By Caitlin Kelly
One of the great essayists is Pam Houston, a 55-year-old American, whose most recent story is a lovely paean to her Colorado ranch, the one she bought and paid for, alone, through her writing and teaching — hardly well-paid pursuits.
She’s a woman and a writer I admire, (and have never met), someone with a deep hunger for adventure and who has chosen, and savored, an unconventional life.
It’s hard for anybody to put their finger on the moment when life changes from being something that is nearly all in front of you to something that happened while your attention was elsewhere. I bought this ranch in 1993. I was 31, and it seems to me now that I knew practically nothing about anything. My first book, Cowboys Are My Weakness, had just come out, and for the first time ever I had a little bit of money. When I say a little bit, I mean it, and yet it was more money than I had ever imagined having: $21,000. My agent said, “Don’t spend it all on hiking boots,” and I took her advice as seriously as any I have ever received.
I had no job, no place to live except my North Face VE 24 tent—which was my preferred housing anyhow—and nine-tenths of a Ph.D. All I knew about ownership was that it was good if all your belongings fit into the back of your vehicle, which in my case they did. A lemon yellow Toyota Corolla. Everything, including the dog.
The entire essay is a great read about how we find/make a home. Here’s a bit more:
I had no way to imagine, in that first moment of seeing it, that the view out the kitchen window—of the barn and the corral and the Divide behind it—would become the backdrop for the rest of my life. That I would take thousands of photographs of that same scene, in every kind of light, in every kind of weather. That I would write five more books (and counting) sitting at that kitchen table (never at my desk), looking, intermittently, out at that barn. That it would become the solace, for decades, for whatever ailed me, and that whenever it was threatened—and it would be threatened, by fire, flood, cellphone-tower installation, greedy housesitters, and careless drunks—I would fight for it as though I had cut down the trees and stripped the logs myself.
I feel a bit this way about my one-bedroom suburban apartment, bought at the same age as Pam and one, like her, I’ve stayed in since then.
Between September 1982 and June of 1989 I moved from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. I had won a fellowship, had a great newspaper job, made new friends, took another newspaper job, found a man I wanted to marry and followed him from my native Canada to the U.S.
But it was a lot of moving and adjusting and I was worn out by it all. Anyone who’s moved around a lot, let alone changed countries a few times, knows it can be wearying.
We ended up here, my first husband and I, because he found a medical residency position nearby, and friends had suggested this as an attractive town. I knew nothing of New York state, nor the suburbs, having primarily lived in large cities — Toronto, Montreal, London and Paris.
My New York view, straight northwest up and over the Hudson River, is only now blocked in summer as lush treetops block my sight-line. But the view is spectacular in every season — with snow, fog, rainstorms sweeping downriver and enormous barges pushed by tugboats heading north.
A new, gorgeous bridge has just opened, spanning the river, as elegant as a Calatrava.
The walkway along our town’s reservoir
The apartment, on our building’s top floor, is generally quiet — on a curving, hilly residential street lined with ancient stone walls — and regular sounds are crickets, hawks overhead and leaves rustling. We even hear coyotes now.
The town has a large reservoir whose landmarks — if you can call them that — are three small black turtles sunning themselves on the rocks and a cormorant who spreads his wings to dry, and looks like an out-take from a 17th-century Japanese print.
On the eastern bank of the Hudson River, we have the prettiest commute possible to New York City, and the haunting sound of train whistles as Amtrak rockets back and forth to upstate, Vermont and Canada,
Our town has massively gentrified in the past decade or so, losing its two diners and its restaurant prices have gone crazy-high. Parking has become difficult to find.
But its combination of ethnicities and income levels, its handsome 19th century buildings and high-tech firms doing 21st century bio-engineering, make for an interesting mix.
I can be in midtown Manhattan within 30 to 40 minutes — or sit by the river here and watch the sunset; it’s a 5.5 hour drive to the Canadian border, and about the same distance to D.C., where we have good friends.
What our town, Tarrytown, NY, doesn’t have is any sort of interesting nightlife, or news-stands or much in the way of culture. But I save a fortune by not being tempted daily to spend money in a large city full of amusements and distractions.
I often wonder if or when we’ll move. We’re not able to rent our home, (a co-op with annoying house rules), so that’s a limiting factor.
My dream has been to move back to France, probably Paris, at least part-time. But we’ll see.
It’s not always easy to find a place that meets all your criteria: shared political ideals, a lovely landscape, enough good jobs, a decent climate, friendships, culture, ready access to the outdoors, quality medical care — and affordable housing.
And, these days, some protection from fire, hurricanes and flooding…
How about you?
What makes your home feel like the right place for you?