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Everybody counts

Essay by Linda Budd

Mountain Life – November 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Early morning sunlight crashes through wide windows and soaks into the cabin’s crudely cut cedar paneling. I’m out on the deck feeding whiskey jacks and finches when the phone rings.

No one ever calls me on Saturday except Diedre, a professor in Australia. She intends to call during office hours, but she never knows the day and time in America. I answer the phone: “Hi, Diedre! You’re doing a lot better, luv. At least it isn’t the middle of the night this time.”

Instead of Diedre’s “G’day,” I hear the gravel voice of a perplexed old man. I apologize and try to explain about Diedre. But he has no time to spare; he’s a man with a job to do.

He sounds about 80 years old and terribly tired. I envision him as a tall man, big-boned, broad but not fat. In keeping with local custom, he introduces himself as Jim Stuart Senior and then describes where he lives so that I can relax in the knowledge that we’re neighbors — even though he lives more than 40 miles away.

“I’ll have to ask you to forgive me, Miz Budd, for failing to come by and say hello before now. Don’t get around much anymore.” He pauses to take a long breath. “I was supposed to be by your place two weeks ago to pick up your U.S. Census form. You know that, I guess.”

Another long breath before he continues. “I really hate to put a newcomer to trouble, but would you mind just mailing that form to the address printed on back? It’s a long way to your place and I purely hate to drive very far since I got so old.”

Who could argue with such a sensible request, especially given his good manners? I mail the form the next time I’m in town, and promptly forget the matter.

Several months later. A spectacular evening. The last sunshine has just left the brilliant tips of aspen bordering the southern side of my meadow. Occasional feather flakes of snow mysteriously collect themselves out of a clear sky and laze down. A fat snake of moonlit fog silently insinuates itself up into the canyon, but its flickering tongue never reaches quite as high as my cabin.

JUST AFTER the passage of a light plane on its nightly trip between Denver and some remote FedEx depot in Utah, the phone rings.

An efficient but friendly woman introduces herself as Judy Johnson, describes where she lives, apologizes for not coming by to meet me sooner, and says she is sorry to bother me so late at night.

“I’m double-checking census data before the forms are sent on to Washington,” she explains. “When a case seems questionable, I have to call. I do hate to trouble you, but this will only take a minute.”

I’m mystified. “What could be less questionable than my one-woman/one-bedroom/one-woodstove census data?”

“Oh, it’s nothing serious,” Judy Johnson assures me. “It’s just that we may have your address wrong. You did understand that the street and house number on your form are supposed to be the place you live all year round?”

“Yes. But I could have made a mistake; I hadn’t lived here very long when I filled out the form. What did I put on there?”

“It says 9890 County Road 78. But that can’t possibly be right.”

“As a matter of fact, it is,” I reply. “I’m sitting at that very location this moment. And I happen to be looking at a property-tax bill on my desk that clearly identifies my place as 9890 County Road 78.”

Judy Johnson remains unconvinced. “Then why is it, that when I locate your map co-ordinates, it’s way up in the high country at least a mile beyond the boundary of the national forest? Have I even got the correct neighborhood?”

“Yes, indeed you do. But ‘neighborhood’ is not exactly the word I would use.” The very idea starts me chuckling.

“Whatever…” says Judy Johnson, with a tone of voice indicating that this is no laughing matter. “I drew a dot at that location on my county map, but it can’t be in the right place because it’s out there in the middle of nowhere. There’s not another dot for ten miles in any direction.

“If you just moved to Colorado, I can understand,” she continues. “I mean, you probably wouldn’t know that it’s impossible for people to live in that location year ’round. The snows are so deep that people can’t get in or out for six months of the year. You see, it’s all above treeline at that point.”

As an afterthought, she asks, “You do know what I mean by treeline, don’t you?”

REMINDING MYSELF that a newcomer to a rural area shouldn’t sound like a know-it-all, I reply with tact. “You’re mostly right, Judy. Some of my land is above treeline. But the cabin sits six hundred feet lower. The weather up here at 11,000 feet can be challenging, but anyone with energy and determination could cope with it the same as I do.”

Judy groans. I’ve apparently convinced her that I’m too dumb to know where I live. She says “I guess I’m going to be forced to drive to your place and check this out. Will you be home tomorrow?”

“Yes, but you really need not go to the trouble of making a long trip on a rocky road. How about checking first with Keith at the phone company in town?”

“The telephone company? What good would that do?” By now, Judy Johnson is plainly aggravated with me.

“Keith,” I explain, “is the young fella who comes up here to fix my phone every time there’s a summer storm in the canyon. He can tell you somebody sure enough lives up here. And that somebody is me. Only me.”

“Are you sure you have a phone up there? I don’t believe that’s possible?”

Despite myself, I’m giggling now. After all, Judy is speaking to me on the very telephone whose existence she now doubts. “Yes, Judy, I’m sure. Trust me.”

Linda Budd is such a “lone eagle” that she had never heard the term until she encountered it in Colorado Central. The aerie of this middle-aged woman is a little cabin in the highest country where she runs a computer and rustles up water from one place or another. So far, she hasn’t let the winters decide who’s boss.