One Year

In early March 2020, I traveled to the Mono Basin for a solo retreat. As I drove east, then south, news stories on the radio about COVID were reaching what seemed like a crescendo.

The rental was offgrid. No TV, and only satellite internet. I’d download (slowly) news-update podcasts, and periodically sit in my truck out in the cold, heater blasting, listening to CNN and NPR on SiriusXM.

I tried to work on music. Attempted to write. And read.

During my six-day stay, the news became more frightening. Trump claiming everything would be fine. Then the news about lost opportunities getting the virus under control due to CDC chaos and botched testing rollouts.

The mantra: flatten the curve. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Socially distance.

The second portion of my trip was to Independence, the Inyo county seat. I stayed in a double-wide AirBnB on the Paiute reservation just north of town.

The first morning, I was awakened at 5:45 by someone’s muscle car. I’d slept maybe five hours. I struggled from bed, got dressed, made coffee and a sandwich, and drove south to Manzanar for the first of two days of work.

In the parking lot, no one shook hands, although it had been months since we’d see one another. We smiled wanly in the 7am chill, stamping our feet and talking about COVID. Less than half the volunteers had shown up.

We tried staying six feet from each other, but it was difficult while digging with a partner in 8 x 8-foot plots, and manning two-person sifting stations. I was the only person wearing a mask, and it was mostly due to the dust.

On the way out, I stopped at the visitors’ center and bought some books. There were tiny origami birds on the counter. The woman at the register urged me to take one.

“They’re free.”

I got back to the rental and switched on the TV, but the news was disturbing, so I turned to a channel airing The Andy Griffith Show, The Twilight Zone, and Carol Burnett reruns.

I ate something. Made a stiff drink.

Then another.

The phone rang. It was Kate.

“I just went to Safeway. There’s pretty much nothing left on the shelves, and the lines were the longest I’ve ever seen. I turned around and came home. I wanted to have food for you when you got back.”

I looked at Whole Foods’ delivery page on Amazon as we spoke. We put together an order. The site was slow, and I had trouble getting the order to submit. Finally it went through, but it wouldn’t be delivered for two days.

We talked about my day at the dig, then my plans for day two. The conversation didn’t take long. I told Kate I’d return early. I had more N95 masks in the truck, and rubber gloves, and hand sanitizer. I promised Kate I’d use them when pumping gas.

That night I messaged my friend, Roger, and apologized for missing the second day.

The next morning I packed up and headed north. I stopped at Manor Market in Bishop and bought ice, and filled two coolers and a shopping bag with food.

(In the coming weeks, carloads of people from Tehachapi, Bakersfield, and LA would follow, and do the same, bringing the virus with them, and emptying the shelves of every grocery store on 395).

I began the 7-hour drive home.

It was Friday, March 13th, exactly one year ago. When things got weird.

I still have the origami bird. It’s been riding with me in the truck for the past year.

It’s faded, and somewhat rumpled. When I drove with the windows down last summer, it nearly flew out the window more than once.

Maybe I should let it go.

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