So it’s been a year since the world came crashing down on us with the advent of COVID-19, as I’ve been reminded by the media over the last couple of days. Little did we all know on March 11, 2020 what our world would be like for the next year. At best it’s been a bit awkward, at worst – as I heard on a story on NPR – there are people who haven’t been outside their house since then. Oh, and there’s the fact that 2.6 million people have died of it, and here in America – due to “our” government’s hamhanded response, both at the federal and state levels – we have contributed over 530,000 of those or 23%, despite us having only 4% of the world’s population and supposedly the most sophisticated – at least, the most expensive – medical system in the world, filled with committed but under-resourced providers . Apparently our much-vaunted model of democracy applies to keeping pandemics quite democratic as well (to be sure, our medical system no doubt kept that number down even more than it coulda been).
Everyone has their own COVID tale, since literally – not virtually – everyone has been affected. I’ve thought about writing up my own story for literally a year now, but haven’t; mostly because it seems that since everyone has their own story, why would mine be any more interesting? Plus a kind of banal tale of “well, you should hear about what happened to me!” kind of pales in comparison to the untold millions who have lost loved ones, in most cases without the ability to comfort or be comforted in the final hours. But a good challenge for a writer is taking something that is pretty basic and fundamental and making an interesting tale out of it (not to mention making it not offensive to folks who have suffered/died), so I’ll give it a go.
In the fall of 2019 our old pals the Leys went over to Europe to do a long-term family trip: their plan was to spend the fall in Spain and then transition to the mountain sports capital of Chamonix, France for the first part of the winter.
Like all good friends they made it clear to their community: “come visit!” and so….I did. The trip itself was great, and worthy of a tale unto itself; I was fortunate enough to be there for the two weeks of winter that happened that season, and Colter and I were able to tear all over the Chamonix area doing great tours in untracked powder
(I just submitted an article to Ascent Magazine called “Chamonix for Gumbies” – about how Chamonix has such an intimidating reputation, but you can actually go there and have a great time without paying for a guide and just do great moderate skiing on your own).
We had also gotten into the Pierra Menta, one of the Big Three skimo races in Europe that is a 4 day stage race, and the idea was that we’d rip about together for about 10 or so days, rest up for a couple of days for the race, blow ourselves to bits for 4 days, and then I’d fly home while Team Leys transitioned to another French location.
However, even as we were having a great time slaying it in Chamonix, an ominous cloud was starting to get darker: COVID-19. Apparently Italy was getting hit hard, and we heard that the resorts just over the mountains had closed down. Even though we couldn’t read the French newspapers, we could see the headlines and got the news off the web; France was having its share of issues as well. But the little valley of Chamonix seemed fine? At least, that’s what we kept telling ourselves as we went out for our daily, lonely ski tours.
Then we got the email: “Since 34 years Pierra Menta in Arêches-Beaufort has always managed to organize an excellent race with adapted routes according to snow and weather conditions. But today, we can’t control the COVID-19 virus. That’s why we have decided to cancel the 35th race as a precaution. It has been a very difficult decision to take. We are very sorry.” Wow, okay, our geeky little race just got cancelled; I guess this is getting real. Well, let’s just keep skiing.
We were able to hook up with some American and Canadian friends who had just arrived and had an Air BnB down the valley and spent a night with them, and the next morning I awoke to one of them exclaiming: “Trump just banned all travel from Europe!” Considering that I was planning on flying home in a few days, this was concerning. I was having a great time in France, but Colter needed to move on, and I wasn’t too keen on getting stranded there indefinitely (especially since the temps had gone way up and there was no more snow in the forecast!). I tried to call Delta, Air France, etc but apparently everyone else was as well: the recordings said something like “The current hold time is…..6 ½ hours.” The only viable plan at that point was to head for the Geneva Airport to make it happen in person, so that’s what we did.
Interestingly, I have a bit of a history of corresponding with airplane history. In nineteen hundred and eighty eight I was in the air on a flight home from Europe when the notorious Pan Am 103 flight was blown up in a bombing over a field in Lockerbie, Scotland, a small farming hamlet that I had just visited on a bike tour two months prior. In 1996, I was on a flight from New York to Paris on the same day that TWA flight 800 crashed after taking off from NYC to Rome. On September 10, 2001 I flew out of Boston – where one of the fateful flights departed from the next day. In 2006 I arrived at the El Paso airport at 4am after driving all night from a northern Mexico kayaking adventure just as the news broke that a plot to blow up a plane with liquid explosives was exposed/busted in the UK, and it created a cluster about fluids on airplanes that resulted in huge delays for days and of course still affects air travel today. However, because we got there so early I was literally the first in line for security and was able to sneak on through and make my flight.
So when I headed for Geneva on March 10, 2020 – a few days prior to my scheduled flight – I thought: “well, here we go again.” Our old buddy Chuck List is a pilot for Fedex in Europe (whom Colter and I were able to connect with in Chamonix) and warned me that I should expect chaos. However, the gods in the skies apparently deigned that I was again destined to skate through: I walked up to the Air France desk, the woman there took 2 minutes to get me on my same flight schedule the next day with no change fee, and there was no evidence of Trump’s proclamation (he had neglected to mention that Americans could still fly home). Though I was a bit worried about the implications of waiting another 24 hours to fly, a huge added bonus was the ability to connect with Peter Neidecker and his family; the Neideckers have been family friends of the Diegels for probably 70 years, and Peter remembers me as just a young, cute tot, and now lives in a beautiful converted barn on the outskirts of Geneva.
Little did I know it would be the last time I went to a friend’s house for dinner!
Getting to the Geneva airport again the next morning I braced myself for Chuck’s predicted chaos. But it was nearly empty?! And the Paris airport was also pretty quiet?!? And I got a row to myself on the direct flight to Salt Lake, hunkering next to the window with a buff over my face (before I knew that buffs weren’t good, though I still think doubling one up is okay…). But apparently I was just ahead of the pulse: by the time I hit the tarmac just twelve hours later in SLC there were already reports that European airports were getting totally overwhelmed, people were desperately paying multiple thousands of dollars for changes to their flights, there were rumors of flights going only to a few specific cities where people were potentially being quarantined for 2 weeks regardless of where they entered the US or where they lived. But I slipped through the small SLC customs in 10 minutes and breathed a sigh of relief; once again I had successfully danced on the edge of major global airline issues.
However, when I arrived I had a text awaiting me from Ashley: “Call me when you land.” I called her and happily said: “Hey, I’m at the airport! About to come home!” and she replied with something to effect of: “Um, I’m glad you’re home, but….you can’t come home!” Huh? Her entire office knew that I had been in France, which again while I had been in the air had sort of blown up in reported cases (in hindsight, it was but a minor harbinger of what was to come) and I was undoubtedly bringing COVID molecules draped over my like a cloak, and Ashley rightly said that shit was goin’ down big time so I shouldn’t be around people for a while.
It was then that I realized the gravity of the situation, and like everyone on that fateful March 11, I understood that things were not going to be the same any more. So I rented a Jeep and headed for the desert.
Next: friends, friends, more friends, and heart attacks!