Far From the Bustling Crowd

SINCE I am a city dweller, my daily existence revolves around the confines of several square miles crammed with people, cluttered with buildings, and zigzagged by a maze of roads. Despite close quarters, it's often an impersonal existence, as people build their worlds in their own small spaces.

So remote places like the one pictured in this photograph prompt me to ponder what life is like in tiny outposts across the country. In towns like this one, folks may live miles apart, but no one is a stranger. What kind of people live here? What are their lives like? How does a typical day play out for the person inside this shedlike post office?

Monitor photographer Neal J. Menschel, who grew up near the Appalachian Mountains and lived in Alaska, identified with this rural scene when he came across it seven years ago. ``It looked like home,'' he says. ``I could have gone in and talked with the postmistress for an hour.''

Menschel was traveling through Washington State when he stopped at Skamokawa, a fishing community located at the mouth of the Columbia River. Torrents of rain were gushing from the sky that day.

The picture has two elements that attracted Menschel. One is anthropological - giving clues about the community. The old pilings that resemble matchsticks in the water suggest that this may have been the site of a dock or even a cannery. Perhaps at one time the area was a thriving town, Menschel says.

The tiny post office is not a neat, generic-looking government building but a squat, homey structure where one might go to get the news of the day. The flag adds a sense of Americana.

The picture also has an appealing aesthetic element. ``Often a photo has one or the other, but not both,'' Menschel says. In this case, the weather has created a somber, serene mood. The bloated overcast sky reflects off the mud puddles and water, producing subdued shadows.

This photo brings to mind a book I read that searched out people living on the contemporary frontier - hearty, resourceful men and women who eke out an existence in isolated areas that have fewer than two people per square mile. Skamokawa isn't miles from nowhere, but it's a nostalgic reminder to one metropolitan resident that plenty of places still exist where life hums to a different, slower tune.

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