Shirley Seaton walks up from the beach, her back turned to the Pacific Ocean, with a spring in her step.
“Look what I found!” she beams, her arm fully extended, waving her prize in the air. “Look!”
“Careful with that,” her husband, Jim, gently admonishes from under his Snap-on cap just a few paces behind her, leaning on his cane as he walks. His unmistakable mid-Western twang matches hers.
“We’ve never found one whole before,” she continues, her sheer joy unphased by his warning. When she stops, she proudly holds up a dead seahorse, its bony body perfectly preserved.
She doesn’t dare put it in her pocket—it would crumble into a pile of dust—as they ascend a steep, paved road to their condo in Ocean View Hill. The gated community is a vast departure from the thatched-roofed, wood-and-bamboo homes found on either side, stretching into the hills of Rio Chico by way of dirt roads and overgrown paths.
Technically, the condo does not belong to Jim and Shirley, but rather their daughter, Lisa Baltruch, and her husband, Chad. He is a partner of the oceanfront Rio Chico Beach Resort, currently under construction across the street and managed under the watchful eye of his in-laws.
“There’s some times we’re like, ‘My God, what did we do?’” Shirley says of trading their home in Arizona for a condo in Ecuador. She slips off her flip-flops, walks across the open floor plan and onto the back deck, overlooking a jacuzzi that never needs heating and a view of the ocean she just left.
“And then we sit out here and have coffee in the morning, or just have a beer, and it’s like, ‘This sure is pretty, isn’t it?’”
The Meet Cute
It was on Shirley’s 10th birthday that she said goodbye to her childhood in Eastlake, Ohio. The drier climate in Arizona would help her brother’s asthma, her parents had explained, but that didn’t ease her own reluctance.
She would come to realize that the move was one cog in the machine that eventually brought her to her first high school science class. The second day, to be precise.
When he made his entrance, she immediately elbowed her girlfriend—a swift jab to the ribs.
“What?!” her pal had yelped, muffling the shriek under her breath.
“I’m gonna marry that guy,” Shirley had said, watching him sharpen his pencils—a clear disruption to the class following his tardy arrival.
“Get outta here,” her friend said.
“I’m gonna marry him,” Shirley reaffirmed. “He’s really cute.”
Half a century later, a much greyer but still handsome Jim pantomimes vomiting before taking another bite of his lunch at Alegre Calamar in Manglaralto, his hair pulled into a ponytail separated by four black hair ties. Shirley pretends to ignore him, but bursts out laughing instead.
“Sure as shit. That’s a true story,” Shirley smiles. “He was a badass. He had his cigarettes rolled up, comes into class late, white t-shirt—pocket-t. It was physical science.”
“I got married when I was a senior—17,” Jim says.
“You were just short of being 18,” Shirley adds. “I’m older than him. By a month. And, in all these years, he never let me forget it.”
“I was actually in seventh grade when we met,” Jim pokes fun at her.
She waves him off him, again. “It will be 47 years in June.”
They share a knowing glance—what it means is only clear to them. Both extremely self-aware people with a palpable bond, they are the prime example of a couple that shares certain interests while maintaining their independence and separate personalities.
She is a laugher who, self-admittedly, often finds herself sidetracked and distracted. He is more reserved and to the point, a man whose few words always carry a point, or a punch.
Through a half-century of love, friendship and raising two children, their dreams have ebbed and flowed. And at lunch, all that hints at their former life together is his long ponytail peeking out from his Snap-on cap, and her red Marlboro backpack.
The NASCAR Dream
Not long after Jim met Shirley, he found his second love.
“I started racing when I was probably 15, you know. I had to have a car to go to high school, and that’s when it all started,” he says. “That’s when I stopped and went, ‘Oooo.’ I was just trying to get it together, the mechanics of it, trying to learn how to keep stuff working.”
In the late 1990s, the couple saw their opportunity, and grabbed it. An acquaintance of theirs was selling a 1976 Camero he won at a raffle and, after giving racing a try, wasn’t into it.
“He gave us a smokin’ deal on it,” Jim says of the Super Stock. “And that was the downfall of the Seaton family as we know it.”
Shirley bursts out laughing. “Yeah, that’s where all our savings went. We had a great time. And I don’t regret it.”
Racing was a non-stop, full-time job for the Seaton clan, despite Shirley’s nine-to-five in customer service and Jim running a professional garage out of their home. Their son, James, was the star racer of the family—“He’d win everything he ran,” Shirley says, before her husband points out that she is being a bit modest.
She won two championships on the ladies dirt track, the first in 2001—their second full season—and again in 2004, just two of her 20-odd total wins.
“But when we won trophies, those were his trophies, he’d say,” Shirley points out. “His labor was free.”
“I did a lot of body work,” he says. “I did a lot of body work.”
“I never really hit anybody,” she insists. “I got hit.”
The Seaton clan had a routine. Before Shirley got into the car, she was in full gear: fire suit, helmet, gloves and shoes. Then, she would get in the driver’s seat and click into her five-point seatbelt, the team making sure she was properly “hunkered down,” Jim says.
They always double-checked her before the safety net went up and the engine roared to life.
“My son’d say, ‘Hey, just go out there and drive it like it’s your truck,’” Jim says. “Because that’s all you had to do, you didn’t have to do anything crazy.”
“He had it set up beautiful,” Shirley adds. “As soon as I’m in line ready to go out onto the dirt track, and do a couple warm-up laps, everything is completely gone in my brain except ‘drive this car.’”
If she started on the pole, she would try to stay out front. But if she wasn’t lucky during the draw, she would try to work her way up, slowly but surely. Racing is so much more than “just going left,” she explains. There’s the set-up, the track conditions and other drivers to worry about.
She was 50 years old when she won her first championship.
“I went, ‘Wow!’ I’m amazed that I could focus that hard, still at that age on something,” she laughs. “Really!”
Not every race was a success, to say the least. On one such occasion, Shirley was going for the win when the second-place car tagged her back end and spun her out.
“I was so pissed. I mean, really pissed. I was screaming in my helmet, ‘Who the “f” took me out?!’” she says. “And I’m hooked up on the tow truck being towed out and I’m a raving bitch.
“That night on the way home, I couldn’t believe I got so angry,” she continues. “And I told myself, ‘You will never act like that again or you have no business being in a car.’ It happens. It’s something that happened. I don’t care who did it, if they did it on purpose or not. But I made an idiot of myself—and that made me more mad after the fact.”
“You just pick up your losses and go,” her husband adds. “We’re not in this for just the weekend.”
For more than a decade, they poured anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 into racing every year. They were on the NASCAR track, they rationalized at the time, and the investment was worth the long hours, the physical toll and the stress.
The beginning of the end was in 2008. James was racing the Super Stock and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“Some guy made the wrong move and my son was right there and he ramped up on him. Car went about 35 feet in the air and came down. It looked like a pencil when it was done,” Jim shakes his head.
“That was horrifying,” Shirley recalls.
“The cage was good enough. The car was safe,” Jim says.
“He was fine. The car wasn’t, but he was fine,” Shirley says. “That’s how safe they built it. Anything they did with the race car, safety came first on all of it.”
Jim hesitates. “I’ve always said, ‘Safety third.’”
“Yeah, safety third. Spend money on the beer first, get a good motor second, and third, make sure that the thing’s safe.”
Shirley rolls her eyes and takes another sip of her Pilsner, which she split with Jim into two small plastic cups that they call “party hats.”
“Anyway, I took all the parts off the car and sold them, and took the rest to the junkyard,” Jim says. “I said, ‘I want you to take it in the back there and cut it up. I don’t want nobody getting a hold of this.’ Because the frame was bent but you could still fix it. I didn’t want this thing out there because I don’t know what cracked, what broke.”
It may have also been his pride talking. No one else was going to win in that car, either.
“That’s true,” Jim smirks. “But it sounds better …”
“I was gonna say, ‘It’s what you thought,’” his wife smiles.
“You’re right, you’re right,” Jim relents. “Hey, you know, there’s lots of secrets.”
The family continued racing with their Modified race car for several more years, until they decided to close shop. It wasn’t an easy decision.
“Looking back, there was no work to it,” Jim says.
“It was the passion. He loved doing it,” his wife adds.
“We all did.”
“Yeah, we all did.”
“It was so good, man, I’ll tell ya. I wouldn’t trade it for nothin’,” Jim says. “We thought we’d be racing NASCAR by now, but …”
Shirley nods, and shrugs. “It happened at the right time in our lives. That’s for sure.”
The Big Move
Three months was all it took for Shirley to quit her job and, with Jim’s help, pack up their life in Arizona.
It was time for them to go.
On December 29, 2014, Ecuador welcomed them with open arms and a bit of an adjustment period, the couple
admits. It was, essentially, back to basics—despite their luxurious concrete condo—and full-on immersion into a world they never knew existed.
“The people here, do you know what the minimum wage is here? $380 a month, and lunch is paid by the employer,” Jim says. “A lot of them don’t have windows and they don’t care for windows. But they all have a huge-screen TV. They may have a hole in the wall where you’d stick a window, but you don’t need one, you need ventilation to stay cool. They’re not worried about the bugs; they’ve already got that under control. On top of what you might call a shack, they have a DirecTV dish on it.
“The thing is, that’s where they put their money. That’s what makes them happy,” he continues. “There’s no keeping up with the Joneses here, because the other Joneses don’t give a shit either. We just don’t understand that. It’s taken me a year just to get used to it.”
Back at the condo, Jim gestures around his backyard. “This place here, I love it, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But it’s total excess—800 percent total excess. To live like they do, I would have to have my brain taken out and washed and put back in there so I can look at something in a different light.”
For the Seatons, life now is simpler, calmer, slower. Shirley still works in the service industry, she says, but the people in Ecuador are far less demanding than in the United States.
Here, the couple knows when to expect rain—when it’s cloudy and the breeze comes off the hills, instead of the ocean, Shirley says. They have come to expect nearly free health care—$40 total for an emergency room visit, a dentist and an eye doctor, as well as antibiotics. They know where to find the best food within walking distance, and they know how to take the local buses if they want to go farther, paying with Sacagawea coins that they call “tokens.”
And, perhaps most importantly, they have a “beer guy”—$7.40 for an entire case of Pilsner, the big ones. “That’s what it means to be a local,” Jim grins. If he could go back to his life in Arizona, he says he wouldn’t.
“I like this the best,” Jim says of Ecuador. “People want me to work on their cars, a few people that I know. But no, I don’t have any tools—well, I got some tools here. But you gotta see my tool collection, it’s unbelievable. I’ve been collecting since I was 15, so 50 years, you know. I’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tools in my garage at the house—mostly Snap-on.”
Of all the things they loved about racing, Jim and Shirley, who are both 64, gravitated to the family aspect of it all—and not just because they worked together, but because it brought their friends together, too. They were called “The Brew Crew.”
Watching Ecuadorian locals, Jim often finds himself taken with the family bonds here, too.
“You know, you see the people here, and they treat their kids like they’re a big ol’ hunk o’ gold,” he says. “They really want gold, but they love their kids and they treat them so well. And they’re so good to them. But when it comes a time, the kids are going to be taking care of the parents. And they remember all that stuff. They know what’s going on. It’s way cool.
“I remember sitting out there on our beach, just sitting there. It was kind of cloudy and I was waiting for the sunset, and here comes a family,” he continues. “They walk by and the old man is walking hand in hand with the little boy and he’s going, ‘Hola, hola.’ And then mom’s there and she’s holding two little hands—little, little girls—and a son and daughter were following both of them with a long piece of rope that was attached to all their flip-flops. And they were dragging that behind them.
“And they just looked over and he goes, ‘Hola, hola.’ And there’s just no effort. I can see it. When the parents are old, the kids are like, ‘Yeah, taking care of you. Piece of cake.’ It’s so cool here. It’s really good here.”
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