Craig Childs - House of Rain
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Field Notebook

January 20, 2014
Knowing Where You Are...

on the boulder in question
on the boulder in question

When I recently moved with my wife and two young sons to an adobe house on the flanks of Grand Mesa in Western Colorado, the first thing we did together was go up high to get our bearings.

The day was surprisingly warm for the middle of winter. We stopped on the sun-heated top of a boulder where both boys stripped down to lie on the rock. Regan and I leaned on our palms, surveying a sunshot landscape of mountains, valleys, and patchwork farms strung along irrigation ditches flowing from the high forks of the Gunnison River.

This move was a short hop for us, trading one farflung house for another. We'd been living among these river forks for 15 years, and from this boulder could see the foot of mountains we had just moved from. When we asked the boys if they could point to our old house, they both zeroed in with their fingers on a faint, grey rock outcrop tucked into the side of Saddle Mountain some 20 miles away.

That is the house where Regan gave birth to both boys three years apart, woodstove crackling both times as their slick bodies fished into the world. It is where we lived without plumbing for a long while, bucket-shower and outhouse. Off the grid, we stacked up new solar panels over time, eventually getting a washing machine, and more battery chargers than we knew what to do with. A flush toilet finally entered the scene after the second was born. We planted fingerling ponderosa pines and watched them grow over our heads.

We were in a sense, settled.

We are also nomads. Stricken by wanderlust, it is amazing we stayed there as long as we did.

I grew up moving. My mom was as restless as a caged bird, not happy until she was outside somewhere beaming in the sun. She would build a house with her very hands, and then be on to the next; the next job, the next possibility, the next shiniest bauble. I flew at her wing, an only child with an only mom on the adventure of a lifetime. I never minded the moving. In fact, I always looked forward to it. I was spoiled by a sense of movement.

If you study the way my mom and I migrated, the pattern was far from random. We were tethered to either Arizona or Colorado. If it was a cabin in the pines, a suburban duplex, or big-windowed house swamped in scrub oak, it was either in the desert or at the foot of the mountains.

This way of living is called tethered nomadism. It is one of the oldest known strategies for human survival: moving while staying put. Groups maintain wandering ranges around singular, fixed, critical resources, venturing to farther resource locations only when needed. For my mom, her known resources were in Colorado and Arizona, and those two places became the anchors of our movement.

I've gone on to live the same sort of life, only instead of two states, I've been ranging in the cul-de-sac of the San Juan Mountains and the West Elk Range where the Gunnison River forks, and the Uncompaghre is blasted with minerals. Whatever mysterious resources we seek as modern, industrial humans, I found mine here.

This is the way of nomads. We are not lost and wandering in the wilderness. We know where we are. Though we may leave behind a place we know, we are anchored in the familiar. We've been here before.

The whole landscape I could see from our sun-warmed boulder was home, the tether I'd found in my life. I could see the distant, snow-capped teeth of the San Juan Mountains. In my 20s, I'd lived there in a tipi. Even that tipi was a moving target. I dragged it from place to place. First, I set it up in a high meadow that, to my dismay, come spring melt became a bog. I carried lodgepoles and canvas into woods nearby and reassembled my small and mobile existence. Later, I moved even higher into snowbowls where I could listen to fluttering aspen leaves all summer long.

There was a cabin or two after that, Horsefly Mesa and the dirt roads above Dallas Divide. The last house was the one my wife and I cobbled together, birthplace of our family of four. Now, weve moved again, climbing to a highpoint, skyhopping to assess our position.

Even if you cross continents and oceans for a living, your sense of place is probably tied to a well-defined location. Youve come to learn streets and highways well enough you could sleepwalk to the grocery store. You know the animal trails and trash cans, the culverts and waterways. You have a sense of home. Sometimes you have to get up on a boulder to see it.

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