Thursday, January 12, 2012

temporary homelands*

(*from an Alison Hawthorne Deming book )

“I confused living with leaving, and vowed that when I got my freedom, I would be the one to do both...”

“You must take on faith that those severed places cohered, too – the dozens of desks, bedrooms, kitchens, yards, landscapes – if only through the motion and shed molecules of the traveler. You take it on faith that the multiform and various lighted latitudes and longitudes were part of one world, that you didn't drop chopped from house to house, coast to coast, life to life, but in some comprehensible way moved there, a city block at a time, a highway mile at a time, a degree of latitude and longitude at a time, carrying a fielder's mitt and the Penguin Rimbaud for old time's sake, and a sealed envelope, like a fetish …. You take it on faith, for the connections are down now, the trail grown over, the highway moved; you can't remember, despite all your vowing and memorization, and the way back is lost.”
-Annie Dillard

1. The first place I ever lived away from home was a “holiday house” in Cork, Ireland, where I spent a semester in college. The holiday homes were neat brick buildings, built in maybe the 1960s or 70s, with manicured lawns and shady trees about a half mile from the University College Cork. To this day, it's the only time I've lived in a real city, and I had neither bike nor car. I walked everywhere, miles every day, rain or shine, through the winding roads and alleys late at night, half-drunk, up steep hills and past iron gates.

There are two memorable things about the house where I lived. One was the gift basket. When I arrived in Cork I'd been traveling for 12 hours and had awoken to find myself in a gray, rainy foreign country, away from home and by myself for the first time. It was a Sunday, and I couldn't cash my travelers checks or convert my American dollars to buy food, and it was much colder than I'd planned for. I walked the Sunday-quiet streets, hungry and lonely, turning against a cold stone wall to hide my homesick sobs whenever someone passed by.

When I returned from my miserable walk, there was a gift basket sitting on my doorstep with a jar of Nutella in it. I brought it inside suspiciously, and dipped my finger in, hesitant. Then heaven exploded on my tongue. I'd never heard of this Nutella business before. I thought it was a fine Irish delicacy, sent from the Celtic gods to cure hunger and homesickness.

The other thing that stands out, this many years later, was the size of the shower. It couldn't have been more than two square feet, with an accordion folding door. One of my three flatmates was a very large American girl, and she couldn't fit in it. When she'd get out, water would be pooling out of the bathroom and into the hallway, slowly creeping toward the front door.

2. The second time I left home was to go to the Marshall Islands. How to capture an entire year, an entire culture in a few lines? My home was on the edge of a turquoise lagoon, a square, squat building of whitewashed cinderblocks with open windows and a rusty corrugated roof. There was no furniture except a table and my cot covered with a bloodied mosquito net. My host parents, Jola and Rakki, and their five children slept sprawled on the cement floor engulfed in the smoke from mosquito coils, too hot for blankets.

Next to the little house was the cookhouse: some two-by-fours holding up a corrugated metal roof, under which was a brick fire pit, a spider-ridden shed for holding the endless piles of dried coconut shells used for cook fires, a wooden cabinet for keeping food away from dogs and chickens, a machete hanging from a nail, a blackened kettle, a few broken plastic chairs, and an ancient, sturdy table once painted green but that looked as if someone had attacked it with a battleax. I remember my one-year-old host brother having violent, orange-colored diarrhea all over the table, and my host mother wiping it up with a wet cloth, then serving dinner there.

In front of the house was a deep, swampy taro patch, as well as a banana patch, a lime tree and a papaya tree. Beyond that was the island's one bumpy road, on which everyone walked or rode bikes to get anywhere, lugging a heavy fish or an upside-down chicken or a bag of rice or a baby on one hip. On the other side of the house was a patch of bristly grass fading into white sand, sprinkled with palm trees; the black pig tied to a frayed rope, the clothesline, the water cachement, a wooden rowboat and the lagoon, impossibly turquoise, dropped like a bright pebble into the flat ring of islands. Every morning I would stare at it as I brushed my teeth, unable to believe the luminescence of that blue.

What else is there to say of a place? It is strange, now, that I once knew every rock on the road and now have been gone for years and will likely never return. The same people are there – the ones who watched me fail miserably at strumming a ukulele, grow frustrated to no end with other teachers who didn't care, shit my brains out over the cockroach-infested toilet. They watched me learn their language and struggle and triumph and then climb onto the tiny plane that materialized out of the big blue sky and disappear from their lives forever. They go on grating coconut and drinking instant coffee on rainy days and gutting fish in the middle of the night. Who's died and who's been born? What has changed? Do they wonder about me too? It was a mysterious place, shrouded in dreams, that became real for a brief while and then faded again into a veiled memory.

3. When I returned to the states, I was appalled by the choices at the supermarket, the waste I had once considered normal. I had to get away. So I moved to a little apartment above a garage on a steep, quiet dirt road in Vermont. It was tasteful and well-built, nearly brand new: wide hardwood floors, shining steel appliances, recessed lighting and lots of closet space. There was a big window that looked out over my own little patio and my landlords' bigger one, the small mowed lawn and the big field that stretched beyond, full of grasshoppers and birds and foxes that stole across it on moonlit nights. Beyond the field rose a single mountain that I never once climbed. I always got distracted by the maze of woods and streams below it. About a half-mile from my door was a quiet beaver pond that no one seemed to visit except me and a bull moose. I set up a hammock by the swampy edges of the pond, in dappled sun and shade, where I would sit with my notebook and a field guide for hours and watch the crafty beavers and the salamanders; note the skunk cabbage and fiddleheads poking through the brown mat of spring leaves, the trillium and trout lilies shining briefly before being overtaken by shadbush and the unruly tangle of the northern forest in its burst of summer song.

4. When I broke up with my boyfriend, that apartment became too expensive to afford on my own, and so I found East Hill, by pure serendipity. North Hill Road was the most direct route home to Andover, Vermont, where I lived, but one day, discouraged by an unsuccessful apartment hunt full of blah, overpriced rentals, I took East Hill Road home instead, and immediately fell deeply and unequivocally in love. It was everything a road could be. Wooded hollows and sudden mountaintop vistas bathed in long evening sunlight; funky, out-of-the-way houses; pastures filled with sheep and cows, and a pair of Great Pyrenees that rose, barking, from their nap in the middle of the road as I slowly drove past with my mouth agape.

The next day I left work early and parked at the bottom of East Hill Road and began walking uphill with my dog. Our shadows were long in the afternoon sunlight, etched against the chaffed August fields. I chanced upon a man who, upon my asking him of potential rentals, pointed out another man driving a tractor and told me to inquire with him about the old East Hill School. I walked across the field and asked the man on the tractor, and he gave me a ride up the road and dropped me off outside his mother's kitchen door. Ann, his mother, wiped her hands, looked me over, and showed me an apartment in an old schoolhouse. It was weirdly built, cramped corners and dark knotty pine, a big brick chimney and a chalkboard in the living room. The view from the windows stretched across fields where horses grazed, straight on to the purple mountaintops of New Hampshire. I told her I'd take it.

The school had been run by Ann's husband until his death in the mid 1990s. He hadn't wanted to send his mentally disabled son away to a boarding school – the only option in that rural area in the '70s – and so he had started an alternative school of his own. Farming and milking cows and carpentry were part of the curriculum, and so, over the years, the students amassed a collection of odd-shaped out-buildings scattered around the 350 mountaintop acres that had been in the Bliss family for generations. After her husband died and the school ended, Ann began renting out the cabins and the old schoolhouse. It became a community, intentional in some respects but without any degree of formality. We lived sustainably, were respectful toward each other and bartered, and no one had to post any rules about it. No one had to talk about building community: it just happened. Brook blew glass and her boyfriend Brigham kept bees and they both made delicious hard ciders and wines. Grace owned a gardening business. Lucy worked at a dairy farm and brought home raw milk, and Oliver at a cheese farm and brought home chunks of gouda. Andy fixed anything with a motor. John split wood and hayed and rode his bike unfathomable distances. Ann baked bread and kept chickens. Laura made pottery and kept horses and took her daughters to theater classes.

I stayed only six months. Autumn was full of rambles, discovering forgotten fields blazing with red maples, dragging rusty metal tools and interesting branches out of the woods and old furniture out of the barns to fix up my apartment. Winter, I'd come home in the dark and get out of my car on the frosty, bitterly cold mountaintop and drop my head back to stare at the hard, glittering stars. I'd carry an armload of wood up and stoke the fire, then rock in front of the woodstove or cook or read. In the spring, I watched the snow become mud, mud tracked up the stairs, settling into the grooves of my boots and hardening there, water dripping from the eaves. As the season turned, I fell more in love with the place, until the weekend came when I finally left, fraught with emotion, with the excitement of going west and leaving a my office job for the great outdoors confused with the pain of leaving the most beloved home I'd ever known, the comfort of my own space, saying goodbye to land and people that meant more to me than I did to them.

5. Next was Idaho. I'll never forget the first drive in, my first real exposure to the Rocky Mountains. From Boise, the fastest way to get to the old Moyer Helitack Base where I'd be living, smack in the middle of the Salmon-Challis National Forest, was through the dry, dusty town of Challis. But the road from Challis was still snowed in, and so we drove another hour north to Salmon and took the road from there until we reached Panther Creek. Our caravan of burly Forest Service trucks and beat-up personal cars climbed and climbed and climbed, past rocky crags and talus slopes and forests of deep snowy conifers until we reached the dizzying pass, and then we drove down again, slowly, zigzagging down the cliff, clinging to the mountainside. It is amazing that that drive, so utterly terrifying and stunning at first, became a routine, a three-hour-round-trip trek to the nearest town that Ben would take at least every other Friday to buy cases of PBR and cigarettes. We drove that road constantly. It prepared us for other “roads” in the Salmon-Challis National Forest where the Forest Service would sent us to investigate trails that hadn't been used in years. I vividly remember having recently learned to drive a stick shift and creeping alone along a road ridden with boulders and dangerously outsloped toward a gaping, distant valley thousands of feet below. I remember stopping, getting out and measuring the width of the road against the width of the car, using my sleeping pad as a measuring stick. Always to one side there was a sheer cliff. Always in the car we carried axes and saws to cut down trees that had invariably fallen across the road. The only music we could agree on was Old Crow Medicine Show and the Beatles.

Moyer Helitack Base, over an hour from the nearest town, nonetheless had electricity and nonetheless was about 15 minutes from the only other structure in the vicinity, which happened to be a bar. When the snows melted and it opened in late May, we were joyous. The Panther Creek Inn, as it was called, catered exclusively to hunters, fishermen and backwoodsmen (though Hank Williams Junior was rumored to have visited), and to us, a bunch of young environmentalists from other places. The Panther Creek Inn was an utter anomaly, a ranch-style bar in the middle of a rugged land void of people, a place of deep canyons and abandoned mine shafts and the highest concentration of mountain lions in the United States. There was a piano, a copy of Mein Kampf, a shuffleboard table and horseshoes outside. It was run by a couple with two toddlers and a puppy. Beers were $2 and they also sold tater tots and chicken nuggets.

Back at the abandoned helitack base, our quarters had initially been built by and for Russian loggers and smokejumpers, so in addition to very low-end, 1970s-style track housing, there were quirks like rough-hewn furniture constructed entirely of unsplit logs and a sauna built in the same fashion. The base was on a spit of land with Panther Creek stretching below on one side and a small mountain on the other that was perfect for a heart-pounding hike until we were instructed by the wildlife biologists to stay away from it because a wolf pack was whelping its pups there. At night, we sat around the orange sparks of a fire, listening to them howl and slugging cheap whiskey.

6. Somehow, a car, a bus and a ferry coalesced to lead me from the dry mountains of Idaho to my cousin's little red cabin on Halibut Point Road in Sitka, Alaska. It was October: rainy season. I only stayed a short while, riding my bike (bought for $5 at a police repo auction) in the cold and rain every day to my waitressing job above the harbor. One week, my boss let me borrow his red Hummer because he felt bad for me showing up to work dripping wet. I felt ridiculous driving it. Then I returned it and wound up on the ferry again, heading back south to Wrangell, Alaska.

7. Upon landing, I didn't know where I would live, but fifteen minutes later it was decided. I found myself unpacking in a small, dingy apartment above a laundromat and across from a seafood cannery. The fishermen washed their scale-encrusted sweatshirts and woolen socks there, and the washing machines smelled like salmon and halibut. Upstairs, our linoleum and fluorescent-lit little home was always warm from the dryers humming below. There was a lot to be dried out in Wrangell; it rained for weeks on end. The four of us – female wilderness guides in our 20s – decorated with scraps from home we'd managed to fit in our backpacks or outrageous finds from the 50-cents-for-everything thrift store in town. Kate, who'd arranged the rental, slept in the downstairs bedroom. Jule, Daisha and I slept in the upstairs loft, dark as a cave, reachable through a hole in the kitchen ceiling via a creaky metal ladder. Another temporary roommate who lived with us later in the summer would try to climb down the ladder drunk one night and fall flat on her face on the linoleum floor, giving her two impressive black eyes.

But most of the time I wasn't there. It was a temporary homebase, a place to dry out gear and revel in the small pleasures between expeditions: the solitude of a rainy afternoon when no one else was home, the freedom to eat whenever and whatever you wanted, to cook it on your own stove, to sleep on a mattress and not have to pack it up and break camp in the morning. To walk to one of the three bars and feed money into the jukebox until the night swirled around you, surrounded by people whom you felt against all reason that you loved, though you hardly knew them.

8. Most of the time, I was out in the field: cold and wet, breakthrough moments of magnificent beauty, an endless slog onward. Always moving, always tying the same knots, setting up camp and breaking it down in the sun and rain, darkness and light, on snowy mountaintops and storm-strewn coasts, in plush green forests and gravely river banks, tundra and muskeg, wind and calm. For weeks on end I concentrated fully on the moment at hand, on the simple task of moving from point A to point B and securing food, water, heat and shelter. There was nothing else. I briefly registered this simplicity, crouching by a stream, collecting fresh water, and then I was absorbed by it again, just as I was absorbed by the land as I slept every night cradled among ancient trees.

9. After that it was several months on the road. Adam and I spend days playing board games on the ferry, walking in Seattle, reading on the train, hiking in Montana, relaxing in Minnesota, driving through Canada, a whirlwind visit to the East Coast, then back across the plains to the Midwest again. Time passes quickly. Has life not always been this way, a continuous cycle of packing and unpacking, trying to find something in the depthless trunk of Adam's white Pontiac, staring out the window at the eternal road, cramped legs against the dashboard?

We flew to Hawaii. We bought a maroon 1991 Mitsubishi Montero for $2,000. The brakes went out. It belched black smoke. There was a rusted out hole in the undercarriage that got exceedingly hot. But we could practically live out of it.

10. We did for a while, and then we found a place on the eastern side of the island, in the lawless region called Puna, where land is sold in cheap parcels, the jungle is impenetrable and it rains with a persistence that makes southeast Alaska look like the desert. Everything we owned grew coats of three-dimensional mold. Insulation didn't matter, permanence didn't matter: the land was so new, just a shallow layer of earth atop porous lava flowing seaward, that it contained no streams or waterfalls. The nascent earth absorbed every trickle of water. People built on whimsy, just to keep the water off their heads. There were no building codes or zoning regulations. Marijuana grew ten feet tall.

We lived in the town of Mountain View, which was a misnomer because we could view nothing there but the cloistering jungle, its elephantine leaves meeting overhead, vines tangling and curious flowers sprouting from the most unimaginable places. Our home, nicknamed the Jungalo, was a perfectly planned little cabin built of plywood and smooth, twisted guava- and ohia- trunks with bamboo accents. It was built by Jake and Alice, who used to run a movie theater in northern California but had moved to Hawaii in the 1970s and amassed two acres of twisting paths through the jungle, connecting a smattering of hoophouses filled with musty-smelling bins of junk and treasures. Jake was white-bearded and sinewy, always slightly stoned off weak herb. His most memorable characteristic was that he had eaten the same breakfast for 50 years: polenta, soy sauce, peanut butter and red pepper flakes. Alice, with long yellowish-white hair, understood the inherent sadnesses of life, but she knew how to get things done. They left to spend 8 months in a thatched roof hut on an island in Thailand. Lucky bastards. Hawaii wasn't nearly as idyllic.

Like so many things, the discomfort of the moment has grown into something to look back fondly upon. There was the endless mold. The rabid mosquitos. The frustrating inability to connect to the internet, even though Adam climbed on the roof and spent hours contemplating an elaborate antenna system. But there was total privacy. On the screened-in lanai, we watched geckos and peepers as we cooked on the propane stove and laughed at each other. Our water-cachement shower was in a separate hoophouse with a green-painted, wooden floor; it was heated by propane, screened-in, and after showering we'd dash down the pebbly jungle path back to the house, stark naked if we could stand the mosquitos.

11. Then in a flash it was back to New England. I had visions of East Hill in my head; but the saying is true, you can never go back home. Vermont wasn't as I'd remembered it. I had changed, and it had changed; or rather, I'd moved to a different part of it. I lived in three houses in quick succession. The first was a big, sunny old farmhouse on a dirt road in pricey Norwich; Adam and I rented a room and private bath with three other occupants: a snooty girl who restored old books; a younger guy who never cleaned up after himself and whom we secretly called Bob the Slob; and the nondescript guy whose mother owned the house.

12. We were very close to moving into another rambling farmhouse to care for the non-adoptable dogs from a New York City woman's dog rescue operation. There was a hyperactive bloodhound, a sad Basset hound with a deformed leg and an overweight, epileptic pitbull named Tiny. But at the very last moment, we decided against the idea, and instead began a temporary living stint with a woman named Bonna, who had driven across the country in a covered-wagon-pickup-truck-hybrid and given birth in a tent in Alaska. At 63, though, she was hard-up for company and money. Adam and I stayed with her for 5 weeks. Her solar-powered house relied on 14-year-old batteries that hardly functioned, and we rationed electricity like a Depression-era family rationing bread. Poor Bonna. Something always went wrong: the basement flooded, she lost her job, a renter bailed. She never failed to open her home and kitchen, hoping always that the communal living she longed for would materialize, but always, she was disappointed. She drew her housemates into her complex web of finances and housing woes. We couldn't escape her. We had no privacy, in those last weeks before Adam drove across the country and, ultimately, out of my life.

13. After Adam left, I moved into a huge old house in White River Junction with five housemates. Our sagging, dilapidated house sat just below the confluence of the Connecticut and White Rivers – a place built on a history of transportation. The roads followed the rivers, and the railroads followed the roads. In its heyday in the mid-1800s, eight sets of train tracks crossed at White River Junction, and 50 passenger trains a day passed through, not including freight. It must've been an exciting neighborhood, once, filled with sawdust and the piercing whistles that brought fashion and money and the latest of everything from Boston and New York.

Our house, hugging the train tracks, had once been station master's house, the biggest in the neighborhood. Like the rest of the town, it had once been grandiose. But then drug dealers moved in and left behind broken glass and spray-painted obscenities. The railroads were reduced to a shell of their former glory, and the town fell into disrepair. Highways became the preferred mode of transportation, bringing truck stops and seedy motels and litter tossed out the window. But a group of artists, drawn to the industrial mix, moved in to revitalize things, and a man named Simon Dennis bought the old station master's house and began to fix it up. His plan was to turn it into an intentional community that grew its own food on two narrow acres stretching down to the brown Connecticut River, but the land had served as a waste site for years. Digging in the garden, we pulled up pieces of twisted metal like rotten, deformed carrots.

When I lived there Simon was away studying Buddhism. Without him, the community was less intentional and more haphazard, but we did grow a lot of our own food, until Tropical Storm Irene flooded our garden with overflowing sewage and drowned seven of our chickens. We rescued the remaining birds in my kayak the morning after the rains stopped, paddling through a calm lake of sludge with squawking chickens under our arms.

The railroad defined our life. I remember sitting bolt upright in bed at 3 o'clock in the morning on my first night there, feeling like a train was literally going through the house. It was like an earthquake. The glasses rattled. The walls shook. Breathing hard, I suddenly understood why rent was so cheap. The trains didn't just pass by the house: they screeched to a halt in front of it, metal grating against metal in a drawn-out, painstaking groan. Then bright lights came on. Men loaded and unloaded cargo. The trains backed up, and up, and up. They stopped again. Then inched forward. They did this for what seemed like forever, multiple times a day, on no schedule that I could discern. I learned to sleep if not through it, then to simply register it and sleep again. I grew fond of the train's whistle, the hollow, insistent sound through the early morning fog; the transient people who walked the tracks; the sight of the long, empty railroad stretching to the pink sunset, desolate and hopeful, the American symbol of progress and freedom and loneliness.

Each place I have lived is defined by something indescribable, unnameable, a feeling borne of all the mornings woken up there and the nights in bed; the meals cooked and the weather and the smells of the place, the mark of the people who lived there before; the play of light and the dreams and the mark people who shared this one place out of so many with you, the ones who happened to be there at that same brief moment in history. It is a feeling made of so many innumerable particles and scraps of days and memories that it becomes too large to describe, and yet this one simple feeling can recall the totality of a place even after its details have long faded from memory.

14. I move again, to Lyme, New Hampshire. I have more stuff, this time: more than a carload full. I use the furniture that's here, and I fill in the nooks and crannies with my own things, and this pleases me. I like to look at my stuff. It is all either beautiful or functional, and each piece has history. Provenance, my mother calls it.

This apartment, in the 6th state in this country I've lived in, the 14th place in six years, is quiet. I live here alone, and it is winter. During the day, the house is bright. Paned windows bring a flood of snowy light from the rolling fields outside. The walls are all white, the floors a wide, knotty pine. I go for long walks. I stand aimlessly at the windows. Darkness comes early, and I light candles and snuggle with myself, books, wine, tea, projects. At first, the solitude is welcome. And then it begins to wear on me: the dark winter of my soul, a friend calls it. It will end soon. I can only stay here until July, and then I will turn up the music and get packing, again. My mother told me that unless I write them down, I'll lose track of all these places I've lived.

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