The day after our son, Cliff, closed on the purchase of his townhouse in Durango, Colorado, the three of us (John, Cliff and I) were on the road again, making the six-hour drive north, up and over two precarious mountain passes, to our barn in Rangely, Colorado.
It would take us four 12-hr round trips, one U-Haul trailer and one U-Haul van, to get all of our stuff out of the barn and down to Durango.
And it would take us two months living with Cliff in his townhouse, to sort, sell, toss, pack and store it all.
Our first load held household supplies for Cliff’s house and tools to build shelving in Cliff’s large storage/laundry room off of his garage.
In Free Fall
Friends, who’d long been retired, told me it would take a good year to adjust to being retired. But I had no one to tell me, from first hand experience, how long it would take to adapt to a nomadic life, especially not one lived largely out of a sea kayak. And yet, here I had both: I was newly retired and living a nomadic life, with four of the previous twelve months living out of a tent and a sea kayak. I felt rootless.
Sometimes it felt like I was in a free fall. I reached out for walls that were not there. And a place beneath my feet where I could curl up and lay my head.
I was a snow globe being shaken, in a dejavu of Christmas morning.
But as we unpacked that first load and set up the kitchen in Cliff’s house, the flecks of snow that was my brain, settled and stilled.
And I was shocked, to be honest, by the power and comfort of being surrounded by familiar, loved, things.
Oh what joy it was to make my morning coffee in my beloved espresso maker, and to pour it into my favorite mug of more than a dozen years, but which I hadn’t laid my eyes on in the past two years.
How glorious to pick fruit from my fruit bowl, to chop veggies with my knife on our cutting board, to wipe my wet hands on the dish towel I so loved.
To play house. To play wonderful, beloved house.
John looked at me askance and worried, no doubt afraid that my joy would turn to demands for, or regrets about, a settled life in the States which we could not have. Cliff too might have wondered just how long we were going to stay. But no, my joy didn’t come with attachments. Like a child glorying in the here-and-now imaginative playing of house, my pleasure didn’t demand a future. In fact, in part probably came from its absence.
We were living with our son once again, just the three of us. It had been seven years since that had last come to pass. And in a house not too dissimilar in style and layout and finishes from a few we’d had before.
It was as close to going back in time as I’d ever done before. If even just for a month or two, I was still eager to gobble it up.
I unpacked and lined up our photo albums in chronological order on the bare floor against the wall. I hung up every single bit of clothes I owned in the closet. Made a night table out of a packing box. Laid my toiletries out in the bathroom. And smelled the smell of home.
I would have rolled in it if I were a dog. And then curled up in a ball with a sigh, for a very deep sleep.
What to Keep
When I was very young, I was gifted a collection of dolls which my grandmother, Mamaia, had assembled on her four-month cruise around the world. Mamaia’s dolls have only come out of their box three times in my life: once, in California when I first got them when I was around 9; once, in Alabama when I was in high school and in my teens; and once more, recently in Rangely, Colorado, when I was in my mid 50s.
And so, of course, I opened the old, sagging cardboard box, which was addressed to my mother at our long-ago home in California, in my long-deceased grandmother’s script, one more time and pulled the dolls out one by one.
As I held them, Mamaia had held them, had picked them out, one by one, as she cruised around the world. She probably hadn’t given any one of them much thought beyond choosing them and buying them and packing them up for me. But she had done at least that. And so I too, one by one, chose them, unwrapped the tissue paper they’d been bound in, ran my fingers down the creases of their varied, wrinkled fabrics (mostly folkloric and mostly handmade) and then spread them out upon the floor to let them air. I left them out for a night. Maybe two. Chayse, Cliff’s girlfriend, sat and gazed at them, picked this one up and that one, with softly mumbled oohs and aahs. Then I packed them up again.
What to Sell
There were things we had to sell: my cruiser bike with three baskets and a bell; wetsuits which Cliff had outgrown long ago; and a cement mixer from when we built the barn. But the hardest thing to sell was the flagship to our fleet of boats, our beloved whitewater wooden dory, Rio Blanco.
We had run the Grand Canyon with her. And a gazillion other rivers. We’d slept on her deck lulled by waves and by stars. We’d spent $5000 building a garage for her when we lived in Steamboat Springs on a postage-stamp lot, only to have to tear the garage down when a down-the-street neighbor complained to the town about setbacks. Yes, the housing of the dory had always been a huge challenge for us, until John finally gave her a rightful home by building the barn.
But it was ridiculous to try to keep her now. She requires an expert to row. And to be an expert you have to have years of experience, which John has but Cliff doesn’t yet, and you have to be rowing her regularly, which neither John nor Cliff would now have the opportunity to do. And so after two years of dreading the day, we found a buyer and let her go.
Where to Store
Meanwhile, John and Cliff and Chayse got busy building shelving units to go in the large utility closet in the back of Cliff’s garage.
And we rented a 10 x 20 mini storage unit, conveniently located across the street, for the boats and toys we were all more likely to use and thus decided to keep. As well as an RV parking spot for our camper.
On June 1st, a month into our project, ten miles north of town, a wildfire ignited and filled the town with smoke.
And just like that, gone were our morning hikes to the tops of the ridges and gone were our bike rides along the Animas River.
With John’s asthma especially, it was time for me to stop playing house and for John and I to get out of dodge.
We bitched about the fire and the smoke, which not only kept us from exercising outdoors during the day but kept us from opening the windows at night to cool the house down. Without air conditioning and the mountains’ nighttime drop in temperature to cool us off, we were cranky and I, for one, felt gypped of my reprieve. The wind lashed at us as we paddled across Florida. It drove us from the Guadalupe Mountains where we were camped in New Mexico in the middle of the night. And now fire and smoke and consequent heat were at our heels and driving us away.
And to top it off, Cliff’s roommates were ready to move in. My time of house playing, with morning hikes, family meals around the table, and casual browsing through photo albums and nightly games of Rummikub came too soon to an end.
The End of the End
The storage room shelves were painted and the photo albums were stacked again into their boxes. I had to touch again each item of mine before I put it away. My ski clothes came out of and went back into one box. As did the few books I’m hanging onto. And a few cherished office supplies. My journals, I didn’t even get a chance to open. My calendars were consolidated.
And my winter clothes received pats and low murmurs of uh-huh, uh-huh, as I recalled the day I bought each beloved jacket and the blindingly cold nights I’d pull my wool caps down tight over my ears as I’d head out to walk my now-deceased dog.
John, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in revisiting any of the personal items he had packed back when we still owned our house two years prior in Rangely. “I already sorted and chose once,” he said. “Why should I do it again? I want to keep everything that’s there.”
During our last couple of nights, I partook of binge watching family videos I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. Three were silent films from my childhood. And the rest, although time ran out before I got through them all, were from Cliff’s very early years. I wept during my watching and yet I stayed glued, like a voyeur, to the replaying of my old lives. None of which I could go back to, if I wanted to play house. Too many people dead. Too many relationships estranged. And my baby boy, all grown up. Watching old family movies is like digging at a mosquito bite: pleasure and pain and regret all wrapped up.
With only half the videos watched, I packed them up and added them to a box.
And then all of the boxes went on the shelves in the storage room behind Cliff’s garage.
And all of our remaining boats and river gear and bikes went into the mini storage unit across the street.
John winterized our camper and parked it in our rented RV spot.
And we took down the last items from our borrowed closet, those that made the final cut to go with us, those delegated to the Present, not mementoes of the Past nor saved for the illusive, hoped-for Future, but for use Today and Tomorrow and the next day. These went into two carryon suitcases for Nicaragua. And into the back of our truck for next winter’s sea kayaking Florida trip, because we wouldn’t be coming back to Colorado before then and we were driving to Florida in the morning.
And just like that
We Were Done.
We are alive.
We are healthy.
We are adventurers.