Sleeping Out

Photograph by Chad Plohal.

ONE AFTERNOON, ten years ago, my grandmother looked out her kitchen windows toward the mountains and said, “Jesus, I never want to be the kind of person who sleeps in hotels. That would just make me feel so goddamn old.” She was seventy-seven and would die before the next summer, but neither of us knew it then. That day, in her kitchen, in Vermont, we were drinking cheap red wine, watching the wild roses bloom beyond the sill, and praising sleeping by the sides of roads. For thirty years my grandmother toured the country as a folksinger in a series of rusty vans my grandfather had converted into campers. The first versions were Volkswagen buses, but eventually those became too coveted so they took to buying secondhand Dodge vans and decking them out with a foldout bed, a pop-top, and a refrigerator. She drove them to gigs, to folk festivals, and to Tucson each winter. Her bedding was a beloved down sleeping bag and a Snoopy pillow someone had left at her house ten years earlier. The ambiance was night sky, crickets, highway, dust, rain, creosote bush, train whistle.

My grandmother came by her penchant for migrant, al fresco living naturally. Her stepfather had worked for the National Forest Service, and for a handful of years they’d lived in a tent in the Mogollon Rim of Arizona. She used to tell me she would fall asleep at night listening to coyotes yipping and to the cowboys, who were hired by the Forest Service, singing love songs around their fires.

She passed the habit along to my father, and to me. My childhood vacations involved six-hundred-mile road trips in a Volkswagen Rabbit. My parents often drove through the night en route to Arizona, or New Mexico, or British Columbia, but sometimes around midnight or two a.m. they’d pull over by the side of the road and set up a tent in the dark. We slept near wetlands and in pesticide-laden fields and far too close to train tracks. One night, in western Texas, they took us up a long dirt track and pitched our tent in a gravel pit; a half hour later we woke to pickup trucks, splintering bottles, and gunfire.

A month before my grandmother died, while driving home from a gig in the middle of the night, she realized that she didn’t know where she was, that she didn’t know where she was going, that something was wrong with her brain. She began to cry but didn’t pull over. Her body knew the back roads home and led her to her farmhouse on the hill. She died in that house with us by her side; through the open windows came bird song and the scents of decay and mud and lilacs in bloom.

What did she love so about sleeping out-of-doors? What is it about hotels that made her feel so old? I think: air, risk, the dissolution of the boundaries between the self and the world outside the self. Those fields one drives into, those farmers who wake you in the morning, tapping politely on your window to make sure you’re alive, those creeks one discovers, with their swimming holes and creatures and music. I think: what a way to know the world, the walls thin, porous, the body vulnerable to peepers, crickets, trains, gunshot, the ever-looming highway, the age-old companionship of moon. I’ve known terror on those roadsides, but astonishing splendor too. Aren’t the two most often joined?

Robin MacArthur’s collection of short stories, Half Wild, will be published next year by Ecco. She lives in Vermont.

Comments

  1. Robin, that is so beautiful. You have an amazing way with words. You honor your grandma with your understanding, wisdom and love.

  2. Thank you, Liz! Glad they resonate for those who knew her well.

  3. Wonderful writing, Robin! I remember Margaret so well. So sad about her losing her way and realizing that something was wrong with her brain, but how amazing that her body led her home!! I had thought that symptoms of her disease had occurred much earlier than a month before her death – so glad I was wrong about that. Thanks for this lovely piece – look forward to your book!

  4. love it…. we always offered Margaret a bed when she stayed, but she always preferred the van

  5. You absolutely drew me forward through that story. Delightful and evocative. Thanks!

  6. Great reflection, and transmutation of loss into beautiful work. I’m excited to read your collection of stories in August.

  7. When I feel sad or scared or a little too mortal I drag my mattress out onto the roof and sleep under the stars, and I don’t feel so separate anymore. Instead it’s like the stars are winking at me in knowing collusion. For generations we were born and died under stars, and it’s no wonder so many cultures associate them with spirits looking down over us. Being locked in rooms and walls is just a recent thing, really. Thanks for sharing this Robin. I’m gonna be doing lots more camping out!

  8. Evocative, concise, every word tells. So well-written. Thank you.

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