When I can’t sleep at night (which has come to seem a sort of blessing, adding hours to my conscious life), I sometimes try to add up all the houses I’ve lived in, with the occasional apartment thrown in, for contrast.
I’ve forgotten the latest total, but it’s a lot, as suits my wandering life. Only one characteristic links all the houses: they were too big.
Oh yes, there was an excuse for that, call it family, but as time has scattered most of those dear people, I find myself wondering if even when they were all around me, we really needed that much space.
In upper-class white culture, space is meant to limit the scraping and scratching that happens, inevitably, when people live together. It doesn’t work very well—there are still kitchens and hallways and front doors and yards for contact—but it seems to justify our greed for too-big houses.
That, and ostentation, of course.
My preferred form of ostentation is somewhat different from the size of the place I live—not that I am without a secret love of ostentation, it just takes a different form.
It’s called smallness.
I can afford to admit, now, that the size of all those houses shrank me. I never felt big enough for those towering ceilings, massed closets, cavernous halls.
At last I’ve found a house that fits me perfectly. I call it (with a bow to Laura Ingalls Wilder) The Little House on the Prairie.
It’s not actually on a prairie but on a parched, pinion-and-juniper crowded mesa, a place inhabited once, maybe, by sheepherders, but empty now except for a few die-hards, invisible in scattered trailers and huts.
The road to get up to the top of the mesa is a rock-and-ruin stretch of ungraded dirt and rubble, with perilous drops to the valley floor on one side. You have to be sure of your driving skills and your vehicle’s tires to start up that road.
Google led me to the place called Apache Mesa on one of those dismal Sundays when my old church-going habit, long since broken, seems to shovel a hole in the day.
I typed in RANCH and came upon photos of elk browsing beside a peaceful lake, a march of Wild Turkey, and a spectacular view down stone cliffs to the Gallinas River.
If I’m going to do anything at all, I do it pretty fast; otherwise, entropy. So I emailed the real estate agent in Silver City—way down south from me—and we made a date to meet.
“The road is the only problem,” this handsome expatriated German told me as he drove me, bumping and veering, up to the mesa.
It’s not the only problem. There’s no water. The peaceful lake I’d seen on the screen is a dried mud hole most of the year. There are no elk or Wild Turkey although a lot of long-eared Jack Rabbits darted away from the car.
But ahead of us, on a cleared space, was a small stone house, perfectly proportioned, its narrow windows filled with old glass, the interior a rubble of straw and fallen plaster. But the thick walls, built to keep out cold, kept the little room cool, and the light through the old windows was clear and still.The owner of the place, a somewhat eccentric individual, had lit out for greener pastures, leaving cartons of strange trash behind—a gross of hypodermic needles, among other things—abandoned and busted vehicles, and a midden of tin cans.
But there was the view to the west, to Hermit Peak, purple in the distance, and the east view over the stone cliffs down to the Gallinas River, and there was the mesa wind, hovering softly over it all.
Reader, I bought it.
Now, four years into its renovating, the small stone house that, I discovered, was once the schoolhouse for a forgotten community is reroofed and restuccoed, using dirt from the site, and attached to a rudimentary bath house with a gas heater and a tank of water on the roof. The little pump that brings the water down to the sink and toilet screams like a soul in torment when I turn on a tap or flush, and I doubt if I will ever put it through the prolonged torment of filling the bathtub. But no matter. In the corner of the little house, a wood stove waits to be stoked with pinion wood; once going, it heats water to boiling in about thirty minutes—and what’s the rush, anyway? I have yet to get it fired hot enough to push water up through the coffee grinds in the blue-and-white speckled camp coffee pot.
And, miracle upon miracle, after a drive down the road tore the bottom out of my car, the neighbors (all invisible) got together and pooled their dollars to have those desperate curves graded. The improvement won’t outlast our first monsoons, which may still come as they used to later this summer, but meanwhile I can drive up and down and admire the view without wondering if this time I’m going to lose some vital part of my car’s mechanism.
We’ve collected pottery shards from two old camp sites on the jeep trail (more like a mule trail) that we’ve cleared leading down the bluff to the broad Gallinas River Valley. Comanche bands hunted and camped here 200 years ago before descending on the Pueblo of Pecos and destroying it; the inhabitants fled west and settled on the other side of the Rio Grande. The pottery shards they left when they broke their cooking pots before decamping are crude versions of the black-and-white Mimbres pottery found at archaic sites to the North and West.
I’m of two minds about picking up even this inelegant reminder of a gone civilization; at the moment, Acoma Pueblo to the south is struggling with a French auction house to recover one of its sacred shields. But, on the other hand, the traces we leave in the little house—coffee grinds, lettuce leaves, a plastic detergent bottle—will be just as definitively swept away when we, finally, decamp.
But that’s a long time off. Meanwhile, until I have made the little house a place to spend the night (this means rousting armies of mice), I pass my writing Fridays at the cowboy table in the middle of the Little House, where men waiting for their supper carved initials and dates that preserve a past as crude and lively as the Comanche camps with their broken pottery.