Coal country is a land of sudden disasters. Cave-ins, subsidence, and noxious gases are a dime a dozen. In 1962 a not-terribly-alert person started a trash fire on an outcropping of coal and 47 years later, the fire still roars away underground, having forced the relocation of an entire town not too far from here.

So we keep an eye for signs of impending doom like the canary in the mine (whose tiny lungs succumb to poison gas quickly enough to warn men to get out). Common sense tells us that if the rats are leaving a tunnel, we should too. And if we're walking on a mountain ridge and notice that one spot doesn't look like what surrounds it, we stop and probe the ground - to see if it's an old air vent. Some of them are several hundred feet deep.

Economic disaster tends to hit early around here (and linger).

So when the "for sale" signs blossomed around town last spring, I noticed. They were sprouting on homes of older residents, proud of their independence, who had lived in their houses all their lives and who had shown no previous inclination to leave. The simple fact is that they could not afford to heat them any longer.

That's bad, I thought.

And then came the day at the food bank when a couple appeared - not for the first time, but neither are they regulars - and asked if they might have more than the usual quantity of canned goods. When I asked why, they explained: "We're moving to the woods for the summer."

They didn't mean to their summer cottage. They were heading to a campsite without rental fees.

That seemed very bad. But they were not, I noticed, especially distressed.

They had a plan. They figured that by living rough during warm weather, they could save enough money to pay for a decent place this winter, and heat it too. They would have preferred living in a house, but, "You do what you can, right?"

And so it is spring again, and I realize that I have not seen them at the food bank this winter, although I have seen them around town. The drop in oil prices has made a difference, and their plan has paid off. And I suspect that even if it hadn't, they would have resolutely figured out their next best hope, and would have done so with good cheer.

It doubtless helped that they were planning not only for themselves. They knew that kids from a previous relationship would be joining them in the fall, and they wanted the best possible situation for them. If it took draconian measures to prepare for that good, then so be it.


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