Fruita: in denial of the unlikely name, I kept calling it “frui-ti-a”. Then I imagined it was spelled like the Italian word for fruit, frutta, to make it seem less childish. One soft-spoken friend said “That’s a hell of a name!” And when giving out our temporary city name on the phone, we struggled to convince the person on the receiving end of the call that it was indeed a real name. It was so implausible that even “Fruit with an ‘a’ on the end” didn’t register as a probable name. But like all names that initially produce rejection, we got over it: “Yup, it’s Fruita; Fruita, Colorado (Do you have a problem with that???)”.
Punctuating our joy with being in funny-sounding Fruita (population 13,500), was the absence the following day of the snow flurries in which we had arrived. Instead, our first full day in Fruita was cool but unabashedly sunny and beautiful. It was hard to believe we were actually there, that we hadn’t triggering out-of-stater expulsion by the authorities at the border, and that it was as glorious as a place we could hope to be. “Joy, joy, joy!” We still had problems to solve, but this was a day to begin unraveling our weeks of chronic tension from the uncertainties of the pandemic, to celebrate, to breath deeply.
Our first hike from Fruita & no snow!
Back in late 2015, we embarked on a northern-tier itinerary Bill designed for us while we waited, and waited, for delivery of a truck that was special-ordered to haul our new trailer. We visited the Black Hills of South Dakota, Rocky Mountain National Park near Denver, and other places along the way. Fruita, on the Western Slope of Colorado, west of Grand Junction, made it on to the route because of the unknown-to-us Colorado National Monument (CNM). We enjoyed the tour but didn’t plan to return—these destinations were too far out of the way.
Subsequently, hikers mentioned Colorado’s Fourteeners, and Bill literally bought the book. The 52 peaks over 14,000’ were intriguing, classic destinations, but they were summer venues and we were wedded to spending our summers in the Dolomites of Italy. They and the book were shelved.
When the COVID-19 Pandemic reared its ugly head in February, Bill suggested we tackle some of the 14’ers if our overseas summer trip was cancelled. It was a perfect fit for a Plan B. By the end of March, panic had set in: we did not want to go to Italy even if allowed, and we didn’t want to return home to the NW, where the virus was raging. Instead of going home as planned, we toyed with going straight to Colorado from California. Fruita slowly came to mind as a moderate elevation (4,500’) location on the Colorado Plateau where we could tread water while the desert became too hot for us and while the snow in the Rockies melted.
Once on the road to Fruita, I requested that our RV slot reservation be extended from 1 month to 2 and a few days later, I added another 2 months. We were losing confidence that, as out-of-state residents, we’d be allowed in the cooler Colorado mountains for the summer. That new reality motivated us to explore and appreciate the finer points of Fruita, whatever they were.
With our eyes open wider than in 2015, we recognized what a perfect location our RV park had been and what a happening place Fruita was, especially our far-west end of the town. Within a half mile of our new summer encampment was a children’s mountain bike practice course, a disc (frisbee) golf field, a state park, the Colorado River, and a wide, paved, multi-use path that connected with the massive Grand Junction system. A mile up the road from us, was access to the 123,000 acre McInnis Canyons National Conservation Lands with 2 dozen nearby trails in stunning red rock formations. Across the road from the trailhead parking area, was a commercial tour operator for water sports on the Colorado River and horseback riding in McInnis Canyons.
A mile beyond those attractions, was the west entrance to the Colorado National Monument. Two miles or so in the other direction, was a wakeboard park that looked like an option for learning the sport in a pond. And that was just our neighborhood, without looking for anything. We likely would only hike and bike, but we were impressed with Fruita and its commitment to individual sports infrastructure.
Bike chain rings are used on many of Fruita’s city logos.
And for our nerdy side, Dinosaur Hill, the site of the 1901 discovery of one of the most complete finds of a giant plant-eating dinosaur, the Brontosaurus, was about a mile away from our RV park. Its associated museum (closed during the pandemic) was about the same distance in the opposite direction. Fruita had a number of features that put it on the map for a diverse set of interests.
We arrived in Fruita knowing that securing food would be a challenge. Research during our recon phase when deciding whether to venture to Fruita or not, we learned that there were no Whole Foods Markets, no Trader Joe’s, no Costcos. We anticipated that we’d be paying more money for lower quality food, which was immediately proven true.
Unfortunately, equally clear was that food and supplies were less available during the pandemic in Grand Junction than had been the case in Palm Springs. We wondered if it was in part a distribution system problem, like what was presumably behind the absence of our favorite stores. We also learned that Coloradans were big-time hoarders. Colorado was #3 in the nation for hoarding at the beginning of the pandemic and #1 for hoarding before there were any cases of Coronavirus in the state. We were up against pros and hand-written signs on cold cases admonishing them not to hoard persisted. We knew that eggs and butter were always unreliably available in these times but the absence of carrots and apples in Fruita was a surprise.
By visiting both of the 2 top markets in nearby Grand Junction (population 65,000) on our first shopping day, we were able to get almost all of the food we needed, though no cleaning or paper products were available in early April. Unfortunately, I learned that I’d be making an additional trip each week to a butcher shop for my ground pork, the mainstay of my high saturated fat, keto diet. This was a minimally labeled product with no mention of fat content, provenance, or of anything else.
I was disappointed to get push-back as an outsider at the small meat market even though I was requesting the same $45 order each week and I was doing my best to earn my place as a valued customer. After a month, the presumed owner lightened-up and began thanking me for my business. I eventually even had a slight bit of hope that he might reserve some product for me during the worst of the meat shortages.
I felt incredibly lucky to secure a single bottle of hand sanitizer at the meat market—our first and only since the pandemic began. The butcher had a little table of supplies he could spare. There were usually 3 types of items available each week, like paper towels, bleach, or nitrile gloves. One week he had pricey Purcell sanitizer. He said it was a fluke: he’d had it on order for weeks and out of the blue, 2 boxes of it showed up. It was sweet that he sold it to his customers and for us, it was an early symbol of hope that things would get better. It was a one-off, however, and I regretted that I politely only bought one bottle.
Bill noticed another sign of hope on the Walmart grocery pick-up website. The first marker that something was becoming available was that the item, like Dawn dish detergent, would finally appear on the site but be noted as out-of-stock. In a week or 2, it might be possible to order it, then the item would be canceled from our prepaid order before our scheduled pick-up the next day. Perhaps the following week, we’d be able to buy the item, but not subsequent weeks. The Walmart website and my interactions with the butcher kept our anxiety about shortages alive, kept the sense of uncertainty fresh, but we were getting enough.
One of the Monument’s iconic formations.
A friend wrote that there was no elastic available because of people buying it all for making masks. A screechy emergency alert on my phone one Saturday morning announcing the governor’s extension of his stay at home order sent me rushing to the Colorado state webpage in hopes that we could still leave for our bike ride.
None of these startling events were catastrophic for us, but our reactions revealed that we still hadn’t fully restored our resiliency for troubling news, that we were too readily thrown into a nervous state, we still felt vulnerable to the rampant uncertainty. We were however, able to re-ground ourselves more quickly than one or 2 weeks prior.
The RV park owner kindly dropped-off a package at our trailer. Our door was open, he set it on the door mat, and once he left I said to Bill “We’re trapped, we can’t get out of our trailer!” It of course wasn’t true, but that’s how we felt. Now we had another potentially Coronavirus-contaminated box to deal with before we could comfortably leave for our hike. An hour earlier, we’d returned from grocery shopping and had methodically gone through our elaborate ritual of mindfully bringing items into our trailer with a minimum of cross-contamination.
A package I’d picked up at the office before shopping had been tossed into the back of the truck where the contaminated groceries would go. Once home, I took scissors, a plastic bag, and alcohol to clean my hands, to the truck. The open tailgate became our work station. I slit open the mailing bag, slid the plastic wrapped garment into a clean plastic bag, discarded the shipping bag, then cleaned my hands and scissors with alcohol (to conserve our sanitizer). I counted the number of shipping days in order to determine if the garment and its bag needed to be quarantined or not. (We lacked the supplies to sanitize everything, so we relied on quarantining when possible.)
We’d just gone through the same rituals and thought processes for the vacuum packed meat destined for the freezer, the frozen veggies, and all of the other food. The shampoo bottle could be washed off; the eggs went on to one of the 2 quarantine shelves in our little frig; carrots and celery went into new outer bags. Each time we handled items in the original store plastic wrap through the week, we’d handle it like it was freshly contaminated. We didn’t consider the 72 hours viability limit of the Coronavirus on plastic to be sufficient time for isolation for refrigerated items—it didn’t allow for the prolongation of infectiveness from having been in the cold—a factor never discussed in the news or medical literature. Bill was always quick to remind me that researchers store viral samples in the freezer. It’s a terrible thing to be afraid of the food in your frig, but we were, we were afraid of its packaging.
We were anxious to get on the trail for special encounters like with this Collared Lizard.
The need to be constantly revisiting our kitchen rituals was wearing; the need to re-evaluate the danger that purchases presented to us each time we touched them was tedious. When we encountered something seemingly innocent, like a carton of eggs, we had to pause, plan how to extract them from the refrigerator to minimize cross-contamination in the kitchen, and determine at which junctions we should wash our hands. Avoiding potential contact with the virus slurped up time and attention every day. We’d heard early on in the pandemic that we should be washing our hands at least 10 times a day; we were washing more often than that just putting groceries away.
Lemonade from Lemons
Talk about always hoping to make lemonade from lemons: Through an unfortunate alarm triggering, gassing incident in our trailer at midnight on our 5th night in Fruita from our neighbor’s idling diesel truck, we were given a much more spacious and better-sited RV slot than our original ‘dregs’ location.
After airing out our trailer and going back to bed, I fretted about how we would survive for months without knowing which nights his truck would trigger our alarm when he was leaving for work. On the way back from shopping in the morning, I noticed a lovely, more spacious, open spot that would shift our orientation so our refrigerator wouldn’t be in the sun all day and our single awning would shelter us from the afternoon sun. The park owner said the nicer spot was reserved for overnight guests because it was easy to back in to. Amazingly, when I mentioned the reason for our request, the noxious fumes event at midnight, the space was instantly ours. We wasted no time in occupying it. Being much better sited for the summer heat was a source of smiles and gratitude every day—little things can matter so much, especially in difficult times.
Like with securing a superior slot for our trailer, we celebrated every little victory to counter the constant bad news from the pandemic. We were delighted when our month’s supply of 85% chocolate bars (unavailable in Grand Junction) arrived despite the very, very poor shipping and tracking information provided by the manufacturer. And I had a successful, first telemedicine appointment even though we had to cruise Fruita’s neighborhoods for a sufficiently fast connection and I had to sit in the backseat of the truck. Of course, learning that the kidney cyst discovered during an ultrasound in February was unlikely to be cancerous was also a relief. Daily, we focused on making “Joy, joy, joy” our new refrain.
Another well-sited picnic in the Monument.
The poor social distancing behavior we observed in Colorado was upsetting. We noticed the vape shop next to the butcher was doing a brisk business with mask-less customers even though they were on the official list of closed, non-essential businesses. The 20-30 year olds on the trails were oblivious to granting us 6’ of clearance and snickered when we darted up unstable slopes to isolate ourselves from them. We chatted (from a safe distance) with 2 young, local, hospital nurses; to our horror, the guy had his fingers all over his face and in his mouth while we inquired about the COVID-19 cases in their hospital. And there was nothing to do but cringe at the sight of 2 car-fulls of teen boys piling out of their vehicles in a parking lot. Predictably, most of the gray-hairs like us were cordial about making space for all of us on the trail.
We were disappointed that most of the people we encountered were suffering from the invincibility mind-set. Even in the markets, sometimes as few as half of the customers were wearing masks. And the young mother next to us in the RV park took the first announcement of some states opening as a signal that masks were unnecessary, though the contrary was specifically stated by Colorado’s governor.
A few weeks later, she terrified us both when she all but stuck her head in our truck window to chat with me. She was so quick that I didn’t have time to whip on my light duty, neck gaiter mask. I duly noted the date of the potential exposure on our calendar and after Day 5, tentatively announced that I likely hadn’t be infected. Of course, it would be at least 10 more days to know for sure. Less than a week later, I had another sudden ‘in you face’ event with an RV park employee, so I reset my mental calendar for another 5 days.
Group conformity to the invincible identity seemed to be an important part of the local Colorado culture. Essentially none of the motorcyclists wore helmets, though most of the cyclists did. Few of the hikers wore sun protective clothing or hats, preferring the sporty, deeply tanned look. But a first: we saw a late-middle-aged couple on a motorcycle wearing sun hats but no helmets! Our choice to always cover-up in the sun drew comments like “Where are YOU from??” We were perplexed by how often we received thinly vailed snipes from hikers and cyclists—not a lot—but we rarely provoke what feel like verbal insults. And, who knows why the oncoming motorcyclist yelled at me?
We were disappointed and annoyed that too many Coloradan’s weren’t hearing the message that “We are all in this together” but we also felt that we could largely stay safe without their help. The reduced connection with others because of social distancing did however have us longing for a sense of reciprocity and mutual support from strangers around us.
Our new neck gaiters were our go-to mask on the trail.
The obliviousness of so many to the permanent damage done to people who had been very sick with COVID-19 was stunning. The permanent heart, lung, kidney, neurological, and muscle damage, even in young, top athletes, didn’t seem to penetrate their brains. And was I the only one who knew about the Broadway actor whose leg was amputated (April 20) because of a complication of COVID? One of the little mentioned problems with the virus was damage to a patient’s clotting system, a known, late, consequence of many serious disease processes. There was no shrugging-off that this virus was ‘just the flu” when leaving the hospital minus a leg.
One study with a cheery tone from an earlier SARS outbreak indicated that patients’ lung function was still improving 15 years later. Some of us don’t have that many years left to wait for full recovery… ignorance can be blissful but it can also be fatal. “Where are their brains?” Was a constant refrain from Bill.
Falling In Love With Fruita
A counterpoint to our aggravation with much of the public “not getting it” about the deadly virus was that by the end of our 3rd week in Colorado, we were falling in love with Fruita. We deemed it as our first find for a perfect shoulder season destination; edging out England for spring hiking. Fruita was a much easier place to be than England because there was no need for all of those nightly bookings, there were so many trails, so many views, and so many fascinating geologic formations. Of course, Fruita lacked the culture change and history of England, but it was a dramatic destination. We tentatively decided that we’d return to Fruita next April, in 2021, rather than visit England, because we thought it was highly unlikely that we’d get a vaccine in time for spending next summer overseas. Realistically, even 2022 was on the ‘we hope’ list for overseas travel.
Humor & The Dark Side
By the end of March, we and others had a desperate need for humor. I briefly engaged in a flurry of online joke exchanges, many featuring toilet paper. We loved the whole-body laughter the humor triggered to briefly release the accumulated tension from the fear and uncertainty about both the present and the days ahead.
Somewhere in early April, we heard that Saturday Night Live (SNL) cautiously produced a show with all of the cast performing from home. Gradually, we noticed the CNN anchors laughing and exchanging little jokes that were sensitive to the dire times (like mishaps when cutting their own hair at home), well separated from their touching stories about the endless tragedies produced by the virus. We appreciated this humor and the dabs of intermixed tenderness and levity during Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings.
On April 23rd, we were saying “You can’t make this stuff up” when Trump riffed about injecting and ingesting disinfectant to self-treat the Coronavirus. Like so many others, our jaws dropped, we froze in terror as we watched it unfold real time, and then broke-out in uncontrollable, nervous laughter. We knew it wasn’t a joke, but it was the most outrageously ridiculous thing we’d heard, maybe ever. We concluded that SNL wouldn’t be able to embellish on this, that it was already over the top.
COVID humor on a nearby ranch.
For about 48 hours, CNN replayed the clip of Trump’s “stable genius” treatment ideas and we roller-coaster’ed through the same range of emotions every time. In between viewings, we’d break-out into giggles from revisiting the scene in our minds, including the classic, accompanying, hand gestures.
Sadly, predictably, at the 48 hour point, we first heard about the calls made to Poison Control Centers from people gargling or rinsing their nostrils with bleach or disinfectant solutions. I had predicted that we’d never hear about these events, guessing that since they were intentional and not accidental ingestions, that they’d go straight to the ER. So much for that theory. With further reading, I learned that 18 hours after Trump’s “cleansing” protocol was made public, that New York City’s Poison Control Center calls for exposure to household cleaners more than doubled. Fortunately, none had yet resulted in death.
Back eons ago, in mid-March, we made our last hike with 3 other desert club members who joined us at Joshua Tree NP. There were no hugs upon greeting or departing and we all carefully observed social distancing on the trail as best we could. It was awkward, unfamiliar, and devoid of some of the expected joyousness from being together. At the end of the disconnected-feeling goodbyes until next December, Bill and I privately wondered how many of us would be there, we wondered who among us would or wouldn’t survive the pandemic.
Sadly, on May 7, the first in our group of 5 died from the Coronavirus back home in Minnesota. Horrified to hear of her passing, her obituary was comforting: “Nancy died peacefully after a very brief, aggressive attack by COVID-19…graciously with her son by her side for the last minutes of her life.” We had feared that highly social Nancy had died like most of the 77,000 known victims in the US at that time, without a family member. We feared that she had suffered through the typically slow, painful death but from her obit, it sounded like she likely declined or dodged the 2 weeks on a ventilator. The few words in the obit helped us believe what we wanted to believe: that her passing was swift with a loving presence.
We didn’t linger on “Why Nancy?” We knew there was no answer to that question in a pandemic; we knew that she had been extremely intentional about dodging the virus. We wondered if her family knew where she picked it up. We wondered if the virus came from contact with her son or his 12-13 year old son, or on her flight home, or from groceries, but we’d never know, as they might not. We thought it likely that since she died so quickly, that the virus had triggered a derangement in her clotting system, which was increasingly being understood as rapidly initiating a cascade of fatal reactions in COVID-19 patients. Likewise, we’d never know. Nancy’s only comorbidity was her 77 years.
Nancy was old; she was the oldest, highly active desert hiking club member we knew. Barely tipping the scale at 100 pounds with her pockets full, she was a giant. Nancy was still doing 17 mile, all day treks across the desert and she was scheduled to be hiking the Santiago de Compostela in Portugal at this time, not dying.
Lost Oasis at Cottonwood in Joshua Tree: Bonnie, Bill & Nancy.
Nancy was notorious for hiking all day in the desert with only a half liter of water and would rarely drink half of that. On her month-long overseas treks, she typically packed 30 cheese-tortilla-mustard ‘sandwiches’. Any left-over would be eaten once back home (never mind TSA rules). And on the rigorous High Sierra John Muir long distance backpacking trail, Nancy opted to eat almost exclusively uncooked oatmeal for the over 200-mile trip to save weight. Her favorite post-hike treat was red wine and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Nancy’s sudden passing heightened our sense of vulnerability to also falling victim to the virus and yet our overwhelming need was to honor her in our hearts. She was our mentor, our friend, the one that made sure that newcomers like us were buffered from the cold shoulder of legacy club members. Nancy was a perpetual motion machine, constantly reaching out for hike dates and doing volunteer gigs at the film festival, art festivals, other cultural events, and with trail maintenance work crews. The most important thing now was to celebrate Nancy with her unyielding smile and her warm heart. Thank you, Nancy, for including us in your life.
PS: We subsequently learned, indirectly from her son, that Nancy died of a full-blown coagulopathy from Coronavirus. She probably had deep vein thromboses in her legs for a week or more before seeing her doctor. The doctor sent her to the hospital, she was transferred to a larger hospital, she went through an extended surgery during which they were unable to remove all of the clots in her lungs and around her heart, and then died, all in 12+ hours. Brief and aggressive it was. The stoicism that was so much a part of who Nancy was likely contributed to her death because of her characteristic reluctance to seek help of any kind.
The Roller Coaster Ride Continues
Nancy’s sudden death fortified our already strong resolve to be consistently meticulous in distancing ourselves from Coronavirus exposures. Particularly on grocery shopping days, we’d make mistakes. We’d berate ourselves out loud rather than just cringe, strategize together to see what could be done to do damage control, and resolve to be even more consistent in the future. Surviving the pandemic was an endurance event, we had to hold it together every step of the way through to the finish line.
Equally important was tending to our mental wellbeing. That meant keeping a regular sleep schedule, maintaining our exercise regime of hiking and biking, and celebrating multiple times a day. We celebrated a job well done with our sanitizing routines, advancing our understanding of the nuances of the disease, a good hike or bike ride, the beauty of the Monument, our good fortune of being in Fruita, and any other little thing we could think of. Our bedtime routine was reviewing only the successes of the day and the nightly chant “We made it through another day!”
Now, it was time to shift from surviving to thriving, which required specific intention and attention. The high level of uncertainty about so many aspects of our lives continued but we needed to systematically reduce its negative effects on us, we needed to move the Coronavirus from “project” mode to “maintenance” mode; it was time for it to become a background issue.