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I shouldn’t have taken this dirt road. We were stuck. Nelson slept in the passenger seat. I fumed, angry with myself. Now what? Shit. I craved a cigarette but we were in the middle of nowhere, no corner store to pop into. I opened the window and turned off the engine. The silence woke up my fearless friend and he whimpered as he looked out the windows. I scratched his back and he yawned once.
I picked up my map again, trying to make sense of where we were before I tackled the how do I get out of this mess question. I followed the route with my finger, flipping the edge to see the area to the east of Elephant Butte. I’d gone past Engle on graded road and now hit this, a dead end. White Sands Missile Range. It didn’t sound like a place we wanted to explore, did it? I gave up with finding another route out. We’d have to back track. If I could.
The road, narrow and steep, had climbed into the San Andres Mountains, a beautiful and barely touched landscape, one I’d hoped to hike with Nelson off leash. Why not walk anyway? We could leave the Toyota here, but then I saw all the warnings and no trespassing signs, I couldn’t risk it. They meant business.
Opening the door, Nelson jumped out and sniffed around, barely walking out of sight. I stretched out my back and touched my toes a couple of times with a groan. The winter afternoon warmed me with the windless and fading sunlight. It was time to hit the road back, somehow.
I climbed back and whistled for the pup. He jumped over my lap, with a stick in this mouth and he laid it on his seat carefully before sticking his head out the window. I took a sip of water and started up, shifting into low four-wheel drive. The 4Runner inched slowly backwards until a gap in the trees beckoned. I climbed out to find a ditch cutting me off from the turn-around.
Stumped for a moment, I cursed my luck. No one was going to rescue me though, I had to buck up and take care of things myself. Under the trees, I picked up rocks and small branches to fill in the hole. Ten or so minutes later, I bounced on the ditch and didn’t fall in luckily. Nelson had watched from the driver’s seat. I pushed him over and backed up. The truck sank and I held my breath. The rocks held as I backed up, turned 180 degrees, and headed downhill, sighing in relief.
I did it. On my own, I did it. It felt good. I drove down the rough road picking up speed on the corners until suddenly the steering wobbled and I lost control. A flat tire. I stopped the engine with a sigh. It had been just too easy, hadn’t it?
OCTOBER: OUTHOUSE NEWS
I decided to do some research of my own.
I made a cup of tea, pulled out a plate of shortbread cookies and my laptop. Mark was off looking for work or something, and the dogs had worn themselves out and were crashed out asleep on the porch.
I sat at the kitchen table and stared out the window at the distant cloudy mountains. The sky bore down bright overhead but I could see a storm brewing and it made me nervous. We needed to get some kind of permanent toilet set up, or really dig a deep pit and build an outhouse for winter. Digging a hole every few days wouldn’t cut it for much longer. Everyone told me to get ready for winter; this was our last call for warm days. I sipped the tea and waited. Old computers do it slowly, wake up that is. The cookies were almost gone by the time the Internet kicked in and I thanked my lucky stars for having a geek for a boyfriend who’d at least set that up right.
I logged on to our account and went surfing. Compost. Types of toilets. Off-grid plumbing. You name it – I looked for it. The result? Ten pages of notes on all my choices, from one page on how to dig in caliche soil – you need a digging bar in case you’re interested. Option two suggested spending fifteen hundred dollars on a plastic trendy pre-made composting toilet that you hand mix and turn every week. They need electricity too by the looks of it. So that’s not happening, for now anyways. The outhouse seemed better and better to be honest.
I sat back and put my feet on the other chair. An outhouse it is then. I finished my tea and put the mug in the sink. With Mark off on some adventure, I had to do this one on my own for once. I’d work it out.
Outside was getting chilly and so I gathered some firewood and loaded up the campfire. It took me three attempts to light, and I stood over the flames and assessed the stuff we had lying around. The shovel was off to the side, looking a little worse for wear after our attempts at digging a veggie garden, but still, it was just what I needed. Off behind the bus lay a stack of lumber, some more suitable for firewood than building. I grabbed another armful of logs and branches and threw them near the fire. The sun shone and dogs panted. I filled the water buckets for them. Where to build the outhouse then? I walked around the bus and parking area we’d created. Two juniper trees had been trimmed back to give a shaded bedding area for the pups. A couple of tin trashcans were tied to a pinion near the driveway, with three crates full of recycling. My firewood stack was pretty meager but the next day had been set-aside for the big firewood collection day. Talking of which, I needed to make some sandwiches and butternut squash soup to take with us. Anne, Graham, Mark and I were heading into Rowe Mesa with the trucks.
I wandered up our driveway and looked for a spot pretty hidden from the road, not that we had much traffic passing by, but it’d be just my luck to be in midstream when we had visitors. I walked back to the bus and in the other direction.
Ah, perfect. Close enough to run to in a snowstorm, yet out of the usual hangout areas and protected by a few good-sized trees. Yep, I’d found the perfect spot. My only question is this, where’s Mark when I need him? We’ve talked about digging the outhouse for ages but had he done anything about it?
I collected my tools together and a bottle of water. I wore my favorite straw-hat and set to work. I swung the axe and hit a rock. The axe flew out of my hands and landed in the tree next to me. I swore but then laughed. No one saw me, so who cared? I checked around to make sure the dogs were safe then I tried again. I swung the axe and chunk, it split the dirt. Yes. I did it again and again, getting on my hands and knees to pull out some head sized rocks. Swing. Dig. Swing. Dig. Over and over, I worked hard and loved every minute of it. Kneeling down to pull out a thick juniper root, Frida nudged me from behind and knocked me over. I shook some dirt at her, pretending to growl at her and instantly my pup grabbed those roots and dirt and threw it over her head with a shake. She stuck her nose in the hole and sniffed deeply. Then she started to dig. Twigs, stones, dirt, pine needles, dead grass, she flung it all. Nelson bounded up ever curious and dug from the other side. I sat back on my haunches and watched. Frida looked up at me but didn’t stop. Down they went until both hit some thing that frustrated their efforts. I sighed and reached in. Nope, not something I could move either. I stood up and grabbed the shovel. I had to force it underneath and wriggle it back and forth. Loose enough? I reached back inside the hole and found my grip and yanked it out. A huge boulder with the shape of a bowl in the middle of one side. A perfect birdbath. Struggling under the weight, I carried it over to near the bus and dropped it under a tree, filling it with water. The dogs drank deeply and assumed the position, asleep that is.
I sat on the steps and took a moment to stretch out.
Where was Mark? It was very strange of him not to leave me a note or anything. I sighed and stood up, stretching backwards with a pop. Ouch. Not good. But I needed to get this hole dug today, at least three feet by three feet deep. It was doable, that was my goal, and I’d do it. On my own, I’d do this one small project. As to the building part? I’d wait for Mark to finish that up, I’ve never built even a shelf.
I looked up at the sun overhead and grinned. This is the life, the good life: I work outside. I live in a sweet little community. Two dogs have adopted me. I live in a school bus. And I have a great boyfriend. Yep, this is the life for me.
I swung the axe but it’d hit the sides of the hole. Useless. So, I grabbed the shovel again and slowly but surely dug deeper, making nice straight walls and clean edges. I jumped in to measure the depth. If I’m 5’5”, then digging down to the height of my hips should be more than enough for the outhouse, right? There were only two of us pooping in here. I knelt down and flung out the last few piles of loose dirt behind me. Done. I did it. Scrambling back out, I admired my work. The dogs watched me sleepily as I told them how great a job they did, helping me out like that. Nelson fell asleep mid-flattery.
I didn’t want to stop, not yet. I’d make the soup later. Back by the bus, I gathered up more lumber, some thick posts, four of them. I’d start with that. Did I have a design? Nope, I didn’t, not really. I’d just get creative with whatever I found lying around. That was the plan. An improvisational method.
I drank some water and stood next to the fire and warmed my hands. Clouds were creeping closer as the day went by. Next to the hole, I stacked lumber, posts, a can of screws and nails, and some tin roofing. Didn’t I help Mark build the porch? Yeah, so why not build an outhouse the same way? More or less, that is?
I lay out the wood, putting the posts in the four corners, about two feet away from the loose dirt. I began to dig, this time only a foot and a half and stuck in the first post. I held it upright and scooped the dirt back in and trod it down, forcing it back in the hole and making sure it’d hold on its own. I stood back. Ah, right, I needed a level, where would that be? I searched the bus and around the porch but never found the damn thing. I stood back from the post then adjusted it, stood back off to the other side and tried again. It took a few attempts and by the time I was done, it looked pretty damn good to me. I worked on the other posts but ran out of steam on the third one. Too hungry to function, I left the tools ready for the last corner and wandered back to the bus. The fire outside kept going with a low deep red bed of smoldering logs.
Inside, I fixed up tortillas with melted cheese and opened a bag of chips with a jar of salsa. I ate on my bed, leaning back against the pillow. I checked my phone but no messages from anyone. I finished the last crumbs myself even though the pups watched me, shaking from hunger and neglect. I ignored them both and fell asleep.
The dogs barked and barked, slamming themselves against the door. I woke up, sat up, and hit my head. I yelped. A truck drove up to the front steps and honked its horn. The dogs went crazy. I didn’t know what to do. I let them out and shut the door.
I peaked out the window. Graham sat in his Chevy truck, his windows open, as he talked to the dogs but made no move to climb out. I dodged back into the bedroom and found a fresh pair of jeans and sweatshirt.
“Hang on.” I yelled out the window. I brushed my hair back and retied it. Stumbling out the door, I almost fell down the steps but just caught myself on a post and stood up straight.
“Hey, Graham. It’s okay. They’re friendly. Nelson, Frida, come here, will you?”
I strode over to them, calling the dogs to my side. Nelson, the biggest, ran up and wagged happily before lying down again with a sigh. Frida, ever neurotic, would not shut up though so I had to grab her and throw her over my shoulder before she shushed enough for us to chat.
Graham leaned out the window to stroke her and for once she didn’t growl at him. Progress of sorts. I put the dog down as soon as I could.
“This is a nice surprise, what are you up to?”
“Just in the area, you know.” He grabbed his hat and pager then joined me on the porch. “I was out for a medical call but it got cancelled before I got there. Just a couple miles down further from here. I thought I’d stop over and say hello, see how it’s going out here. Oh, and is your woodstove chimney safe? It’s time to get ready for winter, you know.”
I laughed. “Well, Mark installed it last month so we should be good. Want to check? I’m going to put the kettle on, want something to drink?”
Frida ran off towards the bus. Graham followed me inside; the first time he’d seen our place up close. I focused on making some herbal tea and getting out the rest of the cookies. I gave the pups a treat each and they wandered off to their beds with rawhide in mouths. Graham sat at the table. I moved the laptop out the way for him. The teakettle whistled and I poured out water for us then sat down opposite.
“How’s it going?” It seemed a pretty good vague question to start with. I pushed my notes on humanure off to the side. My arms were sunburnt again and hands grimy from digging. Graham didn’t comment. Not about that anyway.
“I saw Anne and Mark driving into Santa Fe when I came down to the fire station. Are they getting more stuff for the dog sanctuary?”
“No idea. Milk? Sugar? Did you talk to them?” I kept my hands busy.
Graham shook his head and picked up two cookies and ate them fast. He looked around, smiling as he pulled down books off the shelf next to him. All about homesteading and living off-grid, there was nothing too revealing, thankfully. I sipped my tea, not sure what to make of this visit. Graham’s an odd bird at the best of times.
As usual he wore his uniform, all pressed and clean. He’d shaved thoroughly and his hair still seemed damp from a shower. The pager beeped every so often but he turned it down. He put back the books and sipped his tea and ate another cookie. I waited. Actually, I wanted to go back outside and finish the posts for the outhouse.
“Anne wants me to move out, for sure now. She’s wanting us to separate officially, working out the legal stuff too.”
“Oh. I thought it was just an idea, not really that likely from what you said at the party.”
He shook his head sadly. “I know. I know. I was wrong apparently.” He smiled up at me, and tucked in his blue shirt, looking at his clean fingertips for a second more than needed. He picked up the mug once again before talking about the place he’d found in town, and how he’s got a new phone number.
“That’s partly why I came by, to give you my number. In case you want to hang out sometime. Or have questions about this stuff?” He held up one of the books on building and I laughed.
“Wasn’t Anne the driving force at your place?” I teased.
He grinned at being busted and then laughed with me. “Well, I helped. Honest.” He leaned back in the chair and stared out my window. “What are you working on out there?” He nodded in the direction of the new outhouse. I told him how much I’d done.
“Do you want some help finishing up? It’s easier if I hold the beams when you screw them in.”
“I’m not done with the posts yet,” I admitted.
“But you’re close right? Come on, I’d like to help.”
Graham stood up and held out a hand for me. I took it and he lead me out onto the porch, letting me go after a moment standing with his face to the sun. “We only have a couple of hours left, so what’s your plan?”
“No plan, just posts with wood across the top for now. I’d not really thought it through much more than that. Any ideas? I’ve not done something like this before.”
We headed over towards the project, picking up the shovel and post when we got there. Graham dug right in and finished that last posthole as I collected the lumber together, and I even found a small handsaw. He held the post in place as I tamped down the earth and made it pretty solid. Still no level but with the two of us we got it set straight first time round.
The dogs watched from the trees and I heard a donkey bray in the distance.
“Now what?” He stood back with his hands on his hips, somehow he was still looking clean and ready to go. The mud in my hair kept it out of the way if nothing else. I picked up the tape measure and suggested we find out the spacing.
“You mean you didn’t measure anything yet?”
I grinned, “no, was I meant to?”
I passed him one end and found out that within a few inches, the posts were pretty evenly spaced out, six feet by four feet more or less. I checked out the pile of wood and we started cutting and laying up the crossbeams. Graham held the lumber and I had the satisfaction of tying it all together. Within an hour, the basic framing was done. We worked quietly and comfortably.
“Not bad, Jen, not bad.” Graham held the ladder as I climbed back down with tools in hand.
“Sweet. Mark will be so proud of me.”
I put the tools on the steps of the ladder and stood back to admire our work. A little wonky but damn fine for a first attempt. Graham’s pager beeped. He grabbed it and turned up the volume. I had no clue as to what they were saying but after a couple of minutes he passed me the rest of the tools. He looked sad. He wiped his hands on his jeans and reached out to shake mine goodbye. I hugged him, suddenly afraid but I had to ask.
“Are you okay? Is it anyone you know?”
He nodded and held on briefly. “I’ve got to go. One of our locals just died. A friend. I’ve got to be there.”
He walked off fast with me at his heels. He turned back to say something and I walked smack into him and we crashed to the ground. He laughed out loud and picked us both up, dusting off the twigs and dirt. He picked out some cholla cactus from his palm with a smile. He climbed into his truck, turned on the flashing lights, and backed out. He stopped up the road and shouted back to me,
“Looks good by the way, the outhouse, it looks good. You could paint it, you know. But I wanted to ask you this, where are you going to sit?”
Oh, there is that.
I came back from walking the pups to find Mark in the bus, making a fire, and heating up some soup. It smelled great. I gave him a big hug but he didn’t do anything but grunt at me. He turned around to face me and his eyes were sad, shut down.
“What? What’s happened?”
He took my hands in his and searched them for a second then looked down into my eyes.
“It’s Andrew. Louise’s brother died last night. They just found him.”
I didn’t know what to say so I sat down, fast. The kettle boiled in the background but Mark turned it off and pulled out a bottle of red wine. He opened it in silence.
“Graham told me a local had died. I didn’t think it’d be someone we knew.”
“Yeah, I know. This sucks. Here, drink this.” He sat down opposite me and flicked through my pile of notes. He put them aside.
“How did you find out?” I asked, gulping back half the wine. I’ve not lost anyone before. Mark pulled out his cigarettes but put them back in his pocket.
“I was out with Anne in Santa Fe when she got the call from Graham. We came right back. I dropped her off at the tavern. Everyone’s there. It’s packed. I wanted to come tell you though.” He drifted off.
I put the glass down. “But what were you doing in town? You never left me a note and I got kinda worried.”
He shrugged. “Anne texted me, asked if I wanted to pick up the supplies for the chainsaw for tomorrow, not that we’re going now. She’ll need to stay with Louisa, I guess. Shopping, we were shopping when Andrew was lying dead at home. He could’ve been there for ages before anyone found him. How horrible is that? God, we’re all so vulnerable out here. I don’t know if I can live with that.”
I reached and took his hand in mine and stroked his fingers slowly. Mark shook his head and continued to tell me how the neighbors had come over with some harvest for Andrew and how the dogs were all freaked out, jumping on the truck and barking up a storm. They’d found him in bed with a book half-read and a mug of cold coffee.
“Not a bad way to go, eh?” He tried to smile. He looked around and saw my notes again. “You doing research now, hon?”
I nodded and leaned back in my chair. I described what I’d done, and how close I’d come to finishing with Graham’s help. Mark peered out the window but it was already getting dark and he couldn’t see anything but silhouettes of the junipers.
“Did Graham put the tools away?”