LOOKING FOR MR. OPLA

The afternoon was dark, ominous, which colored everything that happened.The rain-filled clouds lurked low over my head and when they let loose I knew they were trying to press me down into the ground with the weight of their water. Even the wind had evil on its mind as it snaked through the trees.

I had been hearing whispers here and there about a very old man who lived alone in a nearby town. I had interviewed only two men in their 90s thus far, so finding a third would be a real coup. Nobody knew him well enough to him ask if he’d be open to talking to me, but how dangerous could such an old geezer be, anyway?

To get to the town I left the highway and drove a rutted dirt road for about seven miles.There were no other cars. As I went downhill into darker and darker forest, I distracted myself by thinking about good and evil. I tried to imagine that heaven had first been envisioned as deep in warm black earth, all cozy and womblike, and hell as high up in the sky, the light searing our eyes so that we scream in pain. Impossible, of course; those images are too entrenched to ever change.

When I got to the town it turned out to be just a few rickety old houses fairly close together. The street between them was muddy and rocky and hard to walk on, especially while carrying an unfurled umbrella. There was nobody to be seen, and only one place open, since it was Sunday, a cafe that sold fishing gear on the side, and even some guns. When I sat down at one of the two tables a young man appeared behind the counter. I was startled to see that he looked like a well-groomed college student with a beatific smile. Just what had I been expecting?

We had a lively exchange. He was indeed a college student, at home for the summer helping out his parents in the cafe. I began to relax, and when I looked out the window at the town I saw that the houses were not rickety at all, it was the darkness and rain that cast a pall over everything. I sat back and enjoyed my tea and the young man’s company.

I asked him if he knew of any OPLAs living nearby, and he told me about that same old man. We were interrupted by the arrival of two couples who sat down at the other table. They were parents of friends of his, and he caught up on his friends’ news while he took their order. He told them what I was looking for, and they immediately mentioned the old man. None of them knew him well enough to contact him for me; in fact, none of them had ever actually seen him. But they were able to draw me a map of where he lived: it was a former small hotel way out in the woods, with the name of the hotel apparently still dimly visible through the peeling paint.

What was going on? Was the old man the town ghost? Did his shadowy presence serve some function in the smooth workings of this community? He was beginning to sound like an imaginary character in a folk tale, and now I couldn’t wait to meet him.

With their map in hand I started out. I drove about a half mile and then took a left, just as the map said. I drove up over a hill and then way down into an even darker forest, just as they had said I would. I usually get lost a few times trying to follow instructions like this, but was pleased with myself for doing so well. My mood had completely lifted, though the afternoon had, if anything, become even more dark and menacing. “It’s only weather and woods” I laughed to myself. But then at the place the map told me to turn right, there was no right. I continued on for maybe five miles: no right turn. So I found an opening between the trees big enough for my Outback and pulled a U-ey.

Along the way I had passed a number of cabins. No, come on, they were falling-down shacks, each with its very own decor of rusty old trucks, stained bathtubs, broken toilets, and scraps of ancient machinery out in front. The shacks were few and far between, each one looking lonelier than the last. I hoped a person would appear somewhere so I could ask directions.

Finally I saw two guys looking down at a fallen tree. There was something about them that made me hesitate. Was it their black straggly hair and messy beards dripping with rain, their beady eyes, their not smiling? Or was it the weather? The dark woods? If it had been a sunny day and the land cleared and open, would I have felt differently about them? Maybe they were saintly beings, beloved by all, but I waved as I drove right by them without stopping.

In about a mile a young guy was standing alone by the side of his house. He was way back from the road, and to talk to him I would have had to get out of the car and walk through the trees to get within earshot. Again I waved as I drove by.

Another mile further along two old guys stood under umbrellas talking to each other. I drew to a stop and got out of my car. Thank goodness the rain had let up for a moment. Was it the comic note of the umbrellas that made me trust them? One of the guys had long gray hair spurting out from all over his head, only his nose and eyes showed through. What image could he possibly have of himself, with all that wild hair? What did he think we saw when we looked at him? The other guy’s skinny frail body was bent and his voice quavered when he answered my question about the old man in the hotel.

“Yup, he’s down here alright. But young lady, you don’t want to mess with him. He’ll tell you all sorts of things but they ain’t necessarily so. And if you go knockin’ at his door he’s as likely to point his rifle at you as not.”

“Yeah young lady,” said Bushy, “you’d best just get outta here quick and go back where it’s safe. He’s right nearby, but I don’t want nothin’ happening to such a nice young lady.”

All those “young lady’s” felt creepy. And then it hit me: was the skinny frail guy the man I was looking for? Somehow I didn’t dare ask. I thanked them for their advice and got in my car. It was the word “rifle” that finally decided me. I found my way back to the cafe, which now had a Closed sign on the door.

Damn. What a let-down. It had seemed like such an adventure, full of dramatic possibilities, right up to the very end. And then poof! it all fizzled out on the wings of one word.

Double damn. Not only did I miss out on finding a third OPLA man, I also missed out on having a good story to tell. Sorry!

THAT QUESTION, YET AGAIN

I woke in the dark that morning, the thermometer saying 28 degrees. In two pairs of tights, woolen socks, and two sweaters I’d been snug all night under three thick blankets. Quickly I turned on the heat and in five minutes the little Scamp was warm. I put the kettle on and that made it warmer still.

I opened the curtains and in the dark outside saw the vague outlines of the aspen trees around me, the trees whose famously fluttery leaves had turned from delicate green to bright yellow in the five weeks I’d lived amongst them. The field was white with frost, the tops of the mountains with snow.  When the water boiled I added tea bags, and squatted and stretched while they steeped. When I pulled the cream from the fridge it was frozen solid. I took a knife from the drawer and chipped off enough ice shards to splash into the steaming cup. Cradling it, I turned slowly to throw a grateful “goodbye” out each window and then got down to work. It was time to move on to warmer climes.

This time there’d never been any doubt about where I’d go next. I’d finally had my fill of the high mountains, I longed for the desert. In less than an hour I’d secured everything and cooked a pot of oatmeal. I’d backed up the car to exactly the right spot so that the hitch cup fell down perfectly on the hitch ball. By 7 am I was on my way, a bowl of that cereal on the seat next to me.

As I drove through Aspen one last time, and then through the nearby towns, I smiled at all the houses in which lived people over 90 years old that I’d interviewed. So many! So healthy! So articulate! So welcoming!

Just as I finished the last bit of oatmeal, I turned onto I-70 going west, and had to pick up speed. There I was, rolling along the highway, complete and self-contained in my car and my Scamp. I had everything I needed, an entire house, even a pantry and a library. I took up very little space, and relatively little fuel. For a few moments I enjoyed the wave of contentment washing over me, and then I remembered the question I’d been asked, yet again, by a fellow camper the evening before: Why in the world do you go camping for so long and all by yourself?

By the time I stopped for gas, the answer to that question seemed easy. I moved to Arizona from back east when I retired, and I wanted to see the West, all of it. Distances are vast, I now had plenty of time, I dislike motels, I love camping. Traveling alone is just a continuation of living alone, and I’m fine with that. It all seemed obvious and straightforward.

But of course I am an oddity in campgrounds, almost everyone travels in pairs. People do notice the lone woman, and when they learn that I go for months at a time, of course they’re curious. I’ve also become curious, because it clearly fills some important need in me, it’s not only a fun way to spend my summers, though it is that too. What is that need?

I was now clear of the mountains and on a wide plain filled with little towns and isolated ranches and houses, plus Grand Junction. I’d begun to fret about finding a campsite near Moab. I’d read that this was the time of year it was most crowded, and I wondered what in the world I’d do if there was no place for me. In all my years had I ever approached a new campground without this worry? Probably not, despite the fact that I’ve always found a place, every single time. But maybe today would be different. No use giving it a moment’s thought until I got there.

I think that need has something to do with getting away from the irresistible pull of the internet. I’ve tried to do it at home, once even going so far as to lock my computer in a room so that getting to it took considerable effort. It didn’t work. I would interrupt myself in the middle of reading something, even something compelling, to google a question the reading had raised, or to compulsively check my email, or, most humiliating of all, to play solitaire. I was ashamed of this behavior, even as I was standing on a chair to reach the key to that room. The internet holds me absolutely captive in its mighty gale-force winds.

There’s no wi-fi in campgrounds and it usually takes a couple of weeks to become aware that my brain is changing. It’s quieting down, relaxing. It’s thinking longer thoughts and taking bigger leaps to make interesting connections. It’s able to stay on one subject for long periods, I can read or write for hours at a time without distraction. It feels like my own brain again, I’m in charge of it, it’s part of me and nobody else. It’s the way it used to feel before computers. When I’m camping I become my true self again.

Now I was turning off the highway onto a bumpy little two lane road. I was the only car on that road for the first twenty minutes, as it wound through little canyons and over straggly desert land. The earth got redder, and then there were red stones, and then I came to the start of huge red rock formations along the strangely olive-greenish Colorado River. My heart soared, and I knew that whatever else was going on, this is why I travel, I don’t need any other reasons. Within five hours I had gone from probably the most beautiful mountain spot in the entire world, decorated everywhere by those little fluttering aspen leaves, and arrived here at this other-worldly place where enormous silent impassive rock giants crouch by the river.

I would think about all the other reasons for my camping alone another time.

My long narrow campground was squeezed into a canyon formed by towering red cliffs. And there was one site left, only one, and it was right next to the river, tucked into a bower of tall oak trees, the only shady spot around.

When I had backed the Scamp into a perfect place and was setting up my kitchen on the picnic table, a car slowed and the driver leaned out the window and asked, full of hope, “Are you leaving?”

“Never!” I laughed.

THE OPLA PROJECT – the first month

When I started out on my camping trip a month ago, I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that this trip would be different from all my trips in the past because of my decision to find and interview old people living alone (OPLA). I thought the difference would stem mainly from my having a job to do rather than just floating along day by day. I had no inkling how fascinating every aspect of this project would become.

My first stop was the town campground in Telluride, Colorado. As in all past summers, I always choose the most spectacular places in the West and the Southwest to set up camp. In Telluride I found not a single OPLA, but it was there I discovered that the search itself is rewarding and full of surprises. I feel free to approach anybody, telling them what I’m doing, and asking if they know anyone over 90 who lives alone. I’m still bowled over by the response I get. Almost everyone is immediately pulled in by the unusual question, they want to know more. And then they call over to a nearby friend and tell them about it. They pull out their phones and call people who might be able to help.They start reminiscing about every old person they’ve known in the past who lived alone but is no longer alive. They start talking amongst themselves about what an interesting project it is. For as long as I’m in town, whenever they see me they wave, smile, come running over to ask how it’s going. This has been happening everywhere I go.

The response is so gratifying that I might have kept asking about OPLAs even if I never found one. But as soon as I left Telluride and started exploring other small towns I did find them, surprisingly many of them.

I found the first one, a woman of 94, through the waitress at a cafe. The waitress was best friends with the woman’s great-granddaughter, and had been a part of the family for years. She called the woman, who lived in a nearby town, told her about me, and asked if I could come and talk with her. We arranged a time, I got directions to her house, and that was that, it was that simple.

All the OPLAs have invited me into their homes for the interview, with only one exception (“Oh, my house is too messy!”). I’ve sat with them in their living rooms or at their kitchen tables or out on their back decks, my notebook on my lap, my pen in hand. They’ve all been eager to engage with me, they’ve been open about their lives, both past and present. Even future. They’ve given serious thought to all my questions. We’ve been fully concentrated on each other, our attention has not wavered for the entire hour or two, sometimes even three, that we sit together. There’s been a great deal of laughing, and surprisingly few tears. I’ve been shown paintings, needlework, poems, crochet-work, and photographs, some of them of astonishing beauty. I’ve looked at hundreds of family photos on refrigerator doors. I’ve been held tight in loving grateful hugs. It’s an extraordinary experience.

Most surprising of all is the effect that being interviewed seems to have on most people. It surprises me every time. After I bring an interview to a close, the person I’ve been talking with does not look tired or ready to stop; in fact, they look animated, energized. And some have been nearer 100 years old than 90, and they haven’t gotten up the entire time to give their legs a shake. What’s going on?

I think it’s more than just a break from loneliness for them, since not all of the people I’ve spoken with have seemed lonely. I think it has to do with being listened to for an hour or two, with palpable curiosity and without judgment, with the focus completely on them. When I ask them at the end what it’s been like to be interviewed, many of them report that it’s the first time in a long long time that they’ve thought about themselves and their own lives. Many of them talk at length about each one of their family members, with pride about accomplishments and worries about difficulties. I keep pulling them back to themselves, to get them talking about their own life, their own feelings, their own memories. They seem to have lost the knack. As one 98 year old woman told me when we’d finished:

“I’m so revved up, my brain feels like it just woke up. I haven’t remembered all those things for ages, and now you’ve got me started. It’s all so long ago, and it looks different now. It’s so interesting! And even the hard parts don’t make me sad anymore, they’re over, and I can see that..…well….they were just a part of my life, along with all the good parts. It’s going to be hard to get to sleep tonight, I want to go on remembering and thinking about all these things.”

Could there be a more gratifying reaction to an interview?

I’ve been doing this for only a month now, so it’s too early to come to any conclusions, or to even decide exactly what I’m going to do with all this information I’m collecting. I feel I’ve barely begun. From what I’ve seen so far, being over 90 is truly a distinct stage of life, different even from 80. There are physical differences, of course, though in this age group, the ones who are able to live alone are all healthy in mind and body.

More interesting to me are differences that I’m just beginning to become aware of. They have to do with attitudes towards the world, towards life, even towards self. I’ll hope to learn more about this in the upcoming second month of these interviews.

Another month! Lucky me!

WHAT MAKES MARSHA SMILE?

“Oh my god, if my husband had seen me wearing those he would have been grabbing my ass so hard!”

We’ve just watched a svelte young woman walk by, with three large jaunty pineapples printed on the back of her tights.

“Do you miss that part of life?”

“Do I ever! Are you kidding? But now I like the young men. I had an old one, enough already, but now it’s the young men. I think about them, I look at them. Boy do I look at them! But I’m too old now, what’re they going to do with me?”

Whoa! Marsha has suddenly sprung to life, after talking and talking morosely about all her ailments and her diminished life. She’s 91, short and shapeless. She walks slowly with a cane, wincing with each step. Her face is lined and splotched and puffy, her rheumy eyes almost hidden, her teeth yellow. She has lived alone since her husband died, 22 years ago.

She’s the first OPLA I’ve talked with who has owned up to still having sexual feelings and interests. I mention this to her.

“God I know! We’re s’posed to shut down and shut up and just make nice once we get old. We’re not s’posed to have any feelings at all any more, we’re nobodies.”

Now she’s animated, her face lively, her eyes sparkling, she’s full of mischief. She’s beautiful.

My interview with Marsha got me thinking about sex and the aged. It had been on my mind since the other day when I heard about group sessions being held to discuss “all aspects of sex,” offered by the Unitarian church “for people of all ages,18 to 65.”  I figured that must be the cut-off point for socially acceptable sexual urges, and I’d been stewing about that. Is that what everyone thinks? That that part of us dies and is no more, once we hit 65? Or is it just another way in which we gradually disappear the elderly, part by part?  Of course, there’s always the chance the Unitarians think that by 65 we’ve mastered that aspect of our lives and have no further questions.

My three daughters are all in their 50s now, all of them accomplished wise strong women. Yet I still am filled with the motherly drive to encourage them, protect them, help them on their way, even though they clearly no longer need that kind of mothering. What can I offer them at this point in their lives? What might be helpful?

I think one of the things I can do is show them what they realistically can expect in the years up ahead. Mostly what we learn about this stage of life, directly or indirectly, is negative, and it comes at us from all directions: old age means no longer being able to think clearly and creatively, old age means no longer being worth looking at, old age means aches and pains, old age means no sexual pleasure, old age means diminishment of everything we’ve enjoyed up until then.  It’s all about loss, incapacity, pain. And some of that, of course, is valid, it’s part of the story. But damn, it’s not the whole story, and I want my daughters to know the whole story.

So back to the sexual part of aging. What will counteract all the messages that tell us that that part of our selves atrophies and is no more? What can I report to them of my own experience? Because I think that’s one thing that is needed, more first-hand accounts from the trenches. Functioning, vibrant older people are becoming a little bit more visible. But the pleasures of the flesh, for this age group alone, remain a taboo topic.

What can I report to my daughters of my own experience? I can assure them that the sexual part of me did not disappear fifteen years ago when I turned 65.  But it did start to change, and that changing continues to the present. As with so many other things, the changes have been towards slowing down. The urges are less frequent, the pleasures more intense. From my close friends I’ve learned that this is not an unusual development. We laugh together about our former lustiness, evoking all sorts of wild memories, but we agree: we don’t have that kind of energy any more, it’s different now. And we’re thankful that the expression of our urges has changed to fit that difference.

Now here’s the really surprising news, for me anyway: old age may be the best time for orgasms, at least for some of us women. Orgasms are such an extraordinary feature of our bodies, aren’t they? Especially for women, since as lures towards procreation they really aren’t necessary. Perhaps they were granted as a compensation for the pain of childbirth. But what a surprise to have them last through old age, and even intensify. My friends and I had no idea that this was up ahead for us.

Yes, there are plenty of other factors that may affect our sexuality, but here it is, here’s what I want my daughters to know: aging itself is definitely not a death-knell for sexual pleasure.

Ninety-one year old Marsha drew the line at talking about it, but I suspect that now and then she smiles happily, dreaming of young men.

P.S. About that night in the Telluride Library: what would you have done? Would you have stayed? As the footsteps on the stairs came closer, a picture flashed across my mind: me in the huge scary dark unfamiliar building, with all the doors locked so that I couldn’t get out. I walked towards the stairs and smiled: “I’m just leaving.”

TEMPTED IN TELLURIDE

I’m on the road again, me and my little Scamp trailer. I’m back to scouring the countryside for all the OPLAs (Old People Living Alone) that I can find. This time Telluride, Colorado, was my first stop, and I settled in by the banks of the San Miguel River that runs through town. I started my quest by going up one side of the main street, store by store, waiting till the owner wasn’t busy, then asking my questions. And then the next day going up the other side.

I always begin by saying something like this:

“I’m a writer, working on a new project. I’m looking for any and all old people – and by that I mean people 90 or over – who are still living alone, without a spouse or family member or friend, in their own place. And I wonder whether you know of such a person here in Telluride?”

When I start speaking, if it’s a man I’m talking to he often looks disinterested at first, distracted, or wary. He may keep looking down at something he was doing on the counter, or his eyes roam around the store as I start. But by the time I get to “90 or over” he makes direct eye contact with me, he’s interested. Women are more likely to be engaged right away, they seem ready for a chat about anything, though they also perk up at the mention of “90 or over”. I know this sounds sexist and over-generalized, but it was something I began to notice as I worked the street. It did surprise me how enthusiastically everyone reacted to my project.

What could it be that sparks interest when I mention that age? Or is it that by that point something in my voice has caught their attention?

The immediate response to my question was usually something like this:

“Oh goodness…let me think. Well, there used to be this woman who lived down on…Hey Judy! remember that old woman who used to come in here, she hasn’t been in for a while, she must be around 90 or so, isn’t she?…the one who…”

Then Judy comes over and joins in the conversation about a woman who, it always turns out, died a while back. They talk together about her, remembering everything they can about her, until I bring them back on track to the possibility of someone still alive who is living alone. I have a moment of feeling I’ve done the old woman a good service for making people remember her, even reminisce about her.

In Telluride the conversations always ended :

“No, I’m sorry, I can’t think of anyone that age who’s living alone here right now. But I’ll ask around, maybe I’ll hear of someone.”

I spent another day or two going around to the library, the fire department, the medical clinic, the historical museum, the realtors. In those places the answer was still the same: no OPLAs. There were a couple of nearby small towns to explore, which was delightful, but again, no dice. There was talk of a 97 year old man who wore shorts, summer and winter, and rode an old bike everywhere. Everybody mentioned him, everybody had noticed him, but nobody had seen him for a while, and nobody knew where he lived.

Even though I didn’t find a single OPLA, I had a lively time there in Telluride. And the beauty of the mountains towering over the town is nothing short of staggering. Anywhere I looked up caused inner gasps of wonder. The sky alone could do it: Telluride is at almost 9000 feet, so it’s right in the middle of all that wild weather that congregates around the tops of high mountains. Of course, that meant that there was lots of rain, in fact more rain and mud – and even snow just a bit higher up – than I’ve experienced in all my camping years. Usually it was intermittent and thus bearable, lasting only a short time. But there was one day that it never stopped.

That day started out bitter cold. For the first time on this trip I turned on my heater. No response. None. The rain had started during the night and when I stepped out to make sure the propane was turned on I found a lake was already forming around the Scamp. It looked like the tents of my fellow campers were floating in water. Oh poor them! They all managed to get their dripping wet gear in their cars and drive out of there, but I decided to stay. Surely the rain would stop soon.

It turned out the propane was turned on, so drat! the solution was not going to be simple. By the time I got back inside I was wet and cold, despite my rain jacket and umbrella. I quickly put on more layers, got out my little hikers’ propane stove and made a pot of tea, which warmed me considerably. More squats and stretches than usual helped too. I decided to go read at the library until the rain let up. I’d deal with the heater problem later.

The rain never let up. I did the best I could, making a cup of cocoa last an hour in a warm cafe, inspecting every item in the enormous two-storied Ace hardware store, always returning to the warm library to fly off to the Amazon jungle in the book I was reading. But just the short walk between those oases undid all the warmth I‘d garnered. I was cold, and wet through to the skin, all day. But I knew it was temporary, it would end eventually, I would be warm and dry again, so I kept my mind on problem-solving and didn’t get discouraged. At least not too much.

Luckily the library stayed open until 8 pm that day, so after an early dinner, warming my innards with spicy Thai food in a restaurant filled with laughing glass-clinking young people, I went back one last time to spend the rest of the evening there in the library, fighting for my life in the Amazon jungle. But when they announced they were closing in ten minutes it was still raining. And now it was dark too, and the streets were empty. For the first time that day I felt much too lonely, and the thought of going back to the empty dark campground and my cold Scamp was unbearable.

I was upstairs in the library, the librarians were all downstairs. I was sitting in a huge leather chair, and next to it was a huge leather couch. Behind the couch was a dark space that I was pretty sure I could fit into. What if I hid back there at closing time, when they came to check to make sure everyone had left? What if I stayed in the library for the night? The mischief of this idea was exhilarating. I imagined the librarians’ desk drawers filled with good things to eat, and maybe a change of clothes that I could wear as pajamas while I waited for my own clothes to dry. There was a bathroom with plenty of hot water. I would have everything I could possibly need.

How bad could the penalty be? Would it be considered a felony or a misdemeanor?

Now I heard sounds of closing up. I heard people leaving. I heard someone coming up the stairs. I had my wet raincoat back on and my book and computer packed up. It would take only a few seconds to get behind that couch.

Quick! Should I do it?

 

THROUGH THE PEEPHOLE

Oops! …..Oh goodness, you scared me. I thought I was the only one here on this blog page.

Hi there.  I’m just checking to see if there’s a new post. Hmmm, I see there isn’t. 

Yeah, it’s been a month since she last posted anything.

Where the hell is she?

Yeah, where the hell is she?

In her last post she sounded as though she was getting going again.

I know. Did you read that last post? She started that new project, and I was really looking forward to hearing about it.

Oh that’s right, her new project. What’s she calling it again?

It’s about talking to old people who live by themselves and …..

Oh yes! The OPLA Project, Old People Living Alone.

It seems like she just got started and then bang, she stopped.

Yeah. Something must have happened to her – I wonder what.

You know, the other day I was waiting for some stuff to download so I came here and reread some of her posts from past summers. Her birthday is in July and ……

Oh that’s right! she always posts something when it’s her birthday, she writes about what aging is like for her, what her thoughts and feelings are about it.

Yes, and it’s July now. And I think this is the year she turns 80.

What a detective you are!  So what do you think she’s doing?

Well, your guess is as good as mine. But 80 seems like a very big turning point, it’s like once you’re 80 you’re REALLY old, no two ways about it. And no matter how young you might look or feel, I think turning 80 is a huge deal.

Yeah, 80 is really old. Maybe she’s sick, in the hospital somewhere. Aw, I wish I could send her a get-well card.

Or maybe she’s died. I wonder what happens to blogs when the writer dies.

Oh god, I’m not going to imagine that. D’you know anything about her? Like what sort of family she has?

Let’s look up there at her bio, just below that photo of her tent pitched at the ocean……

Well look at that, she’s got three daughters and they live all over the world. Maybe they all got together to surprise her, maybe they kidnapped her and whisked her off to South Africa or Borneo or somewhere.

Ha! Yes! Maybe they’re all having an amazing adventure in some exotic place!

Oh! I like that idea! I’m going to hold that picture in my mind until she gets back.

Me too. And now my real life is calling me.  Bye!

DREAMING FROGS, LEAKING REFRIGERATORS

Last night the half-moon shone brightly even though it was behind a veil of thin clouds. Under the pines I had to turn on my flashlight, but in the open meadows I could see by the moonlight. It was late, even the lake seemed to sleep. On the dry crisp grass each of my footsteps set off a small explosion no matter how careful I was, so I found myself a rock flat enough to sit on.

In the silence I began to hear the night sounds. A slight rustling in a nearby tree became, in my mind, a bird in its nest trying to get more comfortable. A tiny splash at the edge of the lake became a frog, startled by a dream. I was pretty sure that it was a wolf I heard howling in the far distance, a sound as evocative and lonely as a distant train whistle. I felt myself melting into the scene. Soon I was without thoughts, without yearnings or regrets. I was still. 

This morning it was all I could do to leave the warmth of my bed. I put the kettle on and opened all the curtains. It was 41 degrees! Astonishing, when I think that record-breaking high temperatures, maybe over 120 degrees, are predicted for Phoenix, only 4 1/2 hours away. While I waited for the water to boil I put on layers of sweaters, and while the tea was steeping I did some squats and stretches. By the time I got back in bed I was warm and fully awake.

So here I sit, my icy cold computer on my lap, ready to write up my notes from the first interview I’ve been able to get. I got it yesterday afternoon, thanks to the fire chief. Ever since I set up camp here by Luna Lake a week ago – five miles outside Alpine, Arizona, population 145, elevation 8012 – I’ve been talking to everyone I can, trying to find people in their 80s or 90s who still are able to live alone. My plan is to seek them out in every small town that I camp near. I want to learn what their lives are like, how they manage, how connected they still are with the community, what they do about loneliness, frailty. It’s a loose plan that I’m going to let develop as I go, and see what grows organically out of my efforts.

Whatever comes of it, it’s turning out to be an excellent way for me to get to know a bit about the workings of each small town. I’m always curious about the different ways groups of people live together, and I’ve always chatted up the librarians, the waitresses, the farmers at the farmers’ markets, the storekeepers, anyone who is open for a conversation, trying to get a feel for what each little town is like. But with this Old-People-Living-Alone (OPLA) project, a new dimension has been added. It gives me a purpose, and I’m finding that everyone responds, wants to help, even teenagers.  Now when I pass someone on the street they stop and ask how it’s going. Or they smile and wave when they drive by. I’m not just a tourist passing through, I’m involved in the life of the town, albeit in a very small way and for just this moment.

I stopped in at the fire station to see if they might be able to direct me towards an OPLA, and by some wonderful chance Travis, the fire chief, was just about to visit Helen, a woman in her 90s who lives alone, and who has a leak in her refrigerator. The fire department here in Alpine is apparently the go-to place for any problem any resident might have. And I mean any problem: he told me they carry wood in for people in the winter, sometimes even chop it, drive people to appointments or for groceries in the larger town 25 miles away, they fix appliances, do house repairs, rescue dogs and cats.  And every now and then they unfortunately have to fight a fire, sometimes even an overwhelming one like the Wallow fire in 2011, just outside Alpine, the largest forest fire in Arizona history, 

“Well, what else are we going to do between fires?” laughed Chief Travis. “And anyway, no one else here is doing those things for people.”

I followed him in my car and we drove to Helen’s house. He introduced us and we watched as he stood looking at the small puddle of water running out from under her refrigerator.

“I’ll have to come back in the morning with Stan. This baby’s got to be moved before I can see what’s going on.”

“Well why can’t you move it?”

“Oh no, I don’t want to show off in front of you!” He laughed and pretend-flexed his muscles.

They bantered and laughed together for a while. He’s known her since he was a boy living down the road from her, some 30 years ago, I’d guess. 

“You sure you’re married?” flirted 94 year old Helen when he was ready to leave.

“Oh yeah, my wife reminds me every morning. Even though I’ve told her and told her that I can think so much better when this ring isn’t stopping the blood flow to my finger.” He slid the ring up and down.

He left, and Helen led the way into the living room. She settled herself into a leather recliner and muted the TV. I sat down on the couch next to her, opened my notebook, made sure my pen worked, and my first OPLA interview began.

Which reminds me, it’s time to make another cup of tea and type up my notes. Without looking at them, the two sentences that I remember most clearly from our conversation, the two that she repeated a number of times, always with a rueful laugh, were these:

“Oh, I don’t have time to worry about that, I’m too busy watching TV and playing solitaire.”

“It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”