I moved back to the city last summer, after six isolated years in the Mojave Desert, which followed a year in another city, after four years in another desert. The first house I bought, 25 years ago, was a rundown meth-addict cabin in the Cuyamaca Mountains with the Pacific Crest Trail marking the south side of my half acre of pines and cigarette butts. I got it all fixed up and cleaned up just right, and immediately exchanged it for gloom tunnel of an apartment in the city. What is the point of this constant back and forth?
Nothing beats a little house in the forest, a wood stove on the stone hearth, the dog snoring and farting. Stacks of books, the night ritual of fire and wine, a walk beneath the Milky Way, down the road to the little town for dinner. Fall asleep to the gusts of wind, repeat daily. Why ever leave?
It’s hard to find the right spot, that’s why. And the right spot needs the right people, or lack thereof.
Even when you’re careful about picking a spot—protected forest, wild coastline, lonesome desert alongside a national park—you need a form of income and you need interludes of friendship and love and other problems. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a whole crowd in the nearest city, because they will rarely if ever visit. People are lazy. Even the smart ones toss away most of their “free time” watching television. You’re on your own out there, and even Henry David Thoreau got lonesome and went back to town.
Your rural neighbors might be fellow conservationists and tree huggers, but they’re more likely gun nuts with a sheet-metal garage crowded with dirt bikes and off-road buggies. Park rangers and other government types tend to keep to themselves, having been warned about the locals. If you’ve got a couple of school-aged children, as I do, you will sadly note that the handful of pleasant oddballs and artists and other bohemians who sometimes settle in a quiet place are all childless or retired, free of concern about the local public school with its 60% dropout rate and cretin teachers with “Drill Baby Drill” bumper stickers.
Most people who live in a beautiful place only wound up there because it was cheap, or because they didn’t like a certain ethnic group colonizing a particular suburb. It’s depressing. But in my imagination, at least, there is a place that approaches perfection, a place where life is lived with fun and grace.
A small town, a dot on the map, right up against a big green territory of national park or forest, state preserve or federal wilderness. Is there some western college town small enough to fit into that? A place for some old friends, the ones still wandering when they were supposed to be division manager by now? New friends, former rivals, longtime Twitter acquaintances. A small bar, roaring fire, long wooden tables, out-of-towners and college kids, grizzled socialists and tenured lechers. Books thrown on tables, dirty jokes, wild theories, ironclad proclamations, million-dollar screenplay ideas. Revolutionaries in exile from … their own country? Their colleagues and families, most likely. The larger, wider, lard-assed vulgarians? Always!
Where is this place? And what makes anyone worthy of such a place? The garbage work I’ve done for most of my life should hardly be rewarded with a mountaintop bohemia. Unless it should, because we live in a time of reduced expectations. Besides, who put a gun to our heads and made us write clickbait for blogs selling new television series and half-pound bacon-ranch anus burgers to “millennials”? In this strange time of “late capitalism”—a phrase I like even if I don’t quite know what it means—it is more crucial than ever to stop doing evil work.
The work we do must be essential. Essential for who? Whom, even? For you! For me! Make it essential, during whatever time we’ve got left. Save the world, sure. But not without saving ourselves. Not without having some fun, finally.
Without meaningful work and companionship, even the most beautiful chunk of high desert or creek frontage is taken for granted. But the cities are dull, too, especially as New York and San Francisco settle into their 21st Century roles as theme-park amusements for the moguls and the children of privilege. The human soul can tolerate only so many restaurants with costumed wait-staff and artisan-ice cocktails. What is the motivating factor, beyond the direct-deposit paycheck and dinner and Netflix? What is the point of sustainable cities and sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and composted coffee grounds if we haven’t done anything to sustain ourselves?
Photo by U.S. Forest Service Northern Division.