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One of my favorite book titles is “To Make it Home”—used by Robert Adams—a title with wonderful ambiguity—does it refer to surviving an insane journey, dodging death, and making it back to a safe place—or is it the more mundane task of buying curtains, hanging pictures, and painting a new name on the mailbox?

Which, of course, leads to the question: what is home? I love Robert Frost’s definition: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to let you in.” But when you reach the prime of middle age (now there’s an oxymoron) as I have, I’m no longer sure where that place is—the farm I grew up on has been subdivided and suburbanized into oblivion, and my parents are mostly gone—my father dead, my mother lost in dementia.

So how does one make it home, at my age? My memories of childhood are full of hot summer days weeding the tomato patch, and later driving my dad’s tractor, disking fields, getting them ready for planting (though I was never trusted to plant anything). Boredom, heat, dust. As my mom said of picking tomatoes, it’s a job that requires a strong back and a weak mind. As soon as I was able, I found my way to other places: cities, universities, suburbs, corporations, where life is easier. But easier is not necessarily better—and I wondered where I would find home.

Tent at Upinigvik, Alaska, 1988

Tent at Upinigvik, Alaska, 1988

A big part of making a home is finding a mate—I first met my future wife in the summer of ’76.  We both were fleeing home, looking for something else, a way to make a living that didn’t involve endless hours of mindless drudgery, and we didn’t really get along all that well when we were 19.  While I went to graduate school, Rachel went to Alaska for two summers, and we didn’t stay in contact. But in ’85, we got back together again. By that time, I had taken up photography with some intensity. When we discussed marriage, my one condition was that I be allowed to continue making photographs; Rachel countered with the condition that I never prevent her from returning to Alaska.

When Rachel got a summer job in Alaska in 1987, I knew I couldn’t ask her not to go—so I quit my job with the big corporation and went with her as a volunteer, heading to northwest Alaska. We found ourselves in open tundra, spaces far wider than anything I’d ever seen. Since we were married, the manager suggested that we stay in our own wall tent.   The tent was clearly marked as “10×12 feet”, and we were provided 2x4s and plywood to make a floor, which I used to make  a platform of 10 x 12 feet. After spending a full day cutting and hammering, we tried to stretch the tent over the frame, only to discover that the dimensions referred to the canvas size before seams were sewed—the frame I built was about 6 inches too long on each dimension—but I managed to cut the frame back with a chain saw, and stretch the canvas over it.

That wall tent became our home for the next five summers. I remember the light in the tent—north of the Arctic circle, the sun remains above the horizon 24 hours a day—so in June, the glow of the midnight sun lit the canvas, filling the tent with a warm orange glow. One morning, we were awakened by a black bear cub trying to scratch his way through the mosquito netting at the door. But my favorite memory from that tent was listening to the sounds of the tundra:  the calls of the loons and sandhill cranes, and the sound of snipe. It took me a long time to actually see a snipe—the males fly several thousand feet into the air, then dive, their wings making a whistling trill that lasts for a few seconds, then climb and repeat the cycle.

After the summer of ’91, we moved to Fairbanks, and bought a real house—one with walls and windows—in the middle of a housing development. In the summers, we put tin foil over the bedroom windows so we could sleep during the bright nights and make it to work on time. Our “garden” was a single raised bed, where we grew about a dozen broccoli plants, often harvested by moose before we could get to them. Only during occasional camping trips (usually to make photographs) did I hear the call of the loons or the snipe.

While living in northwest Alaska, we purchased a piece of land with an old homestead house in eastern Washington, with the intention to eventually move there. The property sits nestled in a valley of its own, on a south facing slope, about half meadow and half forest. For about 20 years, we rented the house to a series of people, always with the requirement that the renters maintain the garden area. Alas, none of the tenants ever did this, and by 2010, the garden area was covered with head high thistles and other weeds.

Walnut tree, Elwell Place, Evans WA

Walnut tree, Elwell Place, Evans WA

When we decided to leave Alaska, we elected to move to Spokane, about 90 miles from the property, so we could spend weekends there. Over the past few years, we’ve been working on the property—planting trees, mowing the lawn, planning a garden—trying to recover from the years of neglect. This past weekend, we tilled a patch for a garden—smaller than the one my parents planted decades ago, but by far the biggest we have ever attempted, with plans for tomatoes, pumpkins, broccoli, asparagus, and carrots (sweet corn and cabbage are available from a local “pick your own” farm). The surprising part of the weekend was the way the time flew—as a child, I remember hours in the garden as pure torture—endless and boring. But yesterday, the hours passed by, and the work was gratifying. In the evenings, we sit on the porch to watch the sunset, with a long view to the west, fifty miles to the horizon—enough space to feel comfortable. And we have snipe nesting in the meadow—towards twilight, the male begins his mating dance high over the open grass. And I feel content. I think I’ve made it home.

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4 Comments

    • Marvin Falk
    • Posted April 27, 2015 at 8:39 pm
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    Really nice post. I check in every couple of weeks to see what is new. I tried a blog several years ago, but a hacker destroyed it. I may try to recreate it is a couple of months. I appreciate the fact that you have kept at this.

    • Winston
    • Posted April 28, 2015 at 6:41 am
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    I am glad you’ve found home. I hope to join you in Washington in 5-6 years.

    • doug carnes
    • Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:35 pm
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    Hi Dennis, what a long strange trip it’s been! I’m now living near Port Townsend, Wa, with my new partner Yanna. Seems like a good area. I still “own” the place near Colville, and spend time there periodically.

    • denniswitmer
    • Posted July 28, 2015 at 7:54 pm
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    Doug–good to hear from you–some news here–Delbert Hallam had a stroke, mostly related to his developing diabetes–spent three days in a coma in his trailer before someone found him–and Rachel’s brother Joe (I don’t think you’ve ever met him) just was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer–probably terminal–she’s heading back east tomorrow to be with him and his wife. Glad to know you have a new partner. This path we are on has some strange turns, good to have a hand to hold on to…


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