June 5, 2020 / 2:08 PM / a month ago

Special Report: Meet the masters of social distancing - Couple live alone in wilderness for decades

SOMEWHERE NEAR RESERVE, New Mexico (Reuters) - 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.

WALDEN OF THE WEST

I grew up hearing tales of Wendell Hardy, the father of a high school classmate. As legend had it, somewhere out there with Mariann, his third wife, this elusive self-didact busied himself with elaborate projects and small feats of engineering that allowed for a comfortable life in isolation.

The couple’s flight from society seemed unusual. Their careers in the years after college had put them in constant contact with people: Mariann, who had grown up with five siblings, was a cop, and Wendell co-owned a glass-contracting firm that after their marriage helped to build Biosphere 2, the futuristic experiment in self-sufficiency in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Driving down empty roads toward the Hardys, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had conceived of their existence as a kind of Walden of the West, fashioned after the 19th century treatise on self-sufficiency by Massachusetts writer Henry David Thoreau. From his perch on Walden Pond, Thoreau championed solitude as a way to live life to the fullest.

In society, he wrote, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

During the visit, it struck me that Wendell and Mariann, while they had each other, had also taken things to an extreme Thoreau hadn’t. The author, after all, only experimented with isolation on Walden Pond for two years. Even then, his self-reliance was apparently limited: Thoreau would take his dirty laundry home for his mother to wash.

During the decade it took the Hardys to build their homestead, Wendell was the self-taught designer and engineer. Mariann says that her nickname, Manny, is short for “manual labor,” but along the way she’s become a skilled electrician, plumber, bricklayer and horticulturist. “I do the digging, but I’m also a perfectionist,” she says.

Wendell and Mariann Hardy look through a photo album at their home in Catron County, New Mexico, U.S., April 28 2020. REUTERS/Amy Haskell

Their solar-powered home is entirely off grid. It took two years to build the fence around their land that keeps hunters out. Another fence, 8 feet high around the orchard, is not so much to deter people as elk, which would trample the gardens the couple depends on for food. (Recently, an agile bear reached the orchard and binge-ate 30 ripe cantaloupes).The 28-foot logs that make up the home took months to skin and put in place. Many of the steel fixtures around the property are from old tennis court light poles the couple scrounged from a Tucson country club.

After swearing off extravagances, they’re able to get by on very little: a pension and some savings. The last movies they saw in a theater were “Three Men and A Baby” and “Pulp Fiction.”

They can, and sometimes do, go months without venturing into the nearest town, Reserve, population 300, for bacon from Jake’s grocery, or a visit with grandkids. (Wendell’s daughter from a prior marriage moved to Catron County with her children in 2004.)

The couple did no panic buying as the pandemic hit; they’re not the type to panic. Their root cellar – a buried shipping container accessed through an outhouse with a battery-powered elevator – is stocked like an underground Walmart. (The shelves are made from old New Mexico road signs. “The best plywood anywhere,” Wendell says.) The nearest actual Walmart? A three-hour drive.

The social-distancing rules in effect almost everywhere else have little bearing on them. They’re grateful for that, but no less concerned for family members, with whom they remain close, or for the rest of us.

Mariann, who is Catholic, has found solace in a daily virtual mass led by the local priest in Reserve, who’s from Nigeria. “I feel the need to pray for people during this pandemic,” she says.

The United States, with 4% of the world’s population, accounts for 28% of its recorded COVID-19 deaths so far, one indication that delaying strict social distancing measures can prove deadly. New York City has the grimmest toll, but it’s clear now that rural areas won’t be spared.

To the north and across the Arizona state line, the virus has been killing scores of Native Americans in the Navajo and Apache Nations.

In New Mexico, economically depressed Catron County, whose biggest sawmill shut down years ago, has had only two confirmed cases. Despite the fierce beauty of this place, few outsiders visit.

“There is no attraction here, and for me that’s the attraction,” Wendell says as he looks out from a tennis-court-sized deck on the river, canyon, mountains and plains. “I made a living dealing with people and can get along with anybody. I just don’t like to, that’s all.”

Mariann’s view is more meditative.

“If you’re isolated, you are able to take the time to reflect on life, what you might be able to change to be happier with yourself and with others,” she says.

On my second day at the Hardy home, after the couple cooked up a breakfast of Finnish pancakes and crisp bacon, I wondered if they ever took refuge from each other. Surely the secret to a happy marriage between two hermit types wasn’t to spend every waking moment together.

Then Mariann mentioned his cars and said I should see them for myself.

In a building Wendell quaintly calls “the barn,” he maintains a sort of mechanic shop-man cave that would be the envy of many. Finding and restoring antique cars and trucks is one of the only pursuits that draws him off his land.

The barn is where he spends hundreds of hours alone, converting them. Here was a new addition: a 1937 Cadillac limo with a modern engine and power steering, next to a 1928 Model A Ford. Another building on the property holds a ‘55 Chevy, a Ford Model T. One of Wendell’s most fanciful creations, a “river runner,” consists of a Toyota pickup cab suspended seven feet up by a jaunty steel exoskeleton. It’s terrifying to drive, but the vehicle’s clearance and 25-foot wheel base make it capable of emergency river crossings.

And for Mariann, time alone comes largely in the garden, the orchard and greenhouses. She’s growing 220 pounds of pinto beans, fresh asparagus, peppers and grapes for wine, jam and raisins.

But sometimes time alone is risky. A few weeks ago, Wendell told Mariann that he was taking the Cadillac out for a spin. She was worried that he could break down and decided to follow him in another vehicle, at a distance. When the Cadillac sputtered to a stop on a county road, they towed it home together. Wendell is back to spending long hours in the barn, tweaking its engine.

He didn’t need to add a finicky Cadillac limousine to his fleet. But a few years ago, Mariann caught Wendell furtively visiting websites on his tablet, looking for challenging old beauties. The car, she knew, would give him purpose.

“I thought maybe Wendell should have just one more,” she says. “A last project car.”

GOING THE DISTANCE

While most people long for isolation to end, and states are starting to reopen, this dark chapter for society has reminded Wendell and Mariann of a quandary of their own. It is a familiar one.

Can we get through this period and still live in the way we choose?

What got them this far, they say, was an unwillingness to have anyone else prescribe how they should live, or die. But the couple didn’t always consider how hard it would be to get old here.

Taking full inventory of their root cellar last year took a month of work. They’re constantly monitoring power meters to see if there’s enough energy to run a wash. No plumber, electrician or contractor has visited in years.

“If something goes wrong out here, you’re looking at the guy and gal who have to fix it,” Wendell says.

Both have needed a wheelchair at times. Mariann’s knees are shot. Either of them could slip in their clawfoot bathtub. The what-ifs are endless and hard to plan for.

Wendell has had more serious health issues. Since 2002, he’s had hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder in which iron builds up in the body, afflicting organs and joints. “It literally rusts you from the inside out,” he says. After his diagnosis, the couple had to drive several hours almost weekly to a hospital in Sho-Lo for his treatments. For now, it’s under control, but liver cancer nearly killed him, and he’s dependent on insulin for diabetes. His hearing is going; he hobbles after a fall down the root cellar shaft that crushed his foot. Mariann has stockpiled a year’s worth of his medications.

Much as Wendell throws himself into restoring an old car, Mariann, with her self-described pioneer woman ethos, has been able to nurse Wendell back to health repeatedly. Can she continue?

Wendell is adamant. His days of living among others, in a city or town, are behind him.

“You know, people die here too,” he says. “There’s a graveyard. You don’t have to be in a city or town to do that.”

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And Mariann wants to be here with him until the end.

“I know that Wendell’s wishes are to live his days out here,” she says. “We’re going to try. We’ve already followed each other to the end of the earth.”

Reporting by Joshua Schneyer; editing by Kari Howard

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