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.”