I moved to a cabin in the woods to escape the hustle of the city and lead a simple life. But that dream wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In 2008, armed with a $150,000 cash-out from a marital split and business sale, I left the metro-sprawl of Phoenix and headed north for the small town of Prescott to live the dream. With my hot little chunk of money, I planned to buy a modest home and attend graduate school sans student loans.
I longed to live under a canopy of trees and clear skies with a menagerie of wildlife, shed the responsibilities of being a business owner, embrace creativity, and just get real. To a certain extent, I got that chance, although I also picked up some unexpected lessons along the way.
For one thing, I learned that my pile of money wouldn’t go that far.
When I contacted real estate agents looking for a fixer-upper for less than 100K, most of them scoffed at me. I am stubborn, though, so I scanned the real estate listings daily, and soon stumbled upon a cabin for $92,000. I called the least judgmental realtor I’d met, but even she said, “Don’t go in there. That place is beyond repair.”
The ripped-up screen door was unlocked, though, so my boyfriend John and I went in anyway. This 1,200-square foot shotgun shack had a saggy foundation, was draped in cobwebs and littered with cracked-out glass, empty prescription drug bottles, Pay Day Loan receipts, tampon applicators, and broken toys. Flies swarmed a dead javelina carcass in the cellar, but the Ponderosa pines and mountain views were postcard-worthy. Sold!
Over the next couple months, I leaked another $20,000 to make my dream cabin habitable and even attractive, which was amazingly cheap, considering. By autumn, all that hard work paid off to transform my ugliest-cabin-on-the-block into near magazine-spread material, although its value tumbled lower than my purchase price almost immediately after George Bush hit the airwaves with his “We gotta save the banks!” speech.
For a while, I really did feel like my dreams had come true, residing in a place where bank tellers and postal clerks called me by name, unlocked front doors were the norm, and wildlife was a daily occurrence rather than a trip to the zoo.
I mean, roving bands of javelinas paraded through my neighborhood, squirrels chased each other around like children, and coyotes howled nightly.
And the birds were more entertaining than TV, flocking to a bird feeder that dangled outside my living room window: red-headed woodpeckers, lemon-yellow finches, black-and-white vampire birds with widow’s peaks, ravens and crows perching in treetops.
What more could a person want from life?
“So, you’re livin’ the dream,” said my cousin Scott at my uncle’s memorial service.
Well, maybe not.
Who knew that water and sewer pipes leading elsewhere were luxuries? In my neighborhood, water came from a private well, swam with minerals that jammed up appliances and turned previously silken hair strands into Brillo pads. The water’s drinkability was iffy due to contaminants from nearby mine shafts, so I continually lugged plastic jugs filled from the nearest Safeway’s vending machine.
I also became well acquainted with the travels of sewage via my septic system, as the cement tank was housed and accessible through a trap door in my master bedroom, from which wastewater would eventually seep into surrounding leach fields.
A rather critical deficit in my knowledge bank was that small towns have few jobs, and the ones they do have pay less than the same positions in cities. While living in Prescott, I toiled away as a census worker, a van-driving respite provider for foster kids, and an Internet content writer challenged by spotty Wi-Fi, because cable Internet service was not available in the forest.
Oh, how I began to yearn for parts of my discarded life.
Within a few years, I grew tired. I ran out of money and ended up borrowing my second year’s graduate school tuition from the student loan sharks. I got sick of typing articles about garage door repair and plastic surgery procedures for pennies a word, wearing a wool cap indoors to stay warm, and eking groceries from the dollar store. So at the end of 2011, I cashed in once again and headed back to Phoenix.
What I hadn’t expected upon my return to the big city was the slew of forgotten comforts that greeted me. Friends from past decades stepped up and invited me back into their lives. There was culture and public transportation: the light-rail, Phoenix Art Museum, Burton Barr Library, and Changing Hands Bookstore, which is as cool as Portland’s famous Powell’s. What had seemed like a dismal metropolis when I’d departed suddenly seemed opportunity-filled and vibrant.
I found work as an adjunct instructor at a downtown community college and bought a humble ’70s ranch house at the base of a mountain. Sure, there’s a bit of crime and smidgen of smog, but basking in a never-ending stack of essays written by brilliantly persevering students makes it well worth it.
I mean, what more could a person want from life?
Dreams change…because dreamers change.
Susan Vespoli lives in Phoenix, although she still regularly visits Prescott. She received her MFA in poetry from Antioch University LA in 2010, and has poems and prose published in various online and in-print journals and anthologies.