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A Man Alone


Isolation can be harsh, unrelenting, even brutal...


A Man Alone

by Bill and Brenda Evans


Go to Eau Claire. By car is probably best. Take US 53 North. Stop at Gordy’s County Market. Buy apples, plums, and a half-pound of Wisconsin cheddar. Gas up at Pump Perks outside Gordy’s. Wash fruit in lavatory.

Return to car. Cut cheddar into thick slabs. Start engine. Head north again on US 53 toward Wisconsin’s Northern Highlands—that’s how you get to Deaton’s house and dairy farm, and that’s where we’re going.

I’ve sometimes imagined being a man alone on horseback making his way in a wilderness—build shelter, stay warm, keep dry, survive. I would camp by a stream, prepare a brushy roof, kill game, and scavenge for plants. In my mind, I’ve worked all the steps. I believe I could survive.

But a car is better. Besides, I’m heading to Deaton’s, and I have fruit, cheddar, a map, and a hotel room at the end of the day. Not things I’d find in the wilderness.

On my way into the rolling hills, the sky is an immense dome above. Shallow glacial lakes dot the landscape like silver and platinum disks. Dozens of small streams striate the forests and fields, burbling a caustic brown. I stop and scoop up a handful of water. It is clear in my hand, not tannic after all. Some things are not what they seem in northern Wisconsin. Dead leaves in the streambed must have distorted my perception.

Deaton’s house is just off a hard-packed dirt road. It is almost September. Frosts that stopped in late May will resume again soon. About three months of freeze-free weather is all a man can count on here, as Deaton knows. A scant 100 miles south of Lake Superior, winters are cold. Deaton remembers Superior freezing over entirely twice in his life—1979 and 1962.

I hope I will not find Deaton dead. Since my first visit a year earlier, I have feared, for a reason I do not understand, discovering Deaton’s body in his house or dairy barn. Not that he is old or feeble. It is, I think, his aloneness, his clean isolation that strikes my fear.

My notes in the report of my first visit say something like “Deaton is an obvious bachelor.” It is a fact, not a low opinion. Deaton lives without companion or comrade, friend or ally, child or pet. And without beauty—at least beauty as I define it. His home is strictly utilitarian. No paint, paper, color, or fabric to beautify. No flower or shrub to soften the harshness.

He doesn’t like dairy farming, he says, but cannot escape it. He speaks of his dream of marriage and family, yet feels captive to the inherited land. Though I’ve visited him three times and talked to him by phone a few more, somehow I can never simply say, “Why haven’t you married? Why haven’t you left the farm?”

Piles of broken wood from collapsed buildings are scattered about like refuse he can’t or won’t burn and turn to ashes. He would like to sell out, relocate, enter the job market, but is unable to face the risks. Deaton is stuck in his dream and hope of a different life.

His small church is welded to the past, he says, satisfied with how-it-used-to-be. The few women are married already. Town is miles away. No close neighbors either. One brother lives somewhere farther north.

Deaton’s radio is the one road out of his lonely dairy farm. Each evening, he huddles near it to travel beyond his own back door. He knows about the mission organization I work for because of early broadcasts. For years, he has faithfully tithed his annual Holstein calf crop to support world evangelization.

I visited Deaton for the last time in the mid-1980s. I knocked at appointment time. No response. The old fear of his death gripped me. I beat harder. Nothing. Walking the outside perimeter of the house, then into the dairy barn, I called, “Deaton, Deaton.” I found him in the barn, standing ankle-deep in manure, repairing a stanchion. His hands were small, fingers delicate, not made for the hard labor of a dairy farmer. I knew he was forcing them to do something he neither wanted nor was well suited to do.

I was there for the third time because he had asked me to explain a deferred gift agreement he thought might benefit our organization. But as our conversation went on, I knew he mostly just wanted company.

And so we talked. Deaton dreamed of a different, more varied life but had not yet found it. Despite his reserve, he asked good questions, and we spent the time discussing his dream, our organization, and financial agreements he might make. Mostly, I was just being a friend.

Deaton was a man who needed comradeship and exchange and rarely found either one.
I haven’t seen Deaton for 25 years. I trust he found a good wife and another life, for that was his dream. But what I took from my visits with him all those years ago still resonates with me. Though monotonous and hard, his life was purposeful.

I tended to see Deaton’s aloneness as a bitter existence. He had choices, didn’t he? He was a free man. Why didn’t he do something? But escape or even change is not always as simple as choosing differently. I often over-simplify what it means to be “free indeed.” Deaton was looking but not finding. Seeking but not getting. When night fell, it was still Deaton, his herd, his house, and his radio—a man alone. But some things are not what they seem.

Isolation can be harsh, unrelenting even brutal. My little dream of surviving with just a horse and scant supplies in the wilderness is idealized, even romanticized, and always turns out well. Real life is different. People need each other, some more than others. On the other hand, relationships can lock us up while solitude could free us.

Marriage is good but not essential for a full life. Agreed, God means for us to interact with others. The church in Acts exemplifies that connection, comradeship, and companionship. The epistles even call us one body—a corporate, unified, integrated, working-together body. Deaton’s church was a lonely place for a single man or woman. But church doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

Deaton’s greatest joy was his annual gift of the tithe from his Holstein calf crop that helped send out the gospel. Unable to launch himself into the unknown, he nevertheless helped launch ministries around the world. Giving to make a difference in local and international missions, education, discipleship, and church growth unchained him from a dull job on a dreary farm with only his cows as companions.

Some things are not what they seem in northern Wisconsin. A man alone can find his way out.


About the Writers: Bill Evans, former director of the Free Will Baptist Foundation, lives in Cattletsburg, KY, with his wife Brenda, a retired English teacher.



©2011 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists