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?