Returning Home to a Perfectly Tidy House

This morning I woke up in my own bed, but I wasn't sure of that fact when I woke, later than usual. I've been on the road for a full three weeks, all of it in Montana and Idaho. Last evening I barreled home across eastern Montana from Billings. Motto for the day: No more ambling, just keep moving. That drive, along the Yellowstone River, is one of the greatest in America. The Yellowstone is a beautiful, at times unbelievably beautiful, river--the very essence of what a Great Plains river should be. But if you can force your eyes to look beyond the river itself, the plains that envelope the Yellowstone, from Livingston almost to Glendive, have a romance about them that makes you think Custer is about to dash over the horizon, or a couple of mountain men be torn and maimed by a grizzly, or a herd of 20,000 buffalo ford the river in search of new grass. I wanted and needed to get home, but I hated to say goodbye to Mon Tana.

When you live alone, you always wonder what sort of home you are returning to when you have been gone for an extended period. I rounded the last corner with some apprehension. When Lewis and Clark returned to the mouth of the Knife River in mid-August 1806, they discovered that Fort Mandan had burned down during their absence. I would probably have learned of something that dramatic, but I always run through a grim mental checklist as I approach home. Did I leave the oven on? Has that fussy guest room toilet been running all this time? Did the water line to the refrigerator icemaker break and flood the entire basement (I have friends who came home to that)? Did a giant hailstorm take out all the windows on the west side? Etc.

The house was intact. But it was not a very welcoming scene. The mailbox was full to bursting, with three "tried to deliver" notices, including a somewhat threatening "Last Notice" version that had the feel of being composed by someone cutting and pasting letters from a magazine. Rain, sleet, hail, dark of night. Two dozen copies of the Bismarck Tribune were strewn over my front porch in varying stages of yellowing. When I stooped to pick one up, a cricket popped out and threw himself against the front of the house. The flowers in the six planter urns on my front porch were 78% dead. I stopped to water them even before I entered the house. They were so dry that the potting soil was a rooty solid that floated up to the rim of the urns before it began to absorb the water. Three packages were propped against the door, two of them of considerable value.

In short, my house gave off the unmistakable message: Rob Me! He's Gone!

Inside, things were worse. It was at least 92 degrees throughout the house, and it had that stale, uncirculated air smell that says summer vacation. In my haste to leave three weeks ago, I appear to have left dirty dishes in the sink, the water of which now looked like that primordial chemical soup from which the first life forms emerged 6017 years ago (October 23, 4004 BC), according to Irish Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656). (Yes, I visited the Creationist dinosaur museum in Glendive). In my haste, I had also left a load of clothes in the washer, cycle complete. They had a lovely sourdough aroma. My bed was of course unmade. And all the toilets had a protein stain at the water line.

There's no place like home.

Lines delivered by Elizabeth Taylor at the beginning of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf popped into my head: "What a dump!" I reclaimed the house in the following order. First, I opened the windows in my bedroom and turned the ceiling fan on high. Second, I rewashed the sourdough clothes. Third, I opened as many windows in the house as I thought might help to circulate air. Fourth, I hauled in the first of twelve loads from the car, opened the suitcases one by one in my entry, and started to haul dirty clothes downstairs to the laundry room. Some of them were dirty enough to burn, but I decided to give them two cycles through the washer. This included my "new" tennis shoes that suffered grievously on the Wendover Death March on the Lolo Trail in Idaho. They were black as soot. Fifth, I did the dishes and sent a vial of the old dishwater to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Sixth, I made dinner for myself, even though I was dog tired, because I have not had a home-cooked meal for almost a month. It was lasagna, for which I had a hankering, but I confess to having used faux noodles, the kind that are "oven ready" without boiling. The shame of it! Seventh, I did not pour myself a glass of wine because I was afraid I would pass out right into a plate of lasagna noodles.

By the time things wound down, the house looked . . . well, less of a dump. The temperature had dropped to 85 in the living areas, but my bedroom was still stuck at about 90. Five new books had appeared at my doorstep magically during my absence, not to mention the dozen I had purchased hither and yon on the trail. I showered ("rinsed" we say in the evening) to remove the first layers of road grit, changed the sheets, and prepared to read myself instantly to sleep. If I were rich, I'd have clean sheets every day. The thing I dislike most about hotel (and motel) life is the pillows. Actually, the pillows and the coverlets. The pillows, the coverlet, and the carpets. Well, the pillows, the coverlet, the carpets, and the black hair left in the sink by the housekeeping staff…. But the waffle machine at breakfast is kind of fun. And the pulsing orange juice dispenser.

Just as I was nodding off my daughter called from New York, where she is beginning her sophomore year of college. The call came on Face Time, which meant that I thought it best to get out of bed and to look reasonably presentable. She was exhausted from a long day of orientation activities in Gotham, I from driving 587 miles, and shoveling out the house, so we mostly just gazed at each other across 1,720 miles of America. Mutually homesick smiles.

When I told her of the beauty of the Yellowstone River as the first waxy yellow leaves begin to grace the cottonwoods and the whiff of fall hovers in the morning air, her face slowly resolved into an understated look of understanding and longing and loss. If you ever let the Great Plains into your soul, you can never quite be fully happy without them. I could see she wanted to be in that car, with her bare feet up on the dash, red licorice and a soda near at hand, a couple of unopened trashy grocery store magazines, and a good book. And I could hear her say, when we were 75 miles from the nearest village, backward or forward, "Dad, I'm hungry. Can we drive through?"

As usual, as always, she was the perfect homecoming.

When I left the house this morning, the flowers on the porch had all perked up.