Every once in a while it’s a good idea to take a trip down memory lane and go back to one’s roots. This week, with my daughter and grandson in town for a visit, we took just such a trip—back to Three Points and to the place I lived for five years during the time my first husband and I were teaching on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
Teachers in the Indian Oasis School District were expected to live in teacher housing—a clump of slump-block homes built into a neighborhood near the school. It was referred to, and rightly so, as The Fishbowl. I took one look at it, stomped my size eleven shoe and said, “No, way José!! I’m not living there!”
My husband, who enjoyed spending time prospecting, somehow came up with a possible alternative. The house, built on a knoll on the King’s Anvil Ranch west of Three Points, had previously been used as quarters for ranch hands and their families. The owner, John King, was willing to rent it to us for the princely sum of $40 a month.
Let’s just say it was humble pie—a total of five rooms including kitchen, laundry room, living room, bathroom and bedroom—built in a long narrow style that wasn’t a mobile home but could just as well have been. It was made of brick with concrete floors—no tile and zero insulation—and two vestigial wall heaters,one in the living room and one in the bedroom, that operated on propane. If you wanted more heat than that, you could always light a fire in the wood-burning fireplace.
The house was two miles of rough dirt track off Highway 86 and our turn-off was thirty miles from the school where we both taught. But that thirty mile commute meant thirty miles of travel at a minimum of sixty miles an hour. We considered it a traffic jam if we got caught behind a school bus or if there were cattle loose on the highway. It took ten minutes to negotiate the tricky two miles of dirt road, and then thirty minutes flat from the turnoff on. So forty minutes altogether, beginning to end. There are probably a lot of people reading who are laughing aloud about now because they currently have far worse and far more stressful daily commutes.
During our move-in process, accomplished with a collection of friends and pickup trucks, the washing machine and refrigerator we had inherited from my husband’s deceased grandmother, were both placed on their sides. In terms of moving mechanical equipment, this is not a recommended practice. The previously frost-free refrigerator immediately decided it was really a freezer in disguise and started freezing any vegetable material we attempted to store inside it. As for the formerly automatic washer? From the time it was once again upright, it had transformed into a semi-automatic washer. How exactly does a semi-automatic washer operate? By someone using five gallon buckets to carry water from the kitchen sink for both washing and rinsing. As for a dryer? Fugetaboutit! With no 220 electrical service on the premises, the dryer was a clothes line out back. On those occasions when the wind blew hard enough, I found myself on the back of the hill plucking downed laundry items off rocks and prickly pear.
A few months later, during a severe thunderstorm, the semi-automatic washing machine was struck by lightning. I told my then husband, and you may quote me: If God had wanted me to do laundry, She wouldn’t have struck my washing machine with lightning!” From then on, we took our laundry to the laundromat on our way to school on Thursday mornings and picked it up after school, washed, folded, and ironed where necessary. Was that a great deal or what?
But back to the house. Remember that two-mile long dirt track I mentioned? Two separate washes crossed the road—a narrow deep one and a wide sandy one—both of which could become entirely impassible during and after severe thunderstorms. When that happened, we parked the cars on one side or the other and walked. Our telephone was the pay phone seven miles away at the trading post at Three Points. Water came from a well at the base of the hill that was there primarily to fill a watering tank for livestock. It operated on a gas-powered, rope-pull pump that forced water from the well up the hill to where it was stored an elevated water tank that had been built at the back of the house. There was no gauge on the tank, so running out of water at inconvenient times was a common occurrence.
With the nearest neighbor miles away, you can bet there was wildlife a plenty—coyotes, coatimundis, javelina. We found at least one rattlesnake in the yard every year, including one resting on the wall inside our screened-in back porch one afternoon when I came home late after a pre-natal checkup in Tucson. Scary. That’s where we were still living a few months later when my daughter was born. The reality of those rattlesnake neighbors living all around us is one of the reasons we left what we called “The Hill” when our daughter was approximately seven months old. A toddler and rattlesnakes? Not gonna happen!
This weekend when my daughter, my grandson and I went to Three Points, we drove past The Hill, not on the road we used to use because that one has been blocked off, but on a still rugged and mostly not-maintained county road. As afternoon sunlight glinted off the white brick of the west-facing house, it clear it was still all there—water tank and all—standing in splendid isolation. We stopped and took a photo or two. I doubt that the photos will duplicate well, but you’ll get the idea.
That’s where I lived when I started writing, whiling away the long lonely evening hours by jotting off bits and pieces of heartbreaking poetry, while my husband sat passed out in his recliner in front of a blaring TV set. Many of those poems, available in my book of poetry, After the Fire, predate my husband’s death from chronic alcoholism by a good dozen years.
One of those poems in particular has been close to my heart as I’ve been writing these words:
A windswept house on barren lava flow
Surveys the desert floor for miles around.
To this unlikely spot whose beauty none but we
Could well discern, we brought our new-made vows
We were each other’s all in all.
It was enough, at least at first.
Then small erosions came
To sweep us from our perch.
The house still stands.
I wrote these words more than thirty years ago now, but they remain true to this day:
The house still stands.
Only we are gone.