Our Encampments

An excerpt from Mettlework: A Mining Daughter on Making Home

A faded and creased photo of a small child wearing bell-bottom jeans and a frilly pink bonnet and holding a stuffed animal while perched atop a steel mining cart

This is what I remember of our encampments.

A tent frame made of two-by-fours and pale canvas. Studying the squares made by shadows and sunlight on its walls. A summer night in a trailer, Dad home from work covered in dust and suddenly pressed into parental duty, falling asleep in the middle of a book. I remember a clear spring sky against fir trees—fiercely blue—and wondering if it was deep, if it had a boundary, if it was a substance. Baby Andy pounding on a window in the morning as a bulldozer headed to the mine site. The smallness of my own boot measured against a bulldozer’s tracks through heavy mud.

The mine smelled like damp stone and men smelled like diesel when they stood around outside our tent: talking shop, disregarding us when I wanted nothing more than to be central, part of some activity that mattered after a long day playing alone.

A whiff of chlorine from a motel swimming pool smelled like a built environment, people, possibility. From our hours-long rattling over gravel into town for groceries and drinking water, I remember the cursive allure of Coca-Cola signs, the high, orange rotating ball at the 76 station and how I imagined myself curled up inside it. Girls bearing towers of soft-serve ice cream smiled at us as they leaned out the windows of the drive-in. Their hair feathered away from their faces and their eyelids sparkled crystal blue and purple.

Back in camp, I dreamed myself into their existence, using the sight of them, Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh stories, and a Juice Newton song from Baker City AM radio as raw material for a fantasy social life involving tea parties, eyeshadow, and rodeo queens. As early as I can remember, I woke up longing for other places.


I remember the entwinement of Dad and work, of men and work. He left and left and left for work, and his work was the deep cause of everything we experienced. I remember wishing to grow up to be him instead of her.

I imagined myself into a future where I wouldn’t be the one left in the making-do. Ours was an extreme setting, a narrow sort of social ecotone, and it didn’t take much for me to become unnatural, impossible, strange. A girl who wanted to be something else, a kind of woman she’d never seen.

In my memories of camp, my mother is almost never an image so much as a feeling of immensity that I traveled near and needed to stay close to. I longed for changes in the weather—for snow, for sun, or for the ominous darkness of a coming thunderstorm. I remember how her changes could surprise me, how much a kind of providence she was—coming up with a song to break my boredom, her voice turning harsh in what seemed like a sudden loss of patience.


Looking at the shape of the pages, the lines on the paper, the tilt of my mother’s light handwriting, I could remember her what it felt like to watch her. I could remember one particular sky-blue and grass-green day just after we’d moved to town.

She sat on a low lawn chair, balancing a writing pad on her thighs. I orbited. I was shirtless, wearing jeans that had belonged first to a boy, and though I had learned by then that I was a girl, I was okay with it only when I could imagine that girl meant omnidirectional wild potential, something like flame. The particular paper, the particular pen, were not routinely available to me. They belonged to her only, as almost nothing did. They lived in the drawer below the telephone, conductor of messages, bringer of news, conduit of exciting voices.


It was new to have a telephone and to live in a house, near stores and neighbors, and not in a camp near men and a mine. It was new, and I was afraid it wouldn’t last. In this new life I wanted to proclaim, to make words, to say and say.


My father was somewhere working and had been somewhere working forever. He was working at the mine whose location and distance I wasn’t certain of. “The mine” was in fact not one but many. I only knew that it was the most important thing, the reason for leaving places I wanted to stay or staying places I wanted to leave.

If he was coming home on Friday night, from the lilac-scented dawn of Friday, events would coalesce around his arrival: cleaning up, baking bread, getting the boring things done before he was here. His arrival would be an event. My mom, me, the baby, the dog would listen for the rush of his big approaching engine, gather on the porch, and watch the new-used, root-beer-colored pickup pull into the shade of locust trees that I found painfully tall and graceful, like green celebrities in a warm sky. He would push open the heavy door and step down from the cab happy.

After he left again, all the waves made by his presence slowly diminished back into the large body of undifferentiated time.

On this day, I remember, my mother was writing a letter, and that was the solid thing, an activity generated by my mother’s own wish to do it. It was something she did by herself, for her own reasons, less often now since we moved down to town from the tents and trailers at the mine site. When she wrote, she seemed hard and away, looking for words. Maybe imagining. Maybe depicting. Maybe confiding things that couldn’t be told to me.


“When can I write?” I would ask, stepping in and out of the house’s shadow. I wanted my mother to turn from her own thoughts and take my dictation, to make important the words I wished to make important.

“This is my letter, honey. Please let me finish. You can get your art supplies from inside.”

But I was usually tired of drawing, tired of all I couldn’t give shape to, tired of the motions of my body in its search for some kind of business.


Family, Place, Home, Work


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