In my early ’20s I was vagabonding around The West, searching for the meaning to my life.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, The Wasatch range was our immediate fun fix, but a 6 p.m. decision to wake up in the desert often put us on a four hour trajectory.
The Southern and Western deserts were our playgrounds.
To be privately guided by a friend in-the-know to a campsite like Black Dragon Wash, arrive in the dark, throw our bags out on a sandstone slab with nothing but stars for light, well, it was always spectacular. Especially when we woke to sun gleaming golden on desert varnished walls that towered a thousand feet over our heads. The sky was so blue it hurt our eyes to look at it; the quiet so deep our ears played tricks on us.
On one of these occasions, we bombed down to Moab, and my friend suggested we drive up-river, east of town to Fisher Towers. We’d visit a friend of hers.
The young woman invited us in to her little off-grid adobe for lunch. I cannot even recall her name, but my impression of her strikes a deep chord in me to this day. She was seemingly so content in her rustic lifestyle. Town was far enough away to make it a project to go for supplies.
The wind, the sun, her self-imposed solitude struck me as almost too much to handle, but maybe it was because I was 20 and hadn’t a clue about settling into myself.
She toured us around her house, her landscape, proudly showing us things she had crafted inside and desert resilient flowers she had planted outside.
She asked, “Do you wanna see the bathtub?”
Of course we did, we were enchanted. She led us over a red sandy hillock and there, out in the wide open, was her bathtub. Again, that blue sky; creamy grey/green sagebrush; the reddest dirt you ever saw; all of it punctuating the magnificent view of the Towers. I was aghast at the very idea of it.
I can’t remember how she filled it. Was it with a pump from the mighty Colorado?
All of us young punks wanted to know how she felt about getting naked in front of God and everybody.
“Well, the nearest neighbor’s a quarter mile that way, and it’s hard to see detail that far. And, if I take a bath in broad daylight, I pull these curtains,” she said as she showed us the sheer linen hung from a make-shift pergola fashioned from driftwood that she pulled outta the Colorado.
The little pile of juniper logs, the way the white curtains floated lazily on the red desert breeze, the thought of having to be patient enough for the fire to heat the water to the perfect soaking point; I took a snapshot in my mind and reserved the feelings it stirred deep in my soul.
I went on about my life.
I ended up in Montana. Married, started two business, had a home, a lovely perennial garden. Got mixed up in the fray of a little lifetime. I got divorced almost 20 years later, left the house, and the gardens, suffered a major, catastrophic crop loss all in the same year. The crop had established me in the community. I turned 50, a definitive mid-life/identity crisis. I no longer had my married name, my home, my garden, and lost the usual means of making my living.
I lived in apartments, always at the whim of the landlord, until the divorce money ran out. When I got kicked out of the last one, that was it. The dog and I had one place left to go. I bought a storage trailer, and moved all my things up to the piece of land I purchased with money mom left me upon her death back in 2004. I’d placed a locally built tiny cabin there not long after purchasing the land and had stayed there every weekend since. The cabin was my playhouse.
I was seeing a guy during this time. He wasn’t the best fit for me in this vulnerable period, but he was damn good at fixing things and I was in damn big need of being fixed. He was handy. He let me crash at his place in town during the week, shower, do my laundry. He wired the cabin for solar, helped me finish an outbuilding, brought me tractor implements he’d find in long forgotten boneyards.
One day, he called while I was at my cabin.
“Hey, I’m at a big box store, they have a scratch and dent bathtub for $5.”
I just said, “Bring it on!”
We positioned it near enough to the creek so I could fill it with my pump. I set a pallet next to it to stand on, and he made me a small one to sit on so the fire wouldn’t scorch my behind. A small pit was dug underneath to accommodate the fire. I stacked wood under the porch of the near-by shed. An old army ammo can keeps the mice from eating bath salts and soap, and I keep a thermometer there too.
We both knew we wouldn’t last. He always joked that he was making everything nice enough so I could leave him. And leave him I did.
The parcel of land is secluded from the main dirt road, and three miles from the highway. My nearest neighbor is a quarter-mile away. The cabin and tub are out of sight, tucked in a hollow next to a small sing-song creek, and the Mission Mountains and Bison Range afford me scenery. It is quiet, and far enough away that I don’t get many visitors.
I’ve been proving up on this ground since I bought it. My work here is long, hot and dirty. I get so dirty. The convenience of a self-made outdoor shower allows me quick clean-up. It has a spectacular long sunset view with no neighbors for miles.
But sometimes, on warm summer nights, when I am as dirty as can be, I fill the tub from the small burbling creek. It takes about five minutes with my small irrigation pump. I start a fire under it, set my candle lanterns on the tub shelf, go inside the cabin and make dinner while the water heats to a warm 106 degrees.
It takes a little more than an hour, and I time it so the sun is sinking over the hill as I’m finishing dinner. I bring the dog’s blanket tubside, along with a bottle of wine, shampoo, a towel, and some cozy clothes to put on after the fire has died to glowing coals.
As the gloaming slides through to the end of another day, and stars fill a sky otherwise black as cinder, I slip into my outdoor tub for an hour or more of pure luxury, feel the gentle breezes, listen to the creek and the caroling coyote chorus.
On the peak of the shed, my resident owl is perched, watching over me.
I recline and sometimes think back to that girl in the desert who had an outdoor bathtub.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Jenna Penielle Lyons
Photo: Courtesy of the author