“That’s it,” my husband, Ben said as he squeezed the last box into the truck before closing the camper shell. “That’s all we can fit.” We were finally leaving Texas and moving back to California to a town whose name we couldn’t even pronounce – Guatay.
I found the ad for our new abode in the San Diego section of a popular online source for classified information. It showed a picture of a 1979 Airstream trailer, with its awning unfurled, parked in a setting that was surrounded by hills. “Trailor on privat poperty in Guatay,” it said. “$365 per monts include water.” I was met with skepticism as I showed Ben the printed page and declared that I had found the Shangri-La to where we would relocate.
It was January and freezing as we made the 1,300-mile trek from Austin, Texas to San Diego. Our Nissan pickup truck labored to climb the last 4,000 feet through the pass to the steep, narrow driveway of our final destination. Feeling as if we had just landed on another planet, we pulled into the narrow space by the Airstream and exhaled a loud sigh of relief.
We were barely out of the truck when we spotted a tiny woman madly waving and running towards us. She wore a brightly colored print skirt and combat boots with argyle knee socks that were visible above the footwear. She donned a Russian Cossack jacket over a man’s sweater, and a large hat that sat on top of a ski cap and tied into a big bow under her chin. Her beady eyes darted back and forth as wisps of curly grey hair poked out of her cap and danced in the wind. Her name was Giselle and she was a former ballerina from Russia. At 80 years of age, she was still agile and graceful. We would find out later, she was also extremely nosey, pushy and outspoken.
“You don’t have to stay here,” she said, in a thick Russian accent. “Zees place may not be suitable for you.” Ben and I shot a confused look at each other as we opened the camper shell to unpack.
“This will be fine,” I answered while surveying my new home and its strange owner. “We were looking for an adventure,” I said, forcing a smile.
Before my journey, I had envisioned Guatay, a town 43 miles east of San Diego that stands at an elevation of 4,000 ft., as a lush, romantic hideaway. Upon my arrival in mid-winter; however, what I found was a cold, desolate and frozen wasteland where I could hear the wildlife rustling in the bushes and the wind whipping through the sparse trees.
We unpacked quickly and collapsed into a heap inside the trailer. Aching and tired, we were anxious to get some rest. Unfortunately, rest was the last thing we would get that night.
The heater had stopped working. To assess the problem, Ben crawled under the console in front of the trailer and removed the fuse box (which wasn’t supposed to be removable). Outside, the fierce wind blew so hard it shook the trailer and seeped through the fuse box hole, blasting us with a teeth-chattering draft. We were miserable.
The next morning we told Giselle about the heater. “I have zee electwic heetah,” she responded. “I go get it.” Minutes later she came scurrying down the little slope, which separated her home from the trailer pad, with a small, radiator-like electric heater. We plugged it into the outlet that evening and basked in the warmth. Just as we were toasty enough to finally peel off our parkas, the electricity abruptly stop flowing.
“When you use zee heetah, you can not use zee lights.” Lights? We were only using a small night light so we could find our way to the bathroom in the darkness.
The following week we experienced an overflowing toilet, pilot lights refusing to ignite, a regurgitating bathtub, more propane problems, a leaking hot water heater and freezing water lines. Although annoying, these inconveniences paled in comparison to the inexplicable visions I was having of a tribal chief who was paying nocturnal visits to me on a regular basis.
I was sure the Airstream was parked on sacred ground – or haunted. Every night, somewhere between midnight and dawn, I would wake up from a sound sleep to see “the chief” as I called him, standing by my bed. He never said anything; just stared out the small window above me into the clear, starry sky. I didn’t know if it was a dream, an apparition, or the pressure of being one notch above homeless causing me to go insane.
The first time he appeared, I screamed and he vanished. The next time, I wanted to get a better look at him, so I held my breath and merely trembled in my sleeping bag. He was tall and muscular, with graying hair pulled back into a braid. He wore fringed buckskin and had a full headdress adorned with elaborate feathers and beads. He was very handsome – fairer than the stereotypical Native American. His blue crescent-shaped eyes matched the soft, early morning sky. His sanguine skin stretched over high cheekbones and curved into his full lips that formed a slightly lopsided grin above his well-defined chin.
“What do you want?” I asked. No answer. “What is your message?” I thought by using the word, “message” it sounded more spiritual and he would respond. Still no answer. “Who are you?” Silence.
After about a month, I told Ben about the chief. Ben wasn’t interested. He was still having his own issues with the fuse box – and now, exorbitant electric bills. Giselle had presented us with a $150 invoice resulting from the use of the electric heater (along with a $50 bill for the collective trash we hauled down the hill every week and a $25 bill to access her Direct TV).
My nightly visions consisted of seeing Ben’s bare posterior sticking out of the trailer’s console while he jiggled fuses; and a mute tribal chief staring out of the window by my bed.
Months passed and by spring, we finally adjusted to life in Guatay. We accepted the Airstream’s ailments along with the long journey to civilization and the proper way to avoid rattlesnakes. We made friends with the propane/grocery/hardware store owner and the workers at the two small cafés where we dined. We personally knew our mail carrier, when he would be at our mailbox (a mile down the road) and when he would be at the post office, which closed for an hour or so every day during lunch. We discovered how life is lived “4,000 feet above care,” and the quickest route to a Laundromat (13 miles away). For an exciting night on the town, we ventured into nearby Descanso or Pine Valley for pizza.
By this time, Giselle had totally invaded our privacy and dictated our eating, living, and working habits. I never knew a tiny, Russian ex-ballerina could be such a Gestapo agent. More than once our intimate moments were interrupted by her pounding at the window. Every day we found a bowl of leftover organic something or other at the door. I would eat my share. Ben would throw his away. Giselle was an avid user of colonics and would always inform us of the latest meal that went into her body where it should have been coming out. I once informed her of a new organic coffee I found only to have her relate, in great detail, how she absorbed the same product while inverted. So much for full-bodied flavor.
The chief was still making his appearances without saying a word. I scoured the library and spoke with locals to try and find out who he was. No one knew. By late spring, I had grown comfortable with his company and chatted in a one-sided conversation. I complimented his outfit and always asked if there was anything he needed. I was hoping to pass Giselle’s leftover organic meals to him, but he never indicated interest in her cuisine.
As the weather became warmer, flowers began to bloom, and the hills became a vivid shade of green. Guatay almost resembled the picture I carried in my mind before that day in January when we first arrived. I watched a beautiful lilac bush that grew by our door sprout little shoots, and then buds. I was anxiously awaiting the blooms when, to my horror, awoke one morning to find the all the stems lopped off. Giselle coyly informed me that she presented the budding flowers as a birthday gift to a friend.
The balmy days lured us into making a daily pilgrimage to the beach. With summer approaching, we couldn’t bear to be away from the sounds and smells of the ocean. Sadly, we would have to leave the shore shortly after noon to make it back to Guatay before rush hour, so the truck could get a running start up the steep grade. When an opportunity presented itself for us to permanently move to the beach, we did.
It was the end of May when we once again packed up the Nissan to head to yet another new home. This time it was to a beautiful apartment with no heating problems. We waited for Giselle so we could say goodbye; but she didn’t arrive before we had to head down the driveway for the last time. Passing through the gate that she was now keeping locked, I noticed a new sign posted at the entrance that threatened trespassers with imprisonment. “She misspelled the word sheriff,” I said quietly as we took the sharp turn to the main road.
Not long after we were in our new home, we received a check from Giselle for $150. It had a note attached that said, “Refund for heet. Hope you not mad.”
We haven’t been back to visit since that warm, sunny day we left. The old Nissan probably wouldn’t make it up the hill these days. But, I often think about Giselle, Guatay, the Airstream and the chief, and wonder how they all are doing.