When two college buddies from Oregon happened upon the mesa in 1993, they knew nothing of the Footes. The land was too hot and too cold, too windy and too dry, they thought, but it was quiet and had marvelous views. And without irrigation rights, wells, houses or pavement of any kind, it was cheap. They pooled their money with three other friends and bought 80 acres.
The friends each chose home sites and built their own houses, two from straw bales, one from mud blocks, one with a wall insulated by old refrigerators. They formed a loosely bound commune, founded on a common dream of getting off the grid and back to the land.
One of the Oregon boys built his bachelor pad in a sheltered spot, a hollow serenaded by coyotes. When I met him, five years after he and his friends had signed the deed, I fell for him -- and then for the mesa. The place had a spare, spiny beauty that I loved, and the scattered houses overflowed with do-it-yourself charm. I moved to Foote Fields, and I was thrilled.
We got married in the mesa's open field, and in the years that followed, we built friendships and accumulated shared histories. The land allowed us to live in a way that roughly matched our beliefs: Our power came from the sun, our drinking water straight from the sky, our vegetables from down the road. For me, the land provided the tranquility -- and the low overhead -- I needed to start and sustain a writing career. Though I traveled often, and enjoyed the time away, I always returned to the mesa with a sense of relief.
But a thread of ambivalence began to wind through my mind. I wondered if our life on the mesa was really as easy on the land as we liked to believe. I wondered if I was just hiding out from a more conventionally middle-class destiny in this addictively gorgeous place. I looked around the light-filled little house my husband had so lovingly built, and wondered if we were getting too old to have a composting toilet, mismatched thrift-store dishes, and a used futon couch.
When I got pregnant and had a baby girl, I finally understood my nagging dissatisfaction. I had come here for an adventure, for a romantic experiment in minimalist rural living. Ten years later, what I most wanted was a home. My grandparents grew up in Holland and the farmlands of Virginia; my father grew up in England and North Carolina; I grew up in New York state and, in a fit of wanderlust, moved to Oregon for college. I now lived more than 1,800 miles from all the ancestors I knew about. I didn't have much of what my Southern relatives called a "home place," a place where I knew the local dialect and the history of the land and the shapes of all the family trees. There was no one place I was comfortably from.
Could this dried-out, weedy mesa, with its scenic vistas and jumble of homemade houses, become my home place? I wasn't sure. Still, it seemed important, as it never had before, to do some geographic genealogy, and learn who and what had preceded us here. I wanted -- suddenly needed -- to know who had found a way to call it home.
So I dug into the very local past. I toured nearby petroglyphs, cracked open the heavy cloth-bound volumes of property records at the county courthouse, whirled through rolls of microfilm at the library.
I learned that for hundreds of summers, the Utes had used the mesa -- and the mountains and valleys around it -- as hunting and gathering grounds. They probably camped here in family groups, cutting juniper logs for wickiup poles, gathering grass seeds for flour, following trails into the peaks. I learned about Guy Hammond, a gregarious cattleman from a pioneer family who had owned the mesa in the 1920s and '30s, and used it as spring pasture for his herd. I learned about his wife, Lena Read Hammond, an Easterner who played the piano, grew her own hops to make yeast, and rode the range with her husband -- first sidesaddle, then in a divided skirt, and finally, on the occasional camping trip, in overalls.
And I met Elizabeth Foote.