this planet and its vibrant–if challenged–web of life. That’s my mission in life and writing, and it’s one reason I took the time to help plan and put on the Women Writing the West Conference with its theme of lifting all voices. As I say every night before bed, “My intention is to heal and restore this glorious living Earth and we who share the planet. That all may thrive.”

The subtitle of Bless the Birds, my newest book, is “Living With Love in a Time of Dying.” By that I mean, anytime of crisis, whether personal, political, or global. I wish for all of us a chance to practice our terraphilia, live with love, and thrive. Blessings!

Settling Into Home

Driving home the other evening, I stopped in the middle of the road to shoot this photo, because it captures what I love about this place I’ve landed after a decade of wandering. The valley, greened by water harvested from the surrounding peaks and mesas, is a patchwork of orchards, organic farms, and vineyards. The small town of Paonia nestled along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. And above, the still-mostly-wild landscapes of Grand Mesa and the West Elk Mountains.

It is that mix of healthy cultivated land and wild land that draws me, the lively small town, and the Guy nearby. And the sweet 1920s bungalow I bought, with its forest-glade backyard and cozy interior.

The yard and house need some work, but not a major re-storying project. Just polishing what is here, and shoring up some of the sagging bits. Nothing huge or scary.

Today, for instance, the Guy brought a chainsaw over, and we cut down and removed some of the sickly and spindly trees in the backyard forest that has become too crowded, and took out a few limbs that needed pruning, including the large crabapple branch weighing down the electric line.

The backyard after some thinning to give the existing trees more room to breathe and harvest sunlight.

I started the backyard tree removal project yesterday with my trusty hand-saw by removing the ash tree that had been allowed to grow horizontally right across the alley entrance to the garage. I think that snake-like tree was seeking light, but honestly, it wasn’t a healthy growth habit. (Also, I want to use that driveway!)

The light-seeking, horizontal-trunked ash tree before…

Removing it left me with a big pile of ash limbs to turn into chippings, ie, mulch for the yard.

And after removal, opening up the driveway and the alley entrance to my two-car, offset-door garage. 

In the front yard, I hand-sawed a whole thicket of root sprouts–some as tall as 12 feet–from base of the big cottonwood trees. Now you can actually see the front of the house from the street.

Big trees, tiny front yard, and a lot of gravel, which I’ll slowly replace with drought-tolerant natives for more of a cottage garden look.

I also planted several clusters of peony tubers and daffodil bulbs, which meant digging through six inches of gravel mulch and three layers of landscape cloth to make planting spots. And I planted two pots of native pollinator flowers to brighten up and add instant habitat to the gravel yard.

Front-yard seating area with a pot of native appleblossom grass, which the little native bees love.

Last week, the wonderful crew at Empowered Energy Systems installed solar panels on my south-facing roof.  They’re now hooked up to the power grid, so I’m generating my own clean electricity.

It makes me happy to have a solar power plant on my roof!

Inside, I’ve already gotten started on my part of the most difficult renovation project: digging out a passage under the floor to access the aptly named crawl space under the floor beams. Last weekend I spent a sweaty morning digging construction debris and loose dirt out of a small hatch in the dining-area floor, and carefully wheeling four loads of debris and dirt out of the house.

Yup, that’s the crawl space access, with the wheelbarrow positioned for me today out and lift up the debris and dirt. Fun stuff.

Sometime next month, my intrepid contractor, Jerry Fritts, will slide in, crawl over, and jack up the floor beams sagging under the weight of a quartzite-topped breakfast bar installed by the previous owner. In 1920, when the house was built, floor beams were not engineered to support the weight of rock-slab counters. Carefully jacking up the beams and putting support columns under them will give that old wood floor another 80 years of life!

In the midst of all of this, I’ve settled in, making the house my home. Here’s a quick tour, with before and after photos:

The former owner used the front porch as a dining room.

Very formal, and so not me!

I chose a different use.

For me, it’s the ideal library and writing room, and it has a south-facing window for Arabella, my venerable Christmas cactus.

The living room/kitchen area used to be HGTV metro modern.

Nice, but not my style, especially the light fixtures over the breakfast bar and the kitchen sink.

I’m more a southwest-style cottage person myself. I placed my dining area between the living room and the kitchen.

Oh yeah, that’s more me–colorful, comfy and eclectic.

What’s next?

Running a writing conference, and then turning to my own writing.

Next week, I drive to Oklahoma City for Women Writing the West’s 28th Annual Conference: Red Earth Voices–We All Have a Story to Tell. I’m teaching a landscape and language pre-conference workshop with my writing comadre, Dr. Dawn Wink, and helping to run the show. It’s going to be an inspiring and amazing three days, with keynote speakers Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, novelist Laura Pritchett, and memoirist Amy Irvine, plus tours of the new First Americans Museum and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, craft workshops, agent and editor pitches, roundtable critiques, the annual WILLA and LAURA awards, and much more.

It’s not too late to sign up for the conference, if you or someone you know wants to join a vibrant and welcoming community of women writers!

After the conference, I am home for the winter, and will finally be able to truly settle in and write. I can’t wait. Blessings to you all!


Lessons from the Ranch

I spent my summer working at Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center high in the Torrey Creek Valley of the Wind River Range in western Wyoming. The ranch is a gorgeous place, true to its tagline, “renewal in sacred wilderness.” (The photo above is Trail Lake, one of the two lakes the ranch borders, at dawn a couple of weeks ago.)

Some fun facts from my summer:

  • Number of miles I walked each day (on average): 6.5
  • Number of flights of stairs my pedometer tallied daily as I climbed hills and mountains: 24
  • Number of times I got my saddle out of the tack shed to go for a ride: 6 (that’s just sad, in 16 weeks at the ranch)
  • Age range of guests I led on hikes: 2 years old to 82!
  • Largest hiking group: 27 guests and staff
  • Most beds the staff and I changed in one morning: 41
  • Average pounds of cabin laundry hauled to the Dubois laundromat each week: 180
  • Average hours I worked each day: 10

You may gather by those data that I didn’t get much renewal this summer, and you’d be right. I didn’t get any writing time either. We were short-staffed, and I filled in wherever needed, including working the kitchen and helping the wranglers with the ranch’s herd of 32 horses.

It was, honestly, grueling in terms of physical and emotional effort. The exhaustion was lightened by some really beautiful moments on hikes, in conversations over meals in the dining hall, with staff on our rare off-times, and during evening seminars. Still, the summer’s work left me bone-weary and seven pounds lighter than when I arrived at the ranch in May.

One of those beautiful moments, and a rare time for me in the saddle, on the annual wrangler ride at the end of the season. This is Dundee Meadows, in the Absaroka Range.

I took the job of housekeeping coordinator/hike leader (which equals a more than full-time position, and requires very different skill sets) as an act of service, to use my skills and talents to help the ranch evolve in changing times.

I also figured I’d have some fruitful time to reflect on a question that has troubled me for the past few years: Where is home?

As it turned out, I was much too busy working to have time to reflect. Still, the question surfaced in the moments between waking and sleep each night. I saw the same images and heard the same words over and over, but it took me a long time to realize they gave me the answers I had been seeking.

Where is home? I kept seeing the view of Mount Lamborn over the hayfields of The Guy’s farm. I thought, I miss that soothing green. But I don’t want to live on the farm. Where is my home?

Mount Lamborn in the background over the farm.

I heard “private,” “quiet,” “secluded,” “shady refuge.” But where, I asked my thoughts in frustration. Where is this place?

Then it dawned on me. The place that fit those words and that brought the image to mind was a place I had not considered because it was too close to The Guy: Paonia, the small town surrounded by orchards and farms, home to around 1,500 people, that has been his community for nearly 30 years.

Paonia was his place, not mine. We had been so careful to give each other lots of space, to not encroach on each other. Could I find a place of my own there, both a physical space and a community?

I called him that weekend: “What if I moved to Paonia?”

“Why?” I offered the words and the images that had appeared over and over again in my mind. “I’ll think about it.” he said.

A few days later, he texted, “Okay.” Just one word. Enough.

“Are you sure?” A thumbs’ up emoji appeared by return text. More than enough.

I began obsessively looking at houses for sale in the former mining town colonized by hippies back in the day, and once home to the environmental newspaper High Country News; a town where pot shops coexist with hardware stores, an old-fashioned lumber yard, art galleries, bakeries, wineries, and a community theater.

Peonies blooming in Paonia.

A town named for peonies, one of my favorite heritage garden flowers. Where the streets are narrow, potholed, and shaded by huge old trees. Where the town park hosts “Picking’ in the Park” every weekend through the summer.

After weeks of hounding the real estate websites, and two quick trips south, I found my place. The image in my head of a shady backyard with a deep porch, and even, wonder of wonders! A writing hut tucked away under an ash tree next to the garage. A room of my own….

My 1920s bungalow, where the shaded front porch will be my library.
And the open living room/dining/kitchen will look homey with my sky-blue leather couch, Sam Bair rustic furniture, and my saddle on its stand!
The deep porch and shady backyard
And tucked away under a crooked ash tree, my writing hut.

By a stroke of very good luck, I was the first buyer to see it, and my offer was accepted. So I’m finally moving home. Where I will stay. And yes, it needs a little work (there’s a small matter of 1920s floor beams that need support after a kitchen renovation a few years back installed a very heavy quartzite counter, plus an aging garage roof). But mostly, it’s just where I need to be.

As soon as my sweet Montrose cottage sells, I’m packing up for one last move. And then I’m going to settle in and see what words come next…. And plant peonies to bloom in the garden next spring. At home.

Postcards from the Ranch

I am halfway through my grueling but inspiring summer of work at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming. At the end of each day, I am physically and emotionally exhausted–out of gas–with no energy or brain power to even return emails or read a book.

By the time I’ve worked ten or twelve hours and walked six or eight miles, even self-care like showering and doing laundry feels as difficult as pulling off my dusty boots before I fall face down in my bed. I just want to sleep so that I can bank energy before the next day begins!

Which accounts for my radio silence in this blog and also in the world of social media, the virtual writing groups I usually participate in, and the other aspects of life beyond this beautiful guest ranch/spiritual retreat center.

Tortuguita, my little trailer home, after evening thunderstorms.

I do read the news for a few minutes each day, and it is generally so dispiriting that I have to go out and sit by the lake for a while, or pull some invasive weeds, or hang out with my friends in the ranch staff before I can regain my equilibrium again. I refuse to live my days angry or without hope, so I do what I can every day to spread light in the world.

Sunrise over Trail Lake, one of the lakes that shelter the Ranch.

The truth is that is all we can do, in whatever fashion fits who we are: live with love, spread kindness, advocate for those whose voices are not heard (and in this, I include the voices of the land as well as human voices), and be people we admire as much as we can.

All of that is powerful though, even if it doesn’t always seem to be. Spreading light in the world, living our every interaction with love and care are how we create the world we want to live in, moment by moment, inch by inch, day by day. How we live matters a great deal.

The delicate native sego lily (Calochortus gunnisoni) I freed from invasive cheatgrass the other day. A tiny bee zipped in to pollinate the flower as soon as it was no longer obscured by the thicket of annual grass!

In the spirit of that, I am sharing these photos of the ranch to remind us all of the good in the world, the everyday moments of wonder and joy and just rightness.

Blessings to you all!

An evening snuggle with Major the mule, the cuddliest of our 32-horse ranch herd! (Photo by Sam Handley)

Wandering but not lost

“All who wander are not lost.”

That familiar bumper-sticker sentiment fits particularly well right now, as I write from the snug confines of Tortuguita, my “little turtle” teardrop trailer, parked next to the staff lodging at Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming, where I am working for the second summer in a row.

Ring Lake Ranch is an extraordinary place, tucked in the deep, glacially carved valley of Torrey Creek at 7,500 feet, bordering Ring and Trail lakes, bounded by the public land of the Shoshone National Forest (where I worked as a young field ecologist, mapping the plant communities). It’s a spiritual retreat center run like a rustic guest ranch, with educational and inspirational seminars, wonderful food, fly fishing, riding, and hiking. (I work as the housekeeping coordinator and hike leader.)

The view across Trail Lake into the heart of the Wind River Range from near where Tortuguita is parked.

The ranch is special to me personally: I drove up the long dirt road to the ranch in late August of 2019 to teach the final seminar before the ranch closed for the season, knowing almost nothing about the place, and was immediately adopted by a gentlemanly, white muzzled, stub-tailed bird dog who craftily introduced me to his person, The Guy. My life changed for the good in that instant.

Dawn creeps down the canyon walls toward the ranch.

The Ranch offers, as its website says, “renewal in sacred wilderness.” And lives up to that, though not without challenges.

This year, the staff gathered on a beautifully warm, sunny week to open up and clean buildings not used (except by pack rats and mice) since Labor Day last year. We renewed old friendships and began new ones, settled into our living spaces and worked long days readying cabins for the volunteers who arrive every year to help us with big projects before the ranch opens for the summer.

All was going well until…. it snowed. The first time.

Spring in the Rockies is notoriously fickle.

Then the crew of volunteers charged with assembling the yurts for additional staff housing (one yurt has my name on it) discovered that the yurt kits had been shipped without the several hundred pounds of steel brackets that hold the timber frames together. The yurt manufacturer promised to send a tech out with the steel the following week to help erect them. So the crew pivoted to other projects, of which there are many.

And then a volunteer tested positive for COVID. Believe everything you have heard about how contagious this variant is: By the end of the week, despite masking and vaxxing and boostedness, we had ten staff and volunteers who tested positive with COVID, including me. (Two more have tested positive since.) I moved out of the staff apartment where I was bunking until my yurt is finished, and into Tortuguita, which is tiny but quite cozy if you don’t have a summer’s worth of gear to store, which I do.

The first batch of guests arrived on Sunday afternoon, along with the second, more serious snowstorm. It snowed all night Sunday night and part of Monday morning, and then turned to steady rain. We need the moisture, but…. The mud gets tracked everywhere, and I can attest that it’s not easy to be sick in a trailer where the bathroom is a dash through the snow away. I was fiercely feverish for two days, but now I am on the mend. Weak, but improving.

A big change from the photo at the top of the post!

Getting the ranch open for the summer has been rocky, but no one has shot anyone, and we’re not being bombed. Our challenges pale against the news of the world, especially of the two most horrifying mass shootings, first the racist massacre at the supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and more recently, the school massacre in Uvalde, Texas.

I’ve asked myself what I can do to counteract the killing. And my honest answer is just this: Be a light in the darkness. Stand up against hatred, and do my best to treat everyone with kindness, respect, and love. Those every day actions may seem inconsequential. But they matter. A lot.

As I wrote in “Picking Up Roadkill,” an essay that has been included in several anthologies:

“A civilized society is created as much by our private, every-day acts as it is by the laws we pass and the contracts we sign. Our personal behavior sets the model for what we expect of others.”

It feels like humanity is wandering and quite lost, but there is something each of us can do: Be the best humans we can be. Live with love in our every days, in our every interaction. Our own behavior contributes to turning the tide of gun violence, war, climate change, racism, and all manner of other ills.

Be a light in the darkness. Be the model for the world you want to see. Be fierce in defense of the world we all love. Your individual actions matter.

Tortuguita with her canopy out before the snowstorm.

Blessings to you all from my COVID-isolation pod high in the Torrey Creek drainage of the Wind River Range in Wyoming.

Welcome to my cottage

I promised to post photos of my cottage renovation, and then I got busy writing and well, renovating (go figure!), and February flew by. So here is a tour of what I’ve done so far.

The house was built in 1938, and boasts a deep front porch and two rooms (now opened up) up front, plus three rooms in an addition at the back. The whole place totals just 672 square feet, so it’s… compact.

My neighbor across the street, who grew up here, says the cottage was built to house the manager of the apple orchard that grew where the neighborhood is now. Originally, the house was just the two front rooms, and a family of eight (six kids, two adults) lived here! When the back portion was added on a few years later, it must have made the space seem positively commodious.

Come on in with me. The first set of photos are how the interior looked when I saw it last fall (before my wonderful excavator, John Long, and his colleague, Jerry Fritts, who basically does everything related to building, carefully jacked up the side where the foundation had collapsed and built a new foundation under it).

Just inside the front door, looking at the half-wall between the kitchen and the living room. This space is the entire original house.

Note those classy vinyl stick-on tiles over the stove, and the lack of drawer and door pulls on the cabinets. You can’t tell, but the place was filthy, with food stuck to the floors and grime on every surface. It smelled of rotten wood from the water leak that caused the foundation collapse. The interior, slanting floors and all, had been cheaply renovated after a drug-dealer tenant trashed it, breaking out the windows and setting fire to the inside. Despite the abuses the cottage has suffered, it feels welcoming.

The living room, to the right of the front door, with the bedroom door on the right, and the hall opening just visible.

Roaring One, the old gas wall furnace in the living room that provided the only heat, was so loud I had to turn it off at night to sleep.

Let’s go through that door to the right.

My bedroom, and yes, the ceiling does slant to the back of the room, because the roof at the back of the house is a sloping shed roof. 

My bedroom is cozy at all of 8.5 by 11 feet in size!

Okay, back to the living room and through the opening into the hall….

And there’s the tiny (and dark) bathroom. The plumbing works, I’ll just say that.

Go left around the bend in the hall, and there is the smaller bedroom, which will be my office.

That’s my desk, made by Santa Fe cabinetmaker Sam Bair. It will never look that tidy again!

Now let’s fast-forward to today, and do that tour again, starting with coming up the steps and into the front door. There’s the kitchen, transformed.

New appliances, attaching door and drawer pulls to the cabinets, hanging a pot rack, replacing the old kitchen faucet, and adding some of my favorite turquoise blue accents really spiffs it up.

Yet to come: a tile backsplash in the blue color of one of the tiles behind the stove. The tiles are locally made from sediment dredged out of a nearby irrigation reservoir, and the glazes are gorgeous.

There’s just space in the corner of the kitchen to the left of the front door for a cozy dining nook. (The chairs are also by Sam Bair.)
Looking to the right of the front door beyond the half-wall with the kitchen, the living room. And yes, that’s my saddle on display. I did say that the cottage is small, didn’t I?


Looking from the living room into my bedroom and down the hall.

Where Roaring One lived is now a wall with an antique shelf holding cookbooks and kitchen implements. I replaced the old wall-furnace with a mini-split system for heating and cooling. (You can see one of the mini-split heads above the hall doorway.)

My bedroom isn’t big, but it is colorful and cozy.

Now come down the hall, and ignore the bathroom. I have ideas, but they’ll have to wait until I have a few weeks clear to get Jerry Fritts to help me to tear the whole thing apart…. As I said, the plumbing works, and the water is hot and plentiful thanks to my new tankless water heater, I’m grateful for that.

My office at the end of the hall. I did say that the beautiful Sam Bair desk would never look that tidy again…

Arabella, my venerable Christmas cactus, is happy with her southwest-facing window. She’s been blooming steadily since I moved her in a January blizzard, so I think she’s forgiven me for the grueling trip.

Now that I’ve taken care of the immediate needs (heating, hot water, replacing some fixtures, stabilizing the foundation and so on), I’m starting in on the neglected yard, where the first daffodils are blooming. Yet to come for the house: new windows throughout, new exterior doors (that don’t leak), and some galvanized steel wainscot for where the beautiful tongue-and-grove siding on the exterior walls was damaged at the lower edges. And then I’ll tackle that bathroom….

This cottage is my happy place. No matter the tragic events of its recent past, and no matter the sloping floors and slanting ceilings, the place is solid, and has a sweet feel and a good spirit. In these difficult times, I feel blessed to have not just a roof over my head and a comfy place to sleep, but a place that feels like–and is–home.

Celebrating coming home with a fire in the fire pit.