Image Credit: Cathy Stancil Photography
Northern California, 1971
Near the end of summer, without warning, the hippie ashram where my son Jamey and I lived lost its lease. We had a month to find a new place, which seemed like a long time, until Jamey and I came home from a few days away and found the main farmhouse abandoned. Inside the office, all that remained was one lamp with no shade, an old black phone, and a list of phone numbers taped to the wall.
Lifting the phone, I checked for a dial tone. But who to call? Not my friends at the veggie restaurant where I worked part-time. They were all single and childless. Jamey’s energy was bright and free, not something they could appreciate or understand. Anyway, I wanted to live in the country. Only one phone number on the list had a prefix out of the area. I didn’t recognize the name beside it, but I dialed, and a man answered on the second ring.
“Hi, um, this might sound strange. You don’t know me, but do you know anyone who might be looking for a roommate? We want to live in the country, and I hoped you or someone at this phone number might know of a place.”
Luke said he was a writer, subletting from someone who used to sublet. He invited me to come and look around, directing me to a lone road bisecting an ocean of rolling prairie halfway between Sacramento and Placerville. As I drove, we passed a sign, Rescue, Population 68. When we reached the turnoff, my skin prickled. I recognized this road. When I was a child, sometimes Dad took the back way home from Sacramento. I always watched for this lonely dirt road. The golden pastures and soft, rolling hills promised something, out there, past the slow bend. Now my old truck rambled over crusty ruts, and Jamey, three-and-a-half years old, stood up on the seat and watched a cluster of oaks in the distance slowly rise higher against the horizon.
“He says the house is under the trees,” I said, downshifting. We rolled on, squinting in the late afternoon sun.
The wooden farmhouse was low and small, almost a hundred years old. Luke’s wiry, flyaway hair and crowded teeth went with his angsty New York voice, and we settled in the kitchen with tea to size each other up.
“I never use this bedroom off the kitchen,” he said as he showed me around. The room was simple and neat, with a set of bunk beds, a double bed, and one dresser. Inside the closet hung some vintage clothes, and when I tried on a 1930s women’s jacket trimmed in braid, it fit. There was nothing fizzy or edgy between Luke and me. Nothing alarming. I could tell we wouldn’t have to be lovers if I decided to live here, if he let us. We went back to our tea.
A harp-like sound floated through the screen door. Out in the barn, Jamey had discovered the husk of an old upright piano and was strumming the exposed strings, sending delicate notes across the rutted road, past the woodpile, the harp-like tones gently fading away around us. For a moment, this place and the prairie seemed empty. Devoid. Then Luke asked if I could cook. We agreed to share the house, the chores, and split the forty-dollar-a-month rent.
I was out in the yard chopping wood a few weeks later when the phone rang. Luke was calling from San Francisco. He wanted to move to the city. Would Jamey and I be all right living alone? I spun in a circle under the broad sky, opened wide my arms, and bowed my thanks to God. At last, I could claim my time to be a mother. No distractions. No witnesses. Time to just be.
We lived frugally on the monthly welfare check. Once a week, we drove into Rescue to pick up mail and shop at the general store, Howdy’s Place. One afternoon in the late fall, we removed the rubble littering the floor of the barn: muddy torn papers and crumpled old boxes left by others long ago. Who would leave a mess like that? Then we put our neat cartons of books, poems, and drawings in the center so they would stay dry. One day the landlord dropped off thirty shaggy red cows to graze the winter pasture. He handed a small sack of candy to Jamey out the window of his truck, and I handed him the rent. He didn’t ask about Luke. We were the official hippie renters now.
My premonition of emptiness resurfaced from time to time. What were we doing here, marooned on two thousand acres, watching winter approach? High clouds turned to dense fog; one dark afternoon, our power flickered on/off, on/off. Spooky. In the smelly light of the kerosene lamp, Jamey pasted strips of bright construction paper together into multicolored chains we looped all across the ceiling. A milky fog hid everything, even the low picket fence. The next day and the next, still no power. When at last the fog lifted, I went to the utility pole and saw a clump of shaggy cow hairs on the switch box. There was no boogeyman, just an itchy cow that had left us in the dark.
Like the power failure, I learned everything about the land after the fact. When the first heavy rains came, the cows disappeared. For three days, we wondered where they might be until we saw some bony hips sticking out of the barn. Our boxes! Forty cows, milling in a slow parade, had ground all our papers and pictures into a pile of rubble that looked very much like the trash we’d cleared from there months before.
Things were not what they seemed. Perhaps we should stay through a full course of seasons before I decided what this country life meant to me, to Jamey, to us. I wrote poetry, drew pen-and-ink drawings, and began to sleep a lot. A musician friend asked us to keep his dog for a while, and two weeks later, Fiddle surprised us with thirteen puppies. Jamey and I spent mornings grinding up our stored hippie grains (millet, wheat, and rice), simmering them in goat milk, and hand-feeding the pups. I slept even more. We gave away the puppies at the annual Grange Hall pancake breakfast.
Winter brought rain, then rainstorms, and then flooding. Our road was so rutted, we made a wider track in the pasture, creating alternate routes to keep from getting stuck. The cows moaned and huddled, turning their backs to the wind. I thought about fixing things, like the leaky faucet dripping into the weeds out back. But once I got the wood in, made our oatmeal, read to Jamey, and took a nap, it was almost time to start dinner. At night, we read some more.
I decided to become more spiritual, so I studied Sufism, reading Hazrat Inayat Khan’s slim book, The Purpose of Life. Jamey and I threw three coins and consulted the I Ching. Lots of times. Our favorite hexagram was “The Joyous Lake.” We went on long hikes; we looked for tracks, for signs. Sometimes the sun broke through, and puddles in the red dirt road reflected a brilliant blue, dotted with white clouds. We rejoiced over the little skies floating at our feet. Windswept and soggy, we returned indoors. Winter was not even half over.
Low fog covered everything, sometimes for days. When it lifted, full color returned, and it was so psychedelic, we were drunk just with seeing. One day the sun was in, then out, then in, then out. Huge dark clouds bounced around the horizon, and the songbirds were going crazy. Out beyond the barn sat a mighty chunk of rainbow, a giant square reaching clear down to the ground. Without a word, we broke into a run, running for the end of that rainbow. We splashed through the puddles in our high boots, coming nearer and nearer.
Just then, the rainbow vanished.
We turned for home, happy enough to have come that close. After a bit, we looked back, and there it was again. We ran straight for it, closer, closer. Once more it disappeared. Dang!
But wait—maybe we were in the rainbow. Damp all over from the mist, we laughed with wonder, drenched in our miracle. As we headed back to the house, we decided we were always in a rainbow, a rainbow we couldn’t see.
For a lot of the time, nothing happened. I seemed sleepier, yes; poorer, for sure, but no more spiritual. By now, we wore the same clothes all week. I liked the spicy muskiness of my long velvet skirt and the vintage dresses I cut short and wore atop a leotard. Alone, a tiny family of two, I read aloud The Yearling and Wind in the Willows, Little Bear, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. When the rain finally stopped, Jamey set out on midday treks with his lunch in a sack. As long as he had on his boots and stayed in the center of the dirt road, he was safe. He said the deer came to him when he hiked out past the slow bend.
We were not really people there, alone. We were more like a piece of the place: a stone or a stick or a leaf. We were just there. As summer approached, we lived in a kind of suspended time. The days stretched long and longer still. At night, the stars were so dense, they looked overdone, pretend. The prairie turned golden, and the long grass whispered in the evening wind. Daybreak was pink, and noon was white-hot. We trudged through the thick red dust to the pond, tapping our snake sticks on the earth, watching for long compressed lines cutting across the road, the signs of snake. Slipping down the mud bank, we slid quietly into the soft water and watched ring after golden ring open silently before us as we skimmed the surface, keeping clear of the marshy plants waving beneath. On the way home, Jamey wore only his boots, his hair shaggy-long and his skin peachy all over. My hair, a tangled bundle, dripped pond water down my back, keeping me cool. By the time we opened the gate, we were both bone dry.
How could I have thought there was nothing here? The dripping faucet in the yard made a lush oasis for tree frogs. They crowded together, clinging to the cool pipe in the heat of the day. At night, the bullfrog chorus was so loud we laughed.
One morning, a broad shadow fell for an instant over the kitchen window. Suddenly the yard filled with waves of bright, flittering birdsong. Our giant oak was alive with incandescent yellow birds; at the dripping faucet, they sipped, splashed, and sang. The yard and the sky were filled with intense, insistent yellow. Hundreds of tiny migrating birds had found our lone leaky faucet in the middle of nowhere. An hour later, they were gone.
As summer wound down, I began to dread the isolation of winter. Was this my life, watching time slip by? Instead of taking naps, I raged around cleaning things, sorting through the rubble in the barn. I put fresh paint on the front half of the house, swept the path, and raked the yard. I soaked our white clothes in bleach and brushed and brushed my bundle of tangled hair until it was smooth again, and long.
The winds gusted; the days grew short; the sun weakened. I had pushed and pulled and clipped and snipped and swept everything within reach. On Halloween night, with Jamey asleep in his bed, the woodstove warmed the room with an even heat. Wind-whipped branches danced against the roof, and the eerie, uneven swishing made me jumpy, wild.
I leapt up and, grabbing a sweater, strode into the night toward the horizon, the one place with a view toward Sacramento. Pale grasses reflected the light of a huge moon. Everything seemed to glow. Through the pasture, past sleepy cows, I made my way to the crest of the hill to find the lights of the city below me. I flung wide my arms and bellowed, “Okay. I am done with this! If I’m so spiritual, why am I hiding here?” Wind whipped my hair and skirt. I stood tall and let it blow straight through me.
“Okay, God. I’ll go to the city. I will work hard and support my son. I will make my life, but I need something from you. I need a place to live that feels safe, and real. Not an apartment and not with my mother. Just give me that by Christmas, and I will do the rest.”
I stomped away, down the long hill, past the cows to the kitchen door, and stood in the yellow circle of light in the familiar wooden room. Faded paper chains, dusty with cobwebs, cluttered half the ceiling. Taking a clean sheet of paper, I wrote out my deal with God. I was no longer angry.
The very next day, we started earning money for our move. We had plenty of paper and fabric and a sewing machine. It would cost almost nothing to create inventory for a holiday craft fair near downtown Sacramento. When our friend returned to retrieve his dog, he put together a booth that I painted to look like an old cabin. In early December, Jamey and I spent our days selling my hand-lettered, illustrated children’s story, Little Wave, and kid-sized corduroy craft aprons, tied with velvet ribbon, with pockets holding six fat crayons. The craft fair lasted two weeks. We sold everything.
One day, a man stopped by our booth. He said he heard he should meet me because I was creative. Hmmmm. I only half listened. He was just a guy. He wanted to show me his restoration project, a house next to a park in Sacramento. Would we come over?
We went. David’s half-remodeled, old Italian house was in the heart of Sacramento. In the back, across a deep lawn, was a small cottage. While we toured the yard, the current renter stood on the threshold of the little wooden place, arms crossed, proprietary. I didn’t mention wanting to live there, but it was perfect.
In the early afternoon on the day before Christmas, a mutual friend drove into the yard. Curious, Jamey and I came out and stood beside the low picket fence.
“Hey, Elisa, David just called. He said to tell you the cottage in the back is available. Do you and Jamey want to move in tomorrow?” We took him up on his offer.
Our time in Rescue changed me. There, together, Jamey and I discovered the scent of grass when the dew burned off, the high afternoon hum of summer grasshoppers, and the mighty roar of bullfrogs. We danced in a rainbow and watched a thousand finches singing, then walked under a million stars. We were golden. We were known. I was not alone. Our time in Rescue saved me. I found kinship, not just with nature, but with a human I could trust. My son.
It’s haunting, my memory of those plain, uninterrupted days. I’d return there for another course of seasons if I could, but now our prairie is covered in houses; all thousand acres are paved. The rutted red dirt road with the slow bend, where the deer came to Jamey, remains only on this page. Now that I’m older, I know the past is only invisible, not gone.
Elisa Stancil Levine enjoys hours immersed in nature on Sonoma Mountain, hiking and running in the forest. This story is excerpted from her upcoming memoir, This or Something Better to be published June 2022.