The Road Not Taken

Usually my dreams from over night vanish the moment I open my eyes. (To all the people who have asked me if I dream up my stories, now you have a definitive answer—N-O!) But now one of those dreams has stayed on and has been knocking around inside my head like one of those old-song ear worms. This morning I decided that if I finally broke down and wrote about it, maybe it would go away, so here goes:

In the summer of 1968, my first husband, Jerry Janc, was offered a teaching contract at Sells on what was then the Papago Reservation. At the time I still had a position teaching English at Pueblo High School in Tucson, but I had started working toward a degree in library science. At the last minute, the librarian at Sells quit and I was offered the job on a provisional basis. Since there was school housing on offer, we drove out to have a look at what turned out to be a cluster of small bungalows just west of the school campus. We would later learn people often referred to it as “the Fishbowl” for obvious reasons—primarily zero privacy. One look was enough for me, and I told my husband there was no way in hell I was going to live there.

Faced with a sixty-mile commute, my husband went looking for an alternative, and he found one—a one-bedroom brick house in the middle of nowhere on the far side of Three Points. It was located on King’s Anvil Ranch two miles off Highway 86 at the end of two miles of a rugged dirt track. Although the house had sat empty for a long time, it had once been used as living quarters for ranch hands, and John King, the owner, was willing to rent it to us for forty dollars a month. It was off in the hinterlands all right, but in my opinion, it beat the Fishbowl all hollow. We took the deal, moved in, and stayed for the next five years. While we were on the reservation, people used to call our place Janc Hill. For all I know, they still do.

First, an aside about the name. My married name was spelled Janc. It was supposed to be pronounced Janc like Dance but it was mostly mispronounced Janc like Tank. After my first husband died, I had to go to court to be named legal guardian of my children in order for them to receive his pension funds. While there I took the extra step of changing the spelling of our last name from Janc to Jance so people would say it correctly. In 1983, I paid four hundred bucks for that vowel. In 1985, when Bill asked me to marry him, I said, “Fine, but I just paid $400 for this name, and I’m not changing it.”

The house was located at the top of a rocky volcanic outcropping that rose up out of an otherwise flat valley. A well to the south of the hill provided water that was sent by means of a rope-pull pump either to a stock tank nearby or else to a water behind the house at the top of the hill. This wasn’t what you could call high class living. The small house consisted of a single bedroom, a kitchen, laundry room, and combination living room/dining room, and a half-assed screened porch. The brick exterior had zero insulation and there was no air-conditioning. The flooring was somewhat polished concrete. The kitchen stove was so tiny that, in order to roast a Thanksgiving turkey for company, we had to bury the bird in a Magnalite roaster and cook it in a fire pit outside.

The hill was a wild place. Rattlesnakes? Yes, we killed one or two a year right in our yard. The first one showed up the first night we lived there. The dogs were going nuts outside. They had the snake cornered in the middle of the carport, and my husband shot the snake through the kitchen window. Bullet holes through the window and screen most likely remain to this day. A few years later we found another one camped out on our back porch when we came home from school one afternoon. He was resting on the river rock wall, just inside the screen to the left of the open doorway. I was pregnant with our daughter at the time, and that made a huge impression on me. There were coyotes everywhere and a herd of javelina that hung around. One morning, while putting on my makeup in the bathroom, I looked out the window to find a coatimundi hanging on an ocotillo branch just outside and not more than four feet away from where I was standing.

After the Fire, September 10, 2013

Life on the hill was lonely at times. The nearest neighbor or telephone was seven miles away. We were two miles off Highway 86, and thirty miles from town in either direction. My husband was a drinker from the time I first knew him, but he always promised that once we had kids, he’d quit—a promise he didn’t keep, by the way. During our years on the hill, he was usually passed out in his recliner early in the evenings. By then I was beginning to see that there might be dark clouds on the horizon of our marriage, and during my long solitary evenings there I began writing poetry, some of which forms the basis for my book of poetry, After the Fire.

We left the hill and moved to Washington state in 1983 when our daughter was seven months old, primarily because of the snakes. I had been willing to run the risk of encountering a rattlesnake bite for myself but not for a toddler.

Over the next few years as the marriage continued to deteriorate there were several more moves—from Washington back to Arizona, and then from Bisbee to Tucson, and finally to Phoenix. Shortly after my divorce and before the kids and I moved from Phoenix to Seattle, I took a solo driving trip out to the hill just to look at it one more time. That night, I wrote this:

Homestead Revisited

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
And love.

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. Only we
Are gone.

By now you’re probably wondering about that dream. In it, a fellow teacher and I were walking home to the hill from Sells. (Since it’s 30 miles one way, even with my current step tally, that would be no mean feat.) In the dream, however, I was nagging away at my companion, telling her to walk faster or we wouldn’t get to the house before dark.

Traveling Highway 86, east from Sells, you drive along the base of Kitt Peak, Ioligam as the Tohono Oodham call it. Then, after a long left-hand curve you come out on an high point overlooking a long flat valley. If the afternoon sun is just right, you can see the white brick of the house glowing in the distance some ten miles away. That was the point in the trip when I was urging my fellow walker to get a move on.

Then the dream went dark for a moment. When it resumed, we were walking through the carport into the back yard to the back door that actually functioned as house’s the main entrance. The first thing I noticed was that the struts holding up the water tank had broken and the tank itself lay wrecked on the ground. Then we stepped inside the house into the dining room area. The table where I once sat to write the secret poetry my husband never saw was gone. In its place was a chasm where someone had used dynamite to blast a glory hole through the concrete floor to the rocky ground below.

That’s when I woke up—not only with that vision of the gigantic hole in the floor swimming in my memory but also with a very real sense of loss. Yes, the hill was a wild, barren, and lonely place, but once upon a time it was “our” place, and now, in that haunting dream, it no longer existed.

It’s taken me weeks to figure out why that dream has stayed with me, and now I think I understand. I had to leave one less-traveled road—the one that led to the hill—to step onto another—the one that led to the life I lead now. Yes, my first dream—the one of living happily ever after with my first husband—had to be shattered in order to make way for another—the dream of becoming a writer. In the first dream, I would have had two children and one grandchild. In the second I have five children, ten grandchildren, and three great grandsons. But the point is, traveling that first road inevitably led to the second.

And isn’t that the way life works? All steps are necessary. No steps may be skipped.

Speaking of which, the sun is out right now, so I’d better get walking—I have at least five miles to go before I sleep. That’s at least 11,000 steps, but who’s counting?

17 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken

  1. LOVE this!!!! Isn’t it true that we need all the steps? We seem to spend our lives trying to skip over them. However, the pedometer of life tells all, doesn’t it?

  2. You’re ever so right about how one thing leads to another in life even when you can’t see it from the starting point. You’re experience in the lonely house mirrors how I grew up, only, thank goodness, without the rattlesnakes!

  3. Thank you for sharing! I too never remember my dreams when I wake up.
    Thank you for following you dream to become a writer!

  4. A recurring nightmare I had as a kid was being underground in a cave in China with torches along the walls. I’d keep going but I could never get out. I didn’t and wouldn’t go in a cave the rest of my very long life.
    Tend to remember many of my dreams. This morning, that I’d caught a mouse under my morning newspaper on my table, grabbed it in the paper and ran out the door. Haven’t seen a mouse in years but instinctively terrorized by them. EEEKK

  5. I am so grateful for your blog! And I am grateful for your books. Thank you for sharing yourself. About four years ago, I started keeping a gratitude journal during Lent along with reading the Daily Office (I am Episcopalian). I have found that keeping that journal is very gratifying. Some days I list things that I am not so grateful for, but on the whole the journal keeps me focused on the good things in life. Sometimes, it’s a really good cup of coffee – or the peace of my animals (cat and dog) in the early morning – or a good night’s sleep – or an interesting dream which I write down if I can remember it. Thanks for recording your dream. You, I repeat, are one of the people I am grateful for!

  6. Great story, when I was in high school the boy next store told me that my past would influence my future, I have alway remembered this a tried to live up to it .. your life is influenced by the past the kids today with the internet and f/b will learn the lesson the hard way . We can blame technology for this lesson lol . Walk well and walk with God my friend stay healthy and safe

  7. I see the land as you tell your stories.
    Having done some time down that way it seems so familiar. Six or seven times as a passenger, once on a passenger train, otherwise as a passenger with my parents on their way to visit my sister in Midland, four times bringing highschool students between Napa ca. And Big Bend tx. No air conditioning in vehicle. Always stopping by my sisters swimming pool in Midland and of course wading across to Boqillas, and/or just soaking in Santa Elena Canyon. (Rio Grande)

    One time my generator stopped charging! Drove from Santa Elena Canyon to ? (Where Sul Ross University is) with a twisted piece of metal holding the generator brush in place and no lights as it wasn’t charging well. Turned on lights once so as not to scare an oncoming car. I parked on a hill at the edge of town, slept a few hrs.
    Push started the van and drove into the ford dealership. They did not have a replacement brush, but directed me to an old Ford/Ferguson tractor across town. They told me that generator had the brush I needed, just reattach the tractors generator. Sans brush spring. No Charge!
    Traveling in a used 64 van requires some knowledge of repairs.

  8. Yes, every move we make in life effects our future. It effects our children’s future and the future of everyone we come in contact with, even though they may never realize it. It’s all so beautifully complex and strange, yet simple. Thanks, Judy, for reminding me. I do wish I were able to discern my weird dreams!

  9. It seems strange that you remembered your dream, since, as you mentioned, you usually don’t. There’s a reason that you did, probably, and seems strange that from so long ago you now had the dream that reflected your life early on. I do think, though, that it reflects a passage that you’ve finally encountered. That seems like a good thing to me. I admire what a strong, independent, self sufficient woman you are. My sister and I were raised by our single mother. She was a strong, hard working and independent woman also. Not her fault that we were all on our own. A choice she really needed to make. While my mom was taking an accounting certification class for six weeks, in a city 100 miles from where we lived, so that she could start an accounting job at our local General Electric, coming home on weekends only, my sister was dealing with rheumatic fever and was in a hospital bed in a spare room on our first floor. Thank goodness it was when doctors still made house calls. We were being looked after by a lovely German family that lived next door, during this period of time. Anyway, in conclusion, I’m also fairly strong and self sufficient, and think that is one reason I’m drawn to my wonderful library of J.A. Jance books. Once again, thank you for being YOU.

  10. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful, personal story. I have found in my many years of life that not all my dreams have come true, but looking back I find that the real life I have been given is much better than many of the dreams. I too have been blessed with a wonderful, loving wife and a fabulous family including grandchildren. God does not close doors without opening another; often one which is much better. Blessings!

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