Splendid Isolation

(Lucas Foglia)
By Cheryl Strayed
Sunday, July 13, 2008

THERE WAS NO MUSIC IN MY HOUSE THE SUMMER I WAS 13, so when I recall that time now, it's strange that a phalanx of songs comes to mind: "Tainted Love" and "Eye of the Tiger," "Abracadabra" and "Don't You Want Me," along with the rest of their snappy compatriots on the pop charts in June and July and August of 1982. Those songs were always playing on the radio in my mother's car when we went to town that summer, a once-or-twice-a-week excursion that was, to me, nothing short of bliss. I was living with my family in a 20-by-20 tar-paper shack without electricity or running water or indoor plumbing or a telephone on 40 acres of land in north-central Minnesota on a gravel road in an unmarked, sparsely populated patch of the county called Beaver Township, 20 miles from the nearest town.

Town, town, the word still claws glamorously at my insides, evokes an eternal shimmer of possibility. In town, there were people and businesses and things to do, even if those things were only playing a round of Ms. Pac-Man or eating a frozen pizza heated up in a bar toaster oven or sitting in the car listening to the radio station from Duluth whose signal reached us just barely once we got to town.

I was paralyzed with the joy of it all, but especially with the joy of the latter. I devoured the synthetic beats and electronic turns and suggestive lyrics, carried those songs with me all that summer. It was the first summer of my teen years and the last of my childhood. I was pre-menarche and pre-high school, pre-boyfriend and pre-starving myself to a stick. I wore my hair long and often tied unironically into two thick braids along the sides of my head. My face was bare of makeup, my hips ample with unself-conscious flesh. But in every superficial note of my mom's car radio in town, I felt myself losing that girl I was and hurling instead toward the girl I yearned to be: someone sultry and sophisticated, cosmopolitan and chic.

A girl whose emergence was, without question, delayed by a summer in the woods living like a pioneer.

"It's ours," my mother had said incredulously again and again the autumn before, after she and my stepfather had purchased the land. They'd paid in cash. Twelve thousand dollars -- the entire amount that my stepfather had recently been awarded in a judgment against his former employer, after he'd broken his back in a fall from a roof nearly two years earlier. It was the most cash either of my parents had ever had or would have. The land, the first significant thing we'd ever owned. We'd been renters always, bouncing from one ramshackle house or shoddy apartment to another in my family's every incarnation -- my mother married to my father, my mother married to no one, my mother married to my stepfather. And now, at last, we had a place that my mother referred to in an exalted voice as home, though I, at 13, bitterly questioned that description.

There was no house. There had never been a house. We would build one ourselves when we moved onto the land the following summer. It was this prospect that compelled me, however grudgingly, to cooperate with my parents' dream of homesteading; that quelled the resentment I felt about being forced to leave the town 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis where I'd lived since I was 6. My adolescent rancor aside, I was excited about the potential of my new life. In our new house I'd been promised, for the first time ever, a room of my own. In it, I would sit and read in peace or write in my diary without anyone lurking nearby to peek over my shoulder. I would listen to music, regardless of radio reception, playing cassette tapes on a stereo that I believed would materialize with the room. In utter privacy, I'd dress for school in alluring, fashionable clothes I didn't own -- things like black leather pants and lacy halter tops and spiky heels -- applying copious makeup before a mirror that was mine alone, in preparation for a day as a ninth-grader at McGregor High, the school I'd begin attending come September. There, I planned to shuck off my old reputation as a sturdy, avid, curious, book-loving girl in favor of one more coolly indifferent and darkly aloof.

IN MY FANTASY MUSINGS, OUR HOUSE WAS CONSTRUCTED ALREADY, but up close the pace was glacial, the progress painfully specific, the task unimaginably big. And before we could even begin to build what we referred to as the real house, we needed to build a place that would shelter us temporarily.

All through that autumn and winter and spring, we spent our weekends in Beaver Township, making the three-hour drive north each Friday night from the town where we lived. Over the course of those weekends, my stepfather and mother built our tar-paper shack out of scrap wood, while my younger brother, older sister and I tamed the area that surrounded it, creating a tiny outpost of civilization in the wilderness. Our 40 acres were a perfect square of trees and bushes and weedy grasses and swampy ponds and bogs clotted with cattails, with nothing to differentiate it from the trees and bushes and grasses and ponds and bogs that surrounded it in every direction. Each side of our property was a quarter-mile. Together, my family walked the perimeter in those first months as landowners, pushing our way through the wilderness on the two sides that didn't border the road, as if to walk it would seal it off from the rest of the world, make it ours. And, slowly, it did. Trees that had once looked like any other to me grew as recognizable as the faces of old friends in a crowd, their branches gesturing with sudden meaning, their leaves beckoning like identifiable hands. Clumps of grass and the edges of the now-familiar bog became landmarks, guides, indecipherable to everyone but us.

In early June, the day after I finished eighth grade, we moved up north for good. Or rather, my mother and my two siblings and I did, along with our two horses, our cats and our dogs, and a box of 10 baby chicks that my mom got for free at the feed store for buying 25 pounds of chicken feed. My stepfather would continue driving up on weekends throughout the summer and then stay up come fall. His back had healed enough that he could finally work again, and his job as a carpenter during the busy season was too lucrative to give up just yet.

The four of us were alone together again, just as we'd been during the six years that my mom had been single, and our days and nights felt familiar in tone, though they were entirely different in content. Waking or sleeping, we were scarcely out of one another's sight. My siblings and I had always squabbled, in the passing, ordinary, vicious way that siblings do -- over who got to sit in the front seat or consume the last handful of chips -- but now our battles grew epic, intensified by unbroken proximity, unbridled by space or time. My sister was 16; my brother 10. Almost always when we fought it was two against one, and I, the middle child, was rarely the odd one out. I would join with my sister against our brother when he annoyed us with his childish ways -- when he fiddled with the dial of the car radio or gauged his dirty fingers into our cherry-scented lip balm -- and with my brother against my sister when she veered into her most insufferable teen-girl moods and ruined our fun.

My sister and I shared a bed on a lofted platform built so close to the ceiling that we could only barely sit up. Our brother slept a few feet away on his own smaller platform, and our mother was in a bed on the floor below, joined by our stepfather on the weekends. Every night we talked one another to sleep, slumber-party style, telling old family stories, alternately laughing or squabbling about the day's events, or complaining bitterly about our new living conditions.

"You'll thank me for this experience someday," my mother always said, when my siblings and I launched into a bitch session about all the things we no longer had, the new discomforts we had no choice but to endure. We'd never lived in an exactly urban environment or in any manner resembling luxury, but we had lived among the comforts of the modern age. There had always been a television in our house, not to mention a flush toilet and a tap where you could get a glass of water. In our new life as pioneers, even meeting the simplest needs often involved a grueling array of tasks, rigorous and full of boondoggle. Our kitchen was a Coleman camp stove, a fire ring, an old-fashioned ice box my stepfather built that depended on actual ice to keep things even mildly cool, a detached sink propped against an outside wall of the shack, and a bucket of water with a lid on it. Each component demanded just slightly less than it gave, needing to be tended and maintained, filled and unfilled, hauled and dumped, pumped and primed and stoked and monitored.

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