When I booked a week in a yurt, I was most skeptical about the concept of living in a circle. Would my space be divided into slices, like a pie? Would I have a sleeping slice, a working slice, and an eating slice? Would it feel weird and swirly in the yurt because there were no corners for energy to get stuck in?
I booked it anyway, reframing the skepticism into curiosity. I was spending the spring traveling around and trying on different types of lives. Before the yurt, I’d tried a condo on the beach, a casita in the desert, a cottage on a farm. Now, to really round out my experience, I was going to dabble in yurtlife in Topanga Canyon.
Yurts are the circular canvas tents made famous by the steppe-people of Mongolia, which appealed to me because it was kind of offbeat, and because the ancient Mongols possessed a number of qualities that I admired, like nomadism, eating local, and ruthlessness. Anyway, it was only a week. Uukhai!
I drove up a steep and windy road from the town of Topanga to find my yurt perched elegantly against a hillside, surrounded by tangled thickets and a soft carpet of wildflowers. I climbed a few steps onto a porch that was built into a wooden frame that surrounded the yurt and leaned against the railings to take in the sage-scented breeze. Lizards chased each other across fallen trees, and caterpillars scooted along the floorboards. So far, yurtlife was predictably idyllic.
My assumption about slices wasn’t far off. The bed and bedside tables occupied about half the real estate, while the left-hand hemisphere was sliced into sections for a bathroom, a kitchen, and an area with a desk / dining table.
I started settling in, pulling books off the bookshelf and reading snippets about the area. Turns out the main property the yurt sat on had hosted some raucous parties for offbeat Hollywood types back in the day. The sound of approaching footsteps caught my attention. Peeking out the front door, I was delighted to see an enormous dog had lumbered onto the porch. She was a giant, droopy thing with skin that hung from her bones like a sheet from a Scooby Doo ghost. Her giant brown eyes gazed up at me questioningly and told me instantly that despite her monstrous proportions she was going to be a sweetheart.
I opened the door and she pushed past me determinedly to sniff the perimeter of the yurt and inspect my stack of suitcases. I sat in a small armchair and watched her. Satisfied with her nasal inspection, she loped over to me and set her bowling ball sized head in my lap. Generous jowls left smears of drool on my jeans and she stared up at me expectantly. I scratched her floppy ears that were spread out on my leg and thanked her for the warm welcome.
“BALOOOOOO!” came a shout from the main house, and I heard movement on the stone path connecting the yurt to the rest of the compound. I heard them climb the steps and a small man stood framed in the mini french doors. “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry. She’s friendly.”
“Oh, thank goodness!” I responded, tilting my head toward the smears of slobber on my leg, grinning to convey my legitimate unbotheredness. We exchanged introductions and my host offered to give me a tour. I glanced around the yurt, confused. I thought I had it pretty figured out.
“I mean, outside! There’s a lot to see!” I followed him to the porch, down the stairs and to a gate in a small wire fence. Next to the gate hung a sign with big block letters, rainbow paint chipped and faded over decades: ROCK WORLD.
Traversed a landscape of stacked and scattered boulders, my host showed off his local knowledge, pointing out and naming local plants, stopping to pick grasses, handing me a stem before popping one in his mouth. “It’s wild mustard, try some! It’s great in a salad.” He stared at me, eyes darting between the weed and my face, imploring me silently to eat it. I hesitated, imagining Baloo and her canyon dog friends poking through these same fields, casually lifting a leg on the grasses I was being invited to ingest. He was still staring. I ate the leaf. Satisfied, he turned his back and continued upwards toward the apex of ROCK WORLD. I clawed the bitter green goo off my tongue, forgoing the immersive foraging experience. I doubt I’ll ever be brave enough to consume a plant handed to me in a field by some eager stranger. We climbed to the top of a stack of rocks and looked north over the canyon. The sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains toward the ocean, and a thin layer of fog was pouring over the top of the hills. It was a breathtaking.
“Let me know if there is anything else you need.” My brave leaf-munching host dropped me off back at the yurt and walked to the main house, Baloo padding heavily along beside him.
In the twilight, the yurt got even cuter. Tasteful lamps lit the circular space in a golden glow that played off the solid wood beams along the ceiling. I spent some time writing, counting my blessings, and smelling the sweet breeze wafting in through the open window zippers.
In the encroaching quiet, I heard an owl hoot nearby, which was swiftly answered by a big bark echoing out of Baloo’s barrel chest. She had wandered back to my yurt and claimed a post on the wooden frame, sniffing out over the canyon. Knowing she was there, I could suddenly hear her heavy breathing through the canvas. I walked to the door, intent to join her in the twilight howl, and found the switch for the porchlight at about eye level.
I squinted at what I though might be an extra button on top of the light switch. My eyes adjusted and I saw it was a nickel-sized spider, balancing on the wiring and daring me to bring my meaty hand down anywhere near her domain.
With a mason jar and a magazine, I approached and detained this intruder and escorted her to a potted succulent on the porch, feeling very proud of my bravery and the kindness I was showing to the locals by ignoring my instinct to scream and smash her at first sight. But as I stood on the porch under the purple California sky, reflecting on my own sweet benevolence, I watched the spider deliberately navigate from the plant to the pot. She rappelled herself back to the wooden beams of the porch, then waltzed pointedly up the frame of the door and through the tiniest tear in the canvas, entering the yurt at the exact spot I had found her.
I instantly understood my place in yurtworld. It was her hillside, I was just glamping in it.
So I spoke to her, hoping to broker a treaty.
Ok girlfriend, I get it. This is your spot. I don’t want to mess with you. I am happy to coexist here if we can agree on the terms. If you can pledge not to rappel down your web into my mouth while I’m sleeping, then I will keep my cool when I see you and keep my rolled up newspaper stashed. Do we have a deal?
She sat stoic on the light switch. I put faith in the power of my intention, and hoped she wasn’t the type to lay eggs in human crevices.
For the next week, I lived and worked in the yurt. I adjusted to the fact that the kitchen sink was directly next to the toilet, because in yurtworld, the water is where it is, so all things that require water are clumped together. I learned to just gently turn my back as I washed my coffee mugs, pretending the toilet wasn’t there.
I drank my coffee on the porch, listening to birdsong and smelling whiffs of ocean mist that spilled over the mountains. As far as I could tell, the spider was keeping her promise. I usually saw her perched in her spot on the light switch. Sometimes she climbed a beam to her pied-à-terre on the ceiling.
I broke up my days with drives into town, hikes to lookout points, and popping down the canyon to dip my toes in the ocean. One night I followed some backroads down to Malibu to catch the sunset, at which point I learned that Malibu faces South and was not the ideal venue for sunset watching that I had imagined. Travel is all about learning.
Even the Internet connection up there was pretty decent, so I could keep working uninterrupted. Cell connection was trickier, but I discovered the best service happened from the middle of the yurt circle, so I lay in the middle of the bed with my head hanging off the end to take my conference calls. I strategized with my coworkers and gazed out the porthole in the middle of the roof where the beams came together. The light would change as the day wore on and I would take a minute be thankful for this pleasant yurt experience.
Midway through my week, the view from my bed began to change. Shiny ceiling beams started showing signs of life. Gauze webs hung from the highest reaches near the porthole, connecting to small webbed encampments built against the canvas. In real time I watched as my spider sister’s cohort maneuvered and machinated, colonizing the roof space with their webs.
I hope our agreement still stands. I said, out loud, and the spiders continued to build above my head, telling me in no uncertain terms whose yurt this was, really. I could swiffer all I liked, they seemed to say, I could hit those beams with an extender-arm duster as much as I wanted to but like a bad penny, they would come back. I was on borrowed time here, they said. This canyon was a wild place for wild creatures.
The spiders were a force as inevitable as the tide or the sunrise, mirroring the persistent wildness of the canyon. A year without those spiders and the bug population would grow out of control. The bats would get complacent, the lizards obese. The whole system would be desperately out of whack. A year without people, though, and the whole canyon would just return to a lush coastal jungle, finding a natural order of spiders, wild mustard, geckos, and sage. Baloo and her gang would live off trash and wild turkeys without a second thought.
I knew who the real intruder was.