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Fruita 2: Settling-In May 2020

Two Months On
In the middle of May, two months after the gut-punch from Coronavirus-triggered food shortages while we were in southern California, it was time to reflect. We had been settled in western Colorado for 6 weeks and were thoroughly enjoying our typical outdoor lifestyle of hiking and biking, almost like nothing had happened. Of course, that was about all that was normal in our lives.

Hand sanitizer was still unavailable, though we’d bought 1 bottle at a meat market. Toilet paper was finally reliability available; we barely had been unaffected by the meat shortages; and at last, we had reduced concern about access to food. We had had 2 episodes of hoarding angst causing us to dash out to restock small, non-perishable items ahead of schedule instead of procuring them on our usual ‘just in time’ pattern of buying.

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Time to notice the little things: water bugs, their shadows, & light reflecting off of an air bubble under each foot.

The big-bucks exposure from the pandemic (after significant losses in the stock market) was about $10,000 in pre-paid expenses for our 4 months overseas this summer. With patience, perseverance, and a huge investment in time, Bill obtained full cash refunds for almost all of it. He settled for 1 voucher with extended expiration date of June 2022 and lost a total of a $130 deposit. A few lodging establishments with “no cancellation” policies fully refunded deposits upon request. We were dumbfounded by his success!

Early in the pandemic, we’d planned to meet our need for helping others by purchasing a stack of gift cards from a grocery store but quickly realized that our contact with people in need had plummeted. Instead, we started providing a monthly stipend to a gig-worker friend whose business was forced to shut down.

Two months on, we were no closer to knowing were we would be in the coming months, what life would look like, but we were calmer about the ambiguity.

Reports From Friends
We were totally absorbed in our own pandemic dramas for weeks but we appreciated when others shared what they were experiencing. Hiking friends in the Palm Springs area and back home were cringing with increasing restrictions on their outings. Some were redirecting their energy into yard work, home improvement projects, puzzles, and painting; others were going on long neighborhood walks. And several were learning the ropes of socializing on Zoom and other platforms.

On April 3rd, a snowbird friend still in Palm Springs wrote: “And when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, we just had a 4.9 magnitude earthquake 6.6 miles below the earth’s surface!” Can you imagine???

The week before, the same friend told of someone rolling their car window down for the sole purpose of screaming at her and her 3 hiking companions about how they were going to kill everyone by being outdoors. They were of course, properly socially distancing.

And our friends in Switzerland had been going bonkers because the Swiss weren’t getting it about the virus, that they were taking the “It’s not our problem” approach. The woman had gone for a pre-surgery visit and the doctor read her the riot act when she asked to abstain from shaking hands. And on one weekend, urban day-trippers flooded their scenic mountain village with bad behavior, including littering. The next week, Switzerland made the Top 10 list for number of infections and the authorities literally removed the slats from the park benches to change behaviors. Their tension was heightened by a truck load of masks and other protective gear being prevented from entering Switzerland from Germany by the German authorities who decided their country needed them. Later, they reported that toilet paper was now on sale there while we still couldn’t buy any.

There was no missing that these were extraordinary times and that new stresses were coming from all directions for everyone.

Planning For Our Next Crisis: The Summer Heat
It had been unseasonably hot in both April and May in Fruita, CO, intermittently in the low 90°s, and we’d busied ourselves scheming how to cope with living in our trailer through the persistent summer heat. Even with an air conditioner, which we didn’t have in our previous truck camper, such heat is very unpleasant in a trailer. When it was hot out, 82° was the lowest indoor temperature our air conditioner could sustain.
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Our new Bedjet sheet inflated with cooled air (not feathers!).

Stunningly, the outdoor temperatures at 2 am were frequently still 75° on a 90° day in May—just incredible, and incredibly awful! At the 5800’ trailhead at 7:30 am one morning, the temperature was already 67°. Our mantra for these last 10 years of part time RV living had been “We are chasing 70°”—suddenly, because of the pandemic, there was no where to run to.

Our major heat adaptation strategy was to buy Bedjet devices that blasted cooled air between our sheets. Ultimately, we spent a total of $900 to buy a unit for each of us and their customized top sheet to better distribute the cool air. Next, we took to cooking dinner outdoors on our single electric burner that had been in deep storage for years, always on the verge of being left behind after a cull. Not using the propane cook top inside the rig when the outdoor temperature was peaking for the day was a huge help to keeping the indoor temperature from exceeding 85°.

Other improvements came as it got hotter and hotter. Bill finally relented and contacted Spectrum to get us (somewhat) faster internet for our remaining 2+ months in Fruita. We couldn’t stream anything past about 7:20 am on our Verizon service and telemedicine appointments required a drive in to town to find the perfect mix: faster internet, shade, and a quiet street. On the hottest days, we’d take frozen gel blocks to hold for some temperature relief because the truck air conditioner was too loud to use. Unfortunately, we had to wait a week for our modem to arrive once we’d made the decision to buy up.

The heat also pushed us to hire help to solve a typical RV’er problem, which is difficulty keeping the refrigerator/freezer temperature steady on hot days. Bill had read that installing an accessory fan was the way to go, but he couldn’t find one. The issue became compelling with the prospect of a long summer of hot weather, so we contacted a mobile RV repair guy to make the problem go away. Our Fruita neighbor had him do refrigerator work for him before we landed in Fruita and he was extremely pleased. Getting moderately priced, competently performed, timely, RV service is always a challenge.

“Throwing money at it,” $300 for the frig, seemed the best way for us to survive. We wanted to be in Fruita because it was where we felt safest from the pandemic even though it was too hot for us and our refrigerator. The repair man said most customers balked at the cost but lack of food spoilage was part of our “food security,” so it was worth it to us. And we were actually pleased to finally put this intermittently nagging problem behind us.
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Phew! Nothing fancy here: single-burner cooking outside our trailer in 95° heat.

Lucky for us, we didn’t have to ‘throw money at it’ to increase our comfort level on the trails. Leisurely starts to our hiking days of 9:30, 10 or later got reeled in so we were in the dirt by 7:30 am on the 90° days. We shortened our average hike from 10 miles to 7 and abandoned our treasured picnic lunches. Eating lunch in the trailer wasn’t as idyllic as on the trail, but it got us out of the heat earlier: we didn’t take time to make lunch before we left or eat it while out.

On the hot days, it was already 80° or more when we returned to the trailer at 10 am. Avoiding overheating on the trail made us more comfortable all day. Instead of hiking 4 days a week to make our 40 mile target, we hiked 5 or 6 days to maintain our fitness in the heat. On the hottest days, the mantra was “Leave early; go high.” Our trailer was parked at 4,500’ and several trailheads at 6,000’ were only a 15” drive away, though much to our surprise, going higher didn’t always deliver cooler temperatures.

Weather Challenges
Every region has its own characteristic weather patterns and notable exceptions. Back home, the default is overcast skies with drizzle and the classic exception is strong, drying, east winds that can bring a break from the gray skies for a week in February or scorching weather in August. My obsessive forecast-checking helps us cut down on the surprises while we learn the patterns and deviations in each new place we visit.

In Fruita, the discrepancy between the typical seasonal weather, the daily forecast, and what was actually happening was so extreme that we began looking at each day’s forecast through the lens of our own recent experience. The big shocker was the wind. It didn’t take long to notice that “light and variable winds” NEVER appeared in the forecast. Apparently, these typical winds that we were experiencing are dearly missed in the heat of August, but in April and May, the absence of wind seemed to be measured in minutes.

Whatever the wind forecast, we could count on the force increasing significantly around 12:30 pm. The winds could come from all 4 directions on a given day. Our new “wind hats,” baseball caps with neck capes, got a big workout in Fruita. I had to stop using my big sombrero-like brim on my bike helmet because the strong blasts of wind against it would practically slice my ears off with the helmet straps. My arms and shoulders ached for 2 days after the windiest of these 25 mile rides because of needing to muscle my bike to stay on the road for the hour-long descent.
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The winds around Fruita were too fierce for my extra-wide helmet brim.

Gusts forecast at 40 mph or more were common and we could be whipped around on the trail by them on almost any day. Blasts like the ones that woke us at night in Beaver, UT could come up anytime through the night as well. Even on a fairly calm day, gusts would come out of nowhere for a half hour or so around 5 pm or 6 pm. In April, the same was true of rain: there could be brief showers on an otherwise dry day around dinner time most any evening. At least with the rain, looking north to the Book Cliffs revealed if there was a rain potential for us.

We don’t know what the winds were clocking when we returned to our truck on a dirt road in the middle of the afternoon in mid-May, but we were covered in a gummy dust from head to toe. Even with hats on, our hair felt gunky. I had to wash my backpack because the dust was getting all over me the next day from it. Fortunately, such persistent, strong wind was a one-off for us.

We were grateful for our heavy touring bikes on our early afternoon descents from a near-high point in the Colorado National Monument. We easily hit speeds of over 20 mph, which is exciting enough for us on a narrow, no-shoulder, windy road with traffic. The serious roadies zipped by us, pedaling to accelerate even more. It takes more courage than I have to speed downhill on a light bike like theirs in those winds which can toss one around—and I’ve been seriously tossed in our years of riding. Luckily, we didn’t encountered any fierce crosswinds on that route, but we did drift away from the unprotected, precipitous roadway edges towards the center line. Most of the motorists backed way off, presumably not wanting us to feel pressed to cling to the edge of the road in the gusts.

I’ve never been fond of wind but the best thing we’ve found to do with 25 mph winds on a 95° day with 10% humidity is laundry: slow-to-dry, hand-washed items like backpacks and sun hats dry in a flash!

New Opportunities
The loss of precious opportunities was a universal experience in the COVID-19 pandemic. People we encountered and corresponded with were surprisingly good-natured about not dwelling on them, instead focusing more on the better aspects of the moment. Daily, we chose to emphasize our good fortune of being able to sustain our biking and hiking regime in an exceptionally beautiful location with warm, dry weather, in a county with a very low infection rate. (As of May 25th, there had been only 53 cases of COVID-19 and zero deaths in our county, 1/4th to 1/3rd of the number at home.) An unexpected opportunity for us in this ‘present-oriented’ environment was to celebrate long-past graduations.
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This boulder wasn’t to be missed.

In the middle of May, CNN hosted 2 hours of high school graduation celebrations. The 2 separate programs were a montage of short speeches from famous people like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, short “attaboys” clips from current celebrities that we didn’t know, and a range of performances, including by Yo Yo Ma. Clearly, we weren’t graduating from high school, but as best as we could remember, we’d each missed 2-3 of our own graduation ceremonies and this seemed like a sweet opportunity to partially fill-in those blanks. The tone of both shows was extremely uplifting, with a greater emphasize on honoring the individual, more than the “greater cause of the graduate’s mission in life”, which was the tone in our era. Some brought tears to our eyes and we appreciated the nourishing quality in this time when so much going on around us was erosive.

A week later, there was a much smaller graduation event streamed for Bill’s professional, which we also watched. The format was similar to the others, drawing on the congratulations from popular TV celebrities we didn’t know and heralded professionals that we did know. It was interesting to feel the pleasant brain washing effect from all 3 shows that emphasized messages like: “You did it!” “I’m so proud of you!” “There is so much more ahead of you!” And the contemporary messages like: “Don’t forget where you came from; help your communities that supported you!” Even though we were 45-50 years older than their target audiences, we felt welcome, we felt honored and included. We don’t remember hearing those messages in our time. It was all a bit strange but sweet and uplifting to be involved in a virtual community celebration of accomplishment.

Another event that we partook of a few weeks before these graduations and that was also intended for a different audience than us, was a “Sesame Street COVID-19 Town Hall” with Anderson Cooper and Dr Sanjay Gupta. We had watched a number of their Thursday night specials on CNN targeting adults but thought it would be fun to take-in the children’s version. Sesame Street was after our time, but at least we knew a little bit about it.

The trophy take-away for us from the Sesame Street production was learning about glitter jars, which were introduced on the show by a child psychiatrist. Colored glitter is mixed in a jar with glitter glue (who knew?) and water. You shake it up, watch the glitter swirl and completely block your ability to see through the jar, then watch the glitter slowly settle and the water become transparent again. The lesson is the analogy with emotions: when you are overcome with emotions, it’s like the glitter jar becoming opaque; slowly, with time, both your emotions and the glitter settle. When you are upset, you shake the jar, allowing the settling of the glitter to guide the settling of your emotions to the point of being able to see clearly again.

For a bit of fun, I surprised Bill with the supplies to make his own glitter jar a few weeks later. I couldn’t readily order the supplies online and waited until the craft shops started opening in Grand Junction. As expected, making the glitter jar was a playful project for us after lunch one day. To our horror, the glitter jar got a real life, field test of its functionality after dinner that night, which was when we learned about the COVID-19 induced death of our hiking friend, Nancy. Her death, and the chance timing of the glitter jar as an emotional support tool, took our breath away. We appreciated having a contemporary aid for processing emotions that didn’t exist when we were children—better late than never.
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The glitter jar helped to settle our agitation.

“We’re Not Dead Yet, Are You?”
Some years ago, an acquaintance sent a text message to me “Are you dead?” It was hysterical at the time: an attention-getting, amusing way to reconnect. By mid-May of this year, it seemed like a serious question. I was hearing from friends “I’m glad to hear that you are OK” and likewise, I was pleased to hear from them, to know that they were still alive.

A few weeks prior, I had thought it too crass to set up a mailing list to go out weekly asking for a reply to “Are you dead?” or perhaps it would be more polite to say “Are you well?” With our small, disconnected community, we were longing for a way to keep track of our friends without being annoying. And of course, the reality of the need was amplified with the recent COVID-19 death of our desert hiking friend, Nancy. Where is Emily Post when you need her?

Out of frettiness, I did reach out to one friend from whom a response felt overdue. Just a short, cheery, text message of ‘thinking of you.’ Unexpectedly, there wasn’t a snappy reply. “Now what to I do??” Clearly this little project required more thinking. Being patient solved the problem, she was fine.

The Dolomites vs Fruita: Which is best for hiking?
“Which is best for hiking?” Is a question requiring careful consideration. The Italian Dolomites, a range of mountains in the eastern Alps north of Venice, are by far our all-time favorite holiday hiking destination. We often stay in flower-filled farming villages sited around 4,500’ but rarely hike above 9,500’. The highest peaks, the playgrounds of the mountaineers, are between 10,000-11,000’.

Being in South Tyrol, one of the Autonomous Regions of Italy, they share less of their income with the Italian government and strategically spend their surplus on sustaining their local culture and tastefully done tourism infrastructure. The beauty of the mountains and the charm of the villages has resulted in the region being a tourist destination for over a hundred years, an industry that the locals have embraced, including hosting the Olympics. Many of the ski apartments and ski lifts operate in the summer to support hikers. As a part of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire, German is the 2nd language of the region, with Italian being 3rd. Their traditional language, often Ladin, is #1.

In the 20 years we have been visiting the Dolomites, they were granted recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, largely because of the geology. The grand and distinctive geologic formations are the result of the erosion of the dolomite rock of this small region of the Alps. We find these mountains to be unusually mesmerizing and we never tire of looking at the same magnificent views from the trails.
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There is no mistaking that you are in the mountains when in the Italian Dolomites.

Fruita, near Grand Junction, Colorado, isn’t situated in the mountains, in the Rockies, but on the Colorado Plateau with a desert influence on its flora. Like many Dolomite villages, it’s also sited at 4,500’, with distant mountains topping out at 11,000’. Our playground, the Colorado National Monument, is a mere 2 miles from our RV park on the edge of Fruita and the trails disappear by 6,800’.

The Monument’s reason for existence, beginning in 1911, was the fantastic red rock formations, literally made out of the same stuff as the Grand Canyon, but even more visually fascinating. The Monument is small, a mere 20,000 acres, though another 123,000 acres of hiker playground is in the adjacent McInnis Canyons land. Most of the area’s history is limited to that of the first peoples, the Native Americans.

Which is the superior hiking destination? Both are excellent, the answer depends on your priorities. Fruita is tops for the incredible number of trails of moderate elevation gain immersed in endlessly stunning red rock scenery. The concentration of trails is far higher out of Fruita than anywhere else we have been. If you crave great scenery from the trail and want to do serious conditioning without getting bored, you can’t beat Fruita. You can do something new day after day with the convenience of being close to an urban area in the US.

The Dolomites are superior to Fruita if you love the mountain peaks and greater daily elevation gain hiking in a gorgeous setting. The Dolomites provide a fantastic overseas holiday experience that is rich with culture and old world tradition. In the mountains, one encounters bunkers and fortifications from WWI, plus modern via ferrata climbing routes retracing wartime approaches.

The way to reconcile the choice between the two is to do both: Fruita runs in the 90°s in the summer, so it’s a better spring and fall destination. Much of the tourist infrastructure in the Dolomites is closed during those seasons, so the summer is the time to be there. Go to Fruita in the spring to train, to altitude acclimate, then pop-over to the Dolomites for the big-gain days into the peaks and to delight in the cultural immersion. That’s what we plan to do the first summer after we receive a coronavirus vaccine.

Shifting Gears
At the end of May, when working at my computer some days, I began noticing that I felt a little odd. It was a slightly empty feeling, like I was missing something or forgetting something. I checked my breathing but there was nothing amiss. No coronavirus cough, fever, or shortness of breath, but what was it? I activated my virtual antennae to scan about, but they detected nothing unusual in me or my immediate environment but something was different. After several days of monitoring this peculiar, intermittent and unsettling feeling, I realized that my pandemic stress had plummeted. The uneasy, hollow feeling was the absence of low-grade anxiety.

The obsessive checking my of emails and the internet for the latest disruption had ceased; the need to find answers for more questions about the virus had subsided; and the decreased tension around procuring our preferred food every week had each created a hole when they shifted. Finally, there was little virus-driven extra attentiveness needed except when processing our packages and groceries. It was like recovering from an asthma attack, taking a deep breath, and being surprised by all the air that filled my lungs. Now, the only challenge was to soften around this gap, this absence, and let it refill on its own, without being distracted by the welcome change.

Bill had been fretting about the coronavirus cases in our Colorado county skyrocketing since the change in behaviors of the locals suggested that they were hearing “All Clear” instead of “Go out a little”. I was carefully not thinking about it, preferring to wait and see. But my alarm bells went off after Memorial Day Weekend, just after my pandemic stress had diminished enough to leave an empty feeling.

Our young neighbors with a 2 year old boy spent the long weekend with their families in Greeley, Colorado, one of the COVID-19 hotspots in the state because of meat packing plants. They were the ones who decided over a month ago that masks were no longer in order and they didn’t bother to socially distance. A week later, I noticed that Papa didn’t go to work on Monday morning and none of them showed their faces all day. “Could he be sick?” I wondered out loud. We couldn’t help but notice because our big dinette window squarely faced their only door.

The retired guy on our other side in the RV park started his job in the Monument cleaning toilets and collecting garbage the Tuesday after Memorial Day. We immediately decided that we needed to redouble our efforts to keep our distance from him but it was hard. Even with his cochlear implant, he was still a challenged listener and since he heavily relied on lip reading, it felt rude to wear a mask around him. He also didn’t seem to be a “believer” in the virus and we feared for him and us with his toilet cleaning job given that aerosols in toilet rooms can transmit viral particles from feces. We’d never seen him with a mask and since we’d noticed that one park janitor wasn’t wearing a mask when cleaning toilets, decided that he likely didn’t either.

Monday, June 1 was when we noticed that the one neighbor hadn’t gone to work and we saw a park janitor without a mask. The following day, Tuesday, the RV repair man spent 2 hours inside our rig installing the refrigerator fan. We asked him to wear a mask, but he had none. He proceeded to lecture Bill about the lack of need for one given that viruses are nothing new, that they’ve always been around.

We wore our masks, stayed out of the trailer as much as possible, and spent a couple of hours decontaminating the trailer as much as possible after he left. We used soap and water to wash down the refrigerator, inside and out; the walls; and places on the ceiling that we knew he touched. We’d drawn curtains at each end of the trailer to try to confine his aerosols to the central space of the rig and had the windows and 2 doors open. We postponed turning on the air conditioner on this 95° day until 2 hours after he left reduce his aerosols with the natural air flow. It was a balancing act: we needed to start cooling the trailer so we could sleep in a few hours but also wanted to maximize our decontamination. We’d reset our mental timers: if we weren’t showing signs of COVID-19 at the end of 5 days, then we likely were out of the danger zone with the repair man being in our space for 2 hours and, heaven forbid, touching things!!

All we could do was watch, wait, and do our best to navigate around these 3 immediate, potential threats that felt like they were closing in on us. Sadly, we knew that they wouldn’t be the last. We could only keep doing our best despite the obstacles, hoping to survive until the vaccine was available. We kept reminding ourselves that for all of us, this prolonged journey through the pandemic was a combination of a “numbers game” and luck. Fruita was the best place we knew to be but daily life was still challenging.