Flipping the script on loneliness

Alia Starkweather’s loved ones live all over the country. So she’s downsizing to an RV to visit them one at a time.

  • Alia Starkweather, 82, is selling her Belchertown home and moving into a 1987 Toyota Mini Cruiser in order to visit friends across the country without imposing on them. “I’m going to become a minimalist,” she says.

  • Starkweather reads from a list of the reason why she’s choosing to live on the road. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Starkweather says she’s looking forward to a minimalist lifestyle. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • “I don’t miss houses. I miss people,” says Starkweather, shown nuzzling her dog, Honeydew. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo

  • Alia Starkweather's Toyota. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

  • Alia Starkweather's Toyota. Staff Photo/Andy Castillo—

Thursday, November 01, 2018

“I don’t miss houses. I miss people,” says Alia Starkweather, who’s sitting in the yard of her brown clapboard cottage next to Arcadia Lake in Belchertown with her corgi-dachshund mix, Honeydew, at her feet.

Starkweather, 82, takes off her reading glasses, held together by tape and a bent paper clip, and puts them down on the picnic table. Then she picks up a sheet of paper on which she has outlined the reasons why she’s selling her lakeside home and moving into a 1987 Toyota Minicruiser that’s parked in the driveway.

“It’s about the last time I can do this,” she says — to enjoy life on the road and get away from New England’s harsh weather. “Hopefully, I stay healthy, because if I don’t, it all goes to pieces.”

These days, it’s getting harder to keep up with regular home maintenance, she says. Apart from a minor heart murmur, her health is good right now, and her doctor has cleared her to downsize into the RV. But it might not always be like that, so she’s hoping to save money and see friends who don’t live nearby.

“I haven’t had anything that I’d call a vacation in a very long time. This is going to be all vacation,” Starkweather says.

Other waterfront houses can be seen across the lake, but Starkweather says she’s not part of a strong local community.

She has four grown children and three step children. A few of them live locally but don’t have much free time. The others are further afield and are busy with their own lives and raising young children: one in Northfield, another in California, and another near Boston, Starkweather says.

On a typical morning, Starkweather makes coffee, browses news headlines and listens to Rachel Maddow over breakfast, plays a few computer games, checks her emails, goes to a gym class, walks Honeydew, finishes a few errands, and then goes to bed. It’s a solitary life, she says.

“I don’t think I could be lonelier. In the winter, I’m also sensitive to bright lights, loud noises and crowds,” Starkweather says. “I spend all winter, from 4 o’clock in the afternoon on those  shorter days until the next morning,  alone. Seven days a week. How much lonelier can you get?”

While a few neighbors have tried in the past to bring people together over communal dinners, for the most part, everyone in the lake community keeps to themselves.

“If I have a community, it’s across the whole country from Vermont to California. So it’s to create some instant community, being on the road,” she says. “I’ve been on the phone with someone in California, someone in Vermont, someone in New York, someone in Easthampton. I’ve been on the phone with all these people who are my community, who are spread all over.”

With her RV, Starkweather says she’s excited to reconnect with friends and family members without imposing on them. Financially, she says downsizing will make it easier to live on her small pension.

“(Parking at) Walmart is free. Friends are free. I’ll be learning a lot about how to save money in an RV, because I still have to pay for gas. But I don’t need much money for food, and I don’t need any money for clothing,” she says. The sale of her house is pending, and she's hoping to begin living on the road fulltime starting next month.

Starkweather, who is originally from White Plains, New York, came to the Pioneer Valley as a young undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

By age 23, she had a degree and was married with two children. Later, she earned a master’s in education, and over her career has worked many jobs from a substitute teacher to a psychotherapist in the state’s mental health system.

“I ended up with four children and a divorce, and then married a man with three children,” Starkweather recalls.

After 25 years of marriage, Starkweather’s second husband, Llan Starkweather, came out as gay and they divorced — a long and sometimes painful process of coming apart, she says. But even then, they stayed close friends until he passed away earlier this year.

Retirement is the first time she’s ever experienced true loneliness.

Looking back, Starkweather says having school-aged children created a built-in social community.

“Kids playing together, that was a very big connection, even if you were a different religion or a different culture. Those things didn’t matter in those days. You played hit the batter or jump rope,” she says

A train passes by across the lake. Its horn echoes over the water, and Starkweather pauses for a minute to let it pass.

“My maternal grandfather was very lonely. My paternal grandfather would never admit to being lonely. He was much more in his head. But we were here. They had their children nearby, and their grandchildren, so it was different for them,” she says.

Starkweather remembers seeing her grandparents become lonely in retirement. But they had family nearby and a close neighborhood community to step in and help. When her parents retired, they moved to Montague Center and built a tight-knit community around them.

Increasingly, people don’t spend their whole lives in one place anymore, and communities are fractured, she continues.

“We don’t have a multi-generational family (living together),” Starkweather says. “It’s very rare that you find a parent living there, and a grandparent living there, and an aunt and an uncle.”

Her transition into the RV won’t be the first time she has ventured out alone. Soon after Starkweather’s second divorce, “I traveled through India on my own without ever knowing where I was going to be the next night,” she says. And later, “I walked from here to Seneca Falls, New York, when the women’s peace encampment was happening,” she says.

More recently, Starkweather says she spent a few nights at Nickerson State Park in Brewster for $22 per night to get used to living out of her RV.

Inside the Toyota, which she bought second-hand a few months ago, Starkweather points out features like a small shower and an over-the-cab bed. There’s also a stove, a kitchen sink, and a television overlooking a couch where she can watch movies.

Slowly, Starkweather says she’s making it into a home and cleaning it up. A few of the walls are decorated with her paintings, cheery curtains hang over the windows, and the floors are covered in colorful rugs.

Once on the road, her first stop will be to visit friends in Burlington. Then she’ll go to see a cousin near Norwich, New York, and then to Kansas to see another friend. She’s also excited to make stops in national parks and see beautiful places across the United States.

Getting rid of most of her earthly possessions to what will fit in the 21-foot-long RV won’t be that difficult, she says — her most prized possessions are ordinary things like pinecones and rocks, and they can be found anywhere.

“I’m going to become a minimalist,” she says.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@gazettenet.com.