Illustration by Carly Larsson
It was late in the afternoon the first time my husband and I drove Vaughn Creek Road, a gravel logging road, toward what would become our house. The road twisted for nearly a mile beneath a canopy of tangled fir and oak limbs and flashing sunlight. A broken gate guarded the entrance to a clearing. There, atop a gentle slope, stood the house, a split level Craftsman with two protruding chimneys. It had an array of broken windows and a sticky mud-brown paint job. A small blue truck was parked in the driveway, the windshield clouded and lined with moss. The house and its 10 acres had been abandoned for almost a year, and blackberry bushes circling its perimeter threatened to reclaim it. As my husband and I peered inside through a window, a warm glow met me from a lamp in the living room. It had been left in an attempt to mimic occupation, but to me it was a beacon in the darkness, confirming we had finally found what we were looking for.
“Do you hear anything?” I whispered, afraid my normal voice would sound like a shout in the silence of the mountaintop.
My husband paused and looked around, listening. “Nothing.”
I smiled at him. “Nothing.”
When my daughter was born earlier that year, my husband and I began to feel restless in our little corner of suburbia in Eugene. We became obsessed with any home or travel show involving homesteading, country living or making it in the wild, such as Alaska: The Last Frontier and House Hunters International. It was thrilling to imagine we could strike out on our own amongst nature, to grow food from our farm to our table, to work hard and live simpler. If the people on television could do it, why not us? My heart knew it was possible. That is, if we could find a house with broad enough shoulders for our dreams.
The oak trees were bare when we moved in. It was a time of adjustment for us all as the house seemed to toil at our sudden arrival, roused from its sleep like a roaring giant. Almost immediately the water heater leaked, flooding the cellar lined with shelves of unidentifiable jams, jellies and the occasional mouse. Creatures that had taken residence scuttled around the attic whenever I turned on the bathroom fan. We shoveled charred nails from the downstairs hearth, evidence of the previous resident’s nights by the fire. I dropped my clothes down the rusty laundry chute only to find them covered with ancient spiders on the other end. In my daughter’s room, I hung pictures of Princess Belle and Tintin and Snowy to conceal the peeling spots on the silky rose wallpaper.
We struck ground the only way we knew how: room to room, leak to leak, replacing when we could and mending when we couldn’t. Memories of the past owners were cleared away, from the mauve and hunter green wall decor stashed in the attic to the rowboat we discovered beneath a living lair of blackberry bushes. We sealed the house from invading mice, squirrels and birds, patching holes with chicken wire and foam to thwart their entry. When the winds blew hard and the house lost power, we had no running water, no phone service, we lost all our perishable food. It wasn’t long before we invested in a generator and learned to connect it, usually at night in the pouring rain. The winter mists brought us new forest creatures, lanky blue herons, migrating geese and elk herds that descended from the mountains to the west. I held my daughter up to the window, only the thin glass separating us from their coarse brown coats.
Those families we watched on TV had prepared us for the neglect, the remoteness of the property, the shift in our daily rhythm. But what about the story behind the human element, that reason we keep on watching? It took me a while to define what that meant for myself, to locate the root of what sparked my journey. Buried beneath the thrill of adventure, I was scared of losing my family to a world of distractions, commitments and burnout. Nature seemed simpler; I found peace in knowing I was an inconsequential inhabitant, free to trust the layers of life that had ticked by without me and would for years to come. Since then, our family has grown so much. We walk more, talk more, tend to what we have sowed. But I treasure that first year when we clumsily overcame each challenge, discovering the wild together and molding it to be our own.