Natalie Singer worked for a decade as a newspaper journalist in California and Washington and now writes stories and essays about such arbitrary and grandiose topics as assimilation, marriage and life in the West. She lives in Seattle and is going back to the wilds of northern Arizona soon.
A Kingdom Like No Other
We bounce down the red and twisted road, planetary-like peaks and mesas whizzing by, sun glinting. Abandoned trailers lean; a bony cow blinks us on.
I glance sideways at him, elbow hooked out the car window and that faint smile which only I can see on his lips. In a few minutes on this November day near Thanksgiving we’ll arrive at the end of a long desert road, at the place where my husband grew up. He was one of nine kids, a lone family on the cracked horizon of the Mogollon Rim with only the most basic of necessities to buffer against the elements. Pink dust, floating sagebrush, scorpions flexing their accordion shells — these things flood his veins as surely as the rain carves canyons in the dry earth when it comes.
I practice a happy smile for our daughters, who squeal and wiggle in the backseat. But it feels stiff. Can one fake excitement? Truth is, I’ve been anxious since our plane landed in Phoenix. I feel naked out here on this plain, named Desolation Flats on some obscure county map. I regard my husband’s homestead with awe, fear and, yes, disdain.
The Here and Now (or, Third Trip)
It has been five long years since we last came to this isolated Northern Arizona outpost — my fault. We almost flew out from Seattle two years ago, when Lukas’ mother Christine asked that everyone come to raise a shed on the family property they call The Land. But I protested privately, attempting to disguise my indignation with wifely despair.
“We only have a couple of weeks of vacation. Why should we spend one week of it doing manual labor in the middle of nowhere?” I demanded of my husband, who must have felt his own familiar conflicts rise up.
I was hoarding vacation, yes, but there was more to my protest. Lukas’ childhood landscape is nature exposed, stripped nude to the muddy marrow and dried-out tendons. Seventy miles from any hospital or college or mall, no sign around the perimeter of routes for escape. And there are snakes.
Once, in an effort to overcome irrational fear with information, I read that east of Flagstaff on the way to Winslow, volcanic cinder cones and Kaibab limestone give way to the red mesas and buttes of the Moenkopi Formation, a 250-foot-thick Triassic mass of Mars-looking silt, sand and mud oxidized red over time from the iron minerals below its surface.
Fossilized into this landscape of salt crystals and gypsum veins have been found the track prints of 10-foot-long, thick-skulled amphibians and a four-footed reptile name Chrirotherium. If one were to gaze down upon my husband’s childhood land and its surroundings from above, the picture would amount to a swirling, brown-blood-colored carpet of canyons and swales, slopes and necks, cliffs and ledges: A rusted sea in the valley of the Little Colorado River; the exposed injuries of a millennia of the earth’s violence upon itself.
Though starkly beautiful, it is not a backcloth that lends me comfort. The Land and I have reached détente, facilitated by distance. The selfish part of me wants to keep it that way.
Still, it is with him all the time. It whispers to him with its dusty red breath while he plants our garden back home each spring. His hands work easily through the backyard earth, so black and rich compared to the soft, crumbling matter that somehow sustained a younger him. I wonder sometimes if I’ve taken something from him with my distaste for his roots, neutralized some key ingredient in his DNA.
He forgives me my fears, I think, and feeds me more stories — one happy memory to balance out each day he ate rice for three meals or was left to care for a pile of hardscrabble siblings while still a child himself.
“Nothing is ever perfect,” he always says.
This new visit to The Land — my third, and our first as parents — is to introduce our daughters, ages 2 and 4, to their father’s homestead. Will this trip go awry, like the first two, and lodge between us next to the unpaid bills and the pressures of aging parents who need walkers and cancer tests and who have slowly begun to leave us behind, in charge of it all?
I hope not. I love my husband. I wish to love what he loves. And in fairness, I want our children to decide for themselves.
We knock down the last stretch of road and pull up to the house, which looks almost the same as it did a decade ago, the first time I saw it.
Inventory of Common Land Items
Skinny donkeys, plastic dishwashing bin, parched Saltillo tile, woven Navajo blankets, painted mandalas of rings and circles, swirling dust, women goddesses birthing and glowing, amoeba art phase that looks like kinetic potatoes, log-beam walls, beads hanging off upside-down-rake jewelry holder, pipe parts, switches heaters gas tanks propane generators hoses tools rusted-out school bus, olive kitchen mosaic, swaying dream-catchers, black iron wood stoves that every woman can work but me, wary kachinas, wind-hewn armchair, candles, incense, herbs, skinny dogs, plants in clay pots, crank-powered radio, walking sticks, baskets, books, stone crannies, hatchet with the handle still warm, rusty water tank, mean looking dogs, solar panels, endless decks of cards, whispers, pink silt settled everywhere.
About the Peyote (or, First Trip)
We had just begun dating a decade ago when I first visited The Land. He prepared me then as best he could: No hot water. No electricity. No toilet, unless you counted the outhouse 200 frozen winter paces out the back door.
“It’s ok,” he had said then and squeezed my hand. “I lived here until college and did just fine.” Still, the moment we ducked inside, I was stunned silent.
The house is a Hogan, a traditional Navajo eight-sided dwelling hand-built of wood beams and flagstone and mud, sunk half underground. The first thing I registered was the darkness inside, even in the blaze of summer, and the back-lit earthen windows glowing like powdery, purple-hued escape hatches.
Lukas led me through the twists and turns of what looked to me like a Hobbit hideout.
“What’s that?” I had asked, pointing to a small green cactus-looking thing perched at the edge of the greenhouse. “Peyote buds,” he answered casually and re-directed me toward the hydroponic spinach.
He is a Hippie son. His father bought these 80 acres of desert in the sixties after a vision in which he was surrounded by children and living off the land. Enter Lukas’ mother, in flowing dress and braids. Together they laid roots in the red earth, piggy-backed on the nearby Navajo and Hopi reservations and emulated the simple ways of people who had been there first and longest. Back-to-the-Landers, they were called, two white, middle class Catholic-school-reverts eking out a frontier existence off the grid by way of 50-pound sacks of cornmeal and homemade tofu.
As the new girlfriend, I absorbed the family lore that first visit, bits of raw life so different from my own city upbringing: Stories of shooting tin cans in the desert, scavenger hunts for petrified wood, dirt-road drunkards and black-magic hobos who wandered out of the desert and into their lives.
But it was too early yet for me to understand the real trickery of joining another’s larger-than-life clan. Only later would I begin to grasp that being married into a family rough-hewn from the earth means being reminded — with every reunion, with every flip through the picture album, with every flashback of one sanguine spouse who, surprisingly, survived a hard boy’s life of near-death and Western romance relatively unscathed — that your own suburban childhood pocked by TV and McDonald’s Happy Meals was a dull, safe-house existence to be both thankful for and ever-brimming with loss and regret over. Coming face-to-face with a childhood like his makes it seem like you might have never lived at all.
That first night of my first visit, I wandered out to the corral by myself and watched the orange sun draw down onto a land barren and flat to its very edge, the biggest and loneliest thing I had ever seen. The place both repelled me and drew me in, and it occurred to me then, ashamedly, that no matter where we went together, I would always have something over this person I was beginning to love. I didn’t grow up this way, I reminded myself with smug comfort as I hung on the old wooden fence boards, squinting into the dusk. As if modernity equals sophistication.
I should love the place that reared him. But I don’t. I won’t.
Whenever I am almost convinced to laugh it off, to bemusedly chalk up my husband’s unusual roots to counterculture and pull out documentary-style photos of the homestead to show off to fascinated dinner guests, I can’t help but catch myself. I imagine him, hand-me-downs hangered on his hungry frame, crooked haircut, running through the desert dodging rusty nails. Falling out of the back of a rickety flatbed truck overloaded with kids, landing on the highway’s yellow center line and splitting his eight-year-old head open to the night sky. “They said the doctors stopped counting at 100 stitches,” he told me the first time I touched his scar. I thought I could smell that old, sticky blood. My husband, broken on the road.
I can’t accept that anyone would choose poverty, consciously swap society and paychecks for scrappy isolation. I know his parents felt they were etching a better way for their own tribe, carving a path marked not by subdivisions and briefcases but instead by self-reliance and sustainability.
But in the end, as I failed to be an objective girlfriend, I failed to be an objective wife.
Short Imagined Interview with His Parents
Me: Why did you stay out here? It doesn’t seem like an easy place to live.
Patriarch: What is right is not always easy.
Me: But you could have had a middle-class life.
Matriarch: Sometimes I grew tired. I thought about leaving. But the children …
Me: That’s what I mean, the children …
Patriarch: Those kids had a better childhood than any of these kids raised in mainstream society.
Me: But it was dangerous.
Patriarch: If you think this life is any more dangerous than any other, you’re fooling yourself.
Me: But it’s so isolated.
Matriarch: What are you afraid of?
Me: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Night Scorpions (or, Second Trip)
We returned, newly married, trying to start a family of our own. I was more confident that second time, intent on taking my place and reinforcing my entitlements in this strange family with their frontier ways.
It was a reunion, and the small Hogan teemed with relatives and friends, progeny upon progeny. We came unprepared, as my husband would later acknowledge. When the sun set the first night, everyone scrambled for sleeping space.
The two bedrooms inside went to siblings who were lucky enough to have babies. Others climbed onto the roof to sleep under the stars — apparently they had done this all the time as kids on summer nights. I, however, had never slept on a roof, had no sleeping bag or blankets, and I was afraid of heights and what lurked in the wild.
As the bloated moon rose I looked plaintively at my new young husband, silently urging him to make a choice: Me, or this place. I was sure there was a hotel somewhere that we could reach in about an hour.
A few tense minutes later, we were deposited into a dilapidated trailer on the property.
I held back tears as I tried to curl into a ball on the hard single bed. The trailer’s windows were smeared with dust. I couldn’t even see the emptiness just outside. I felt choked in the stale, tight space, this foreign world.
I tried to calm myself down, but breaths from sleep I opened my eye and noticed tiny, translucent white bugs — Ticks? Lice? Baby scorpions? — crawling over my pillow. I screeched and ran from the trailer, out into the dirt courtyard by the Hogan.
Later that night I would sleep fitfully in the backseat of the rental Jeep, but not before our argument pierced the pitch-black starry night.
I don’t understand this place, I don’t understand you, I cried.
But we didn’t know yet how to fight, how to navigate disagreements with the stealth of animals and the quiet, quiet patience that slowly sweeps the rage away.
“It’s going to be fine,” Lukas pleaded, not knowing how to make it right.
Don’t I claim you more than this damn Land does yet?
As I launched my disappointments at the sky, I felt them listening: The family, the friends, the coyotes, the stars, listening and readying to re-tell their young the legend of the silly wife-girl who thought she could come to The Land without ever touching her feet to the red earth.
The Here and Now
This time, this third visit, I want to get it right.
We park and head for the giant trampoline behind the Hogan. As my daughters learn to bounce, Christine and I lean together against an old white Chevy truck, one of dozens of rusting hulks standing sentinel.
To the distant west, the mountain peaks of Flagstaff look Aztecan. The far eastern mesas float above the reservation like soft, pink tabletops, or school erasers, guarding the great fracture of the Grand Canyon beyond. The fall sky is a warm and perfect blue. From a radio somewhere, The Eagles twang, Take it ea-sy, take it ee-ea-sy. My daughters, normally princess-like in the dresses and fancy party shoes they demand, are coated in red dirt, kneeled in it, whooping, scooping the earth up in large, dusty armfuls. Is connection to place genetic? Half an hour and they belong here already.
I take a deep breath, deeper than I ever remember to take in the city. My lungs feel immense, huge enough to contain all of this endless, open space. For once, as I look out across the flatness, I think I feel this place’s peace whistling on the wind.
And then: “I have a bone to pick with you,” my mother-in-law says, shattering my long-awaited perfect Land moment.
With tears in her eyes, she tells me she’s still angry about us not coming to raise that shed.
“You just shut the project down. No discussion,” she says. “Working on this land, keeping it going together, it’s how we do things. It’s how we stay a family.”
I am stunned by this forward complaint, an ambush. I open my mouth to defend myself, but my voice gets stuck. Why is it I cannot think of the defense, which seemed so clear two years ago?
“I know it’s hard, to be out here. To understand.” She lays her hand, rough and sinewy, gently over my folded arms. “I’ve watched many people try. It takes time.” I can see that she is giving ground, sacrificing something. Maybe she had fear once, too, as a young wife in long Hippie braids.
“I’m sorry,” I say. And I am. It was just a shed, just a trip. Just a piece of land.
I hug her, this patchouli-smelling enigma, mother for longer and harder than I can yet imagine.
Perhaps now I can face the truth that I have absorbed even in my distance from The Land, or because of it: When you join a dynasty, you are always the interloper, the one who has everything to learn. In order to assimilate into them, you have to snoop, to wait, to fall asleep crying in a hard trailer bed under a wild, gaping openness, grasping to understand how your beloved can be part of a story that stretches so far back behind you. How short and temporary your contribution has been. They came before you and will continue even if you disappear into the dust this very minute. His family’s story makes little use of you in the end.
Later in the rental car, we wind down the long road out, bumping over ruts and cattle guards. In the setting sun, the red of everything has spun into gold: Spiky saltbush, gleaming rocks, 24-karat barbed-wire fences. “You’re glowing!” our older daughter shrieks to her sister, and they both laugh long in the jeweled light.
“We used to play out here,” my husband murmurs, touching my knee as we pass a slight depression in the endless dust along the road. A “dirt tank” he calls it and slows the car to look. I see nothing.
“What is a dirt tank?” I ask.
“You dig a cavity in the dirt, and when it rains the water runs down to it because it’s the lowest point. It collects water for the animals, that’s the main reason for one. But we also used to swim in it. From the rain, all these little tamarisk trees would take root, so there’d be shade. We’d swim in there all day. I’d come out streaked red.” He grins and winks at me. In the back seat the girls are quiet, listening, their skin surely itching for that muddy water.
I lean my head back and discover that I can conjure his childhood memories, like the sepia-toned snapshots I framed for our wall at home. Eyes pressed shut, I stretch into his younger self, between the suntanned skin and the sharp bones.
I feel light, a little hungry but mostly free, so free and light as I chase my shadow across the bright desert, my dirt-caked toes barely landing for a second. I speed up, and the faster I run across the sand the lighter I feel, not hungry or lonely anymore but wild, wild and free and flying.
I slow down, then I slip out of his skin, stand beside him and take his hand. There’s a horse trough ahead, and I lead him to it, dip my hand into the water, smear the dust off his cheeks. Smooth his hair, over the scar.
I’ll be there soon, I whisper to him, my boy husband. I’m coming to join you.