This morning I lifted the hatch-back door of the Outback and voila! there was my pantry, everything neat and tidy and inviolable in plastic drawers and boxes. And there it was, as usual, the sprinkling of little black mouse turds over everything. I have faced this every morning for weeks and weeks and have shrugged it off. I’ve even smiled at the reminder that I share this earth with all my fellow creatures. I even admire their tenacity, the way they continue casing the joint, night after night, even though they never find anything to eat.
But this morning it got to me. I resented in retrospect all the mornings I’ve had to clean up after others. I thought about all the reports I’ve read about the hantavirus that is spread by mouse droppings. I pictured hundreds of mice climbing up the wheels every night with triumphant little squeaks, scampering all around MY car, over MY stuff.
And when I went over to the picnic table I found it covered, as always, with the slightly larger black pellets that the chipmunks leave. For the first time since this trip began, almost three months ago, I got an image of my rodent-free kitchen at home and wished I were in it.
That got me wondering what else I missed about home, so I decided to make a list. It was surprisingly short:
My home-alone button
That’s it, that’s all I could come up with. What’s striking to me is what ISN’T on it:
Running water. I still enjoy filling my water jugs at a spigot and carrying them to my campsite, even though they seem heavier every year. Women have been going to the well since time immemorial, and I can feel that history reverberating deep in my DNA. I like being conscious of each drop of this dwindling life-essential, and when I pour it out of the jug it sometimes looks to me like melted diamonds. Most of us think we couldn’t possibly live without a daily shower, especially in hot weather, but it’s easy, I keep clean enough with sponge baths and handi-wipes. And showers are available in the recreation centers of most towns, for an exhilarating treat now and then.
Electricity. I use almost none in my daily camping life, even now with the Scamp. I prefer the solar lamps I have, and the fridge runs on teaspoonfuls of propane. I do have to charge my laptop and I do that while I’m driving around, or when I go to a library to use their wi-fi.
My self-imposed exile from the world of electricity is one of the things that makes my long solitary nomadic summer trips so compelling. I find it deeply, mysteriously rewarding to live for some months every year in a way that is as different as I can make it from my life at home. It keeps parts of me alive and kicking that might otherwise fade into disuse.
It was while I was eating my breakfast that five words sprang into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere: it’s time to go home. I hadn’t been thinking that when I woke up but some rumblings must have been at work subliminally, maybe for days, and those little black pellets just pushed me over the edge. It happens like that every summer on my trips, suddenly one morning it’s time to go home.
When I looked at my calendar and saw September 1 on the new page, the day I might get home, something jolted me. September 1 had had some important meaning in my past, what was it?
It wasn’t until late morning, walking in the San Juan Mountains under aspen trees along the side of a lake, that it came to me. It happened exactly eleven years ago, and I have not thought about that day in all those eleven years. September 1, 2004. I pictured it vividly now. I saw myself walking towards my car in the parking lot of my office in the town of Red Hook, N.Y. I had just locked the door for the very last time, and as I walked towards my car I turned to take one last look. The sign on the door still said
Elizabeth LaFarge, Ph.D. — Psychologist
and I remembered how it hit me back then: “Oh my god, I will never do therapy again. Never again in my entire life. It is really over.”
I could see myself standing there, looking up at the building in which I had spent the major part of my life for twenty years. It was late evening, the doctors and the dentist had gone home, I had always been the last one to leave at the end of a day. My office was in the basement with the entry in back, perfect for a therapy office, people could enter unseen. The stairs going down directly to the waiting room were perfect too, leading to a space that was partially underground, an unusual realm. A fitting entry to the unique relationship that is the bedrock of therapy.
Standing under the aspens by the lake, I could still see that dark empty parking lot, the scattered houses all around, a few trees, the street lights just turning on. An ordinary-looking little town. And yet through that door that still held my name, down those stairs into that netherworld, I had had an extraordinary life.
I would wait in my comfortable leather chair and they came, one after the other, all day long. During the intense fifty minutes I sat with each person, they allowed me into the inner recesses of their lives, their thoughts, their feelings. They all came in search of something, hoping for change or relief or understanding, and it was my job to help them find it. There was never a split second when I wished I had chosen a different profession.
And yet there I was, after altogether a total of 34 years of being a psychologist, walking away from it all, never to return.
Did I become sad and full of regrets as I stood by the lake? I did have a fleeting frisson of nostalgia, remembering such a different time in my life, remembering myself as Dr. LaFarge and all that that had entailed, remembering what it was like to have the ending of my life seem far away. But regret? No way! I still, after all these eleven years, wake up every morning full of wonder and gratitude that I get to live this extraordinary life of almost total freedom.
I don’t even mind sharing with the little furry beasts. At least not on most days.