Small Town Life Prepared Me for Isolation

Turns out, the period of my life I thought was the worst prepared me for surviving social distancing long term.

I’m a forestry brat. For the first twelve years of my life, my dad worked all over the southwest—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and sometimes California or Nevada. He was on the road a lot, cruising timber sales during the week and, if he was close enough, he would come home for the weekends. Otherwise, he’d stay at seedy motels and send postcards, most of which were to remind my young self to obey my mother and be a good example to my younger siblings.

I always wondered why it mattered where we lived when my dad was traveling all the time. We moved every couple of years, mostly within Arizona, to be nearest the lumber mill that he was currently managing, while he still drove around all over the place to oversee the harvest.

One move in particular is memorable for me for many reasons. The first was that I finally got my first choice teacher at school and I was old enough to start orchestra and learn to play the violin. The beginning of my 5th grade year was everything my 10 year old heart wanted.

And then my dad got transferred to New Mexico.

Not Albuquerque. Not Santa Fe. Not even Las Cruces, which is still among the biggest cities in the state. No, he was transferred to the Village of Reserve. Seat of Catron County.

Population: 500

And we weren’t even going to live in Reserve. No, we were going to move into the company house adjacent to the log yard five miles outside Reserve. My class size was going from 60 kids in my grade to 18 (and that included the ones that were bussed in from elsewhere in the county).

I’m sure you’ve never heard of Reserve, New Mexico. Most people haven’t. Heck, a lot of native New Mexicans haven’t. But I’ll tell you what. It’s in the middle of nowhere.

My ten-year-old-extroverted-heart was devastated at having to move someplace so isolated.

This was a complete culture shock for me. We had no radio. No TV (unless my parents were willing to shell out thousands of dollars for a satellite dish twice the size of our car — they weren’t). No neighbors, really, since the neighbors on either side of us were on acres upon acres of ranch land, a half mile away in each direction. The nearest grocery store (other than the local mom & pop shop) was 90 minutes away.

The Gulf War happened during our time there. What little news we got was what came in the Catron County Courier, the local newspaper that was published once a week.

Sure, we went to school five days a week, but overall, living in Reserve was extremely lonely. My friends all lived 30–45 minutes away, so hanging out took planning and effort.

My mom started having Schwan’s delivered every couple of weeks and we became really good friends with the delivery guy because he had to drive so far to get to us; my mom would make coffee and snacks and they would chat for half an hour before he left. I think she looked forward to the conversation more than the ice cream and frozen meals.

Despite all of this, what I remember most are the memories that we made during this period of extreme isolation from other human beings.

We went to the creek to catch frogs. My mom didn’t like it when we brought them home. And she really didn’t like when we flooded the overflow tank out back to make a habitat for them.

My folks subscribed to BMG Video and got a new VHS movie every month. We watched so many of those movies so many times, my siblings and I can still quote them 30 years later. My grandpa bootlegged free weekends of the Disney Channel and shipped us the tapes. I really would like to see Bejewelled end up on Disney + soon — just so I can know if that movie was as horrible as I remember it. I also hope I don’t get my grandpa in trouble for confessing this.

We built forts. We built sand cities in our sand box.

We played a lot of card games. Skip-Bo remains a family favorite, along with Rage and UNO.

We learned crafts. One of our treats of venturing into town every two weeks was stocking up on yards and yards of Rex lace and embroidery thread at Ben Franklin. Friendship bracelets FTW.

We played in the log yard, which I don’t think my mom was wild about, even though it was after hours, and always safely because I was terrified of getting crushed by a log deck.

We hiked, we camped, we got really excited about our bi-weekly trip to Wal-Mart.

We listened to music. We read books. We did puzzles.

We did all sorts of things to keep ourselves occupied when all we had most of the week was each other.

As hard as it was, we found ways to combat our boredom and not get sick of seeing nothing but the same four faces every day (five if you count looking in the mirror).

I’ve spent the past 20 years living in a big city and loving the hum of the street outside, the sky never getting quite dark, and the ability to walk to the grocery store if I need a stick of butter.

But in the past couple of weeks, I have been reminded of the simpler days. The days where we had to plan our meals and our social time. The days where we embarked on a game of Monopoly that seemed it would never end (probably because we’d play for literal days). The days where we discovered passions, some of which went with us when we left.

I never learned to play violin, but I did learn clarinet and I got really good. I was an avid reader before Reserve, but now I’m a complete book addict. I still write letters to my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Tackman, even though e-mail and Facebook are far more convenient for us now.

It is my hope that in this time of forced distancing from each other that we can find ways to remain close with one another. That we discover new hobbies and find our true passions.

While the current climate of social distancing is not completely the same, I can attest that being isolated from other people isn’t the worst thing in the world. In fact, you might come back to civilization with a whole new perspective on life.

tales of a girl trying to make sense of it all. https://tap.bio/@eunicebrownlee

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