In 2019 my wife and I started what I’d call a tradition if it had happened more than 1.25 times. In March she takes a long trip overseas to see family and I take a driving trip to take pictures in my favorite places on earth. It worked out so well in 2019 that I began planning my March 2020 trip almost as soon as I got home. By March 2020 the muted rumblings of a potential COVID-19 pandemic were growing louder. The U.S. government insisted there was nothing to worry about and the WHO had not yet declared a pandemic. The news media and other governments were telling a different story. Out of an abundance of caution my wife canceled her trip. On March 11 the WHO at long last declared a pandemic while the US government took a casual "wait and see" approach. There were still no stay at home orders or even recommendations to that effect, and everyone was still going to work. Since I planned to explore the most remote places a good four wheel drive vehicle and my legs would take me, going on this trip still seemed fairly reasonable.
With a bunch of back country permits in hand I began the 2.5 day drive early on March 13, 2020. Along the way I was extremely careful, using hand sanitizer and Clorox Wipes whenever either seemed appropriate. Each evening I put on blue nitrile gloves and wiped town all of the motel room surfaces I might touch, like door handles, faucet knobs, toilet flush handle area, vanity top, night stand, light switches, TV remote, and on and on and on. I learned that it takes two Clorox Wipes to make a motel room relatively safe.
It is common knowledge that motels wash pillow cases, but not pillows. The pillow you lay your head on has been coughed and slobbered on by countless people. The good news regarding COVID-19 is that it apparently lives a day or less on soft surfaces, but up to three days on things like hard plastic and stainless steel. The pillows are certainly disgusting, but they are probably not the most dangerous thing in a motel room when it comes to COVID-19. With all of that said you can always bring your own, which I did.The back country camping part of this trip was to come near the end of the four week adventure. My first two stays would be in tiny desert towns, at motels I have stayed in many times before. It was blissfully quiet. Not only was it early in the season, but COVID-19 had squelched tourism. I was usually the only person staying at the first motel. I spent six wonderful days exploring the area’s back country and using the motel as my base. The only disturbance to my increasingly relaxed mood was troubling news of the COVID-19 pandemic on television before bed, so I stopped watching the news. On my final night the motel was full and I couldn’t imagine why. Perhaps tourist season had kicked in, but even that wouldn't account for so many people this early in the year. Hmmmm.
The next day I drove about 140 miles to a different and even smaller town boasting a population in the tens of people. Before leaving I decided to count all of the cars I’d see along the way. This is something a friend used to do along a different 110 mile desert drive he often had to make. My drive took nearly all day because it is insanely scenic. I stopped to take pictures, a couple of short hikes, and a detour to explore an area along the way. By the time it was all done I had seen a total of just four other vehicles. That made the crowd at my motel the previous night seem even stranger.
At long last I arrived in the micro-town where I was supposed to spend the next four nights. The place seemed even quieter than usual. One can basically view the whole town from one spot and I didn’t see a soul anywhere. It was like something out of a movie. I went to the motel and found the front door locked, so I phoned the old cowboy who owns the place. I told him who I was and that I had a reservation. He said he’d meet me at the front door. He recognized me from previous visits and we greeted one another jovially, but without handshakes. He was understandably quite scared about catching COVID-19, and I didn't exactly want it either. He said that all temporary and short term lodging in that county and two others, in addition to all campgrounds, were ordered closed the previous day. He also said he was unsure whether his business would survive. The place I had just come from is not in one of those three counties, which explains the big crowd at my motel the previous night. That solved one mystery, but now I wondered where I would sleep that night.
Being late in the day with everything closed I started thinking about sleeping in my vehicle. It is set up to accommodate that but I'd rather not. Then the old cowboy said he was still accepting people who had previous reservations, and I was the only one who did. I'm not sure if that was actually his policy. It seems that a government order to close would not say "except if they have a reservation". I suspect he felt sorry for me, though I never said a word about wondering where to sleep, and he never said anything about making an exception because I had nowhere to go. In any case, I paid in advance for my four nights and was elated to do so. I was starting to realize that my stay here could mark the end of my trip, but at least I secured a few more days for a last hurrah in the desert.
By now I had learned that all of the areas in which I had back country permits were closed, and my permits were null and void. My plans were in shambles but I quickly fell asleep with thoughts of my planned sunrise shoot and other adventures that still lay ahead. I awoke a little after 4 AM and slowly began my morning routine when I noticed an insect crawling out from under my pillow. I quickly smashed it and wondered if it was a bedbug. Shortly thereafter another came out from between the sheet and blanket. I got a photo of it with my cell phone and sure enough, it was a bedbug! There was no way I could sleep there another night. With everyplace else closed and more of America shutting down every day, I'd have to start driving home that morning. "Disappointed" doesn't begin to describe my mood.
My first priority was getting my belongings out of the room. The last thing I needed were hitch-hikers and a resulting bedbug infestation at home! The logistics involved due to the location of my room made this a time consuming task, but I loaded my vehicle as fast as I could. I had given up on the trip at this point and it was probably already too late to get to my planned sunrise location. On the other hand the old cowboy was certainly still asleep, I wanted a refund for at least the remaining three nights, and I had nothing to lose but some time. I broke all of the speed limits on my drive to the sunrise location, including those on a rough dirt road that doesn’t have one. At the destination I quickly grabbed my backpack and tripod, and spent a few precious moments searching for my Mountain Hardware Dome Perignon in the extremely disheveled vehicle interior. It was quite cold relative to the temperatures at the motel, and I knew I’d be in for some wind at the canyon’s rim.
I was too late for the shadowless light that precedes sunrise, but no direct light had yet found its way to the incredible landscape before me. I stood and watched, with many feelings about having to leave so soon. It was like having to leave a long-lost loved one right after saying hello. Then I suddenly realized it was not windy. It is always windy here at sunrise! Sometimes it is impossible to get a single sharp photograph until after the sun is way too high. Sometimes the wind occasionally pauses long enough for a sharp photograph between gusts. But the air is never still at sunrise, or so I thought. This made it far more comfortable than usual in spite of the cold temperature.
Looking at my watch I realized the sunrise was already happening, but there was no dramatic light on the landscape. This was due to some big clouds on the eastern horizon. Getting here may have been a wasted effort, but one can never know how a situation like this will unfold. I stood there just thinking and watching. A bit of light appeared on a small part of the landscape. Then more. It was soft and muted, not the usual bright and dramatic sunrise that is so common here. I began capturing photographs when things started looking good. The sun was obviously shining through gaps somewhere in those clouds, which also acted like a giant diffuser and reflector, filling shadows and reducing contrast.
Then the light went completely flat and the show was over.
I stayed for quite a while, just thinking and looking. I knew the outside world was going crazy with social distancing, mask wearing, lockdowns, hoarding, illness and death. Here the nearest person was easily 8 or 9 miles away as the crow flies. There was no worry about what I touched or the air I breathed. The sun rose and set exactly as it did yesterday, last week, and for millions of years before that. It was the last time I'd be surrounded by normalcy for a long while.
The air remained still, maybe because the muted sunrise did not impart enough energy to fuel the usual thermal winds. Eventually the sun reached the top of the clouds in the east and it was another bright blue sky day. The good light was long gone but I still hesitated to leave, wanting to squeeze every last moment out of this experience. I wanted to soak it up and keep it with me, perhaps so it would last until I was able to return. But I knew it wouldn't work. The longer I waited the later into the night I would need to drive. Giving one last look at the canyon and distant horizon, I headed back toward my vehicle, and the old cowboy’s motel.
Back at the motel parking lot I again phoned the old cowboy. He was genuinely surprised to hear about the bedbug problem. He didn't know how it was possible since no one had occupied my room since the previous November. He asked if they could have come with me. Given the room’s history I thought perhaps they did, but the only bedbugs I had ever seen before this were in pictures. Regardless, he offered a refund without me asking, which his daughter would take care of later. Because he was so afraid of COVID-19 I made sure my room was empty and left my key in a box at the front door, without seeing the old cowboy again.
That day I drove through a lot of very familiar country, including a town that was once my home away from. It has since become an obnoxiously overcrowded tourist mecca that is no longer worth visiting, but on this day it was quiet; nearly as quiet as it was in the 1980s. I was at once elated and melancholy. This would be a singular opportunity to “go home again”, but as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t. There was nowhere to stay and the places I’d want to visit were closed. I grabbed a Big Mac at the McDonald’s drive through, filled up my gas tank, and again started driving.
That night was spent far away in Fort Morgan, Colorado, where I meticulously picked through my belongings looking for bedbugs. I did not find any. Then I went online and discovered that bedbugs can live for 14 months without a host or food. Mine had gone only four months without a meal. All remaining guilt that I might have carried these creatures to the old cowboy’s motel vaporized, and the remainder of my drive was uneventful.
I am now left wondering when life might return to "normal" again. I can’t imagine any activity that involves motel rooms, eating in restaurants, using public toilets, pumping gasoline several times per day, or just being in a public place near others, until some immunity to COVID-19 is available. At the time of this writing it is still unknown whether being infected and recovering, possibly with permanently impaired lung capacity, provides any immunity. If it does, no one knows how long it lasts. I have no desire to be infected and a vaccine is probably over 18 months away. Given that, life as it was before March 13, 2020 will not likely resume until late 2021, or more realistically sometime during the first half of 2022. I sincerely hope that I'm wrong.
January 26, 2021: It is now known that some who survive COVID-19 have long term health problems as a result. These include impaired cognition and other neurological problems, heart damage, chronic fatigue, pulmonary fibrosis, kidney damage and other life changing illnesses. Many are not concerned because it always happens to someone else, until it doesn't. We also know that people can be infected with COVID-19 multiple times, and recovering from an infection does not confer long term immunity. It is thought that immunity from an infection lasts at least three months, and the duration beyond that probably depends on the severity of the infection. The good news is that vaccines can provide longer immunity than being infected without any of the dangers brought by infection, and we now have two different vaccines are about 95% effective. I was elated to hear that news in October and November of 2020!
The bad news is that in late December 2020, the virus causing COVID-19 mutated in South Africa in a way that probably makes the vaccines ineffective or less effective. The South African variant spread around the world in just one month. So far Moderna says that their vaccine is "less effective" against the South African variant than it was against all of the previous variants. No other manufacturer has yet made any statement regarding the effectivity of their vaccine against this newest variant. Moderna has suggested we may need a third vaccination to help build resistance to the South African variant, with no mention of whether that would be a third dose of the same vaccine, or a different one. Will there be more variants that are vaccine resistant in different ways? Will the vaccine need to be constantly adjusted for new variants, requiring a new vaccination yearly or more often? These and other questions currently have no answer.
We are close to having a third vaccine, made by Johnson & Johnson, approved. The vaccines already on the market in the US are about 95% effective overall against symptomatic Covid-19. That means they are 95% effective at preventing you from having any COVID-19 symptoms, and they are nearly 100% effective at preventing severe illness. The J&J vaccine is 66% effective against moderate and severe disease and 55% effective in South Africa where the new more infectious strain is dominant. But, that South African strain is already in the United States. We are stuck with the inferior Johnson & Johnson vaccine because the Trump administration did not accept the Pfizer option to double the number of doses. Vaccinations are proceeding and I will still be vaccinated with any vaccine I can get because all previous variants are still at large, but it is increasingly apparent that a vaccination will not bring life back to the way it was before the pandemic.