“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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 kitchen is off the great room as you first come in, an easy connection with the dining area.
Turn around to look back at the foyer from the living area.
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.
I really did just hang the hat rack. I’m home.
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.
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 Light, A Year on Colorado’s Front Range, a year’s journal of nature and humans in Boulder.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
… and with Roman shades.
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.
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.)
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.
I also touched up the trim and cleaned the old paint off the hinges and floors as best I could.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!)
Removing it left me with a big pile of ash limbs to turn into chippings, ie, mulch for the yard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I chose a different use.
The living room/kitchen area used to be HGTV metro modern.
I’m more a southwest-style cottage person myself. I placed my dining area between the living room and the kitchen.
Running a writing conference, and then turning to my own writing.
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.
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?
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Blessings to you all from my COVID-isolation pod high in the Torrey Creek drainage of the Wind River Range in Wyoming.
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).
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.
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 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….
Go left around the bend in the hall, and there is the smaller bedroom, which will be my office.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
This year started out with events I would not have imagined six months ago: a house sale and a move. Last June, I followed my heart home to Wyoming’s sagebrush country, selling my Santa Fe house and moving to a house on “the rim,” as it’s called in Cody, above the Shoshone River. (Click the link at “a house” to see the “after” photos of the house. It did not look like that when I bought it!)
The Cody house needed some love–I’ve never bought one that didn’t–and it was too big for me. But it was in a great location, and I figured I would spend a few years fixing it up, and eventually trade it for a little cottage in the historic neighborhoods around downtown (which, of course, would need fixing up, because that’s how I roll–and how I earn an income from my real estate deals).
Only the universe had other ideas. Just before Thanksgiving, a stranger knocked on my door and asked if I would ever consider selling my house. I said I’d talk to my friend Yuliya Martsul, who is also one of the smartest real estate people I know, and see what she thought the place was worth. I showed them around and then I called Yuliya.
Six days later, I accepted an all-cash offer on the house at a price that paid me back for the work I had put into it, and covered my move. The closing date was–gulp!–mid-January.
Which gave me seven weeks to thoughtfully downsize, pack, search for a smaller place in Cody, and move. Piece of cake, right? After all, this would be my sixth move in ten years, so I’ve had plenty of practice.
“Right-sizing” from 2,200 square feet to something smaller and packing was the easy part. Finding another place to live in Cody proved impossible.
So I pivoted–flexibility is my middle name since I stumbled into this side-gig of buying unloved properties and re-storying them–I would move into the cottage in Montrose, in western Colorado, that I had bought for my winter writing retreat earlier last fall. (Have I confused you yet?)
My plan was simple: Winnow my stuff down to what would comfortably fit into the 672 square foot cottage–five rooms, counting the bathroom–and store what I couldn’t bear to part with. I’d look for a Cody place come spring, I thought, when the real estate market might be less insane.
Okay. Except that I would be moving from far northwestern Wyoming to far western Colorado, eleven hours south, in January, on a route that’s pretty much off the map for movers. Fortunately, Rick Cook of Cody’s Cook Moving & Storage, who has moved me twice before, figured out how to fit me and my not-very-much stuff on one of his trucks headed for Las Vegas, Nevada. (Thank you, Rick, and ace mover/driver Phil!)
The only hitch was that I would have to move January 7th, a week earlier than I had planned. Which gave me just six weeks to get ready. And to finish some projects in the house that I hadn’t bothered to with, thinking I had lots of time.
So between giving away some furniture and lots of books, downsizing my files, and packing, packing, packing, I was up on a ladder on my front porch replacing the tacky front porch lights with much cooler and more efficient ones that didn’t blind people coming up the walk. And finishing the cabinets in the kitchen, replacing a couple of really ugly bathroom faucets, and the like.
And I spent a week of that six in Montrose overseeing foundation work on my cottage, which had plumbing issues before I bought it, resulting in part of the beautiful stacked sandstone foundation under the oldest part of the cottage collapsing. Fixing that involved jacking up one side of the cottage and digging out the cellar, which fortunately I did not have to do myself!
It’s no wonder that I was a little insane by the time the week of January 7th rolled around. And wouldn’t you know, that was the week when Wyoming’s way-too-balmy-and-dry winter delivered a real northern Rockies blizzard, dropping a foot of much-needed but very inconvenient snow with sub-zero temperatures and howling winds. Fun stuff.
Thanks to last-minute help from my dear friends Connie and Jay Moody and the careful loading skills of Phil and his crew, my belongings were out of the house by closing on the afternoon of the 7th. My neighbor Bill helped me load my huge Christmas cactus, Arabella, into my truck, and Jay and Connie kindly housed me, the truck, and Arabella until the roads cleared enough for me to head south two days later.
Where the Guy welcomed me (and Arabella) into his comfortable farmhouse an hour’s drive from my cottage until Phil arrived with my stuff on a sunny Tuesday morning not quite two weeks ago.
Are you dizzy yet? I’ll save the details of the renovation I’ve done on the cottage in the past twelve days for another post.
Suffice it to say that I’m settled, my stuff is all out of boxes and stowed away, and I am happily exploring my new surroundings–I have a river to walk here, too–and I’m back to work on the new book. Whew!