The Continental Pt. 9: Early Retirement
(This article is part of the 15-part series, The Continental, written by Christie Grotheim with photography by Niklas Andersson as the couple takes a six-week road trip across and around the United States in their 1979 Lincoln Continental. Click here to catch up on the full series.)
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A house trailer in a retirement community on the outskirts of Tucson might not be every traveler’s dream destination, but it was actually high on my priority list. I visited my parents there a few years ago and fell in love with the area and the place they bought as a winter vacation house and rental. Barely old enough to qualify and not yet retired, they were the youngsters of the neighborhood, hipsters in a land of broken hips, hikers in a world of walkers. That perceived youth might have been what motivated them to buy the doublewide trailer, but I know that they were also drawn to the cactus-covered mountains and the almost-year-round perfect weather.
The retirees, many from Canada, New York, and the Midwest, don’t “summer” in Tucson—they winter there or visit in fall or spring. During the hottest months, the trailer park is nearly abandoned, but we took my parents up on their generous offer to let us stay. They warned us about the heat and that there was no AC—they themselves had never even been there in July. But we felt we were tough, rugged travelers: we had been hot and sweaty for weeks.
I looked forward to hiking the mountain trails again. With their cliffs, mesas and drop-offs, they’re like being in a Bugs Bunny cartoon: a labyrinth of jagged points, full of angled columns of rock, often with one round rock sitting on top.
We pulled up to my parents’ lot. Although the houses were close to one another, they were divided by walls of flowering cacti and maintained a certain desert charm with their dry, pebbled yards full of prickly pears and barrel cacti. There was even a huge, branched saguaro cactus—the standard three-pronged cactus a child would draw—which grew in my parent’s yard. Judging by its size, it looked hundreds of years old.
When we opened the door, we were met with a blast of heat; the place had been shut up since February. We opened the windows, turned on the only fan, which was in the master bedroom. Even with the fan, it was hard to breathe. The thermometer in the kitchen read 98º. The floor was hot to our bare feet; the walls felt feverish. It was 102º outside, but outside it was less stuffy than inside the house. We knew it would be difficult to sleep but hoped with the windows open it would air out.
No such luck. I woke up with my naked body stuck to the sheets. After a slow morning, we tried to motivate ourselves to leave the house, but the toothpaste was hot, the hair gel had melted, and putting on makeup was pointless. We finally got in the car in the late afternoon and drove a few miles before pulling off for a Coke.
I have to insert here that Niklas is an excellent driver. He is patient but not passive, alert and assertive, but safe. His one Achilles heel, however, is parking lots. He rarely pulls into the right one. I don’t know if it’s because he’s not American and doesn’t understand our strip malls, or if it’s the onset of dementia, but either way I always have to help him out.
“Right here. Here. Here. Turn there—right there.” Yet he would often end up passing it and have to circle around, find a back entrance, or weave through a maze of multiple parking lots.
Today was no different, so rather than ending up at the 7-Eleven we wound up at Mike’s Auto Shop, but decided to walk over across the curb.
When we tried to start our Continental back up, she wouldn’t start. We tried again and again to no avail. It was not only ironic to die at a mechanic shop (mechanic number eight) but also convenient. I’m not sure whether Niklas’s premonition to park there was lucky or a jinx, but at that point a visit to a mechanic barely phased us. Those at Mike’s Auto Shop did some initial tests on the car and advised us to leave it overnight. One of the mechanics offered to give us a lift home, so at only 5:00 in the afternoon we were being forced into early retirement.
Thinking of the stifling heat in the trailer, we asked him to drop us at a nearby Starbucks instead, so we could catch up with work and email in the air-conditioned room. After a couple of hours, it occurred to me that we were stranded.
“What will we do? How will we eat?” I asked (food always being my top concern in a crisis).
Niklas pointed out that there was a grocery store nearby, and that we could get food and a six-pack and take a cab home.
Fully stocked, we later returned to the trailer and once again sat outside. We had met some of the aging—but very friendly—residents earlier in the day and realized that although we were just driving through, for most of these folks this place might be their final destination. We wondered how that would affect social situations. For example, if a friend left a party early, you would never say, “He’s no longer with us.”
“You would never know if you were on your way out or on your way out.” Niklas said.
“You would never know if you were just passing through or passing on,” I added.
“Whether you were lying to rest or being laid to rest.”
“Whether you were going to another place or going to a better place.”
“Whether you had retired or expired.”
The following day was even hotter and more miserable. I wanted badly to be exploring the mountains—which we could see from our trailer in the distance. Instead we just lay suffocating, sprawled out on the couch, staring blankly ahead. It took too much effort to move. We barely spoke. Occasionally I broke the silence by asking for some water. Niklas groaned every time he stood up. My back ached, causing me to hunch over.
Waiting for the mechanic to call, we felt trapped in the trailer. The only things we’d seen in Tucson so far were a couple of quail in the yard and a jackrabbit running past the window. By mid-afternoon we gathered our strength and decided to walk the two blocks to the pool. I guess we weren’t as tough and rugged as we thought: the geriatrics in the pool looked healthier than us—they certainly had more energy.
In the early evening, we got the long-awaited phone call. The fuel pump and spark plugs had been replaced, the carburetor rebuilt, and she was ready to go. Finally mobile again, we raced over to try to make it to one of the sites on my list, the Saguaro State Park, arriving in the nick of time just as the sun set, which made for some gorgeous photos.
As we hit the road early the following morning, we were disappointed we hadn’t seen and done more, but we were glad that at least together we saw the cacti, and that we were moving on. We wondered if that might’ve been what aging couples feel like: taking pleasure in the small things—like waking up in the morning—while taking comfort in each other. Pushing on, hanging in, slowing down, holding up, growing tired, all the while growing closer in those quiet moments. Although we weren’t yet quite ready for retirement, I looked forward to growing old with my husband. In fact I could see our elderly selves settling in that very retirement park in Tucson, and I suddenly hoped we would not just grow old together, but that we would grow shriveled-up-wheelchair-bound-bat-shit-crazy old together.
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Niklas Andersson is a lighting designer and photographer from Gothenburg, Sweden, who has recently set his sights—and lights—on New York City. With a passion for ’79 Lincoln Continentals and a love of the open road, he offers a unique perspective, from both behind the wheel and behind the lens.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose personal essays can be found at Ducts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Smith Magazine. Though her workspace is in the West Village, she prefers writing longhand from the passenger seat with the world whizzing by and the wind in her hair.