Jun 1, 2004

Growing up grinning barbarism
When we lived in the Mountain House

We burnt a couch, first thing we moved in this the house on the Sierra side of the mountains. We moved the giant once-white mouse-eaten monument to the folly and unpreparedeness of the former residents out beyond the gate, below the cliffs that rose out of the driveway, and set it on fire. We shouted for our barbarianism, grinning delight at our destructed of civilization and joined the wildness of those mountains in a flame that left nothing but a burn black patch and a pile of springs sifting into the dirt.

The house looked like a lodge, or sometimes a monastery, and felt like a castle. Built out of square rocks the size of giant’s head and beige wood. The fireplace was as large as an entryway, the small bedroom was 16 feet long, and medieval cast iron chandeliers hung from the ceilings. The place was built on the scale of Montana, where everything always looks small. It was on 10 acres, inside 10,000 acres of ranch, inside the national forest. It had been someone’s escape in the late 60s, someone’s manifestation of their personal boom, someone’s declaration of having it all. It was oversized, and I learned to pace there, to occupy space as a way of thinking.

The roof leaked. When it rained, my sister cooked under an umbrella and we readjusted all the furniture. In the early summer we’d fight the bats, three brother’s with brooms raised in the air trying to outwit sonar in a sport we didn’t have a name for. We insisted they were harmless but my mother and sister wouldn’t listen, so we’d keep score of bats knocked out. To the envy of my brothers and the horror of my mom, I discovered I could shoot the bats off the ceiling with a bb gun and they’d drop paralyzed and we’d throw them outside.

Those were the days of Y2K so we stored grain in the bomb shelter and I read militia literature and conservative doctrinaires. I starting writing an anti-ecclesiology and read everything I could raid from the bookstore and the library in the valley and bring back to my mountain house. I’d lay in bed looking at the rock wall or reading 1984 and listening to my first album, Dylan, whine that “the Lone Ranger and Tonto, ridin’ down the line, fixin’ everybody’s troubles, everybody’s ‘cept mine, someone must a told them I’s doin’ fine.” I split a lot of wood those summers, listening to talk radio and books on tape. I read Tom Paine and Steinbeck, the Greatest Speeches in American History, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and histories of post-colonial guerrilla war and when my mom asked me what I was preparing for, I didn’t know.

I had a .22. and a 30-30 I’d earned painting bee hives and my brother and I’d sit on the ruins of the swimming pool shooting soda cans lined up along the cliff. We’d see how high the cans’d jump if you shot them on the bottom edge. My brother shot a six-foot rattlesnake under the porch with Dad’s shotgun, saving the rattles and burying everything else, though I wanted to eat it. We wanted to shoot the bear that ate our dozen chickens, caving in the side of the coop wall and leaving feathered legs and wings strewn at random.

My little brothers caught fish without bait in our over stocked cow pond and we used to go swimming there on hot nights when there was a moon. Mom hated that pond, with cows drinking from the edges and six inches of mud on the bottom. We built a raft that half floated and would laze out to the middle on summer afternoons while our rancher neighbor bounced past in his jeep guiding some Hollywood producer wanting to bag our bear or some other trophy of the wildness we lived.

My brother and I learned to drive on those unpaved roads – seven miles of dirt driveway to the mailbox – gunning curves, jumping potholes and sliding washes. When it snowed we tried to make it up the hill but slid off the road you couldn’t see and had to walk back to the house for the other truck and a chain. The house was impossible to heat, so we wore our coats and hats all winter. I wore an old trench coat and mud boots, looking like some knock-off version of Mussolini.

In some ways, it was like Old Yeller but without a storyline, but mostly it wasn’t like anything at all. We made no apologies for the uniqueness: we weren’t a normal family; this wasn’t a normal house; these weren’t normal times. We were squatting in the ruins of normalcy and laughing a foreign laughter, scoffing at the lights below the mountains.

It was the only place I ever called home after we moved away.