what's a good neighbor? - #12
I crouched down in the claw foot tub, my hand cupping the faucet, spraying the ice cold water on my chest, gasping in profanity, trying to remember that once upon a warm climate, I did this on purpose.
Two weeks ago, our boiler broke. The cabin has three primary heat sources: hydronic baseboards powered by the boiler, the prodigious open hearth fireplace, and the massive south-facing windows. On a sunny day with a high in the 20s, the front room can reach the upper 70s without any supplemental heat, just from the sun. But in a nerve-jangling snow and wind storm, with the temperature clawing its way into the teens for the day and the sun seemingly servicing other planets, the boiler is imperative. Even with a raging fire going from dawn ‘til long past the dimming of night, the bedrooms can dip into the 40s, the wind whistling through the newspaper stuffed into the gaps between the logs.
That’s what beanies and wool blankets are for, but you can’t wear wool in the shower. Without a functional boiler, our water wasn’t just cold, it was Rocky Mountain advertising cold. I would need to Wim Hof my way to cleanliness.
When we moved here in July, Ben went about tossing the locals a Wim Hof-related question as they one-by-one warmed up to us: was it OK to swim in the creek? I thought this was a really normal question. It’s a pretty creek with a handful of watering holes, but it’s also connected to the town water supply. It’s fair to ask if they want our naked bodies, post sweat-inducing rides and runs, lounging in their future ice cubes. But every single person reacted with more curiosity about why we would want to do that than whether they personally would care if we did. “The creek is pretty cold,” they would say, an eyebrow cocked, worried about just how stupid the Californian transplants might really be.
Ice baths, polar dips, cold-water therapy, they all supposedly have health benefits ranging from improving your circulation and deepening your sleep to raising your energy levels and reducing inflammation in your body. Sometime in the height of COVID, I paid money to take a Wim Hof course. For those unfamiliar, Wim Hof is a lunatic capable of incredible feats of human survival endurance. His course teaches a breathing method reliant on breath-holding and hyperventilation that, and especially when paired with cold water therapy, can make us calmer, stronger, everything-er. Who knows if it works, but I love light-lift physical challenges, and holding my breath and taking cold showers fell firmly in that category. But it was short-winded — turns out I fucking love hot showers.
Which brings me back to two days past getting off a cross-country flight where the girl next to me projectile-vomited everywhere: I really needed a shower, and it was not going to be hot. Maybe cold showers boost your immunity, maybe, but they definitely boost your character. In what can only be called icy determination, my deep desire to be Very Clean enabled me to endure what might as well have been a white walker vice-gripping my organs, yelling and shaking as I refused to part from my elaborate hair care routine in the frigid water.
It’s important to note that our neighbors, Aaron and Anna*, offered to let me shower at their Extremely Nice House in what I can only assume is an Extremely Nice Shower. But I would rather send my body into a 20-minute state of shivering fight or flight than emerge wet-haired at a helpful neighbor’s. We all have our limits. Mine is built around how deeply embarrassing I would find “showering for too long” at someone else’s house combined with my deep dislike of rushing to put socks on when my feet are wet. But their helpfulness did not stop there. They would not be deterred from winning the award for absolute best neighbors a human could ask for.
We weren’t just sitting idly as it became more and more impossible to shave our legs — Ben was not only replacing the boiler part by part, but also calling every plumber in town, but like the electricians here, everyone was too busy. They’re all working on Oprah’s property. People literally said, “try again in the Spring.” Try again in the Spring. The Spring. Should I become a plumber? But after our efficient rejection by every handyhand in town, I got a phone call.
“Hey, it’s Aaron, your neighbor. Are you home?”
“Oh hi, yeah, what’s up?”
“I got a plumber coming to your house in 30 minutes to fix your boiler, so keep an eye out for the truck.”
And sure enough, 30 minutes later, I found myself trotting in my slippers down the slush-covered steps to the side yard to wave down the plumbing truck driving past my house because none of the addresses here are real. A guy my age, maybe younger, hopped out of the truck in a snowflake-embroidered beanie. In the front seat sat his dog Luna, a rez dog, a lean blonde wolf-like girl, eyes blue and alert, wearing a red parka. Evan, the plumber, followed me into the garage to our boiler installed backwards 30 years ago.
“Um, do you know if this thing has ever been serviced?” he asked.
“Does it look like it has?” I asked with genuine curiosity.
“No,” he said, standing on a stool, bent over to the other side of the boiler in an attempt to see the front of it.
“That would have been my guess.”
Two days later, after a failed attempt to resolve the issue, Evan came back and blessed me with the right part, a new gas valve, and along with it, hot water in the house for the first time in 11 days. Have you thanked a plumber today? Have you knelt on the ground of civilization and thanked someone for literally laying pipe? I have now. But most importantly, I thanked our neighbor, the San Juans Don of Plumbing. And let me tell you something else about our neighbor.
I mean, for one, he and his wife used to live in a yurt up the pass. She told me a story about snowmobiling her kids, sick with croup, to the ER doctor’s house in the dead of night, only to have the kids recover on the way over because the deadening cold knocked the fevers right out of them. I saw her walking down our dirt road on crutches in the snow a week after hip surgery. They’ve lived here for decades — the decades when an avalanche-ridden town with no amenities was as cheap as it should’ve been — and they were able to build a home to rent in addition to their family home.
Do you remember the gazelle-like friend I made who was moving away? She lived in Aaron and Anna’s rental property, and she was moving away because they were selling. After all, investment properties have more than one way to be investments. But there was something special about this house: one third of the entire floor plan was a professional wood shop. When Aaron mentioned he was selling the house and thus the wood shop inside of it, Ben went over to buy some wood from him.
Ben ended up buying a lot more than wood.
For years, Ben has talked about woodworking. He has carpentry and construction experience, but out of respect for his desk-burdened wife, he wasn’t going to start buying expensive tools without knowing how he’d make money from it. I appreciate this about him. He spent years doggedly pursuing one fortune-less pursuit, and he knows if he did it again, I’d have a meltdown. I’m cool, but I’m not Wim Hof cool. All of this came up in the wood shop: Ben’s passion, his dreams, his famine-mindset wife. And what started as Aaron shooting an arrow in the dark to keep his wood shop close to home became a garage-stealing reality: we bought the whole goddamned wood shop.
Not only did we acquire a wood shop that has now become our entire garage, but we’re also getting what I can only describe as a rich person’s dining room table. I mean, look at it.
But the icing, the coup de grâce, the finishing move on my ability to say no to almost everything: Aaron offered to teach Ben everything he knows and connect him with his ongoing business relationships in exchange for access to the wood shop in our house. All for a price that feels too cheap to write.
God these are good neighbors. In one week, if someone single-handedly restores heat to your home, hands your husband his dream career on a platter, enables you to stand in skin-burning water for as long as you can come up with new award acceptance speeches, and gives you a dining room table so nice you seriously consider posing naked on it, can money ever repay them?
No. No it cannot. And so has sowed the seeds in my deeply competitive pastures to find ways in which I can be an even better neighbor. If there was ever a troubling omen on the trail of my life, this is one I am absolutely going to ignore. It’s a small town. What else is there to do?