A Pandemic in Four Seasons
The place in question was somewhat distant from any road, situated on a little mountain that was quite pleasant to see with all its shrubs and trees decked out in their green foliage.
– Decameron by Giovanni Boccacio
March 2020 – Genesis
My wife Susan and I find ourselves homebound from the California desert, a visit foreshortened by Susan’s imminent hip surgery, but also by a need to shelter from the pandemic, a storm gathering since February, now threatening to break over us. Paradoxically, we’re driving toward pandemic ground-zero, the Seattle hot spot, assumed to be COVID’s genesis in the United States.1 But we’re not in Seattle yet. Tonight, we’re in San Jose, at a seafood restaurant, joined by our almost-thirty-year-old son, John, who lives in San Jose, a quick family get-together before Susan and I drive home. Shucked oysters with mignonette sauce. Ahi tuna. A bottle of California wine. Only one other couple dines here tonight and they sit across a sea of empty tables. A plague withdrawal has begun, although we don’t see it yet, and certainly not its ultimate darkness. We also don’t see that these will be the last oysters we’ll eat for over a year and the last time we’ll see John until September.
Latex gloves, alcohol disinfectant
We arrive in Seattle and park our Airstream Bambi travel trailer at Susan’s sister’s house. Katy hands us a plastic bag of disposable gloves and bottle of alcohol disinfectant. “You won’t find these anywhere,” she warns. “Not even Costco.” The pandemic has emptied store shelves. No toilet paper, no Kleenex, no paper towels. We drive from Katy’s to our Queen-Anne-Hill condo. The virus seems to have grayed the city. Pedestrians shuffle down the sidewalks, heads bowed, faces not yet masked (masks currently deemed unnecessary or at least unavailable except to front-line medical practitioners). Later we arrive at the Swedish Hospital Orthopedic Center for Susan’s hip-replacement, pre-surgery presentation. It has been canceled. Instead, they hand Susan a brochure and a web address. We’re to view the presentation online so as to avoid COVID exposure. Susan has other appointments to make: lab tests, her physician, her surgeon, her physical therapist, her dentist – dental procedures, it seems, can complicate hip surgeries.
This week, Washington State Governor Inslee declares our state “locked down” prohibiting all but “essential” work. Also, this week, our sailboat insurance broker sends us an email: our current carrier will exit the marine business; our policy will expire in thirty days. Without insurance, our marina can evict us. I call the broker, leave messages requesting another insurer, receive nothing back except an unapologetic voicemail: they have no suggestions. A new policy will necessitate a marine survey, which is a detailed inspection of the hull, rigging, and all other onboard systems, often requiring the boat be hauled out of the water. After a frantic online search, I find a potential policy. A survey will be required, but only an “in-water” survey, thus no boatyard haul-out. But are marine surveys considered “essential”? I find no consensus among my boat repair associates. Nobody knows what’s essential. The governor’s guidelines state that shipyards, as well as car mechanics, are permitted to perform “necessary repairs.” Our boat mechanic recommends a surveyor who might agree that retaining insurance is a necessary repair. I arrange for the survey to take place without my presence, since Susan and I will be in Seattle for Susan’s surgery. I don’t know this yet but I’m beginning the Pandemic Two-step, a dance that will characterize the next nine months in our ill-prepared-for-COVID society. Then, just a few days before her April 1st date, Susan receives a phone call: “elective surgeries” – surgeries like hers –– have been canceled. The pandemic is claiming all hospital beds.
April - One Hummingbird and Two Loons
Since Susan and I are both over sixty and therefore high risk, we decide to maroon ourselves on San Juan Island, in the State of Washington, only a dozen or so miles from the Canadian border. We own a house up there that fronts Friday Harbor, part of a group of three bodies of water—Puget Sound, the Juan de Fuca Strait, and the Strait of Georgia—that for the last decade or so, have been unofficially known as the Salish Sea.
Each morning, I sit in a rocker that faces the harbor, iPhone in hand, and read The Seattle Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. Light shimmers in ever-changing patterns; green and white Washington State ferries dock at the town landing; bald eagles soar over Brown Island—no two mornings are ever the same. Today a pair of loons swim back and forth in deliberate, black-and-white gravitas. Usually, I find this a peaceful moment. But for the last two weeks, my iPhone has been anything but peaceful. Headlines pop up: “How to Avoid the Forthcoming Economic Depression,” “The Sky is Really Falling,” “You Can Panic now,” all from usually responsible, moderate publications. I doubt it’s ever a good idea to panic, and isn’t the moral of Chicken Little that you should keep your head regardless of what you hear? So I count to ten. Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly.
In the meantime, the season marches on, oblivious to the plague.
We who live on the Salish Sea enjoy a long spring. Daffodils breast our gardens in February, yet summer doesn’t really begin until after the Fourth of July. If our spring days dawn with blue skies and golden sunrises, they often close rain-soaked and shaded gray. But by March, our trees and gardens bloom: the Japanese cherries in the Sunken Park across the street from the Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal blaze brilliantly pink, rivaling those of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.; the bumblebees in our front yard pollinate green-yellow blossoms of the madrone trees, so close in color to the madrone leaves you must look closely to notice they’re there. The daffodils that Susan’s father planted years ago, late bloomers, have just this week been thrusting aside the damp earth by the rail fence, evidence of another year gone by. And this spring, by some miracle, for the last ten days (otherwise days of pandemic despair) we have been gifted blue skies and rising temperatures.
We spend the warm afternoons on our back patio in the shade of the Douglas firs that tower over our house by a hundred feet or more. We sometimes feel we live in a treehouse, under a rain of needles and cones. These are the giants of the Salish Sea forests, rising high above their red cedar, hemlock, and Sitka spruce neighbors.
The combination of conifer forest and the shore-side habitat explains the variety of avian life in the Salish Sea. Some birds reside here year-round: gulls, great blue heron, mergansers, bald eagles, ravens, crows, kingfishers, Canada geese. Some are seasonal, like the loons I saw this morning. This week we saw our first hummingbird, likely a rufous, which migrates here to breed and nest in summer. We are witnessing the changing of the avian guard: loons giving way to the summer residents. I find this reassuring: nature’s heartbeat, pulsing season after season, year after year. It is healthful, I think, to turn off our iPhones, to quiet down, to listen and wait for the rest of the hummingbirds.
Canada, Movies, Old Vinyl
During our quarantine, we make several shore-side picnics to the island’s south and west sides where we share a bottle of wine and view the Olympic Mountains and the city of Victoria on Canada’s Vancouver Island; the Olympics rise abruptly from sea level to seven-thousand feet, summits saw-toothed and snow-covered. Even if we can’t get to Victoria now, with the US–Canada border closed, we can at least look.
Back at the house, we identify and watch movies and concert videos that have made us happy. We recently watched Yesterday, a 2019 film about an unsuccessful musician who wakes up in a world where only he remembers the music of the Beatles, and a favorite oldie, The Graduate. Susan has also begun to spin up her collection of vinyl LPs—playing the sixties and seventies favorites that shaped her Baby-Boomer identity. I’ve watched this ritual for years. What comforts me is how little it changes: Susan still slender, still golden-haired, although now with a hint of platinum, still fanning the albums on the counter as if she were playing a hand of cards. She loves the act of slipping the vinyl from their familiar album covers, placing each record on the turntable, delicately dropping the stylus on exactly the cut she wants to hear, and hearing even the scratches in the same spots where they’ve crackled for forty years.
May - Chernobyl
I’m reading Chernobyl, an account of the 1987 meltdown of the Soviet nuclear reactor in the Ukraine. I was once a US Navy nuclear engineer, and nuclear reactors interest me, especially reactor accidents – I lived and labored to prevent just such an occurrence. Last fall Susan and I watched the superb HBO dramatization of the Chernobyl incident. Now, reading the book, one scene in particular comes to mind; residents of the city adjacent to the reactor complex, stand on a railroad bridge at night, watching a column of light pulsing from the damaged reactor buildings. The light is due to Cherenkov radiation, radiation that is released if the reactor’s fuel rods are exposed, especially if the rods have cracked open, although the watchers, men, women, and children, don’t yet know that this has happened, nor do they know that invisible fission products, highly radioactive elements, released by the meltdown are raining on their heads. They can’t see radiation. They can’t feel it. They can’t smell it. In this, radiation is like the coronavirus. Invisible. Dangerous.
We have un-anchored from time. No next ferry to catch, no next trip to Seattle, no next houseguest, no next flight to Paris or the Bay Area or Hawaii. Without markers, specificity fades. We drift from day to day: a picnic lunch at South Beach, a Brown Island rowboat circumnavigation, a dock hosed down, the sailboat waxed, a garbage load trucked to the dump, a crab pot set in the harbor. These transactions occur without clock or calendar tyranny. We mark the days by what we read on our phones and computers of course; the pandemic, the election, both distant and ominous. Quarantine reshapes our lives. Our off-island purchases arrive at the post office. We shop for groceries during “elder hours” at the island supermarket, eight to nine am, during which time younger shoppers aren’t permitted inside. For restaurant dining, we order out: a white board at the supermarket lists the island’s dozen or so restaurants offering take-out. In the car, we carry sanitizer and rubber gloves. I wipe down the door handles and tailgate latch with alcohol every time we return home. I wash my hands so often Susan complains we’re running out of hand soap. I think my fingerprints may be vanishing. The distillery at Roche harbor, in addition to gin, has begun to distill sanitizer. We buy the gin.
Streaming and Zooming
We’re watching TV. A lot of TV. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney. We watch new series: “The Good Fight,” “Mrs. Maisel,” “Fleabag,” “Killing Eve.” We watch old series: “Friday Night Lights” (all four seasons). We watch new takes on old series: “Young Wallander” and “Young Inspector Morris.” We watch series in Italian, French, and Icelandic: “Detective DeLuca,” “Baptiste,” “The Valhalla Murders.” We watch old movies: “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Working Girl,” “The Russians are Coming.” We watch the finale of “Modern Family” and the quarantine version of “Saturday Night Live.” We dedicate one night to movies that only take place in Paris: “Lost in Paris,” Les Misérables,” “Midnight in Paris.” Some days, in the morning, neither of us remember what we streamed the night before.
We do our first Zoom calls with our families and a group of close friends. “Zoom-tini” they decide to call it. The sterile conversation. The bad light. The strained cheeriness. We decide we don’t like it.
The COVID infection curve begins to flatten. Susan’s surgery is rescheduled. She chooses the first day in June, the first day elective surgeries will resume. This triggers a redo of pre-surgery visits: her regular doctor (phone), her orthopedic surgeon (in person), her future physical therapist (phone), her dentist (in person), a redo of her lab work (in person). We head to the mainland for the first time since early March.
On the Washington State ferry, a crewmember, speaking over the ferry PA system, tells us the onboard galley is closed, seating areas have been “social distanced,” and masks are mandatory. We are to remain in our cars if at all possible.
On the mainland, in Anacortes, Everett, and Seattle, people slump when they walk, seem to wander aimlessly, need haircuts, wear blue jeans and gray and black sweaters or blue Seattle Seahawks sweatshirts, down parkas even when it isn’t cold, and everybody seems to have put on their oldest pair of running shoes.
June - BLM
Under COVID rules, I’m not allowed to remain at the hospital during Susan’s surgery. Instead, on June 1st, at five-thirty am, I drive her to Capitol Hill and drop her at the Swedish Hospital Orthopedic Center. A half-dozen other drivers are also dropping patients. The patients line up outside the door, social distanced, until the door is unlocked at six. I drive home, a gloomy, overcast June morning, why we Northwest locals call June, “June-uary.” Mid-morning, I receive a call. “The operation has begun.” I wonder if sitting at home might be better than a sterile waiting room. No TV monitor updates on Susan’s surgery progress. No waiting husbands or worried wives or fretful daughters and sons seated on vinyl couches. A couple hours later – it seems like days– Susan’s surgeon, Dr. C---, buzzes my cell phone. The surgery is a complete success. Susan has a new, titanium hip, one-quarter inch wider than her old hip. I wonder how Susan will feel about another quarter inch on her hip. (Pretty good, I will soon learn.) Two hours later, Susan calls me herself, happy and in high spirits. She reports that the patients are referred to by the names of the surgeons performing the operations. “They’ll release me tonight,” she says. “Pick me up after dinner.” What we don’t know, preoccupied as we’ve been with Susan’s operation, is that hell has broken loose on Capitol Hill. The George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests, have exploded. Windows breaking. Cars burning. Sirens wailing. Tear gas spraying. The hospital locks down. “You can’t get me until tomorrow morning,” Susan texts, an unhappy, overnight patient.
The week before Susan’s surgery, we take steps to deal with her post-operative recovery. Among these is a new chaise lounge – our living room couch would be too short to stretch out on and our normal stuffed chairs, post-op, uncomfortable and potentially slowing her recovery. Susan ordered a chaise lounge via the internet. The box arrives in the condo basement, a heavy box, as long as I’m tall. I need to get the box up two floors. Bill, our condo building manager offers to help. No thanks, I answer in a spirit of social-distancing and good citizenship. That decision is a bad decision. I barely manage to load the lounge on the condo refrigerator-mover dolly. I wheel it out the basement door, up the steep driveway. Then I struggle three steps up to the building side door. I tip the box off the dolly, brace it in the doorway so the door’s pneumatic closer won’t slam the door shut on the box, and I drag the box fifty feet across the carpeted hallway to our condo door.
Two weeks later, we prepare to return to San Juan Island. The chaise lounge will also make the trip. I call my brother Charlie.
Help! I plead. Susan’s chaise lounge is trying to kill me.
When Charlie arrives, I’m so glad to see him, without COVID forethought, I reach out to touch his hand. He’s the first person, not Susan, whom I’ve touched in three months.
We begin to form pods. First our friends from Oregon, Diane and Josh, who are also quarantining on San Juan Island. Then our nephew, Will, and his fiancé, Rachel, who check into a Friday Harbor hotel, and ask if we would mind a “social-distanced” visit. Do we mind? Hell no! We haven’t seen a niece or nephew (or our own son) for months.
We feed them outdoors on our deck, separate tables. We loan them our 1984 Ford truck, within which Will regales Rachel about island childhood rides with his siblings and cousins.
Then our friends Sandi and Peter return from Hawaii and we form a pod too. They invite us to dinner at their Lopez-Island home, masked and social distanced, and we discover that their new grandson, Becket, and their daughter and son-in-law are quarantining with them. More pod members. We assure each other that we are careful and that we’ve limited our contacts and that all the few friends that we do see are equally pandemic observant.
We have no idea if this is actually true.
Before we leave, Becket, in his grandfather’s arms, clasps his hand around one of my fingers. Human contact! The joy!
July - Seasons
We’ve owned our island house thirty years, never a full year in residence. Springs, we collected winter windfalls, emptied the gutters, cleaned the windows. Memorial Days, we hosted family and friends amid often fickle spring weather. Independence Days, we watched the town parade, barbequed burgers on our gas grill, watched the fireworks from our dinghies and boats. Augusts, we left the island entirely and sailed into British Columbia, not returning until Labor Day. During the short Salish-Sea Indian-summers, fog-shrouded mornings gave way to sunny afternoons when I’d row a skiff around Brown Island while Susan watched football, her cries of joy (or exasperation) ringing across the harbor. After Thanksgivings, we secured the well pump, drained the house water pipes, lowered the quilted curtains over the front-room windows, and dialed down the electric heat. We beached the outboard boats on their trailers and battened down the sailboat in its marina slip, in anticipation of a Salish-Sea wet and windy winters. But the seasons always felt disconnected, each unfolding in a separate, discrete frame.
This pandemic year, however, we have watched one season meld into another. Winter blow-downs have given way to spring conifer cones –brown, thimble-size, collecting in our gutters. Front porch rhododendrons burst into purple May glory. By June, the cedars and Douglas firs exhale golden pollen clouds, gathering on our decks, yellowing our pickup truck, collecting in the gunnels of the boats.
Now, in mid-July, needles rain from the drying Douglas firs so that each morning I must blow them off the patio and decks. On the hottest days, pitch spills from their branches, landing on handrails and furniture and unwitting victims like me who unfailingly seat themselves under their limbs.
The worldwide supply chain has broken. I order fenders from West Marine in early June. The fenders, the sales person informs me, are on back order from the manufacturer in Thailand. He has no idea when they might ship.
Thirty days later, the fenders arrive in Friday Harbor, but with only our house address (required by West Marine) and without the post office box number (required by the post office); the post office sends the fenders back to South Carolina, a new policy implemented by the Trump-appointee Post Officer General that forbids local post offices to cross-check with local addressees.
I call West Marine. They suggest I cancel the first set of fenders, order a second set of fenders, since fender inventories are running low and they can’t guarantee finding my returned first order. I reorder the fenders. West Marine ships the second set. I track the fenders across the country. The morning they are to arrive, I rush to the post office, where the post mistress informs me that, yes, the fenders did arrive that morning, but, once again, they lacked a post office box number, so, once again, they have been shipped back to South Carolina. When I return home, I call West Marine. The sales person determines that the West Marine shipping label printers cannot print a house address and a post office box number at the same time. She recommends we drop-ship the fenders to a mainland store in Anacortes and have the store call me when they arrive. I agree. But I receive no call for several weeks. Susan and I, on another errand to the mainland, visit the West Marine store in Anacortes.
“We sent them back to South Carolina,” a sales clerk tells us. “Because you never came in to collect them.”
“You didn’t call,” we insist.
As it turns out, they did call, but they called our land-line phone at our (unoccupied) Seattle condo.
Meanwhile, Susan has wandered over to the fender aisle, where she locates all four fenders, exactly what we ordered, not, it seems, having been returned to South Carolina after all.
My sister’s husband, D, immunocompromised and over seventy, has opted for a cautious path through the pandemic. Groceries are home delivered (my sister says she hasn’t visited a supermarket since March). Delivery people must conduct their business outside the house, if possible, and always at arm’s length. No grown children, son, daughters, nieces and nephews may enter the house. If anyone else visits, a six-foot separation is strictly observed and always outdoors. The result of this self-imposed quarantine, my brother-in-law reports, is that he hasn’t hugged his daughters for over five months. But this week, his daughters, his son, and their significant others have agreed to COVID test and self-isolate three days prior to a reunion. The reunion will take place on my brother-in-law’s sailboat and at our house in Friday Harbor.
Susan and I set out to make the house pandemic safe. We will treat their family and us as separate “pandemic pods.” Indoors, masking and minimizing. Outdoors social distancing. We set up separate “pod-specific” dining tables on our deck. We arrange the deck chairs in a “talking circle” so that members of different pods can seat themselves six-feet apart. Meals will be self-served, masked, buffet style.
Normally my brother-in-law is socially reserved, moderate in his emotions, restrained in his consumption of alcohol.
When his youngest daughter, Cate, arrives, she hugs him.
D. is visibly joyful. “Do you have any tequila?” he asks Susan.
Over the next couple hours, D. imbibes several large margaritas. We see a laughing, gregarious, uncharacteristic D., happy in the presence of his children, a desert flower bloomed after a long drought.
Later, returning to his sailboat, he steps from our dock onto his dinghy and plunges into the cold, Salish Sea water.
D. is still laughing.
Charlotte pulls him back aboard.
Since the pandemic began, I spend hours sitting in the living room rocker and watching the harbor. (Susan claims she periodically checks on me to see if I’ve had a stroke.) I’m trying to distill its elements: tides, wind, smells, sounds, light. How a still harbor mirrors the islands and the sky, doppelgangers from separate worlds. How on a bright, blowy day, waves break white, each wavetop gilded with light. How in summer, you can smell the iodine pong of the beach drying and the licorice tang of creosote warming on the seawall. How a ferry thrums me awake at dawn, or the sudden, Jurassic croak of a great blue heron shatters a night’s stillness. But it’s the harbor light that eludes me. I make a list of its colors: blues, greens, reds; grays, umbers, oranges. My list doesn’t capture the harbor-color essence. I decide to tie colors to the nature of the days. How on an overcast day the harbor is drained of light, the colors metallic: silvers, charcoals, platinum, slates. How on summer mornings, tangerine clouds parade across the sky, their images replicated on the harbor surface. How sunsets can be copper, peach, and crimson. How by late summer, we wake to milky vapors of a fog-shrouded morning.
For the thirty years we’ve owned our house harborside. Have I ever really seen the harbor colors? Is this a pandemic gift, slowing time down, creating an opportunity to comprehend the miracle of light?
For the last thirty summers, in August, we’ve sailed into Canada, to Desolation Sound, at the head of the Salish Sea, where Vancouver Island necks into the British Columbia Mainland, a paradise of fiords, warm-water bays, horned peaks, and forested islands. Most of these years, my sister’s family has joined us, two sailboats in a family fleet. For all August, we rafted the boats together, shared meals together, laughed together, argued together, hiked to island lakes together, water-skied and wake boarded together, swam below mountain glaciers and all-season snowfields together. I have always treasured this time, disconnected from the travails of the world, no newspapers allowed, a time to immerse ourselves in boat basics: Is the anchor holding? How strong are the tides and currents? Is foul weather forecast? What hour will the sun set or the moon rise?
This year, the week after Independence Day, sitting in Allurea’s cockpit, I finally realize that the USA-Canada border will not open in 2020. For the first time, the weight of the pandemic falls on something I really want to do, a weight other people have borne from the beginning and at much higher cost than a missed sailing vacation.
I break into tears.
I email my sister. What can we save from our annual sailing adventure? We decide to voyage on the US side of the border. The boats will provide a haven from the pandemic as long as we don’t hang out in crowded marinas. We’ll be outdoors, at anchor, apart from other boats, with family who social distance as we do. Even so, the intimacy of past voyages– shared meals, birthday parties, cockpit cocktails, and dinghy rides – will be mitigated. We negotiate a pandemic protocol: our adult children, if they join us, will test for the virus three days prior to arriving onboard. No visitors from the other crew will be allowed below-deck, no shared meals, cocktails topside only, and crews dispersed.
So we do this. Two voyages. A week apart.
One to Stewart Island, where we raft in Prevost Harbor, hike (Susan and I) to the old lighthouse, observe the island yaks at the head of the county dock, mask up when others pass us on the trail. The summer has been dry and the trail is dusty and hardpacked under a canopy of conifers. We reach the trails end at the lighthouse. A docent lectures two hikers at the lighthouse door. We forgo stepping into its shadows, content to sit on the grass and watch the current surge around the island’s rocky point.
Our next anchorage is in West Sound on Orcas Island, where Susan and I celebrate our wedding anniversary anchored alone as lightning dances across the western sky. Later we’ll discover that this storm ignited fires on the Olympic Peninsula, which will be burning days later, but on this night, the night of our anniversary we’re unaware of its consequence.
We next voyage to Fossil Bay on Sucia Island, where we moor separately from my sister’s boat, hike separately to Echo Bay, and count the boats (over one hundred), anchored below Mt. Baker’s snow-and-ice-covered cone. It seems that others have also opted for a San Juan Island summer cruise.
But none of this is Desolation Sound. No swimmable water, no fiords, no intimacy of meals together. The pandemic prevails, omnipresent, uncertain, shadowing even the brightest days.
September - Escape
My brother Charlie and his wife Patsy have decided to hit the road. They’ve made reservations at two Olympic National Park Campgrounds on the Washington coast. Would we be interested in joining them?
My brother and I have camped our entire lives on the Olympic Peninsula. Kalaloch, La Push. Twin Harbors. We grew up leaping log to log on the driftwood piles that back the sand beaches, the logs silvered by sunlight, salt, and winter storms. We drew baseball diamonds and touch football end zones in the sand and organized our younger siblings into teams. We camped under wind-sculpted pines and Douglas firs, climbed the pinnacle rocks that stood as sentinels against the Pacific, waded and surf-fished in the cold. breaking waves. The shore was home for us.
But this ocean-beach journey will offer something new. Our first post-pandemic camping trip – our first pandemic trip anywhere!
My brother and I own Airstream travel trailers, a layer of safety unavailable to other modes of travel: no motels necessary; no restaurants; campsites social-distanced from neighbors; and, if we dine together, we’ll dine outside. We agree to rendezvous at Rialto Beach in the Olympic National Park, then travel down coast to Kalaloch Campground before returning home.
We follow US101 through Port Angeles. Trump signs post in rural lots; Trump flags flutter from pickup truck antennas. We enter Olympic National Park at Cresent Lake, a natural lake set below a rugged mountain landscape; a lake that reminds me of Swiss and Italian alpine lakes, and like those, a remnant of ice-age glaciology. The far shore, only a mile or so distant from the highway, can barely be seen. Fires ignited here two weeks ago still burn, lit by the same lightning Susan and I watched on our wedding anniversary evening. A smoky pall descends over the highway. We stop at a supermarket in Forks. Half the shoppers cruise the aisles unmasked, our first encounter with a what will become a pandemic/political flashpoint. At Forks, we leave US101 for the coast.
The road passes through logged-off clear cuts. The smoke-dim sky takes on a sulphury cast. Most of the land here belongs to logging companies and Native-American tribes. When we encounter houses, they’re small, wooden, cedar-shingled roofs green with moss, barely holding off the rain forest that surrounds them. There’s no sign of the National Park or the ocean. Have we chosen the correct road? Will our campground be crowded? Have travelers forgone air travel and hotels for national parks as the media reports?
The answers turn out to be an emphatic “Yes!” We are suddenly in the park, alongside the Quillayute River rather than the Pacific Ocean. Without reservations, no sites would have been available, even though this particular campground lies hundreds of miles from Seattle and Portland.
We wedge our Airstream into a spot almost too small. (Charlie and my sister-in-law have already set up camp across the road in a much roomier site.) I haven’t seen Charlie since June and Patsy since last Christmas Eve. We stand in the road, six-feet apart, trying to ignore the fact that we haven’t, as we usually do, thrown our arms around each other.
The next morning, we drive to Rialto Beach. The town of La Push, across the river has quarantined itself from all non-members of the Quileute Indian tribe. Sixty years ago, Charlie and I camped in La Push with our parents and siblings. Dad rented an aluminum runabout, strapped his ten-horse Johnson Seahorse outboard motor to the stern, and ventured tentatively out onto the Pacific where the little boat rose and fell on giant swells. We hurriedly returned to the stillness and peace of the river. I recall seeing few people. The town consisted of a half-dozen streets, twenty or so small, single-story houses, a riverside dock with fishing boats but no fishermen. The smelt were running. Charlie and I cast treble hooks into the river to snag them, returning with buckets full of bleeding fish. “What are you going to do with them?” Mother asked, disinclined, it turned out, to cook smelt in a camp trailer.
Today license plates in the Rialto Beach parking lot advertise states thousands of miles distant: Texas, Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida. There are so many cars we barely manage to find a space. Forest-fire smoke hangs over the ocean so the sea and sky merge together at a not-so-distant horizon. The surf breaks in glassy waves against a cobbled beach. Haystack rocks stand to the north, beyond which a forested headland rises. To the south, more pinnacles guard the mouth of the river. Driftwood backs the beach. Behind the beach, the land rises into a dense Douglas fir, spruce, and cedar rainforest.
We dodge dozens of walkers on a beach that, in past years, was always deserted.
Because of the smoke, but also because of the people, an aura of apocalypse hangs over everything and everyone, as if we’re all refugees, caught in an urban diaspora. We are, of course, affluent refugees. Our gear – our tents, parkas, cook stoves, recreational vehicles, even automobiles and pickup trucks – is new, only recently, delivered from an Amazon warehouse or driven off a dealer’s lot.
Over the next ten days, as Susan and I extend our trip down the coast and then along the Columbia River into Eastern Washington, we discover that despite the pandemic, we feel safe from the virus. But we also discover that we’re traveling through a half-open, COVID-constrained world, take-out food only, closed restrooms, venues masked.
October - Friluftsliv
Until the pandemic, I’d never heard the term Friluftsliv, a word coined in 1859, supposedly by the Norwegian writer and playwright, Henrick Ibsen that loosely translates as “free air life,” a practice that informs its adherents on ways to stay warm and dry while living life outdoors, especially during inclement weather – parkas, rain jackets, gloves, earmuff hats, snow boots, insulated pants; propane heaters, firepits, wood stoves.
The pandemic has precluded our annual fall trip to warmer climes, and will also preclude our winter pastime of alpine skiing. Could Friluftsliv mitigate these life-style losses?
As it turns out, pandemic supply chain frailty will collide with our Friluftsliv desires.
One of our patio heaters fails. My initial response is pre-pandemic: order a new one. I check Costco, Lowes, Home Depot, Ace, and Amazon: no heaters are available. Demand, especially from restaurants, has vacuumed inventory. Even replacement parts are hard to find.
Susan suggests I wait until spring.
We don’t need heaters in spring, I point out. We need heaters in winter.
I resolve to repair the heater myself even though I don’t consider myself adept at repairing anything. I track down the distributor in Florida, (the customer service tech who answers my call may actually be in India). The tech suggests a couple of U-Tube videos on how to repair a heater. He sends me an email with their addresses, the thermocouple and tip-over switch part numbers, and a couple of grainy, pdf photos of a disassembled heater.
The videos consist of two old guys about my age who speak in southern drawls. The first guy recommends disconnecting the heater’s “tip-over” protection. “You shouldn’t do this,” he adds, “but our grandchildren are grown. We don’t need it.” The second man demonstrates how to disassemble a heater that may or may not be the same brand as ours. After he installs a new thermocouple, he hooks up his disassembled heater to a bottle of propane and lights it off to test the repair on his garage workbench. Hello fire department!
The patio heater website lists two different thermocouples, only one of which has been recommended by the service tech. Neither crosscheck to the part number of our heater. I know I should take the heater apart, inspect the thermocouple, and match it to the proper part, but the heater disassembly is daunting – too many sheet-metal screws, too much carbonization and corrosion, no photos or directions for reassembly. Instead, I order the parts as specified by the Indian customer service tech. When they arrive, I take the heater apart, a multi-hour process that scatters screws and blackened sheet-metal pieces across my garage workbench; the new thermocouple, as it turns out, is the wrong thermocouple.
I call the company in Florida, and this time get an American, female voice.
“We’ll expedite your thermocouple, sir,” she says, “Just return the wrong part.”
Two days later, the right thermocouple arrives.
The problem with propane appliances is that dangerous elements exist in close proximity to each other: a flame and an explosive gas. Unlike the U-Tube video handyman, I’m not going to fire up a partially disassembled heater in my garage. So, after I install the new parts, I reassemble the heater in its entirety, even though one forgotten-to-be-installed part remains on the workbench: an electrical wire clamp, about the size of a dime. I have no idea what it clamps. I decide to test the heater anyway.
I wheel the heater out of the garage and into the center of our back patio. I grab a fire extinguisher. I hook up a propane bottle to the heater regulator. Then, with trepidation, I open the propane bottle valve, turn the temperature control dial to the light-off position, press the control button to override the thermocouple, and, with my other hand, cycle the red ignition button while holding the control button depressed. A flame flares in the heater basket. I release the control button after thirty seconds. I hear a reassuring crackle.
Houston, we have ignition!
I’m dumping garbage cans at the island recycle station when I overhear a conversation. “I’m worried the election’s going to be stolen.” It’s the station’s heavy-equipment operator talking to another customer.
Stolen? What’s with stolen? Nobody has even voted yet.
This is the first time I hear this trope.
Later I’ll realize that what I heard was a myth birthing, propagandized on radio stations and TV networks that I never listen to, by a candidate who already suspects he’s about to lose.
The election discomfits me almost as much as the pandemic discomfits me. I watch it with a wary eye, distrusting the polls I want to believe, sending my modest donations to various Senate candidates. The pundits predict that we won’t know the winner until several days after election night, this because the pandemic is altering voter behavior: more absentee ballots, more voting early. What’s more, these ballots will be tallied at different times from state to state. Some prior to election day (Ohio). Others after the polls close (Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia).
Election eve draws to a close. Counting begins. The pundits were right. We don’t know who won.
For the next week, Susan and I glue ourselves to CNN. We watch at home. We watch in the car. We watch on the ferry. We come to see that what we’re watching is the best aspect of our American democracy: citizen election workers patiently counting votes, ignoring the cacophonous “stop-the-steal” demonstrators outside their courthouses and high-school gymnasiums.
The networks call a winner.
We breathe again.
November - Surge
The pandemic turns worse. The disease, abated over the summer, is surging. The Thanksgiving we planned with John, driving to the Bay Area, towing our Airstream, may be in jeopardy. Will California lockdown? Will campgrounds, RV parks, and supermarkets even be open?
We opt for a phased plan: we’ll head south to Cape Disappointment State Park, on the Washington side of the Columbia River, and assess the situation from there.
We find a campsite in Cape Disappointment State Park, on the Long Beach Peninsula, at the mouth of the Columbia River.
The rain stops. The sun comes out. We buy take-out lunch and dine in our new Jeep2 while parked on the beach, the longest beach in North America where you’re allowed to drive a car. I photograph seagulls clustering together against the ocean wind. We check our phones. Listen to the radio.
The West Coast is locking down.
There’ll be no California family Thanksgiving this year.
Another pandemic casualty.
December – Charlie-Brown Christmas Tree
Because of the surge, authorities in Seattle recommend we not gather for holiday events. We decide to remain on San Juan Island, which will be, in any case, a safer refuge given the island’s low COVID infection rate.
We revive an old Christmas tree stand and a dusty box of Christmas ornaments from our Friday Harbor garage left over from when John was pre-school age and we decorated the island house and our Seattle house. We drive into town to buy a tree. After visiting two nurseries and one supermarket, we discover Christmas trees are in short supply.
Is this a pandemic supply chain problem or something else?
We’ve begun to suspect something else: not fewer trees but more tree customers. We are accustomed to seasonal swings in island population - lots of people in summer, nobody here in winter – but this year the “summer people” have stayed.
At Ace Hardware we find a last tree. A five-foot Douglas fir, flat on one side, crooked at the top, a Charlie-Brown special. We take it home, set it up, string it with the lights, decorate it with one, large, red ball.
January 6, 2021
I am typing an early draft of this essay when “Breaking News!” flashes from my phone:
I tune into CNN just in time to see a snarling, flag-waving mob push aside barriers and storm the U.S. Capitol. Susan and I watch in horror as rioters scale the Capitol’s walls, carry firearms up its steps, break its windows, force open its doors, attack the police officers who are struggling to hold them at bay. I feel physically sick. As a young naval officer, I visited the Capitol as part of my duties. (I was helping draft a law to pay bonuses to nuclear-trained officers). Each time I entered the Capitol building, I never lost my sense of wonder and reverence for what it represented, a people’s government, in which I served, embodied in a Constitution I’d sworn to protect.
Two weeks later another ceremony will transpire on these same steps, the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris but on January 6th, it feels to me as if the stain of this day may never be fully cleansed.
Vaccine Chapter 1 – Angst
The vaccines are coming.
The only thing clear is that vaccines in January, 2021 will be in short supply.
The authorities bumble through several days of contradictory guidance. Medical providers only? Immuno-compromised? Over seventy or over sixty-five? In institutions for elder care? What about elders cared for in your own home? What does “care” even mean?
Slowly rules emerge.
Washinton State creates a website. You enter your particulars (age, immuno-compromises, status as an elder-care provider or health-care provider). If you’re eligible, the site issues a downloadable certificate necessary to book a vaccine appointment. Because I’m over seventy (sixty-five is the cutoff in our state), I’m immediately eligible. (Susan is not.)
The site provides a list of vaccine providers by geographic area. No sites list on San Juan Island. I shift my search to Seattle. I find a dozen or so providers. One hospital, Overlake offers appointments only for second shots (why second? Isn’t everybody still getting firsts?). Several others offer appointments solely for members of their own insurance programs. Two list a phone number and no other information. I call both, leave messages, receive no reply. Safeway and CVS drugstores have sites but no vaccines. Finally, I find an appointment at a Virginia Mason Clinic. I sign up for Saturday next. Susan books a Friday ferry.
Friday evening, 8pm, sipping a glass of wine in our Seattle condo, I receive an email. My appointment has been canceled. No reason cited. No action specified.
If there’s a personal low point in my Pandemic Year One, this is it.
Vaccine Chapter 2 – Shangri La
We return to the island where I resume my vaccine appointment search.
I discover that Kaiser Permanent, our medical insurance provider, now lists itself as having vaccines. I fill out the Kaiser online form. Kaiser responds that I’m vaccine eligible and links me to a vaccine appointments page. When I click the appointment box, it takes me to general appointments, not vaccine appointments. The site asks if I have COVID symptoms. I repeat this click-route several more times with the same result – no way to get a vaccine appointment but ok to book a COVID appointment– so I book a COVID appointment, stating under “symptoms” that I don’t have any, I just want the vaccine.
In less than an hour, a Kaiser physician’s assistant calls. “This isn’t the way you get your vaccine,” she says
I explain the Kaiser vaccine appointment roadblock.
She seems surprised. “I’ll get back to you,” she says.
An hour later I get a message. The system is “buggy,” she reports, but she has overridden it so I can book my appointment.
I feel like she handed me a ticket to Shangri La!
Vaccine Chapter 3 – Long Acres Race Track and Mama Yamaguchi’s Beans
I book an early Sunday morning appointment for January 31st – the first available– at Kaiser’s Northwest Region Headquarters located south of Seattle.
The area is called the Kent valley and I used to know it well. I grew up on a hill a few miles west of the valley. I picked beans here on Mama Yamaguchi’s farm on the day of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident took place, which escalated the Viet Nam War, in which I would, six-years later, serve as a naval officer. A river snakes down the valley and changes its name from Green River to Duwamish River right about where the Kaiser buildings stand today. I fished for steelhead in this river, paddled a homemade canoe down-river to the Boeing Company headquarters. My mother drove us to our medical appointments crossing the river and passing the Long Acres horse-racing track, closed years ago and now the site of the Kaiser complex. My father taught me how to drive here on what were then farm-country roads. Now the racetrack is gone and the Yamaguchi farm is gone and the valley is cloaked in warehouses, office buildings (like the Kaiser complex), shopping malls, and secret Boeing defense plants.
We depart for Kaiser an hour early. I want to be on time. There’s no traffic on Interstate 5. We arrive three-quarters of an hour early. The complex consists of a half-dozen modern, three-story, glass-and-steel buildings. Freshly posted signs guide us to vaccine parking lots. The doors to my vaccine building are still locked. A few elderly people huddle outside. Cars arrive as we wait, discharging more elderly people. A significant minority are sari-clad Indians, old men in Mongolian hats and down parkas, elderly Chinese couples, some escorted by sons, daughters, grandsons or granddaughters, employees, I assume, of Microsoft, Amazon, and Google who drove the cars that brought them here. I notice a badged Kaiser woman unlocking the door. I swing out of our Jeep, bid Susan farewell, and join the social-distanced line thronging the entrance. A sign warns us that if we have COVID symptoms, we should go home and return another day. A young woman masked and wearing a Kaiser tee-shirt instructs us to follow the yellow line on the floor until we find an unoccupied circular marker. I find my marker adjacent to an automatic glass door where I can view the vaccination check-in desk and monitor the twenty or thirty people on markers ahead of me. We begin to move, marker to marker. I reach a desk where another young woman welcomes me, checks my Kaiser ID number, confirms my drivers-license identity, verifies my appointment time, hands me a paper that I’m to read and sign (I would sign anything), and waves me through a door and down a hallway, still following the yellow line. I enter a large, high-ceilinged, brightly-lit room, maybe a pre-pandemic cafeteria. Across the room, fronting a row of floor-to-ceiling windows, stand a series of desks with two chairs each, each desk topped with a computer monitor, one chair occupied by a masked nurse. A Kaiser person guides me to a desk. I sit down. The nurse welcomes me, confirms my ID, asks my birthdate, takes the vaccine release form.
On the desk in front of me, a row of small glass vials gleam under the room’s bright light.
At this moment I experience an epiphany.
What I’m looking at, these tiny gleaming vials, are the epitome of our civilization, the best it can achieve in its science, its ingenuity, its education, its ability to marshal resources across continents. I’m filled with joy. I struggle to hold back tears.
“You’re a Pfizer,” the nurse says. She pricks my arm. And just like that – I’m first-dosed!
As I leave the room, still following a yellow line, another person hands me a sticky badge imprinted with the time of my vaccination and a post-vaccination info sheet. “You’ll need to wait fifteen minutes,” he says, “so we can confirm no adverse reaction.”
I enter a waiting room filled with couches and stuffed chairs. The decibel level is notably higher than in line earlier this morning. After fifteen minutes, a young man wearing an EMT sweatshirt asks how I feel.
I feel great!
“You’re free to go.”
I head for the car. I’m floating across the parking lot. I open the door.
“Congratulations!” Susan says. “Let’s go find champagne!”
Second Dose Denouement
On February 21st I receive my second dose.
Susan, however, who won’t be sixty-five until August and who, unlike some we know, follows the vaccine priority rules, remains ineligible. This doesn’t deter her from making plans.
“We’ve got to go someplace,” she insists.
The place she has in mind is Hawaii. Our summer pod-mates, Sandi and Peter, have a home on the Big Island. They’ve invited us to visit.
Hawaii has strict pandemic rules. You must register in the Hawaii contact tracing program before you visit. You must perform a PCR test three days before boarding your flight, use only Hawaii approved labs for the test, and test negative. You will be tested again when you land. You will be required to report where you’re staying. (Some islands – not the Big Island – require you to quarantine in specific hotels for a specified number of days before you can roam about the island, and to be tested if you travel from another island.) You must carry your Hawaii approved test results and present it when you rent a car, check in to a hotel, and (apparently) anytime anybody in Hawaii wants to see it.
I’m unwilling to fly until I complete the ten-day waiting period when the second dose becomes fully effective. And I’m worried about unvaccinated Susan. Worrying about Susan, however, never deters Susan. Susan majored in microbiology at the University of Washington and she’s no virus or vaccine denier but she’s also disinclined to deny herself a fully lived life. Why thirty-five years ago she insisted I take a job in Hong Kong before I’d really made up my mind, why she skis well (and fast), why she drives well (and sometimes too fast), and why she’s forever game to pack her bag and hit the road.
So, we decide to go to Hawaii.
Susan books our flights, first class out, economy plus back. I book the Westin Hapuna Beach for the second week of our island stay (the room fee, for some reason, increasing twenty percent for the last two days of our stay).
March – Pandemic in Paradise
March 11th and we’re on our way to the airport, a late afternoon flight to the Big Island of Hawaii. The SeaTac terminal feels haunted: empty of people, security lines short, like a midnight red-eye circa 1995. Our airplane crew is masked. So are we. First class is full, economy less than half. The five-hour trip is uneventful. We arrive after dark. Normally the Kona/Kailua open-air terminal would be full of travelers even at this late hour. Tonight, except for our flight, no other passengers are here. A hazmat-suited medic crew screens our Hawaii pandemic registration and administers a COVID quick test. Susan and I test negative and quickly process through. Only one other couple waits for the rental-car bus. The car agencies have consolidated, only a couple buses, a couple offices. We show our negative COVID test to a masked clerk. She assigns a car. We find its door taped shut, to reassure us, a sticker proclaims, that the car has been virus decontaminated. It’s almost midnight. The drive to Sandi and Peter’s crosses several black lava flows. The headlights of the other cars and the white lines of the highway are all we can see. Sandi and Peter have left the door unlocked. We cart our luggage into the guest room. Blossom sweetened air engulfs us.
Aloha! Welcome to paradise!
We wake to the cries of mynah birds and the gobble of wild turkeys. Rain patters against the roof, not so common here. The house is sited on the driest, leeward side of the island. The lawn and the coconut palms require irrigation. It’s about a mile from the ocean, and three hundred feet up the flank of an extinct volcano, Kohala, one of six volcanoes that created the Big Island). The house faces the ocean. If you sailed due west, the first land you’d encounter would be southern China. You can sit on a lanai couch and watch humpback whales broach and hear them crash as they plunge back into the sea. To the south you can see the arc of shore where most of the big resorts lie amid lava flows and golf courses and in the lee of Hualalai, another extinct volcano; on a clear day, you can even see the snowy summit (in winter) of Mauna Loa, by mass, the largest mountain on the planet.
We’ve been coming here each winter for the last seven winters. Sandi and Peter have introduced us to their favorite routines: island-style gourmet meals prepared by them, Huli-huli chicken from the local barbeque stand, fresh seafood from The Fish Store in Kawaihai, paddle boarding every other morning followed by fruit smoothies, sunning on the beach, swimming just beyond the surf break, whale-watching from their Grady-White speed boat, six o’clock cocktails on the lanai while waiting to spot the sunset “green flash.” Susan and I replenish the house wine and gin supply when we arrive, pick up additional food items, and take Sandi and Peter out to a dinner as often as they let us. This year, we learn, many restaurants are closed, others have restricted seating, and those that are open are booked weeks out. On our first-morning shopping mission, we discover the resort malls half-closed, supermarket social distancing less than at home, clerks masked but the customers mostly not. The huli-huli chicken barbeque stand has moved to Kamuela where it caters to locals rather than tourists.
We share our airport and rental car experiences. Sandi and Peter report island pandemic vicissitudes: COVID infection rates low; hotel occupancy down; long-term vacation rentals up; beaches, to the locals’ delight, tourist free; vaccine rollout more deliberate than back on the mainland with medical personnel and elders over seventy-five prioritized. Peter, almost as old as I, received his first shot only recently. During our visit, Sandi will finally be eligible for hers.
At the beach club, we mask up when we pick up towels. During lunch at Westin Hapuna’s poolside café, several days before we check in, we find the café half empty, the tables less the usual number. Peter, who is rehabilitating from knee surgery, invites me to exercise at the beach club gym. I demure: stationary cycling indoors seems a bad idea even though I’m fully vaccinated.
What we’re learning is this: the pandemic prevails in paradise.
After seven days with Sandi and Peter, we check in to the Westin Hapuna Beach Hotel.
Lobbies high-ceilinged, atriums open air, breezeways to rooms, staircases that sweep down to pools (swimming and otherwise), fountaining water, rainbows of blossoms, palm fronds rustling, trunks arching, walls artfully cast in concrete, galleries displaying South-Sea paintings, shops proffering luxury beachwear.
Not unattractive. Not cozy either.
But this year, this Pandemic year, the Westin, like the rest of the planet, operates under COVID protocols. Lobby shops closed except for a single convenience store selling bottled water, suntan lotion, dark glasses, and logo t-shirts. No valet parking. Masked receptionists who verify PCR tests (in our case, already ten days old) while enumerating COVID rules: Rooms cleaned only three times a week, dinner seating by reservations only; elevators solely shared with family members; room service delivered by cart outside your room door, all payments and tips by credit card, no cash.
“What about the bellman?”
“For bellman,” the receptionist answers, “we have a machine that will sanitize your cash.”
I self-park our rental car while Susan completes our check in.
Our room faces the ocean beyond a sea of coconut palms. Trade wind stirs the fronds, which flash green, silver, and gold in the afternoon sunlight. To the south Hualalai Volcano rises. We have our own balcony; with the curved face of the building, we can’t see our neighbors. When the bellman delivers our luggage, we ask for ice (all the self-service machines have been COVID-closed). An hour later ice arrives, apologetically delivered with an explanation that the hotel is “seriously short of staff.” We have noticed this. On our first afternoon, we see fewer people, both guests and staff, than we would normally see were this a normal year.
We assume our tropical resort routine. Morning walks along Hapuna Beach, setting a day camp under a hotel beach umbrella, lunch at the poolside grill, afternoon swims, evening cocktails watching for the “green flash” from our room balcony.
For the remainder of our stay, day by day, hour by hour, we’ll watch the Westin Hapuna Beach grow crowded, a tropical travel eruption fired by a volcanic desire to do something, anything, rather than sit home in quarantine. Want a beach or pool umbrella? Better set out your towel at seven am. Ride an elevator? Prepare to stand in line. Dinner reservation? You’ve got to be kidding. College spring-breakers crowd the poolside bar. School-age children take over the pool. What they have in common, as do most of the younger adults, is that they can’t possibly be vaccinated. We don’t recognize it yet but we’re at the cusp of what will be periodic pandemic cusps, where the pandemic turns, or our perceptions of the pandemic turns.
April 2021 – Decameron
Twelve months ago, a few days into our island quarantine, Susan ordered Boccaccio’s Decameron from the Friday Harbor bookstore. At the time, pandemic book recommendations were sweeping the media. The Plague by Camus, Blindness by José Saramago, A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. Foremost among these was Decameron.
I’d read Decameron at the Naval Academy in Professor Potter’s Senior Year Literature class.3 It tells the tale of ten wealthy young adults, seven women, three men, who flee Florence at the height of the Black Death and take refuge in a series of estates outside the city. To entertain themselves, they tell each other stories, ten stories each day, told by one of the group members, over a period of fifteen days.
l was eschewing anything, books, movies, or TV series that spoke about pandemics. The daily news was enough pandemic for me. What Susan recognized, and I didn’t then see, was that Decameron is less about a plague, more about quarantining from a plague. Decameron was about what Susan and I were doing.
We had come to our island to get out of the way from the virus, and, by doing so, had left behind our families and closest friends. As with Boccacio’s Florentines, stories helped fill a social void. Stories came to us via Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max. Others from our extensive DVD movie collection. More from books we ordered. But some were dredged from our past. An NPR/BBC radio broadcast of The Lord of the Rings that we listened to when we first moved in together.4 Camcorder recordings of John as a baby and toddler. DVDs of our family trips to Paris, Venice, Dublin, London, and Rome. Readings from our sailboat logs and from Susan’s spreadsheets recounting forty years of travel.
But another story was birthing, the story of our pandemic year, just as Boccacio’s Florentines created their story as they traveled from one estate to another. We were making a story of our pandemic lives, by Susan’s journaling of the movies we watched, the meals we ate, who called us, and whom, in turn, we called. And by me writing this essay. And what did this story tell us?
That we had an island refuge, when most others who quarantined did not, that we had time without other obligations and thus an opportunity to experience the world in a slower, more sensory way, that for those we most loved, we figured out a way to connect, that we had reserves of resilience greater than we knew, and that we lived life rather than putting life on hold. Above all, that we were very, very fortunate in a place “… pleasant to see with all its shrubs and trees decked out in their green foliage.”
The pandemic didn’t end with my second shot. It didn’t end in Hawaii. It didn’t end with Susan’s second shot. It hasn’t ended yet. The pandemic evolved triggering confusion, rising expectations, busted hopes, “break-through COVID,” Greek-alphabet mutations, mask-mandate angst, Zoom schooling versus in-class schooling, phantasmagorical theories of vaccination conspiracies, Summer and Winter Olympics bubbles, rising infection rates, falling infection rates, more deaths, less deaths, twists, turns, and unexpected cusps, no back to “normal,” always something unexpected.
Pandemic Year 2 was not “normal” but it wasn’t Pandemic Year 1 either. In Year 2 Susan and I would travel to the Southwest twice and the Rocky Mountains once. We would visit nineteen National Parks, Monuments, and Recreation Areas,5 four of the five American deserts,6 eight states,7 and five major metropolitan areas.8 We would attend three weddings, host one family reunion, entertain ten houseguests, caravan RVs with both my brothers and my sisters-in-law, and see John over several weeks. Not normal. Not quarantine either.
We don’t know how the pandemic will end.
But we do know this: Pandemic Year 2 will have its own seasons, its own places, its own stories.
1 Later it will be determined that the virus landed in multiple locations via multiple avenues at more or less the same time.
2 As so many Americans have or soon will do in the pandemic, we have purchased a new Jeep Grand Cherokee (apologies to the Cherokee Nation), a redirection of family spending from restaurants, air travel, plays, and movie theatres, to things.
3 The Academy required all seniors to take a literature course during our last semester – I guess the idea was to add a little literary polish to our mostly technical education, (although once in the fleet, I don’t ever recall being required to discuss literature at any wardroom meals). Unlike all the rest of our courses, we were allowed to choose a specific professor and his particular selection of literature.
4 We subsequently found the BBC radio theatre on cassette tapes at a cultural center in Hong Kong; by 2020, all our previous cassette players relegated to the dust bin, we had to special order a player to listen to them.
5 Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase/Escalante, Lake Meade, Lake Powell, Rainbow Bridge Grand Canyon (North Rim), Vermillion Cliffs, Redwoods, Oregon Dunes, Craters of the Moon, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Tuzigoot, Montezuma Castle, Saguaro, Organ Pipe Cactus, Lake Roosevelt
6 Great Basin, Mojave, Colorado, Sonoran.
7 Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Idaho.
8 San Francisco, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas