I bought a house in the middle of nowhere - #1
“Yeah, I loved it, but she’d never move there.”
It was something akin to that, at least. He didn’t mean any mischief, no deceit or planning. It was an honest take on what, at the time, was true. I saw the road into town on Google Maps, noted that it was closed during the winter, acknowledged the reality that a person can own a snowmobile, and I said, “we are not moving there.”
But, all good truths are just dares in the making. And here I am, living in the “there” I said I would not.
Two years ago, I left my job at Headspace for a life reset. It was pre-pandemic, and Ben and I were planning a big road trip. Our perfect paradise in Topanga, CA, had crystallized itself as many people’s perfect paradise, and those “many people” all had more money than us. Our options to buy a home were nil, and home-buying was essentially all we wanted. Ben’s a builder and I’m a world builder, and we wanted somewhere to invest that didn’t belong to someone else.
We packed the car with the tent and the bikes and the dog and all the things that come with tents and bikes and dogs, and off we went on our own Tour de l’Ouest, looking for a place to call home. We knew what we wanted, knew our odds of finding it, and hit the road anyway. Here was the dream list — concocted by two pie-in-the-sky dummies who married each other:
Not rainy or consistently windy
Notable access to the arts
Remote and challenging to get to/close neighbors
Wild West influenced architecture
Exceptional trail access out the front door
In our budget
And my personal favorite: had to “feel right”
Good luck to us with a list like that, but thus began our hunt. We camped in the snow, tried every dirty chai in the Rockies, and explored every town we could. Whatever a good time it was, it felt useless. Every town Ben was OK with, I hated. Every town I was OK with, Ben despised. And the few places we both loved required money we just didn’t have. We came home with our sails down, limping into the harbor of our rental.
But as is the way with romantics, our dreams began to slowly eclipse our reality. Books fell victim to Zillow and Trulia. TV was replaced by the MLS. All writing time was dedicated to Realtor.com. Hours were spent pouring over maps, county records, and updating spreadsheets that tracked price per square foot compared to beds and baths.
Over time, all that internetting led to one singular town of 180 people at 10,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado with a road that said “Closed Winters” on Google Maps.
Look, I don’t know what happened. Ben found this town on a map, I said don’t be ridiculous, and after a year or so of him telling people I'd never move here, here I am, being ridiculous. Was it reverse psychology? Maybe. Was it the charming “town plan” that mandated all houses be rustic cabins and forbade AirBnB? Could be. Was it the fact that when I looked at Strava’s Heatmap, it showed what seemed like thousands of miles of trails just out the front door? I mean, yes. All these things played a part, but all I know for certain is that one day I woke up and said, “we’re going to move there.” Ben doubted this conviction (and the realities behind it) thus cementing it into place in my head.
In a town of 180 people there’s only ~60 houses, which means maybe 2 or 3 get listed per year — but my spreadsheet had the proof: we hadn’t missed our chance yet in this tiny town. The data showed a strong likelihood there would be at least two houses listed within the calendar year. This, however, was also our last chance. The spreadsheet also showed that if we didn’t find a house this year, we wouldn’t be able to afford one the next.
We called a realtor, made our case, and harangued her until she believed us that we were truly the kind of yahoos who would move to an avalanche field and stay there.
And then it happened. A pocket listing. It was a darling home built in 1890. It had the beds, the baths, and the views. We were the first and only to know. We put in an offer, they agreed, and we would come to see the house in a few weeks. But in those few weeks, the circumstances changed. The sellers lost their own sweet deal, and they couldn’t sell yet. Their agent promised we had right of first refusal, it was only a matter of time. Ben lamented, I preached patience, and we went to see the house that was no longer for sale anyway.
It was a quiet winter morning in Covid when we drove across the packed snow to meet our realtor outside the house. The sun was out and the 13 degrees Fahrenheit felt warm. I unzipped my jacket, mask on my face. I took long videos and talked about where I would set up my office and where we’d put the bikes. As we closed up and I settled into a future where this house would eventually be mine, our realtor told us there were comps in the area — other residents quietly interested in potentially closing out. Would we like to see them? Sure, let’s.
One home came with an incredible commercial kitchen. The whole house was a whopping 3500 sq ft if my memory serves me correct, which falls under the category of “houses too big to find your cat in."
Another home had an open-air-to-the-kitchen bathroom.
The third was dark and overpriced with cracked windows and open beer cans scattered about.
And then, plans changed.
“Hey guys, there’s actually one more house we can see.”
The last house we saw was a log cabin, nestled in the hillside by itself, with massive A-frame windows looking out onto the peaks beyond. Inside was a labyrinth of a life lived long and large. The cabin was built and loved by a man we’ll call Jack. Jack was 82, and as we walked toward the front door on that sunny winter morning, he exited with two beers in his pockets, headed to the mountain to ski. Jack was an attorney — in his life he’d been both criminal and defender — and from the stories, somewhat interchangeably. There were artifacts from running in the same scenes as Hunter S. Thompson and Willie Nelson; there were stuffed birds, bad books, sheet-covered couches, smoked spliffs, and piles and piles of mouse shit. Every inch of the house was lived in, and not just by people. You think millennials like plants? No. This man likes plants. The biggest monstera deliciosa I’ve ever seen, spanning some 10 feet wide and 15 feet tall. Draping cactuses, spider plants, massive aloes, and an ambitious hoya carnosa clawing its way to the top of the massive fireplace.
But there were problems. I’m trying to be diplomatic saying the house was lived in. The wood by the door handles was dyed black from years of hand grease rubbing against it. The carpet in the upstairs was soiled almost everywhere with bat scat. Newspaper was stuffed between the massive logs to keep the wind out. There was cardboard taped over almost every window, blankets nailed over the others. Half the doors wouldn’t open. It was unnerving to touch the crusted light switches. It was early enough in the season of Covid-fear that touching anything felt like gambling. On our way back to our rental in the bigger neighboring town, we shared our awe and our no-ways, lamenting how long we’d have to wait for the little 1890s fixer upper.
That night, I sent the video I took of the cabin to my parents. “Can you believe this?” I asked.
And do you know what my dad said?
“Great log construction.”
After that, the cabin was all we could talk about. “Could you believe those plants?” “Did you see how big those logs were?” “I just googled Jack, look at this.” “Do you know what the insulating factor of logs is?” “How much did he say he was asking?”
It came down to the plants. Amidst all the chaos in that house, the tender care of those decades-old plants sung the clearest. This wasn’t just a place Jack lived in, it was a place that wanted to be lived in. We made an offer the next day.
Jack had six months to clear out his 30 odd years of collecting, and the town had six months to speculate about the worrisome Californians moving to their high-altitude, high-risk town.
The town itself is an old mining town. It rests in a high valley, surrounded by peaks over 13,000ft, and is over six hours from the nearest major airport. Five people died around this town in avalanches this past year. The dirt road into town is littered with avalanche fields, warning visitors to not stop when driving in. The other way out is a pass road, only drivable in the warm months, but you could skin out if it was dire. Most August days, the high is in the mid-60s. The valley is blanketed in wildflowers, and the aspens littering the mountainsides suggest a promising fall display. The town had a heyday, a low day, and now it’s a community of preppers, adventurers, appreciators, and “get all these idiots away from me”ers. We don’t know these people yet, but the ones we’ve met have the same like to live hard attitude we do. Heli-ski guides, ex-CIA agents, woodworkers, bakers, teachers, just a general can-do group of people. The kind of people that see a California license plate and peer with skepticism between the thin gap over their sunglasses and under their caps.
You might say I’m romanticizing the place, but the residents are worse. Like all good old-timers, they’re full of threats: “wait’ll you see the snow drifts,” “let’s see how you do outrunning an avalanche,” “good luck with the winds,” “the last Californians didn’t last a year.”
God, what does that remind me of?
“Yeah, I loved it, but she’d never move there.”
With every taunt, my teeth ground more enamel, fingers rolling into a clench. And maybe Jack recognized this intensity, because on the day of closing, he hosted a gathering for us in the town's open space. He had us introduce ourselves to the skeptical locals, and I made my case in court, eyes narrowed and lips curled.
“I’m the daughter of a smokejumper and wildlife biologist. I grew up watching the wind and the door. I’ve lived in big cities, small boats, and more than one cabin. I always take the stairs, I never use air-conditioning, and I’m a very good shot.”
I’m just a girl, standing in front of a town, asking them to give her a fucking chance.
Jack stepped forward to speak. “You know, I had my doubts about a couple Californians coming to look at my house. But these people? These are the nicest people you’re ever gonna meet.”
And then I helped Jack set up his cot so he could spend his last night under the stars in the town that kept him young. Cooper ran circles with the other dogs. People brought homemade cocktails and bowls of dip and we felt welcomed. Even the mayor, a fellow writer, came and she struck up a conversation.
“I hear you’ve got a little bit of a following on social media!” She teased.
“I guess, nothing wild.”
“Well I just wanted to let you know if you ever geotag this town, I’ll drag you out of it.”
This was a special place. And every visitor who couldn’t handle the realities of being here threatened the very wellbeing of the people who lived here. This town survives on a delicate balance. They source their own water, manage their own roads, and fervently protect the land and the people around them. Their stories about racing avalanches, snowmobiling in the dark of night to the doctor’s house, hunkering down in each other’s homes as the storms pass — these stories were bylaws. You can join when you’ve proven you’re ready to join. By their own projection, they are hardy and steadfast people, and when they see a Californian, they see something fleeting.
Many years ago, I worked in the British Virgin Islands. The people born and raised there were called Belongers. At the customs office, the placards above the lines literally read, “If you belong, stand here” and “If you do not belong, stand here.”
Whether or not we belong isn't up to the town council, and it's not up to these residents. It's up to years spent drifting my old Mustang in the snow on the way to school, up to Ben's months and months spent in the backcountry, up to my years of reading fire reports and assisting with evacuations, up to Ben's ability to read the landscape and the weather, up to my doggedness, his diligence, and our pathological love to do difficult things well. It’s up to us, to these old logs, and to this valley. Doesn't mean we'll belong, but it does mean we'll try.
And for the record, the road is open in the winter. But do these sound like the kind of people who’d tell Google that?
Next week, a tour of the house that we get to call ours — stuffed with newspaper, run by plants, and filled with mice.
P.S. Here's where we get our mail.