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Alone with a radio phone

 

I live alone on the steep slopes of southern Oregon's Rogue River canyon, which is a place that can't decide whether to be California or the Pacific Northwest. I'm here for a solo writing residency, and what that means is that the days are mine to use or waste. My only neighbors are the Bureau of Land Management and the bear who raids my garden, and my home is a simple cabin tucked into Douglas firs at the edge of a meadow that was soaking green when I arrived last April and now has gone brown and brittle. My connections to the rest of the world are imperfectly reliable: dirt road and party-line radio phone.

The dirt road takes two hours to drive and is studded with sharp rocks. Every trip out to Grants Pass, a sunburned town that sits astride the Rogue upriver from here, is an exercise in faith; I don't go out very often.

That leaves the radio phone, which looks and acts like a walkie-talkie. When a black icon that looks like a bent arrow pops up on the faintly orange screen, you know the line's busy, and you have to wait until whoever's talking finishes his business. Even though 15 parties in the canyon share this one line, you never have to wait long: the system cuts off calls after 10 minutes.

The 10-minute limit means that conversations rarely wander into casual chat. I know this because on a party line you can listen to other people talk by lifting the phone off its funny cradle. Doing so raises ethical questions, certainly, but sometimes when you are alone and you have been alone for a long time, and you have a long period of aloneness ahead of you, it does not seem like a crime to want to hear the sound and tempo of a human exchange.

When I listen in, I can only hear the voice of the person who is not in the canyon, the Outsider; the Insider's half of the conversation sounds like a series of high-pitched beeps. Usually, it goes something like this:

Hello.

(beep beep beep)

Yeah.

(beep beep beep)

A lot.

(beep beep beep)

Uh huh, okay. Bye.

(beep beep beep)

Occasionally, there is something funny, or something mysterious, or something that is both at once, like when a male voice laughed scratchily and said: Whenever I get into bed, she just farts and rolls over. Other times some person I'll never meet says something that brings me to my knees. I'm just weary of everything, a woman said once, and the way she said it made me think she was holding her head in her hands.

The strangers whose voices I hear are listening to me, too, although according to the rules of the line, they never actually hear me. They hear my sister dispensing advice about what to do with my oozing case of poison oak. They hear my brother, who thinks the party line and its eavesdroppers are fabulously exotic and so always says brightly, Hello, southern Oregon! They hear my landlord asking whether I've caught a steelhead, my father reporting that Joe Lieberman lost the Democratic primary, and my mother telling me how to make my tomatoes grow.

When I walk along the canyon's lower slopes, I find old telephone wire hanging from mossy oaks and ceramic insulators buried in red soil: remnants from days when lonely people lived all up and down this river, seeking their fortune in gold. They, too, had no good overland route to the outside world; they, too, listened in on each other's precious and unremarkable lives. They, too, sought connection, however imperfect.

Sometimes, when it is late and I am sitting in the light of a buzzing propane lamp, and I have not talked to anyone in days, I unhitch the phone and I dial someone's number. I want to remember that there is a world out there and that I am part of it. I want to remember that loneliness is only a fact and it will eventually change.

The conversation passes quickly; at its end, I can't remember why I had needed to talk. I turn off the phone and watch its orange screen fade, and then I douse the lamp, too. I settle into the sound of crickets; I watch the bats dip and swing against a backdrop of blinking stars. I taste this rare gift, this fleeting moment, this whole unvarnished lonesomeness.

Emma Brown is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She's still in rural Oregon but will soon return to her home in Juneau, Alaska.