The novel of the homestead cabin writes itself.
It was a prologue of possibilities, of quails and tarantulas and Joshua tree groves and sunshine. Since then, its chapters, experienced at a 2,500-mile distance, waver between comedy and tragedy and tearjerker, with the love of my life, the cabin, being both beautiful and ugly, stoic and needy, a magnet and a caution.
Every western film or novel usually settles into its trail of conflict within the first scene or page of a chapter. Shane rides from the hills, buckskinned glory upon a horse entering farmers’ lands, signaling a story of the West versus civilization. A stagecoach and cavalry gallop beneath the wide skies of Monument Valley in Stagecoach, tiny under the vast skies of the West. Patrick Dearen’s To Hell or the Pecos centers on a man wracked with guilt for having caused the death of his wife, the scent of the desired/feared Pecos River territory dust sharp in the air, the weight of a gun heavy in his hand.
This new chapter in my life–West Coast pilgrim, landowner, glam writer’s cabin retreater–already explores a cornucopia of conflicts. But only one can be the primary conflict. Which will it be?
Human vs. Nature
It’s a fire zone, near the San Andreas fault. Water washes across property lines and roads during flash floods. And I gotcher venomous arachnids and Crotalus scutulatus. Surely there is something here! But all this–except for the critters–had to be quantified and listed and accounted for for insurance purposes. It transformed into Human vs. Insurance Company, less a cinematic conflict than a tiresome faxing of documents. (Or was, until more efficient avenues of insurance were supplied–thank you, Farmers.)
Human vs. Human
The possible conflicts of western-character-initiated themes run the gamut from traditional (cattlemen vs. sheepherders) to genre-busting (humans vs. vampires) to modern (there are meth houses in them thar hills). But knock on wood and potential threat of vandalism aside, there has been little to fear from surrounding and visiting humans. No cattle/sheep issues that I know of. No undead. No drugged-out thugs waiting for the East Coaster in the dead of night. Call this theme a no-go. The neighbors are OK. Can I say how happy that makes me? I may say.
Human vs. Self
And here the flippant commentary dies out. The typing falters. Deletions ensue. After all, has a western ever NOT been about Self?
- Shane puts on the accouterments of the farmer but he has to decide what kind of man he is–the live-among-the-farmers type or the ride-alone-into-the wilderness-forever type.
- All of the passengers of John Ford’s Stagecoach must face their own demons, from whiskey (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc) to daring to hope (Claire Trevor’s Dallas).
- The aging cowboy Tom, riding through the hell of Pecos River territory, must rouse himself from the depths of self-pity to save a woman from bandits.
Human vs. Self sucks. You know what I mean: hubris, self-doubt, self-deception, greed, fear of death, fear of commitment, fear of love.
And windows. What sizes?
Water main or graywater? Compost or septic?
Solar or grid?
Good Lord and the Lone Ranger too.
A certain, beloved literary agent will recognize my age-old conflict: INDECISION vs. DECISION. If I can’t figure out if the villain dies or not at the end of my novel, how can I possibly decide where outlets go?
But what’s the big deal? Who cares if a window is there or over here? A sink drain is next to the west wall or the east wall? Epic possibilities begin to arise. Maybe I am like the drifting cowhand/gunslinger, happy to do whatev. That’s all right–plenty of emulation-worthy characters to choose from. Any character based on Billy the Kid. Kirk Douglas’s Jack Burns in Lonely Are the Brave. Charlton Heston’s Will Penny. Except all three end up dead or lonely. Dang.
But there’s a reason why novels are so long. There’s possibility for transformation even in the first pages and it might take a thousand more to allow it to happen.
When the plans for a bath house (yes, separate, for that sexy cold-night bathroom break) created a threat to cut down a grove of Joshua trees, something happened inside me. They are perfectly formed Joshua trees, probably sprouting when Frankie Sinatra was singing down the road at Palm Springs. Their very branches say “West.” Should they be cut down for construction needs? I said NO. The word welled up viscerally. It was absolute. It was a boundary that would not be crossed. And, sorry to all you visitors, the trees will stand while visitors will traipse a little farther for their shower.
So I went all Randolph Scott about Joshua trees on the long-suffering, patient contractor who should receive co-star billing in the film of this book. But all I want is to enter my house justified–or at least without having to miss Joshua trees.
No, the resolution of my conflict isn’t the high moral path of characters like Shane–a knightly refusal to accept unfairness and harm to others. It isn’t Patrick Dearen’s Tom’s dogged determination to save a woman and redeem himself. I’ve just got myself to work with after all.
Five acres and 280 square feet is a vast land to conquer. But not as big as one’s psyche.