The man on the phone was telling me: “A woman living alone in the mountains? I would never rent to you. These mountain people would eat you alive!” My first thought: Isn’t proving that “you can” when they say “you can’t” a true test of character? I moved to the mountains.
Half an hour East of Redding, California, is the mountain town of Oak Run where my youngest son and I lived for a few years. The population of Oak Run was, for the most part, a mixture of friendly hard-working nature lovers who commuted to work in town each day, and drug pushers with their entourage of seamy friends who lived somewhere “back in the woods.” My wish to move from town to the mountains was two-fold: I hoped to provide my son a healthful home anchor during his increasingly infrequent stays at home, and my long-standing love affair with Nature. No matter that the place I chose had no running water or electricity, and that the warning of one landlord was still ringing in my ears. I found a spacious cabin with a loft, two skylights, and a wood stove for heat, with large windows that looked out at nothing but pine trees, and the nearest neighbors were close enough for lasting friendships to be made, but far enough away to afford us each a private niche of our own. This place was great! The hillside that dug deeply into the valley a few yards behind the house became a favorite place for me, where I would often sit on the moss-covered rocks in the fog and breathe in the lush green solitude, listening to the wind singing through the pines and quietly reaching inward to great places that only nature can reveal in the soul.
The cold winters were kept warm by frequent trips to the wood pile to keep the stove burning. I felt like a child flying his first kite, each time I learned something new, like banking the fire each night so that the quiet embers would come to life again with a breath of air and a morning supply of logs. For water, I had acquired six 5-gallon water jugs and I would pile them in my car and drive down the road to where the locals had strung a hose out from a stream back in the woods. There I would fill my water bottles each week and heft them back into the car, occasionally helped by some unkempt, tough-looking bearded mountain guy, filling his own bottles. This respect often shown to me shed all thought of being “eaten alive” from my mind and reconfirmed my lifelong belief that there is good in everyone. Back home, I would lever the heavy bottles up the steps one by one and roll them across the deck and into the kitchen for my weekly store of water. I purchased my drinking water and used the stream water for cooking, household duties, and bathing. I heated water on the wood stove in large enamel pots, and carried them to the sink to wash dishes, or to the bathtub for my bath each morning. I would mix the boiling hot water with cold water from buckets, and ladle it over me to soap up and rinse, recalling my earlier experience of bucket bathing at the ranch house in Veracruz years before. Practice makes perfect.
A small propane bottle with a radiating cone at the top would be lit to warm the bathroom while I showered and dressed. As for washing the car, I find it rather ironic that it was by far more doable to man the stream-fed hose down the road each week, than it is to wash my car now in the city, with street parking and no hose permission from my landlord! That was life in a house with no running water! I did the running. I had the water.
The house had no electricity. Again drawing on my rustic ranch experience, I hung a series of oil lamps on the walls, and lit them each night to read or work by. I had already learned how to trim the wicks so that the lamps would burn clean and not smell like kerosene. That had been our only lighting on the ranch. The lamps created a welcoming, gentle ambiance as I curled up in front of the wood stove in the evenings to read and listen to the changing moods of weather and local fauna outside. When I moved back to the city with its distracting daily obligations, this precious reading time all but disappeared.
No water, no lights. Those were familiar challenges that were bravely dealt with. What other pioneer skills I would need for this little mountain hideaway would be discovered. No electricity meant no refrigeration. I had propane for the kitchen stove so it was easy to segue to the propane refrigerator once I was introduced to this efficient technological jewel from the turn of the century. A refrigerator that runs on fire? Unbelievable, I thought. But so it does, through the intriguing process of, not adding cold to the box, but absorbing heat from it, through a chemical process that begins with a flame – hence the propane. Ha! My refrigerator had a pilot light. I call these “jewels” because they are not only highly efficient, they are extremely economical, and the first ones were built with the clean, sophisticated lines of 30’s style. I found one at a used appliance store and missed not a step in storing and preparing food as I moved in. This was one very “cool” refrigerator! So neat to look at, in fact, that my good friends and neighbors across the way invited me along with family and friends to paint their own gas refrigerator with an underwater theme! Art deco a la eccentric. I accomplished my first (and last) oil painting – a lion fish – on one side. This was a medium I had never used before, so my contribution was mostly one of learning as I slowly brought the fish to life, while the other artists and artist wannabe’s deftly painted orcas, schools of fish, and under-sea critters over the rest of the fridge, but I am pleased to say, my lion fish is still looking good after more than 10 years, as is the friendship of my former neighbors!
Why on earth would I want to live in a place that required so many difficult, time-consuming back woods skills! Where a place to live is concerned, one thing alone has always drawn me and occupied my mind through the years that I have lived in cities, only rarely realized – a home somewhere out in nature! Who needs walls if you have woods to surround you or windows if you have never-ending vistas of grass or sea to inspire the imagination! Who needs a ceiling if you have the great expanse of sky overhead, with sunlight to read by and a blanket of stars to cover you at night! I was happy in this home. When, in time, friends helped me upgrade to a generator for lights and TV, and my generous neighbors’ strung a hose across the street to pump water from their well for a few hours each week to fill my water tank, already attached to a fully-plumbed house that had never had a well to draw from, life was indeed easier, but it was never again quite as good.
The trade-off of this rustic life was the quiet that only a pine forest can give you, as anyone who has heard the wind singing through pine needles knows; the dark nights closing up the house before bedtime instead of curtains; the feeling of being “alive” that overcoming new challenges gives you; the frequent visit of a big raccoon that would come up to the glass window in the living room and sit and stare at me, the awesome silence after a snowfall when even the proverbial dropped pin can’t be heard; standing outside at midnight under falling snow, catching snowflakes on your tongue as you watch them streak toward you out of nowhere from an indigo sky; and a once in a lifetime memory that I will never forget!
It was at the time when the news was full of the anticipated arrival of the Hale-Bopp Comet over northern California and I was waiting for nightfall to see if I could get a glimpse of it. If it passed by low, I would miss it because I was surrounded by woods. The only open sky was right above the house. I stayed up late, going outside every half hour and scanning the sky to see if I could catch the comet on its path. Sleep finally got the better of me, and disappointed, I climbed the stairs to the loft and went to bed. I normally don’t wake up during the night, so I was surprised to find myself suddenly wide awake a few hours later. I turned over to stretch, opened my eyes, and there, filling the skylight above my bed from edge to edge, was Hale-Bopp in all its glory, big and bold, with its tail stretching out behind it! I laid there staring at it until it travelled out of view, transported by the moment to some magical place beyond the earth where dreams come true! Who, or what, woke me up? My guardian angel? Those elusive wood sprites of legend? I like think it was intuition, that sensitivity to the unseen that has led me well throughout my life. It is never sharper than when it draws on nature. Difficulties? What difficulties! I never “saw” them in my house in the woods.