Home on the Ridge

Writing prompt “Tell us about a time that stands out in your mind where you felt the most connected to the place you live.”


Sun rises out the window over the bedroom and sets outside the dining room/kitchen table of my one-room cabin, with loft, where I live with my 4-year-old son, ostensibly for a year-long sabbatical from teaching college in Portland, Oregon.

I found this place, high on a ridge in Centennial Ranch, the summer before while searching for a place to live after years of summer rentals went bad: the last place hosted fragments of broken glass in the yard, garbage littering the dirt “lawn” of the manufactured home. Suddenly I became one of those annual Valley visitors in search of a “second” home.

When the realtor drove up Little Bad Hill on 5 miles of dirt road to the cabin, I thought: No way. No trees! But when I came to the little, isolated home, the symptoms of love-at-first-sight materialized. All on its own, with a drop-dead, head-on view of the Crestone Needle. Nothing in the way between the house and the Sangres. No trees.

Though I went on to look at other houses elsewhere – some surrounded by trees – I remembered again and again the cabin on the ridge, which hadn’t been lived in for many years. Off the grid, compost toilet, ostensibly plumbed but very rickety on that particular front. Seven-hundred-fifty square feet, including the rather large bathroom, which had a clawfoot tub – a sentimental attraction for my toddler and for me. No other home compared. Eventually, my sweet Oregon home – perfectly plumbed – would also pale in comparison.

I bought it, paid some well-respected carpenters to renovate it during the fall and spring so it would be ready for us the following summer, after a semester overseas and another back at college before my glorious year off, during which I planned to research and write my next book.

Thirty-five acres of sage, antelope trespassing daily, hawks and the occasional eagle greeted us that June, after my U-Haul got stuck on Big Bad Hill, and kind neighbors got it unstuck. Up on the ridge, it felt like the top of the world – so far from the madding crowds and all their noise, buildings and bother. We heard coyotes at night and learned to recognize the sound of phoebes nesting in the storage shed.

The first night, at 9100 feet, my son experienced a prodigious nosebleed, and I worried I’d made a horrible mistake, imagining the altitude would destroy his health. And we were so far from hospitals and doctors, a scary dirt-road slog for an ambulance.

But the opposite proved true. We spent years on that ridge, hearty and hale, habituating to the thin air along with our dog and resident voles, moles, mice and prairie dogs. I taught my son to hand-saw branches and scrap wood delivered by friends. We heated our dwelling with very small quantities of wood, discovering just how hot the loft became if we packed the stove.

After the initiatory bloody nose, none followed. We rarely got sick, though daily life could get hard when the solar power failed, and the water stopped flowing, as it did every winter, despite endless altering and replacing of PVC pipes; more and more insulation could not stop the freezing and breaking of a 30-year-old gerry-rigged system.

I shrugged. I learned the meaning of “hauling water,” and the practice of gathering snow and melting it on the woodstove – the pitiful ratio of fluffy snow to actual water.

True, I grew up in the suburbs, which I hated for their blandness. True, I’d lived in cities ever since, and never before thought about the magical way fresh water emerged from a spout with a twist of the wrist. But there, on the blissfully quiet ridge, where some nights our entertainment consisted of watching the theater outside our window: the endless shows of in-cloud lightning, punctuated by a soundtrack of thunder and cracks of lightning. I felt, for the first time, at home.

Visitors came from Oregon, from New York and elsewhere, marveling at how “far out” we lived, at the distance of our neighbors – out of sight but only a half-mile in multiple directions. “I could never live out here,” one said, then another, while acknowledging the splendor of the mountains, the silence of our surroundings.

More and more, I came to realize I could never live back where I used to live, beside those friends in urban neighborhoods, surrounded by human beings and buildings, no wild animals in sight, nights pricked by sirens and city sounds.

My son began his educational life in pre-school at Custer County. We rose at dawn, and I drove him to meet the bus at the intersection of Centennial Ranch Road and Highway 69 South. A few other families clustered to wait for the 6:30 a.m. arrival, the first morning of our daily ritual, to be repeated at pick-up at the end of the day, the routine in reverse, with my son telling me all about his days full of energy and other children.

So the year began, with a lovely rhythm allowing me to read, research, write, listen to tapes while hiking my land with the dog. I loved it so much I extended my sabbatical to an unpaid leave the following year, and then, after soliciting feedback from those I loved, quit my job, sold the Portland house and became a full-time Coloradan. “Second” house no more – I became a cabin-dweller, off-grid fan, serious dirt-road driver, finding community with other parents eventually, and neighbors, and the crowd at Candy’s Coffee, where I went to use the internet, initially. Later, I became one of her chief baristas, and the whole coffee-drinking clientele became my village.

Just this year, the book I began back in 2004 was – at last – accepted by a publisher. My son graduated college and came back for the summer, marveling at the small-town life he once inhabited, a rural respite before he heads across the ocean to Paris for graduate school. With gratitude, I stay home.