Navigating the Pandemic Highway

Part One: March 2020

  1. The internet connection is unstable. Their voices track in, crackle, break off, the video of Lidia stops in mid sentence, frozen with her usual half-smile broken as if in a scream. I turn off my laptop, stare at the woodstove’s glow, and cry. I’m done in. It’s been too much/too quickly for me to take in and absorb, this health crisis is a flash flood that sweeps me up and gasping, sends me to bed.

  1. Driving through Albuquerque in rush hour on a Tuesday was easy. It shouldn’t be. It should be slow, stopping and starting as cars pile onto the freeway heading home. It was too fucking easy. The little traffic out instead flowed around my clunking camper van, parting and coming together in front of us. The end of the day routine had changed, everyone was working from home. Mandated by the government. I stared at the dimming sunlight hitting the Sandias, grateful though. Home after 1620 miles on the road. Back to New Mexico in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. Where else do you want to be but with friends and community in such times? Home.

  1. The Land Rover battery died. The tire flat. The hot water off. The fridge off. Water storage was down. Propane at 40%. Firewood low too. I stacked my belongings from the camper outside in the morning and unpacked, did laundry, settled back in as much as I could in one day. I mistakenly checked Facebook and got caught in the news. New Mexico was closing all cafes, restaurants, bars. Our little town is a tourist destination. Businesses rely on their money, those cafes and restaurants need more than just locals’ cash to survive. No notice, less than 24 hours notice that is, and bam, how many friends just lost their jobs?

  1. A study from the Imperial College in London stunned me, sickened me with their projections of the impact that the Corona Virus will have on the world, not just here in the States. Looking to China, to Italy, the measures taken, the implications on economy, healthcare, agriculture, education, social life as we know it has ended. This is not just for a few weeks. This is not a hoax. We’re in this together. For months at the very least.

  1. How can I help? Limited income, some savings, living off-grid, what can I do? Will I lose my own work, the freelance gig economy that’s supported me for years? The part-time internet work for a software company? Nicole, whose job at the tavern ended last night with the new state law, she has two boys at home, a useless ex-husband who fights her on every detail yet doesn’t spend what he could or should on the lads. Steph and I tipped her generously at the restaurant, cash. Nancy came in and joined us, awkward with being unable to hug or touch or sit too closely. Six feet distance the news tells us to keep and definitely no handshakes, and yes, wipe everything. Nancy sat at the four-top with us, looked away and cried. She’d just come from work. Shut down her café. Contacted her three employees. Locked the doors. Business done, just like that. Her eyes reddened then overflowed and she apologised. For crying. We brainstorm ways to bring in enough to cover costs but the reality was all too fresh and raw and none of us could think too clearly. We sat with our drinks at the isolated tables.

  1. The tavern had followed the rules, posting a huge sign on the front swing doors that opened into an entry room with pool table. There on the next doorway another sign asked us all to use the bathroom to the left to wash our hands before entering. Inside the main room, one that’s over 100ft long and thirty or more wide was empty but for eight or nine wooden tables, spread out. The shelves behind the counter lay empty of bottles. Jimmy took me to a table by the window. Nicole came over, smiling and laughing, her usual way of being, handed over two menus but then said, we only have burgers and fried food. I handed back the menu. Burger and fries then, please. Steph asked for the veggie one and I changed mine to match, cheddar, green chile, sweet potato fries. No bar stools. Hushed conversations from other locals. Two tourists come and go. I was grateful to be back.

  1. I’d been away ten weeks, my home on the market, working from the van in Oregon, writing some, editing more, and then the virus hit a new tipping point. On the Sunday afternoon, I’d packed up tent, critters, (Harold and Stevie), and drove back to the Southwest. That first day on the road took me over Grant’s Pass, and then more than three or four other mountain summits, through snow, rain, slush and ice. The wheels slid on the downhill in the dark, and I leaned forward, sweating in the chilled van, whose heater had broken weeks before. The conditions were nightmare-ish, visibility limited, and glancing over, I saw that on the other side of the interstate, a crash of two semis had closed down all traffic and the flashing emergency lights added to the background noise in my head, the worry and stress of driving so far in as short a time as possible. The wheels slid again at 30 mph. The road curved, dipped, climbed, edged mountains and valleys, semis slipped past me, my lights flashing to warn them of my slow speeds. I didn’t care. I had to take it carefully. I had to get back. Before the state closed all borders. Before a national curfew closed down the country. Before who knew what…

  1. The phone call doesn’t go through. Instead, a voice tells me that I don’t have enough funds in my account. I’m then connected to the stupidity of automatic payment options, no humans involved. I punch in the correct choices, #1 for payments, #1 for card on file, blah blah, denied. Please call your credit card company. I can’t, remember, idiot? There’s not enough funds for me to make calls. I begin again, #1 for payments, #2 for a new card. Fine. It works. I call the water company for a delivery, tall tank on the right of the house, I say. Then I call EBT to check my balance on that too, only to find that New Mexico has decided that now is a good time to cut my benefits down to $16 per month. Now. In the midst of all this. Fine.

  1. Chicken Pot Pie. Block red wine. Six pack of Santa Fe Pale Ale. Ground beef. Organic creamy tomato soup x2. Veggie soy chorizo. Cornbread mix. 2# Honeycrisp apples. Beets. Org yellow onions 5#. Bag of gold potatoes. Bag sweet potatoes. Both 3#s. Navel Oranges 4#. Zucchini, 3 of them. Organic chicken broth. Sweet corn cans x3. Soymilk creamer. Cliff bars, a box of twelve. Cleaning wipes. Canned cat food x6. Carrots, small bag. Toothpaste. Can of green chile. Black peppercorns. Tikka veggies meal x3. Dal meal x2. Jasmine rice 2#. Garlic. Trail mix. Water crackers. Salad mix. Savory and sweet trail mix. Kale. Cabbage. Bell peppers x2. Shortbread. Oh and a bottle of water. 2 gallons. What else did I buy? Dog and cat kibble, in 20# large bags.

  1. On the way back from shopping, a snow storm hit. The roads were empty of the usual commuters and tourists out on the Turquoise Trail. Windscreen wipers flip side to side, a minor scratch sound at the bottom left corner. Gas tank is half full, I wondered about stopping for more. Nope. Couldn’t do it. I wanted to get home, make a fire, take a shower, fill the fridge. I pulled in to find that the water company had delivered as promised but to the wrong tank, not the one on the right of my home but to the left of the main gate, one that feeds nothing but just collects rainwater from the shed. Great. Then I remember the fridge needs to have the pilot relit for my new supplies. Great. The snow turns to hail. Great. Can I cry now?

  1. Wind slams against the adobe home, a slight metallic taste in my mouth as I imagine it ripping off the tin roof, that’d be just my luck right now. I can’t face finding out why my fridge doesn’t work so the new five-pack of beer is outside the back door and I’m heating the one and only frozen item I’d bought, a chicken pot pie. Comfort food. Today needed to be slower, less productive or outwardly focused. I’ve not worked for almost a week, my bank balance will be fucked but it had to happen, the three day drive back to New Mexico, the time out, and today. More sleeping/Less Doing to misquote an advert. The grey and white clouds flitter by, the lower ones on a race track, the higher ones on the marathon. I’m foot deep in blankets, not going anywhere. Who is? Even Stevie, the wanderer, is staying home, on Harold’s armchair by the woodstove. Harry himself is half asleep on the wooden floor. The pie in the oven fills the small house with warmth that fills my mouth and my tum finally wakes up. I’ve not been eating, not really since Sunday, the day I had realized how fucked the virus is making our western world. I sip on a cool pale ale, wait for my early dinner and avoid the internet. Not turned it on once today. Do you know how hard that is for someone whose job is online, writing, editing, marketing? I took a nap, two hours under the covers, watching hail hit the front window, listening to Harold’s muffled ruffs as he dreamt. Stevie curled up next to me on the bed, his paw in my hand, our usual sleeping position.

  1. – can someone give me a fucking hug?–

  1. Chopin, Mozart, and then a news flash from the radio that the state of New Mexico has implimented strict restrictions on performances and group events and the newscaster talks of the economic effects. I fade out, can’t take it in right now. I sit by the fire with belly full of chicken pot pie and beer. Then with a nod to Harry, we step out into the chill wind. We have acres of open empty desert land, rolling hills, open valley far off to the west, a deep arroyo to the south. I’m one of the lucky ones.

  1. No human contact allowed. What will this do to us all? Especially the loners and solo wanderers like myself? When in Oregon, I’d begun to notice the jokes that it was those passing through who were the problem, the risk of contact and contagion from us too high. Back home, I could carry the virus from the northwest, from the gas stations and public bathrooms used along the drive across the country. Trust. Distrust. Since I left the Oregon coast only five days ago, the state has closed all campgrounds. New Mexico has closed their state parks. What would have happened to me then, if I’d stayed? Where could I have camped there or here? I think of the other vanlifers, what’s going to happen for them? What’s next? The closing of one state to another? The reality of living in the van, an unwelcome outsider in the truest most extreme of meanings. Drifting from one place to another, always knowing that I’d be seen as a carrier, a risk, one who could bring a deadly disease to town. The doors closing, gas stations rationing, stuck in one state or another, unable to make it back to New Mexico? The line between fiction and memoir wobbles on those cobbled back roads within my dreams. The dog sleeps again. The radio fades in and out of my awareness. The sun sets through scattered clouds filling my home with golden streaks across the walls and I’m drawn outside. Grateful again.

  1. How will the pandemic affect me financially? Less than it will for most of my friends. My income is limited, about $1300 take home each month but my land and home is paid off so no mortgage due. My bills are few, phone, internet, propane, property taxes, school loans, credit card bill, and insurance on home and vehicles, what else? Living costs for groceries, pet food, gas, extras. What am I forgetting? Firewood, water. It works out, just, normally that is. My income comes mostly from working as the communications officer for a software company, 15-20 hrs per week. The rest of my time is hustling for freelance gigs as an editor, writer, publisher. That income will be affected probably, the extra stuff that people will cut back on. I wonder how that will be as I already see faculty and friends asking for help, losing their incomes from writing and teaching. I won’t be spending anything on advertising right now, holding on to my own savings for the weeks and months ahead. The writing conferences and retreats I’d been invited to in Vermont for summer, will they happen? The Overland Expo in May that takes place in Flagstaff, will that happen? It’s too soon to know but bringing together some 18,000 to 22,000 people for one interactive weekend outdoors is a petrie dish in the woods. Not a good idea but that’s where I teach and give presentations, get my name and company known to the wider travel world, it’s where I sell my books too, the only show that supports the travel writing that I do. Now I’ll have a stock at home and nowhere to sell them. That’s a bit of a problem. Again though, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m set up, somewhat, and can probably weather this storm of restrictions and risks. Can you? I hope so, I really do.

  1. I talked to my brother in England. “Are you all stock-piling toilet paper?” he asked. I thought I’d be the one to ask that but no, he beat me to it. He told about Boris hasn’t yet shut down all businesses but pubs and other social meeting places are shut. His partner, Anita, is a nurse. She tells me that with her NHS proof, she can go to a certain supermarket on Sunday between certain hours, open only for health care workers. The kids are okay, working from home, studying from home. Pete’s not sure when his business will close the physical doors. Anita even worries, a nurse, she worries. There are no guarantees for any of us.

  1. Another storm heads in. Heavy cloud cover, streaks of sunshine over the Ortiz Mountains, and the temperature drops. Stevie claims the armchair. I chop onions, sauteed with garlic, corn, bell peppers, add vegie chorizo, green chile, beans and tomatoes diced. Dinner.

  1. What am I doing with these notes? I don’t know. Writing is how I make sense of the world. It grounds me. And I realise that this is going to shift how our western capitalist world works. This then is a living document of one person’s experience within a small community of a few hundred in rural New Mexico. Be safe out there.

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