Lavinia Spalding | Longreads | January 2019 | 13 minutes (3,805 words)
The old rancher stood on the porch of my log cabin, shuffling his boots. Then he lowered the rim of his cowboy hat, squinted, and delivered the news I’d been dreading — the news that had probably been inevitable from the start.
Though I say the cabin was mine, I should confess it was really his. The rancher’s. Still, I felt possessive. I’d lived there only months, but I loved the wide covered porch where I’d hung my rope hammock, bought for 20 bucks in Mexico. I loved the woodstove and my nascent ability to make a half-decent fire on a chilly night. I loved the view from my picture window, past bright green fields and golden sandstone mesas, all the way to a distant blue triangle of mountain. A herd of deer grazed insouciantly in my yard each evening, a chorus of coyotes sang late at night. I loved everything about my cabin — especially what it represented: something that had eluded me my entire adult life.
For 12 years, I’d been wandering. I left the U.S. at 25, and once I started moving, I couldn’t stop or even slow down. I lived in Korea for six years, in odd little apartments with rubber-ducky yellow vinyl flooring and bathrooms with a showerhead directly above the toilet and rooftops with orderly rows of cuttlefish drying on clotheslines. I shared a hut on a balmy Philippine beach with a hundred ants, and a bamboo house in Bali with a tarantula, and a cubby of a room in Cambodia with hungry bedbugs. I slept in swanky hotels in Japan and Malaysia and Singapore. In Costa Rica, I pivoted from an all-inclusive resort with a swim-up bar to a tin shed with rooms separated by plywood. I stayed — but didn’t sleep much — on the floor of a stilt house in a northern Thailand jungle, listening all night to creatures scampering beneath me.
And I moved through love as quickly. I fell for a Balinese artist who used the ends of his knee-length hair as a paintbrush and a Spanish playboy who spoke in riddles and whispered Catalan in bed. A haughty Frenchman who’d grown up in a castle complete with a moat and a sweet-eyed Southern Army sergeant who could never tell the truth.
Back in the U.S. I tried living in Fort Lauderdale and San Francisco and Flagstaff. I loved more men. A ballistic missile defense engineer. A tortured, married writer. A Hollywood producer who refused to love me back. A diffident Grand Canyon river guide. A self-destructive, hard-drinking architect.
I drifted from place to place and man to man and job to job, rented a dozen apartments, moved across the planet twice. I relentlessly packed up the person I was in one time zone to unpack her in another. And when asked what I was running from, I’d answer, No, you have it wrong: I am running toward something. I just never knew what the something was until I moved to Utah and saw that cabin.
My cabin — a thousand square feet, made of freshly cut pine — perched on the edge of a town that perched on the edge of nearly 2 million acres of protected land. True Utah wilderness: high desert scattered with enormous honey-colored buttes and vermillion cliffs and every hue of mesa and monolith imaginable, from ghostly white to pale yellow to blackish purple. There was sandstone and mudstone and limestone and Cretaceous shale, arrowheads and dinosaur bones and petroglyphs, sagebrush and rabbitbrush and blackbrush and bitterbrush. Cool streams and shadowy forests, weeping willows and wildflowers, and long unpaved washboard roads leading to red slot canyons so deep and narrow a person could get as lost as she had ever longed to be.
As for the town, it was remote — four hours to a major airport, 45 minutes to a bank — and small — about 200 people. There was no bar, no theater, no cell service, no stoplight. And no traffic delays, except when cattle ambled home at dusk or locals parked in the road to chat through driver’s side windows.
In a town that size, housing opportunities were rare. Someone usually had to die for a place to become available. But one day while working at my sister’s restaurant (one of three in town), I heard rumor of a vacancy, a two-bedroom cabin being built on a long dirt road on the outskirts of town. I called the elderly Mormon ranchers who owned the property, and they suggested we meet at the cabin so I could take a look. And the instant I looked, before I even put my car in park, I knew.
Could I rent it, I asked.
Well, they said, I seemed like a nice girl, so why not? How about $500 a month, utilities included? They weren’t the lease-signing types, said the rancher, smiling softly, but we could shake on it. His hands were rough and wrinkled, a galaxy of sunspots. Hers were cold and thin, pale and puckered with blue veins, and I quickly relaxed my grip so as not to crush her.
A month later I vacated my sister’s guest bedroom, rescued my belongings from storage, and began unpacking. The cabin smelled of fresh sawdust, and every inch was brand new, making it seem uniquely mine. I had never known the level of joy that greeted me when I walked through the door. Not in my most passionate love affairs, not when standing atop the Great Wall of China or hang gliding over a white sand beach in Australia. I danced in my kitchen, planted perennials, hung my guitar from a nail on the wall, and turned the second bedroom into an office. Shawn gave me a cordless drill for a housewarming gift, and together we installed bookshelves.
I had met Shawn at my sister’s restaurant, where we both waited tables. We’d been together a year, and we were a study in opposites: Him, politically conservative. Me, ultra-liberal. He hunted. I’d taken Buddhist vows against killing even mosquitos. He lived in a tent. My luggage tag read, “I love not camping.” He was calm and steadfast, I was messy and impetuous. But we laughed at the same jokes and movies, and we liked to stay quiet on long drives through the desert. And once, when I was lost for six hours hiking the river because I didn’t know the difference between upstream and down, he ran for miles to find me.
In addition to waiting tables, Shawn taught outdoor survival, leading city slickers like me into the wilderness to teach them indigenous skills. They learned to find water, make shelter, make fire, make do. The survival school was located on the north side of town, and from time to time you’d see an instructor walking barefoot down the highway wearing only buckskin, carrying a spear. Tourists in RVs rubbernecked; to us it was normal.
I had tried my hand at a few indigenous skills — I made a toothbrush from willow on a backcountry camping trip, I learned (and promptly forgot) how to tie complicated knots, and with Shawn’s help, I once coaxed a few half-hearted flames from a bow drill made of sticks. We spent the better part of one cold winter holed up in our friends’ trailer, mastering the art of knife throwing. Shawn and I both knew I was a wimp at heart, but I liked playing pioneer, pretending to be someone who could learn to survive in a place like this.
In addition to waiting tables, I tutored and subbed at the town’s three-room elementary school where 13 students attended and every morning a band of tiny bodies wrapped themselves around my legs and shrieked my name in greeting. My favorite was Larkin, a third grader. One day, the same week I moved into my cabin, Larkin came stumbling to me at recess, sobbing. Her classmate Carson, perpetually decked in cowboy hat and boots, was showing off his rabbit-foot keychain and boasting he’d killed the animal all by himself. Larkin was traumatized; she raised bunnies.
“Ignore him,” I said as she wept into my shoulder. “Just keep to your side of the playground.”
Larkin avoided Carson for the remainder of the afternoon, and by the time the school bus arrived she seemed to have forgotten the incident.
This was more or less how the town operated. A fairly even mix of hunters and ranchers, Mormons and Buddhists, environmentalists, hippies, farmers, doomsday preppers, and transplant retirees, the townspeople shared few core beliefs — but they also shared a post office the size of a bathroom. So whatever squabbles you had with someone who hunted on your property or whose dog chased your chickens or whose child bullied your child, you still waved when you passed in the road. And if your car got buried in a snow bank or your barn went up in flames or your horse got sick, your neighbors dropped everything — including value systems, politics, and religion — to help. Alliances shifted over years, friends becoming enemies and then friends again before anyone knew there was trouble. So for the most part you ignored what you had to ignore. You kept to your side of the playground.
But occasionally something happened you couldn’t ignore.
* * *
I’d been in my cabin two days when the rancher paid me a visit. He was lanky, about 80, with a sun-ravaged face, all wrinkles and cracks like a dry mud bed.
“Laveena,” he said, pulling his hat over his eyes and mispronouncing my name for the 10th time, “We can’t have you livin’ here if your boyfriend’s spendin’ the night.”
He’d seen Shawn’s truck parked outside some mornings, he explained, and that wouldn’t do. “If you want to spend the night with him,” he said, “you should get married.”
“I don’t want to get married,” I said.
“Then you shouldn’t be spendin’ the night with him.”
I crossed my arms tightly over my chest and watched him stride back to his pickup truck, the same old blue Ford that had tugged my car out of the muddy driveway once, while I was moving in. I closed the door to my cabin and listened to his wheels crunch away.
And I started considering my options. Should I tell Shawn to stop coming over? It seemed extreme and meant we’d never spend the night together. I hated his wall tent. It was cold and there were spiders. Should we pretend to be married? We could never pull it off, not in a town this small. Should I break up with him? It crossed my mind. The only option I didn’t consider was leaving my cabin.
* * *
A few months earlier I’d taken a day trip to Bryce Canyon National Park, renowned for its countless rosy colored hoodoos, or rock spires. I’d wandered around, admiring the kaleidoscopic views, and stopped short in front of a spindly tree that jutted from the cliffside. It was a limber pine, a ranger told me. I marveled at this limber pine. I walked around it, considered it from different angles as it clung determinedly to the rim at Sunrise Point, its long, leggy roots extending straight out of the rock and into the air, starkly exposed by erosion. Other tourists stopped to snap photos of it, wondering aloud how it managed to hold to the rock by only the thinnest of roots. The limber pine was tenacity itself.
I was, too, I decided. It had taken too long to find home. Even if my world eroded around me, I wouldn’t let go.
And so in the end the solution was clear: I would have to hide Shawn. It was tricky, since the old rancher arrived mere yards from my door each daybreak to water his alfalfa and cows. But I suspected the issue hinged mostly on appearances and a show of respect — we’d be fine so long as we didn’t flaunt it.
I began picking Shawn up after dark and driving him home the next morning. At night, I’d park a few feet from my front door, and we’d scurry in. The following morning, after ensuring we were alone (or that the rancher was on the other side of the cabin with his back turned), Shawn would dash out, slip into the passenger seat — already reclined in preparation — and lie back, covering himself with a blanket. Every so often, he risked bicycling to my cabin. We stashed his bike in the mudroom, and he pedaled home late the next afternoon once the rancher had cleared out for the day. Sometimes he walked the two miles from his tent to my place. Mostly he arrived after dark, set an alarm, and drove home well before sunrise. We spent months refining our moves, and we didn’t allow ourselves to get sloppy. It was the 21st century, and we were a committed couple in our mid-30s, sneaking around. But we lived in a tiny Mormon town. We did what we had to.
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Early one Monday morning I heard a knock at my door.
“Shhh,” I whispered, throwing on my robe.
The rancher was there. “Laveena,” he said, “do you like corn?”
“I do,” I answered.
“Well, we got good corn. I’ll leave a bag outside your door.” He tipped his cowboy hat, walked to his pickup, and drove off.
Later that week, I was evicted.
It was a bright blue afternoon. I’d just finished watering the fruit saplings in my yard when I heard a knock on the back door. I opened it to find the rancher standing on my porch. More boot shuffling, more hat tipping.
“It ain’t workin’ out, Laveena,” he said. “We just built this home and it’s brand new. We need to feel good about what’s happenin’ under the roof.”
He left me standing on the porch, squinting into the sun, unable to catch my breath.
There was no cell service in town, and Shawn had no phone in his tent, so I drove into town to find him, stopping quickly at the post office to pick up a package. Only 30 minutes a day could you do this — between when the mail arrived and the post office closed. As a result, a thriving social hour and gossip session took place in the parking lot each afternoon during the short window. Half the town stood between cars, chatting in pajamas and hair rollers or Carhartts and mud boots. And standing in the mix was the rancher’s wife, her unmistakably fluffy head of cotton candy–thin white hair bobbing as she talked with another old lady.
I walked past, avoiding eye contact. But when I emerged from the post office, she was still in the lot. Waiting.
“We need someone who’s livin’ up to standard!” she screeched at me, keeping two vehicles between us. “I want you out in thirty days!”
I found Shawn in the back of my sister’s restaurant, doing carpentry work. He set down his tools, hugged me, and walked me to his pickup truck. We drove in silence past the turnoff to my cabin, past the slopes of buttery sandstone scattered with black ironstone boulders, past my favorite slot canyon, along the switchbacks where the massive claret-colored rock walls flanked the thin road. When the pavement ended we kept driving. I didn’t ask where we were going. I didn’t care. Finally Shawn slowed down and backed his truck to the edge of an overlook that opened to miles of wilderness and millions of colors. He dropped the tailgate and sat beside me as I cried.
The next day a handwritten eviction arrived in my mailbox, and within 24 hours the entire town knew. Driving to work one day, I passed the mayor. He put his truck in reverse, so I did too. We rolled down our windows. “They can’t do this,” he said indignantly. “We’ll fight it.”
His daughter, waitressing with me that night, laughed when I reported what her father had said. “Don’t bother — it’s Utah. Tenants have no rights. Besides, you didn’t even sign a lease.”
When I picked up my mail, our postmistress — also elderly, also Mormon — looked dolefully into my eyes and murmured, “I’m sorry for your troubles.”
Friends in other states were outraged. “How is that not illegal?” they demanded. Friends in town shrugged, rolled their eyes. The benefits of living here were uncountable, we all agreed. At the same time, it was like taking up residence in a foreign land: complicated, inconvenient. There were rules, and we were meant to play by them. Most of the time we did.
* * *
I slowly repacked my possessions, feeling like I was stuck in a movie playing in reverse. Shawn still slept over some nights, and though it was common knowledge by now, we still sneaked around.
“If it weren’t for me,” he said guiltily, “this wouldn’t be happening.”
“It’s OK,” I said, untying my hammock with a yank, like a final half-hearted attempt on a defeated tug-of-war rope. “I don’t want to give them my money anyway.”
At the end of the month, I moved into the town lodge. The owner (a card-carrying member of the indignant camp) had offered me a room all winter, free of charge, with one stipulation: Shawn had to park his truck by the road where everyone could plainly see it. Over the next three months, the snow piled against my window, but the room stayed warm. The sheets were soft, the TV enormous, the outdoor hot tub a 40-second walk from my door. Almost no guests stayed there in the winter, so most days and nights I had the lodge to myself. It felt comfortable, safe, secure. But Shawn and I had grown accustomed to feeling the opposite, and it had banded us together. Though this was easier, it resembled real life, which somehow seemed more dangerous than getting caught.
Late one night, back in the hotel room after playing board games at our friends’ trailer, I turned to him in the dark. We’d both been drinking, and the night had ended tensely. We hadn’t spoken on the drive home and now we were in bed, still not speaking.
“Can I ask you a question?” I said, softly.
“Sure.” He rolled over to face me.
“Why did you get so mad when you lost the game?”
He was silent a while. “I hate board games,” he finally admitted. “The only way I can stomach them is if I win.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “Why didn’t you ever tell me that?”
“You never made me play them before.”
I started crying. “I love board games.”
Shawn said nothing, and by the time I was ready to talk again, he’d fallen asleep.
A week earlier we’d had our first big talk about the future. I had initiated the conversation, knowing I couldn’t stay at the lodge forever. Winter would end, and I’d need a new home. I’d done my best to settle down in Utah, but the desert was spitting me out. Now all I wanted was the next place, a new life, an elsewhere.
“How about Montana?” I suggested, sitting cross-legged on the bed while Shawn squirmed in a chair, staring out the window at bare trees and snow-covered sandstone. “It’s supposed to be beautiful.”
“I’m sure it is,” Shawn said.
They didn’t call to him, these places.
“Mexico? I could teach English again.”
“What would I do?” he asked. “I don’t speak Spanish. I don’t think I could guide there.”
I ran through idea after idea, and he resisted each one.
* * *
That whole winter I never ran into the ranchers — mostly by design. If I spotted her car at the post office, I kept driving. If I needed gas but his pickup truck was occupying the pump, I circled till it was gone or drove across town to the other gas station. I held onto my anger for years, raging at the unjustness, at the upheaval of my life, at the loss of the only home I’d ever wanted to make permanent. But finally, over time, a new thought began to reveal itself. They too lived in a tiny Mormon town, those ranchers. They too did what they had to. They didn’t invent the rules, but they had no choice except to enforce them.
As for me, I could have opted to play by the rules, surrendered my cabin instead of holding out like a bandit in a standoff. I might have been more gracious, spared an elderly couple the ignominy of forcing me to leave. Probably I should have bowed out, avoided the scandal. I was too convinced that in the battle of moral certitude, I would prevail. And my desire for home had grown too fierce. My downfall was mistaking longing for belonging.
I was no limber pine. That tree hadn’t survived by clinging desperately, but by learning to adapt to harsh conditions.
* * *
Eventually, Shawn and I broke up. The scandal didn’t finish us, but it exposed our limits and forced questions we’d never broached: Could we take the ranchers’ advice? Get married and start livin’ up to standard? What would a shared future even look like with all our oppositeness? Was there anywhere we could both be happy? In the end, we landed on the only practical solution. We realized that if we tried to move what we had, it would shatter. And if we stayed, we would never break up or move forward. For all its unlikeliness, our relationship had once seemed sturdy. We didn’t understand how precariously balanced it was until a pair of sanctimonious senior citizens capsized it.
I packed up again and moved to San Francisco, and Shawn found work in Alaska. We kept in touch. After a few years, I met someone new, a music producer with a nerdy sense of humor and urban sensibilities. We moved into a sunny fifth-floor apartment on a busy street in Nob Hill where we played Scrabble, watched television, cooked dinner, and debated whose turn it was to take out the compost.
After a few years, we got married and started a family. Now we live in New Orleans. But about once a year, we make the cross-country flight to Utah. We hike, take photos, and chase our rambunctious toddler around my sister’s yard — and we always drive to my favorite slot canyon. Along the way, we pass the turnoff to my cabin. Though it’s been a decade now, I still turn my head and stare down that long dirt road. But I don’t go there anymore. I shift my gaze back to the road ahead and watch the way it curves.
* * *
Lavinia Spalding is series editor of The Best Women’s Travel Writing, author of Writing Away: a Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler, and co-author of With a Measure of Grace and This Immeasurable Place. She wrote the introduction to the e-book edition of Edith Wharton’s classic travelogue, A Motor-Flight Through France, and her work has appeared in such publications as Tin House, Post Road, Inkwell, Off Assignment, the Guardian UK, the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunset, Yoga Journal, and two volumes of The Best Travel Writing. She’s a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Copy editor: Jacob Gross