A jug of water and an outpouring of support | AspenTimes.com

A jug of water and an outpouring of support

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

All he wanted was a jug of water. What he got was an outpouring of support.

Ray Lanoue isn’t used to asking for help. The former machinist is a strong man who built whatever he needed or went without. That lifestyle has suited him just fine while living in an El Jebel trailer the last 30 years.

But Lanoue found himself in a predicament about 10 days ago. The pipe on his wood burning stove became clogged so he wasn’t able to light a fire. His furnace hasn’t worked for 14 years, so burning wood is his only source of heat.

Lanoue, who will soon turn 65, got out a ladder and was climbing to his roof when his bum right ankle gave way and he fell to the ground. He knew he had injured his right leg, but there was no one around to help.

He managed to crawl through the snow and up his steps back into the trailer. “It wasn’t a fun trip,” he said.

He made his way to the couch in his living room, hopeful the pain would go away. It didn’t.

By Saturday morning the gallon milk jug of water that Lanoue keeps by his couch was drained. He was unable to stand to fill it himself. Dehydrated and hungry, he called Eagle County Senior Services. All he wanted was a jug of water.

Lanoue said he isn’t too proud to ask for help. “The problem I have is I didn’t have the sense to know I needed help,” he chuckled.

The seniors’ program doesn’t operate on weekends, but the woman he spoke with requested that the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office do a welfare check. Deputy Kirk Wheatley, also a resident of El Jebel, answered the call not only with a gallon jug of water but a hamburger and fries from Wendy’s.

Lanoue refused medical help but Wheatley was convinced the man couldn’t stay alone another night. Later on Saturday he told some of the volunteers at the Basalt fire department about Lanoue’s condition. They leapt into action. Some of them cleaned out his pipe and got his stove in good working order. Others helped convince him he needed to go to the hospital, according to Wheatley.

An X-ray at Valley View Hospital revealed Lanoue had shattered his right knee cap. After he was treated and brought back home, the assistance from fire department volunteers and other midvalley residents increased rather than disappeared.

Lanoue’s problems had been mounting for years. He came to the valley in 1973, attracted to the mountains from Denver. “I was making good money, but I said I’d rather starve in the mountains than stay in the city,” he said.

Lanoue worked in Carbondale with a machine shop that specialized in equipment for the coal mines. After the big mining company Mid-Continent closed, he worked for a different firm in Glenwood Springs.

He injured his ankle five years ago and has never been the same. He couldn’t work effectively. Moving around became a problem.

Lanoue became accustomed to living primarily off his couch. The tinkerer who could fix anything got overwhelmed by normal household wear and tear. His oven didn’t work. His dryer didn’t work. His carpet became threadbare. Paperwork and junk accumulated in mounds throughout the trailer. Tucked everywhere in shelves and boxes are books, the collection of a well-read man.

His front door was never repaired after it was kicked in awhile back by burglars. It had a wide gap where cold air rushed in. The ringer on his telephone no longer rang.

“In year’s past I had always said bad things happen in threes,” said Lanoue. Lately, he continued, bad things have hit by the dozens.

Kim Wille, a fire department volunteer and participant in numerous civic causes, became the unofficial coordinator of a huge volunteer effort to make Lanoue’s trailer more habitable. A locksmith fixed the door. An electrician rewired a porch light that didn’t turn off. Wille herself cleaned the bathroom and kitchen and is helping Lanoue organize his living room. City Market donated cleaning supplies and food. Roaring Fork Physical Therapy donated a walker while Lanoue is healing.

“All these problems that have been plaguing him for so many years ” solved by volunteers,” said Wille. “It’s been like a mission of joy with so many people helping.”

Wille credits Wheatley for sparking the community outpouring. The deputy has regularly visited Lanoue since first showing up at the trailer on Feb. 20. Of all the acts of kindness extended to Lanoue, he was probably touched most when Wheatley brought him an azalea plant for his coffee table. “That flabbergasted me,” Lanoue said.

He used to love hiking above timberline, in large part to enjoy and photograph the tiny flowers that cling to life at the high elevations. Lanoue dreams of hiking once again. Wille said Lanoue’s doctor wants to treat his ankle once his kneecap heals.

Whether or not he hikes above timberline again, Lanoue said the volunteers have already taken huge steps to improve his life, just in time for his 65th birthday. His message to other people who are facing tough times is to seek help.

“There have got to be more people like me that need to know help is available,” Lanoue said. “It’s not like you have to beg for help. There are people who want to do it.”

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.