Whoa… what the heck, huh? Like so many others, we’re all going to have a story around this crazy Covid-19 thing. Here’s ours. For many years I’ve kept a journal. The latest volume began March 5th with this entry:
March 5, 2020: “Haven’t written much about the Coronavirus. As of now it’s spreading world-wide. But difficult to know the implications… Though it’s spreading, deaths seem uncommon – at least now. Still – contracting and suffering from it are undesirable. Hard to know at this stage how dangerous the situation is… Not wanting/willing to live in fear – wisdom and discretion are warranted and will hopefully prove adequate to combat…”
March 7th, 2020: Heading to Illinois to grab our son from school, spend some time with my folks, then turn around and drive home. Being 5 weeks post-op I can’t sit in the car for as long as I used to. The plan is to slowly wander one of my favorite stretches of road, Highway 34 through eastern Colorado/western Nebraska’s small farming communities and get as far as I can before dark. I hate driving in the dark. The danger of deer on the road, especially Interstates through Nebraska and Iowa where you’re moving so fast – is just too great. Just after dark I wind up at the Edgetowner Motel in DeSoto, Iowa. A nice couple has just purchased the Motel a week ago and are more than happy to rent me a room. Later that night I switch on the news and still, really nothing much on Coronavirus. A few mentions, but sandwiched in between the upcoming NCAA basketball tourney and democratic debate/primary.
March 8, 2020: Heading out into early morning light, not a care in the world. Hope to stop by Preston’s Station in Belle Plaine, Iowa. About a half hour detour north off the Interstate but well worth it. I come across a gruesome car vs. deer collision from the night before. The car’s front end destroyed on the right shoulder, the deer utterly destroyed on the left. There are no words to convey how profoundly upsetting this is to me. Closing my eyes in grief as I pass the scene, I’m thrown back to an event coming down Routt County 129 from Wyoming last year.
A couple kids in a 4-Runner hit a large, mature doe and she lay writhing in the road as I pulled up. Getting out of the car, approaching her I could see she wouldn’t make it. Kneeling down I stroked her head, flees jumping onto my bare skin. I talked softly to her, telling her it’d be alright. Her legs rose up slightly and twitched and I move my hand to her large, finely haired chest where I could feeling her lungs expand and contract, but knew it wouldn’t be long.
The kids approached, shaken up. “You guys alright?” I ask. The girl is crying, the guy awkwardly standing 6 feet away from the dying doe. “She just came out of nowhere,” he said. “What should we do?” she asks. “There’s nothing to do,” I say. “It won’t be long…” I look back down at the doe, her eyes still blinking and twitching beneath my hand on her temple. Another minute and she’s gone. Grief accompanies even this memory. Whatever can be done to avoid such things – should be.
At Preston’s Station I meet the proprietor, Gary Hevalow, out puttsing on a pleasant Sunday morning. He lets me inside the small landmark, dimly lit with black, plastic bags draped over the windows, and we spend an hour chatting, shooting a roll of Ektachrome (which I can’t get developed until the lab opens…). Heading back towards the interstate, someone has thankfully removed the deer carcass. Aside from the wrecked car and massive blood stain on the highway you’d never know anything happened the night before.
Around the Illinois Tollway listening to talk radio things begin to change. Someone is talking about Coronavirus as I approached the first toll booth. Reaching out the rolled down window I hand the attendant a $5 bill, he hands back change, and I think… “I wonder how many hands he’s touched today… I think I have some hand sanitizer somewhere in the car…” Fishing it out of the console I lather up and head on my way. I call me wife and ask if she got her flu shot this year. “Yes,” she says. “Why?” “Oh, this coronavirus thing sounds a little more intense than we thought…”
March 10, 2020: Several days later my son and I find ourselves riding the Red Line around Chicago, happy to be out on a sunny, brisk Chicago day with our cameras. A visit to Wrigleyville and a whole lot of touching shared surfaces many others have recently touched make me think later, uh oh…
March 11, 2020: West of Council Bluffs, Iowa the first text hits my son’s phone. The NCAA tournament will be played to empty stadiums around the country – only family allowed to watch. We look at each other, our mouths agape. A few minutes later another text: The NBA has cancelled all games tonight. Then another: the NHL and other sporting venues have put the rest of their season on hold. The financial implications of these events alone are staggering. But of course this is only the beginning.
Later that night upon arriving home things are ratcheted up in a big way. Travel bans, cancelled seasons, cancelled classes – everything. What the heck. This is clearly far more serious than anyone initially realized.
Over the ensuing week is a flurry of press conferences, announcements, cancelations, twitter, watching the news, and other surreal activity I find myself wondering if it’s really true. Is this some sort of prank? A hoax, to see how prepared we as a country are should something like this really happen? Like in the movies? Would we wake up to a ‘this was just a drill’ message on the TV? Sometime around then news from Italy comes in and everything becomes very real, very fast. Thousands dead, even more sick, with no slow-down in site. Later we come to learn one of the reasons Italy was so directly impacted was many had just traveled between China and Italy with no precautions taken, overloading their health care system with a spike in cases, causing many to die due to lack of resources. Tragic set of circumstances…
Over the same week we discuss our son’s plight; a 1,000 miles from his campus and books – and being told not to return. A few e-mails clear up the confusion. Because he’s employed on campus, and there are exceptions allowing some student employees to return, he’s approved. My wife and I try to present different “what if” scenarios should he elect to return. There’s no way of knowing how a city of 2.7 million souls will react in coming weeks to an event like this.
Having already decided we wouldn’t have him flying back to Chicago – the decision is made to drive. We’ll leave Thursday morning. March 19th.
March 18, 2020: A 5.7 magnitude earthquake in nearby Magna, Utah is lost in other news about the international pandemic. But to 55,000 people in the area without power it’s very real. What the heck is going on here?… Then a major winter storm is announced, arriving late Wednesday night. Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska are under an official Winter Storm Warning. I’ve done this drive for many years and being caught out there in a winter storm just isn’t something you want to do. I think briefly about getting out early to get ahead of it, but while out packing the car I hear hail on the garage door and know we’ll wait until Saturday the 20th.
March 19th, 2020: My phone goes off at 7am with a text from brother Bill in Illinois telling me the state will impose a lock down beginning 5pm Saturday. Things happen rapidly. I wake up our son and asked him to come downstairs. The 3 of us sit over coffee and talk once again. At 22 years old and an adult, locking him his room clearly isn’t the right thing to do. There are so many angles to this situation it’s difficult to establish a priority. Praying for wisdom and discretion, we pose the question once more: “do you want to remain here, or return to campus?” “I want to go back,” he says. “Then we need to leave now,” I say.
An hour later we’re traveling 40mph northbound on an icy I-25 under dense fog. Cheyenne, WY is no better; picking up I-80 and heading East. Roads are icy and snow packed, wind blowing and temperatures well below freezing.
Around Sydney, Nebraska we catch our first inkling things may not go super smooth. The only gas station in the area has cars and trucks lined up bumper to bumper for a mile in all directions. My mind races ahead but it doesn’t take a math whiz: a full tank range is 500 miles with the wind at our back, getting us to somewhere around Lincoln/Omaha, Nebraska. If we aren’t able to refuel we’re in trouble. Letting up the accelerator just a bit I keep going.
Ahead it looks like a break in the weather might be forming. Radar has the storm centered over Nebraska’s Panhandle and as we make it to Ogallala, then North Platte, things begin to look up. Under blue skies we see clear roads and no lines at gas stations. About then I begin believing we’ll be alright.
Later that night having driven about 900 miles we pull off I-88 into the Dekalb, Oasis to refuel and check it out for a possible over night stay later. When we step out of the car into the cold night snow flurries are flying and things feel pretty real. My plan is to drop him off on campus then turn around and head the hour back to the Oasis to spend a few hours sleeping. “I think you should spend the night in my dorm room,” he says. “We’ll see,” was all I could come up with.
We turn off the Kennedy Expressway onto Ohio Street and are shocked at what we see. It’s 12:20am, not quite 14 hours since leaving Fort Collins – and there isn’t another soul in sight. Not a car, pedestrian, bus, anything. The streets of Chicago are empty. We park in Lot C amongst other cars with trailers attached – there to move their students out. As we each carry an armload towards the dorm we’re met with a large sign on the door: “Campus closed to non-students. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.” After obtaining a pass from the young man at the desk I help carry things upstairs, hit the head, then return downstairs where we say our goodbyes out on the steps. “You’re going to learn a lot about yourself these coming days,” I say. “You’ll see and hear things you didn’t think you would at 22 years old. Keep your eyes and ears open and make good decisions.”
I listen to WFMT, Chicago’s classical radio station over the web every day at work so am constantly hearing news from the City. “If things get too crazy we’ll be back.” I give my son a hug, tell him I love him and jump back in the car. I was on campus for 25 minutes.
Heading back out the Kennedy then down to the the Eisenhower was traffic-free at 1am Saturday morning, except for a few cars racing at high speeds, weaving in and out of light traffic. I make it back to the Dekalb Oasis a short time later and crawl in the sleeping bag settling in for the night. It’s 2am and 20°F.
The next morning I awake to find myself one of two cars in the large, Dekalb, Oasis parking lot. Climbing from the Outback I head in to use the bathroom, grab some breakfast at the only open food source, a McDonalds – and am back on the road by 8am; 22.5 hours after leaving Fort Collins.
The drive home is largely normal except for signs instructing travelers to not stop at the Toll Booth Plazas and instead pay on line. There are plenty of travelers in both directions. Somewhere east of Council Bluffs I pull off the interstate onto a side road, nestling up to a corn field to eat lunch and stretch my legs. Later around Hastings, Nebraska, my task largely complete, I turn off once more to spend time once more unwinding, wandering the grain elevators and farm towns of western Nebraska/eastern Colorado.
Just after 10pm Saturday night – about 36 hours after leaving, I arrive home.
We’re all going to process/handle this event a little differently. I’ve been trying to think of photographically creative projects and tonight snapped a few remaining frames of E100, ready to load more Delta 100. I can develop it at home and fortuitously have a fresh batch of chemicals and film on hand ready to work with. This event is unprecedented; nothing like this has ever happened in our life time. I encourage you to get creative and treat it like it’s the once in a lifetime experience it is. Challenge yourself on how you’ll remember it years from now.
Events like this bring out the best in some people, and the worst in others. Here in Colorado there are stories of people buying all the hand sanitizer and toilet paper then gouging those who needed it. I shake my head even as I write this, unable to fathom such behavior. But – we’re all new at this. Not everyone’s going to get things right the first time. The really cool and encouraging thing is watching how we as a people respond.
“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men.”Titus 3:1-2
This is my message to you: hang in there. This will pass. And when it does, how we respond to it will matter. Pray for our leaders. Help a neighbor. Volunteer. Journal. Shoot some photos. Develop, print and scan film. Organize your archive. Visit Emulsive.org for some great ideas on how to manage this from a creative/photographic standpoint. We’ll get through it. Sometimes it’s hard to see how – but I have it on good authority that good can and will come from such a trying time.