Closing day, early morning. I stop by to pick up the keys. This is the second time I’ve seen the place. I’ve looked at nine-dollar T-shirts with more scrutiny than I looked at this trailer before deciding to buy it. The seller has left behind a decade of dust, bags of garbage, a cracked bong. Not only the floors but the walls and ceilings creak as I move, like the house is deciding whether to just collapse on me and be done with it. Maybe house is too generous a word for this sixty-year-old box on wheels. My sixty-year-old box on wheels. Oh my god.

Holding my breath, I survey the assortment of paneling on the walls and ceiling, the gaping hole behind the washer, the patina of mold in the bathroom. Everywhere, as my brother would say, entropy and decay.

What to do next? Run to the hardware store for rubber gloves, bleach, and an industrial broom? Call my realtor and beg her to undo the paperwork and tear up my check, save me from this folly? I feel a sensation of vertigo: my body poised on the edge of my old life, about to tip forward into this new life that smells of . . . what is the word? Poverty. Cigarettes and stale air—the smell of my father’s childhood in dying-town Missouri. When I was growing up, my parents hung on to the edge of the middle class with overdrawn bank accounts and credit-card debt, relying on the generosity of friends who occasionally left an envelope of cash in the mailbox or the pride of family members who would rather bail us out than see us fail. I absorbed that precariousness, viewing the world as a tightrope to be walked with the utmost focus. At some point I vowed that I would have money when I grew up. I didn’t want to be rich. I just wanted to have enough money so I wouldn’t have to worry about what I bought at the grocery store or whether I left the bathroom light on all night. Enough money not to need anyone’s help. Enough money to be free.

It seemed like a reasonable dream. Thirty years ago a person with a college degree could expect a desk job, a mortgage, a yard. But my generation’s coming-of-age has been marked by repeated financial crises and a runaway real-estate market that has catapulted homeownership beyond the reach of the merely educated. After finishing graduate school abroad, I returned home to find that my field had collapsed and my student loans were compounding. I applied for hundreds of jobs with nonprofit and humanitarian organizations, but these “entry-level” positions went to folks with a PhD and ten years’ experience. Eventually I accepted the sole offer that appeared: a job working for the US government as a diplomat.

What followed was a decade living overseas in high-rise apartment buildings, shuttled from embassy to embassy in armored vehicles. When I try to remember those days, everything is out of focus. Photos show a person I no longer recognize: a woman-child in flight, dashing off emails between airport terminals. The engine that kept me in motion was fear—fear of a life without the outward signs of success to give it meaning. Or maybe it was fear of what I would find inside myself if I slowed down long enough to look.


Now my fears are concentrated on the body of an aging trailer house that my five-month-old daughter and I will move into in a few days, when the lease on our apartment ends. I imagine her crawling through the filth and scraping lead paint off the walls as she learns to stand. I try not to think about what I’ll say when old friends reach out to ask what I’m up to.

None of this is how I planned it. I’d planned to make a baby with my ex-husband, not a raft guide in Colorado. My ex and I would raise our baby cradled within our ex-reality, where salary, health care, and family expectations aligned. We would trade our diplomatic passports for the political battlefield of Washington, DC, bring our baby home to a gentrified three-bedroom row house, get on lists for day cares, and bitch about the cost with our friends over wine-soaked nights out in Eastern Market.

But when we finally moved back to the United States, a hunger I couldn’t name set up shop in my belly. It was more demanding than depression, more crazed than melancholy. I tried to numb it with wine and Target runs, tried to quiet it with logic and reason. A house would build equity, I promised. We’ll get promoted. We’ll have a comfortable retirement. We’ll be safe. But the hunger didn’t give a damn. It seemed dead set on unzipping me from the person I had so carefully become.

I fought with my husband. I fought with my family. I fought with my boss. “What do you want?” they all asked, but I couldn’t answer. The answer was an unsayable thing. How do you tell the people you matter most to that they aren’t enough? That you’re willing to leave them behind so you can roll the dice?

“Your generation is spoiled,” I was told. “You think the world owes you happiness.”

No, I wanted to say, this isn’t about happiness. It’s about what you do when you look at your life and realize you wouldn’t choose it.

Finally one night on a full moon, a Tuesday, I put some clothes in a suitcase. In near-complete dissociation, I put the suitcase in the trunk of my beater and drove away. On a stop between DC and Virginia I finalized the paperwork that would allow me to take a year of unpaid leave from my job. For family reasons, I wrote. Family now being just myself—and the hunger.

Since I had no one else to ask, I asked the hunger where it wanted to go. It said, West, like that was a point on the map called Freedom. So I drove west. I stopped at a Walmart somewhere in Kansas and bought a propane camp stove and a tent, because hotels were not in the budget.

Flush with a $15,000 loan against my retirement, I drove to the Rocky Mountains, where the land was still wild and the people, upon meeting me, didn’t ask what I did for a living or what political party I identified with. I hiked beyond the cell towers, over fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, into the region’s longest slot canyon. The beater broke down eighty miles from a tow, which is what happens when you live out of a car that could legally buy you a drink. So I learned about the potato crop in that nowhere town and bathed in snowmelt and heard the voice of god on a heroic dose of magic mushrooms. I learned to boondock with the mice who made nests in my vehicle. I learned how kind and generous strangers can be, and how they will lose their minds with worry when you tell them you are a woman traveling alone.

In the midst of this adult gap year, I swiped right on a recently homeless raft guide with a beard—not a hipster beard but the kind of beard a man gets when he just stops shaving. We explored the deserts of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, talking about the Gnostic Gospels and cooking beans on the camp stove. We made love against trees and on rock ledges, waving to eagles, sharing our animal bodies with the land.

For years life had been what I did in airport terminals, the two or three drinks I swallowed before the next flight. But in that desert I was grounded. I could reach out and touch the flesh of the mountains, feel the spine of the earth. I followed the sound of water through forests, trusting that water to carry me back to the beater. I couldn’t bear to think of what had come before, and I had no idea what would come next.

And then one day I woke up with my breasts tingling. Fuck. I bought a pregnancy test and peed on the stick, and there was the bill. I was thirty-four, and despite the wave of nausea and terror that arrived to greet the revelation, I knew I would keep the baby.


The year before I left DC, I was at a bonfire where a stranger offered to read my palm. She was a glamorous older woman, an Upper East Side New Yorker, not at all the kind of person I’d expect to be skilled in the art of palmistry. Relaxed by whiskey, I held out my hand. She pointed to two lines. “This is the line your life is presently on,” she said. “If you stay here in this life, it begins to crisscross, lurching back and forth in growing conflict, then fading and petering out altogether. See? But if you jump over to this other life, the line grows solid and deep. You’ll write the things you should write, create what you should create, and find the older, wiser self you’ve been searching for—your free self.”

I left that bonfire determined not to let a chance encounter rattle me. But when I saw the two pink lines on the pregnancy test, the memory came back, along with the question I hadn’t summoned the sobriety or courage to ask: How do you jump between lives?

The woman didn’t tell me anything about the void between lines: the borderland of confusion and grief you have to pick your way through, where you have to break everything you’ve cherished, bury dreams that have lit your sky for a thousand nights, and sit in the wreckage and the darkness and wail.

Pregnancy was that place. Within days the sickness and depression set in, twin terrors that went about dismantling whatever sense of self I still had. My life seemed an imposition, a mistake, an endless battle against windmills of my own making. I wept and puked and wept again. I googled “Can crying too much hurt my unborn child?”

I took the pee stick over to show my raft-guide lover, Jesse. In a panic, he hightailed it out of Durango, Colorado, the tourist town where we’d both ended up. A week later he called.

“I’m camping on the Gauley,” he said. “And I took too much acid.”

“Uh-huh.” Must be nice, I thought from my supplicant’s position over the toilet.

“I saw a new star.” I heard the faraway-ness in his voice then, the tenderness and wonder. Something had happened. “I watched the star travel across the sky. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was our baby.”

Our baby. I curled into a ball on the bathroom floor, shaking—with anger or relief or just nausea. I couldn’t tell.

“I have a new purpose,” he whispered. “A new soulmate.”

“OK,” I said, the only word within reach.

“I’m coming home.”

I had no idea what he meant by that. My home—my old life—was a smoldering ruin. No new life had yet presented itself. There was only agony, and the road ahead to be walked. I had given up praying years before, but on the bathroom floor the words spilled out: Mother of God, have mercy on me. Mother Mary, guide me home.


I began thinking about Mary whenever I found myself kneeling over the toilet. I thought of her, a teenage girl in a rural backwater, trying to explain to the women in her life that she’d gotten knocked up while they were planning her wedding. I imagined the womenfolk conferencing to resolve the crisis. Maybe, after hearing Mary’s story, they decided they’d better cook up a more compelling version for the menfolk: angels, miracles, divine rape.

Or maybe, when they sat Mary down and asked for the truth, Mary could no more explain it than I can today. Maybe the truth was a miracle—ridiculous, inexplicable, life ruining. Maybe every life has its handful of miracles that must be confronted, times when the old world crumbles and you step forward into a new one where everything is different: no floor, no ceiling, no plans, just the raw edge of existence.


At eighteen weeks my body finally switched off the spigot of suicide hormones. I went an entire day without weeping or puking. Riding the last wave of my retirement loan, I rented a one-bedroom apartment with a closet that just held the smallest crib I could find. I collected dishes from thrift stores. Jesse helped me haul in free furniture I found on Facebook Marketplace. And I thought again about Mary: a new wife, figuring out how Joseph liked his dinner and how to stretch the grocery budget on a carpenter’s salary, planning for the birth, maybe wondering who the child would look like. I thought about the village that existed around her, a village that faced its share of unexpected miracles every day, hidden in huts and houses, tucked behind stoic faces.

Those thoughts comforted me in the loneliness of pregnancy. I was experiencing something I had only witnessed from the outside: how, in our culture, having a child is a consumer affair. The sting of the transition is dulled with purchases and gifts that must stand in for the wisdom and undergirding of a village. We ignore the fact that the journey from maiden to mother is not meant to be a happily-ever-after affair, but a story of exile, death, transformation, and rebirth.

But when I emerged from the hellscape of the first trimester, I was filled with the desire to be a person again. So when Jesse invited me to follow a caravan of rafters to the Arkansas River, I loaded my tent and propane stove in my old car. We arrived at dusk and unrolled our sleeping bags at the water’s edge.

“What do you think she’ll be like?” I asked Jesse.

He shrugged. “Like herself, as long as we don’t try to make her like someone else.”

“What if she’s scared of water?”

A look of genuine fear crossed his face.

“Or what if she hates Colorado and decides to drive across the county and go live out east?”

We laughed. Some of the rafters began dancing, a precarious waltz over boulders and swirling eddies. A meteor streaked overhead, and they cheered.

That night I dreamed of snow dancing and melting, rivers rising and falling, mountains I could find refuge in. I dreamed of a land that stretched beyond my fears and rock sturdy enough to hold it all. The decaying old life and the hungry new one. The grief and its softening.


Giving birth, like dying, is something you do alone—plugged in to machines, tape on your arm, acid burning your throat. Your lover, asleep nearby, might as well be in another state.

Some women say they feel contractions as a surge of energy that isn’t exactly pain. They say it crests like a wave, and you can get on top of it and ride it like a surfer. I’m not sure whether to envy them or call bullshit. Pain is pain. When the doctor asked how intense mine was, on a scale from one to ten, I thought, It started at a ten and went up from there. But there’s no reason to try to describe an experience that exists outside of language. If words could make you feel that pain, we wouldn’t use those words anyway.

Above me was an icon of the Virgin Mary my brother had painted when I’d told him I was pregnant. It was the only thing I’d thought to grab en route to the hospital when the midwife explained that she could not permit me to give birth at home as planned because my blood pressure was too high and my water had already broken. I’d looked around the room at the plastic trough we’d dragged in to use as a birth tub, the stacks of towels, the glow of sunlight on my orchids. I’d seen Mary’s eyes, fierce, tender, wise: Did you think this would go as you planned?

Now the nurses were saying, “She’s almost here.” And I was thinking, I have nothing else to give. I begged them for help. It took a long time to realize that they weren’t going to do anything. They were chatting about weekend plans, the weather, politics. Old hat, this miracle. I pushed and pushed, gathering strength where I could, mostly from anger that no one would help me. Flat on my back, hooked up to machines, I pushed a baby out. It didn’t feel like triumph. More like being lashed to a runaway horse.

Growing up in the church, we never spoke about Mary’s struggle to give birth far from home, without mother or aunties. Alone, she brought forth her miracle.

My daughter was on my chest crying, covered in shit and blood. There was nothing triumphant or beautiful about it, except everything. The cord was still pulsating, but she had left the home of my body. It’s up to me to make her a new one, I thought.


When my daughter was three months old, when the rawness of new motherhood had eased, I started to look for a place that could be ours. The rental market in Durango was a bubble with no signs of popping, but we’d begun to put down roots. I’d joined a circle of new moms who met to talk about our postpartum hemorrhoids and sleepless nights. Jesse had introduced me to his circus of river folk who lived in school buses or eight to a house as they worked seasonal jobs and chased “big water.” For the first time in my adult life, I recognized people in the grocery store, bumped into friends at the coffee shop, and could call someone to bring me a meal when my daughter kept me up all night.

If I went back to my old job, I reasoned, I could finagle a year or two of remote work, enter into a contract of indentured servitude with the bank, and just about afford to buy something on the outskirts of town. But a mortgage meant borrowing against my freedom, leveraging something that I’d won back with so much heartache. I’d be trapped. After rehearsing this scenario a dozen times, drawing up offers on overpriced condos and chickening out, I asked my realtor to set up a showing for a derelict trailer that had been on the market for months. It was in a trailer park in town, fronting the river, within walking distance of the library, and it was listed for less than the price of my first Honda.

We met there on a cold evening in early spring. The seller had not bothered to tidy up or turn a light on. To say the interior was bleak does not do justice to the horror-movie vibes we encountered. But I had already made up my mind. “Draw up a full-price offer,” I said, calculating what remained in my dwindling retirement account. I wanted that trailer.


First morning. Once I decide this existential crisis will not be the end of me, I sweep. And sweep. And sweep some more. I open every window to encourage the spirit of nicotine and unwashed socks to depart. I haul bags to the dump. I pile up cracked shutters and shelves. I measure windows for new blinds. I break out a sander and test the effort that will be required to smooth the drywall. My daughter squirms and rolls on her blanket in the mess and chill. Under the kitchen sink a patch of mold is spreading. As I consider whether the whole cabinet should be torn out, I hear my daughter’s signature “Yah!”—a sound of excitement and frustration at being unable to do something she badly wants to do. I poke my head around the kitchen wall. A moth the size of a dinner plate is zigzagging just out of her reach. Her fingers stretch, and she kicks her legs as if to swim across the floor, so close, so hopeful. I find a scrap of cardboard and shoo the moth outside. My daughter wails. I rock her, insides twisting, as I try to explain about flying bugs and how we might hurt them if we touch their delicate wings. Outside a neighbor cat trots gleefully past, the moth between its teeth.


Moving day. Two stoned college students arrive midmorning to load the U-Haul. Somehow, since I showed up in town with a car full of camping gear, my life has ballooned to include a stuffed armchair, a bed frame, a desk, a crib, and a rickety dresser I painted buttercream yellow. The dresser and the crib go into what the seller magnificently called a “second bedroom”: a six-by-six nook.

Jesse, always one to show love through manual labor, brings pine boards to make shelves for the kitchen. He hauls in an electric handsaw, a table saw, drills and drivers. I pretend I’m in a home-renovation show and discover the delight of measuring, sawing, and sanding. We make more trips to the hardware store. More trips to the dump. Neighbors peer out their windows. Some come by to shake my hand and welcome me to the park.

On one side of me is Sally, an eighty-seven-year-old woman who listens to opera at a high volume every morning and maintains her independence through regular home-health visits. The senior-center bus picks her up twice a week to get her nails done or to see a movie. She is hard of hearing and hard of walking and likes to arrange food donations for you whether you want them or not. Her house is a twenty-four-foot RV with a neat picket fence around it. “I’ll be here until I pass,” she says.

On the other side is Juan, a middle-aged man who has lived in the park since the seventies. He spends mornings on his front porch, waiting for neighbors to walk by so he can flag them down for a chat. He tells me that the park is gentrifying. A couple from California bought it a few years ago. Initially the residents feared they would evict them all and put up luxury condos. Instead they embarked on what another neighbor calls a “reign of terror” in their effort to rebrand the park as a hip tiny-home paradise. They knocked down additions, bulldozed trees and gardens, and drove away many of the old-timers with their ever-changing rules. Some, like Sally, benefited from backroom deals to keep their lives intact. Others weren’t so lucky.

Now the park is a mishmash of retirees in aging trailers and REI-clothing models in tiny homes. Though we own our trailers, the land we park them on is rented. And it’s clear the landowners see this neighborhood as their Sims world. In my first few months I watch as four of the old trailers are hauled off, replaced by trendy shipping-container homes with floor-to-ceiling windows. I feel a growing anxiety about my own little trailer. I have to make it look good, I decide. Good enough that the owners won’t force us out.

Jesse disagrees. “Fuck ’em,” he says as he rolls a joint. “Bougie-ass motherfuckers. They can go back to California if they want everything to look like a movie set.”

“That’s not how capitalism works,” I say. He waits for me to launch into my favorite tirade about American consumerism and the heat death of the planet. Instead I ask, “How are you on a ladder?”

A few days later he’s outside painting the trailer. I drive an hour to the nearest mobile-home store for pieces of vinyl to finish the trailer’s skirting, my daughter screaming the whole way. She is a creature who demands independence and hates being confined to a car seat, a high chair, a stroller. All the years I raced through airports and circled strange cities seem to have been distilled and poured into her little veins. Will she ever learn the beauty of a slow breath? Will I?

A two-lane road to nowhere with its highest point in the foreground undulates ribbon-like down and across the center of a desolate landscape tapering off and stretching into the horizon.

I take to watching home-renovation shows during my daughter’s naps: Fixer Upper, Property Brothers, and, my favorite, This Old House. In home-renovation shows, they always emphasize stripping away the marks of time to reveal the innate beauty of the structure: shiplap walls behind drywall, hardwood floors beneath linoleum. Turns out a trailer is not such a house. It was built not by dreams but by necessity. Under the linoleum is more linoleum, mostly rotten. My emphasis will have to be on acceptance.

In the mornings I wake early, sneak alone time in the add-on mudroom. On a window ledge I make an altar. I set up the icon of the Virgin Mary my brother painted for me, along with some stones, feathers, and petrified wood I’ve collected in my wanderings; the postcard I bought at the ranger station before my first through-hike; and a stack of books that were with me in the beater when I began tunneling toward this new life.

I light incense, sit in the half dark, and stare into space. I think about my mother’s life, my grandmothers’ lives. I think about the homes and selves they inhabited. With my limited vision, their lives seem defined by continuity and rigid adherence to early choices. Outwardly, at least, their trajectory was clear: save money, buy the farm, keep your head down, go to church, get the kids a good education, move to the suburbs. But my trajectory doesn’t follow theirs. I try not to think about whether they would be proud of me.

At night, when my daughter is asleep, I sit on my front steps and look at the sky. Straight ahead, beyond the Animas River, the sun sets where two ridgelines crash into each other. The view is obscured by my neighbors’ homes and the support pole of a power line. At first I squint, trying to imagine the mountains and sky free of human clutter. But little by little I make my peace with it. I leave behind the dream of what a view should be, what a house should be, what a person should be. I reach for what is.


Summer, and the trailer is a tin box baking in the sun. My daughter is six months old. After months of agony in breastfeeding, I decide to wean. She handles the change with surprisingly little protest, more concerned with army crawling out the door to find leaves and dirt to eat.

Bodily autonomy restored, I pour a second glass of wine and extend my quiet evenings on the front steps. My hormones revolt against the change, so I cry often. Jesse comes over and holds me, tracing the lines of change across my body. Postpartum, my skin is sallow with lack of sleep. Fine lines have appeared around my eyes and canyoned into something not at all fine. My belly is puckered and broad, breasts hanging without energy. The social-media feeds begin to show me ads for expensive retinol creams and Botox. Mom friends discuss the best bras to “perk up the girls.” The ads multiply. One night, exhausted and enraged, I collect every bra in my house and put them in the trash. I stop wearing mascara and under-eye concealer and let the tears flow. For the first time in my life, I don’t want a false beauty, a lemon candy to substitute for a lemon. I don’t want a body patched up and painted in imitation of something that once was real. I want to be here for the living and growing and shedding and changing of it all. I want the dark and decay and the death of beauty.


I’ve lived on six continents, yet within a two-hour radius of the trailer I find the most beautiful places on Earth: mushroom hoodoos in the Bisti Badlands; red-rock monuments that can be seen from the dizzying heights of Cedar Mesa; alpine lakes skirted with columbines; and the enigmatic ruins left by the Ancestral Puebloan people—cliff dwellings and stone towers tucked into every ridgeline and corner of the region. My daughter learns to stand with the help of these stones as we wander a forest of piñon and juniper near Hovenweep. I try to imagine these dwellings as homes with accompanying cradles and altars and trash heaps and nosy neighbors. I try to imagine a new mother sitting outside in the evening wanting to catch her breath, to make sense of her life.

My daughter begins to fuss. I wave a branch of sage in front of her nose, its fragrance a spell of calm. I think, Maybe home is what happens when you stop running from yourself, when you stop trying to remake yourself as something better, when all of you is welcome, even the hunger.


On the eve of my daughter’s first birthday, Jesse comes over and we sit together on the front steps. Neighbor kids circle on their bikes as we watch the stars appear. After two glasses of wine he gets up the nerve to say what he came to say: “I love you, but I can’t be monogamous anymore.”

I lean into the familiar sensation of vertigo and force myself to laugh. “Who will kill spiders for me?” (A joke—Jesse is terrified of spiders.)

“It isn’t about you,” he says.

“Uh-huh. It’s about free love and nonattachment and tearing down the patriarchy.”

Behind my smile are all the feelings: hurt pride and anguish, confusion and fear, jealousy and understanding. We hold each other and cry.


The next morning I decide we’ll have a birthday party. I’ve never been much for birthdays, but this feels necessary. I need a circle around me in my grief, in my wondering about what the future holds. I send off a string of texts and run to the grocery store for cupcakes and paper plates. I hide some of the clutter inherent to having a one-year-old. The rest stays where it is.

That afternoon friends pile into the trailer. They find places to sit on the rug and against the wall. Elbow to elbow we compare notes on teething and car seats and strategies to keep shoes on kids’ feet. I light a candle for my daughter as we sing. She looks around, confused and delighted. Once the cupcakes are gone I expect people to make their excuses and duck out, but the party lingers long after my daughter’s bedtime. When I finally tuck her in and begin to tidy up, I realize I am still smiling—not the pasted-on smile of a performing host, but the smile of someone who is just plain happy.


In the home-renovation-show version of this story the last scene opens on a trailer remodeled to pristine farmhouse perfection: subway tile in the bathroom, a white porcelain sink in the kitchen, market lights strung romantically over the repaved patio. In that version my raft-guide lover and I tie the knot in a sepia-toned backyard wedding. Our daughter sprinkles daisies at our feet and whirls for the photographer in an embroidered dress. We kiss. The viewer breathes a contented sigh.

But this is my story: The trailer creaks and groans when I tiptoe past my daughter’s room in the evening. New cracks have appeared in the drywall. The front door is crooked on its hinges, and I tuck a towel under it at night to keep out the cold air. When it rains, I still smell cigarettes and socks.

Jesse is no longer my lover but my friend. Every day we measure and remeasure the space needed for each other’s sovereignty amidst the wild beauty of raising an even wilder little human.

The hunger is still with me. Some days it gets noisy, so I load my daughter in her wagon, and we walk a few blocks to an island on the river. She collects cottonwood leaves, sweet clover, and sticky gumweed, and we find our favorite rock and watch the rafters go by.

“Boat,” she says, waving with all her might. The rafters wave back, and she pulls toward them, already eager for more freedom. I follow her to the water’s edge. I may not stay forever, but for now this is home. I whisper a prayer of gratitude to Mary. Here, in sight of our trailer, I think of her by the tomb, birthing the risen Christ with her grief. There are many ways to create new life.