Wanderings

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 he 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 he 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 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. Almost 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.

 

Home Range: Finding Home in Unsettling Times

One of the first long phone conversations The Guy and I had last fall when we were getting to know each other centered around the question of what “home” meant for each of us. The exchange was sparked by something I said in the seminar I taught at Ring Lake Ranch, where we met: home for me is the Rocky Mountain region wherever big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata in the language of science) grows. The “seas” of this aromatic shrub that fill valleys and basins throughout the region, I explained, define the area I call home.

The idea that the geographic range of a particular plant could delineate “home” intrigued The Guy. He thought about that concept over the next few weeks while he hunted bighorn sheep on foot above treeline in the mountains of central Colorado. In his long and physically active days of climbing thousands of feet from the valley bottom where he was camped to the high ridges where he sat and glassed for sheep, he had plenty of time to ponder what home meant for him.

“No sheep died,” he said when he called to report on his wilderness hunt, “but I had an interesting realization.”

“What was that?” I asked from my Santa Fe condo, where I was packing for a move to the house I had just bought in the spaciousness of the high desert outside town.

He described hiking uphill through open ponderosa pine forest, the dappled light of aspen groves, into the high-elevation Douglas-fir and spruce forest, and then the widely spaced groves of bristlecone pine, before emerging above treeline in the windswept expanse of the alpine, with its turf of plants no more than a few inches tall.

“I realized that I’m not comfortable in the alpine,” he said. “It’s not my place. It’s too exposed.” Where he felt at home, he said, was the mountain forests and woodlands, the shrublands and meadows. “I realized that my home range could be described by the range of dusky grouse in the Rockies.”

Male dusky grouse displaying for a mate.

While he talked, I looked up dusky grouse. There was the range map: a wide swath of the Rockies from Canada to northern New Mexico, a near overlap of the region I call home. I remembered seeing a male dusky grouse displaying on a gravel road in a sagebrush-filled valley not far from his farm on Colorado’s West Slope.

We considered the way the part of the West we both call home overlapped, and discussed how we each felt drawn to the whole swath, rather than one particular place. “Maybe for people like us,” I said, “home is not a single location, but a whole area. ‘Home range,’ instead of home. A range we migrate through over the seasons, rather than a fixed spot. ”

He was quiet, thinking. “I like that idea,” he said. “The way people once moved in search of food and shelter, occupying a whole region instead of settling in one place.”

“Exactly!” I said. “For you and me, home range could extend from the high desert in northern New Mexico in winter to Wyoming in summer, with the the farm in spring and fall.”

Over the months since, as we have worked at the delicate process of interweaving two separate lives–sometimes easily and sometimes crashing headlong into each other’s tender spots–the idea of home range has given us a road map. We spent much of the winter at my house outside Santa Fe exploring the high desert on foot and horseback.

Riding on a day with bluebird skies….

In late March with the pandemic swelling, the herd headed north to the farm under safer-at-home orders. As The Guy pointed out, farm work is inherently socially distanced. It also does not wait: when spring comes, the hayfields must be prepped and the irrigation pipes laid out, or there will be no crop.

I stayed behind in New Mexico until it was safe to leave, and then followed them north. At the farm, I plunged into learning irrigation, starting invasive weed control, pruning shrubs and trees, and other chores. Out in the hayfields, it was just me and the mule deer and the swallows and magpies, plus several hundreds of thousands of brome and bluegrass plants.

Irrigating the hayfields… 

The pandemic seemed far away. Except on our occasional trips to town for food and farm supplies, when we wore face-masks and practiced social distancing. In this rural county, with fewer than 20,000 human residents, crowding is rarely an issue.

Farm work left us little time to fret about the radical changes to the larger world–our work-days ran from dawn to dusk. It was oddly soothing to be too worn out at the end of each day to obsess over the news.

Then came summer, when I would normally migrate to the northern end of my home range to Yellowstone National Park to hand-eradicate invasive weeds, and The Guy, the dog, and the horses would migrate to Ring Lake Ranch to work. Because of the pandemic though, Yellowstone stayed closed for longer than usual, and then opened for day-use only. Which meant my work was canceled, since I camp in the park to be near my research site.

When Ring Lake Ranch opened (later than usual and with half the guests), The Guy suggested I spend part of my summer with him, the dog, and the herd at Ring Lake. So when irrigation chores slowed down, I headed north following their migration route to the ranch. I spent several weeks there surveying and controlling invasive weeds, and writing up a management plan. And then returned to the farm to work on weeds in the hayfields.

Part of the Ring Lake Ranch horse herd

The idea of home as an annual migration between places has–somewhat paradoxically–kept me grounded through these tumultuous times. Wherever I am in this range of landscapes and communities, whether northwest Wyoming, western Colorado, or northern New Mexico, I am at home. And whether I am with The Guy, the dog, and the horses, or not, we are connected by the heart and by our shared bond with these places and people. The challenges we face are as much internal as external as we navigate the new world of belonging to each other.

Home is the earth beneath my feet, this growing relationship, the weeds I work with, the human community, this changing world. It is the territory I nurture with my whole heart, the life I seed, the world I belong to.

Home, however we define it, is where we belong, where we take refuge, who we love, what we stand for. In these times, home could be what saves us.