That familiar loneliness: a writer's own relationship mirrors a Stegner novel
During my first full summer in the West, I participated in a rite of passage: I read Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. The first character I fell in love with was the land. The stirrup-high grass near Leadville, Colorado that “flowed and flawed in the wind, its motion revealed and hid and revealed again streaks and splashes of flowers”; the sagebrush of Idaho that “sweeps away clear to the mountains, up the slopes and over them, spilling over the edge of the world.”
That summer, I led wilderness trips in New Mexico. I pored over the pages of Angle of Repose during the desert silvery nights, then savored Stegner’s descriptions during the red dusty days. As the summer wore on, though, I thought more and more about protagonist Susan Ward, an educated Eastern lady who commits herself, somewhat reluctantly, to a life of rootlessness and isolation in the West.
In New Mexico, I had begun to fall in love with a fellow trip leader, a quiet rock climber and mechanic. His soft, methodical speech and ability to listen distinguished him from the other men I worked with. He had studied painting in college, and the colors of the New Mexican landscape inspired the abstract, paint-spattered canvases that sat in the corners of his cabin, surrounded by climbing gear. He had grown up crawling through tires and changing oil at his parents’ auto shop, and he could fix just about anything.
Despite his skills, all he wanted was to climb full time, chasing summer south during the cold months and doing odd jobs to make some cash. For me, his creativity and character were more important than his career path, but I worried my family felt differently. My relatives, like Susan Ward’s, were Easterners who valued education more than just about anything else. My grandmother, especially, never understood, calling him a vagabond.
When Susan Ward meets her future husband, Oliver, an engineer, she admires not his ability to make conversation, but how quickly he picks apples and how their small boat leaps out of the water when he rows it across the pond. She agrees to follow him as he works the mining camps of West, but she keeps trying to bring upper-class Eastern society with her.
Some of her happiest moments are in Leadville, Colorado, when Harvard-educated geologists and engineers pack the Wards’ one-room cabin, their voices rising above the roar of the irrigation ditch as they debate philosophy and policy. During one such conversation, Oliver, who generally sat quietly in the corner, asks an awkward question, and Susan glares at him in the uncomfortable silence that ensues.
“With his brown corded forearms and his sunburned head he seemed one fitted for merely physical actions,” Stegner writes. “With a sad, defensive certainty she saw that he lacked some quality of elegance and ease, some fitness of perception, that these others had. It seemed to her that he sat like a boy among men, earnest and honest, but lacking in nimbleness of mind.”
While my thoughts were never as harsh as Susan’s, it did bother me that I didn’t have as many heady conversations about philosophy and politics with my boyfriend as I would have liked. But early on, I accepted that I couldn’t expect him to satisfy every part of my personality. He knew just how I took my tea, built us a bed by hand and was a great outdoor adventure buddy. What more did I need?
After my summer in New Mexico, I returned East to Maine, and my boyfriend moved with me. We holed up in a cottage on the coast for the winter, which seemed to me like a romantic thing to do. He rode out the long, cold months by tinkering in the garage with his car, climbing in the basement gym he built for us, and falling asleep early next to me on the couch. I loved reading by the window and watching the winter mornings light up the cottages on the water, but the nights made me restless and sad. I stayed up sipping my tea, talking to friends on the phone and envying the pictures they posted on Facebook of potlucks and parties. On the rare occasions when I had dinner with friends in town, I returned to the house hungry for more “talk,” as Susan called it.
Come spring, I moved down to Portland and got a roommate. During my first day at my new place, I sat on the front stoop all afternoon, just listening to the conversations of people walking by. I walked everywhere, working at cafés and reading the newspaper by the beach. But two years later, my boyfriend convinced me to move back up the coast to a smaller town.
Susan, too, talks herself into living in remote places. A cabin outside of Boise becomes a veritable prison, a place where she waits while Oliver throws himself into doomed irrigation and mining schemes. “My heart whispers to me that all he dreams of is still years away,” she writes in a letter, “and that meantime we grow old, we diminish, we lose touch with all that used to make life rich and wonderful.”
Her long-simmering loneliness eventually boils over, and she cheats on Oliver with his more talkative, refined business partner before fleeing back East for a stint. She eventually comes back to Oliver, preferring the familiar loneliness of that marriage to actually being alone.
My boyfriend and I planned to leave our lives in Maine together for another adventure out West. He left first, and in the weeks before I could quit my job, I started spending time with friends I’d rarely seen when he was around. I felt my relationship shift from a monolith I defended from all threats to a simple status that could, and would soon, change. Unlike Susan, I decided, I’d rather chance it alone.
Two months later, my ex-boyfriend and I had untangled our lives and were both living out West, on our own terms. While in Nevada City, California, just a few miles from where Stegner set Angle of Repose, I bought a copy of the book for a friend of mine, also from the East. She had just moved into her boyfriend’s remote cabin north of San Francisco. She wasn’t struggling with isolation yet, but if she started to, I thought Susan Ward could keep her company.