Notes from a Moab Trailer
What I learned about love, loss, and landscape over two decades of living in a 1961 Artcraft mobile home in the Utah desert
In 1993, while squandering a perfectly good college degree, I washed up on the shores of the Colorado River in the sweltering hamlet of Moab, Utah, and found work as a river guide and dishwasher. I was 22. I’d left San Francisco, where, like other English majors, I had hoped to find the writer’s life but instead worked bad jobs to pay rent, which back then was $350. Exorbitant, I thought. In the desert, I fell in with a circle of rock climbers, Jack Mormons, Navy vets, survivalists, earthen-home builders, truant teenagers, cowboys, a Broadway dancer, a Bryn Mawr art history major, and a petite international relations Ph.D. rowing rafts for $50 a day. Most of the people I knew drifted in for a season, hustled tips on the river or in diners, shacked up in tents and buses, then drifted off again.
I’d been invited to dinner at the home of one of my fellow guides, and when I stepped onto the creaky floorboards of the old cottage, I discovered a woman in jeans and sandals and a sleeveless shirt stirring soup on the stove. Her shoulders and hair were bronzed by the sun. She was tall and lean, with chiseled cheekbones, a square jaw, and flinty green eyes. She offered me a bowl of miso soup, and though I’d been raised in Los Angeles—I was no rube—I didn’t know what it was.
“Fermented soybean paste,” she said with a kind of irony, perhaps embarrassed to possess this knowledge.
It was delicious. To this day, whenever I have a bowl, I think it was she who invented it.
Wendy was a decade older than me and, unlike the rest of us, presented as an actual adult. She owned a business and a Toyota 4Runner and had worked on fishing boats in Alaska. I, meanwhile, lived in my station wagon and dated a 17-year-old. For most of the year, she stayed a few hours away, near Telluride, Colorado, living with a full-grown man named Buck, who had a beard and a braid down his back. Buck was an artist. Together, they had opened a shop on Main Street in Moab to sell his screen-printed shirts.
Wendy and I took a walk together one afternoon, high on a windswept red mesa studded with piñon and juniper. With the given name of Frances Wendell, she had a pedigree particular to the American West, unlike anyone I’d met in the suburbs of L.A. Her mother was a Seven Sisters blue blood who’d gone to a Montana dude ranch one summer in the 1950s and fell in love with a strapping son of the owners. She married and stayed there on a ranch on Hanging Woman Creek, a name so arch-western that not only could I not make it up, but Louis L’Amour chose it as a novel title. Wendy and her brothers moved from ranch to ranch, and she came of age in a settlement called Emigrant, in Montana’s Paradise Valley, where she rode her horse to school and was crowned rodeo queen. After getting a college education nearby, she found herself engaged to the scion of a cattle empire who listened to Bach in his Mercedes. Wendy spent the engagement clinically inseminating prize heifers and anticipating an entire life of the same.
Then the rodeo came to town.
Wendy met a clown. She described him to me as the desert breeze blew in her hair, her eyes glossy. “He had a Fu Manchu mustache and an eight ball of coke. We took off in a Porsche,” she said. “The next day, we were in Canada.”
In the summer of 1994, Wendy moved to Moab and bought an acre of land along a dirt road where a lazy creek twisted through a shallow valley. It was shaded by ancient cottonwoods and thick with fresh tumbleweeds, though at the time I couldn’t have said which was which. From a used trailer lot, she purchased a 1961 Artcraft mobile home for $2,500 that was ten feet wide and 57 feet long, a hull of sun-battered white aluminum. She placed it upon the land with its two doors opening to the creek and the tall, crooked trees.
Wendy embarked on a total renovation, pouring far more money into the trailer than its price. She hired a friend with a backhoe to lay a water main and a sewage line. She ran an underground gas line and electrical wire. I was hired to do odd jobs at $10 an hour.
To help with the construction—and also for style—she bought a 1965 Chevy pickup with a classic domed hood. Its original color was something like turquoise, but the decades had faded it to rust. Two bumper stickers read “Boulder Gun and Stock Shop” and “Try Love and Happiness.” A gun rack spanned the back window; Wendy stored a rifle there.
I remember in those days, among Wendy and the guys she hired, robust debate about where to put your gun. One guy mounted his handgun on the gas tank of his motorcycle, where it could be seen by a cop. “They treat you with respect when they see you’re packing,” he said. Wendy announced that she was going to end her illegal practice of stashing her handgun under the seat or in the glove box and instead latch a holster to the gearshift.
Now and then, Buck came to town. They’d go camping—he behind the wheel of the Chevy, Wendy sitting middle with her arm around him, his braid visible through the rear window, obscured only partly by the rifle.
As for me, I didn’t own a gun or a motorcycle. I was afraid of both. I had a truck, but it was just a little Toyota—low clearance, two-wheel drive. My parents had given me $7,000 to buy it after I’d wrecked my station wagon the year before, and it put me in a cycle of humiliation and never-ending adolescence. I needed the truck to be independent—I often slept in it, reading the fat hardbacks of Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot by headlamp—but felt like a spoiled shit because my parents bought it for me, even as I justified this with the fact that they had just inherited some money after the deaths of three grandparents. Driving the truck to Utah after buying it in L.A., I bought snow chains at a gas station at the base of a pass. I wanted to be the sort of man who is competent with chains and repairs, rough roads and icy curves, but I still saw myself as a child riding a skateboard on the smooth asphalt of sunny subdivisions. I considered hiring a mechanic to put them on. My pride forbade it. Reading the instructions in the blowing blizzard, I managed to affix the chains to the front tires. It wasn’t until months later that I learned they needed to be on the rear tires. Even though the California tags were good for six more months, I got Utah license plates as soon as I landed in Moab. I could just roll into town and become someone else.
The mechanical incompetence was just the start: there was a lot to dislike about myself. I had a downturned mouth and watery eyes, and people always asked what was wrong, was I sad about something? Having skipped first grade, I may have been the smartest kid in my class, but I was also the smallest, and I rode the bench during soccer and baseball games. My older brother, Richard, could knock a baseball out of the pony league park and the teeth out of a bully, while all I could do was swat junior varsity tennis balls and win first prize in an essay contest about the Sandinista conflict.
The girls loved Richard. They snuck into the backyard, giggling, nursing bottles of Boone’s Farm, rapping on his glass door. When I got to high school, standing a spindly five foot four, the girls in my grade, who were partying with him, began to call me, with real affection, Little Richard.
Wendy’s trailer came from an era before plastic, when the boatbuilders of World War II had been redeployed to build these land yachts. While the exterior looked like basic trailer park junk, the interior maintained a certain shipliness. In the front room—farthest forward if it were being hauled down the highway—large windows faced north, east, and south, making the tiny chamber feel airy. Miniature aluminum handles cranked the panes outward. Walls and ceiling were paneled with lacquered plywood, aged to a golden honey, the brass screws spaced every few feet, each emitting the slightest black stain. The corners housed built-in bookshelves of the same wood grain, trimmed with scallop-cut molding, adding to the beached-nautical sensation. Mounted on the ceiling was an antiquey copper-shade lamp with a cut-glass globe. The cabinet handles and hinges were hammered copper, die-cut into the shape of spades. Even tiny details—the square-headed copper screws—exuded a sense of craftsmanship, or at least a type of factory excellence that has long since been lost. I felt pleasantly trapped at the captain’s table in the cabin of a rickety sloop.
The captain’s chambers opened through sliding doors into a kitchen that featured the same cabinets, but the room had been defaced with stained yellow linoleum and decrepit countertops. The other rooms had disintegrated to what you’d expect for a $2,500 home.
If my own story felt phony, the second-best way to be authentic was to be close to people whose stories felt real. Wendy had such a story.
With Buck not around to help, Wendy hired a friend and me to lay Mexican Saltillos on the bathroom floor, each corner trimmed to make space for diamond-shaped tiles of hand-painted wildflowers. Despite my bookishness, I had grown to be six feet tall and worked summers as a house painter and gained enough aptitude around tools to not be totally useless. After a season rowing rafts on the Colorado River, my shoulders had grown broad and brown, and after two seasons I had finally learned to stand up straight. As for my stupid face, I hid it with a sun-bleached beard and wraparound sunglasses and a baseball hat that said “GOOD YEAR.”
We installed a porcelain pedestal sink, a shiny white toilet, and a sleek corner shower with a swinging glass door. Wendy laid wood floors in the kitchen and captain’s room, tiling the counters and backsplashes with earth-tone squares. But her pièce de résistance was the humble living room, which she transformed into something like a Wild West bordello. Wendy covered the walls with fabric—not wallpaper, but actual cloth—an old-timey pattern of dusty pink roses on sandy linen, offset with a wainscoting of rough-cut boards. She trimmed the windows and door with the same rustic lumber, textured the ceiling with white plaster, and paneled an accent wall with tongue-in-groove pine.
I never asked where the money came from. Wendy didn’t live high, but she never seemed to run out of cash. It would be many years before I realized that a person running a T-shirt shop in Moab was not making money so much as losing it. I wondered if there was a money nest in her family tree, but I never asked.
As the summer cooled, I landed an off-season job managing campsites at the Slickrock bike trail. Wendy moved into the trailer, and I moved from a garage into a house. I fell for a local woman I’ll call Z, who was raising a two-year-old daughter. The dad was long gone. One night, early on, lounging in bed, she asked what kind of woman I wanted to marry. Either because we had real candor or because I was a jerk, I blurted out Wendy’s name.
“But she’s already taken,” I added. “And probably too old for me anyway.”
What I meant by old was that she would only choose real men like Buck or the rodeo clown. Despite my Utah license plates and emerging triceps, I was still a sensitive bookworm. While getting a literature degree at Stanford in the early nineties, I had wanted to be a writer, but now I renounced the idea, or at least wouldn’t admit to it, intent on mastering the manual arts instead. If my own story felt phony, the second-best way to be authentic was to be close to people whose stories felt real. Wendy had such a story.
In Moab, Halloween marked the end of the tourist season, a big blowout for all the guides and waiters leaving for work in ski towns or launching treks to Mexican beaches and a pivot toward domesticity for those of us staying the winter. There were outrageous parties with elaborate costumes. Z and I dressed as a priest and a nun, she in heels and fishnets and a tight black skirt below her habit, me with eyeliner and lipstick and a flask with which I’d offer communion. We stopped at the trailer to pick up Wendy, and I introduced them. Wendy was dressed as a builder: work boots, jeans, tool belt, flannel shirt. She poured wine and showed us around. It was the first time there weren’t power tools buzzing and sawdust drifting. In the living room she had hung an oil painting of cowboys roping cattle. She said the name of the artist, but I didn’t know it.
“Well, according to my mother, he’s very famous,” she said with a laugh. “It’s worth a whole lot more than this trailer.”
A broken dinner plate sat on the counter. Wendy picked up two jagged pieces, held them together, set them down. “I’m saving these for when Buck gets here so he can feel useful.”
She turned to Z. “You’re even more gorgeous than Mark told me.”
Z took a long pull of wine, her face flushed. “Mark said if he ever got married, it would be to someone like you.”
“Oh!” Wendy said. We drank quickly from our glasses. Wendy looked at Z and Z looked at me and I looked at Wendy.
“Should we get going?” I said.
As the snow fell, Z and I had midnight fights where she stormed out of my house, screen door rattling, and walked home barefoot on empty streets while I idled the truck beside her, begging her to get in. She never did.
That winter, Wendy told me she was selling the T-shirt shop and going back to Alaska for her old job on the fishing boat. We were sitting on a couch on the porch of my house, rolling cigarettes and passing them back and forth, watching the Milky Way brighten in the black sky, when she leaned over and planted a kiss on my lips. I pulled her toward me. She popped open a shirt button and ran a hot hand across my chest. And then. She drove off in her truck.
She went back to Colorado the next day. A few months later, she broke up with Buck and made her way to Alaska, alone. I didn’t fight for her to stay. I was too shallow to understand that, mixed in with all the desire, were the feelings that I now recognize as love.
I didn’t hear from her. I had flings with other women, but nobody equaled her. Unable to maintain a relationship, I got a dog, a heeler mutt puppy I saw in a cardboard box at the supermarket. I named her Sadie. When Wendy returned a year or so later, she was with a new guy, a fisherman, long hair and a beard, engaged to marry. He was the same age as me.
Wendy bought her land from a guy who had scooped up 15 acres and built a home with a swimming pool and an orchard. He stipulated in Wendy’s deed that she build a permanent home and not accumulate a compound of houses on wheels.
And this had been Wendy’s intention. But now she and her husband, Jason, bought a house in Alaska. They planned to spend winters in Moab and devised a solution that would follow the spirit if not the letter of the covenant. Instead of building an actual house, she would make the trailer look like one.
In the winter of 1996, she and Jason installed a pitched roof of green tin on top of the existing flat tar roof. They built a wooden porch with a rough-cut pergola, where on mild days they could gaze at the towering old trees. But the element that was architecturally significant: they clad all four sides with cedar shake shingles, transforming the dusty white aluminum into something both rustic and avant-garde.
I received an invitation to Wendy’s wedding in Alaska, but I didn’t go. The flight was too expensive, I told myself. We fell out of touch. Now 26, I moved back to L.A. to publish a magazine and go to grad school and write a book, a series of desert sketches, about which I kept silent as I spent summers in Moab working for Outward Bound, leading expeditions through rivers, canyons, and mountains. One night at the Rio Cantina, I found myself dancing with a girl I’ll call Q, who knew Wendy and who was spending the weekend at her place. She blew hot encouragement into my ear and invited me up for breakfast the next day. The trailer was pulling me into its orbit.
Sitting out on the porch, Q told me about a time she’d been waiting tables in New Orleans, serving a group of college kids. One of the boys said something lewd and then stiffed her, so she chased them to the street and pelted their car with wine glasses. She had grown up poor in a crumbling city where all the white families had long since fled, and after quitting high school she’d drifted around ski towns and the desert, pouring cocktails and falling in love. Here was someone who lived with the passion and risk I knew only from Kristofferson records and The Sun Also Rises. I saw in her a kind of redemption for my cushioned upbringing. She went home to Salt Lake City that day, commencing a volley of flirty postcards between us.
A few months later, Christmas of 1998, Q flew out to see me in California; I tied a red ribbon around Sadie’s neck and sneaked the dog into the airport to greet her. I had just finished writing my book in my garage-top apartment by the beach. Back at my place, she announced that she had decided to have sex with only one more man. She didn’t believe in birth control. I’d better be serious. I told her we’d wait until we were sure. For now, we laid a cotton blanket on the living room floor to see how our skin felt on it.
“What about this,” I said. “Allowed?”
“Yes, but me on top.”
We moved to the bed and drank red wine and blew cigarette smoke out louvered windows that even in winter didn’t have to be closed. She pounded little fists on my bare chest.
“What’s inside there? Why are you holding it in?”
“I’ve never been in love,” I said. “I want to.” I was afraid of falling for someone as conventional as me, waiting to forge some classless path of the rough-hewn romantic. Now I leaped.
For what seemed like weeks, I read her the entire desert manuscript as we lay there. “You got dust in my mouth,” she murmured.
Q was not much of a reader, but the praise from this reckless woman and her pounding heart was all I’d ever sought. I wanted to be a writer without ever admitting that I wanted to be a writer, and now I’d won a wild soul who didn’t give a shit about books, proof to me that my book transcended the embarrassing bookish parts of books.
If our peculiar abstinence was supposed to slow our free fall, it did the opposite, like snipping a flowering vine only to cause its lesser stems to shoot out a thousand new blossoms.
Still, Wendy was on my mind. I wrote to her: “You’re off the hook. For so long, when I made a list in my head of women I wanted to marry, you were on top, but now you don’t have to worry, because I’ve met someone else who has displaced you.”
She replied in a hasty scrawl on five pages of scratch paper stuffed into an envelope, wishing me the best: “When I got married, the only hesitation was wondering what might have happened between you and me.”
As soon as Q left, I drove out to Salt Lake City to see her. At a party with her friends, we were the only ones dancing. She led me in a smoky tango through the kitchen, nuzzled against my cheek, then took me across the living room, where we collapsed on the sofa and howled for another song and sucked from the same bottle of beer.
One night, she left me waiting alone for hours at her cottage. I almost called the police to ask about car accidents. I furiously packed my truck, only to quickly unpack it. She stumbled home from drinking with her boss from the diner who wanted to leave his wife for her and also lend her a couple thousand dollars. I told nobody. I felt a chunk of lead hardening in my chest.
Another night, when she whispered that it was time to end our prohibition, I told her I didn’t want her to break the promise she’d made to herself. It sounded true. We flew back and forth for the next few months. During a visit to Salt Lake, the day before I was supposed to go home, she dumped me. She didn’t want to be tied up, she said, she wanted to be single, but that was impossible, because she loved me.
In a moment of inopportune timing, Wendy was passing through town on the same day. Q insisted that she stay the night. Wendy said she’d call from a pay phone when she got close.
Q and I were naked and watery-eyed when the phone rang. If we missed Wendy’s call, she would simply keep driving. On the fifth ring, Q leaped out of bed and picked up.
But it wasn’t Wendy. It was some guy Q had met snowboarding the week before. She took the phone into the living room.
Wendy finally did arrive, Q and I made her dinner, saying nothing about our breakup hours before. In the morning, Q went to work and Wendy drove me to the airport to catch my flight home. I filled her in, the part about Q loving me too much to be with me. I didn’t tell her about the night she stood me up. Or about the snowboarder.
“Well, if you miss your flight,” she said, “I could just drive you back to California.”
I got on the plane.
The upshot of seeing Wendy was that when I moved back to Moab in that summer of 1999, age 28, she rented me the trailer for $300 a month. I wouldn’t trouble her with complaints but would do any repairs myself.
I woke each night at 3 A.M. with my lungs clenched and visions of Q in my head. She’d been seen in Moab with that snowboarder. Now and then I’d call and tell her how she betrayed me. I wallowed in the fantasy of my unrequited longing.
The story I told myself eventually unraveled. I replayed the memories. That night she offered herself to me: I hadn’t declined out of some sense of chivalry. It was because, even as every molecule burned to make a child with her, I couldn’t envision us raising the thing. All I could see us doing was smoking in bed and engineering increasingly innovative paroxysms. Which was what I thought love was.
Q already saw me more clearly than I did. I had shown her my heart, and she’d seen the cautious vanity I couldn’t hide. In the future I wouldn’t be so embarrassed to be a delicate writer, and I would treasure the exchange of ideas about literature and writing with a woman. But not yet. I still couldn’t see past my own delusion.
Now the trailer was my home. When the river season ended, I woke each morning and made a cup of tea and hurried to the captain’s cabin, where, usually clad in a down parka because the laborious furnace didn’t push hot air all the way to that end of the trailer, I sat down and wrote.
If our peculiar abstinence was supposed to slow our free fall, it did the opposite, like snipping a flowering vine only to cause its lesser stems to shoot out a thousand new blossoms.
Out the window, I watched fresh green tumbleweeds grow up and over the hood of Wendy’s 1965 Chevy, abandoned in the deep sand that served as a driveway. They covered most of the acre. Also known as Russian thistles, the invasive weeds thrive in the desert during summer monsoons and fall storms. At first they’re beautiful: the green ribs of an enormous kettle; spindly lattices woven together; two, three, even five feet tall. But as they sit unharvested over winter, they grow brown and brittle, sharp to the touch, and as the spring winds howl, the minuscule root is dislodged and the husk rolls away, just like you see in the movies. On the open range, they just keep rolling to the horizon, but at my place, they rolled only as far as the neighbor’s wire fence, where they piled up in impenetrable drifts, not before dropping thousands of seeds that lay in wait for the next rains.
As for that truck sunk in sand to the axle: Wendy said if I could get it to run, I could keep it. Wild Man Jimmy helped me install a new starter, and now I had a rig that could fit seven kayaks for a hot summer’s day jaunt to the river.
I took up with a six-foot-one river guide named Slim, who drove a 1972 Ford truck and sang like Tammy Wynette. I told her I was too wounded for love. She said that was OK because she preferred to be single, and we drove across the creek to Susie’s Branding Iron to karaoke, where she sang “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and I sang “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can.” Although, like me, she came from the California suburbs, Slim equally embraced the scuffed boots and sheepskin coats. Our romance could find no more glorious set than a rickety trailer.
Like so many insecure 29-year-olds, I had thought falling in love with some volatile sprite of a woman might make me more of who I wanted to be. But with Slim, neither of us was the other’s fantasy. We adopted a Merle Haggard number as our anthem:
And I don’t have to wonder who she’s had.
No, it’s not love, but it’s not bad.
Each morning, as I lay half-awake, the lines and paragraphs filled my head. When I reached a page or so, I rushed to the captain’s cabin, where I flipped on the old desktop and transcribed what had arrived, stopping only to brew a bag of Lipton, which were always free for the taking at the end of my Outward Bound courses.
Slim observed this behavior, kissing me on the cheek on her way out the door, then one morning made a proposal. “One day you’re going to have an actual girlfriend,” she said, “and you’re going to want to impress her with your manners after she’s spent the night with you. What if you were to offer her a cup of tea, too?”
I was a quick study. The next morning, as the Mac whirred to life, I brewed two cups with my special blend of cream and honey. I presented them on the counter as proud as a schoolboy. Slim could only laugh. My cup was ceramic. Hers was plastic. To go.
I spent that winter managing an Outward Bound base camp in Baja California and returned to Moab just in time for publication of my book. I took my first book tour through the Southwest and continued to work 23-day expeditions. Meanwhile, Slim worked three months at a time, in the Utah canyons, the Arizona crags, the Sea of Cortez. The next winter, I returned to Mexico to research my second book. We always found one another back in the trailer. With scraps of rough lumber, I had assembled a sturdy bed frame, topped with a mattress and box spring from the going-out-of-business sale at the Prospector’s Lodge. When our entanglements atop it caused Slim’s head to bang on the ceiling light fixture, I industriously dragged the frame out to the dirt and sawed eight inches from each leg.
One day on the phone, we lamented that we couldn’t see each other, because she was marooned at a base camp 200 miles away with no car. I went out to the bar and came home to find that Slim had hitchhiked to the trailer, let herself in, and gone to bed.
With the old trucks and the dusty Wranglers and the creaky mobile home, I could continue to fancy myself as something other than a private college English major, but now I fine-tuned my image to that of a windblown loner without roots, a tumbleweed, the type of guy in a Sam Shepard movie where outcasts loved and fought in low-rent motels at desert’s edge. I’d damn near memorized the monologue from Paris, Texas, which Shepard cowrote with L.M. Kit Carson. In the film, Harry Dean Stanton’s character, who has wandered for years alone across the badlands and forgotten how to talk, tracks down his lost lover—played by Nastassja Kinski, wow—who’s now working behind mirrored glass in some grim Houston peep show. Having relearned to speak, he tells her a story:
“I knew these people. These two people. They were in love with each other.” He can see her, but she can’t see him, and it’s been so many years that she doesn’t know his voice. After a few minutes of hard-boiled Americana verse in which he recounts their torrid flame, Stanton drops a telling detail: “He’d yell at her and break things in the trailer.”
“In the trailer?” she says, a note of recognition.
“Yes, they lived in a trailer home.”
I was coming to learn that I couldn’t handle the damn-the-consequence way that a Shepard character lived and fell in love. What I wanted was to be Sam Shepard himself, to write about smashed hearts from the stable view of relative sanity.
The trailer was shaded by cottonwoods, accessed by a single dirt road that required forging the creek since there was no bridge. The bottomland was a patch of Old Moab bypassed by New Moab. In the decade I’d been there, the mom-and-pop motels and diners and crusty old miners were replaced by bistros and subdivisions and a corridor of soulless chain hotels. On either side of me, new homes and condos rose out of the sagebrush. But down here were only a dozen homes, most of them dilapidated doublewides flanked by junk cars, sheds, and motor homes with extension cords snaking into the windows. I turned 30 at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and when I came home, the tumbleweeds around the trailer were thick and tall enough to swallow a man. Like my romantic fantasies, they were pretty at first and quick to multiply. And while they thrived, nothing permanent could take root.
I set out to clear the weeds.
Tumbleweeds are best pulled when green, before they shed seeds and stickers, but it takes muscle, kneeling in the thorns and gripping the base of the stem. They inflict welts. I learned to wear long pants and long sleeves and a hat and sunglasses. Weeding became an essential component of writing. I would write all morning, step outside and pull for an hour, then return to my desk, refreshed. But there’s only a short time window when they’re green. Mostly I wouldn’t get around to it until they were brown and brittle and had to be dislodged with a rake. I invested in a propane weed torch, starting ferocious wildfires 15 feet tall, greasy black clouds belching embers toward the uninsured tinderbox of the cedar-shingled trailer.
Having beaten back the wall of tumbleweeds, I began to plant. Two shrubs: an Apache plume and a New Mexico privet. Two vines: a clematis and wisteria, which I imagined would one day crawl over the pergola and shade the window.
I drove around town to friends’ houses and dug up volunteer trees and loaded them into the back of the Chevy and brought them home. A cottonwood, a mimosa, a catalpa, and a reed of a sycamore, which I’d paid $10 for in a splurge. I ran a drip line on a timer.
During those years, the second book was written, as well as my first glossy magazine stories. I worked and reworked a story about a rudderless young man inhabiting a desert trailer who misspent his days in a mystical hunt for fossilized dinosaur bones and was rather hopelessly in love with an unavailable older woman who had once broken her engagement to an aristocrat by running off with a rodeo clown. It swelled from short story to novella to a full-blown novel, never to be published. What it lacked in merit it made up for in lessons.
To me, that is. Reading it years later would reveal my tendency to dwell in daydreams, to idealize one woman on the page while she carried on life with her husband, all the while diminishing the love I was actually in. It’s not love, but it’s not bad. I was now past 30 and had never really had a girlfriend, never been monogamous for more than a few months.
Slim and I had fallen hard and unexpectedly for one other. At the Branding Iron, she sang “Stand by Your Man” and led me in a duet of “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” But this didn’t stop me from pining for others, only now we’d changed the rules so that we had to tell each other. So, when I met a girl who’d graduated from the same fancy college as Wendy’s mother and was a mountain guide who wove her rough cloth with a literary lace (she wrote in her diary in French), I told Slim of my plan to pursue her. And I saw that, for the first time, I’d hurt her. We never recovered.
My third summer in the trailer, 2002, Outward Bound shipped me to Alaska to lead glacial mountaineering and whitewater trips. Slim sent me a Dear John inside a poster tube, along with a cottonwood stick she had collected from my place, complete with a set of bite marks left there by my dog. She had met someone else.
When I came back from Alaska, all my trees but the catalpa were dead. I threw myself a 32nd birthday party and invited Slim, but she didn’t show. Tumbleweeds rioted where the emitters dripped. I pulled them again, and in their place planted spirea and forsythia, a silver maple, and a purple leaf plum.
During a break from guiding that summer, I set out to visit Wendy. She was eight months pregnant. I got a ride to Anchorage, then flew to Juneau, where I boarded the ferry to Sitka, a ten-hour cruise. The galleys for my second book had just arrived, and as I sat out on the deck, mist rose from the banks of spruce while I pored over the pages with a red pen.
Over the years, Wendy and I had spoken regularly on the phone. Usually it had to do with some property issue: where to place the ready-made shed, how to winterize the pipes, or who would sublet when I was in Mexico. Every month, I slid my check for $300 minus repairs into an envelope and mailed it to Sitka.
During the ferry trip, what I should have been contemplating was how our friendship had come to resemble a kind of marriage. I didn’t yet know that a marriage is, in addition to a romantic and carnal match, an economic relationship built on trust. One partner might contribute more of the money; the other might do more of the labor. In our case, I was doing countless hours of unpaid work on the trailer, while Wendy was undercharging on the rent and letting me sublet at will as I jetted around the continent. She had become my patroness, enabling my writer’s life, letting me live alone in a secluded spot where I didn’t have to work half the year. Our arrangement required that neither or us lie or cheat or get greedy. And it worked.
But that sense of trust was not what I contemplated as the ferry approached Sitka. She had mentioned that her husband would be out on the boat, fishing for a few days. And it struck me, less as a desire and more as a worry, that I’d never been the home-wrecking type.
I turned 30 at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and when I came home, the tumbleweeds around the trailer were thick and tall enough to swallow a man. Like my romantic fantasies, they were pretty at first and quick to multiply. And while they thrived, nothing permanent could take root.
After the ferry docked, I walked down the gangplank. Wendy was waiting there on the dock, full-bellied, trailing two dogs, waddling toward me. She looked radiant in the rare swath of sunlight that escaped the day’s sea clouds. She drove us to their cottage, where I recognized her handiwork as decorator.
The pregnancy had only burnished her beauty. I felt a stirring of a kind of love that I can best describe as magical. We would not be together during this life. There was a glow between us that would glow into the next world. What surprised me about this feeling was that I had never believed in another world. I’ve since learned of a Buddhist cosmology that sees the universe as an infinite number of alternate realms, stacked like dinner plates, each containing a world slightly different than the one we know, each a result of our different choices. Although these theories were devised centuries ago, they seem to explain why the universe is constantly expanding.
There in Sitka, I imagined my life with Wendy on one of those cosmic plates. I didn’t feel heartbroken. I was happy she was married and living in an Alaskan fishing village, about to have a baby girl. I was happy, too, that in some other corner of the galaxy, she and I were passionately betrothed in our trailer.
Yes, they live in a trailer home.
Early in 2003, Wendy sold me the land and trailer. I had always thought of home ownership as an activity for husbands and wives with children. But I’d come this far alone, and who knew what came next? I was a bachelor in a town of 5,000 people, with just a handful of single women, many of whom I had already burned a bridge with. The trailer’s surviving trees were slim reeds, and I would be 50 by the time they cast any shade.
I traveled and met women and invited them back to the desert with the promise of the windblown trailer amid the tumbleweeds and the youngish author and his heeler who dwelled inside. Results were mixed. Like Merle put it: every front door found me hoping I would find the back door open.
My roots failed to sink into the soil. I lived in Alaska, Vermont, New York City, and finally, in the summer of 2005, Missoula, Montana, where a bunch of my friends had migrated. As I packed up some belongings in the trailer on the way to Montana, I gave Wendy a call. Turned out she was visiting her mother in Billings. She wanted one item: the cowboy painting. We met at the old ranch where her dad grew up, out on Hanging Woman Creek by Crow Agency. She introduced me to her daughter, who was three and looked just like her.
We walked along the creek under the cottonwoods. By now she was 45, and her eyes crinkled when she smiled. My face was dotted with sunspots, hair receding high on my forehead. Somehow the topic turned to having an affair. Not with each other, just in general. All these years later, it seems impossible that this turn wasn’t suggestive or flirtatious, but that’s not how I remember it. It was just Wendy talking bluntly about being married.
“It would just be too much work!” she said. “And such a hassle! I mean, we own these houses together, and boats, and a business, to say nothing of having a daughter. I just don’t see how people could do it.”
I asked her about the time she kissed me on the porch couch. I still wasn’t clear how we’d missed each other. It should not have surprised me that, like Q, she had seen things more clearly than I had.
“I was interested,” she said. “But you were running around with all these girls who were 15 years younger than me. I just felt so old and silly.”
I became an absentee landlord. I did only the bare maintenance on the trailer yet fretted about the foliage. A renter reported that the silver maple appeared sick, so I called a gardener friend; she reported that the drip emitter was merely clogged. Too late. The tree died. I’d email the tenants to say that a heat wave was on the way and could they check the lines and turn up the water. Or I’d call on a Friday night at nine and ask them to unhook the timers because I’d seen that it was supposed to freeze. I visited once or twice a year, beating back the tumbleweeds with a torch and rake. It was during these years that someone christened the place the Shinglewide. The name stuck.
My absence meant a low survival rate for the plants. I mourned each brittle twig choked by goatheads. In a devastating blow, my flowering plum tree with purple leaves—just outside the window, just beginning to cast shade on the shingles—died after a cold snap. My land seemed to reject efforts to settle it. Perhaps it sensed that my heart was elsewhere. But when I visited the next spring, in 2006, a small miracle had unfurled. The plum sent up a robust and mysterious new trunk, with green leaves instead of red. I learned that the ornamental species had originally been grafted onto a sturdier rootstock at the nursery. A new tree, not the one I thought I’d planted, was reborn.
I married a Montana girl. Not Wendy, of course, but one who’d grown up in a barn and been homeschooled in the woods, and who, every time she walked outside, seemed to pick up an arrowhead or an owl feather or a tiny toad.
By then I was close to 40 and knew that you don’t love someone merely for her story, but habits die hard and I couldn’t resist the allure of her biography. A botanist by trade, Cedar could identify all the weeds and native grasses on the western range. She sang and fiddled and spat tobacco and also marched against the WTO in Seattle and wrote a book of poems about love and frost that made me swoon and crack. Biking along back roads, she stopped to carry roadkill birds and squirrels into the woods, where she covered them with leaves and pine needles and said small blessings. On our first date, we camped in a tepee in a town called Hot Springs, soaked for hours in the tub, walked to the bar in a drizzle, and two-stepped to Johnny Cash on the jukebox, then sat around the campfire, where she rolled cigarettes and we exchanged songs of marital homicide: “Delia’s Gone” for me and “Cold Rain and Snow” for her. The first time she saw the trailer, she made wry comments about my attempts at horticulture.
When my 15-year-old dog lay down to die, Cedar suggested that we not take her to the vet. Instead she arranged a bed of blankets and pillows on the living room floor, where we sat for Sadie’s last hours, burning candles and singing prayers. I was washing dishes when she called to me: “Come now. It’s happening.” We kneeled and lay our hands on her coat as she drifted away.
Not long after that, as we skied through the backcountry, I bent onto one knee and proposed. In retrospect, I should have taken the skis off first, because the maneuver was awkward, and unlike in the movies, Cedar said she needed to think about it. Also unlike the movies, the precise inspiration for this spontaneous act was not a burst of romance but a welling irritation at my shallowness. I now knew that the love I’d sought wasn’t something for which you waited and waited to arrive, but something you created when you made a promise.
By then I was close to 40 and knew that you don’t love someone merely for her story, but habits die hard and I couldn’t resist the allure of her biography.
In the fall of 2018, I drove up to Moab alone. Cedar and I had been together for a decade. We had trekked around Nepal twice, lived three months in our car on Mexican beaches, moved to Colorado for her poetry degree, and were now in Albuquerque, New Mexico, both teaching creative writing at a university. She was visiting a friend and would arrive the next day. I drove across the creek with those yellow leaves quivering overhead, and before unloading a single item, I hurried from shrub to tree, holding the leaves between my fingers, whispering words. Then I called Wendy.
I could tell by the upness of her tone that she had not heard the news.
“We had a baby boy,” I told her. “He died the same day.”
One reason I’d fallen in love with my wife was the mystical way she inhabited the spirit world, the calm and wisdom with which she faced death, but I did not think I would witness it with our own child. Even through the howling and weeping, the days where I just wanted to get rid of his body—cremate it, bury it, I didn’t really care—she swaddled him in knit blankets, anointed him with oils, wrapped his wrists and neck with holy beads.
I had also learned a lot about my friends when my son died. Some disappeared. Some pointed fingers at the doctors and midwife. Others jumped on planes to grieve with me. And that was what I wanted. Not etiquette or “space” or outrage, but someone who could join me in the only place I inhabited: sorrow.
Wendy broke down and sobbed. I lowered myself to the splintered front steps and cried into my phone with her. She told me that before her daughter was born, when she was 39, she had miscarried. She had thought that was her one chance, her last chance, and then, not long after that, she was pregnant again.
Cedar arrived the next night. It was my 48th birthday. On her way into town, she stopped for groceries. A lifelong vegetarian, she bought a steak. In the morning, she took a test. Another baby was on the way.
Out there on one of those cosmic plates, Silver’s birth went differently: The cord did not get pinched, his heart did not stop, the machines saved him. He lives with his parents, toddling along the porch of the trailer.
Yes, they live in a trailer home.
The Shinglewide was vacant when the pandemic began. Our second son was nine months old. There had been no cases reported in Moab and only a handful in New Mexico, and yet it seemed that any day they could shut the borders between states. We drove up to Utah while we could.
On a warm March afternoon, we arrived with bags of rice and a 20-pound burlap sack of pinto beans. We carried Bodie down through the cottonwoods and the thatch of Russian olives to the creek gurgling over mossy stones. The catalpa was 30 feet tall, ready to emit a thousand white flowers. The green-leafed plum was thriving. The sycamores were spindly, not hardy enough for the cold winters. I introduced him to the spirea, the skunk brush, the rabbit brush. No leaves had emerged yet, but I let him hold each stalk in his fingers. The Apache plume, forsythia, wisteria, privet. He clutched the white bark of the sycamore.
The forsythia blossomed first, early April, bright yellow flowers on bare branches. As the days warmed, we strung a hammock in the thicket by the creek and swung our son. The almond tree bloomed later that month, and still we did not go home to Albuquerque. I cannot say if our baby was at risk from the virus, but I could not be persuaded to take him out of isolation. He was safe here with us at the trailer.
As May began, before leaves had returned to most trees, a heat wave swept through. I pushed Bodie in his stroller along the bumpy dirt road to where it crossed the creek, then turned around and returned home, peeking under the canopy to see that he was asleep. I parked him beside the kitchen window, beneath the plum that had died and come back as another tree. I eased onto the cracked wooden steps and watched my son’s chest rise and fall, his toes twitch, as he lay sheltered in the spreading shade.