|Hoppin' john, collard greens, cheesy biscuits|
January 1-2, 2019
When you think about it, the idea of a ‘beginning’ to anything is strange. I wrote those words out long-hand on a pad of yellow-lined paper on the morning of January 1st, but they were really (as I also wrote) a continuation of what had begun on my laptop screen two weeks previously as “Desert Diary,” and that was only picking up again a record of descriptions and thoughts written last winter and three years before in blog posts and letters to family and friends.
|Cabin from wash on snowy New Year's Day|
Was 2015, then, the beginning of all this writing and of my love for mountains and high desert? If so, why did my heart leap up when the owner of our cabin first told us about it, uttering the words “high desert,” “open range,” “ghost town,” words that thrilled me even then?
|Sarah & fence|
I’d never longed to see Arizona — it wasn’t a dream for me, like the dream of seeing Paris — but the truth is that I had always, as a young, horse-crazy girl, dreamed of going West, dreamed of the West from the front porch (west-facing) of our family home on the Illinois prairie as I gazed over and past the cornfields across the road and imagined myself on horseback, riding beyond those prosaic fields, into the sunset. Out under — at last! — black skies pricked by innumerable stars, far from any city or suburb. As it always had and perhaps still does to Europeans, “the West” represented freedom to the child I was, fenced about by social rules and expectations. “No running in the house!” Could they not see that I was not running but galloping? That I was not a child but a wild horse? As I galloped, indoors or out, or dreamed on the front porch, gazing across cultivated fields, I imagined boundless wilderness, open and challenging. There were pictures in my head from television cowboy shows, but there were no sheriffs or bandits or range wars in my fantasy. I had no wish to conquer anything or anyone, only to be there, to “breathe free,” and test myself, not against adults or other children or social mores or any arbitrary will or rule, but against natural reality, harsh though it might be.
[Sidebar: Some, I know, will immediately want to compare my girlhood dreams to those of a boy, so I’ll pause here to say that I am not interested at all in that comparison. Men, usually the ones to raise the comparison questions, can only speculate about how their youthful experiences compare to what they can only imagine were those of someone now a woman. They cannot truly compare, as the only experiences they had were their own. And the only experiences I had were mine, so I cannot compare, either, but comparison is not what I’m about. I am only describing my dreams, and I can say definitely that I did not dream of surviving a Western wilderness as a girl, only of meeting the challenges of nature. Perhaps a boy’s dreams center more on becoming a man. Perhaps their dreams are more gendered. I don’t know. I suspect there are as many differences among boys’ dreams as there are among the dreams of girls, but I find questions of gender when they intrude on my experiences with the natural world, whether actual or imaginary, annoying and unwelcome, because part of what I sought to escape in my childhood imagination was just such restricting social norms.]
Back to the more interesting (to me) question of beginnings, though. Did the feelings I now have for my winter Arizona surroundings begin with a child’s dreams as that child gazed across an Illinois cornfield, imagination ablaze with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, and company? Or was the beginning further in the past, when my parents attended their first rodeo out in South Dakota while I was still in my mother’s womb? South Dakota, my birthplace and scene of my conception — would such a place not mark a child with an invisible brand, not to be erased by subsequent moves and homes? Or do I go beyond reason with such a question?
On New Year’s Eve I opened a new book that I took up again in the morning, as the new year officially began. A gift from friends who were here in the cabin for six weeks before our arrival and the most appropriate possible reading for me, here, as we usher out the old and welcome in the new far from northern Michigan, the book is Drum Hadley’s Voice of the Borderlands, poetry of his cowboyin’ experience along la frontera, the mountains and high desert of Sonora, Mexico, and Cochise County, Arizona. Names of familiar places recur in narrative vignettes: Sulphur Springs Valley, Willcox Livestock Auction, Agua Prieta, and there are mentions also of places I know only from maps, such as Guadalupe and Antelope Wells. I finished the first section, “Cowboys and Horses,” with great satisfaction as the new year began and the first snow of 2019 fell on Dos Cabezas. On the morning of January 2nd, we are under a winter storm warning still, with accumulations of eight inches possible at elevations above 5,000 feet (that’s us) and temperatures not to rise above the freezing mark until Thursday.
Beginnings, endings. Human beings designate moments, days, years as such, but are those designations anything more than mileposts we drive into time as a way to organize our stories?