Playing Hooky

Monday, November 11th, 2013
Sierra San Antonio marks the Colorado-New Mexico boundary. Sierra San Antonio, a prominent volcanic done, marks the Colorado-New Mexico boundary.

I spent the weekend in Santa Fe at the Tony Hillerman Writers Conference. The speakers were inspiring and funny, and I came home with new insights into both Bless the Birds and the mystery novel I've been noodling with on and off for over a decade.

The conference was work, and intense work at that. Still, I hung out with a small group I know from Women Writing the West, and we simply enjoyed each other. I skipped a workshop one morning to have coffee with a friend from grad school. (Thanks for the gift of time and the delicious pastries, Dale!)

I've been driving myself so hard for the past few years that I had forgotten how great it felt to not try to accomplish ten major things each day....

My street-side yard before--not an inviting place. My street-side yard before--not an inviting place.

Today I extended my break and played hooky. With a Bobcat. Not the feline kind with a stub-tail and big feet. A mini-excavator with rubber tracks, a blade, and a bucket with a boulder-picking claw.

My new friend Tony Boone, a professional trail-builder who constructs mountain-bike trails as far afield as China, rented the Bobcat for the dirtwork that will transform my street-side yard from a bare, ugly slope into an inviting landscape with paths, boulder retaining walls, and sitting areas.

I had spray-painted a rough plan directly on the slope, a neon green line showing the path cutting a shelf diagonally across the steep slope with a sitting area under a small porch roof. We could use the boulders from Richard's spare rockyard as retaining walls.

Tony cuts the beginning of the shelf for the path, making a "nest" for the first boulder. Tony cuts the beginning of the shelf, making a "nest" for the first boulder.

Tony checked the slope with his clinometer, an instrument that measures slope angle, and set to work placing the first boulder to mark the entrance to the path and anchor the retaining wall.

I helped by staying out of the way--picking rocks from the excavated earth, fetching tools, and consulting as Tony needed. (I also planted a lilac bush at the corner of the side-yard fence, and hauled cobbles from the newly excavated shelf for a dry streambed project.)

A line of boulders, snugly seated, holds the slope where the path will go. A line of boulders, snugly seated, holds the slope where the path will go.

Over the course of the morning, as Tony maneuvered the Bobcat around the sloping yard with its various obstacles, a shelf with a boulder retaining wall began to emerge, sculpting planting spaces in a once featureless bank.

At one point, I had to go inside and do some actual work, as in writing work. When I came back outside, Tony and the Bobcat had cut and graded their way up the slope to where the path comes under the side porch overhang.

Watching him carefully ease the excavator and its long arm ("boom" in the trade) under the overhang carrying quarter-ton chunks of sandstone building blocks reminded me of watching dancers moving with care and continual awareness of where each movement takes them in space.

Eyeing the overhang and the boom while grading the path-to-be. Eyeing the clearance between the overhang and the boom while grading the path-to-be.

By the time the light began to fade, I had moved several wheelbarrow-loads of cobbles and mulch for the projects I was working on, and Tony and the Bobcat had moved many cubic yards of boulders and soil.

The paths and retaining walls in the streetside yard were clearly recognizable. Tony dug up the last bucket of earth from below the path, placed the last boulder from Richard's rockyard (I just ordered five more tons of boulders for tomorrow's work), lowered the blade and the boom to anchor the Bobcat, and turned the machine off.

I stacked the hand tools against the house. We stood admiring his work in the quiet. Then he headed home to his kids, and I came inside to make my dinner.

A diagonal path bisects the slope, with boulders retaining the steepest bits above and below. A diagonal path bisects the slope, with boulders retaining the steepest bits above and below.

I'm worn out. But I have to admit that a whole day outside working in my dirt yard felt great.

So great, in fact, that I'm going to do it again tomorrow....