When Home Calls

Spring in the sagebrush country on the west edge of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River Canyon splitting Spirit (on the left) from Rattlesnake Mountain (on the right).

Last winter, as the snowstorms that once sparingly but reliably watered the high-desert around Santa Fe failed to appear, and the soil blew skyward in hazy clouds on the winds, I realized I felt uneasy. Restless. Anxious, even.

My body, always a reliable barometer, began to send “all-is-not-well” signals: I developed a chronic sore throat, blood clots in my sinuses, nighttime fevers, and a grinding burn in my lower esophagus that no change of diet alleviated.

I ignored these signals. For weeks. My body is always way ahead of my brain’s ability to acknowledge reality.

A dry winter turned to a hot and windy spring, and the Guy and Badger and the horses departed for Colorado, leaving me with no distractions.

Badger and his Guy, hiking Galisteo Basin in a dry winter.

I woke one morning with pain flickering along the nerve channels in my legs, like lightning igniting thin internal wires. That got my attention.

I asked my body what was wrong. The word I heard was “homesick.” I saw a familiar image: a sea of big sagebrush stretching west to the uptilted ridges of Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains, west of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River canyon a dark gap splitting them. (Like the photo at the top of the post.)

“I can’t go home,” I said out loud. “It’s not practical. The winters are too cold. I haven’t finished this house. My book is launching soon: I don’t have time to move.”

The burning in my esophagus notched up, and a storm of pain raged down the nerves in my legs.

As I wrote in my first memoir, Walking Nature Home,

Homesickness may not be a diagnosable illness, but it is more than mere sentiment. The word itself, writes Carolyn Servid in Of Landscape and Longing, allows the truth that when we are away from the places that nurture heart and spirit we feel “unhealthy, ill at ease.” Americans are a restless culture, moving constantly in search of new opportunities, which we define in terms of money, possessions, and power, not the richness of connection. If we valued roots — attachment to place and the community of species who live there over material success, we might well be happier, less driven to accumulate things and more able to be nourished by what we have and who we love. The malaise that captures us when we live in a place or culture that nurtures neither heart nor spirit may be telling us that we, like ET, need to honor the call to go home.

My roots have always been in northwest Wyoming, specifically from Cody west through the Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. I wasn’t born there, but I attached to that landscape stubbornly in childhood, and have lived there more than once over my adult life. My heart soars just thinking about those expanses of sagebrush and rugged volcanic plateaus, the resident grizzly bears and sandhill cranes.

The idea of moving home stuck. I couldn’t do it now, I thought, but maybe sometime in the next few years…. I began idly surfing real estate websites, looking at property for sale around Cody.

One day in late March, as I was plotting out a native-plant pollinator garden I had promised the Guy for his farm, I saw a house listed for sale on a bluff above the Shoshone River right in Cody. It was an ordinary ranch house, with small rooms and 1990s dark paint and trim, but the backyard ended in a fence overlooking the river, sagebrush in view and the mountains on the western horizon. A cottonwood tree shaded the front yard.

The Shoshone River

“I could live there,” I thought. And half an hour later, I noticed that the burning in my esophagus was gone, and my legs didn’t hurt. “It’s not practical,” I said, curious about how my body would respond. Within minutes, the burn and the flickering nerves were back.

I called my friend Yuliya Martsul, a real estate agent in Cody. The house was already under contract, she said. Ah well. If it’s meant to be mine, it will be, I reminded myself. And I went back to looking, my mind finally accepting the idea of moving home.

I talked to the Guy: “If it’s what you need to do, we’ll adjust our home range to make it work,” he said. That night, I slept soundly, with no fevers or two-am anxiety.

In mid-April, I was driving to the Guy’s farm, hauling flats of plants for that pollinator garden, when Yuliya texted to say the house was available again. We arranged a video walk-through. By which time it was under contract again.

Still, Yuliya video-toured me through the house. I could see it needed more light and a connection to the outdoors, but otherwise there was nothing alarming. And the location above the river was perfect for me. It felt like I could make it home.

I made a back-up offer, and by the end of the day, the house was under contract again. This time to me.

There were a few obstacles. The biggest? I can’t afford to own two houses. So I’d have to sell Casa Alegría, my house outside Santa Fe, to make the Cody house deal work. And I wasn’t finished renovating. Plus the back yard was still dirt, not the charming native pollinator meadow and borders I imagined.

Casa Alegría at moonrise.

Also, I was still in Colorado, planting the Guy’s garden. I wouldn’t get back to Santa Fe for another week. Oh, and the owners of the Cody house needed to close the deal by June 1st, then six weeks away.

Still, I was sure I could make it work. Somehow.

On Earth Day, April 21st, I was back at Casa Alegría organizing the last major renovation project with help from my friend and handyman, Carlos Ornelas. I pulled out a legal pad and made a long list of other things that needed doing, including planting that pollinator meadow, and finishing landscaping the back yard. Every day, I checked a few items off of that list.

Four days later, my friend and Santa Fe real estate agent Agnes Leyba-Cruz and her husband Gil came to look at the house. By that night, they had listed it. Within 24 hours, it had shown four times, and the first offer was in. At the end of the week, we were under contract.

Then began the craziness of racing to finish the house and yard, dealing with appraisers, septic inspectors, and the house inspection, which happened while I was away in Cody inspecting the house I was buying. There was a last-minute plumbing crisis, and I had Bless the Birds, my new memoir, to launch. And I had a household to pack up and move. (Plus a 4,000-mile road-trip for work and a family reunion to fit in there.)

I didn’t sleep much, but I did get my massive to-do list whittled down.

Somehow it all worked out, with a lot of help from two wonderful real estate agents, some amazing trades-folk (thank you, Pipeworks Plumbing and Richard’s Electrical Solutions!), and support from the Guy, who was in the midst of preparing Badger and the horses to migrate to Ring Lake Ranch for the summer.

Ten days ago, I watered the pollinator meadow in the backyard at Casa Alegría for one last time, carefully loaded Arabella, my huge Christmas cactus, into my truck; hitched the truck to Cabanita, my teardrop trailer filled with all I would need until the movers brought my furniture, books, and household goods; and hit the road for the long, slow trip north.

When I came over the last divide and saw Heart Mountain, one of the four “corners” of the land I call home, on the horizon, I am not ashamed to say I cried. My heart filled. I let go of tension I had probably been holding ever since I left Cody almost three years ago, bound for Santa Fe.

Heart Mountain (right of center) rising on the northern horizon. When I see that distinctive peak, I know I am home.

The late Barry Lopez, who I miss very much, described what I feel in Arctic Dreams:

For some people, what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses out into the land. … Such people are connected to the land as if by luminous fibers, and they live in a kind of time that is not of the moment, but in concert with memory, extensive, measured by a lifetime. To cut these fibers causes not only pain but a sense of dislocation.

Home is not some abstract place or community for me. It is part of who I am. I am less me when I am away from the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming. Less grounded, less present, less whole. Even less well.

Arabella is now settled in the living room, and I am busy painting and designing renovations. My furniture and household goods have yet to arrive, but I’m managing. I am home, and grateful to be here. My longtime community of friends has folded me in as if I never left.

Each morning and evening, I walk trails through sagebrush and along the river. My symptoms haven’t returned, and the anxiety that woke me every night at two am is gone.

My body knew that I was homesick. My brain just took a while to catch up. All I needed was to move 900 miles to northwest Wyoming. Home.

Sunset over the Shoshone River in my new neighborhood.

28 thoughts on “When Home Calls

    • Susan Tweit says:

      It is daunting, Diana. In this case, it was worth it. (Or will be worth it when my furniture and books and such finally arrive and I get unpacked!) And now I have a new renovation project and a yard that needs serious re-thinking. All of which I will enjoy. This is my nest, and I’m going to stay.

  • Wow you’ve moved a lot in the last decade – hope this feels like the right place to make a long-term home. I completely understand what you mean about being at home in a specific landscape.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Sarah, It’s true that I’ve moved a lot. Part of that was for family obligations, and part because I’ve earned my living by building/finishing/renovating houses and condos. Or as my partner says, “re-storying houses”–buying down-at-the-heels places and giving them new lives and stories. This feels like my forever place. (Or it will once I finish giving it some new life.)

      • “Re-storying” is a good way to put it. Glad this latest home feels like your forever place, we’re still looking for ours…

        • Susan Tweit says:

          Sarah, I hope you find your place before too long, and are able to make it your home! I’m fortunate, I guess, in having known where my place was since childhood (in the larger sense of a particular landscape, not a particular parcel of land). Unfortunately, it hasn’t been an easy place to make a living, until relatively recently, with improved internet access and portability of my work. Plus, I actually have a job for the latter part of the summer, so I could move for work. Still, there are tradeoffs in coming home to this part of the world, but they’re ones I’m willing to make at this point in my life. I need to be home because I’m no longer young, and moving is harder at this age.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Thank you, Carolyn! This move was definitely not easy to pull off, but it feels very much like the right thing. Also, I think I’ve finally found my forever nest. 🙂

  • Wow but if you feel that’s the right place for you, than it is. I also really like Cody though have only camped there, never lived. I hope you share more photos of your home. We’ve had a tough June but are doing the best we can with difficult decisions and ideas. Finding home is so important. Unfortunately, my parents sold the place I most regarded as home when I was in school. I’ve never found it again.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Rain, My sympathy on the loss of the place you called home. I have never had a particular parcel I called home, just a general area where my heart has always been rooted. I’ve lived in Cody at various points in my life, and until recently, it’s been too difficult to stay because my kind of work has been scarce. But I have work here now, and I also am old enough that the tradeoffs involved in living here are worth it to me.

      • I used to dream I’d buy my childhood home back. Then one year, we drove up to what had been the dead-end road with the farm and it had new roads. It’d been subdivided. The guy who was living in what had been our home came out to chat a bit and offered to let me come in to see what they’d done with remodeling. I thanked him but said no. I’d rather remember it as it had been. After seeing it no longer existed, I never had that dream again.

        Probably my region was the Cascade Mountains although I like a lot of mountainous country. When we bought our farm, it’s in the Oregon Coast Range. Nice with hills and a stream through the property, but not the same

        • Susan Tweit says:

          What I call home is a place where sagebrush country meets the Absaroka Range and the circle of friends have there, rather than a specific parcel of land. It sounds like your childhood home has, like so many places, changed beyond recognition. Perhaps a way to let it go for good and allow yourself to love another place would involve writing the story of that specific place, including your grief at the loss of it when your parents sold it. It would certainly be an interesting avenue to explore.

          • I think I have written a number of stories where home mattered and it was not mine. The pioneers are a good example of leaving behind what they thought was home to find a new place. One of my Oregon heroines hadn’t had a home as such but had family. She found home through the man she fell in love with, which happens a lot when people are more important than the land as such. I feel that way about the people out where our farm is, that and the cemetery with so many I knew including our family. But I feel happy you found what makes your body and you happy. It sounds like a very fortunate and blessed finding.

          • Susan Tweit says:

            Thank you! It is a fortunate and blessed move for me. I wonder if returning to your home place to find it subdivided and totally changed is similar to what First Nations peoples found when European settlers moved into their lands. It’s an interesting thought to explore….

  • I was suspicious when I saw mention of a septic test….

    I am sorry only because Santa Fe seemed closer, but perhaps I just need to reorient that road trip thought to point north, not south. Best wishes to you on settling (back) in.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      A road trip pointing north sounds like a great idea! I’m looking forward to settling, once my truckload of stuff arrives. Whenever that will be. 😉

  • What a wise and beautiful story, Susan. The wisdom of your body coming front and center to make an announcement that your brain came to clearly understand. More than 20 years ago, when I joined SCN, I learned to my surprise that place was meaningful, a new concept to me… And so it has come to be deeply meaningful to me as well. My heart has learned to recognize my place. Home. Such a rich and multi-layered word. You have written a story that, for me, reaches to the deepest levels of home. Be well once more, dear writing sister.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Mary Jo, Thank you for that comment and your thoughtful words. And what a gift that your heart has come to recognize your place! I suspect that’s part of why you framed your memoir in quilts, because they have a place-based element to them. The patterns may be geometric, but they often come from nature and place. Bless you!

  • A not-so-surprising beautifully written blog about not only being home, but defining what being home means. There is a longing that can only be met by truly being home in the way you’ve describe it, Susan. Very grateful for this piece and for you.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Jeanne, Merci du compliment. (Yes, I speak fractured French!) And what a beautiful way to phrase the thought about being truly home: indeed, there is a longing that can only be assuaged when we find our heart’s home and honor it. I am very, very fortunate to be able to go home, and I know it. Big hugs to you!

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Lynn, Thanks for reading the post and for this comment. It’s always good to see your face and “hear” your voice here!

  • Penny Sidoli says:

    Susan, this is a beautiful description of what Home really means; indeed, it is the connection of inner and outer, the soul to the land. I have been less online for a few months and only now catching up. I saw (Facebook?) that you had moved and went to the blog to learn why. My heart filled with happiness for your decision and endeavor to return. Your writing has become masterful (although there ought to be another word for that in the 21st Century but you’ll get my earnest drift). I hope you will continue with workshops and teaching/leading other writers into the broader world of life and creativity. Best wishes with the new house and settling in.

    • Susan Tweit says:

      Thank you for the lovely compliment, Penny. It is honestly hard to find words that truly describe how it feels to finally let myself just be home. As for workshops or teaching, that is not what I feel led to do right now, although I am working at a spiritual retreat center in the Wind River Range for the next two months, leading hikes and doing housekeeping. So in a sense I am leading others into the broader world of capital L life….

  • Beth Patterson says:

    Dear Susan–
    So glad you are home. I have witnessed your travels for the last 10 years or so and I’m always amazed and my own roots deepened by your willingness to say yes.

    Did you know that the 2:00 a.m. hour is the hour of the ancestors?

    • Dear Beth, Thank you for being there with me on this journey, and for your understanding. And no, I did not know that the 2 am hour was the hour of the ancestors, but that makes sense. Hugs to you!

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