Three months ago the prospect of wind, cold temperatures, and snow filled me with dread, but today, with my wood/coal stove easily keeping the temperature inside my RV above 70 degrees, the 30 something degree winds outside, with a forecast of up to three inches of snow, doesn’t bother me. In fact, it gives me a certain degree of satisfaction. With at least a month’s worth of firewood stacked and covered, and two piles of raw wood covered and ready for cutting into stove lengths, my heating needs seem secured, at least until the subzero weather, when it will be time to switch to coal. What a change from previous winters, when the average daytime temperature inside the RV was 50 degrees, with nighttime temperatures dipping into the low forties and high thirties!
Part of my satisfaction stems from the hard work in September, refurbishing the stove and installing it in the RV. First the space for the stove needed clearing, using the compartment taken up with the refrigerator and propane furnace. After those were gone, the walls, floor, and ceiling needed concrete backer board to take the heat due to minimal clearance. Then the chimney needed to go through the roof and be braced against the fierce winds to come. That required special adapters and pipe, and considerable expense.
The stove itself was rusty and stiff, having been stored outdoors for almost fifteen years. After stripping the stove down to the metal frame, I went to work on the rust with my grinder, wire brush, and sander, and then applied high temperature paint with my spray gun and compressor . Once I cleaned the brass trim with cerium oxide abrasive and reassembled the stove, it looked as good as new. Then the problem was getting it into the RV. My wheeled hand truck, ratchet straps, and handyman jack helped me get it up the steps and into the compartment, after carefully setting up each maneuver and applying more brains than muscle to the puzzle.
All my preparation and measurements paid off as the stove slipped into place and the chimney bolted on. While installing the flashing and support struts for the chimney, my close inspection of the roof revealed pinholes in the aluminum sheet metal roofing, the source of a mysterious leak that had plagued me for several years. A coat of black, tarry mastic over that whole section of the roof fixed the leak, and just in time, too, as a storm moved in that evening.
Last year my strategy was to leave all of this behind and spend the winter in California. Then, all my efforts centered around getting my vehicle ready and packing. This year it was different. Upon my return from seven months away, the soft June breeze and gently shaking aspen leaves whispered something in my ear, and made me realize how beautiful it was in Wyoming, and how lucky I was to have my own place here. Slowly, over the next few months, my resolve to stay the winter gained strength, and my thoughts turned to what needed my attention before the cold weather arrived.
The skirting on the RV was rotten and had holes that admitted cold air and mice, which resulted in frozen pipes and a mouse infestation inside the living compartment. The door on the engine compartment in front had rotted away and needed new plywood backing. Tackling these tasks, which had developed over years of neglect, reawakened a sense of stewardship in me, a feeling deeper than just fear of cold and snow. The RV needed some long overdue attention, and in return would give me a secure place to live.
Looking back, it seems strange that my own situation had degraded so much. Perhaps it had to do with quitting my job, losing my business, my marriage, my family, and moving out of the rental house and into the RV, all in the space of four years. That would be enough to send most people into shock and grief. On top of that, my mother became the center of a family feud over her being put in a nursing home due to Alzheimer’s Disease. Only after her death did family members start talking to each other again.
From the disarray on my acreage in Story, which was mine after buying my ex-wife’s share, you would say something was wrong with the person living there. You would be right, but you would only be guessing from the surface appearance. The deeper reality was more complex. My job as an adjunct instructor at the local community college consumed all of my time and energy. In addition to that, my sister from California asked me to fix the bathroom wall in her rental apartment in Sheridan, and that project expanded into a total remodel, with new plumbing, wiring, heating, bathroom fixtures and tile, and kitchen counter top. Even the walls needed extensive repairs before painting, and we installed new windows everywhere.
You couldn’t call me lazy, because between the teaching and remodeling, there wasn’t a spare minute. No wonder my own place suffered from neglect. Even that excuse doesn’t reach the core of the problem, though. My dreams of building a home for my family shattered, all my internal motivation vanished. Only the external motivations of the teaching job and my sister’s apartment had the power to put me to work. Left to my own predicament, my inner well seemed dry.
What changed me? What fount recharged my resources? What made me fall in love with my place in Story again? Was it my seven month absence in California last year? Was it my winter camping experience in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico four years before? Was it the end my job with the college and starting Social Security benefits? Probably yes, to all of those things.
Who can tell exactly when grief ends and you decide to start living again? Instead of punishing myself for all the mistakes that led to overwhelming losses, bundling up in a frigid environment, and denying myself a future, deciding to change my environment, through the hard work of installing a stove and cutting wood, gave me permission to feel good again, about my place and about myself. Staying in Wyoming and opening my eyes to all the interrupted projects on my place used to provoke feelings of failure, but now those projects offer the promise of many hours of problem solving and satisfaction in the years ahead.
What better gift could a single man ask for in retirement? With no debt and simple needs, my income covers my expenses and will even pay for modest building supplies. Even though my muscles complain after a hard day of work outdoors, the promise of rest and leisure gives me a chance to recover and plan for the next engagement. Even my limitations of old and unreliable vehicles seems to reinforce my future on my place in Story, since it is too risky and expensive to go anywhere far away.
Nobody knows how long they have to live, and my diagnosis of cardiovascular disease twenty-five years ago suggests that my end could suddenly manifest from heart attack or stroke. Even that has worked in my favor, though, forcing me to change my lifestyle and diet, and exercise regularly. As a result, my outward appearance isn’t typical of a sixty-six year old man. Maybe there is enough strength left in my muscles, enough determination left in my mind, and enough time in my circulatory system, to realize some of my dreams.
Could it be that the threats of winter, and of death, give us new vitality and motivation to live? If so, those threats become gifts in disguise. We can use our predicament, whatever its nature, to help us discover what it is to be human, to experience grief from loss and satisfaction from accomplishment. After all, it is the ability to reflect upon our lives, and to grapple with reality and change it to our advantage, that makes us so different from other animals, and so successful.