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.