Chop Wood, Carry Water

rustic mountain cabin

Reminiscing about life as a woodsy in Telluride

By Karen Bellerose


The golden shimmer of the aspens on the hillside and the cloudless cobalt sky are lost on me, as I have been looking down for hours. I am sweating and my shoulders ache. Every time I swing the ax I see myself losing a foot or a finger or at least getting a nice slice in my thigh. Every time. My boyfriend and I spent three hours yesterday in the National Forest cutting wood for winter at the fantastic deal of $5 a permit. Tree felling itself, the highlight of the day, was less frightening than I feared, though I kept thinking of all the ways it could go wrong. I was relieved when the drone of the chainsaw stilled and astonished at how a gentle nudge toppled the tree with a cracking whoomph, then silence.

Once the tree was down, the chainsaw was resuscitated to cut the rounds I am splitting today to fit into the wood stove. I can barely get my arms around them to haul them out. The Ponderosa we cut was close to twenty-five feet tall and dead. It will only get us a half-cord of wood and we need three cords to be warm for the winter.

The drive home is quiet because we are both tired. This was just our second trip to the forest and it is already mid-September. The Land Cruiser holds only one tree, which leaves at least four more trips to the forest, and each one is exhausting. The heady pine scent, though, is sublime; I am surprised that the lifeless tree is so fragrant. I feel a little drunk on it during the drive home.

Even though it scares me, I will help split and stack all the wood from the six trees. The ax is sharp, and I don’t feel strong. I often hit knots that hold the blade captive, forcing me to fight the round for possession. When a clean swing splits the wedge, I feel elated, like a point guard hitting a three-pointer.

I set the ax down, grab a bottle of water, and sit on the chopping block near the woodpile that is still far too small. I have never put up wood for the winter before, just one of many firsts I’ve had since I fell in love and moved from the north side of Chicago to live in a cabin with my new boyfriend in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The cabin is about thirty miles from the ski town of Telluride, where the jobs are. Housing is expensive here and hard to come by, but he found a remote and rustic cabin where the owners are letting him live in exchange for completing some projects. “Remote” means no winter access at almost 9,000 feet in elevation, so you have to ski or snowmobile the three miles in during the winter. We don’t have a snowmobile. “Rustic” means the cabin is unfinished and has no water or electricity. My boyfriend has built an outhouse and bought an old wood stove for heat. We cook on a two-burner Coleman. I didn’t realize people still lived this way in the 1990s, but around here there are many, called woodsies, scattered about in cabins, campers, and other makeshift housing. There’s Steve who stays in a tent up Mill Creek, Treetop who has a heatless camper in town, and even Angela who lives in a teepee out by the cemetery, to name just a few.

Fresh from the city, I am a cerebral girl who has landed in a physical world, and most of the time I feel inadequate, even as I have watched my body change from the work of this life. Splitting wood, starting a fire in the woodstove, driving in mud and snow, getting unstuck in mud and snow, skiing, hiking and finding my way home in the dark—these are the skills that matter now, and it all amounts to getting comfortable with discomfort. We haul our drinking water from a nearby spring on public land, and it’s the best I’ve ever had. Fresh, like tasting the sky. It’s a heavy task, though, especially in the winter. For everything else, we have the creek in summer and snowmelt in the winter. The return on snow isn’t what you’d think: a pasta pot of snow yields only a few cups of water.

While I finish my water bottle, I finally take in the aspens. They are magnificent, a hillside blaze of yellow and orange glowing in the late afternoon sun. Looking at the pile of wood I have just split, I wish it were larger, but I feel proud. Even though I will never get comfortable with the ax, I realize that over the past six months, my insecurities have subsided and something else has emerged. Not confidence, exactly, but rather connection. Thinking back to life in the city, I was surrounded by people but I often felt lonely. Here at the cabin, among the forest and wildlife, that hand inside me that was ever reaching for connection has found wilderness to hold. The loneliness has quieted even though I barely see people.

My city friends—and even people in town—are puzzled by this life, seeing it as boredom and toil and an ever-frustrating loss of convenience. It is a lot of work, but I am never bored. Each day offers adventure; sometimes it’s as simple as losing your temper trying to get the car unstuck from the spring mud and then looking up to see you are being watched by a coyote on the hill’s crest. Or it can even be building the first fire of fall using the wood I have cut myself.

Cut off from traffic and train stations and the constant thrum of people, life is simpler here, with few distractions. In that quiet, I am getting to know an ancient part of myself that is discovering it has a place in the natural world that has been there all along. My days have a new rhythm forged by the seasons and anchored by basic needs. Without electricity, I am up before dawn eager to use every glimmer of daylight. Come sunset, there is a small bit of candlelit night before sleep takes me. I go to sleep tired and wake feeling rested in a way I never did as an urbanite.

The twilight tells me I am done splitting wood for today. The moon is new, so we will build a fire outside tonight—a rare luxury—so we can enjoy the star show. Of all the changes wrought in me from woodsy living, the impact of darkness has been the most profound and unexpected. While the majesty of mountains right out my door takes my breath away, when night falls and the skyline gives way to the incomprehensible grandeur of a world with more stars than I ever imagined, a passageway opens in me and I feel like I am connected to everything, and everything is immeasurable. In it there is a presence that needs no capital letter, arouses no fear, demands no obedience. It wants only to merge with me, to connect, to listen, to love.

With the alpenglow at my back, I gather an armload of freshly split wood and walk toward the fire pit. I hear the creek babble its greeting and see the aspen leaves waving and I feel welcomed home.I

In her Lawson Hill house, she now has all the regular utilities and year-round access, but Karen Bellerose lived as a woodsy on Hastings Mesa from 1995 to 2000. You can read her short essays on her blog, spruceandsagebrush.com.

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