Heading to Sh*t Hill with My Trowel
And other highlights of my hippie childhood…and what it all taught me
When I was five, my parents sold everything they owned and bought a piece of property in northern California.
Just raw land — we first lived in an old army surplus tent (with my baby brother in a crib at one end of it) while they built a shed; then we spent the winter in the shed while Dad and a friend worked on the one-room A-frame house you see in the photo above.
The house had a loft where we all slept. And windows, which were a great improvement over the shed, as was the insulation. I don’t remember a lot about the winter in the shed, except that it was cold. And the floor wasn’t quite level.
The house also had cold running water (eventually, when Dad ran black PVC pipe down the hill from a spring), and a wood heat stove, and a wood cook stove. It had a big braided rug in the center of the room, and a cold-cabinet on the north wall for perishable food. At mealtimes we sat on the floor around a low octagonal table — only about a foot and a half high— that Dad made, which folded up when not in use.
The house did not have: Electricity. A phone. Hot running water. Or a bathroom.
The basic arrangement was: you could pee anywhere you wanted to — outside of course (and don’t be a jerk and do it on the path, people walk barefoot here, come on); for more serious business, you went to “Shit Hill,” a low, heavily wooded rise just beyond the edge of the front meadow. When you needed to go, you took some toilet paper and a little trowel, and tried to find a place where no one had dug before.
This got harder as time went on.
The first time my Grandma Cleta came to visit, she was horrified by this, as you might imagine. “It just breaks my heart, seeing that sweet little girl heading into the woods with her trowel!” Grandma Cleta was a highly civilized lady, with coordinated pastel polyester pantsuits and perfectly permed hair and a dusty-floral-smelling perfume and makeup that would rub off on your face when she gave you one of those side-swiping kisses, so of course our rough and rustic lifestyle freaked her out.
What I didn’t put together till much later, though, was what this all must have meant to her. She’d grown up dirt-poor on a farm in rural Texas, with far too many siblings; as quick as she could, she escaped to the big city (Dallas) and got a job in a department store, before meeting my grandpa and moving with him to suburban southern California. Her whole life had been a journey away from small dark shacks and an utter lack of creature comforts. And now her daughter — my mom — was deliberately choosing such deprivation?
She never did understand it, even when we eventually built a compost privy just off the front porch. (Fancy!)
It was a grand experiment. It was the early seventies, and my parents were very young, and very idealistic.
At first it was just the four of us, but that was never the ultimate intention. My folks searched hard for “like-minded people” to come join them on The Land, to create a community, and little by little some came; also my dad liked to pick up hitchhikers and bring them home. At its peak, there were maybe a dozen of us living in various places on the property — sheds, camper vans, makeshift houses abandoned halfway through their construction, the gaping holes covered in plastic.
I tell people I grew up on a commune, and that’s technically true, but it was never a very functional one. It was the idea of a commune…and the reality of a bunch of hippies coming and going, some helping, some freeloading; everyone getting stoned and swimming in the river; lots of dogs running around, and chickens and goats and turkeys and, for a while, a great big asshole of a red horse who loved to kick and bite people and a great small asshole of a Shetland pony who — well, she kicked and bit too, and ran under low tree branches when you tried to ride her.
There were occasionally other kids, too, though not many of them, and none my age; I spent a lot of time alone. That’s when I developed my love for reading, and my ability to entertain myself.
My parents were very busy managing the complex personal interactions of all those people, and their own eventually faltering marriage, and the difficulties of our frontier-style rural life. I was fed and clothed, and I was sent to school, though in the good-weather months I walked a mile and a half to and from the bus stop— the bus wouldn’t drive through the ford, so the end of the line was Houndtown, a terrifying (and probably illegal) kennel operation on the other side of the Eel River.
I also made my own lunches, usually cheese or peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches. Because of course we were vegetarians. I couldn’t eat the cafeteria meals, with their brightly colored lunch meats and tantalizing pork products.
God, all I ever wanted was pigs in a blanket.
I’m trying to tell you about strength, about independence. About all the things I learned how to do for myself, and how this is something I’m happy about, grateful for.
Even if I did yearn for TV and lights you could turn on with a switch and tasty pork products.
I’m glad that I learned how to do so many things for myself. I’m glad that I learned how to be alone, and how to cook, and how to solve problems — how to light a fire and milk a goat and bandage a bad cut. This self-reliance has stood me in good stead countless times over the years. I’m also really grateful that I had the opportunity to be different from my peers growing up — even though, like any self-respecting child, I just hated it at the time. It’s given me a flexibility and adaptability that, again, has served me so well. It’s enabled me not to be knocked over by change, by the unexpected; to regroup when things don’t go as planned. It’s made me such a stronger person.
If you’re reading this and you actually know me, you’re probably starting to wonder right about now. Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t you just write about telling the truth in these essays? Hmm?
The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth…
What do you leave out when telling your own story?
Well, yes. What is also true is that, like Grandma Cleta, I took a hard turn against the frontier lifestyle, as soon as I got to be in charge of myself. I love my creature comforts, and I’m not actually very flexible. In fact, I embrace routine, and planning, and order. My first reaction to anything unexpected is NO.
But then…I find I’m able to get past that, and “do what’s actually happening,” as my husband and I are fond of saying. Because all the planning in the world only gets you so far. Then reality intrudes, and you have to be able to deal with it.
Yes, I just love being able to flip a switch and have the room light up. But when the power goes out (as it does with some frequency out here on our island), I also know how to light a kerosene lantern; heck, I spent my formative years reading by them. I’m attached to my smartphone as obsessively as anyone, but I can also put it down when I need or choose to — I’m never tempted to pay for airplane wifi even on long flights, and I’ve enjoyed any number of off-the-grid writing retreats. I’m a princess who loves her feather pillows and down comforters and high-thread-count percale sheets, but I can…hmm, okay, well I used to be able to sleep anywhere under any conditions. Now, not so much.
(As long as we’re telling the truth here.)
The point is: I think my weirdo, off-the-grid hippie upbringing prepared me for life in this modern, chaotic world in a lot more ways than are immediately obvious.
And I am truly grateful for that.