If you grow up in the shadow of a perfectly circular Moorish fortress, can you ever truly leave?
Portugal is the narrow sliver of an empire standing watch on the edge of Western Civilization and the End of the World. When the Romans invaded, conquering Celtic lands, one river they reached, Rio Lima, was so wide, they could not see the other side. The soldiers were convinced it was the river Lethe, and the underworld was on the opposite bank. It took the general, crossing on his own, calling each soldier individually by name, to convince the army to follow.
Never mind that Portugal was actually a gateway out of the cradle of civilization for our species. In addition to making a home for several early hominid species simultaneously, our earliest consistent expressions of art are found there. End of the world, indeed.
From this littoral frontier launched armadas of half-crazed sailors, perhaps not unlike the Greeks in their skillfulness, to explore the unknown in search of riches. They were the first Europeans to circumnavigate the globe. Sitting on the shores of Lisbon today, watching recreational boats sail in and out of the straits, the baseline skills of the average sailor are still quite remarkable. It must be a point of pride for this tiny nation, who turned outward for power instead of inward.
And so it is that we find ourselves looking at farm real estate in the most interior of the interior of the country. You get the sense from Portugal’s history that its riches were predicated first on a counter-alliance with the British against Spain, then on the plundering resulting from its discoveries and exploration. Portugal does not seem to have grown rich from the tax base of its villages, unlike other European countries. While fealty certainly played a role, geography and geopolitics suggest instead that villages provided young men to crew tall ships to conquer the world and bring back gold, enriching the court.
Perhaps the persisting microeconomies in the countryside are leading people to leave again in times of economic crisis. The Portuguese have regularly been a migrant population in Europe, from the exodus of Jews to the South of France during the Inquisition, to the population of countries like Brazil, to the ports of Los Angeles, the whalers of Monterey, and the widespread housekeeping enterprises we see today in more prosperous Western European countries. From Portugal, people flee. And now, with an aging population, declining birth rate, and urbanization resulting from an infusion of tech investment, quintas stand empty.
The quintas in the countryside run along Roman roads, atop early Celtic settlements, the vestiges of which still remain with large vertical rocks popping up in the most unexpected places. The Roman roads today take you to the pilgrimage sites of Compostela and Fatima, or to the bakery, which in all likelihood is two villages over because the baker retired two years ago.
I don’t like the idea of repopulating an emptying countryside with foreigners bent on idyllic exploitation of another culture. But with the Portuguese being such enterprising expatriates themselves, it cuts the guilt a bit. In my family alone, we have a significant amount of inexplicable Iberian heritage, and a mystery birth out of wedlock. That isn’t to say that we have Portuguese heritage, specifically, but I let my mind wander when I was there.
I felt my grandfather walking the Roman road through the vineyards, and in the vegetable garden surrounded by fruit trees and chickens in sandy Alentejo. Standing on the edge of Belem, watching the sailboats tack against the wind to head out into the open Atlantic, I imagined my potential forefather fleeing a village to face the sea for the first time, then running rampant through North America. Was he afraid of the constant surf? Why was he so restless? Did he think about his mother when he got to America? How and why did he leave steady work on the docks for such a pastoral inland area? What made him, in a distinct possibility given what we know, a terrible human? Would his mother have accepted my great grandfather as her grandson if she knew? Would we be Portuguese today?
Home, a sense of place. That is what drew me to the desert and began to unravel decades of shoulds. What should home be? What should travel be? Don’t be surprised if I go back to discover more of Portugal, as a piece of my own home puzzle.
One of my biggest self-critiques of life right now is that I seem to have tapped out professionally. I can do a permutation of any number of things over the next couple decades, but I’ve done the number of things. I keep looking for opportunities for professional growth, and find that the leadership seminars and personnel crash courses never quite ring true. Do they ring true to anybody? I can’t say. But I’m not one to settle.
So I’m looking for something new. If you follow this blog, you know I bought this house to seek authenticity. If you talked to me two years ago, you would recall me seeking clarity. Now I’m looking to act on what makes my heart sing. My art mastermind program is helping with that. It has a strident recurring theme - new growth is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.
Artists do it anyway. They make the work. They hang it on walls. They dress up in the “show wardrobe,” they put on lipstick. They show up at the opening. Then, depending on the mood, they stay and jubilantly chat the night away, or they run.
I’ve done both. I love a good reception. I love meeting new people. But with the wrong vibe, with my vulnerability on the wall, I’ve also ghosted as fast as I could. What, am I supposed to stand there smiling next to my piece while everyone else talks to everyone else because I’m the only one who came solo and doesn’t know anybody? See what I mean? That didn’t make my heart sing.
Yesterday I dipped my toe into something that I never believed I was “(insert whatever word you like) enough” to do. Since January, I’ve been painting rock faces, doing studies, using them as a tool to explore abstract expressionism, and then I watched Free Solo. I’m far from the first artist to be hit like a ton of bricks by that movie. But watching it right after drawing three iterations of the face of El Capitan really struck a chord. I felt like I knew how the face of the rock felt as it divetted in and out. And watching the film, I felt it was possible to walk forward vertically.
So I thought I’d get tactile with these rock faces. There is so much climbing in Joshua Tree, and I have many friends who have recommended it to me. But I haven’t rock climbed since I was a kid accompanying my ringer brother to the climbing gym, saying “I don’t have the arm strength” and playing second fiddle while he raced to the top of the wall each time. A few weeks ago I found myself clamoring up to the top of a rock formation to take (this) photo, and I thought to hell with it. By touching and feeling and maneuvering the rock face, I will be able to incorporate that into Abstract Expressionist Mark-Making.
I spent more money than is reasonable on a chance to learn new parts of the park, meet new people, and scramble up over rocks with someone who knows how to react when she sees a rattlesnake. Fittingly, we started off at the Rattlesnake Canyon trailhead in Indian Cove. And it was more than worth the money. For the first time in a long time I did something I’m not good at on purpose, and learned.
I pushed through fatigue, fear, and fitness. In a very uncharacteristic way, I executed on some physical limits when I hit them, remembering that discretion is the better form of valor. I sought tips on what I would need to do to improve. For the third time in as many months, I was told I looked fit (where did that Nicole go off to?). And I learned that it isn’t all in the arms. In fact, your four limbs are four points that are equally necessary. My biggest lesson learned: Put all of your weight onto your foot so that you don’t slip. As a former soccer player, for whom “arms” were never a thing, that was empowering.
I want to do this more. I know so little, and my muscle memory is so untrained, that this is an opportunity for growth. Who would have ever thought that I could find so much motivation for something I’m not naturally inclined to do?
I have a couple of these out-of-the-comfort-zone experiences on the docket. The reason is, I’m saying “F it” to waiting for groupwork or codependency. I’ve never liked those things anyway. There are perks, but existentially they feel like settling. I might rent a satellite phone, but I’m doing what makes my heart sing come hell or high water. I get no satisfaction out of 44 hours of my week. So I’d better damn well grow through the rest.
I’m sitting at my picnic table, watching a giant thundercloud roll across the north of me.
I do not yet have desert weather patterns down, at all. They are so foreign to me. How is it that at the hottest, driest time of year, there are monsoons? I thought monsoons were a tropical phenomenon. And what is a weather app’s batting average predicting those pop-up storms?
Yesterday afternoon I saw a giant cloud to the west. The apps said sunny. Nothing happened. Then at 11:30, just as I was laying down in bed, I caught a flash through my window. At first I thought someone was taking a picture, but no. Lightning. Some of the largest, most aggressive bolts I’ve ever seen. Something giant floated over from Arizona and took its sweet time blowing through.
It’s probably been a year-and-a-half since the dogs experienced a thunderstorm, so they felt compelled to defend the Homefront. I can usually calm them down with cuddles, which worked with Sasha, but Pippa was so distraught she couldn’t quite settle down. That meant that neither could I.
And it was hot. For fear of weather issues, I turned off the AC and closed the windows. For all the hours of thunder and lightning, though, either we didn’t get much rain, or I passed out after waiting for it and consoling the dogs. At 2:16 a.m. I woke up to calm. Time to open the windows. The rush of cool air that flooded my bedroom was such a blessing. For the first time in a few months, I pulled my covers over me and slept… for another few hours until the dogs woke me up for a spectacular sunrise, of which I missed half, because this made two sleepless nights in a row.
We got up at 8, I missed 9 a.m. yoga. I’m a little hot and cranky even though it’s under 100 so I’m typing this outside. The desert plants sure are excited about life, though. This morning, over coffee on my blessedly water repellant outdoor sofa, they released an incredible bouquet of beautiful scents over the course of an hour or two. It was unlike the normal smell of creosote, and I did not sneeze.
Maybe I’m getting used to this ecosystem?
When I started this cottage acquisition project, I decided not to allow anxiety to creep into the process. After all, buying an art studio in the desert is supposed to be a feat of whimsy. And I didn’t “need” it physically - I had a place to live.
I had been coming to Joshua Tree with the express purpose of surrounding myself with nature. I have always been fascinated, maybe obsessed, with the natural world around me. I grew up fantasizing about living somewhere with real live big animals, not just squirrels, crayfish, rabbits and robins. This was my chance.
But as an adult woman who knows about the perils of rattlesnakes and scorpions, could I still harness the whimsy?
I also don’t like bugs. In fifth grade, Mr. DuMez played Arachnophobia for the class as a sort of “bonus” - I didn’t sleep for two weeks. Bugs paralyze me. Oddly, I can justify spiders because they eat bugs. But creepy crawlies? I can’t be near them. Shortly after the arachnophobia incident, I went hiking with my family in the Smokies, kicking mud up onto my shins until they were caked for fear of mosquitos. I really don’t like bugs.
The bugs here can kill and maim, in very nasty, gross ways. My favorite Airbnb in Joshua Tree makes you sign a disclaimer about them, and I will do the same with my closest friends and family, no doubt. But I’ve always been tough. I own a pair of combat boots. I’ve been tackling The Great Outdoors since I was a kid.
Somewhere along the way I recalibrated to desk-work, believing that time behind a screen thinking and writing was a purpose in and of itself. Tell that to the owl, my advance team last night, who guided me to the house where I accidentally left the light on, then stood watch all night even after Sasha and I cleared the space of phantom intruders.
The Mojave Desert is the home of one of my very first pets, Lizabelle the Lizard. She was allegedly a Rainbow Swift, which I’m not sure is a thing, but I saw her doppelgänger on a trail in the park during my very first visit. We also caught a rare glimpse of a Fenec Fox, which is only diurnal during Spring, when the dens are so full of pups the fathers wander about during the day rather than deal with an overcrowded nursery. I caught sight of a desert iguana that trip, too, on a solo hunt for crystals, carrying a stick to ward off snakes in one hand and a gluten free beer in the other.
At the Mojave House, our animals are not sensitized to humans. It seems as though there were originally horses here - there is a hitching post, and the fencing accommodates stables. In the intervening years, however, symbiosis has reigned. I do not scare the local wildlife. In fact, quite the opposite. It comes up to greet me, its new compatriot in our cholla garden oasis.
When the roadrunner circles my jeep, he thinks, “oh, she likes red.” When he approaches my Dad, he thinks “you have a lot of work to do in this yard to make it perfect for me and my friends.” The rabbits are no less shy. They’ve moved from 5 meters to 20 meters out on account of the dogs, and Pippa’s favorite thing to do in the morning is to quietly watch them out the window while I try to sleep in. The desert quails, ubiquitous, always in a group, and today, noisy, are the most shy. The rat in my exterior water heater closet sits outside the screen door, watching me do a puzzle. When I sketch at night under the twinkle lights, kangaroo rats come within 5 feet of me just to introduce themselves. “Hello,” they say, “We live in the Creosote. Welcome!” I’ve been obsessed with these since I was little, since they hop and are so cute. Last month I literally sat on a ground squirrel sleeping under my chaise.
Maybe I’m an interloper, maybe I’m a guest. I hope the local wildlife takes to me. I hope they don’t think I’m not as committed to this patch of land as they are. Do they know I have a 30-year mortgage? God forbid they think of me as an Airbnb host from LA. I may not be here all the time, but I do care and I am helping. Apparently I fed some rabbits by re-potting Agave pups. They must have been delicious, although insufficiently pointy. They’re also a rare source of water in August. You are welcome, bunnies. I’ve purchased pointier plants from a nice lady at the Swap Meet.
The elephant in the room is the circle of life. I’ve been taking a “do no harm” approach to the wildlife. I do not want to use poison to kill whatever rodents are between my walls and my siding. I’ve taken great measures to relocate them harmlessly, especially since they are so damned outgoing and smart. I had live traps and cookie butter all prepped, but my last two visits I did not hear the mice. Instead, I heard an owl in our Joshua Tree, proudly hooting the night away. I thought I’d noticed owl droppings while picking up the yard. I had taken great pains to ensure mama rat (again, EXTERIOR to the house) could have her babies. Two batches (or litters?) of them have now come by to introduce themselves. It’s possible some have been eaten.
Here I thought I would be the keystone species, the alpha predator. Outdone by an owl. I may buy it a house so it sticks around… as long as it leaves the kangaroo rats alone.
Sasha, born a true desert dog, has established herself as a queen of the highest point on our property. That is her perch of choice from which she presides over our territory. Sasha’s perch is also where I watch the sunsets. I put a bench on the back patio, a bench on the front patio, but no place beats chasing orange flares across the sky like the highest point on the lot. I can see over the shed, over the roofline, over the fence. This is critical, because the Western and Southern mountain ranges catch the last rays of the sun very differently.
In the morning, the mountain directly to the west of me, our windbreak, turns orange like a persimmon. But before sunset officially kicks off, the sun issues a warning shot against the South range, the limit of Joshua Tree National Park, in a bright orange streak. It lasts a moment, and it happens in spite of the bright light of day.
Just when the flash disappears, a dip between two Western mountains turns gold. Is the sun setting now? Does sunset happen earlier if mountains block the horizon? Will the color make it over San Gorgonio? The sky isn’t pink quite yet, so maybe tomorrow will be stormy.
This is when doubt creeps in. Will we have a gentle pink fade through violet to blue over the West? Are there enough clouds to the South for the East to turn pink? Nothing is happening quite yet.
It is the wispy clouds to the Southwest that first blend to a blush. The doubt remains - isn’t the West side of the sky supposed to be the most colorful? Maybe we’ll settle for this.
Then suddenly, fireworks. From the Southwest, refracting magically from the invisible ocean sun-sinking, first to the opposite ends of the Eastern earth. Then, pink, magenta, orange, fire, gold, juxtaposed one-by-one on a perfect periwinkle, above the golden sinking of the sun over a masked sea.
On a windy day, this display tracks with cotton-candy cloud billows racing toward Arizona’s monsoon thunderheads, as if the pink clouds morph to orange morph to gold, shape shifting and carrying the colors of the sun with them like Icarus in flight.
I dance around the yard to catch it all as close as possible. I circle once, circle twice, is this a pirouette? To the West fence for the first signs of pigment migration, to the East fence to confirm if it really is going 360 tonight, then, awestruck on Sasha’s perch, twirling. The Western clouds are pink, it must be over. Now they’re orange, and they beautifully complement the blue. I’ll take a picture today and paint it tomorrow. Then, fire, like an after image of the orange on blue seared into my retina. I sigh, it’s over. But then it turns gold, a true yellow gold like the Oxus Treasure. Burning hot and bright then all at once over.
Purples, indigos, blues, fading to black. And a calm, giddy smile on my face, from Sasha’s perch. She likes watching sunsets, too.
Last year I spent a long weekend in Joshua Tree at the end of June, which ushers in the hi-desert’s hottest season. Temperatures climb into the 100’s and the sun bakes the earth. This year, I was prepared for the same when I took nearly a week at the Mojave House over the 4th of July.
It wasn’t actually that bad! But the sun is still intense, and I have fantastic air conditioning in just one room. So, measures had to be taken. I had to master the art of the siesta. The key, my friends, is coconut sorbet with iced sun tea. It’s like a double-punch of electrolytes and caffeine - just what you need to rehydrate and recharge.
First, if you move to the desert, bring an ice cream maker.
Second, if you don’t have TV or internet, get a complicated cookbook, like the Ciao Bella gelato/sorbetto bible.
Third, visit your local farmer’s market! You may just meet a lovely Persian-Armenian who blends her own saffron black tea.
The night before, make your coconut sorbet base, and chill in the fridge overnight. Ciao Bella’s recipe uses coconut water, water, sugar, and shredded coconut that gets mixed in right before churning. Then, in the morning, stick the base into the ice cream maker. Liberally drizzle caramel sauce over it when it’s done churning, then pop it into the freezer. (I don’t even take it out of the mixer - just straight in.)
Your second morning task is to pop 2 tea bags and cold water into a mason jar, then leave it outside in the sunniest spot. Ideally, this location will not see shade until afternoon. This is the time to give some love to that otherwise un-usable section of patio.
Then, pretend you’re in a regular climate and go about your day doing all of the things. At about 1 or 2 you will collapse, begin feeling light-headed, and ask yourself why your lips are continuously parched even though you are drinking plenty of water. It’s time to replenish.
Scoop out some of that sorbet, and pour your sun tea over a glass full of ice, then put your feet up. Between the rejuvenating electrolytes in the coconut sorbet and the way the sultry sweet caramel brings out the saffron in the tea, you’ll be recharged and ready to tackle the rest of your day in no time. Just stay inside until it cools down a bit.
There’s a mouse in the house. Or, maybe a rat. Or, possibly a family of rats, which explains the cute ears but small size. Whatever it or they are, though, is resourceful. We’re currently renegotiating their rent control.
I’ve been in the Mojave House now for almost six weeks. I consider it warmed. My parents and close friends came for Memorial Day weekend and it functioned as a dwelling, both indoors and out. I’m writing this from the outsized comfort of a $300 IKEA outdoor sofa on the patio, which seems idyllic if you don’t consider the sunburn I’m getting on just my left ear. There is still work to be done.
This project never was a reno, and I am so grateful for that. I am one person. And, this is a weekend place for now. But there are a few things that need to be done, because is any house ever really move-in ready? You leave it for just a hot second and mice, escaping from hurricane force winds, move in. These are my top priorities:
1. Art Studio/Shed: I got a place in the desert so that I can have a detached art studio. The first place I looked at had a rectangular studio that opened with French doors onto its own patio, creating an indoor-outdoor workspace. I want that, but more square. This place has a great 13 x 15 studio with French doors… and the roof is caving in. It is unsafe. We must rebuild, to code, at 10 x 12. The slab is still good, so now I just have to decide what I want, who will help me make it, how to get the old one out, and how to re-do the fencing. There’s already a gate for horses and a hitching post… they may help. I have the beginnings of a plan and am soliciting ideas.
2. Window Coverings: I have a textile addiction issue. I really like them. I like to scour the world for motifs, learn about techniques, and buy the pretty ones. I literally have contemporary batik from Malaysia that I bought thinking “I have no use for this, but I see it being a window covering.” When my mom insisted the window coverings of my house were to be included in the sale, a small part of my heart sank. When I moved in, the owner absconded with everything in spite of the contract. No curtain rods, no curtains, temperatures pushing 100 and 12 windows to deal with. I took what I believe to be an affordable course of action to rectify this with my own handmade window coverings. Thank you, Pinterest. The living room will be Malaysia themed, and if this makes sense to you, this is what I’m going for:
Maybe I should use Guatemalan woven accents in the kitchen, or West African prints in the bedroom? There are so many options, but I put up some field expedient ikea liners and old curtains I made myself when I was a very entry-level employee until I can decide. Shibori, you ask? That will be the the throw rugs at the entrance and exit.
And then this…
3. Mice in the Exterior, I swear not inside: The legal documents I signed would suggest that something with four legs that climbs vertically and chirps at 4 a.m.moved into the house once the previous owner put it up for sale. There is no sign of them inside the house, but they are somehow between the drywall and the siding, or the ceiling and the roof. The inspector did not find any holes, but my dog found one access point. We plugged everything. They still make their way in from a mystery location. Two weeks ago, I guessed that location was the exterior water closet ceiling, which is not fully visible. We knew something lived in there, but since it isn’t in the house I didn’t worry too much. We cut a new door to fit, we plugged holes, and then I saw that the rodent brought in all this old construction material to stuff a McMansion between the door and the hot water heater. The next day she barricaded it with pieces of spiky cactus. Also, those three little Stuart Littles I saw last time? Probably babies because the momma is bigger, likely identifiable with the desert rat who was peering into my screen door watching me do a Green Bay Packers puzzle for hours on end.
Did I mention she is now using a key for her house?
I’ve jury-rigged a temporary solution - door sweeps and a really big rock. This has kept the destruction at bay, but I suspect there are live mousetraps and a drive down the road in my near future.
My goal here is to observe the seasons change and watch the wildlife go about their days. The dogs are amazingly on the same page. Aside from the mice, we have rabbits, jackrabbits, coyotes, kangaroo rats, a very social roadrunner, and quails, all of whom pop by to say hello on schedule.
It’s jackrabbit hour. I must be going.
No matter what your week looks like, there’s nothing like pulling up to your house at 11 p.m. and seeing the Milky Way.
When I first started this house-in-the-desert boondoggle, I was in the throes of February loneliness. I had just turned 36, and that’s a challenging, if scientifically anachronistic, number for a single woman. Where had the time gone while I was doing what I was supposed to be doing, and why did the doing not lead to the family I was promised if I did what I was told? Why was I so very, very alone? I solicited the thoughts and pity of friends near and far, since my West Coast pool was certainly limited. But, even as people declined invitations due to family commitments or errand fatigue, we made plans. I would double down, make an effort to meet someone, and not be alone forever. My friends would support me via text messages during specific windows of time when their attention was not otherwise allotted. Add to that emotional mess an unusual amount of rain in the Southern California climate where my Vitamin D-addicted body landed a year prior, and I was bound to do one of two things: make a rash decision or wallow with rose and frosting for dinner.
Yet, whenever I took myself on a long art-making weekend in Joshua Tree, there was no loneliness in being alone. The granite slabs of the Mojave welcomed me as I was, kept me up all night with crazy dreams, checked in with sunrises and sunsets, and opened their arms to my authentic, creative nature.
On paper I was supposed to be a career-oriented successful woman, enter into an elite pool of fascinating people, cherry-pick one of them to marry, and then affordably raise kids in international schools abroad while saving the world as part of a power couple. So, I should probably have focused on getting that next promotion and networking for a management position. As a qualified polyglot without the burden of family, that meant Central Asia again as a hot-shot bosswoman, a war zone to prove how much I loved to sacrifice, or - most intriguing - a slice of Africa with terrorists.
The only kicker was, my 30-something male peers were not single, and after a decade plus of that environment I wasn’t positive they were my type. Was I my type? What the hell was I doing, anyway?
After facing slammed door after slammed door at work, the only thing that gave me a feeling of agency was to just do the damn opposite. I’m lonely? Great, I’ll go be alone and live as an eccentric hermit. That made far more sense to me than continuing on the same path, if continuing meant treading stagnant water. In an effort to incorporate my personal goals into my life, I decided to pursue the opposite of what I thought I wanted.
Logically, this did not make sense to me, and I struggled to put my finger on it. I eschewed the term “authenticity” as a branding buzzword, fearing that if I valued it I would tumble down a path of excessive self-care straight into narcissism. There was something else gnawing at me that I couldn’t put my finger on. My best friend told me it was indeed authenticity I was searching for. I told myself it was freedom through burning it all down.
After months, maybe years, of stagnation, I found momentum in the Mojave. Not only would getting a place there chop my debt by a third (paradoxical, I know), but in February a little blue house with a shed-studio popped onto the market for a hot second. I made an offer with the determination that this process would bring me joy and freedom rather than stress, because really - why was I buying a house in the desert? It fit nothing in my life as it existed on paper. Intuitively, though, this was the only thing that had felt right in a long time, and as I moved through escrow, unexpected doors in the desert began to open.
Around this time, as I wired many thousands of dollars, I started to hear it articulated. On a podcast, someone mentioned that it is the thing to which you have the most resistance that is the most interesting. In the words of Wesley AKA The Dread Pirate Roberts at the Fire Swamp, “the only way out is through.”
The only way out is through. I’m lonely? Fine, I’ll go be alone. Or, as my friend saw it, I’ll go do the thing that feels like me and turn my back on what is expected of me. I’ll live my authentic life.