The black cardinal of reality
During an eight-mile bike ride through Saguaro National Forest on a triathlon training trip, I watched a black bird with white “windows” in its wings launch from a branch and flap its way down a cactus-lined gulch. It was a species of bird known as Phainopepla. It looks like a black cardinal, and it is unique to the desert southwest.
And it seemed aptly symbolic of the mood in America.
Whenever I visit Arizona, I can’t help thinking about the ecology and how so much of our romanticized American history is set in this region. Western movies, books and TV shows love to use the desert as a backdrop for human drama. As a result, little about the true beauty of the environment ever really comes through. Western lore focuses on the supposed glory of gunslingers blazing away in shantytowns and saloons, of cowboys driving cattle across the “range” and of Indians succumbing to the combined fury of Manifest Destiny, smallpox and cultural destruction. I’ve yet to hear a truly cogent explanation of how that was all romantic in any way.
The American plague
That decimation of the native American population was the original American plague. Disease and social conflict always go together. Some of that social pressure seemed to land right in our laps as we sat aboard an airplane heading down and then returning home from three days of biking, running and swimming in Tucson, Arizona. We left the very night that the term “social distancing” surged into common usage. At the airport we bore witness to people changing behavior in real time. The procession of travelers passed by with a cordiality seldom seen in today’s society. Everyone seemed to understand that this was a turning point in our present-day culture. But mostly, people were freaked out.
After all, this was a new brand of accountability, driven by this newly invisible threat that selfish actions could lead to death for ourselves, and for others. And that was an unusual burden for people on this continent. Americans are not used to being held responsible for their selfish interests. We’re largely isolated from most of the world’s problems. The last three years of xenophobic American history have only exacerbated those instincts.
Even the patented notion of American exceptionalism has transformed from JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you…” to “We own this place, and fuck you if you don’t like it.” We’ve also seen the trickle down effect from a self-praising president to the cult-like Christians praising him as a gift from God. This was conceivable evidence of the most perverse form of religious ardor, and principles be damned.
And then came the plague.
Loners and wanderers
Times of crisis force self-analysis. I kept thinking of the lyrics from the Talking Heads son Life During Wartime.
Transmit the message, to the receiver,
Hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, a couple of visas,
You don’t even know my real name
High on a hillside, the trucks are loading,
Everything’s ready to roll
I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nighttime,
I might not ever get home
Perhaps we were selfish by getting on an airplane that Thursday night. We were certainly not alone. People were traveling despite the warnings of the contagion. Yet some of the information shared by the media implied that healthy people were at no greater risk than a common cold. So let’s be honest about all of this.
These are confusing times, and it has been impossible to get straight and true answers from those most responsible for managing this pandemic. They have lied to protect the reputation and political prospects of the president. Lied to prop up the economy in the face of crippling stock market drops. Lied to insinuate that previous administrations are responsible for this mess. Lied to shout racist threats against China. Lied to brand the virus a “foreign” threat as if that would keep it at bay. Lied to justify the firing of the entire United States agency created to combat this type of crisis. Lied to suggest that the virus was a “hoax” by Democrats to harm the President. Lied to avoid calling it a pandemic in the early stages. Now they’re lying to Americans by proposing to send out $1000 checks while committing billions in corporate welfare to industries that willingly glommed up profits while the getting was good, and now want handouts for bad planning. Trump even lied by refusing to block travel to and from countries where his own profits stood to lose money. This entire Coronavirus response has been an exercise in transactional governance for the benefit of one person only: Donald J. Trump.
Taking a flyer
The day after we returned I listened to a travel expert lamenting the massive hit being taken by the airline industry, and how 750,000 jobs now depended on government support to keep the entire domestic flight dynamic afloat. So the messaging we’re receiving is conflicted. On one hand, it is vital that we all stay home to keep the plague from peaking too suddenly and overwhelming our fecklessly fragmented and profit-obsessed healthcare system. On the other hand, the airlines and bars and restaurants need people to patronize them or people will lose their jobs and millions will go hungry.
Being honest about it
So I’d be intellectually dishonest given the “tell-all” nature of this blog to deny that last Thursday through Sunday, we took our trip and engaged in three days of desert training with a group of twenty other athletes. We shared meal preparation but washed our hands religiously. None of us was coughing, sniffling or showing any symptoms of Coronavirus. And while there is evidence that we can be asymptomatic virus carriers, it was our vow upon returning home to isolate and pay attention to social constructs. That is one of the tarsnakes of our lifestyle. No one is better at restraint and deprivation than a group of endurance athletes. We live that way on a near-daily basis. Self-isolation will be no real problem.
The training trip itself was a model of social distance and isolation. We rode our bikes far up into the foothills the first day and back down again. The cool winds coming off the range to the north were fresh and far removed from the town resting in the desert basin. Then we ran in the bright sun and swam in an outdoor pool with light rain falling on our heads. And that was Day one.
The second day we climbed back on our bikes and pedaled twelve miles to the base of Mt. Lemmon. The road curls up through the passes until it emerges on a wide outcrop called Windy Point. That’s where the mortals like us turned around. The gods among us swept all the way out to Summerhaven, which happened to be closed. So no one got their prized oversized cookies. But many of the cyclists who rode that far were cooked by the time they returned to our houses.
My wife caught me two miles into the journey and pedaled on ahead. Her morning indoor rides have armed her legs with endurance that I have not yet built. I knew that would be the case. So I rode alone for the most part, passing the occasional rider and being passed by locals buzzing by with mountain legs as well. The scenery is stunning but in many ways the ride requires a head-down effort during the steepest sections of road. Then we soared back down with our disc brakes whirring, not daring to go so fast as those experienced on such roads. We topped out at 30MPH while other zoomed by at sixty. Behind us, some idiot in a sports car spun out and bounced off two guard rails. The front and back end of his Honda were torn off. He could have killed someone.
Like I said, it is the plague of selfishness that endangers us most of all.
For the final day we rode the bike trails across the breadth of Tucson and turned toward Gates Pass. The climb is not that long, but the peaks lined with saguaro seem to measure every pedal stroke. The final 400 meters is a steeply pitched section of road that make your legs ache and your lungs churn. That is why we ride. To feel like an inside-out human being. It exposes the raw self and requires honest effort lest one grind to a halt. Perhaps its looks bad to be smiling in times like these, but in truth, that’s the most important thing we can ultimately do for each other. Keep sharing experiences and smiles even if it’s done across the Internet or during a long series of isolated miles.
When we swam in the pool one last time the afternoon sun flickered in the water and our arms grew tired enough to be satisfied and call it a day. A weekend. A trip. But was it selfish of us? All we can see is that we were riding on the cusp of Coronavirus Reality. We flew back home the next morning while washing our hands at every stop along the way. The plane was 3/4 full and everyone avoided rubbing up against the other.
Standing together apart
Now we all stand together by staying apart and wait to see what happens. There are young kids partying half-naked on the beaches in Florida while old folks cower in stuffy retirement homes hoping the virus doesn’t arrive through the front door. These are strange times indeed. So it’s important that we all be honest with others and ourselves as we lurch forward into the Wild West of not knowing what the ever-living fuck comes next.