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!

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8 thoughts on “LOOKING FOR MR. OPLA

  1. Liz—

    Spookorama!

    In your 10th paragraph, I read “messy beard” as “mossy beard,” and I thought you’d gone literary on us.

    Barbara and I spent a couple of weeks in Colorado this summer, and I ran across the story of an OPLA, not up in the romantic drizzly forest of the Rockies but in a small town out on the plains.

    Two small frame houses, side by side, couldn’t have been more than ten feet apart, like the perfunctory non-charming dwellings an oil company would throw up, all in a row, in a company camp during an oil boom. Like the Sinclair camp you can see maintained today as a sort of oil boom museum (not exactly a living museum; more like a dying museum) in the old Teapot Dome field in Wyoming. LIke the little frame house now occupied by the Teapot Dome historical museum itself. (You should read the letter a dismayed oil boom wife wrote from Teapot Dome to the folks back home in Pennsylvania.) Like the house where I grew up in the oil boom town of Salem, Illinois. Attempting to cast the veil of British colonial charm over such practical straightforward products of American capitalism, people call them bungalows. Bull hockey.

    Anyhow, this single man grew up, and his parents grew old and died, in those two “bungalows” in a small town on the plains of eastern Colorado. All three of them seemed to be, or to have been, if not hoarders, then keepers of things. For instance, the father, it is said, collected dead sticks and twigs from the yard and broke or cut them all to the same equal length (eight inches or so) to be used, someday, as kindling, and stacked the twigs and stored them neatly in one of the garages. The mother seemed to have kept everything she ever owned, and the son (the OPLA) has kept all of that, such as his mother’s little childhood soft leather button shoes (the mother had immigrated from England) from the 1890s. The son has worked as a media tech somehow (a local radio station? cable TV?), and he has never parted with any LP records, nor, over the years, with any gear related to records or tapes or radio or TV (although I’m not actually sure how many TV sets he has kept), and some of his belongings amount to a chronology of media.

    If you’ve driven through the plains of eastern Colorado, you may have been struck, as I have, by the proliferation of outsized two-story frame houses, each with a two-car or even three-car garage occupying perhaps 30 percent of the first floor. The design of these houses is not exactly severe, and they are painted various sort of appealing shades of grey and tan and brown (you may remember the story of the architect who moved to Dallas in the 1950s , who had a tone of grey-green named for him, of whom it was written that he showed up in Dallas with a can of paint). Anyhow, it is striking how uniform those houses out on the prairie north of Denver are. They are scattered out across the plains, in a band twenty miles wide or more, over the entire one hundred miles north along I-25 to Cheyenne. Many of those tall frame houses stand alone within a little expanse of prairie, fenced with new varnished log fences, and you can pretty nearly quote the dad word for word: “There’ll be room for a little pasture, and we can get Margaret-Sue a spotted pony to ride.” I have to tell you that that speckle of houses, like measles on an otherwise faultless complexion, ruins one of my all-time favorite landscapes–that vast grassland sweeping down from the feet of the Rockies and spreading all the way east to the MIssissippi.

    If you drive up a southbound ramp onto I-25 up there around the Wyoming line, early of a weekday morning, you ride a wave of new double-cab Ford pickups, all piloted by commuters heading a hundred miles south, at Internet speed, to jobs in Denver.

    And here and there twenty or thirty of those two-story frame houses will be clustered in a new housing development.

    The OPLA has decided he would like to live in one of those, and he has bought a brand new house, just being completed, a mile or two from the family bungalows, and he has undertaken (with the collusion of members of his community) the task of moving out of the pair of little bungalows in town that he and his late parents have occupied, and have filled with belongings that span, well, let’s see, 120 years. I’ve never met the man and have gotten only a peek at a little of his hoard.

    Unlike the OPLA of legend, he’s not a hermit. I don’t believe he sports a mossy beard. He goes to church and he sees his relatives and apparently says “Hello” to folks. He just can’t keep from keeping things. Or so I’m told. I’ve never met this OPLA myself.

    Later,

    Steve

  2. Liz…What a great story! And an amazing adventure! You know Liz what is great is you are not only letting us live this story through you, but all of those people you have met and talked to will never forget you! They will be telling their story to others for years to come about the beautiful , brave “young lady”, traveling alone looking for OPLA.
    That’s one of the coolest things about your bravery and your adventurous spirit!
    I love getting your posts!
    Sue Parra

  3. I actually think this is my favorite story! Beautiful expressed. Excellent decision making too, since you are traveling alone. I have to make these kinds of choices a lot. I count on my dog to feel the stranger’s energy. You didn’t mention where your Scamp was during all the back road driving. Maybe you don’t need the OPLA, just your own daily adventures traveling and camping on your own.

  4. I am so curious where you are and how your last trip continued. I can imagine during the winters there is no place like home and you may have gone back to your winter home. For some reason I had not received your blogs and I thought I had lost you. I was so pleased that I had missed a few of your blogs and you were traveling as usual.

  5. Hi Liz ~ I miss your blogs and hope you are safely back in the Tucson area for the winter. You gave me much hope at my ‘young age of 67’ that I have many years of RV adventuring left in me. I am getting less comfortable however, with towing my Jeep behind my motorhome. I feel a change coming this year (now January 2017), as do many of us, so I’m researching alternate RV ideas and even 55 + apartment living. I know there’s a best place and I so admire all of your courage and adventurous spirit in these blogs. I’ve been following yours for over a year and so glad I did! Hope you have a wonderful 2017 and hope you write more! RamblynRose

  6. Hi Liz,
    I’m new to your blog and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far! I am totally intrigued by by your OPLA project. And, I loved the line ” I tried to imagine that heaven had first been envisioned as deep in warm black earth, all cozy and womblike…” I’ve been thinking a lot about metaphors relating to spheres as nurturing and womblike.
    My husband and I are newly retired. Do you have any words of advice?
    Debbie

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