This goes way, way back. My mom married this guy named...his name in unimportant. My mom married this guy, let's call him something. Let's give him a random name. Let's call him Bob.
My mom, a jaded chain smoking brown-eyed Cajun beauty from the wilds of southern Louisiana and far far west Texas, had been divorced, summarily dumped for a younger blonder model by a man who still, to this day, regrets his actions. She was in her early thirties, unprepared for single life. She met this guy, we're calling him Bob, at some party that her sister was having.
This goes a little further back: her sister had divorced and married this dweeb, this IBM mainframe programmer who worked for a bank. That made him a sort of enemy of the normally wild and wooly blue collar contingent, and they all showed him nothing but the greatest animosity.
His brother was this guy Bob. My mom meets her sister's husband's brother and they date for a while, and of course they'll get married. He was an attorney in private practice, had recently been a district court judge. Sounds grand, except he was an attorney and former judge in Otero County, New Mexico. Alamogordo is the biggest town in Otero County. Alamogordo (big fort, fat tree, it has a number of translations...the big suck, that's what I called it) is a tiny place. When my mother eventually married this guy, we moved there...much to my intense consternation. I'd been surrounded by Family...extended back several generations in every direction...and here I was being forcibly removed, and not to anything exciting. Alamogordo! For the love of god.
We settle in uncomfortably. My step-father was an old man, his kids already into or out of college, his previous wife old enough, it seemed, to be my grandmother. He was a fierce guy, no room for emotion, worked hard and expected kids to behave according to his rules, rules forged in the 1950's: be quiet, do what we tell you, and work hard.
My brother and I were lumps of citified flesh, brought up in air-conditioned city life, with so many adults around that none paid too close attention to our deeds. My mom's life as a single mom only lasted a couple of years, but that was plenty enough time for my brother and I to become slightly wild. There had been...incidents. At one point I nearly cut my brother's finger off while he stopped me from stabbing my best friend. My brother and I used to regularly stay up all night, go riding bikes at 4am. We had messy rooms, wild schedules, and absolutely no tolerance for discipline.
It was a bit like going into the Marines.
My stepfather had rented this little house off of Utah street, a house with tin siding and an olive tree in the front yard. It was a tiny place, meant for a small family, and I ended up using a den for a bedroom. It was sort of nice, in that I had a sliding-glass door leading to the backyard, and I could sleep on the floor next to the screen door, my dog (a black chow mix called Connie), doomed to the outdoors, pressed against it, crying myself to a lonely and very dark sleep. I spent my time in that room, terrified of my stepfather and his completely random often violent outbursts. I learned to do my chores...cleaning up after the dogs, raking things, cleaning my room and the bathrooms, dusting, etc., all for no allowance, all without being told. I was expected to wake myself and prepare for school, make my own way. I had become a roommate. It was a very rough transition, one that never fully took.
The day I realized that my stepfather wasn't a complete jerk was when we traveled to the cabin. "The Cabin" is a bit of a misnomer. Back then it was little more than a set of walls and a ceiling, some lighting, and recently added indoor plumbing. It was being built, though, as a house...totally to code, solid walls on a beam and pier foundation. The goal was a vacation home, but we called it a cabin because, well, it was in the woods.
Our first weekend there, my brother and I slept on a foam mattress on the bare wood floor of a back bedroom. It was after a nauseating road trip; my stepfather had no patience for going slow, and the little International Scout (sort of a 2 door SUV thing) had a gigantic Chrysler motor, and the last 14 miles of barely-improved dirt road was enough to make me want to never, ever come back. Drifting through corners, slamming on the brakes for wild animals and free-range cows, jumping over small bumps that would cause the dogs (my chow and my stepfather's Saint Bernard) to come flying into the back seat.... No way did I want to go through all of that, just to sleep on a bare wood floor in a place heated (poorly) by a smelly kerosene heater.
But we did go back. Every weekend. Every single goddamn weekend in a vehicle hot with dog breath and kerosene fumes, we'd fly up the highway ("Pray For Me, I Drive Highway 82") to Cloudcroft (at 9000 feet, the biggest town nearby), hang a right to Sunspot, hang a left to Timberon. Every weekend lucky to make it through the trip alive.
Timberon, as a town, was really a failed real estate exercise. In the late 70s and early 80s, El Paso and southern New Mexico were flooded with fliers advertising cheap land and great vistas in the remote Sacramento mountains. Boasting an air strip and a mountain lodge with trout stocked fishing ponds, a public pool, and a golf course, Timberon was reclaimed Circle Cross Ranch land that had fallen into the hands of cousins, speculators from Dallas. They'd cleared some roads, carved up a thousand 5 acre lots, and set out to make a million bucks.
Thing is, there was no easy way to get there. In the summer the dirt road became choked with dust and ruts. In the late summer, the monsoon would flood the road, washing it away. In the winter, snow and ice prevented all but the craziest of crazy from driving the unplowed, untended surface. There were two roads in, and one (coming from the north via Cloudcroft) was the better of the two, prone to washing out and becoming unpassable only six or seven times a season. The southern route from a Highway 54 cutoff that meanders through harsh scrub desert up 10,000 feet, then back down 2000...the less said about it, the better.
So you have this vacation paradise that simply cannot be reached except via parachute or small aircraft, no improved roads (they'd eventually pave the main roads, but poorly), and an almost complete lack of things to do...added to the poor economy of the late 70s and early 80s...and you get a sort of ghost resort. It's a nightmare for kids with friends and an urban view of "fun," but it ends up, see, being a paradise of unexplored forests, of Apache artifacts, and made-for-imagination hidden glades.
So there, smack in the middle of it, was my stepfather's piers and beams. His second house built from scratch, the first housing his ex-wife, this was to be a masterpiece of country living. A place where he and his new young bride could steal away to relax and golf at the scrub oak and deer parking lot they called a golf course. A place where he could break his new step sons of their lazy habits.
My first job on the first ice cold Saturday that I spent at the cabin was helping to hang drywall. Nine years old, quickly going on 30, I was taught how to get the panels to fit tight but not too tight, taught how to hammer the nails and dimple them to allow the drywall compound and tape to lay flat. Then set to work.
The second day was insulating the spider-strewn underbelly of the cabin. It sits on a hillside overlooking a small deep valley, and the stilts that it sits on are roughly 5 feet tall at the far end, maybe two feet at the narrow end.I could easily fit under the cabin, so while my stepfather ominously walled this crawlspace in around me, I set about hanging insulation. I finished well after I'd been fully enclosed. Thankfully he'd left a doorway for me to get out. I'd assumed my fate was sealed.
From there my brother and I were released while the adults worked on taping and floating the drywall. We immediately set out to explore the area. My stepfather had told us that down the valley past the road was a river. The Sacramento River is really a creek, and in the summertime it disappears entirely, running underground. But in the winter it ran full strength, fed my some runoff and by miles of underground springs. At full steam, the river in our neck of the woods was ten feet across, maybe. One stretch had a deep calm pool with a down tree crossing it. My brother and I staked a claim there, declaring that land ours. We put up a flag. We hung out there listening to my brother's cheap cassette deck, chewing tobacco, throwing rocks into the river. We were there every weekend after chores.
You can count years this way: every weekend dive-bombing up the mountain roads, every saturday morning spent thrashing construction materials into position, every afternoon spent on the river, every Sunday spent cleaning up the site and preparing for the next weekend. Years passed this way in a fury of activity. One day we went to the cabin and were met by a carpet install crew, and by a guy delivering and setting up a pool table. Appliances were delivered. The final light fixtures hung, the deck around the entire cabin completed. A cedar-lined steam sauna added. It was suddenly something else completely.
It had become a house, though we still called it a cabin. The work was complete, near as we could tell. Subsequent weekends were spent exploring the woods, wandering the hills. We'd spent four years putting it together, and my brother and I spent one last year finishing the place up, but mostly hanging out at the river or the lakes (the fishing ponds), or randomly running through the forest with the dogs. Idyllic, indeed. Though we still hated leaving television and friends and culture every goddamn weekend, the place had really sunk into our blood.
But once the work was done and my brother and I were old enough to stay home on weekends, our parents went to the cabin by themselves. By then we lived out in the desert northeast of Las Cruces by then, with whole new lives and whole new things to explore.
I'd always hated that trip up to the cabin, two and a half hours if we were lucky, packed into a truck with two dogs and a weekend's worth of clothes and food, a trailer full of construction. Every trip was a lesson in hard labor, meaningless to me at the time. I'd sit through lessons in geometry taught in the larger guise of building a deck. I'd endured being screamed at when I'd missed a nail, or when I'd been overenthusiastic and punched though a sheet of drywall. I'd dealt with spiderbites and bee stings insulating the floors and attic. My stepfather had used harsh words and hard work to beat the city out of me, to make me what he'd been at my age: hard, tough, smart, capable, and productive. By the time I left home, I was prepared for whatever the hell the world could manage to hit me with. I didn't have to like it, but I could handle it.
Today the cabin has changed a bit. A room was added, a new kitchen created. Central heating and central refrigerated air were put in. A guest house / garage were put in at the end of the driveway where my brother and I used to put our tent (we often slept outdoors during the summertime, since it was cooler and more interesting). The deck was expanded.
But the rooms I helped put in, the floors I helped build, the walls that changed my posture and worth, they're still standing. The river still runs, though the fallen log is gone and that stretch of land is overlooked by a modern stucco house. The roads are all paved. The lodge has closed down, the fishing ponds drained, no longer stocked with trout.
My parents still go there when they can, with a car full of dogs and construction equipment for whichever project drives them.
My stepfather recently told me, in a strange fit of sincerity, that he'd put myself and his son Kevin in his will as owners of the cabin. Kevin had helped start the project, had laid the footings, and had helped during the entire process. I had done a lot of work there as well, but there was something bigger than that.
"More than anyone, you grew up there," he told me. "You really did."
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