A Home in the Hills
Once, we were little girls who lived in the big forest.
Everything was a little different. The road up the hill was narrower, rockier. The wide mouth of the trailhead, where we thought we’d park, was overgrown, with deep channels eroded through the gravel. We didn’t chance the car on the trailhead. Jenni turned and parked by the Mckee house.
We both waved as a man shuffled out of the garage. We walked over and explained that we used to live across the road.
He stared at Jenni for a long moment. Then he broke into a smile. “You were that little girl who was friends with our Jessica!”
“That was me,” I piped up.
“I worked with Jessica at the County Office!” Jenni said.
“You’re THAT Jenni! Well,” he nodded behind us, “you won’t like how your house looks now.”
We turned and peered with him through the trees at our old house. It was hard to see the place now that it was painted a dark green. It blended too well into the forest all around.
“He did one of those pandemic remodels,” Mr. Mckee explained.
“Hmm,” I nodded, still staring across the road. I was trying to make out the details of the house.
We asked about the new signs at the base of the road. He explained they were to keep out ATVs. We told him why we had driven up there.
“I don’t do much hiking around myself,” he said. “Not anymore.” As he spoke, I glanced up at the big empty Mckee house behind us. I remembered a wife, who didn’t seem to be part of the picture now. The daughter, grown up. “But I still love it here,” he said. “No one could ever make me leave this house.”
We both nodded, agreeing. “It is a beautiful place to live,” Jenni said.
“It’s a magic place, really,” I added. I was conscious of how quiet it was up there, just the sound of the breeze moving through the trees.
“We couldn’t believe it when you all moved away,” he said.
“I just moved back!” Jenni told him. “I’m in town now.”
“You’re the smart one. When are you going to get your sister back here too?”
I didn’t want to be grumpy at Mr. Mckee. He didn’t know that this question was becoming an annoying pattern. I made some noncommittal noise. Jenni said, “Oh, I...” then trailed off. We stood in awkward silence for a few seconds.
“Well, you girls enjoy your hike!” Mr. Mckee said finally. He gave a last wide smile and went back to the house.
We walked the two-track into the forest, talking together and looking up at the trees. The last time Jenni and I had hiked to the bluff, probably fifteen years before, the Black Hills had been on fire to the south. I had sprinted up the hill with her to see how close the flames were, scouting for our parents while they packed the car. But now the two of us just ambled up the path. We took a wrong turn for a while, not paying attention. We were walking along and remembering things. (“Remember the Bonnie and Clyde car?” “Oh yeah, where is that?” “Down the hill a bit. And remember there was that weird abandoned cabin?” “Over by the Shermans?” “Yeah, I think so.”) We began to notice that the path was leading us downward. We were supposed to be headed up. We stopped and looked over our shoulders in the correct direction.
There was nothing to do but set off through the woods. We clambered over downed trees and through the brambly understory. Finally, we found the ridge and knew where we were. At the treeline, we picked up the trail and followed it until we stopped at a wide grassy spot along the edge.
“Are you sure this is it?” Jenni asked.
I hesitated. The tree tops were high over the rocks. That didn’t seem right. But I recognized the jagged profile of the bluff jutting out over the edge. And the way the outcropping was situated in relation to a stubbier one off to the right. Finally, looking out, the arc of the Boulder Canyon highway in the distance, curving toward Deadwood.
“Look at the highway,” I said.
Jenni nodded. She tilted her head to see between the trees, over the meadow. “He was right about the ATVs,” she said. Mr. Mckee had warned us that the forest had been torn up the last few years by ATV traffic. The wide valley below us was tracked with muddy trails.
“Do you think it feels the same up here?” I asked her. “The trees are so different…”
She was quiet for a few seconds.
“I’d forgotten how it smelled,” she said finally.
That was what made it real for me too. The smell of the spruce trees. The soft drifts of needles on the ground.
It was still the bluff. Our bluff.
That morning, before we had driven up the highway into Boulder Canyon, Jenni had needed to drop off her youngest at his Boy Scout camping weekend. We brought Noah to a trailhead near Fort Meade. He jumped out of the backseat and ran toward his friends, who were waiting for him at the trail. Meanwhile, the parents were all gathered by a morning campfire, drinking coffee. I followed Jenni out of the car to check in with the Scoutmaster.
“They’re going on the hike by themselves?” Jenni asked him. The Scoutmaster was sipping from a metal cup, standing by the fire.
“They know where they’re going,” he said.
We turned and watched the boys, a little gaggle of them, marching steadily away on the gravel pathway. It was nice to think that kids still do that in the Hills. They just walk off into the woods, the same as we did. We usually didn’t know where we were going, regardless of what our parents thought. But we always made it back.
“This is my sister,” Jenni announced to the other parents. Everyone smiled and said hi. I said hi. “She’s been living out in California, where our Mom is.”
The smiles faded. I had been expecting this.
“I’m so sorry for you,” one of the fathers said, after a painful pause. “That must be awful.” Then he chuckled a little, to show he didn’t mean any harm.
One of the others said, “I could never live in a place like that.” He didn’t bother to laugh. Next to him, his wife shuddered a little at the thought.
“Don’t you wish you could move back here?” she asked, gathering her sweater around her. I seemed to have brought a chill with me.
I tried to keep smiling. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been thinking about moving out east, actually.”
“Out to the east coast?” The second man grimaced. “That’s even worse.”
“At least we got Jenni back,” the Scoutmaster said, and took a drink of his coffee.
“I liked it okay in California,” Jenni offered.
The first guy was still grinning. “But you prefer it back here,” he said.
“There are good things about both places,” Jenni replied.
There was a long silence around the campfire. I heard the old refrain starting in my mind. I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here. I felt my fingers fidgeting against my jeans.
“Well, anyway,” I said finally. “It was nice meeting you all.”
Jenni and I missed our turn again on the path down from the bluff. We lingered along the ridge too long, enjoying the sensation of being in our woods again.
“The thing is,” she said as we walked, “I know what they mean. They hear ‘California’ and they don’t think of the real place. Big cities are just the symbol of everything bad. All these new, expensive houses around here. Too much money coming in from everywhere else.”
“Yeah, I know. I get it too.”
I kept watching the dirt ahead of me, not wanting to trip up on a tree root. The sunlight was filtered into patterns on the pathway.
“And it is too expensive,” she continued, “and the traffic is crazy. And I get why people wouldn’t want to live out there.”
“But–” I prompted.
“But,” she agreed.
“It’s just so rude.”
“Yeah.” She sighed.
We walked a little farther down the path. “I liked living in California,” she said, half to herself.
We passed a stand of scraggly little oaks, and I suddenly realized I hadn’t been looking for our turn.
“Wait,” I stopped. “Is this right?” I looked one direction and then another. “We should be closer to home by now.”
She looked around. “Hmm.”
I considered for a few seconds, reaching for all the old orientations from my childhood. I looked off into the trees.
“We need to go this way,” I said finally, and began to push my way into the brush.
I heard her follow warily behind me.
I remember, when Jenni was living in California, she called me one day and told me she’d met someone in her office from Wyoming.
“Wyoming!” she repeated. “I was so excited! It’s not the same as South Dakota, of course. But how many South Dakotans are you going to meet in the world? It’s close enough.” They had become work friends, just on the basis of knowing what the middle of the country is like, and what winter really means.
Now I’m exactly the same. I have had neighbors in different places this past year—in the Bay Area, in Miami, out in the Northeast, back in L.A.—but my favorite neighbor by far was John, who, through some serendipity, is also from Wyoming. When he was in high school in Cheyenne, his school played my high school in football games. “The Black Hills!” he said when I first met him. “I still remember those bus rides to the games in Rapid City.”
John is a pianist, and we could have talked about piano together or which recordings he’s listening to that week. But instead, we stood together on the sidewalk and remembered spring blizzards. The way the snowmelt flooded the streets for days. We talked about distances. The highway from Newcastle to Lusk. We complained about all the politicians who run those states now, and how everyone used to be so much more moderate.
“We were a purple state,” I moaned to John. “Farmers! But these lunatics now!”
John just nodded.
He left Wyoming for the east a long time ago, but he seemed grateful to have found a friend from home too. Someone else who knows.
We stood on the sidewalk and talked about the brutality of October, when a hard freeze would bring winter overnight. We talked about how mild the weather is in the city. “These people don’t have a clue what real weather is,” I said to John. He agreed. “I’ve seen snow in July!” He said.
John will always be from Wyoming, no matter how long he’s lived in the city. I will always be from the Black Hills. I can’t do anything about it.
Black Hills Spruce trees aren’t giants, not like redwoods. They aren’t beanpoles, like the pines higher in the Rockies. They aren’t as shaggy as the white pines down south and no one would ever mistake them for any species of fir. They are something else. Comfortingly medium-sized. And dense with long needles that fall—not all of them, not like a cypress—and blanket the understory of the forest. They’re tall enough, but not so tall that they block the light for little oak trees and wildflowers underneath. And they smell soft. Not like any pine candle you can buy or like a car freshener. The smell is so much softer and more organic. I can’t describe it. It only exists in that place.
Jenni and I were laughing at ourselves as we pushed through the oak brambles, still looking for a path home. I worried a little about the time. But not too much—it was still early afternoon, and we were bound to run into something recognizable as long as we headed north. I remembered all the times I got myself lost as a kid. Once, when I was seven or eight, I wandered until I found myself in a backyard half a mile down the northern side of the hill, almost out to the highway. I had to walk along the county road all the way back. After that, I always made sure to carry water with me. And there was the time I snagged my knee on a barbed wire fence and hobbled, bleeding, for an hour across the forest to the house.
“I think I see something!” Jenni said.
A flash of red painted siding. “Oh,” I said, as we drew closer, “I know this house.”
We had overshot Jenni’s car by nearly a quarter mile. We traipsed out of the woods into the side yard of the old red house. It still looked abandoned.
“Did you know them?” I asked Jenni.
“Yeah. A mom and a little boy. Bryce.” I paused. “He died later.”
“It was a motocross accident. After they moved away.” I looked up at the big living room windows. “I used to play here, though. We were friends.”
One year, I carried a May Day basket down the hill for him. I dropped it on that house’s front step and ran away.
I was silent, thinking about Bryce, as we walked out to the dirt road.
Once, I was a little girl, often alone, in a big forest. There was magic, little games I made up with acorn shells and pine needles. Wild tufts of lupines in the Spring. Chokecherries in August. The sound of coyotes at nightfall. My father’s slash piles, which he lit into bonfires when the ground frosted over. I would watch out my bedroom window at night while he stood over the last heat of the fires, stirring air into the black piles of ash.
Hours of ease in the summers, lying in the grass in the sun. Or sitting by the creek while it carried the clear-running snowmelt down from the higher elevations. I would tumble down the ridge to the Camp Five meadow, then catch up with the fire road until it reached the water. I sat next to the creek for hours, reading my books.
Above all the other places, there was the bluff. The trees were younger then. I could see out over the hills for miles. I wasn’t afraid to walk out to the farthest point and sit on the rock, watching the cars take the long curve on the highway to Deadwood. I would lie on my back, watch the clouds and imagine who I would be in the future, the not-so-distant future when I would escape the Black Hills and live out all my dreams in the east. I wanted New York, but I would have taken Minneapolis or Chicago. If it wasn’t New York, then it was London. Or Paris. Or Prague. Somewhere far out east, where the books I read were written. Where people were living extraordinary lives and writing them down.
Someday I will live in the city, I promised myself. The biggest city, where the windows in the buildings are lit up all night. I’ll carry a murmur of dinner parties around me. Open my window and hear music from restaurants down the block. New flavors every day, and unexpected storefronts around each corner. Someday I would be at home in a city filled with other ragtag transplants, all of us wandered in from other empty places on the map. Friends who wouldn’t call me weird. Friends who would like that I was weird. Someday I would find the response to that refrain, I don’t belong here. I don’t belong here.
I lay on the bluff and ached for strands of light across big bridges and the patterns of windows, like stars, reflected down onto the water.
I knew a guy once who argued with me about the phrase “out east.” He believed that “out” could only mean west and that “back” could only mean east. A person could only go “back east” or go “out west” and he would correct me when I inevitably said the opposite. The words were meant to travel, like Manifest Destiny, from one to the other. East to west. Like the pioneers swarming over the map. Like the sun.
But I was never a pioneer. I was born in the west. And my sun rose in the Mountain Time Zone. It lingered over the trees, then set each night, with my dreams—I was all dreams—far out in the east. In the east were writhing, jumbling cities full of people living fascinating lives. That’s what “out” means. Out there is the land of imagination; for me, it’s still to the east.
I had too many long, quiet nights as a child, lying awake long after the house was asleep. For years, I lay in my bed, heart pounding, fearfully aware of the heavy dark breathing of the forest outside my window. A deep green silence that gave birth to monsters. I was small under the covers, huddled with my little lamplight in the middle of a big, black forest. When I closed my eyes, I imagined I was in New York. A place where life was still happening, whatever the hour. Out where the windows were full of light, and the cafes were full of voices long after midnight. Behind my eyes, the crowds were still pouring out from under the movie marquees. And a continual murmur of after-film coffee conversation went on around me while I fell asleep.
I spent my whole childhood focused outward. Somehow I thought I could leave, and that the past would just stand in one place, waiting for me. I thought I would always be able to walk back into my bedroom and flop down on the bed. That this home would be there, in case I ever needed it again.
“I’m glad they painted it,” Jenni said. She and I had reached the car. We were standing at the rear bumper, facing the long driveway to our old house. “I hated it before, when I would drive up here and it was just like we left it.”
I nodded. “The last time I was here, it was like you could just drive up and walk right in. It felt like you could just open the door and everything inside would be the same.”
The same. I winced as I said it. The words hurt. I could see that they hurt Jenni too.
When we were girls, we lived in this forest and, unthinkingly, we put our faith in its magic. Those years before we knew about death. The years when we hadn’t yet failed at anything. When we hadn’t lost anything. To drive up the hill toward that house, to look down the driveway and imagine going back in the front door again—would Dad be waiting in there? It was just too much.
It was better that it looked different now.
“I still think about your dreams sometimes,” I said to Jenni.
She nodded, knowing what I meant. After Mom and Dad moved to California, and I was in college, and Jenni was living with her first husband, she started to tell us about these dreams she was having about all of us. In her dreams, we were all in danger. There was some kind of societal collapse, or a pandemic, or another existential threat, and she would need to find all of us and bring us back. She had to bring us someplace where we would be safe.
“I was always trying to bring all of you back to the woods,” Jenni remembered. I thought of all those departures again, listening to the pine needles rustling in the breeze overhead. The light chatter of birds nearby.
“You guys never cooperated, of course,” she laughed. I laughed too. It was sad and it was funny—the way we all fled in turn. I went to college. My mom took the job in California. She coaxed Dad out to the coast with her and they sold the house in the woods. For a few years, Jenni was the only one left nearby, in Sturgis. When she moved to California, it seemed like an ending, finally. It could have been the end. But now she was back. And whether it’s her, or the fact that this house still exists, something is still pulling us toward these woods.
For once in my life, I was standing next to the right person. That house was so close, a hazy green outline in the trees. The old heartsickness cut a familiar path through my chest. And, just this once, the feeling wasn’t so lonely. I knew Jenni saw what I saw in the forest around our childhood home. She knows what the bluff means. The friends I’d taken up the trail in high school or in college, an errant boyfriend here and there—they could never get it. And I could never explain. Even now. It’s hard to say what I mean.
Why am I so partisan to these woods? I spent years wishing myself away from them. And it isn’t like I want to come back. I could never live in the Black Hills again—not even if I could be in that house, the way it once was. Maybe, yes, if my father were alive, and if I could unlearn all of my hard lessons. Maybe if it were Christmas morning, and I could travel home from the east to find my family, my childhood, waiting there for me. Then it would be enough to draw me back. But my homesickness is too exact in its tastes. It wishes for the impossible.
Some part of me must have belonged here once, whether I knew it or not. It’s just that the “here” is slippery and I can’t seem to get hold of it.
I stared into the trees, trying to make sense to myself. Where is my loyalty? Do I owe something to this home? If nothing else, I feel a responsibility to the little girl who was so desperate for her place in the big world. She has my attention now. It’s been long enough.
A few small hesitations, but Jenni and I finally got into the car and drove back down the hill.
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I so agree. I have been giving much thought to the question of why I paint - that little girl is very much a part of the story.
"I feel a responsibility to the little girl....." that sentence spoke to me. Beautiful writing, Tonya.