Sunday, January 04, 2009

there was a time that i lived "in a van down by the river," as they say, and maybe they got that saying from me, i don't know. one night when i heard the expression on saturday-night-live or some such program, i was dumbfounded, but the expression captured the tenuous nature of the life of a vagrant such as myself, and the way one might live at the mercy of the elements and the engineers up at the dam.

the river in question was the iowa river; i was returning to iowa city to go to graduate school, but was coming to town with a suitcase full of hard feelings toward the tenant-landlord situation, as well as the knowledge that i'd be living on a graduate stipend, and, what was worse really, was that having borrowed some money to go to college, i was really unwilling to borrow much more on graduate school, just on the general principle that i felt up to my neck in loans. now in the modern world this doesn't make much sense, and they didn't want to hear this up at my department, but basically, when a guy said there was a shack down by the river, and i could have it for fifty bucks a month, which is what most spits of undeveloped land in the country went for, and i might have to put a trailer on it or something to have running water or whatever, i took it. i noticed that the shack was on stilts- about five-foot high legs- and was not secure in its windows or roof- though it offered some shelter, was made of solid wood, and was not too full of junk. i hauled a step-van and a trailer down there, put them in an el-shape around its front door, and began to work to fix it up.

the trailer was really a camper that one might put on an ordinary one-ton truck; it had a small refrigerator, and a small propane stove for heating, a loft where one would sleep, basically above the cab; a kitchen table with nice windows and seating for several. in the step-van i stored stuff, books, tools, etc., though i planned on fixing it up first and making it bigger, more secure, and more useful. the shack i found a little overwhelming; i wasn't quite prepared for major construction, which it would need to secure the roof first, then windows, etc. i took a long-term view and started graduate school.

but here's where my plans went awry. graduate school was an 11-hour-a-day thing, and while camping out was a nice balance to the rigors of it, it left me no time to really even make the place livable. lots of times i came back exhausted and just slept in the camper, my biggest problem being washing dishes with water i'd hauled in, or figuring out how to manage a bath. i hadn't really budgeted the energy it took to live such a lifestyle; i wasn't quite prepared. i felt like i'd beat the system, sure: camping out, hearing the crickets at night, seeing the stars as i came out of my glade toward town, or walking around back in the woods by the banks of the iowa, where a friend of mine once caught a huge catfish, and nailed its head to the tree where he skinned it on the spot.

the cat, by the way, had a rough time of it down there, since it was a kind of spoiled thing, and, though most cats like wild rivers and fields of wild things to chase, this particular riverbank had some traps, and the cat, lulabelle, got caught in one, and had to wait a day or so for me to come find her and free her. my young daughter by this time considered every weekend with me to be like camping anyway, and was quite used to not taking showers, or getting a little muddy, over the course of a weekend, and in return having campfires, lots of lucky charms, and a few extra blankets on a cold night.

but it was the spring i was truly not prepared for. the water did in fact shoot its banks; my entire lane was under water, making it impossible for me to even get the last half mile up to my house, without a boat. i was flooded out; even though both the trailer and the stepvan were well above the water line, i couldn't reach anything, couldn't use it, for a couple of weeks. how could i not have forseen this? the neighbors, who were also low, but on the road, seemed to be inconvenienced, but not as badly as I was. the engineers at the dam were doing what they had to, i was told; they had let quite a bit of water over the dam, but only what the area could handle, they thought.

graduate school didn't let up; it got worse, and i now had to write papers, study for exams, etc., without really a place to live. soon enough, i found one. but, i'll never forget that little lane, going into the soft maples by the river: some days, it was so muddy, i wasn't sure i could make it out, without bending my axle. or, the gurgling river would be the loudest thing i'd hear, since the traffic on what turned into dubuque street would slow to almost nothing in the middle of the night. i wasn't far from that little bridge across the river, but it was very low land, probably still undeveloped. and the super-flood of 2008 i'm sure wiped out even more; hopefully there's not much of a trace left of the blunders i made down there. i'm reasonably sure that we got the stepvan and the trailer out of there as soon as we could. but there were other things that i left down there that i wish i could have avoided. and that was just a normal year; flood wasn't much worse than usual, that year.

in becoming a country homesteader, you collect tools, wisdom, skills, ability in short to go out of town and stay there, not for a couple of days but for weeks or months. i was just across the river from town, but had none of the above, and got run out of my own home for the month of march. fortunately i wasn't headed in the direction of homesteader; if there was one lesson i learned, that was it. by the time i left that patch of woods, i was pretty much ready to try something different.


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