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Covid-19 Diary April 2020

March 31
We felt like desperados galloping to the border across the open expanses of the Mojave Desert in broad daylight. Sleepy 29 Palms near Joshua Tree National Park (NP), where we had spent the last month, quickly disappeared from view behind us. We were one of only a few vehicles on the buckled, no-shoulder, sand-blown, 2 lane highway heading north. We expected to be blissfully biking into Joshua Tree NP for one last time on this day, not sweating bullets for fear of rejection at one of several state lines when we drove out of California, into Nevada and then through Utah to Colorado.

Once again in this pandemic, it was the morning news that hit us like a lightening bolt, triggering an additional round of panic, uncertainty, and impromptu action. Another governor was vowing to close his state’s borders to outsiders. This was the 3rd such threatening comment in a matter of days and we hoped that Colorado’s governor wouldn’t follow suit. Instead of leaving 29 Palms the following morning like we had planned and making the trip in 4 days, we loaded up the trailer instead of our bikes and hit the road for a 3 day trip. We felt like nervous fugitives on the run and hoped that arriving on a Thursday instead of Saturday might prevent deflection at the border.

The good news was, that after being without a refrigerator for 4 days, our refurbished cooling unit had been installed the previous afternoon. Even better, it began cooling quickly enough on the speedier propane setting that we retrieved our $150 of frozen meat and salmon from the RV park’s office refrigerator before they closed for the night. It had been a “nice to do” but in retrospect, it was a “make or break” decision. Because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the all-day office hours had shifted to 1 pm - 6 pm. Waiting until 1 pm to fetch our food on this day would have scuttled our plans, which would have skyrocketed our anxiety about border closures.

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Social distancing was tough with the refrigerator repair guys in our trailer twice in 4 days.

I clutched a little a few hours later when we crossed the state line from California into Nevada while eating lunch as we drove. The discreet, silver-gray patrol car didn’t budge when we passed. Minutes later, another stealth cop’s vehicle didn’t move when we lumbered by. We hadn’t been concerned about entry into Nevada, but my ill-fitting, outlaw persona felt unexpectedly threatened by the sight of the state police right at the border.

The driving day went as planned but our precious remaining minutes, then hours, evaporated with shopping. The stop at Costco on the outskirts of Las Vegas took an excessive amount of time for the few items purchased, then there was getting gas, and a tedious process to fill a trailer propane tank. The last Trader Joe’s that we’d see for months had a long, slow line. They were doing the right thing in only letting shoppers enter in groups of 5 but we again lamented the lost time.

We were even more disappointed upon seeing that the people in Vegas didn’t get it about physical distancing compared with the ones in Palm Springs. The guy behind us in the Trader Joe’s line cozied up too close and Bill, with his mask and face shield on, politely asked him to observe the 6’ rule marked on the sidewalk with tape. A snowbird at the RV park with a cigarette in his hand had an endless stream of comments about our trailer, trailer hitch, and truck and draped himself over the back end of the truck and stuck his nose in too close while we were unhitching.

We had to set our accumulated frustration aside and rally our fading resilience when we discovered that the contents of our trailer traveled unusually poorly on the roller coaster road in the morning. The bikes had bounced around and had snapped what was likely an irreplaceable plastic shield covering a chain ring. Bill awkwardly reached into an upper cabinet to snatch the Dyson vac motor head from its charging cradle above the bikes when the bottom latch of the Dyson caught on the shelf edge and dumped the collected dust onto the bikes and floor. The dust and grit also covered the groceries below that were in quarantine from shopping an hour earlier.

We had hooked up the rig to the city water line without realizing that the bathtub faucet had inexplicably been bumped open. A small item in the little tub had blocked the drain and the tub was filling. Backpacks and other temporarily stowed goods were saturated. What a mess! We had a pile of wet items to dry, a dust mess in a corner with groceries stuffed in between bike tires, and damage to a bike part!
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The worn bushing in the trailer suspension.

“Containment,” not of us, but of the mess was the objective. There wasn’t time to clean it all up: we needed to cook dinner, shower, and get to bed with sufficient calm so that we would sleep. We’d co-exist with the considerable mess until the next night.

April 1
Fortunately, we didn’t feel like fools or the object of an April Fool’s Day joke the next day. Instead, it was one of the most peaceful days in recent memory. We’d booked at the wrong RV park the night before, but the pandemic’s drastic cut in air and road traffic meant that it was quiet enough to sleep with a couple of windows open in the thick of downtown Las Vegas—it had been 73 degree when we’d gone to bed. We slept well and awoke to absolutely no news that directly affected our mission of crossing the Colorado state line the next day.

There certainly was an abundance of horrific news, from the Florida governor still maintaining that there was no need for Floridians outside of Miami-Dade to stay at home, to the doubling of deaths and infections in the country, and the lack of federal government response to the extensive medical equipment shortages. That news revitalized our sense of doom, but it wouldn’t physically impede us. Unlike the threats being lobbed between the governors of Tennessee and Kentucky the previous day and Trump’s earlier threat to quarantine New York and 2 other states, there was no additional news about restricting interstate travel.

We kept checking the news while we drove in and out of cell service in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, but it was quiet on all of the fronts. This was a day of freeway driving north on I-15 from Las Vegas to an RV park in tiny Beaver, UT. There would be no stops for supplies, only for refueling at the end of the day. The smoother roads were expected to prevent the need for any additional clean-up from spills. We anticipated it feeling like an ordinary travel day home.

We passed a number of state police vehicles and wondered if our homeward bound-looking route typical for snowbirds in April prevented any interference or if restricting travel wasn’t yet a part of their mandate. We’d have our answer the next day when our northerly route abruptly turned east, away from our state of residency prominently displayed on our license plates.

The phone calls made during the morning’s drive had added to the overall calm tone of the day. The Beaver, UT KOA where we typically stayed was open though the office was closed. “Phew!” They were using their after hours, self-check-in procedure 24/7. When queried to follow-up on comments heard in Las Vegas that camping areas in the region were rapidly closing, the only establishments that the owner knew of that were totally shut-down were those around Moab, UT. There, the county had ordered the closure of all camping facilities, public and private, and literally kicked people out of town. That news was chilling and added to our concern about being able to park anywhere for an extended period of time. We later learned that Moab officials were protecting their small, rural health care system from the annual mobs of international visitors that might bring the virus with them.

And better yet, the call to our Fruita RV park revealed that they now had space for us, could receive us 2 nights early, and allowed us to add a 2nd month to our reservation, prompting more sighs of relief. The growing closures and restrictions had us wondering if we’d be able to travel to new venues in Colorado or if we’d be shut-out, so we were anxious to guarantee ourselves more time anywhere.

The refreshingly upbeat day ended with a twist, making us reconsider if we were April Fool’s Day fools after all. Pulling off the freeway to buy gas at Beaver cost us almost an extra thousand dollars, that then turned into $1400.
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The new stabilizer bar.

The nice young man at the gas station with the adjacent Good Ol’ Boys Tire & Shop noticed that the bushings on the “equalizer and the shackles to the equalizer” of the trailer leaf springs were large elliptical holes rather than neat round ones. It felt a bit like a scam and yet on the other hand, the metal clearly had been carved out. For a mere $500, in addition to the cool $1000 repair, we could also get a stabilizer bar inserted between the 2 equalizers where there had been none. This bar would keep the tires better aligned and reduce the wear on the shackles—who could argue with such a deal?

Travelers, and especially trailer travelers, are sitting ducks for expensive repairs. We can’t rely on Amazon when parts require installation and it’s hard to coordinate dropping off our house for repairs when we are living in it. We make an annual service call on the way home each spring and coincidently, since we weren’t going home, we had canceled our appointment that was on the books for 2 days earlier. Like when on the bikes when traveling overseas, we chalked this up to “tourist tax.” Who knows what a fair price would have been but having the shackle snap and the associated spring spear the trailer frame would have been catastrophic, if not fatal, at freeway speeds. And perhaps the wear on the bushings had contributed to the excessive jostling inside the trailer on the rough road the day before.

It had been an expensive few days: the refrigerator repair completed 2 days earlier had been over a thousand dollars. With the trailer, we did turn down the deluxe option for another $600 on the shackle replacement, but it was still a lot of money. The new parts Bill selected were significantly more robust than the original parts, so the non-deluxe choice seemed sufficient.

After quick debates about the odds that we were being ripped-off on the price, whether we were being scammed on the need for the repair, and if this was the right time to be doing this work, we shifted the refrain to “At least we can afford it; we are lucky have it done.” The time for the pre-dinner walk we’d planned as our only bit of exercise for 3 days was forfeited, but on the scale of nasty stuff in the cosmos at the time, it didn’t compute. There was another round of shoulder shrugs: taking good care of our emotional wellness during this time of peak stress was our top priority. The repair took less than an hour and then it was time to clean-up the dusty mess in the back of the trailer from the day before.

April 2
We were both awakened at 1:30 am when the trailer rocking, vent-flapping wind gusts again jolted us in typically windy Beaver. Bill saw that the outside temperature had dropped to 31°, making our gamble on leaving our water hose hooked-up overnight a loser. It had rained earlier in the night and we wondered if it was now snowing.

Because we were both so alert, I suggested we pack and begin driving right then, at 1:30 am, hoping to make it over the low, nearby pass before it was too icy. We’re always keen to be ‘business hours travelers’ but this was a special situation. Instead, Bill volunteered to brave the cold and sharp winds to disconnect the water hose and we hoped that we could get back to sleep with the ongoing strong winds.

The overnight temperature had only dropped a few more degrees when we awoke at 5 am and there was no snow on the ground. We were anxious to get an early start on the third of our 3-day dash to the Colorado border but had to balance that urge against the risk of encountering icy roads.

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Fresh snow added tension to our drive into Colorado.

We left Beaver under threatening skies in the lightest of snowfall with strong winds and carefully towed our trailer up and down not one, but 3 passes, without incident. The road conditions were just good enough for towing without chains. There was almost no traffic on the freeway all day and we stood out like sore thumbs amongst the few semi-trucks, but no one cared. The truckers ignored us. We reveled in several hours of bright sun, but still near-freezing temperatures, during the most visually dramatic part of the day, which was in red rock country. The beautiful scenery against the bright blue skies ratcheted-back the tension from the morning drive spent on high alert.

At 3 pm, we unceremoniously crossed the Utah-Colorado border on I-70 with no police car in sight. Fortunately, Fruita was only 17 miles beyond the state line. We finished the day like we had started it: in a snow flurry. The weather that day had mimicked the recent, wildly fluctuating executive orders and decrees about closing state borders. Lucky for us, Colorado’s governor hadn’t engaged in the mayhem—he implemented a stay-at-home plan and then let it be.

We were warmly greeted at the Fruita RV park, from 6’ (2 meters) away, and the staff confirmed that there still were no restrictions on walking or biking on the local multi-use path that connected Fruita with Grand Junction’s extensive network. Nor were there any threats of shutting down RV parks in the state, like had happened in Utah.

The nearby Colorado National Monument, which drew us to Fruita in late 2015, was still open. The services were closed in the Monument like at Joshua Tree NP, but unlike there, the roads were open to vehicles. Interestingly, that evening a desert hiking club friend wrote saying that Joshua Tree was fully closed as of the day before. Even though we’d always planned to be out of that area on or before the April 1 closure, it still was alarming: it underscored the endless uncertainty. Realities, like national parks being open, that used to be rock-solid, were no longer so. This had been the 3rd or 4th status change to Joshua Tree entrance rules in about 2 weeks.

Re-equilibrating
We were deeply relieved when we crossed into Colorado at the Utah border and so pleased when we finally entered our icy-cold trailer after spending extra time fiddling to situate it just so for 2 or more months. But it was a little before getting into bed, an hour late, when the profound relief from being settled refugees in Colorado surged through my body like an exorcism.
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Crossing the state line into Colorado, our sanctuary!

The triggering event, the one that made the emotional dominos dramatically fall, had nothing to do with the virus. Instead, I had stumbled upon the answer to the question “Where do my Sent emails go when they aren’t in my Sent box or in the recipient’s Inbox?” This intermittent problem had been so frustrating for both of us, it was a grating unpredictability.

It was the uncertainty, the not always knowing what was happening to my emails, that had heightened the frustration. The destabilizing feeling of not being able to trust something to work that I should be able to trust echoed the destabilizing feelings of living with the mounting uncertainties of the pandemic. It was the resonance between the out-of-control feeling of these 2 different experiences, the virus and the electronics, that gave a shove to the dominos of joy, elation, gratitude, and relief on this pivotal travel day, this day of resolution for both.

The relief from frustration and uncertainty in this other arena of my life amplified the relief from successfully maneuvering through the higher-stakes issues of the pandemic. It was like an explosion that occurs from mixing 2 non-explosive materials, which spoke to the accumulation of stress, the flight-or-fight responses, the weird hormones that get released during times of heightened anxiety. Like with the disproportionate joy and relief we felt when we secured face shields days earlier, this over-reaction to solving the email problem highlighted the constant state of vigilance we’d been in; the perpetual, low-grade sense of doom. We can only control so much, there is a limit to what we can actively manage, and then there is this overlay of these other physiological stress-response systems that we can only sit back and watch.

After the high from this emotional release settled, I pulled up my calendar and realized that it had only been 10 days—10 days since I greeted Bill with “I don’t think we should go home, we should stay here in 29 Palms until April 1, then drive straight to Fruita.”

So much happened in those 10 days. I had cancelled 2 dozen appointments at home and was pushing hard to get 2 telemedicine appointments, the second of which I was finally granted on our second driving day. We were without our refrigerator for 4 days in the middle of that interval. At the end of our second driving day, we dropped $1400 for a suspension repair on our trailer. We think it was an urgent repair, we think it was likely wildly overpriced, but we think it was a reasonable choice—more uncertainty. The morning of our last driving day, we were greeted with below-freezing temperatures and snow on the road. We thought we had 1 pass to drive over but there were 3. The daily fear of travel bans had kept us on edge. There had been so many dramas against the backdrop of Bill’s recent pronouncement that there was a 10% chance that one of us would die from the virus during this pandemic. Clearly we had habituated to the stress more than we realized, but it was equally clear that we’d been incomplete in discharging tension along the way.

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Savoring victory! Our first full day in Fruita.

The uncertainty level for everyone continued to be high during these early days of this pandemic, but the number of issues for which we were uncertain was rapidly shrinking. We felt so very lucky that we had crafted a way to respectfully “Shelter in Place” without “Staying at Home,” to be where we wanted to be, to likely be allowed to stay.

We were now clear about what precautions we needed to take to stay safe in regard to mask wearing, social distancing, contaminated surfaces, and aerosols of viral particles. We could focus on restoring our routines to keep ourselves physically and emotionally healthy. We felt like we could settle into this situation, embrace it as our customized new normal, and be calm and content. There were no signs that the governor of Colorado was contemplating closing down outdoor recreation, though I’d continue checking that daily.

It was now time to let our emotional healing from the weeks of traumatic events exploding all around us continue at its own pace in our spacious new mental and physical environment. It was time for us to shift from obsessive problem-solving to being in maintenance mode, to focusing on consistently implementing infection prevention behavior.

We needed to acknowledge the job well done to get ourselves to a mental and physical place to reclaim joy, fun, and contentment. Our new normal was sustainable; we only needed to settle into it, to integrate the peacefulness that now could be ours. The sprint was behind us; for us, the pandemic was now an unimaginably long endurance event. We anticipated that we might live like this in our trailer for another year or more, until there was a vaccine for us, though we didn’t know where we would go next.