My New (Temporary) Home
“Shit Tamara! This is really f___d up!” Abe (not his real name) seems to be avoiding eye contact as he scans the scene, pushing at a piece of worn wood here and there, as if by some miracle it will fall aside to reveal the source of water bubbling up beneath the house I just rented the day before. “I don’t know what to do about this. I think we’ll have to jack the whole house up to even see what’s going on.” I’d heard rushing water before going to bed the night before, and turned off the water main until someone could figure out what was wrong. Abe arrived first thing in the morning, leaving his wife waiting for the brunch they had planned on her day off work.
I decided to stay put in Darwin for awhile–at least through the upcoming desert wild flower season, which could be a special treat after all the precipitation we’ve had. A couple of nights I heard hard rain on the roof all night long while Max’s bathroom ceiling dripped like a sieve from all the leaks that lie dormant during most of the year. When I returned from my interview at the ecovillage in Port Townsend, WA, I drove through several inches of slushy snow for about 20 miles. It’s been a cold winter for camping out in Wanda. Relaxing in a comfy, warm bed was more alluring, plus it gave me a chance to sort through my life and the few belongings I couldn’t fit into my cargo trailer–and to hopefully get some writing done during the winter months when it feels right to go inside and reflect.
Water flowed underneath the wall between the kitchen and sun room. There were only a few inches of space between the floor and what looked like a piece of wood on top of a concrete slab from which the water spread into a widening V under the porch, across the walkway to the back deck, and then disappeared under the floor of the shed in the back yard, leaving a soggy path into the wide wash below. The house was built in stages over the past century (starting out as a tent), and one room that used to be a deck was built on top of the water main–which seemed to be the source of the problem. Since I moved into the house I couldn’t get the internet to work, and when I did have water I couldn’t figure out how to get hot water to come out the bathroom faucets. Looking under the sink, I found a maze of hoses and pipes and valves that controlled one thing or another, but made no sense to me. “That’s Darwin!” everyone tells me. “People had to make do with what was here, so things were put together creatively.” It’s what I love about Darwin–and what makes it a challenge.
After going to Washington to be interviewed at the Port Townsend Ecovillage (PTEV), I returned “home” to Darwin feeling surprisingly detached to the decision I’d been waiting for–would I be accepted into the ecovillage to build a tiny house? Some of the questions that were asked of me kept playing over in my thoughts. Could I have answered better? Were my answers honest–or trying to persuade them that I was the perfect fit for ecovillage life? I pictured Riley and Pickle there, wondering if I would be constantly worried about keeping them from barking too much at people walking on the nearby sidewalk to the trail system at the end of the road, or trying to make them behave in ways that wouldn’t bother anyone too much. They would probably have to be on leashes whenever they were on ecovillage property and would most likely not be invited into people’s homes with me–certainly not into the common house that was slated to be built soon, so they would have to stay home during potlucks and meetings. In Darwin the dogs run free and everyone seems to get along. Riley regularly takes off to visit his canine friends around town or they come to visit him and chase each other in circles around the driveway. I began to wonder if we would all feel too constrained at PTEV.
Another question that was asked of me during the interview was about how much I wanted to travel. I said I would attend Hendricks trainings in Ojai several times a year, visit my kids in California, go camping with my friend, Kathy, and maybe spend time in the desert during dark, wet months to dry out with a dose of sunshine. I sensed concern that I would be gone too much to participate in the needs of the ecovillage: building the common house, attending meetings, and participating on committees that keep things working well for community life. In the little village of Darwin people come and go as they please. Some are here just a week or two a year, some come for special events or weekends, others are here full or half time, or haven’t been here for years. People do what they want and build creative, functional, and affordable homes with very little oversight or restrictions. Was I trying to squeeze myself into a box I didn’t quite fit into? Hmmm…. maybe I’ve done that other times in the past. I wasn’t feeling a full-body yes to joining the PTEV.
Even though there are no rules or agreements for community involvement in Darwin activities, there is a lot of voluntary community participation. One day Max received an email asking for help cleaning up the yard of a resident that has become incapable of taking care of his property, so I decided to join in. Six of us worked about four hours loading trucks up with accumulated debris, which had become a fire hazard, and hauled it to a dumpster the county provided after a request to the local supervisor. A couple women offered assistance to help him fill out paperwork for services available to lower the cost of utilities and medical care. That night I fell into bed earlier than usual, exhausted with sore muscles, but I also noticed a deep satisfaction from being part of a community that takes care of each other. In Santa Cruz it would have been very unlikely that I would have any interactions with someone like him–his house would have been in a neighborhood I didn’t walk through, or he would have been homeless. Only a few of my Santa Cruz friends made some time to help me when I got my house ready to sell or to pack up to move. Here, people are accepted for who they are and checked up on even if they have gotten themselves into a bad situation. With only 37 full time residents, it’s hard to go unnoticed. It’s called the Sagebrush Telegraph. I would have hated it as a teenager when I didn’t want parents to know my whereabouts!
A day of cloud watching–see the sea turtle in the one on the right?
Another example of this community spirit is all the help I received when moving into this new house. After Abe came over to check things out so he could brainstorm solutions during brunch–and then told me it would not be an easy fix, we contacted my new landlord, who responded by saying he would be here in 2 days. He drove his RV from Arizona so I wouldn’t have to move out while he and his wife came to assess the situation. For two days I turned on the main water supply once a day, only to fill up all the large water containers. I considered reviving the old outhouse in the backyard, but the splintery seat looked too risky. In the meantime, Michael, the president of the Darwin Community Services Board and a retired boat captain (who also knows how to fix just about anything) came over to assist.
Carl and Sherrie, my new landlords, greeted me with genuine hugs before Carl got right to work, tearing off siding, pulling off walls, and cutting a hole in the sunroom floor, trying to expose the leaking pipe, which was under the recently built sunroom. I looked on, sure this was going to be such a big job I’d have to move right back out. That night, with the sunroom in disarray, a gaping hole in the floor covered with a scrap of plywood, and towels stuffed in the holes in the wall to keep the house from getting too cold, Sherrie cooked a delicious dinner in my tiny kitchen and even invited a couple neighbors. We drank wine and ate spaghetti and meatballs while sharing stories about the history of the house (it was built around a tent–there’s still canvas in the walls), Darwin parties on the porch, and some of the notorious characters from the past. I felt right at home.
Two days later Carl and Michael came up with a way to abandon the old main pipe and connect a new hose from the supply around the front of the house–a temporary fix that resulted in no cold water coming into the bathroom. I could live with filling a bucket to flush the toilet–in fact, the bathtub faucet leaks just enough into a bucket to do two flushes a day. We set the water heater at the perfect temperature for me to take a shower, so I was set. Carl figured out the internet–we only get it via satellites or landlines out here–and Sherrie and I exchanged details about our children, our love for cooking and gardening, our fear of snakes, and ways to make do living in a remote desert outpost. Carl’s instructions to me before going to bed were to leave the water trickling in the kitchen sink all night long to prevent freezing: the temperature had been in the teens for several days.
The next morning, the sink was no longer trickling. I went outside and was shocked to see the white hose, still coiled up in large loops along the side of the house–full of frozen water. It was exposed all the way from the main to where it entered the house, with ice, like frosting, coating a length of pipe to the only exterior faucet. Carl and Sherrie had to leave to avoid hitting a predicted snow storm, so they drove off in the morning, not knowing how things were going to turn out, but hoping all would be fine once the ice melted. I was sad to see them go, but happy to have their house to myself again so I could play my music loud and dance with abandon as part of my morning ritual.
“Once you’re here awhile…”
Is this where I want to stay? “You’re never going to leave Darwin,” Abe tells me with a knowing glance. “Once you’re here awhile, you don’t go away.” It has been three months for me, so far… and I have no desire to go away. So, Darwin it is, for now… I’ve found or created ways to get most my needs met, it’s inexpensive, and I feel as welcome as I ever have. A good place for me to continue my internal explorations, which includes daily meditation, meandering walks with the dogs, developing practices with the Hendricks Institute, daily qigong, and as much writing as I can fit in. It’s also a great basecamp for exploring the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains and the desert. And I love the peace and quiet, making new friends with common interests, and living a very simple life. Every day brings a sense of joy–all it takes is a look at the beautiful scenery from my sunny deck and a trip to the post office at 11 am for the Darwin Social Hour. Maybe that joy is mostly because I listened to a voice I heard inside, and didn’t ignore it.
One of Carl’s Stories…
Max told me you couldn’t get house insurance because there’s no fire department in town, but Carl said he had it for a little while. Then one day the company notified him that his insurance would be canceled due to suspicious activity in his neighborhood. He wondered what in the world that would be, then was told it was because of the jail being nearby. Sure enough, if you walk into the wash just below Carl and Sherrie’s home there is an old jailhouse. Max says no one was ever locked up in Darwin’s jail because disputes in the old days were solved by Mr. Colt. In fact, the building does not look well used for anything except maybe storing some cases of bottled water for emergencies. Water is probably the most valuable resource here!
My neighbor’s yard art–or was this the suspicious activity the insurance company was worried about?