A local bait shop in Town of Wolf River, Wisconsin, referred to by some as The House of Knowledge. (Photo by Donna Kallner)

Recently, a friend and I were talking about things we're doing to make our lives a little easier as we age. She mentioned putting garbage from their weekend cottage into the trash container at a nearby park. “That's OK, isn't it?”

I'm glad she asked, so we could have a conversation. Sheepishly, she admitted she only left her trash at the park if there was no one else around. We talked about how, when budget-strapped rural municipalities get stuck with the tab to dispose of cottagers's household trash left at parks and boat landings, they remove all trash containers from those sites. And eventually, we got to the heart of the matter: She had a problem and needed a better solution but didn't know who to ask.

That's a common situation, even in small towns and rural areas where you're rarely more than two conversations from someone with a cousin who knows everyone and everything. We all certainly know plenty of people willing to share opinions with gospel-level certainty, although the accuracy of their information is often dubious. And let's be honest: Heel-dragging delay and avoidance are a natural human response to situations where accurate information may require actions that are inconvenient, expensive or embarrassing. Who hasn't thought it would be simpler to ask forgiveness instead of permission?

But we can do better. Here are some tips for figuring out who you might reach out to in various situations, and how to ask.

Who runs the world? Municipal clerks are the rural equivalent of the Radar O'Reilly character in M*A*S*H. In Wisconsin, for example, clerks are the go-to resource for information about voting, local government, waste management, roads, property taxes, public safety, noise and other nuisance complaints, and much more. When clerks don't know something, they know how to find out. They know who to call in county government and how to get past the purgatory of “If you know your party's extension, dial it now.”

They know your local emergency management plan and how to implement rarely used resources. They serve as a link between the people and their elected representatives in local government and help elected officials do their jobs. They help ensure transparency in local government, such as providing legal notice of meetings, maintaining agendas, and recording minutes. Some clerks work out of municipal offices with regular hours. Some work from their homes. If you don't know how to reach your clerk, search online using the name of your municipality (township, village, etc.) or county and state.

Ask a librarian. If municipal clerks are like Radar O'Reilly, librarians are like fairy godmothers. If it were possible to transform a pumpkin into a carriage they would know how to look up the instructions, download the plans, and coach you on using the magical 3D printer to make it to your specifications. Librarians have a special gift for making any query seem less idiotic. They are fluent in follow-up questions that hone in on what you mean when you can’t find the words you need on your own. When you can only mumble “aging parent” they fill in the blanks.

While you gather your composure they gather information about how to contact your area Aging and Disability Resource Center, which can help you connect with Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, home health care, Meals On Wheels, and more. A huge barrier to getting answers to hard questions is not having language for it. Librarians can point you to resources that help you build a vocabulary in dementia, cancer, or hospice as well as plumbing, car maintenance, and making pickles.

The House of Knowledge. Some queries are best presented in other institutions of collective wisdom. In many rural areas that's the truck stop, diner, bait shop, or the knot of guys swapping stories on Saturday mornings at the dump. They know who to call when you need firewood, or a tree trimmer, or a portable sawmill operator. They may not know to what address you could send a card to a neighbor in rehab or the nursing home, but they know who you could ask who would know. Be aware that this is the fast lane for information. If you inquire at the House of Knowledge about where you might find a working wringer washer or old kitchen cabinets, word will spread quickly and you may find those items on your porch by the time you get home. On matters of local history, here's where you find the stuff that's never written down. On information they offer about matters related to the Department of Natural Resources, controversial local topics, school funding referendums, and property tax valuations, trust but verify.

Social media. Trust but verify is a good strategy for social media, too. Just about every small town or rural community has a Facebook group called “You Might Be From…” Whatever you're ISO (In Search Of), someone will have a recommendation. Need someone to wash your windows, clean gutters, or snowplow your driveway? A Facebook group may be more reliable than somebody who knocks on your door offering a great deal on asphalt or siding. Reviews about businesses can be helpful but keep in mind one thing about rural folks: If we don't like how a job got done we're reluctant to post negative reviews that upset their mother who is a second cousin twice removed. We just don't hire that person again.

Pitfalls. Another friend recently mentioned she's still looking for something she hasn't been able to find since she moved here from an urban area. When she first brought it up, I gave her my I-was-raised-on-a-farm-so-I'm-an-expert opinion about why it's not readily available here. She got a similar response from others. But her experience is different from ours and she still wants what she wants. Last time it came up she said, “I think I've ticked people off asking about this.” I felt terrible that she felt that way. It was a good reminder that I don't want my friends to think they can't ask questions and even question my responses. If questioning morphs into ideological rants, I can set boundaries. If someone asks for information but doesn't follow through, that's on them. If they seek second opinions, that's just prudent. They own their choices. We don't have to agree on everything to have respect and affection for each other.

Learning to gather, assess, filter, and funnel information never ends, although the topics and tools change (boy, how they change). It's a lifelong learning experience you can't test out of because every new situation comes with new challenges and new resources. Help is always available, though, even when it's hard to find or inconveniently incompatible with what is easy.

What advice did I offer the friend leaving garbage at the park? “Call your town clerk.” Every township handles things a little differently, so the best way to get accurate information is there. For all I know, her township may have placed trash receptacles at that park to give cottagers a convenient place to leave their trash. I don't think it's likely, but it's possible. More likely, our friend will actually enjoy regular trips to the trash transfer center branch of the House of Knowledge. She'll meet people there who have valuable insights and access to resources and priceless information about that area, that community. And they'll all be richer for having crossed paths.

Donna Kallner writes from Langlade County in rural northern Wisconsin.

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