For the past year and three months I have been trying to buy a house in Darwin, a small community in the mountains near Death Valley National Park, but that is not an easy endeavor. Many lots have old mining shacks that appear to be abandoned, with holes in the roofs, broken or missing windows, and yards lined with rusty cars, but people like to hang on to Darwin real estate, even though it’s not worth a lot of money. There’s a unique charm to this tiny semi-ghost town, with its history of raucous miners and disputes that were solved by Mr. Colt (instead of the law). It’s a taste of the old West, though now it’s mostly a tame community of semi or fully retired artists and independent folks who don’t mind living far, far from busy city life. And then there’s the Reclining Princess that rests behind town in her slumbering pose, one bent knee formed by what the locals call D Hill because of the rocks shaped in a white D half way up its west facing slope. Every day I see her out my window and feel a sense of magic watching over our remote community. I don’t know what she’s watching for, but I feel comforted by her dark, peaceful beauty.
Last summer my neighbor, P, arrived at my doorstep one morning with eyes glowing and a broad smile. “Tamara, do you really want to buy a house in Darwin?” he asked in his heavy French accent. “I know of a beautiful house. It has 3 bedrooms, a fenced in back yard, with the only lawn in Darwin! The owner wants to sell, if you want to come see it.” He spoke almost in a whisper, as if he didn’t want anyone else to overhear us talking. P wouldn’t tell me which house it was, but said to keep it a secret and he would show it to me. I was a little dubious, since I’d been asking and looking at houses for so long and thought I knew everything that might be available. After all, there are only 37 residents in Darwin. None of the houses I knew about had anything like what he described.
About a week later, I climbed on the back of P’s three wheeled ATV and we drove across town–about two blocks–to a peach-colored two story house with sections of dark stone walls, a shingled wood roof, and many large trees providing shady nooks all around the house–a rarity in this desert community. It had a magical feeling to it, like it was right out of a storybook. P opened the front door, which was unlocked, and I stepped in to a bright, colorful kitchen that felt uncannily familiar to me. No one was home, but we walked through the large dining room with a gorgeous symmetrical pine hip roof and what looked like a hand made wooden dining table long enough for a good-sized dinner party. We continued up a couple of plush light blue carpeted stairs to a spacious living room with comfy-looking white leather furniture and a striking ivory colored baby grand piano. Bright sunlight filtered in through lace curtains over two large windows and an even larger window looked out onto the lush backyard. He opened the back door and invited me onto the terra cotta patio, edged with a low curving rock wall and a green lawn behind several large trees and two lilac bushes. It looked like I was peeking through a small forest to a sun dappled oasis, right in the middle of the high desert. I didn’t know anything like this existed in Darwin!
We sat on a small wicker couch on the patio and shared a glass of wine, while my eyes continually scanned the beauty and lushness surrounding me. Could I actually afford a place as beautiful and plush as this? P told me what she wanted for it, and though it was a tenth of what I sold my house in Santa Cruz for, it was quite a bit more than what I thought the previous houses I’d been looking at would go for. My stomach bubbled with excitement about the possibility of living in such a beautiful and inviting home. “You should come back to talk with the owner, Myriam. She wants to sell it to you, so do it soon. And don’t tell anybody else about it,” P warned.
It was another month before the owner, Myriam, was available to talk with me. When I walked into her kitchen and sat on the stool she pulled out for me at the tiled kitchen counter, excitement flooded through my body. Myriam sat across from me and shook her head, a little pout forming with her lips, then looked me in the eye and said, “My house will go to my son. He can rent it out.” That was it. The conversation was done for her. My stomach sank as I gave her my phone number, just in case she changed her mind, and I walked out the door. I could not believe how discouraged I felt–I was so sure something was finally going to work out…
Another month passed. I had resumed looking at other places to buy, but nothing came close to inspiring me the way Myriam’s house had. I wondered if I should start looking outside of Darwin, but I doubted I could find anything else I liked as much–and could afford. Then one day late in October another neighbor called me up and said Myriam wanted to talk to me again about selling her house. This time I went over right away, and was greeted by a smiling Myriam who gave me a full tour of the house, pointing out the special things she wanted to include in the sale–all the furniture, kitchen supplies, appliances, and even the baby grand piano. I spent over an hour with her, marveling at the bonuses of her home before I asked her how much she wanted.
“Make me an offer,” she said. I froze, not knowing what would be a fair price. The house needed a lot of work–the roof leaked badly, the paint was peeling on the outside, it smelled mildewy from wet carpet and sheetrock, it needed a new electrical supply box and wiring throughout the house, and I’d been told the plumbing was in bad shape, as well. I’d also heard stories about Myriam’s temper and how many others had wanted to buy the house and the deal fell through when Myriam thought someone offered too little.
“I’m not sure what to offer because there’s nothing to compare it to. The only other sale I know of is my friend Max, who bought his house with the same acreage and similar square feet for $65,000 last year.” Myriam scrunched her face with distaste and quivered as if to shake off a bad memory. “Let me think about it a bit,” I said, and she agreed that would be fine.
I had another neighbor, a builder who has fixed up lots of houses in Darwin, come over to give me an idea of what it would cost to do the repairs. There were so many things it needed, it was hard to estimate what my expenses might be, but he helped me arrive at what was probably a fair price. Still, I was afraid to approach Myriam and was strategizing how to present my offer to her and researching ways to make it more appealing, when she suddenly died.
The whole town was in shock, though Myriam had not been in the greatest of health and had talked of wanting to go, it didn’t seem like it was going to happen so soon. She had no will, though she did have a son that should inherit the house. He is legally blind and disabled, and had no interest in living in a remote place like Darwin since he couldn’t even drive, but he and I had never spoken and I doubted he had any idea that Myriam and I had been talking of making a deal. I began to think again that the house was not meant for me.
Another two months passed before Myriam’s son was ready to consider selling his mom’s house. There were other people interested now, so I decided to stay optimistic, but unattached. I kept visualizing living in that gorgeous house and how I would fix it up, put in another garden, plant fruit trees, make it mine. Like I’ve done so many times before. And then I’d let those thoughts float into the Universe, letting go of the outcome. Finally, I got news that he was coming to town and wanted to meet with me to talk about a purchase price. My heart soared, as if I was meeting my next potential lover, and was pretty sure he would be the right one for me.
All went well with our meeting–we agreed on a price within a few minutes. Since then I’ve been helping him negotiate the court system to get the title in his name, but we should finally be in escrow sometime this next week. I moved in April 1, and immediately began clearing out things I don’t need (her son said he doesn’t want anything his mom left behind). With the help of a friend who stayed with me for three weeks during the beginning of the shelter-in-place orders, I removed a couple of walls to let in more sunlight and open rooms up to great views, pulled up damp mildewy carpet, tore off crumbling wet sheetrock, rearranged the kitchen cabinets, and build a little shed to put my tools and camping gear in while I fix up the inside of the house.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m crazy, at age 62, taking on a house that needs this much work, but on the other hand, I’ve been happier than I remember being my whole life–except maybe when I held my two babies in my arms for the first time and had the honor of watching them discover the world as young children. I have an acre of land to love and steward, and an inviting home that has room for many possibilities for entertaining and hosting workshops or retreats. A dream come true!
When I walk through my (almost!) home I feel an odd sense of familiarity, as if I’ve been here for years instead of a month and a half. Sometimes I flash back on a recurring dream I’ve had for several decades: I’m in a house I’m buying in which I discover forgotten rooms and hidden surprises. I climb winding stairs to an attic that is full of plants that are almost dead, but salvageable–I’ve gotten there just in time. I feel a sense of wonder and amazement at the riches my dream house offers, meeting needs I’d forgotten I had.
When I walk through the rooms of this house I’m living in now, my mind is flooded with ideas of things I can do to make it even more inviting and useful. I go up the spiral stairs to a large deck and lean back on anti-gravity chairs that are perfect for watching the marvelous night sky of Darwin (with no light pollution). I meditate on the other small deck off my bedroom, looking into the tree canopy of my backyard, letting birdsongs bring me into the present moment. I ride my exercise bike to loosen up my new titanium knee on the terra cotta patio as the early morning sunlight peaks over D Hill, just behind my fence. I relax on the white leather sofa, watching a video and imagining future movie nights with neighbors, or sit at my rustic dining table, envisioning dinner parties and game nights while watching the sky turn shades of pink and orange and purple as the sun sets over the distant Coso Mountains. I’ve planted a small herb garden and a few flowers that I think will survive here, with enough grey water from dishwashing. This house fits me better than any of the many houses I’ve occupied over my life.
And so here I am, at the end of my searching for myself and where I belong, or want to belong. I’m being trained to be the secretary/treasurer of our community water board. I’m a board member of an exciting non-profit my neighbor started to enhance our community (check it out at https://www.goodent.org/). I’m deepening new friendships, including one with a woman botanist who is gradually introducing me to her favorite hikes into the eastern Sierra, and her flower friends (who are mostly new to me). I’ve created a new role for myself as a Qigong teacher (something I never would have felt confident enough to do in Santa Cruz), and I’m dabbling in letting my creativity flow again as I wander through the desert, collecting stones and odds and ends for future artistic projects. I feel enlivened and energized, so grateful that I followed those urgings I felt so strongly at the beginning of my wandering journey. And I know this is a perfect base camp for more wandering with Wanda–and Riley, too.