Excerpt from The Map of Enough by Molly Caro May
Grass scratched up against my hips. Grass, it seemed, was the way here, even as dark rushed around me: miles of grass, tall and dense and stretching back to black clumps of trees, slumbering mountains, and who knows what else on this warm July night.
I sealed my back against the only thing I could—my old gallant Jeep still warm from having rattled up the long dirt driveway. No sound but the babble of flowing water. Someone had grown a hot handful of stars and tossed them up into a black sky. I scanned the perimeter for mountain lions, squinting, as if my looking would actually protect me. I could see very little. Not my hands. Not my feet. And certainly not what would unfold for me here.
I was not alone.
Chris stood somewhere, probably on the other side of the car, doing the same thing I was doing. Taking it all in, as wild grasses bent into open windows to check out our seven stunned tropical houseplants, clothes jammed in every available spot, and cardboard boxes of books. The maw of the East had released us a few days ago and we had drifted ahead of the clutter and mess of it, past lonely gas stations and tumbleweeds, into the openness, to yet another beginning in another place.
Yup. Let’s go, I announced into the night. Let’s walk together. We slung on our backpacks. The cabin, about fifty feet away, stared at us like an outlier with a corrugated steel roof. My father liked to tease about “the death walk” from car to cabin at night—this from a man who knew nothing more about predators than any of us did. We swished into the grassy gulf, my hands reaching out to feel the cool tips and then retracting back to clap loudly and call out, Hellooooo, here we are. It felt wrong to disturb the great dark, but I did it anyway. I wanted to identify us. The sweet dry smell pulled my chin up to that sensory moment of entrance to a new home. As we shuffled, I imagined the mosquito-snake-rabbit-deer-lion-bear message radiating out: They are here, they are here, they are here.
Or maybe, more likely, we humans weren’t that interesting at all.
No one had been on this porch in months, or was it years? I reached up to a window ledge for the key. Covered in cob- webs. As my shoulder propped the screen door, I fiddled with the lock and soon swung myself into an immaculate space: two leather chairs, a copper table, red rug, claw-foot bathtub, big white bed, and even a telephone landline. Despite the décor, one swipe against the reclaimed lumber wall could give splin- ters to pick at for weeks. I barreled in, unloaded my backpack with a thump, and turned on the lights.
Where are you? I whispered, craning my neck out the door. Over here. I knew the sound of his trickle. Legs akimbo, his black silhouette was arcing a stream onto the grass. Not self-satisfied, but just acknowledging that, on this land, you could pee outside.
Instead of dropping trou with him, I did what I do best and made an observation.
Beb? I said, using a name shaved down over years from babe to bebe to beb.
You’re also marking our territory.
Territory is an odd word, and when I used it, I knew that. I wanted to erase it and apologize to the mountain lions and everything else. This was not our territory, or even the territory of my parents, who technically owned it. Because humans like to name places, my family had named this one, though it was mostly unused and unknown by us until Chris and I arrived. I don’t remember how it happened, only that the name, despite the obvious social and historical complexity of calling a place The Land, took hold immediately. It became such a pleasure to say aloud that we actually called it that, swapping information about how The Land was doing, hearing that the knapweed had gotten out of hand, even though we didn’t know one thing about knapweed, or about knowing a place.
The next morning, in the daylight, I rolled out of bed and went to see about the sea of green grass surrounding us. It vibrated. Grasshoppers launched themselves. I had never seen so many at once, arcing high, clicking legs together with all the faith that, somewhere, a safe landing awaited them. Blocking the sun with my hand, I stood in the same spot as the night before, wearing nothing but white cotton underwear. They buzzed and pinged against me like little arrows. The grasshopper bombardment didn’t hurt. It simply matched my volcanic impulse for new experiences.
And here, right here, a new one awaited me.
I would be strong here. My biceps would get tan and toned. When I scaled trees, dunked in the cold creek, and howled with the wind, a deeper sense of self would seep into me, and that would stay with me when I left for elsewhere. Put me some- where where nothing stands between the elements and me. Maybe then I could see myself in plain light.
After a few years living in one of New York’s many fifth- floor walk-ups, after working in midtown publishing, after one thousand tiny paper cuts, it had been time to go. It had been a good stint. I had done the city. I had done the desk job. But I didn’t need to do it again. I needed the complete opposite. My whole life I had stood in front of bathroom mirrors pulling my cheeks up and down and repeating I’m chill, a phrase learned from some film, a phrase so instructive of what I wanted to be and was not. Most people would have noted my calm presence and how my curiosity kept me asking questions, real questions, of them. They would have said, You’re already strong. But a subterranean discontent had always gnawed at me. Not dis- content with the world, but discontent with myself. There had been no great shattering event. It was simply a state of being, my modus operandi, revealed only to those who knew me well. Recently, a close friend had straight-talked me: You change circumstances all the time, but you’re still hitting your head against a brick wall.
Nice. I hadn’t wanted to hear it, but she said it anyway. Now that I was almost thirty, it was time to survey the landscape of my life and grow up. What that meant exactly I wasn’t sure. To nature I would go. Though every new place offered a chance, nature didn’t let a person back down. Nature was also an organic extension of our lives together. It had been part of Chris and me coming together. We owned cross-coun- try skis. For presents, we gave each other rocks. I’d lived in a dilapidated trailer surrounded by wild dogs; I’d hiked and slept in a tent for two solid months; I’d practiced my sea kayak roll, even though doing it scared the shit out of me. There were no distractions in the wilderness. I wanted mountains and creeks and quiet to calibrate this new phase of life. We want what we want, even when we don’t fully understand the complexity of that want.
Choosing this place had happened quickly.
Cross-legged on the linoleum floor of our apartment, crammed between slot kitchen and rattan chair, Chris and I had narrowed down our options. He was tired of building boats in the Bronx. I was eager for a change—had turned down the conflict-resolution graduate school that accepted me, had stopped taking prerequisites for medical school. Where could we go? Especially when we left our paying jobs. We wouldn’t silo ourselves. No. Agreed. So, we ping-ponged some possibilities around. Within minutes, we had it.
What about Montana? I asked.
We shot each other a look, the one you give when you know you’ve just made a decision that works. I knew I could convince my parents to let us caretake The Land in exchange for not pay- ing rent. When people asked what we would do there, I would give the most honest answer I had. I had most certainly not moved here to be a cowboy. Or to prove anything to anyone.
Chris planned to finish the shed garage next to the cabin in order to start his furniture studio. I would write, get to know the place, ride out my minimal savings, and find part-time work when that became necessary. All in all, we would stay for about a year, maybe a bit longer.
Not a retreat but a launching point. Like these grasshoppers, launching themselves. I stretched up and satisfaction flooded down through me. Hey you, Chris called from behind me on the porch. I turned to see him holding a mug of steaming coffee. He moved into scenes like an acrobat, silent and graceful and muscled. Under a mop of black hair, his eyelashes always wafted up and down. I called them delicate fans—so long they had caught my attention immediately in a college class, along with the fact that there was something in him that was not in me and that seems to be how it always starts. Like him, the gray river rock chimney stood out against the cabin’s dark wood.
Look! I said, pointing down to the grass. He nodded and smiled. You think they’ll let us do it? I shouted back, because, on top of our general plans, there was something else we hoped to do here.
Probably, he shouted back. Your parents tend to be visionary.
I just don’t want them to feel like we are mooching, I said, moving through the grass back toward him. We have to wait a few weeks so it doesn’t sound like we assumed it would be okay.
You’re the boss, he said, leaning against a post. You know, he added, it isn’t going to be easy. I know. Seriously, Molly, it’s going to require patience to build it.
I know, I said, knowing also that, with me, he had made an art of managing expectations.
Okay, let’s go explore, but you’ve got to put some clothes on first, he laughed, reaching for me as I snuck past him and sank down to lace up my boots. When I turned back, the landscape had shifted. So focused on grasshoppers, I had not noticed the small white puffs, millions of them, floating down and across the green grass fields, replenishing themselves rapidly under a mas- sive, and I mean massive, sky. I traced them back to the gnarled cottonwood trees along the creek. With branches askew, green leaves fluttered and shook off cotton. It looked to me like a great migration. Eventually I would learn that it was called the yearly cottonwood dispersion. But then, in those early months, I only saw the idea of things, instead of the actual it of things.
Molly Caro May is a writer whose work explores body, landscape and the foreign. She teaches personal narrative writing workshops across the country, though once cut her teeth as a fruit-picker and artist’s model. She is the author of The Map of Enough: One Woman’s Search for Place and Body Full of Stars: Female Rage and My Passage into Motherhood. She lives in Bozeman, Montana with her husband, daughters and dog. You can read more about her work at mollycaromay.com