On Friday the 13th of March, it rained in Death Valley, California, one of the driest places on Earth.
“If this isn’t an omen, I don’t know what is,” I said to my brother, quickly hammering out a tweet only to realize we had no cell service. After thumbing through news updates on COVID-19 — then a new, nervous twitch — I was relieved to be siloed from the sickening world, if only for a day or two, unaware of what was to come.
Located east of the Sierra Nevada, Death Valley is a vast wasteland of mottled rubble surrounded by modest mountains patterned like seabeds. Once a site for mining borax, a material used in taxidermy and household cleaners, Death Valley was repurposed for tourism in the 1930s.
Despite its macabre name, Death Valley felt like one of the safest places to be at the moment, what feels like forever ago. Judging by the full parking lots and lines at the visitor center, others thought so as well. Around the nation, Americans were just beginning to feel the social, economic and psychological toll of COVID-19 and, in response, many sought refuge in nature while they could.
For much of the winter, my brother had been roaming the Southwest and living out of his van before starting a new job as a wildland firefighter in Estes Park, Colorado. When he suggested I fly to Las Vegas for a week of climbing and biking in surrounding areas like Red Rock Canyon, Zion National Park and Death Valley National Park, my only hesitation at the time was cost. “Flights are cheap and we’d camp and cook,” he assured me.
Without knowing it, I volunteered for self-lockdown with my brother in his van for a week.
But reader, let me tell you, in that seemingly distant past, self-quarantining in a van was luxurious. We had freedom of movement, freedom from crowds and, for a while, freedom from fear. Fear of the invisible enemy.
When I arrived in Las Vegas, coronavirus was all I could talk about. After swimming through a swamp of contagion — the subway, Newark Airport and Las Vegas, that Carnival cruise ship of a city — I was decidedly on edge. My brother listened patiently. “I almost didn’t come,” I said, breathing a little easier on our way out of the city, away from people. “Honestly,” he said, “I haven’t thought about COVID-19 all that much.”
I came to understand why. Far from crowds and news updates, we bouldered in Red Rocks Canyon, biked through Echo Canyon in Death Valley, hiked outside of St. George, Utah, and rewarded ourselves at exquisite bakeries, then, of course, still operational. In the evenings, my brother cooked: lemon risotto, cauliflower and chickpea curry, root vegetable medleys. We rose at first light, assessed the weather and decided what to do and where to go over coffee. The pleasure of it all was compounded by the thought of being cooped up in my New York apartment with a singular view.
The view from my passenger-seat window was ever changing. Layers of vibrant red rock pancaked in Utah. Goofy Joshua trees, as if drawn by Dr. Seuss, in the low deserts of California. Canyons everywhere polished by wind and bent by water.
I took note of other vehicles built for a nomadic lifestyle, a habit among vandwellers. Death Valley, in particular, had some war-ready rigs: mammoth tires with aggressive tread, jerrycans with extra fuel fastened to the side, a strip of floodlights and, the granddaddy of them all: the EarthRoamer expedition vehicle.
Between these rigs outfitted for societal collapse, the indifferent stonescape of Death Valley, and the exponentially escalating global pandemic, it was easy to imagine we were living a “Mad Max” prequel. Back in New York, I wondered how many writers were working on a script starring a Seamless bike delivery guy — like HBO’s “High Maintenance,” but with mozzarella sticks.
Cut off from the news, Hollywood hijacked my imagination. An abundance of scripted doomsday scenarios colored in sketches of an uncertain future. At once impersonal and familiar, they provided some framework to intuit the real-life consequences of an ever-escalating global pandemic. For me, and I suspect many others, movies are the most accessible reference point for the current global pandemic. Perhaps this outlook indulged in fantastical thinking too much, but in an age of spectacle, it felt natural.
Reality, however, does not kneel to apocalyptic fantasy. Life on the road had its own perils and presented a different hierarchy of concerns than the city. Here, social distancing was not an issue. But access to certain amenities (showers, Wi-Fi) and resources (fuel, food, water) demanded we venture into town.
Expeditions into the grocery store under the new normal required a safety check, just like climbing. Gloves? Check. Hand sanitizer? Check. Disinfectant wipes? Check. We stocked up as many provisions as we could — a week at most.
A series of rainy days drove us to stay in a St. George hotel on March 17. I was uneasy sleeping in a shared, transient space, but the immediate comforts of a spacious bed, hot shower and mindless TV beckoned sweet as any Siren.
We watched CNN and I kept checking updates on the outbreak in New York. The day I left, March 11, there were 212 confirmed cases in New York state, and only 52 in New York City. A week later, there were 814 confirmed cases in the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio was weighing a “shelter in place” order and Gov. Andrew Cuomo had announced a hospital ship was en route to relieve New York’s overburdened health care system. I wasn’t the only one taken by surprise. Since then, New York City has become the American epicenter for the pandemic and New York has more than 210,000 cases statewide (and counting).
Then, it was so early in the health crisis that the greatest dangers were “unknown unknowns,” to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase. Health officials gently prodded an unwilling public (admittedly, myself included) toward containment measures while news reports described impending shortages of medical supplies and inadequate testing.
It was safe to assume the number of confirmed cases and deaths were low-balled. Researchers at Columbia University corroborated this suspicion when they estimated that at the time, there were 11 undetected cases of COVID-19 for every confirmed case.
A week removed from the problem seeming invisible, distant, it became clear the U.S. was well past the stages of containment. The pandemic was going to get a lot worse before it got better, especially in New York City. My brother was convinced everyone in the U.S. would become infected at some point.
A week of van life had already dramatically shifted my daily routine, and the pandemic fully disrupted national life as we know it. My baseline for normalcy dug itself a grave, 6 feet deep, honoring social distance.
After being inundated by coronavirus coverage, I was spooked and eager to get out of town. But, similar to trends in Washington state, a growing backlash from locals at popular outdoor destinations, such as Moab, Utah, and Bishop, California, discouraged outside visitors. Climbing and biking influencers echoed this message on social media and encouraged folks to stay local with their outdoor activity. National parks sent mixed messages by closing visitor centers, but leaving parks open and free.
These measures were sensible, but they put nomadic vandwellers in a new kind of limbo. Without a permanent place of residence, what was considered local? How could we reduce our COVID-19 footprint living on the road?
On our last night, we parked at the Bearclaw Poppy Navajo Trailhead, a popular destination for off-road trails just outside St. George. My brother and I went for a run followed by push-ups and a core workout. He was training for a physical exam expected of all wildland firefighters. Nearby, the engines of dirt bikes and dune buggies buzzsawed over rollers and rock gardens. The sky popped as folks out of view unloaded guns in target practice. It felt like we were on training grounds for an improvised militia.
Since 9/11, the threat of catastrophe has always been there and not there. Disasters were unexpected, but never a surprise. Climate change, in particular, tested our capacity for doom. We were prepared to watch the world slowly burn. We were not ready for the world to sicken overnight.