That has happened to me over and over in my professional life as a writer—as it happens to all creative spirits. I was discouraged by the long delay in publishing my forthcoming book, The Silver Swan: Searching for Doris Duke, but last week word came for Farrar, Straus & Giroux that it is (really!) scheduled for next year. The Silver Swan will sail forth on the turbulent seas of the publishing world!
I am so grateful for the encouragement of friends and family, and especially of my assistant, Melissa Delbridge, in helping me to hold on through two years and six rounds of revisions. Now, it will happen, and my energies turn to the next book (it’s still too soon to talk about that), and my ranch at Apache Mesa here in Northern New Mexico.
The challenges of developing a ranch are different from the challenges of developing a biography, but the grit I need to hold on and finish is essentially the same.
In the case of my ranch, which I bought six years ago as an escape from an intolerable situation, my choice was intuitive and as is often the case with the operations of the intuition, not exactly rational.
Buying thirteen hundred plus acres on a nearly seven-thousand-foot-high mesa, a land of incredible dryness, fierce winds, and equally fierce heat and cold, can’t be called rational. Apache Mesa is not even a ranch; nothing grows there but native scrub, pinions and junipers, and the last ranching effort, probably sheep, vanished without a trace decades ago. Once the center for a now-disappeared community of hard scrabblers, the only structures were a falling-down stone sheep shelter and a small one-room stone house, said to have been a school.
And there is almost no water.
The real estate website that advertised the ranch showed ponds full of water, wandering elk, big-horn sheep, and all the other western iconic wild life. But the ponds only fill after the rare big rain and dry out in a matter of days. If there ever was an elk herd here, it has long since moved on to better territory. No big-horn sheep, either, although they might be able to survive in this rugged place. We do have several small brown bears (I encountered one a few months ago), an almost inaccessible spring, a few wild turkey, and maybe deer (I haven’t seen any of these). And there are a lot of small dun-colored birds.
Not exactly promising.
To make the site even more challenging, getting there involves a ninety-minute drive and a final ascent over the most terrible road I’ve ever encountered, the surface washed away, the rock-ribbed subsurface enough to rattle my spine, and the drops into the valley below awe-inspiring. The few other inhabitants of the mesa are not keen on investing in inevitably washed away road improvements, and that begs a big question: who is going to pay for the crucial leveling and resurfacing?
As though all that is not discouraging enough, I have been haunted by the loneliness that is the allotted misery for any dreamer: no one “gets it”—including my dear daughter-in-law who exclaimed in frustration when our car was stuck in a mud hole, “Why in the world do you like this place?”
“For the wildness in me,” I told her with assumed jauntiness, but really it is a question I’ve often asked myself.
Apache Mesa, as I dreamed it, was to be a retreat from the accumulating duties that have arrived on me after twenty-five years of living in a town that is bursting at the seams. With the national situation as it is now, it’s impossible to bow out of helping the many social justice groups here and elsewhere, the dedicated activists who are desperate for support, the daily avalanche of requests for worthy and threatened causes. An escape, a refuge, to write my next two books seemed not a luxury but a necessity.
When I drove out to the ranch yesterday, I was on the verge of giving up that dream. The spine-rattling drive up Apache Mesa Road did not reassure me. The road will need major, and expensive repair before winter.
But when I saw the big red barn that is going up opposite the little stone house, I realized that my dream is not only mine. The four men who have worked tirelessly for two years, cutting brush, clearing trails, digging out the spring, and now completing the big red barn, have put their time and their energy into my dream, and I am not free to abandon it, or them. In heat so fierce Antonio’s soles melted on the tin roof as he nailed on panels, in wash-outs so threatening Juan’s truck nearly went over the edge of the road, in winds so powerful Manuel had to fear it would level his lovingly tended corn and sunflowers, in Bernie’s daily oversight as I come and mostly go, I understood what commitment means.
It’s not the early morning impulse but the leveling, exhausting day by day labor, in all kinds of weather, as well as the ninety-minute drive twice every day with the bone-rattling road up a part of it. It is what is so seldom expressed: the endurance that builds the dream.
The corn is ripening now and Manuel picked a dozen or so ears, some for me to take back, others to grill. As we sat around the grill, on stumps and stones, I regretted that I hadn’t eaten with these fine men before. They are all Spanish speakers who have lived here for decades, doing the hard physical work, without benefits, that those of us who have a choice avoid. Shoveling out manure in Kentucky thoroughbred farms where the horses have better housing than their tenders, picking fruit in California’s Central Valleys, these are our true heroes. Perhaps it is our white spinelessness and sense of entitlement that makes it so difficult for us to honor them.
And so we go on together. The purpose of the barn is not yet clear. I don’t know where I’ll place my writing table. Spending nights so far from any kind of help is daunting. But then I think of my oldest friend, felled by Western medicine, and another good friend whose terminal suffering has been prolonged for two years. I think I’ll get one of those stickers some motor cyclist apply to their helmets: DO NOT RESUSCITATE.
There is no better place to live, and die, than Apache Mesa–not only for my dream but for the men who are making it happen.