Healing, Homelessness and Hope in a Mountain Town

Meadow Mountain Cafe

Here I sit at the Meadow Mountain Cafe in Allenspark, Colorado. So many memories flood in all at once sparked by the familiar sights and smells—by the sound of that little brass bell clanging above the door whenever anyone arrives or leaves. The memories are as vivid as if they happened yesterday, but it wasn’t yesterday. That was more than 20 years ago.

I was twenty one years old and working part-time as a dishwasher here at the cafe while living out of my truck in the woods.

I’d chosen the dishwashing position because it involved the least amount of human interaction possible. After my summer of waiting tables in Estes Park and serving hordes of tourists every single day, I was done: Done talking to strangers, done smiling cutely at bad jokes, done wizarding around to get everyone their food and drinks on time. I’d started to feel like a trained monkey doing a little song and dance in hopes people would toss a few extra dollars at me. I was tired of interacting with humans in general, to be honest.

Nature Was My Therapy

Every night I fell asleep to the sound of the creek and woke up when the sun peered over the trees, tickling my senses. Nature was healing me, one sunrise at a time.

Life was astonishingly simple. Each morning I would climb out of my sleeping bag when the sun broke through my topper window, splash my face with ice cold water from the creek, throw on clean clothes, and leave my campsite. Breakfast, coffee and a small community awaited me at the cafe.

Being a dishwasher was just my speed. I’d soak my hands in that warm, sudsy water, washing all the dishes until they sparkled while watching mountain wildflowers flutter in the breeze outside the window.

Behind me, Rocky would pump out amazing breakfasts and burgers for hungry locals, food made with love hot off the griddle. She and I frequently would fall into our own deep in thoughts and work silently along to whatever music she’d chosen for us that day. Sometimes it was Neil Young, sometimes Grateful Dead or Creedence Clearwater but thankfully neither of us were very conversational in the morning. In our mutual, friendly, comfortable silence I always felt welcomed.

Small Town Camraderie

Not that it isn’t a restaurant, and a damned fine at that, but The Meadow Mountain Cafe is so much more than than a restaurant. It’s a home, a place that connects neighbors in this tiny, roughing-it mountain town. And for me it was an essential part of my life, a beacon on the rocky shores, guiding my lost soul back to harbor.

Dish washing was healing

Nestled up high against the Rockies at 9,000 feet above sea level, living in Allenspark isn’t for the faint of heart. But at the center of this wind-driven, roughing-it community is this cozy little cafe, a place where locals can gather to drink coffee and swap gossip. Where everyone knows each other by their first names as well as a lot about their personal lives.

Even though I kept to myself most of the time that I was working at the cafe, it still was nice to partake in the community. I’d help collect everyone’s dirty dishes and return them to sparkling clean, being useful and inconspicuous all at the same time.

Isolated and Unreachable

One thing I loved about living in the woods was that no one could reach me. There was a pay phone located up the road by the post office and a landline at the cafe in case someone really needed to reach me. And those were pretty much my only means to communicate with the outside world unless I drove twenty minutes into Estes Park to check my emails at the library.

Sometimes I’d get a package at the post office or a maybe a card in the mail. I was lucky enough to have rented a post office box while still having a proper physical address. You would not believe the kinds of issues that arise once you no longer have a Street Address to write in all the proper blanks on all the forms.

Insta-Judgments

The label “homeless” got slapped on to me so fast I didn’t even have a chance to explain my situation to anyone or let them know I’d chosen to live this way. It would have been possible to rent a cabin or get a roommate but I didn’t want to. How could I explain that I moved into the woods because I was disillusioned with society and I also really loved nature? I no longer felt interested in paying rent to some “lord” (land or otherwise). But instant judgments were passed with no chance for explanation.

“You can’t just go live in the woods because you want to, don’t you know?” How could I explain staying there was my therapy, it was so peaceful. There were no rules, no bills, no bullsh*t.

I Belonged to the Forest

Okay, that’s not true, bullsh*t is everywhere. But at least while living in the woods I could keep it to minimum. At least the intensity of life’s problems was assuaged by looking up at stars unmuted by city lights, and listening to the ever-present, gurgling sounds of Rock Creek flowing by my simple camp.

Healing sound of the creek

Living in the woods gave me an expansive sense of belonging to the mountains. I felt that the entire forest was my home, not just my campsite or my truck. I’d wander around cleaning up careless camper’s litter with a sense of pride and ownership, wanting to make it a nice place for all to enjoy.

My days were astonishingly simple: go to work, come back to my camp, read, write, play music and eat from a tin can. It was the most contentment I’d ever felt in my whole life even though I had basically nothing—very few possessions, no stability, no long term job or even an idea what I where I would go once the weather turned cold.

Hope and Freedom

I didn’t have much but I had freedom. Freedom to say “I’m leaving this relationship. I’m leaving this job. I’m leaving the cycle of barely surviving on what’s leftover after working far too many hours.”

Those are things I’d never given myself permission to say before. Up until then, I had lived a life of always doing what others wanted and expected of me, constantly looking for outside approval and never stopping to ask myself, “What do I want? What does my soul need?”

Now I actually felt alive. I had hope for myself and my future, but no idea what it was going to look like. I just kept telling myself if I followed my heart and trusted my gut, the right path would reveal itself.

You Might be Judging Me Right Now

I know some of you reading this are judging me and my decision to live in my truck in the woods. But it was exactly what was right for me at that moment in time. I really needed to rebel, to be that girl who does what she wants for a change and says “to hell with the rules.”

In the past year, I’d lost myself in running away from an abusive marriage and was coming to terms with how I had even gotten there in the first place.

It was a vulnerable place. I felt frightened but hopeful. Ready to be on my own and extremely unprepared all at the same time. Keeping track of monthly bills and paying them on time seemed impossibly hard. Just keeping myself going, having routines, brushing my teeth, going to bed at regular times… these things were difficult and took all my effort to accomplish.

I realized that for me, healing was intermingled with the task of simply surviving.

And if Anyone is Judging, I would say this:

You don’t know what it’s like to get into then out of an abusive relationship at a very young age until you’ve been there yourself and done it.

I was so naïve, so unprepared for what would happen after leaving. Life had been a constant state of emergency and then, when the obvious, apparent abuse ended along with the marriage, I felt totally incapacitated with grief, with numbness. I had no idea how to actually take care of myself or who to ask for help.

For anyone who’s been in that situation, you probably know exactly what I mean. It’s PTSD, shell shock. Like you’ve just been through hell and every little random thing reactivates all the traumatic memories. But no one knows you’ve been entrenched in something more akin to a war zone and so you have no reasonable explanation for your behaviour.

The Aftermath of Trauma

Hopeless and alone

They say when you’ve been living in a highly stressful situation and your brain has been bathed consistently in cortisol, it is more difficult to think clearly. It’s more difficult to plan and focus and keep regular routines. I definitely showed all of those signs on top of my usual ADD-like symptoms. So in a way, I give myself a lot of props for getting through what I did and not giving up.

Part of me was still very much afraid I’d always be a frightened girl who didn’t stand up for herself when she should have. I was afraid of what I’d allowed to happen, what I’d accepted as normal and done in order to survive. It was hard to trust myself.

I Felt Like Giving Up

From here looking back, I’m proud of that scared girl who didn’t give up. And glad that the past version of me said “this is only a chapter in my life, not my whole story.” That I refused to allow abuse to destroy my heart or take away my love for life. In the end, I am so grateful to have left that relationship, even though it was scary and I was completely unprepared for the “what next”.

When I left my marriage, I also gained enough courage to question long-standing abusive practices in my family and home community as well.

Starting My Healing Journey

That was just the beginning. Healing has been my path for over twenty years now. I’ve learned that anyone can start healing right now. Starting to heal doesn’t mean we’ll “arrive” at some completely healed state someday. It’s a way of living, a way of being, constantly seeking out ways to heal and live more in the moment.

Sometimes we accidentally get off the healing path and have to meander our way back to finding it again. There have been plenty more mistakes I’ve made along the way. But I keep choosing to honor myself and I keep going, just stepping one foot in front of the other. Each time I fall down and get back up, I’m a little stronger. I’m a work in progress not a finished product!

This journey been scary, humbling, hard and amazing all at once. And now I’m learning how to not only survive but also thrive. How to allow myself to simply be more and more myself. And wouldn’t you know it? I am finally learning how to love myself too–the real me, not the version people want or expect me to be.

No Travel Required

Back then I imagined traveling far, far away from here. I wanted to get out of this small mountain town and live an international life of adventure. The truth is, I wanted to run away from who I’d been and all the people who knew that girl. In my mind, change and healing would have to happen somewhere else.

Many other things have changed between then and now. I’m now a mother and learning how to be my children’s rock, to be settled and secure not a free-spirit, traveling from job-to-job, relationship-to-relationship, house-to-house, town-to-town. That was old me.

Full-Circle Healing

Healing all chakras

I can’t stop thinking how 22 years have passed and here I am, sitting in this same cafe but in a much better place. My healing has come full circle.

I’m so much happier now than ever before and realize that the ability to find healing and joy was inside of me all along. No relationship or job or degree or different location was going to do that for me.

I had to find it on my own, right where I am. And I know that anyone can find healing and hope inside of themselves.

No matter where we are, no matter what our lives look like at this moment, we can make a different choice. We can choose love, healing and growth over pain, stagnation and sorrow. We can always start a new chapter in our life. It may be hard and require great perseverance and a lot of discomfort but I’m so grateful it’s possible to start now, or anytime we’re ready, and go on a journey of healing from the past.

By
Sarah Caton

Here at Voices Rising Press we aim to support and connect with those who are on the healing journey. Follow along on our podcast if you like discussions on the topic of healing and personal growth.

You may also enjoy reading:
The Three Questions: What is Really Happening?
6 Ways to Give Yourself the Love You’ve Always Wanted

Image Credits:
cottonbro & kira schwarz from Pexels
Emtunart, Stocksnap & Geralt from Pixabay

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