Charlotte Helston

“You guys actually live here?” asked Steph, a recently engaged friend living in a newly renovated apartment. We had decided to host a dinner party as a sort of trailer-warming event. And also because none of our friends believed we were really living in a 16-foot travel trailer in order to save up for a backpacking trip to Asia. Since May, we had been joining our friends for dinner and movie dates, our secret bush-life remaining out of public view. To them, we appeared normal: clean, well-dressed and free of bug bites and scrapes from the woods. They didn’t know about the quick foot-baths we took before sliding into our nicest sandals, or the concealer we put on our lumpy mosquito bites. We concealed what we feared would be labelled a primitive, squalid, trailer-trash home. More so, I concealed it. Matt had never been one to care what anyone thought, and the case of the trailer was no different. He relished in the rustic, “back to the land” habitat. The manliness of it seduced him; chopping firewood, constructing elaborate tarp ceilings, barbecuing every night.

“Man,” said Steph’s fiancé Luke, “you’ve got it made.” Both men took a long pull from their beers, nodding knowingly. They had been best friends since the dawn of puberty and together had built zip-lines, started a rock and roll band, smoked their first joints, and guzzled their first beers. Luke and Steph began dating just after Luke’s 20th birthday; a few months later, Matt also turned 20, and our relationship began.

“I’d love to do something like this,” Luke continued, “but Steph would never go for it.”

Steph was busy swatting a mosquito, but I overheard. And I wondered, why is the simple life considered admirable by men, while with women, it is deemed sad and unfortunate? As a woman, I had projected this assumption onto myself when we began this adventure two months ago. Matt’s mother and my own commiserated with me. “It’s only for a little while,” was a phrase I heard from them often. “You can come over any time,” they stressed, “to bake, or do laundry, or  if you just need some girl time.” The dialogue seemed older than our 1970s trailer. I needed to man up, I thought, not noticing the irony, and swallow my complaints about the trailer.

So, as I gave Steph the grand tour of our little settlement, I maintained a tour-guide Barbie persona. Steph and I, two people who would not ordinarily have crossed paths, met each other through our boyfriends. We had fallen for similar men, something that united us. Despite my fondness for Steph, I still felt an unshakable competition with her. With two months on Matt and I, Luke and Steph had been the first to move in together and the first to get engaged. Though Matt and I had agreed formalized marriage wasn’t for us—we publicly declared ourselves common law and wore cheap silver rings—my femininity bubbled up like champagne whenever Steph mentioned her wedding plans. Measuring my home up against hers was just another way in which the unspoken competition surged on.

“Here’s the laundry room,” I jested, pointing to the line strung between two pines. “Now, let me show you to the living room.”

Since I was a little girl, owning a house had been intimately connected to all of my ambitions. Whenever I imagined myself in the future—writing, raising children, or having dinner  parties with friends—I was in the warm setting of my stylish eco-chic house. I pictured myself reading in the master bedroom, comfortably nestled in a king-sized bed with sheets the colour and softness of cream. I would spend my day in different rooms: bathroom, office, painting studio, sewing room, exercise room, kitchen, and entertainment room. My house would be a complex of long hallways and many doors.

So the prospect of a one-room living arrangement hadn’t left me excitedly flipping through pages of Style at Home. Never a fan of anything all-in-one, I’d been reluctant about the trailer from the start. I wanted a 16-foot walk-in closet, not a 16-foot home. I fretted about being added to Armstrong’s small town gossip rife with teen pregnancies and popular girls gone fat. Would Matt and I be spoken of as highschool sweethearts who moved into a trailer and never left our hometown? We were both half finished degrees at the University of Victoria, and I envisioned our future selves departing for high-end jobs from a comfortable house in the suburbs, not a trailer hidden away on a logging road.

I invited Steph into our tiny home. We stood in what was simultaneously the kitchen, dining room, and bedroom. It had taken me fifteen minutes to tidy and organize the trailer for our dinner party. The beauty of a one-room house is that you have a grand total of one couch, one table, and one counter space to clean. At our old apartment in Victoria, messes would accumulate in all of the five rooms, making it a cumbersome chore to render it suitable for visitors.

“Don’t you get claustrophobic in here?” Steph asked.

Our friends and family had told us our trailer-time would test our relationship. If we could survive five months in a 96 sq foot trailer without running water or electricity, well, apparently that was true love.

“We’re really not in the trailer very much,” I replied. “We work all day, cook outside, eat outside, sleep outside, read outside. The trailer is actually more of a storage unit.”

Throughout May and June, our house had gradually broadened, the boundaries of living space blurring between indoor and outdoor. A 12-person tent became our master bedroom when we couldn’t bear the Okanagan heat trapped within the trailer for another sleepless night. We established a second kitchen area outside where a slab of old kitchen counter rescued from a renovation Matt was working on provided a surface to chop veggies on. After elbowing half our dishware off the indoor drying rack, we relocated the wash station outside. With no electricity, and thus no hot water, dish-duty was a finger-numbing chore both inside the trailer and out. At least outside you could watch the squirrels run marathons in the trees. Soon, our dining room encompassed the entire area around the picnic table. I planted a few sweet pea vines and herbs in the corners of my so-called living room. Around the nucleus of the trailer, the rest of our home sprawled, equal parts garden, bush, and residence. We trampled the dirt on our barefoot migrations around the camp, compressing the ground to a smooth, hard-packed surface.

“We’ve got hardwood floors,” Steph said, describing her new place.

I glanced down at my dusty feet, the soles tough and callused. I thought of this rough skin that allowed me to tread unflinchingly across the scorching pool deck at work as my bush slippers. How vulnerable my feet had been at first, soft as ripe mangoes.

Next I led Steph along the trail to the outhouse. The Oregon grape had grown back with vigour since we last shaved it with the weed-eater and a dropping of bear scat lay a few steps from the outhouse. A flurry of moths breezed out as I opened the door to our bathroom, their velvet touch no longer upsetting, but rather welcoming. Hanging from a tree near the outhouse was a black, heat absorbent sack that we used for showering.

All Steph said was, “Wow.” 

She didn’t need to pee, so we hiked back to the trailer.

The sweet smell of Worcestershire sauce and cooking veggies filled the camp; our barbecued shish-kabobs were almost done. More people were arriving; Stephan whose family ran the dairy farm down the road, and Braden, whose dad had been our highschool geography teacher. Cars lined the old logging road, spruce boughs fringing their windshields. The scene reminded me of a hippie music festival.

Bob Dylan crooned from our solar-powered radio, his voice echoing off into the woods. Matt served up the kabobs, and I poured sangria. We sat around the picnic table, the warm evening air blending the sweet, earthy smells of the forest with our supper. I recalled expensive dinners at trendy pubs in Victoria where music drowned our conversations and artificial light poured down on us. In that moment, with chickadees trilling among the treetops and a rosy sunset washing the sky, I didn’t want to be anywhere else but this home carved out of the woods.

As the sun nestled into the cradle of two mountains, our solar lights began to turn on.  The soft orbs of light, along with the moon, illuminated us as we ferried the dishes over to the wash basin to soak until morning.

I caught a blur of darker-than-night black whisk across the sky.

“Woah,” said Steph, nearly dropping her wine glass. “What the hell was that?”

Wings rushed through the air, the sound of their flutterings like the opening of parasols. The bats came out every night to feast on insects, including the swarms of mosquitos that hatched after rain. Theirs was an ecological role for which Matt and I were grateful. Our co-existence was something of a mutualism: our lights attracted insects which the bats would in turn consume. I longed for a chance to see the bats in a moment of stillness, their mysterious blurs given form and definition.

But our guests didn’t share my interest in the bats’ physiques, so we decided to light a fire. Since the beginning of man’s time on earth, flames have conjured a sense of security—something the bat-fearers needed instantly. Matt got the fire going with magician-worthy hands and soon we surrounded it in our wobbly plastic chairs. Someone passed a joint around, the bat-induced tension eased, and with the fire, conversation flickered to life.

I’ve always marvelled at how campfires draw people as simply and instinctively as moths to a flame. We can’t resist them, with their comforting crackle and mesmerizing colour show. With fire as the focal point, we naturally assume our places around it. This circular assembly echoes other spheres of human gatherings; dinner tables rimmed with guests, card tables crowded with players, meetings and conferences with participants seated like the zodiac. 

I pictured our little camp scene from above: a carpet of black with a burnished gold circle burning a hole in it. We sat elbow to elbow, looking across the flames at each other’s fire-lit faces, all of them round and glowing. Stephan told a story about his cows who, having escaped their pasture, went romping along the road. We all listened intently as he described his efforts to herd them with his tractor. We leaned inward, tightening our circle as the bats and mosquitos danced in the air, no more distracting than a TV left on in the other room.

When we first homesteaded on the knoll, I felt like a complete outsider. Matt jokingly asked if I was worried that the deer, our new neighbours, wouldn’t like me. I wasn’t expecting a housewarming gift, but I wondered how we’d all get along, us and the deer, bears, wolves, snakes, and other critters.

A few weeks after me moved in, a red robin wove a nest in the crook of the ladder that led to the trailer’s rooftop. The mother robin was slender, her legs and talons delicate as she danced around, preparing her nest with bits of grass, bailer’s twine, traces of my own long blonde hair, and to Matt’s dismay, insulation from the trailer. I imagined her feeding her little ones with found worms and bugs from nature’s supermarket. During the raging summer thunderstorms, we hid out in the trailer while she sheltered the eggs beneath her wing. Every morning on our treks to the outhouse, we checked the status of the eggs, waiting for the day they cracked open with hungry birdsong. Spying on the red robin, huddled in her humble nest, I felt even our trailer life, in all its simplicity, was excessive. 

Moving into the trailer had made me think of all the things I wanted. Now, I was frequently considering not what I desired, but what I really needed. What else was there beyond shelter and food? What did I need to fulfill my happiness? Without abundant electricity or internet, I had foregone my laptop, and with it, my obsessive email and facebook checking. Instead of cuddling up to a rerun of Family Guy, Matt and I took turns reading aloud from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Everything took longer in the trailer, especially cooking, due to the lack of space and limited appliances. Yet, slow food quickly became the savoured pastime of our evenings. The trailer had taken away square footage, but it had given us space in our lives for things we didn’t know we needed.

I thought I had been embarrassed by our trailer-trash home, but now I realized I had really been ashamed of how much I loved it. I didn’t want to admit that I liked living in the woods where my nails were crammed with dirt and I never looked in a mirror. That I liked showering in the forest with no curtain save for the overhanging pine boughs. That my dream house was this little nest in the woods, and the successful dinner party I had once set in my eco-chic house was taking place in the greenery of my living room.

“It is so nice out here,” said Steph. “We’ve got to do this again.”

My inner hostess settled in her plastic Canadian Tire chair and breathed in the pungent smell of campfire.

As night drew on, talk dwindled to stories rimmed with silence, to isolated comments, to no speech at all. We all sat quietly for some time, listening to the hum of the woods. A coyote bayed; an owl answered. I felt close to a different kind of reality, one that made me feel foolishly sentimental. This feeling had overcome me at different points in my life—holding my breath on an ocean floor, galloping through a field on horseback, looking out at a pristine alpine lake. More and more, since living in the trailer, this feeling was enveloping me on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Maybe it was more than a fleeting, romanticized notion. Maybe, I was tapping into something real. The longer I stared at the off-shooting sparks, the more they reminded me of the freckling of stars in the night sky. Illumination against a black canvas. Toward midnight, the fire began to die down, slowly smoldering and turning to ash. In the morning, I noticed a finch scratching at the cinders, its yellow wings flickering against the grey.