January 5th. The new year, 2021. Portland, Oregon, and we are now officially off the road. It’s quiet here, softly raining. I am thinking about our possessions, which are north in Seattle, with friends. I am thinking about our friends, how the new year is for them. Then I am thinking about winter, which comprises our duration in Portland, and spring, when we have to figure out what’s next, when we have to further our permanence, in some place, with some work, in some new life. It feels like we are just starting what everyone else endured for most of last year, that we are just starting the pandemic, the fixity, a handful of rooms in which to live, a handful of pages and screens to live by. And now I am trying to think about last year, where this writing has left off, the end of July and we are about to leave the West. The sun was high and bright. We moved far and fast. I am thinking about it now, here, in January, in Portland, Oregon. It is a study in contrasts. Perhaps that’s what this thinking has always been.
And then we left the West. Headed to Alaska, but by way of Chicago, preparing to hold our breath for a pandemic flight from O’Hare to Anchorage. We had been in the West roughly since leaving Austin, TX the day after the city announced the cancellation of SXSW as a precaution against the growing concern of the coronavirus. For months we had drawn a shoestring loop around the American deserts and up the spine of the Rocky Mountain Continental Divide, and the continuity of the plan and our motion prevailing through uncertainties and closures and the great epidemiological questions we tried to answer with an improvised micromanagement of our behaviors and the flinging of ourselves into remoteness all felt like it was coming to a certain intermediate end. The year would no longer be something that we could trace with our finger. We drove over South Pass, a sea of tawny grass and sage brush barely elevated, like an overturned bowl, above the center of the country, the lowest of the Rocky Mountain passes, the primary route of Manifest Destiny, of homesteaders and gold diggers and Mormons, and of course, since long before then, the First Nations of the Crow, Shoshone, Cheyenne, and Arapaho, among others. The sun was in full midday, midsummer luminosity, materially photonic, washing out everything. We ate lunch at a picnic area on the pass, then drove on.
We were ten days from my wife’s 40th birthday. We had plans to celebrate with family and friends in Chicago and the suburbs, though COVID continued to make planning awkward and unreliable―you couldn’t, of course, just throw a party. We relied on our own set of proscriptions and procedures: no more than ten people at a time; do everything outside. And we were fortunate to be part of a long-distance bubble of friends, having made a pact back in June when, too, as we leeched the public wifi of Town Park in Telluride, we found a lakehouse in eastern Michigan where the seven of us could celebrate a collective 40th birthday for my wife and our friends L. and J.. Hearing that my wife’s sister and her family (the C. family) were at their cabin in central Wisconsin, we now had a route: east through South Dakota and Minnesota and into central Wisconsin, stay a night with the C’s, then north/northeast hugging the coast of Lake Michigan through Green Bay and into the Hiawatha National Forest to camp for a few nights (and touch Lake Superior), then south over the Straits of Mackinac into the UP of Michigan, continuing south to our lakehouse in Howell (between Lansing and Ann Arbor), several days there, then west to swim in the pool at my parent’s house, have a barbecue at my wife’s parent’s house, hope to see some of my wife’s childhood friends (one owns a brewery and had just opened a second, massive location for it), and then my wife’s actual birthday in Chicago with the same bubble of lakehouse friends. It was a good plan, and we felt fortunate that we had time to make it to people individually, and that it was summer and we could be outside.
Some evenings the mist thickens in tissuey strands clinging to the firs on Mt. Tabor, visible from our kitchen window, and when the sun sets those strands glow iron hot. Other evenings we are visited by crows, hundreds roosting in the trees around us, lining themselves on the powerlines like a garrison.
But we weren’t quite through the West yet. Anyone who has driven between Chicago and Wyoming knows that you stop in the Badlands. I have been there at least a half dozen times―it’s a natural midway point with a lot of camping options, and you can get coffee and a bumper sticker at Wall Drug, if you so wish, as you mosey along the next morning. But I’d never actually done much hiking there. We knew that the park offered walk-up permits for off-trail backpacks to spend the night amid the maze of erosional structures―this is exactly like the Petrified Forest, which we loved backpacking in March, so even though it was touching 100 degrees when we pulled into the Ben Reifel Visitor Center on the east side of the park, we were pretty set on the plan that we would be hiking in.
The park was very busy, and we tried our best to stay out of the crowds. At the visitor center they were gating two lines, one to talk to rangers, another for the bookstore (both of which were under EZ-Up Tents in front of the closed, actual visitor center)—my wife and I split up: she got the permit and some information, and I bought a sticker (featuring silhouettes of prairie dogs against the sunset). We filled our waters, then set out for a long, leisurely drive of the park’s scenic byway, SD-240, wending around and atop numerous vistas of the park’s famous buttes, which corral bucolic prairie meadows that were still brilliant green despite the oppressive July sun. We were mostly trying to get to some cooler temperatures closer to sunset, but we enjoyed delaying ourselves, stopping at nearly every overlook, wandering out into Prairie Dog Town (where we also spotted a bison and a distant pronghorn in a hallucination of the African Savannah in heat shimmering air), and eventually making our way to the Sage Creek Campground, where I’ve always camped before, an open-prairie loop set in a little bowl on the park’s far northwestern edge. We cruised the campground, windowshopping, as it were (it was crowded and looked, honestly, miserable), then headed back east to the Conata Picnic Area, where we would hike in. We waited out the sun a little more, making burritos at a picnic shelter with our big frontcountry stove, and then packing especially light packs of hot-weather sleeping essentials, some whisky, a few liters of water, bag of snacks, stove and pot and a little baggy of instant coffee. As we cleaned up the picnic area the light started to soften and we could feel maybe 5 degrees of temperature relief, so we decided to hit the trail, heading toward a well-known copse of junipers called Deer Haven, about 2.5 miles in, though we knew we probably wouldn’t get that far. Sure enough, about a mile in, we cut off route and into the buttes where we found a lovely private meadow anchored by a lone juniper. We pitched our tent and explored the area, watching the sunset pool into our little slice of that wilderness, staining the buttes primrose and crimson and gold. When the visibility got difficult, we sat by our tent and drank whisky, talking with satisfaction about the Winds and the West and the badlands and the wild we could feel pounding within us and what it would be like to bring it back home to the Midwest, where everyone had been so closed up for the pandemic. Our eyes adjusted to the darkness, and then we could see, arcing in hairpin turns all above our heads, bats.
We’ve seen a cousin here in Portland, and her family. We got takeout and sat on their porch with them, under electric blankets and a mounted space heater. She runs a program for homeless youth, has for decades―we talked about COVID, how her organization is at a minimum of services, but how surprisingly low the infection rates are in the homeless camps. We talked about how the camps have expanded in the city, how people are out of work, how the police have stopped doing sweeps. We talked about the forest fires, how dangerously close they got, how bad the smoke was, how it was like a double quarantine. Then we talked about winter, and snow.
We were hiking out by 7am the next morning, trying to get ahead of the heat, and indeed by the time we picked up I-90 and continued the long stretch east the sun was fully installed, pressing the vast plains of South Dakota even more strainingly open, like a giant jaw into which we drove. I’ve debated this, but I think I’m of the mind that the real edge of the American West is where the prairie stops, turning into hardwood forest or, more likely, cleared hardwood forest. It’s a more subtle demarcation than, say, the Rocky Mountains (which, if you were to drive I-70 in the opposite direction, west into Denver, can be seen for hours, mistaken for clouds at first, hanging on the horizon). Going eastbound, if you don’t notice the transition from prairie to hardwoods by vegetation, you might notice a gentle buckling of the land into ever-so-slightly smaller hills and depressions, what effectively narrows the horizon around you. It’s a degree of change so minute one is more apt to feel it than visibly notice it, to awaken suddenly within the understanding that one is now in a different part of the country. For this portion, on I-90 traveling into the upper Midwest, it happens somewhere in western Minnesota. We drove on, echoing a drive we did more than 15 years ago when we moved from Denver to Minneapolis and during which we camped a night in the Badlands and then another at Myre-Big Island State Park in Minnesota. I remember a pastel-toned sunset that second night serving as the official notification that we were back in the Midwest (perhaps sky colors are another demarcation). This time, however, we drove right past Myre-Big Island, crossing the Mississippi River in the beautiful bluff-lands of La Crosse, MN, and into the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, which, for the nine years we lived in Chicago, gave us at least a modicum of vertical terrain and big woods in which we could lose ourselves. But this time we yet drove on, eventually leaving the interstate for a series of state and county highways. Left turns, right turns, through many small towns, and as the sun set and we approached the C. family’s cabin we were surprised to see, stepping tall in the adjacent fields, sandhill cranes.
When we arrived I was certain of two things: we looked crazy―deeply tanned and sun- and windburned, dirt in the creases of our skin, our hair pulled away into greasy confinements, our clothes dusty and salt-stained―and, though we had had showers not three days before, we smelled rank, of a robust microbial activity, that stiff-and-sweet body odor that is a combination of must, dirt, and fermentation, perfuming the air with the great wicking power of the polyester fibers of our technical clothes, not an altogether unpleasant smell, “enhanced” one might even call it, but nonetheless a smell that one starts to monitor closely, for which one starts to make contingency plans. But it was no bother, the C. family are a tough bunch, outdoorspeople themselves, constant athletes accustomed to sweat and its development. They offered us beers. We took a tour of the cabin. And we passed a long evening sitting in the living room on the couch and floor, the kids eating ice cream while we talked about Wyoming and the Grand Canyon and COVID (later, half the family would get it (everyone is OK) when it gripped Wisconsin in the fury of the fall elections), and then fishing and target archery and sandhill cranes and the neighborliness of rural Wisconsinites in the winter when the country roads get choked with snow and ice.
And we made a pact with the eldest niece to hike the John Muir Trail when she graduated high school in two years. When my wife and I moved to Seattle and began really involving ourselves in the wilderness of the region, we knew we wanted to share some of those experiences with the C. family, given their rough-and-tumble proclivities (they are all hockey players, for instance). Sure enough my wife’s sister made it out with the two teenage girls, and we had one of the best trips of our years there, an epic, if piecemeal, excursion to the Olympic Peninsula, driving all the way to Shi Shi Beach on its northwestern coast for a dark night of beach backpacking where would explore the sea stacks by flashlight during a midnight lowtide (our lights later blinking out one-by-one on the hike back to camp, which we eventually had to find in the dark), followed the next day by a drive all the way back east to backpack into the tremendous old growth forest of Royal Creek, which we would then almost literally run out of the subsequent morning so I could make a poetry reading at Elliot Bay in Seattle. The girls shredded the hiking, barely huffing at the elevation (this was their first time in mountains), and they swam, too, in the frigid surf of the North Pacific, with glee. When we learned this night at their cabin that the eldest had been reading a book on the JMT, well, our hands were tied―so the pact was made. Finish our beer, and we hit the sack.
It’s January 7th and I’m standing at a makeshift desk in our kitchen. Yesterday, while a joint session of Congress was confirming the electoral votes to confirm Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, a mob of Trump supporters stormed and breached the Capitol, breaking through windows and occupying the chambers and offices. Tear gas surrounded the Capitol steps. A woman was shot and killed. A Confederate flag was flown in the Senate. Anyone reading this will have seen the images.
It was a pretty dreamy welcoming to the Midwest, but the next few days we would run into some hard realities of the region. Driving north, past Green Bay and toward the Hiawatha National Forest and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan put us squarely within one of the most contested political battlegrounds of the country. We were shaken awake; we had almost forgotten. The drive along the western shore of Lake Michigan was a fusillade of Trump signs, repeating themselves like a heartbeat, or like train cars, or like confetti. We could almost feel their increasing density in the contraction of our irises. There was a maniacal, textual muttering of his slogans: No More Bullshit, Drain the Swamp, Make America Great Again. Many signs were your standard campaign lawn affairs, but so many were much more, oversize flags whipping in the lakeshore wind, strung between fence posts, draped in front of garage doors, abandoned RVs. I thought: these must be pretty expensive. Trump, Trump, Trump. It was a sunny day, I would say beautiful, but my hesitation precluded any experience of beauty. It was nauseous; the bright green of deep-summer vegetation felt effusive, oleaginous. I just wanted to get through it.
The things is, I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, and I would say we were naive except that we had, in fact, already braced ourselves for an onslaught of Trump propaganda: for the South, for the rural West. We saw so, so little of it in those places, not in rural Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi, not in the Morman lands of southern Utah or the cowboy country of Wyoming. We knew, of course, that many Trump supporters live in these states, but the visible mark of his presence was so surprisingly low in them that we settled into a more complacent conclusion, that folks in these parts were more concerned with their immediate lives and property, paying bills, fixing this or that, weekend trips with the ATV or boat or horses. This was our view from the road. When we had set out into some of these parts of the country, as I’ve written earlier, we had something of an implied project to ferret out where conservative America is. Driving in the upper Midwest and, later, through states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, I realized the question was wrong: it isn’t where conservative America is―it’s where it is created. I can’t imagine what propaganda gauntlets of this magnitude must do to the psyche of the people living in these states. And then I thought about Fox News, all cable news. And then I remembered that the internet exists.
Portland endured a lot last year. COVID, massive wildfires, and a brutal federal response to social justice protests. There have been no protests or National Guard this January, but the remnants are here, the windows of businesses boarded up, crowd control fencing, and signs, lots and lots of Black Lives Matter signs, everywhere, mass produced or hand-sharpied, on bumpers and in windows, in sometimes simple and sometimes elaborate street art, often just pertly driven into rain-wet yards.
And it was still COVID. We got to the Hiawatha National Forest to find full campgrounds. We expected things to be difficult at campgrounds on the picturesque shores of Lake Superior, so we didn’t linger in their loops, opting instead to drive south into the heart of the forest, trying for established and dispersed camps. It was a Wednesday, and we were feeling optimistic, but campground after campground was full. We spent a few hours driving around the backroads, trying to remember all of our turns, but the brush was so thick that hardly anything suitable presented itself to us, and when it did, it was occupied. We eventually found an open spot, just as the sun was setting and the mosquitoes were coming out, at a campground on a small interior lake. The next day, we drove on and were able to upgrade a little bit, getting Lake Michigan access at the aptly named Lake Michigan Campground, near Brevort Lake, though we had to pay an additional night to occupy it ahead of the 4pm check-in (“You can wait it out,” the campground host told me, “but it’s Thursday and someone will probably take it.”). Oh well, it was a nice afternoon sitting high up on some surprisingly steep dunes, overlooking the lake and texting with our friends, whom we would see the next day.
There are maybe 2 or 3 places we’ve visited this year that, when talking about our travels, we have to admit we didn’t like. The UP was one of them. I hate to say it. Having lived in Chicago for so long, I know how much people love it, and indeed, it has a lot to offer, surrounded by three of the Great Lakes, offering huge tracts of forest, quaint little towns. But it was difficult, at this specific moment in the year, to feel good about it. Definitely part of it was our orientation―we had just spent the better part of the year in extremely wide-open spaces, where room for oneself was easy to find, where the remoteness and danger enlivened one’s perspective. In the West, talking with other folks, other travelers, campground hosts, hikers, and you shared in a communal sense of exploration and wonder; adventure was your ground. In the UP, these wild places served much more definitively as vacation spots, with large populations coming from Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, Lansing, Detroit, and so on. I had the distinct feeling that many families were on a consolation trip in a year when all other travel was canceled. It was tight in these places; the vibe was grumpy, even suspicious. The campground host came by our camp the next morning twice to ask if we were leaving (no host has ever asked me that). And at Lehto’s Pasties in St. Ignace, I could feel the cashier’s anger at replacing our meat-filled pasties with the vegetarian ones we ordered (“I thought you said beef,” she barked―I made a joke about not having learned to talk through my mask yet, but for hours I stewed on whether “vegetarian” could seriously be misconstrued as “beef.”). I hate to condemn a place based on petty consumer complaints like this, but these were pretty much the only interactions we had there, and they were some of the most negative we’d had all year (ahh, a memory of being completely ignored in bars in New Orleans). And just seeing it all, I felt for its hurt: I’m not sure if it was COVID or a longer falling-apart, but things were empty and kind of rundown, and yet it still felt crowded. It was suffering. Stir in all that political advertising bullshit, and it was bitter indeed. It was hard to get the taste of meat out of my mouth.
January 8th now, Friday. Winters in the Pacific Northwest can be an interminable string of days where nothing changes. The same gray luminosity at 8am and 1pm and 3pm, barely 5 degrees difference between day and night, slight wind or slight rain or just the faint noise of traffic. My wife asked me this morning if I felt, after our first full week back (she at work), holed up in this house, if I was going crazy. What is crazy? Were the people who stormed the Capitol this week crazy? I read some man-on-the-street interviews with some of the rioters, a profile of the woman who died. I read about the 25th Amendment, think the same thoughts about Trump I’ve had since 2015. There are no surprises anymore, just escalations. This latest emergency feels only like the next in a long string of emergencies, going back to 9/11. This is most of my adult life. But it has me suspended above the task of this writing, withheld from it. It doesn’t feel important, complaining about some place, recounting the pros and cons of a trip. But then neither does the Capitol, a bunch of dudes breaking into it just to smoke some cigarettes and take a lot of selfies. For so many people in America, in the world, every day is, if not an emergency, a long corridor of threats. I know though that this is the time, for me, for this writing. This is the time I’ve been allotted. All I can hope is to be honest, to try and find something useful.
When we arrived to Howell, MI, texting with our friends, we were told to kill some time so they could do a walkthrough with the agent. We were one person above the listed capacity and didn’t want it to be an issue. My wife and I parked at a narrow little dock off an adjacent lake and cracked open some PBRs. Cattails bobbed all around us while dragonflies flitted against the low water of the muddy shoreline. The light struck me, for the first time in the Midwest, as beautiful, brassy and dynamic, full of verve, as though the air itself were swinging like a bell. We drank two beers each, very fast, listening to the radio, then got the all-clear from our friends and drove up into the neighborhood, arriving at a very large house on an acre of property that sloped grassily down, amid tall elms, to a boathouse and dock on a sizeable lake. We exploded into salutations, elbow bumps and some hugs and immediate drinks, unloading our cars and picking bedrooms and quickly settling on the large back deck. We felt secure with each other, and the interiors of the house were spacious and unconfined, but we still all preferred being outside. L. brought the Elijah Craig out, a special vintage barreled the year L., J., and my wife turned 21 (it was but one of at least a half dozen different bottles of bourbon for the weekend), and we raised a toast to the birthdays. Within an hour we were drunk, establishing the weekend’s extended jokes and already sweating through our t-shirts. The afternoon started to swirl.
The next few days were, as one might expect, a blur. My wife and I took a trip into Ann Arbor for groceries at Zingerman’s and the farmer’s market, but downtown was crowded and we tried to make haste of it. Our friend S. works at a flagship liquor store in Chicago and, along with L., helped facilitate a real collection of the newest beers (lactose being a trend that summer), the aforementioned library of bourbons, wine, vodka for Bloody Marys, and some absinthe for New Orleans dinner night Sazeracs (this is the same crew with whom we spent Mardi Gras). Cannabis, Adderall, mushrooms, coffee and caffeine pills. We had a canoe, paddleboat, one two-person kayak and two one-person ones; some inner tubes, a pool float in the likeness of a pizza slice. Most of us are either musicians or deep lovers of music, so numerous speaker setups, jockeying of DJ reins. The house had no wifi, but it did have a small TV/VCR combo and a large collection of VHS tapes. The frustrating interruption of nude Brooke Shields scenes with shoddy B-roll of undersea life (“fucking hermit crabs,” as we kept exclaiming) in The Blue Lagoon became one of the longer-lasting extended jokes (we probably watched the movie four times, usually with Bloody Marys). The boathouse had a large firepit. L. and J. brought a pretty serious badminton setup. A. taught us frisbeer (jam a broomstick into the ground, put a 4ft piece of PVC pipe with a cap on one end around it like a condom, set a beer bottle on top, try to knock the bottle off with a frisbee; put two of these poles maybe 40 feet apart, attackers and defenders alternating, a rudimentary scoring system, but mostly just try to nail the thing). We had a lot of eggs and cheese, bags of bread, a case of Topo Chico.
It was very humid. One day it rained pretty badly, and at times it felt like we were sparring with the weather. But mostly we just enjoyed each other’s company, catching up with that hyperactive commerce of music, TV, movies, restaurant, beer, and liquor recommendations that characterizes so many cohorts such as ours, childless urbanites. We talked about work and COVID, Trump and our roadtrip. We’d have Bloodies on the dock, stepping squeamishly into the sludgy shallows of the water that surrounded it. We’d paddle the lake, often towing the pizza slice―sometimes all the way out to a goose-shit covered floating platform on which we drank yet more beer, diving with exertion into the mid-lake depths, and sometimes to the opposite shore choked in lilies and harboring one of the most serious dragonfly orgies I’ve ever seen. One afternoon we swamped the paddleboat so badly we thought we were going to lose it. The day we left we had to retrieve one of the kayaks from the middle of the lake, victim of an ill-conceived midnight excursion. Often we were inside-a-crystal-ball drunk by 10am. There was a lot of napping, a lot of indigestion. The lower-story bathroom by the washer and dryer (the “dad toilet,” as some might call it) was my home away from home. I slept, mostly, on the floor. The kitchen island became a puzzle of the edible and inedible. There was an incident with some cheese puffs. But for the most part things remained intact. We spent the evenings back and forth between the fiery crackle of our immense boathouse fires and the electric one of the bug zapper hung beneath the deck, where we had quick access to snacks, the bathroom, brief respites on the couch, and of course, more beer. Somehow my wife and S. rallied us, after one all-day sequence of pretty much every inebriant in the inventory I listed above, to execute a complicated recipe of deep-fried mushroom or oyster Po Boys and the aforementioned Sazeracs for the aforementioned New Orleans dinner night, our most upstanding moment of the whole weekend. Mornings the grass was wet with dew. We saw a fox. We saw a sandhill crane. We watched Dumb And Dumber. We played the ever-living shit out of frisbeer.
January 11th. My phone just buzzed to let me know that House Democrats have introduced an article of impeachment against Trump. Outside the street is greasy with rain and the sky is thick. It’s Monday; little distinguished this weekend save a few walks, a half hour at the farmer’s market. It rains. My phone buzzes again with another headline. What I write about is a fantasy.
It was a blowout, and I’m so grateful we were able to do it. This bender began an acute period in our trip that we always knew was going to be dense with activity and require a lot of coordination: my wife’s birthday immediately followed by our trip to Alaska. We always knew there would be two inverted energies―one pulling people together in celebration and the other preparing for the most remote isolation we would go into. COVID, of course, threw everything into question. We weren’t sure how we could see people safely, if at all, and we certainly weren’t sure if we were going to make it to Alaska. A lot of the decisions for this period played out in June while we sat in Town Park in Telluride, as I mentioned earlier. Initially we weren’t going to go back to the Midwest, thinking we would celebrate my wife’s birthday with friends in the Northwest, perhaps on the Oregon coast, but COVID had really closed a lot of the West Coast and we realized the Chicago suburbs would be a better place to keep our car and road gear while we were in Alaska. Plus, all of our loved ones there.
It was also in Town Park when we learned that Alaska would institute new travel restrictions and that Denali had closed Wonder Lake. The latter, especially, left us with an abiding pessimism―the rest of June and July we were waiting for the park to close entirely. But the weeks went by and it never did. I talked to rangers on several occasions, to suss out the new rules that year and get guidance on my route, but also to gauge their own confidence in the park’s continuing operation. We braced for closure, but went ahead with our plans, making four notable alterations because of COVID. First, my hike would be shorter: not from Wonder Lake but from Eielson Visitor Center. Second, I would submit the permit application ahead of time. Ordinarily backcountry permits at Denali are issued on a first-come/first-served basis, but this year the backcountry office would be closed (except for a brief orientation and permit check each morning, outside on the porch) and they would accept applications by email a few weeks in advance. This had me, one morning at the Michigan house, delaying the debauchery so I could submit my itinerary, hotspotting my computer with my phone held high, a Trails Illustrated topo map of the park spread out across a litter of empty glasses and VHS tapes. Third, we would get COVID tests before flying. This requirement, too, had a dynamic―initially Alaska was giving free tests to visitors upon arrival, but they announced an end to that program effective two days before we were going to get there, so we had to scramble a little bit, paying out-of-pocket (because we had out-of-state insurance) for tests scheduled within the now familiar 72 hour window of travel. Fourth, we would rent an AirBnB for the entirety of our six-week stay (even though we would be camping for a lot of it), in the event our tests came back positive and we needed to quarantine.
I did then, and I do now recounting it all, feel shame. We were taking risks, probably putting other people at risk. Flying alone was an activity most of the people we knew wouldn’t undertake. To do so to an isolated locale with limited medical resources, after a weekend bender with friends and days seeing family in a major metropolitan area, was very irresponsible. We long debated, regardless of the state’s response to COVID, simply canceling our trip to Alaska. We also debated celebrating my wife’s birthday in some wilderness, with just ourselves. But both events had been major parts of our excitement for the year. We’d already lost other ones. Alaska loomed so large in my mind, it was difficult to see around it. We were making decisions in the heat of movement, had fallen deeply into the rhythms of improvisation. If we could put a step forward, we would, in accordance with a few absolutes: limit our time indoors and follow every guideline mandated by a location. While I feel shame about this period, we broke no rules. We’d get tests; we’d be ready to quarantine. We’d build in additional days to isolate following the birthday get-togethers. Flights were staggering seating, and of course we would wear masks for the duration of the travel, eating and drinking as little as possible. And we would arrive in Alaska itself with nearly four weeks of food, prepared to be yet again alone in great open spaces―the largest COVID risk there would be the four hour bus ride from Denali’s entrance to the Eielson Visitor Center, and that, too, would be at a fractional capacity, everyone apart and in masks. I recount this now as I did to myself then, as justifications.
We drove on, west from Howell and into the thickly tangled network of Chicagoland highways and bypasses. Many days proceeded in lockstep as we moved swiftly through that circulatory system, making preparations for Alaska and arranging a three-day capsule over my wife’s actual birthday to see friends and our two families. The first of those days, my wife’s actual birthday, was a great failing of mine, though we got to see our lakehouse friends again, this time at one of their condos on the north side of Chicago. We enjoyed a lovely summer day on their patio and wandering around the Graceland Cemetery (easily spotting a large deer Chicagoans had been talking about all summer (with a bit of residual excitement from the previous summer’s Humboldt Park alligator), and it was strange though good to get a brief sense for the city’s vibe during COVID, but I couldn’t muster any special plans and the tribute to my wife never emerged. Of course this was a year when most celebrations and memorials―birthdays, retirements, anniversaries, planned-for-months weddings, funerals―were canceled or greatly attenuated, but for my part the failure didn’t feel even as much due to COVID as the pressures of our own itinerary―I didn’t keep that plate spinning. And that was the plate for her.
But the following days were better: barbecue with my wife’s family, drinking more lactose beers (Hop Butcher’s “Blazed Orange Milkshake,” my wife’s brother always to be trusted in these matters) to power an epic tournament of bags (aka corn hole) with the nieces and nephews; then a barbecue with my family, where we got to swim for what would be the last time in my parent’s pool. More than birthday parties, these were collective reprieves for everyone we knew, the first time many had seen anyone beyond those living in the same house. We caught up, especially with the kids, learning how you do PhysEd via ZOOM, the loopholes for getting your driver’s license (two of our nieces were sidelined by COVID in getting theirs), and a lot about team sports, or the lack thereof. We internet-shopped for cars with my wife’s brother (he would be taking care of ours while we were away), learning that COVID had everyone on the market, driving up prices (we’d learn the same thing later about rural real estate outside of Seattle). At my parents, my volleyball-loving niece taught us how to properly bump and set, the super chlorinated water heaving and sparkling as we tried to break each new record (occasionally sabotaged by the too-good-to-resist spike). All weekend we played games, ate corn on the cob, and gossiped, routing around in our social networks to find both Trump supporters and those who had tested positive (up until that point we hardly knew anyone in either category). They were full days, bright and hot and heavy with summer. Staring up from the deck or the pool, the sky looked like a gel.
I wake up to our friend S. on the local news, at the liquor store, sweeping up glass and looking above her face mask at the reporter who is stepping over the debris to get into frame. The sound of the glass is heavy, like gravel: you can tell it is wet. I’m at my sister’s house in Elgin but this is in the city. The light in the shot is harsh, coming in hard from the windows, and the jelly-wobble of the handheld camera has me feeling slightly sick to my stomach. The cameraperson nearly points the camera down as they, too, step over the debris. Cut to mayor Lori Lightfoot―these weren’t protesters, these were hooligans. The constant sound of camera shutters and flicker of flashes on her face. More questions. Cut to some nighttime footage now, a helicopter flying over the Magnificent Mile. The clean, round corner of an apparel store is wedged into the upper-right portion of the shot; on the lower left, two police cruisers careen in, parking askew in the empty street. A lithe body presses through a half-cracked opening in the store entrance, emerging awkwardly, then taking off down the street, out of frame. Cut to a daytime shot again, the Best Buy in Lincoln Park, the helicopter circling around it. The windows look like they’ve been blown out from the inside. Immense piles of tattered boxes, lids flapping gently in the wind, form a perimeter around the store. Cut back to S., who is in the background of an interview with another employee, tugging at his mask as he talks into the windscreen-capped microphone held in front of his face. Cut back to the mayor. More questions. Cut back to the night before, a patchwork of helicopter footage. Drink coffee.
Then I am standing at the counter of the service department, watching the clerk mouse quickly through her schedule on the cashier computer, punching occasional keys on the plastic-covered keyboard. On the television in the corner of the waiting room, above a display of tire treads, a ten-year-old Morgan Brittany is high-kicking in a puffy pink dress, a line of newsie boys behind her on single-knee, presentation hand extended, while the trombones wallop a swing tempo. They can fit us in. We’ll be the last oil change that day. Standing on the curb outside, my wife and I discuss the possibility of walking the few miles back to my sister’s house. We look for a grocery store nearby on our phones. Nothing. One other customer waits inside, and we decide to go back in. Now Rosalind Russell twirls around a businessman seated at a small table in a tight, green-wallpapered apartment, a half a dozen other cast crowded in the corners. She sings, setting the table around him: “have a dish, have a fork, have a fish, have a pork.” Outside, the cloud deck is mid-sky, but we can sense the daylight dimming. We figure it will be about two hours. Only the one other customer in the waiting room, staring blankly up at Russell as she moves with a sort of firm delicacy through the shot, which continues to be awkwardly congested with cast members. I look at the small text on my phone that gives the details of tomorrow’s COVID test. I read more about the crime spree the night before. Time passes. News, phone, more of Gypsy, until it’s Natalie Wood, with Russell, and Karl Malden, on some kind of desert set, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and swaying side-to-side between cactus paddles and what I gather are ocotillo. The song is so unmusical, but I sit transfixed. Then the clerk breaks it―the car is ready. Faster than we thought. A mechanic pulls it into the lot right in front of us. I readjust the seat and stare through the windshield at the sky. One half is the same chrome color it’s been all day. The other, delineated by a very hard edge like the pressing of a pencil with one’s full body weight, is the brackish color of water in a pothole. It is clearly a wave, in the sky. Suddenly, a scraping sound. A large elm branch, freshly severed, slides in the wind across the parking lot.
The next few minutes escalate quickly. We start west toward the river, staring at the immense dark line in front of us. The wind shakes the car. We know it’s coming toward us. Our route is west only to route 25, where we’ll turn north to get to Summit, where we’ll then turn back east toward my sister’s. We drive fast, barreling uphill as the road narrows in approach of the historic district, and it’s at its sign, “Elgin Historic District,” written on the rounded corner of a retaining wall, where we turn north, and where the wave catches us. Immediate lightning and thunder, not deep and rumbling but an ear-piercing treble, a factory’s worth of glass windows shattering against a concrete floor. The flash is blinding. Rain erupts, hitting our windshield and hood like stones. The traffic lights are out, and they bob on the long metal arm with three or four feet of elastic play. We race north, dodging branch debris, tugging against the wind gusts. We make it to Summit, turn east, and accelerate. We clear the storm line, but it continues right behind us, and then, as we turn into the neighborhood, we enter it again. Tree branches are being blown down everywhere. Blue and black refuse bins are getting toppled on the curbs and in the street―some are being wheeled around by the wind in crazy patterns, like maniacal figure skaters. We get to the house. We pull into the driveway and run inside. In a few minutes we’ll text our friends, who had just expanded their brewery, that we can’t make it there to see it. We’ll stand in the open garage and watch the rain pummel our car as it sits in the driveway.
Then we are driving through Mt. Greenwood in the uncanny sunshine, staring at all the damage, downed trees having been roped off, enormous piles of branches built at the edges of lawns, garbage bags in heaps at the ends of driveways. Traffic lights are still out. Later, we’ll visit another friend at the bar that she owns, using our phones to light the bathroom between drinks on the sun-drenched front deck where we wave off a continuous stream of disappointed patrons. But for now, we are headed to the clinic, which, miraculously, still has power. Our tests are on. We pull into the small parking lot of the clinic’s strip mall, send them a text. We wait, eventually cracking the windows of the car to vent the heat, which has returned too quickly. I watch a short timelapse of the storm pass right through Chicago’s skyline before moving out over Lake Michigan. My wife is called. Then I am. The swab tickles. The nurses are nice. I am reminded, yet again, that the frontlines of the virus are young women in their early twenties, nervous, friendly. We get our slips of paper, our doctor’s notes, which we’ll show to another cadre of young women two days from now as we exit the Anchorage airport. Back in the car, I get a text from my mom. It’s a picture of an enormous tree bough smashed right down the side of the pool, the grass around it matted heavily from the emptied water.