My husband grew up in Vermont’s Green Mountains with a view of Snowcats grooming ski trails. I was raised in a modest Boston suburb where I would pick white lilacs from my bedroom window and play tag on a decent-sized, but unwatered, lawn that, thanks to the summer sun, would crunch under my feet like potato sticks.
But when it came time to buy our first home, my husband, Brien, and I found ourselves looking in neighborhoods named Apple and Pear Tree in a world away from leaf-peeping, ski-country New England — the Las Vegas desert.
The home prices and the Frenchman Mountain location had already drawn us away from our comfort zone, and the next thing we knew, at 26 years old, we had purchased a white-stucco, two-story home that was three-quarters of the way built. We picked out the carpet and the linoleum. And we also had our own piece of land — with desert plants we knew nothing about, a paltry patch of grass (with a sprinkler system!), and two skinny trees out front —and nothing but hard-packed dirt and six-foot-high walls in the back.
A little more than a month after purchasing it, in 1996, we packed up everything we owned in our one-bedroom apartment in Henderson, Nev., and moved into our three-bedroom Las Vegas home. Packing didn’t take long. We had a particle-board bedroom set, a yard sale couch, and a kitchen table from Montgomery Ward. No curtains, just cavernous empty space greeted us, along with glaringly white walls (most of which we would remain too intimidated to paint). What we had a lot of was first-time-home-buyer jitters and a home in a California style that was foreign to us.
Our education as homeowners began immediately.
Brien worked strange hours at a front desk of a hotel on The Strip, and I worked nights at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, so I was home alone for long stretches. The houses beside us hadn’t sold yet and the lots behind us were as bare as our windows, so I was nervous about why it seemed like we were the only ones who wanted to live there. We adopted Zoe, a 35-pound rat terrier, and we set about crate-training her. After weeks of persuasion, battle, and cage destruction, we gave up and left her loose in the house when we went to work. Not too long into this experiment, I came home to find my husband sitting in the dark.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m trying to calm down,” he said, as he switched on the lamp. Zoe had shredded the carpet, the pad, and a lot more. She would eventually turn into a wonderful, well-behaved dog (except for one wall-eating incident), but in that moment the idea of forcing a crate on a strange dog in a strange place for all of us did not seem like the brightest move.
That first July deluge brought another lesson. Mud splattered by the rain caked onto the back of the house, leaving a jagged orange stripe we could not scrub off. Humbled, we shelled out money for a walkway to the front gate, fescue sod, and a sprinkler system expansion. Monsoon rains gave the lawn a good head start, but the accompanying flash floods sent two-by-fours from the construction sites sailing down the street like paper boats.
Another problem we faced that neither of us had any experience with while growing up in New England was silverfish crawling into and setting off fire alarms. Who knew? Regular exterminator visits were commonplace, and for good reason. We learned to store things in air-tight containers only after I reached into the dog food bag one day and came out with a handful of kibble — and stinging red ants.
We may have been like silverfish out of water, but one final lesson we learned was to give everything a chance. I made curtains with cheap white fabric and “sewed” the hems with fusible bonding web and an iron. We wallpapered two bathrooms (a green pattern in the half bath and a Sandra Boynton cartoon in our daughter’s soon after her birth). My father-in-law planted palm trees for us, and I pink-flowered succulents and rosemary, after learning the hard way that you have to use a sulfur product to soften the hardpan. We took Zoe and the baby for long walks to the mountain. We got new neighbors, and our daughter made her first best friend.
We were still two New Englanders who had no earthly business in the desert Southwest. But finally, we belonged.