Meet The Masters Of Social Distancing – Couple Live Alone In Wilderness For Decades

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To leave society behind was a wedding vow Wendell and Mariann spoke only to each other. It was a solemn one, though, and to save for it Mariann spent only $66 on her bridal gown. Once they were married on that winter day 35 years ago, they just started driving.

Wendell and Mariann Hardy had lived most of their lives in the fast-growing southwestern city of Tucson, Arizona. But each was drawn to solitude. Mariann began distance-running into the mountains on high desert trails. Even before they met, both relocated to log cabins up on Mt. Lemmon, the 9,157-foot peak in the Catalinas range that overlooks Tucson. Still, city types came up to party there on the weekends. It wasn’t isolated enough.

Wendell took a job installing windows at Mariann’s cabin. Shy at first, the two got to talking about how they weren’t made for crowded places. One afternoon, Mariann offered him gin and tonic. Just how far, Wendell asked her, would she be willing to go?

The question, open-ended and thrilling, marked the beginning of a union between two people who sought solitude – and instead found a life alone together.

Decades later, a pandemic has thrust the concept of social distancing into the daily lexicon and lives of Americans. As the nation’s death toll from COVID-19 tops 100,000, a new reality has set in: With few effective treatments and no vaccine, maintaining distance from others in society is the only sure method of stopping the spread.

Few people are as accustomed to the rigors, or rewards, of sheltering-in-place as Wendell, 75, and Mariann, 69. Soon after their 1985 church wedding in Tucson, they started exploring the wildest reaches of the American West for a place to be on their own.

A jack of all trades, including driving race cars, Wendell had a knack for fixing up vehicles like their salvaged pickups and a 1978 Jeep. They’d load one up and scout out Arizona’s parched borderlands to the south, and its ponderosa pine forests up north.

You can tell something by how couples sit on bench seats in old pickup trucks. Some sit apart, at either window. Others, like Wendell and Mariann, sit close together, behind the steering wheel.

Their search ended in Catron County, New Mexico. It is among the most rural in the United States, bigger than some U.S. states. Elk outnumber people 4 to 1. Traffic is so sparse, the county doesn’t have a single stoplight. Some children wait for the school bus in wood and wire cages. These serve as a precaution, against the wolves.

Miles down a washed-out dirt road along the San Francisco River, they saw 25 acres for sale. The $40,000 stretch of land, 6,000 feet high and zoned for cattle grazing, bordered on National Forest and was near a cougar-inhabited gorge called Hogwash Canyon. They bought it in 1986. The property tax payments cost less than the postal stamps Wendell needed to mail them in.

Today, an iron sign above their front gate, forged by Mariann years ago, reads “El Medio de Nada.” Spanish for the middle of nowhere.

“If you can get along with your wife out here, as we do, that’s about it. There are no neighbors to get along with,” Wendell says. “I wake up happy every morning.”

As millions across America struggle with avoiding others, Mariann and Wendell face a different challenge: how to maintain their isolation as they grow old.

It is distancing, they think, that helps connect them with the world.

“We feel closer to people living the way we do,” Mariann says. “When we have contact with others, it means something more.”

Above their front door, she has hung a sign: WELCOME.

During the worst public health crisis in a century, most would have turned a reporter away. I told them I wanted to tell the story of a couple who’d mastered social distancing, striking a balance between solitude and togetherness, self-reliance and dependence.

So they invited me to spend two days with them in El Medio de Nada. A photographer, videographer and I observed strict health precautions during the visit. We drove separately, wore surgical masks, stayed more than six feet apart, washed our hands frequently and sanitized any surface we touched.

“I’m a dead player if I catch it,” Wendell says of the virus. “If I lived in a city, I don’t know what I’d do, but I feel safe here.”

The pandemic, and the isolation it encourages, is already sparking signs of a modest urban exodus toward wilder areas such as this one. U.S. demand for recreational vehicles has surged, along with home rentals in far-flung locales. Many workers accustomed to office jobs, and fortunate enough to still have them, have found they can be equally productive from a redoubt in the countryside.

Yet truly remote living, the path Wendell and Mariann have chosen, comes with hardships and dangers of its own. When the San Francisco River gets high, they’re effectively barricaded in for weeks or months. Mariann was stalked by a large mountain lion a few years back. Fortunately, her Siberian Husky scared the cat off, sparing her having to shoot it. (“I have guns, but I’m not a gun person, you know?”) The couple does shoot the occasional Mojave rattlesnake – a bite out here so far from civilization could be lethal because the nearest full-service hospital is hours away.

But there are prizes of living with no one else in sight: “It feels like everything you see is yours,” Wendell says.

On dark and moonless nights, that can include the cosmos.

“You can see stars beyond the stars,” Mariann says.


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