It all began several years ago. My husband told me a story of a little town he’d stopped in to on his way from New Orleans to Minneapolis: Fairfield, Iowa. Outside the café on the main square, he saw a Prius parked next to a pickup truck with a gun rack. He liked the vibe of peaceful coexistence and the place stayed in his memory for a couple of decades.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when the tectonic plates that kept us happily, miraculously in Big Sur, began to shift. There, on our beautiful, dangerous mountain, we experienced two major fires, a medical emergency while the road was out of commission, Covid, and finally, the killer blow of the 29 acre property going on the market, and selling, fast.
After 24 years of my living on the land, ownership of it transitioned into the paws of a female tiger cub. After months of shifting closing dates and questionable financing arrangements, a 30-something cannabis entrepreneur and social media celebrity ended up with the prize, this priceless slice of heaven on top of Partington Ridge.
I had made it my personal karmic vision to share the place and for over two decades hosted weddings, memorials, easter-egg hunts and bubble baths for all. Al fresco dinner parties at sunset, sleeping under the shooting stars, condors soaring across the canyons above the sea. All that shared inspiration, that joy, is now dissolving into the tides of collective memory.
It came together fast, like a tsunami after an earthquake. We could sense, and got occasional communication about, the pending sale. We packed, made arrangements, found a place to land that we could afford and found intriguing and then waited for the end.
On the last morning, we drove down the road with our two geriatric cats and one hyperactive dog. Our Honda Element was filled with overnight bags, maps, flashlights, bottled water, a cooler of food, pet beds and a litter box. I can still see the mosaic No Trespassing sign swaying on the moving electric gate at the highway, opening for us one last time. That was a hard moment.
As the Stoics say, Ignus Aurum Probat: gold is tempered by fire. The profound quiet and deep peace found living up a dirt road, the shock of losing my home of so many years, the overpowering impulse to cherish the place, all this coalescing into a clear choice when facing this loss. Do I want grief and bitterness? Or gratitude and release? It’s up to me.
Eye-Oh-WHAT? Said our friends. Then went on to confuse it with Idaho, or Ohio. IOWA. The beautiful land of the tranquil people, is the loose translation of the indigenous word for this flat, landlocked state where agriculture, education and the arts flourish. And, in Fairfield, where the Maharishi University leads the country in transcendental meditation.
Because we were losing our home, I determined to bring as much of home as possible. After 30 years on the coast, what did I bring? Books, river stones, feathers, landscape paintings and a bucket of sand. “Bucket of sand?” said the moving guy, with classic Midwestern understatement. “Over there,” I pointed, to a corner of the kitchen. I put that sand into large clear cylinders, and stuck a candle in each. Big Sur luminarias, with garnet sand from Pfeiffer Beach.
Another moment that tears at my heart: as we were about to get into the car parked on the road to the house, we passed the trail that we took every day up the hill, for the aerobic hike to the view down the coast. Our dog Leonardo glanced at me sideways, eyes wide, questioning. “No buddy, we’re not going up the hill this time,” I said. How I regret not taking that last walk! But the time had come to rip the bandage off, and keep going.
Later, as we drove across the red rocks of Arizona into the twinkling lights of New Mexico, I sensed the mood of the critters. The cats were simply suffering in their carriers, occasionally escaping to sit with us as we drove at 80mph down Route 66. But I knew that Leonardo knew then that this road trip was a game- changer; that we weren’t going back, but onwards into the unknown.
“Iowa’s cold, Dad,” my husband’s daughter said when we told her of our choice. And that has been the most frequent refrain these past few weeks. “It’s effing cold out there,” I’ve said over and over and am still, with my homesteader’s mentality, a bit doubtful of the functionality of the heating system. Fortunately, our sweet little home has a fireplace, and we have used it liberally, for psychological comfort as much as for warmth.
Hooray for our stalwart team of friends who helped us: thoughtful Rachel who made lists, got me started on the boxes, and assured me of my strength; tireless Kate, who strategized the loading process, and rode herd on the moving guys. Amazing David, who counseled us when we melted down, and filled the trailer with stuff to be hauled away. He also brought nice, dry firewood for our last hours telling stories next to the wood-burning stove.
I sat up late that last night, by myself, and saw dancing ladies and the smiling face of Henry Miller in the flames.
Other parting gifts included the double rainbow over the ocean one early Spring morning. My cousin visiting with his wife to pay their respects to my Gramma’s grave, her spot surrounded by succulents, seashells, and just-blooming lavender. The flock of finches singing in the maple tree above the main house, their pale yellow breast feathers shining in the sun. Descendants of the little birds who greeted me here one fine afternoon two decades ago and the true owners of this land.
The bobcat that dropped out of the pine tree beside the yurt, then chased a deer across the hill, Leonardo right behind him. The first baby lupine beside the wedding tree. And, in the wee hours of the last morning, a shooting star going forth from Sirius, into Orion’s belt. “May this be the right path!” I wished.
Perhaps I haven’t gone too far from the ocean, really. During the Paleozoic period, Iowa was underwater, part of a great inland sea. I know, it’s a stretch, but these endless flat prairies, the soil rich and black, are the result of this ancient body of water. There are museums here with fossils of the Pleisosaur, the duck-billed dinosaur.
When we crossed the border into this state, all the neon disappeared, replaced with pastel blue farm houses and grain silos. A long ribbon of birds danced overhead, spiraling in the skies above the interstate. Our welcome, we said.
To be continued…
ROGER HARRIS – Getty Images