Into the Desert

"But in the desert, in the pure clean atmosphere, in the silence - there you can find yourself. And unless you begin to know yourself, how can you even begin to search for God?" ~Father Dioscuros

An offer for Justin's next assignment came in just last night and we've accepted. We officially know where we're heading next and have a start date and the first draft of a plan.

Tucson, Arizona.

I've never lived in the southwest corner of the United States. Never called the true desert home. The closest I've come is Texas, but I spent my time there in the Hill Country, which certainly has some desert qualities, but also grows enormous live oak trees along creek banks and hides clear blue springs behind spanish moss. Tucson is desert. True desert. Home to the sentinel saguaro and the fuzzy cholla and what seems like 17 species of rattlesnake.

We brushed by Tucson last spring on our way to Reno and were impressed. We watched a mighty storm roll through the landscape and had the smell of creosote etched forever on our hearts. It is a city that seems to have space that is readily accessible, which matters tremendously. After this time back home in New England, I'm aching to feel the wide western spaces as I break myself in once more to nomadic life.

Desert isn't always my first choice for wild places to spend time. I have a deep, deep love of huge trees and flowing water and mountains that hold secrets buried in the understory. But there is a place for desert in me too. The desert is a very good place to face down fear and truth- it has a way of stripping things away and leaving the bones bleached under it's ceaseless sun.

I suspect that I have things to learn in the desert. And I suspect that I am ready to learn them at last. It took me awhile to get here and it took a lot of work, but I am eager to listen in close to what the rattlesnake and the saguaro and the cholla have to say.

We are going into the desert. Tucson, here we come.

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A few favorite shots from when we passed through Tucson in May...

To Couch or Not to Couch

I mentioned last week that it was nearly a year ago that we sold our home and moved into our little camper. I’ve been thinking about our home there on Kendall Lane so much as the anniversary date approaches and I admit that it hasn’t been without some homesickness. It also has me thinking about the idea of minimalism and small-space living and what I’ve come to feel about these trendy ideas lately.

First, let me lead with the fact that I think the vast majority of us can benefit tremendously from giving a good, hard look at what we own, why we own it, how it serves our lives and the lives of those around us, and how our belongings intersect with our values and what is most important to us. I also think it’s important to say that what the result of that questioning looks like can be quite different from household to household. 

When I was in my early twenties, working full-time in the outdoors and obsessed with books like Desert Solitaire and Blue Highways and Walden (all utterly fantastic books that absolutely stand the test of time and should be on your required reading list for life), I would repeat often and loudly my favorite line from Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.”  I vowed never to own more than could fit into my car (and that that would consist mostly of outdoor equipment), that I was going to remain above and separate from a consumer culture where people traded the minuscule time they were gifted with for their lives to make money so that they could buy things they didn’t need. I was vehement that I would never own a sofa and had #vanlife been a thing back then, I would have been the first one in line. Instead, I had a 1998 Kia Sportage that my sister nicknamed “The Roller Skate” and which, by the time it finally saw it’s last, had crisscrossed this country more times than I could count, had climbed more mountains and driven down more rutted gravel roads than Kia had ever imagined it’s little car was capable of, and had more than 250,000 miles on it. Miles I’d relished. Miles in which I’d come of age and discovered a version of myself that felt as near to the real me as I’d ever been.

And then I got sick and my life changed. I was so grateful to the friends and family who hadn’t been so quick to poo-poo the idea of a home or a couch and who graciously allowed me to take comfort in the loving nests they’d created. As I turned away from the work and life I wasn’t physically able to sustain anymore, I began walking down a different road. In Walden, Thoreau famously says “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes,” a line with which I was intimately familiar and had quoted smugly time and again. But as I tucked my Chacos and climbing shoes away and replaced them with the dark suits and uncomfortable pumps required by law school and its associated internships and interviews, those words receded to the same dusty places in the back of my new walk-in closet where my gear now resided. As I struggled to cope with the rigors of an intense academic undertaking (and swallow the looming sense that I didn’t fit there), I took enormous comfort in the cultivation of my home space. I cooked for friends who sat at my second hand table and on my garage-sale couch and I relished that my home could be a place where not only I found respite, but others could as well. 

But over time, I began to spend more and more time and energy fantasizing over a new table from Restoration Hardware or a couch I’d circled in my most recent Pottery Barn catalog. And as I grew less satisfied with the table and sofa I already had, I grew less satisfied with the life I already had. Instead of continuing to savor the brimming joy of a bursting house at Thanksgiving, I began to wish for a bigger house, convinced that more space and more dishes (and the $130 pumpkin-shaped soup tureen that I’d seen in a catalog, even though soup wasn’t part of any Thanksgiving meal I’d ever participated in) would be better. That life would be better if I had those things. 

Which is where, of course, I began to lose ground. Because this idea that my life would be better if I could only have more space, more expensive furniture, etc created a need to make more money in order to buy those “nicer” things. My acquisitiveness meant I now judged my success by my material worth instead of my impact on the lives of others, that I sacrificed the time I once spent on conversation and community and thriving in the outdoors on working, working, working. Working to make money, working to “keep up,” working to quiet the voice in my head that kept repeating the quotes from Desert Solitaire and Walden and my twenty-something self that knew better than this even if she was wrong in her own way.

We all know the next part, right? Because so many of us have been there. The part where we realize that we simply cannot keep this up, that we simply cannot continue in this vein. We begin to see the cracks in ourselves, in our relationships, the toll it takes on our health and our lives and our sense of self-worth. And it was at this point that I finally began to slowly realize that the “stuff” itself is largely irrelevant. More or less, fancy or second-hand…these aren’t the parts of the conversation that really matter. It’s our relationship to the stuff that seems to be the relevant piece. That a couch is really just a pile of wood and fabric that is something to sit on, neither good nor bad, unless we choose to make it a pariah or give it undue prestige.

When I was 20, I thought owning a couch would derail my life. When I was thirty, I thought my life could only be complete if I owned the RIGHT couch. Now, as I approach forty, I wonder why I spent so much energy worrying about couches. Which is where I begin to depart from the minimalism/tiny house movement almost as much as I depart from the idea that 5000 square feet and a two-car garage are inherently desirable. I am absolutely content in our 83 square feet right now, and I relish the mobility that our small space affords us, the excitement of experiencing new places and new people, and the growth in our relationship as we continue to learn how to live well together in such an intimate space. I love that we have to weigh whether something we consider purchasing is truly worth the space and inevitable effort associated with making it fit into our set-up. Our small camper home leaves no option except to live with intention, to purchase with intention.

I also deeply loved our home in Maine. I loved quiet fall mornings drinking coffee on our deck and looking out at the trees as the changed color, the energy and inspiration I derived. I loved being able to say, “We have space for you- come stay as long as you need to,” when someone we loved needed comfort or time or simply a place to lay their head for a few nights. I loved planting a garden and tending my small plot of earth and planting seedlings that would take years to mature. I loved having a space to spread out my tools and create with abandon, where I could annex the dining room in order to learn to sew or draw or bake, to experiment and learn and play.

Every type of living comes with a cost. Our life now has no space to offer guests, so in addition to the costs of travel, our visitors now also have the added financial burden of accommodation. Our life in Maine came with a mortgage and more limited time and money for travel and extended time outside. In the camper, we have no space to store more than a few days’ worth of food, so we spend more money and have less ability to make the most of shopping at the farmer’s market or take advantage of seasonal produce by freezing or canning. When we lived in the house, we were more inclined to fall back on routines and eat variations of the same meals over and over because we were “busy" and had a sense that we could try something new “later.” We spend three months at a time parked in a cramped spot in an RV park, lacking much privacy and using whatever bathroom and shower facilities are available there (it’s been a looooong time since I showered without flip flops on my feet). In our house, summer weekends were often spent mowing the yard and cleaning the house instead of enjoying our time off together. I could continue, but I think you get the point.

I have moments of every day in which I experience acute homesickness for some aspect of our home or our life in Maine. And I have moments of every day in which I cannot imagine leaving this camper life behind any time soon. There will one day come a time when we will be ready for our next adventure, one that may very well include a mortgage and a couch. And we may someday choose to leave that life for a different one. As we move through each era in our lives to come, I hope that we can continue to focus on living in the very best way we know how, and owning whatever belongings are most befitting that way of living without getting too caught up in the ideas of what we should (or shouldn’t) own. 

Sometimes it really is okay for a couch to just be a couch, neither evil nor holy.

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We are in our last few weeks here in Reno and I realized I never shared the last leg of our journey here from Texas! Where have the weeks gone? So below are a few images from our time in Death Valley followed by our leisurely drive up California to Reno, including an attempted visit to the ancient Bristlecone pines (we got turned around by snowpack, which felt crazy after enduring temperatures over 100*F in a swirling sandstorm in Death Valley the previous day)...

Our Next Move

This is it, you guys. When next you hear from me, we’ll be en route.

En route to where, you may be asking…well, drum roll please…

We are heading to our next assignment…in...

RENO!

Yes, THAT Reno. 

Before you let the whomp, whomp surprise take hold, just look at a map. Look at all that glorious green space to the left. That’s Lake Tahoe plus a whole bunch of state park land as well. We will be just east of the Sierras, accessible to those big ol’ mountains with their big ol’ trees and that big ol’ lake. It’s gonna be awesome.

I’m not leaving Texas without a bit of heavy heart…three months is enough time to start springing tiny roots, especially when there has been plenty of access to family. I’ll miss the afternoons on my mom’s back patio, wine spritzers in hand and the way her dog, Cubby, and Tess lay near one another in the grass with their matching ears in the air. I’ll miss the impromptu picnic table time with my brother, and sitting next to him by the river as we tie fly to tippet and razz each other with silly leftovers from our childhood. I’ll miss the ease that has come with this extended togetherness, the kind that there’s simply not time for when you have only a week or two to visit. It’s been a true gift and I’m so grateful for the growth that has come with being here.

But this is what we signed up for when we let go of our old life. We made the implicit agreement to say goodbye just as we began to really settle in, to allow the cuttings of our life begin to root and then pull them up and begin again. To say farewell again and again and again, because as it turns out, that seems to be the only way to say hello again and again and again as well. 

We must depart so that we can arrive. That’s the deal we made when we chose this path. It’s uncomfortable in a lot of ways, some ways that I hadn’t planned on or prepared for. But it’s also so exciting, the undeniable sense of possibility and untapped experience bubbling up.

I’ve been realizing over these last months how ready I am to do my work. To do the work of honesty and hard looking at myself and how I walk through my world and my relationships. I’ve always done my best and tried to face my choices with courage, and this isn’t an exercise in self-flagellation. That serves no one. But it seems that each day I am able to loosen my grip just a tiny bit more on my old stories, the perspectives I hold onto because they absolve me of some kind of guilt or culpability, because they allow me to absolve others without the need to face my own hurt or confusion. It’s a powerful thing to let go, one clenched digit at a time, to the things we think we know, a powerful and terrifying and healing thing. It’s taken a good deal of my courage and I suspect it will require much more before I’m through, but I’m a bit surprised to find that there is some relief in that as well. I’m no longer interested in the get-out-of-jail-free cards I once sought. I read a little quote recently that said “Deal with it before it deals with you. Always.” And I want to. I want to deal with all of it. The raw and the not-so-nice-to-look-at. The terror and implicit vulnerability of truly loving others despite, and because of, our deeply flawed natures and theirs. It’s heavy, beautiful, terrible work and I’ve found myself in the midst of it. 

And so it is that we go from here. In the way of all transitions, anticipation walks alongside trepidation, excitement mingles with nervousness, eagerness holds hands with reluctance. It seems so fitting that we’ll begin our journey in the desert…isn’t that where all awakenings begin? Beneath wide sky and unyielding sun, in a place where only the hardiest can thrive. Before we make it to our clear, cold, deep lake in it’s mountain oasis home, we will cross the desert and leave some old bits of ourselves there, the toll required for passage.

We leave in four days. It’s time for our next move.

The General Route:

A: Leaving New Braunfels, TX

B: Big Bend National Park

C: Guadalupe Mountains National Park + Carlsbad Caverns National Park

D: White Sands National Monument

E: Saguaro National Park

F: Flagstaff + possible quick trip to Petrified Forest National Park

G: Grand Canyon National Park

H: Reno!

There are a few stops planned between parks (we can't NOT stop in Marfa, right?) and we have just over two weeks to travel, so I imagine that our itinerary will be flexible.

We are headed to cell-phone/internet no-man's land, so while I will do what I can, there may be a bit of radio silence along the way. I admit to being a bit excited for the unplugged time. So I ask that you bear with the silence and possible interruption to blogging and email response and know that I will be back with you as I can be!

Crunch Time

It’s overcast and drizzly this morning and I am taking a break from organizing my massive to-do list to pause. Justin’s last shift here in Texas is a week from tomorrow and we will drive away from this little temporary home a few days later. Our departure has come upon me suddenly despite our extra month here, and I seem to be in “crunch time” for all sorts of things I’ve meant to figure out and finish over these last weeks. We’ve had plenty of time, really, but here we are, once again scrambling and likely to leave a few loose ends untied.

Maybe this is simply how all things work. Perhaps this is the story of our lives, this putting off because we feel like there will be more time “later.” And when the end arrives, it always takes us by surprise, leaves us with unfinished business we’d intended to get to “one of these days.” I can live with that…to an extent. If we don’t finish sorting through a few items that got randomly tossed into the camper, or nail down our plans to add solar to our camper before next week, or even fail to figure out a route out of Texas before we begin driving, I’m not too worried. 

It’s the putting off of the big things: the dreams we are timidly waiting to begin, the damaged relationships we intend to repair when it’s not quite so complicated, the attention we’ll give to our spouse/child/pet/self-care “just as soon as ____ gets done” that worries me. The big endings that might catch me unaware. They hide around corners and jump out just when we get complacent, you know.

And isn’t this the whole point of why we’re doing this whole live-out-of-a-tiny-camper-and-move-every-three-months thing? Isn’t this putting off of the things that matter the precise habit we are attempting to break? Isn’t this one big ol’ attempt not to delay the dream we share of seeking place and experience and breathtaking beauty while we attend to the minutia of daily life, allowing it to eat our days, weeks, years…lives?

Isn’t life always in “crunch time”? 

I suspect so. The power there is that when we operate in that way, it becomes just a little easier to separate the important from the urgent, doesn’t it? When I only have a week to finish everything, the “it would be nice” items start getting chucked off the end of my to-do list unapologetically and I’m left with only what is most important to me. For me in this moment, it is gleaning every last minute of time with my Mom and brother here in this place they call home. I will let the solar panels and website updates and camper-sorting wait so that I don’t miss these last days with them in a flurry of to-dos that won’t really matter so much in the long run. The power of “crunch time” is that, if we choose to pause in our momentary panic, our “oh shit…how am I going to get it all done?” frenzy, it can be a place for real clarity. 

I’m grateful for that clarity right now. And for the flexibility that I’ve been learning over these last 9 months or so. We don’t know where our next assignment is yet, so we don’t know where exactly we’ll be pointing this little camper of ours in a week or so. But that’s okay. I’m learning that it will be just fine, crunch time and all.