So I read today’s piece by Walter Kirn in the New York Times about cabin life and its status as an eddy of the American Dream (“Cabins, the New American Dream,” found here) with some amusement and recognition: I live (and write) in a cabin at @ 9,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of south-central Colorado. This is the serious boonies: Custer County has one of the lowest population densities in the U.S., and the closest town—Westcliffe, Colorado—is home to about 1,000 souls, and is notable for its lack of fast-food franchises, or even a pharmacy. Sometimes I think wistfully, You know, a Walgreens would come in handy.
But I love it. I suppose I have a taste for the boonies, for the lack of crowds. Plus the landscape is very much a part of my life. Taylor Creek flows through my back yard, and I can hike out my door and up the mountain (as I did yesterday) to Rito Alto or Hermit Peaks, both above 13,000 feet. And I love my home, too: It’s an adobe house, not “tiny,” but at less than two thousand square feet, on the small side. I heat it with a wood stove, and utilize “passive solar” (which basically means the house is designed to catch the sun’s rays), so it’s also relatively “green.” But it’s hardly pristine. On any given day my daughter’s toys and stuffed animals are scattered here and there, and I’m always working on one project or another to spruce up the place, while trying to maintain a simple elegance, if that’s possible.
“Elegance” actually goes against the trend of most cabins in my neck o’ the woods. “Cabin style” tends to be much hokier than the New York Times would countenance. There seems to be a law that all lamps, light switches, and rugs be emblazoned with the shapes of moose, wolves, or bears. Cowboys with lariats and cowgirls with miniskirts and cutie-pie smiles are also de rigueur on sheets, hand-towels, and aprons. City-slicker relatives love to buy us some variation on the ever-popular “bear in a canoe” kitschy item, knickknacks that always cause my eyebrow to raise askance. I mean, I like bears, and I like canoes, but I don’t see how they go together. The bear always looks a bit foolish in the canoe, as if he’s embarrassed, too. My favorite is a bear lamp that features a rather inebriated bear leaning against a lamppost, looking for all the world like he’s coming home from a bender, leaning against the post to stop the world from spinning, and probably telling it how the missus at the den is going to give him hell for being out so late. The photos in the Times are nothing like what most of my neighbors’s homes look like. They show pristine, empty cabins, captured in lucid light. You can tell no one actually lives there.
At one point Kirn rhapsodizes about downsizing, having no closets. My mountain home actually has few closets—a couple downstairs, none upstairs—so I know whereof I speak: Closets come in handy. Without them, where do you put your clothes? All those Patagonia and North Face jackets, for instance? We hang our shirts and dresses from coat hangers on the bed canopy. Pegs come in handy. Our go-to jackets (which are Patagonia, I admit with some chagrin) hang from the coat rack by the front door—practical, but also necessary.
I’m actually a fan of the “tiny house” movement: my writing studio (also my woodshed) is twelve by twelve feet, roughly the size of Henry David Thoreau’s famous Walden pond cabin. Only Thoreau’s cabin is always pictured with a simple desk, a quill pen, and candle. Mine is filled with a desk (made from an old door laid upon two sawhorses), two chainsaws, an ax, a logsplitter (big, heavy ax), a kayak, life vests, backpacks, and a hundred other “things”—like my daughter’s rock collection, and her diminutive desk next to mine. These “things” are useful: We regularly go backpacking, and went river-rafting in Utah this summer. Downsizing is all fine and dandy, but is it too much to ask that I have a garage? Yes, it is. My relatives seem shocked that I can even exist without one.
But one aspect that is ignored (intentionally, I would guess) in the “cabin porn” myth that Kirn describes nicely is: the other souls in the boonies. I live on a hillside below Hermit Mountain (aptly named), with a dozen or so homes scattered around me, and more in the valley below, and I’d say most of the other homeowners are gun aficianados. The sound of gunfire in the aspens is a common thing: I always assume they’re target-practicing, and not just quarreling. Shootouts are frowned upon, as far as I can tell. (Imagine Jane Fonda in They Shoot Neighbors, Don’t They?) Colorado has a bipolar personality, politically and culturally. Although it’s certainly somewhat liberal (note the Retail Cannabis shops in our local towns), my county is predominantly Tea Party Republican. I’ve seen drunken men carrying guns in our local supermarket, although the post office has a sign on the door that it is strictly illegal to carry one inside while you’re checking your mail. Does the frequent sound of gunfire—while my daughter plays in the yard—freak me out, just a little? Yes, it does. But I’ve also become used to it. Most of my neighbors are nice people, and I have to trust they can hit their targets with some degree of accuracy, and not stray their bullets into “my space.” Some of the target practice gunfire occurs at the Christian conference center at the top of the hill, and it always makes me think: What would Jesus shoot?
But still: Although I’m a fan of the horror film Cabin in the Woods (2012) and its ilk, I’ve never met a backwoodsman anything like the threatening Mordecai in that film—with his toothless backwoods charm, an obvious urban stereotype.
Is life in the boonies—despite the random gunfire and gun kooks in the super—worth it? Absolutely. The aspen are already turning, scattering like yellow coins all across my five-plus acres of forest. I’ve had two sightings of an elusive Goshawk in my yard the last week, and hear Great Horned Owls nightly. Mule deer wander through the yard most every day, and I’ve heard Elk bugling behind my treehouse. There are many more bird calls than gunshots, and I can live with that. So here’s another photo of my mountains, god bless ‘em: