As the pandemic opened, where I live in the far end of western Colorado, within view of Utah, there wasn’t much to close. Black bears shed layers of hibernation in their root and rock dens, while the season’s first turkey vultures came wobbling up from the south. Tourists aren’t a thing you hear of, and what happens in small, scattered towns matters little to these canyons and titled mesas.
The land has always been my axis, how I find my bearings. Some took up gardening during those months, some wore masks behind liquor store counters and prayed. I walked.
Points on the horizon, knobs of rock or lone-rimmed mesas, drew me out. Maybe we all reverted to something familiar, what we grew up with, the things we call home. Did you find a moment to walk barefoot on an old wood floor, or put flowers in the window, even if they were plastic? What did it take to relieve your mind if bank accounts drained and the search for work daily came up with nothing? I crawled through oak brambles, hands and knees sinking into years of dry, fallen leaves the color of rusty paper. Afternoons or mornings were spent in wildfire scars crowded with skeletal juniper trees, or snowy veils up in the pines.
I wondered about those caught tens or a hundred floors up in Manhattan with no second home to retreat to. Stairs on day 10 or day 30 must have worn out their welcome.
I wondered about the woman working at the grocery store in my population 500 town who’d been carrying oxygen with her even before the pandemic. When I bought eggs and cabbage, I didn’t ask if anyone had heard from her. Under my mask, I didn’t want to spend breath on the next clerk in line who wasn’t wearing one because in her mind this wasn’t happening. I made as little outside contact as possible. Anyone who could stay home, for the sake of all of us, had to.
Home is not my house. It is a place. I grew up this way. It is where a river comes and goes, and a pond in the reeds. Where a mountain range stands on the horizon is a compass point. With nobody out there, coronavirus had no home.
As beaches now begin to reopen and parks unlock their gates, we are starting to breathe again. Too early to hug old friends or crowd in tight around each other clinking beer bottles, we start passing each other on trails, sitting on blankets alone from others. It happens slowly. It has to.
I’ve begun to expand my range. The other day, I took my kids up to a waterfall trail above Telluride, Colorado. People on the trail stood apart from each other, letting others pass. I don’t know where they were from and we weren’t wearing masks. A few seconds of air between people outside is virally insignificant, we're being told.
Another kind of opening is happening, outside of coronavirus. Coyote pups have emerged and grown lanky, and the first nighthawks of summer have begun booming at dusk over my house. Unaware of all we’re going through, nature has continued to ripple and flow, the sun hitting its northernmost point and turning south again. The pandemic rages on, and the land does not pause.
Craig Childs has published more than a dozen books of adventure, wilderness, and science, including House of Rain and The Secret Knowledge of Water. His most recent is Virga & Bone: Essays from Dry Places. He has won the Orion Book Award, the Galen Rowell Art of Adventure Award, the Spirit of the West Award for his body of work, and thrice the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. He is a contributing editor at Adventure Journal Quarterly, and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, and The New York Times, the latter calling him "a modern-day desert father." He has a B.A. in Journalism from CU Boulder with a minor in Women's Studies, and from Prescott College, an M.A. in Desert Studies. He has also worked as an adjunct professor for MFA programs in Alaska and New Hampshire.
An Arizona native, Childs grew up back and forth between there and Colorado, son of a mother hooked on outdoor adventure, and a dad who liked whiskey, guns, and Thoreau. He has worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician, and a beer bottler, though now he is primarily a writer and a father. He lives off the grid just barely outside of Norwood, CO.