JUNE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS
“Are we there yet?”
Mark hung tightly onto the steering wheel, and pumped the brakes nervously. “I hope so, Jenny, I hope so.” He downshifted just to be on the safe side.
The mountain dropped down steeply in front of us. The road practically melted away in the midday sun. Rocks slipped out from under the U-Haul. Stones and the gravel skidded away with a lurch. Mark swore under his breath. The dirt road was barely one car wide. Boulders blocked the path. I climbed out to move the biggest ones. The sun beat down and the air conditioner cranked out as best it could but it barely kept up. We drove downhill at two miles an hour. Gringo Gulch appeared before us, a steep empty canyon with only one homestead half-hidden in the distance. The gravel slid from under us again. The brakes started to smell. Mark’s curly hair lay flat against his forehead and his arm glowed with sunburn.
“I knew we should’ve come out at least once more. This is crazy, Mark, crazy.” I pulled out my camera and started clicking away.
“Are you getting cold feet?” He asked, patience worn thin. “This was your idea to start with. Let’s move to Santa Fe, she said, let’s buy that land we saw – only the once, mind you – and just move, she said.”
I opened the window and took in the desert heat, the pinions and the junipers, and the wildlife. My cowgirl denim shirt stuck to my back.
“It’s not like we can go back, is it? The school will have replaced me already and you were just…” I put my camera down. “Sorry. I’m tired. I didn’t mean it, okay?”
Mark sighed. “I was just a musician? Is that it? Thanks.” He reached for his cigarettes.
“What’s that?” I threw my apple at a snake crossing in front of us. “A rattlesnake?” I missed as it slithered onwards and upwards, glancing across as we crawled past. I shivered. We didn’t have snakes in Olympia.
“I’m glad we only got the twenty footer. Can you imagine driving anything longer down here?” Mark lit up and drew in deeply. The brakes squealed one last time as we reached the bottom of the valley. Not one person in sight. Deserted. Desert.
“Are you sure this is the right way?”
Mark flicked ash out the window. “Well, when I looked on Google this was the shortest route. We came a different road last time, I guess. But remember that the realtor said your Subaru would do fine out there, right?”
“But I’m not driving this way, that’s for sure, I’d hit every rock. Didn’t he take us down a long flat smooth road, that’s what I kinda remember? There were miles and miles of slow curves and lots of homes in the distance, right? What was it called?”
“Harold’s Way, I think.” Mark kept driving steadily as he checked the maps again and said, “Yep, this is the short cut, the direct route. I don’t know, Jen. We might want to bring your car the other way tomorrow. I’m glad we left it in town.”
We kept on slowly driving, desperately searching the landscape for the driveway, or a sign of some kind. It’s not like there was anyone to ask for directions. We drove on in silence. Beside us, a dried up riverbed followed the lowest point, and we ended up crossing rocky sandstone ledges every few hundred yards. Dead cacti lined the path. Dead pinion trees. Dead dogs.
“Is that really what I think it is?” Mark had noticed it too. We both stared at the swollen black furry body in the middle of the tracks. “I wonder what killed it?” he continued as he steered around it with a slight bump.
“And whose was it? Should we put up a sign at the store?” I looked back out the window uneasily.
Mark rolled his eyes. “Are you going to get out and check its tags? Do you really think it has a city license on a nice leather collar? This is the Wild West, remember, Jenny? We’re not in Kansas any more.”
“We never were in Kansas, you dope. No, drive on. I just want to get home.”
Blue sky beat down on us as we crawled along Gringo Gulch at four miles an hour. With not one cloud in the sky, the canyon was painfully bright and barren. The rise and fall of the hills and creek beds obscured any homes or signs of life. It was bright, too bright for my blue eyes. Where were my sunglasses? The junipers bunched together in clumps with dead straw-like grass scattered over the dirt. I didn’t see a single flower. How weirdly beautiful it all was to me though. I looked all over, my head spinning around and around, noticing branches full of crows and ravens, the incredible silence, and then we rounded yet one more corner.
“I recognize it. This is it, right?”
Mark stopped the truck. He threw his cigarette butt out his window and looked around.
“I think so. I think so. Let’s go see, shall we?”
In front of us, the road split north and south. On the western edge, a driveway, well, a dirt track led out onto towards the mesa, the valley that is, which sprawled all the way to the mountain range far away. A For Sale sign lay flat on the mud embankment. The dirt track had a chain strung across from two wooden posts.
Mark opened his door and climbed down, stretching his six-foot skinny white boy frame, and reaching high with arms outstretched. His jeans hung low and loose, with a white tee shirt neatly tucked in, and his black boots shone. He suddenly shouted out at full volume.
He turned to me, grinning a wicked smile so huge and happy. “We did it, Jenny. We bought land. It’s ours. All ours. We’re free, Jen. We’re free.” He spun wildly round and round.
I ran to him and jumped into his arms, crashing us against the U-Haul, kissing him deeply and suddenly we’re both yelling aloud, home, we’re home. The echo came back at us, welcoming us here. A huge pitch-black crow flew up off the gatepost, crowing at us to shut the hell up.
I laughed. We’d done it. I wasn’t going to give up this time.
“Where are we going to sleep?”
I looked around at the pile of stuff we’d unloaded. The ramp to the back of the U-Haul was down, and twenty cardboard boxes were stacked neatly under a tree, next to a five-gallon container of drinking water and a cooler of food and beer.
I spread my arms wide. “I don’t see an RV, do you? We did buy 40 acres with an RV, right? Or am I missing something here?”
The heat was relentless. Where was a cowboy hat when you needed one? My face burnt up. I strode around, steaming.
Mark, however, sat on the ground on the shady north side of the truck with a small plastic bottle of water resting on the dirt between his boots. He grinned up at me. He shook his head and held out his hands to me.
“I’ve no idea where it is, but yes, there’s an RV here somewhere, that was part of it. We can look tomorrow, okay? But, hon isn’t it great? We can sleep under the stars tonight. I haven’t done that since I was a kid. I wonder if we can see the Milky Way from here?”
He passed me the water and I drank deeply. I shook my head and told him we were too far south for that. Was I thinking of the Northern Lights? I sat next to him and poked him in the thigh.
“So we’re sleeping rough tonight, are we Cowboy? You’ll make us a fire and protect me from the roaming bands of thieves?”
Mark hugged me to him. “Sure will, little Missy, I sure will. And you’ll be making me my dinner of beans and beef over the fire-pit, won’t you?”
“I was thinking of some red wine, the French loaf and that brie we have.”
Mark snorted. “Yeah, that’s probably more like it. But we can make a fire and sit on the rocks and stay up all night, can’t we? I’ll push the worst of the stones out the way and we can pull out the sleeping bags right here. What do you think?” He sounded like a ten-year-old on summer vacation with his best friend. “We can tell scary stories.” He stood up, energized and ready to go again. He brushed the sand off his nice blue jeans.
I laid down, pleading a headache, and I watched as he made us a fire-pit, placing the rocks in a circle, finding a couple of flat flagstone-like pieces for seats, and he wandered out of sight, fetching branches and kindling. I fell asleep.
We’d come with nothing practical, that’s all I can say, nothing but the bare necessities of tent, camping gear, and sleeping bags. Plus a truck full of my grandparents’ furniture I’d just inherited. Fifteen boxes of Mark’s books and his drum set and bass guitars. I’d brought my own guitar I never play, but planned to make the most of living out there, finally able to practice in peace. We had a laptop and our two cell phones. Some clothes, I admit to, but mostly they were Mark’s. I’d bought the land. Mark would build us a home. That was the plan, to live in the RV as we build a home.
The red wine flowed through me easily and freely and I discovered the joys of peeing outside.
“Look the other way.”
“I can’t see you over there. Remember? It’s pitch black from where I am. What time do you reckon it must be? My god, look at all those stars. Do you know any of the names?” Mark kept talking, to hide the splashes, or from pure wonder, I didn’t know. I walked back to the glow of the fire and squatted down opposite him.
I looked at my watch. It was only ten thirty, early for us. I poured out another beaker’s worth of wine. Trader Joe’s best three-dollar vintage was perfectly doable out here, and anyway, I couldn’t see the label, and we had no guests. That made me think.
“Do you think we’ll get visitors out here? My mom? What would she think about peeing like I just did?” I couldn’t picture it.
“Wait until morning when you need a number two,” Mark reminded me with a smile in his soft voice.
“Oh my god, that’s right. Is there an outhouse? Or did you dig us a hole or something?” My voice squeaked embarrassingly. I coughed to hide it.
Mark laughed hard, and told me about how we’d be using buckets, making a compost toilet with straw and sawdust and I tuned out, figuring he’s just teasing his city girlfriend. Then I realized something.
“If I have to shit in a bucket, I want a dog.”
“Huh?” Mark scratched his chin; the day’s stubble was itching already. “I thought you didn’t like dogs?”
“Well, I do now. And a donkey.”
Mark choked on his wine and spat it into the fire. I pulled my leather jacket closer to me as the wind had picked up.
“Forty acres and a mule.” I explained. “And a dog, a nice big hairy friendly dog.”
“For the buckets?”
“Yep, if you want a compost toilet, that’s the deal, okay?”
He stood up and reached for my hand. “Deal.”
The night ticked way and I wobbled off into the shadows every few hours. We talked about how this all came to be, the incredulous looks our friends had given us as they waved us off last week. Mark lay down and climbed into this sleeping bag, saying so quietly I almost didn’t hear him, “damn, it’s beautiful here, isn’t it? And it’s so empty and silent, I can’t believe it.”
We listened in awe. Here the world turned on a sigh.
“No-one telling us what to do.”
“Nothing, no traffic, no cop cars, nothing like a damn city with its never ending noise and rules.” I pulled out my camera. “This is the life, Mark, it really is pretty magical here.”
I stumbled up hill. Falling over rocks and into cacti made for a slow progress. Finally, I stopped and I turned slowly three hundred and sixty degrees. The silhouettes of trees and shrubs filled the landscape eerily. I saw neither houses nor lights. I’d heard no traffic all night long. Only in the far distance, the interstate showed some stream of cars’ headlights as they drove north to Santa Fe and beyond. I heard nothing but for a coyote. Suddenly I laughed aloud. I’d heard a coyote. I stood stock-still and stared into the darkness, willing one to come up close to me. I’d read all about this kind of stuff on the drive across Idaho and Utah. A power animal is one that comes to you repeatedly. They have messages for us if we listen. I planned to do just that.
I waited for the coyote to come back.
“What the hell was that?” I whispered as I poked Mark with my boot. He murmured in his sleep. I poked harder. “There’s something out there.” I hissed at him. “Do something.”
“What?” he sat up fast and looked at me. “What? Oh, my head. Why does it hurt? I didn’t drink that much, did I?”
“Who cares about that, Cowboy? You’re meant to protect me. I heard something in the boxes, in our stuff. What is it?” I poked him once more and for good measure I grinned sweetly in the darkness.
Mark sat there in his brand new sleeping bag around his waist. His nice clean white tee shirt looked rumpled by sleeping on the sandy ground. So much for him trying to smarten up, damn musicians are scruffy buggers. He stood up, shedding his bag as he stretched, groaning slightly. I turned on my flashlight and passed it to him. He tucked his tee shirt back in and grabbed a fleece sweater from my pillow-pile. With another of his easy-going smiles, he told me to wish him luck. I blew him a huge wet kiss and sent him off to be the ‘man’. I watched the light flickering up and across our belongings as he looked for signs of life. He said nothing but kept moving closer. He checked the cooler and the boxes of books first. He went round back and into the U-Haul. I lost sight and sound of him. I sat huddled in my sleeping bag and cuddled my knees against my chest. I poked the fire and put on another log. I waited nervously.
“I think I know what it was.” Mark came back over to my side of the fire, bringing his bag with him. He spread out next to me and lay me down, spooning me through REI’s idea of a comfortable bed.
“What was it? A coyote? An owl? What?”
“A rat. A pack rat to be precise.”
I sat up quickly. Mark told me that he’d seen pictures of them in Mother Earth magazine.
“Oh, and they’re pretty cute by the way.”
“Cute? A rat is cute? And it’s in my stuff?”
“Our stuff. But yeah, it was cute and settled in for the night. We can do something about it in the morning okay Jen? Not now, I’m tired and it’s pitch black out here.”
“But how are we going to kill it?”
“We?” he asked, teasing from behind me, out of reach.
“Well, you, how are you going to kill it?” I giggled as he snuggled closer.
“And so spoke the vegetarian pacifist? What about your love of animals? What about those power animals? What if this is one of yours?”
“Ha, ha, very funny, just don’t let it any where near me tonight, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m on duty right now as I…” and with that he fell asleep. I lay there and listened intently. The flashlight stayed close by. I flinched at every whisper and rattle. I kept the fire bright. I finished the bottle of wine alone. Like I said, Mark slept soundly, the bastard.