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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.