Becoming a Westerner

A few years ago, when I first realized I had become a Westerner, I was driving east on the dirt section of Park County Road 5, with Colorado’s Weston Pass in my rear view and Pikes Peak a distant wedge of white in the blue sky. Spring grass outlined an oval pond, and an empty paddock leaned into a small hill. Lucinda Williams crooned through the car speaker: “Come out West and see, the best that it could be.” I joined my voice with her drawl, vowels lengthening like snakes uncurling in the sun: “I know you won’t stay permanently, but come out West and see.” I didn’t know anything about permanence when I was eighteen, but I came to Denver from Florida on a one-way airline ticket.

Born in the nation’s capital, I spent my first fourteen years in a near-suburb of DC. I listened to my mother speak her native Icelandic, a language I never learned, while navigating the mystifying terrain of race in 1970’s America. I was sometimes the white girl on the outside of the circle in a mostly black neighborhood, and I was also the child of an immigrant who saw Americans as others. She might say, conspiratorially, American girls are so skinny or Americans don’t care about fashion or Americans don’t even know where Iceland is. She probably didn’t say, You belong here or You will find your place one day. But my confusion about my identity is my own, a byproduct less of my background, perhaps, than of my anxious tendency to hold myself apart from people and from communities I love, then grieve my sense of wounded exclusion.

I’ve never been one thing all the way, not the white girl I look like, not the American I sound like, and not the sane woman I impersonate. Where are you from? people ask when I meet them. My answer depends on who’s asking.  I grew up in  DC but my mother was from Iceland, I tell someone with a foreign accent. I grew up in DC but went to high school in Florida, I tell black folks, in part to explain how my voice automatically slows in their presence, dropping from a northern white cadence to the softer, warmer tone I associate with America’s south. In grammar school, I was immersed in African American English. My mother’s immigration from Iceland–and our family’s move to the DC suburbs–coincided with a wave of the Great Migration north from Jim Crow south. As a child I spoke, as my Uncle George pointed out, with a “black accent.” It is a way of speaking that feels both more natural and less foreign than my mother’s native language.

Claiming a definite geographic home, though, has never felt natural. But thirty years after moving to Denver, on a strip of road as familiar to me as the back of my hand, I suddenly stopped feeling like a visitor to the American west. My life in Denver expanded from loneliness in my late teens to college and love, then to a joint mortgage and co-parenting. Twenty-one years ago, when I was pregnant with our third son, we watched in awe with my parents as the logs of our Fairplay cabin were lifted into place over a concrete foundation that had washed out the summer before. Home is in the memories I have here, and home is the peacefulness of the mountains that has slowly smoothed out the rough edges of my chronic unbelonging.

As Lucinda and I sang, It’s over, I know it, but I can’t let go, I turned right at Fairplay’s only stoplight, then parked under the rodeo logo of Prather’s Market. The building’s brown cinder block walls soaked up meager spring warmth as I squinted into the sunlight beaming down from Mount Democrat. It took a long time for me to learn the names of some of these  peaks: Sheep Mountain, Mount Sherman, alpine crests in the shape of praying hands.

When my shopping  was done, I set plastic grocery bags into the back of my red Subaru wagon, its doors scratched by mountain bikes and ski poles. My hair hung loose around my face, and the wind lifted my cotton scarf while I loaded the last of my provisions.

As I plunked a jug of drinking water behind my passenger’s seat, a blue convertible BMW purred up alongside me, the top thrown open to the warming day. A white guy in a baseball cap, wearing an expensive-looking casual shirt. Speaking with the authority of the Pope saying mass, he told me, I saw a sign about a barbecue as I drove into town. The man’s confident bearing belied his confusion about what to do, where to go next. Was he asking me for directions?

I don’t know anything about that barbecue, I told him. You might ask in Prather’s. I bet they know where it is. I nodded with my chin toward the door behind him. He glanced briefly at the entrance, then turned back to me, hesitant. Nah, I’ll just drive around some more. As he zoomed off in his shiny toy, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. I was amused by the almost endearing arrogance of the Beemer guy, but my glee had a different source. As I got back in my car, I said aloud, I do believe I was mistaken for a local. Smiling in the sun-warmed driver’s seat, I turned on Marvin Gaye and headed back home, not north to Denver, but south, home to our cabin.

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Dad’s last visit to the cabin, circa 2008, next to the husband and the windows they framed out together.

Rejection, and Cursing the Drought

The more I write, the more rejection emails I receive. I feel a keen joy hearing back from editors who have read something I wrote closely enough to turn it down. My longest and most kindly-worded “no thanks” came from Brevity Magazine for the time-sensitive, thrice rejected piece below. (Four rejections for this one, if you count the deafening–and understandable–silence from a Colorado on-line newspaper that prints personal essays.)

Thanks, as always, for reading! Please do subscribe via email, post a comment, or just go on quietly with your day. I’ll be here writing and submitting and writing some more.

Cursing the Drought

Summer solstice wind rushes over the roof of our South Park cabin as the husband sleeps. I lie in bed and worry; there will be a fire soon, and it will be bad. On the carpet, our poodle Nyx has a bad dream—she whines and twitches. The wind calms, but before I can drift off to sleep, I suddenly overheat. The searing sensation moves through my lower back and climbs the knobs of my spine until it reaches the base of my skull. A florescent light flicks on in my head. Nighttime hot flashes are like sleeping on a soft electric skillet with a broken switch.

I curse the drought and demand rain.

In the morning, sunlight pounds the field where wildflower buds have hardened into dismal husks. So goes my mood. Seething wind chases me from room to room and chair to chair. Writing outside is impossible—the paper words blow away. I re-latch windows and sit on the bed, my jaw clenched, willing the gusts to stop and water to fall from the sky. But the rain won’t land. Stingy clouds drop only enough moisture to dampen dust into tiny mud balls. Brown splotches land on the deck and windows.

I curse the drought. I demand rain. I glower at the heavens.

June 29th, a spire of white smoke lifts straight into the sky just south of our place. I call 911. The operator tells me that if the fire is up toward Weston Pass, it’s been burning since yesterday. She sounds relaxed. We watch as helicopter-wasps buzz over the fire, fire for blog 2dropping mammoth buckets of liquid. Soon, hot air moves fast from the west, and the smoke darkens and reddens. I put down my binoculars and step out the back door, determined not to watch, not to worry. Nyx sniffs the air and refuses to walk with me, panting in the shade as a gust rattles dry aspen leaves. I go watch again:  the smoke has become its own swirling black hillside as desiccated conifers combust. We throw our bags into the car and drive back to Denver.

Rain, dammit, rain! I curse. I complain.

The internet offers a photo of the Weston Pass Fire, red flames licking through doomed trees as Jones Hill is consumed.  The fire took two hours to grow from a 50-acre lightning strike to a 1500-acre inferno. Two days later, it triples in size. It doubles yet again the following week, topping out at over 13,000 acres. Our cabin is just outside the mandatory evacuation zone, in a defensible field without evergreen. But I am obsessed with worry. I check the website hourly, day after day. I hate my privileged self-absorption, and I hate my helplessness. I don’t sleep. I can’t cry.

Here’s what happens when your prayer for rain becomes a profane demand: a bit of helpful moisture lands on the fire, but it brings with it a rare high-country tornado. Your peaceful retreat becomes a news video of a funnel cloud touching down in the middle of a raging wildfire.

Here’s the other thing that happens when the afternoon monsoons finally return:  the rain falls in torrents, and rocky mudslides block recently re-opened roads. But the fire is contained—we return in time to see the firefighters’ trailer-camp being towed away. The helicopters fly off into a wet afternoon sky. All summer, the air holds a gauzy curtain of haze from hundreds of western fires. Thirteen thousand acres burned in the local forest I love; a million and a half acres are scorched in California.

Walking near our cabin in August, I am startled by the sight of a white mushroom the size of a bowling ball. I sleep again, and I wake one morning to watch a herd of elk grazing green shoots. A burst of yellow appears at the top of an aspen. In September, more hot wind chases the rains away. Taking in our view on the fall equinox, I see the burn scar without flinching. I want it to snow this winter, but I request it gently, without cursing or demands. I know the heating planet will outlive me. Today, I’ll write in peace and hope to leave something good behind.