Tuesday, December 25, 2007

CABIN FEVER


At the end of August 1977, I moved to a lesbian-separatist land collective outside of Durango, Colorado. The Wimmin's House, as it was called, was situated on the road which ran between Hesperus, the ghost down of Mayday, and an arm of the La Platas that held Parrott's Peak. We had a log cabin with (barely) four bedrooms (one was a converted store-room), a wood stove, our own well, a chicken house and run, and a double garage that was mostly filled with potting wheel and kiln plus our assorted gear.

It began snowing at this elevation (around 11,000 feet) in early October. A snow plow tended to make it down our county road at regular enough intervals to keep us connected to town, but we had to get to the road from our long driveway. Between the five of us living there, we had four vehicles, an old Toyota, an old Datsun, a new Honda Civic, and a small blue Ford pick-up, named respectively Emma, Emily, Amaryllis, and Susan B. Our jobs were in towns 10-15 miles to the west and east of where we lived, and our work shifts sprawled around the clock, so carpooling was difficult. Mostly we used our own vehicles, which meant keeping the driveway clear enough to hold four cars.

Two of the women in the collective, Kathy and Mary, had grown up in the Northeast where snow was a fact of life. The other three of us were Southerners, two from Texas. We sunbirds were also newcomers to the collective. We allowed Mary and Kathy to dominate collective decisions that had to do with the climate, though not without arguing and complaining. They said it would take an hour of shoveling by each of us on a daily basis from October through April or May to keep the drive clear. I was horrified to discover they were correct.

I worked nights and got home around dawn. When I woke up, around 11:00, I'd make breakfast, blasting the stereo because I was alone in the house, then put on a T-shirt and overalls and head outside to do my share of the shoveling. By January, the drifts were almost up to the eaves around the house and snow walls at shoulder height lined the drive. I worked in a T-shirt because I would very quickly work up a sweat.

One of the house rules was no alcohol. Two of the women who lived there came from alcoholic families, and one of them was a recovering junkie. I was 21 and neither mature or well-educated on the subject. I kept a case of Coors hidden in a snowbank behind the garage, and when I shoveled, I'd drink a beer or two, sticking my can in the snow to dig out a strip, then taking a swig, all the way down the expanse.

Mary, if you're reading this, I apologize.

By Christmas, tensions in the house were at fever pitch. One member of the most long-term and established couple was itching to have an affair with a member of the other couple, much newer and unsettled. Our two closest friends in town, another dyke couple, were undergoing renovation and moved into our living room for a few weeks, and I was in hot pursuit of one of them. She was playing around with me but not quite breaking the rules.

In addition, we did total income sharing, and our class backgrounds ranged from blue-blooded Northeastern independently wealthy to raised poor white trash junkie. Discussions about money were, well, almost indescribable. There was a strong socialist underlay -- the collective had begun with women who came out as lesbians from a MNS (Movement for a New Society) commune. We all did Re-evaluation Counseling, and house rules (in addition to no alcohol, drugs or men) were no meat, sugar, or processed foods.

The Northerners said getting a snowblower was out of the question. It was a waste of gas, horrible on the environment, and there were the five of us, hale and hearty, to do the shoveling. End of discussion.

It was actually a very healing place for me. They were kind and taught me worlds. Still, when the other two Southerners/working class folks began talking about maybe moving on, I felt like my family was breaking up but I knew I'd go with my own kind rather than stay without them.

We discussed our possible destinations over illicit diner meals in town, over hash browns and cheeseburgers and Coca-Colas whenever our work shifts allowed convergence. We were drawn to the West Coast. Articles we read in Dyke: A Quarterly and Lesbian Tide, as well as Lesbian Connection, made us focus on L.A., San Fran, Seattle, or part of the Oregon women on land movement. I was still hoping all the conflict could be resolved, the couples could work out their longings without messing up anything and we could find out what summer was like in our valley.

Then, around the first of March, I woke up to howling winds and no visibility outside. I had to shove my dog out the back door, where she promptly pissed on the step and ran back inside. When the phone rang, it was one of my housemates saying the road was impassable, this was a serious blizzard, and everyone would be staying in town. I was on my own. Not long after I hung up, the electricity went out. When I tried to call for help, I discovered the phone was out as well.

I found candles and lit a few, then, reluctantly, blew out all except one -- I didn't know how long I'd need them for light. I'd be warm enough, because of the wood stove, and I made a pallet on the living room floor to sleep. With the electricity out, there was no running water from the wellhouse, but I could and did melt snow in a pan on the wood stove. I made what meals I could and lived near the stove, reading by candlelight, my dog and cat keeping me close company.

The blizzard lasted almost three days. What finally did me in was the wind, the shrieking incessant wail of it. I wasn't sleeping well, and I began to hallucinate that I was hearing things at the windows. Specifically, sasquatch. I began sitting in the dark so they couldn't see me.

My memory's a little hazy about the sequence of events after that. At some point, I decided to make a break for it. I put on my parka, grabbed my car keys, picked up my dog and began fighting my way through the drifts from the back door to my Honda. I wasn't taking my dog with me because I couldn't leave her behind -- I did leave my cat behind. No, she was going to be my sacrifice if a sasquatch attacked -- I'd toss her to the bigfoot and make my getaway.

I was completely gonzo.

Fortunately, my car was close to the back door. I couldn't get the door open, it was frozen shut, and finally I had to set my dog down in a snowbank -- she screamed in terror -- to bang at the icy door with my gloved hands. When it opened, I did have the sense to retrieve my dog. Once inside the car, her shivering and moaning in the seat beside me, it started right up but wouldn't move an inch, completely packed in by snow. I raged and tried to rock myself out of my stuck spot with violent gear shifting, but no go. I sobbed for a while, then grabbed my dog and, mercifully, found my way back to the house.

Six hours later, the phone rang again -- service had been restored. It was a housemate who worked at the same bakery that I did calling to say our boss had a plow on his jeep and was willing to try to come get me, if I wanted to work that night. After a minute of conversation with me, she changed her mind about my being able to work but kept repeating help was on its way, just stay in the house and wait.

I don't remember being rescued. I do remember winding up in some warm, bright house in town, with people I didn't know, eating real food and keeping the lights on for a couple of days even while sleeping. I wasn't much able to talk about what had happened, and the Northerners I lived with didn't seem to understand why on earth I had broken like that. But someone from Colorado said it was cabin fever, and I could easily have died.

After that, I pledged myself wholeheartedly to the move. We pooled our tax refunds and settled on San Francisco. I drove into the city up 101 on March 28, 1978, taking the Mariposa exit to marvel at flowering trees and clear skies for a few minutes before trying to find the flat my friends had rented that week on Brosnan Street.

A month later, when I called back to Durango, I found out the two left at the house had purchased a snowblower. They also said bears had been spotted in our back yard.

I refused to buy or wear a coat in San Fran. I dressed in removable layers, like any good dyke, and used public transpo which kept my blood flowing. On Christmas Eve, Joan Baez always gave a free concert on the steps of City Hall, and we'd stand in the clear night, arms linking, singing

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto.
Me ha dado el sonido y el abecedario;
Con à l las palabras que pienso y declaro:
Madre, amiga, hermana, y luz alumbrando
La ruta del alma del que estoy amando.


(Maggie at Bean Hollow Beach, south of San Francisco, 1980)

6 comments:

liza said...

Land collectives. Feh. Been there, done that. So glad you survived cabin fever. I can't imagine.

In my separatist land collective, in upper state NY, which was *way* different than yours, we had a man friend down the road. Johny was his name. He had a big plow on his truck, and two teenage sons, and the three of them would come clear the driveway whenever it snowed, which was a lot. Now, that's my kind of separatism. If we'd written about it in DYKE, A Quarterly, maybe you all would have found a guy to plow you out, too.

Then we could go in and out of our ridiculously long dirt road. Our 4- wheel drive bronco was named Beebo. Beebo Bronco. You had to get out of the car and switch a gizmo on the wheel to engage the 4-wheel drive.

Do you remember when Pa got lost in the blizzard for a number of days and couldn't find his way home? And it turned out that he was only yards away from the house. I'll never forget that.

I'm talking about The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, of course. But memory is a funny thing, isn't it. How a memory in a book can become so real it feels like our own.

Well, great story, as usual, Mags. Happy xmas day to you.

Maggie Jochild said...

Beebo Bronco. I'm still wiping the spit off my screen.

I just don't know if someone not from the era can understand the mix of heresy, homage, and class insight in "Beebo Bronco".

Similarly, when Gillam is a teenager and comes home with a stray tom, his decision to name the cat "Beebo" carries much more information if you know the back story -- how our generation reacted to butches in the generation right before us. And Gillam's precarious, demanding place in the next generation.

Was Johnny the man who:
"My daughter, she's five
He lets her drive
His bulldozer, he shows her how
......
We admire his equipment, his skill"?

And yeah, I knew instantly what you were referring to when you mentioned Pa. Waaayyy before the TV show. Do kids, especially girls, still read that series? I went through 'em twice.

I also vividly remember the Christmas and/or winter scenes from Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, Swiss Family Robinson, Little Women, and Wind in the Willows. Plus every Christmas Eve, Mama would read aloud The Gift of the Magi (O. Henry lived right here in Austin) and because it always made her cry, we'd cry too. Then she'd tell us about the first Christmas present she ever got, at age five, a miniature red kerosene lantern that she treasured because it meant she could read in bed at night. However sparse our own gifts were, they were better than that and it was a mixed blessing, being reminded of that.

Blessings on the day to you and yours, Liza Bean. Stay warm up there in North-ville (throw another neocon on the fire) and use real chocolate and cream in the cocoa. Love you with a 70's kinda passion.

liza said...

actually, Johnny was the nephew of Al who drove the bulldozer.

You've just got to admire Alix's internal rhymes.

and yes, the nuanced backstory in the words and their usage is something that I don't think can be translated from generation to generation. But bless you for trying.

kat said...

Happy C-word everyone....
yes, kids still read Little House. At the school where I work, it's in 3rd grade. They also talk about the pioneers and stuff in history, so it all ties in.

When I was in 3rd grade, we had "Prairie Day" when we finished the book. Parents brought in pioneer-style food and we had to be "seen and not heard." that part sucked. I think I got in trouble for not being able to keep my big trap shut.....oh well....

I also knew what your were talking about, Liza, before you mentioned which book it was from.

I must claim complete ignorance of "Beebo." please don't look at me like that! I can see you all giving me googly eyes.

Okay, to Grandmother's house I go. And yes, Maggie, I'm wearing my Grinch shirt. The folks at choir this morning loved it!

cheers,
kat

kat said...

hm....land collective, eh? That sounds like a lot of arguing and dirt.....

liza said...

Some arguing. Some dirt.

There were two couples and one girl child in permanent residence for two or three of years, and and another couple who spent summers and long weekends.

I call it a a land collective because we were dyke separatists, and collectives were in vogue at the time, but we were not set up like an actual collective and didn't have the kinds of struggles (another fine 70's word) that so many collectives had. We had lesbian wars, but not exactly with each other. (cue up Alix Dobkin, my Lesbian Wars, or any cut, actually, off Living With Lesbians.)

In truth, we were more like a few little co-existing monarchies with five feminist micro industries operating under our roofs.

I wouldn't have described it exactly like that then, but I wouldn't have balked at it either.

At the end, there was one huge fight between two couples ending in one couple storming off (a good thing) then two complicated breakups and poof. Dispersion.

But with continuing connections between and amongst all but the couple who left in such a hurry the day my parents died.

That was an emotionally charged moment in ancient history, I'll tell you what.