Note: My husband, grandson, and I took a cross-country road trip June 25 to June 29, 2020. I’m belatedly publishing my journal entries.
June 26: There are signs of the coronavirus everywhere. Store mascots and yard animals wear masks. A notice at the entrance to Grand Teton National Park shows antelopes social distancing. In Las Vegas a masked showgirl on a billboard announces, “Until it is safe to take off our clothes, we will remain dressed.” Covid-19 is taking the strip out of the Strip!
So even though it seems like a distressing number of people in what was once the wild West are not taking the pandemic seriously, this is not the same country I’ve driven across for decades. Still, I wish people in Wyoming were wearing masks more than they were in Utah. The state with a rodeo-rider mascot seems to be taking the threat of aquatic parasites more seriously than that of human viruses; we get stopped three times in one day to have our kayaks checked for foreign hitchhikers. Not all of the government officials wear masks.
In Yellowstone National Park, the effect of the pandemic is stark. With the hotels closed and dining halls open only for takeout, America’s pride and joy is at half-mast at best. After all, with no young people from Asia to work in the park, who would staff the facilities if the park system wanted to open up — which it wisely doesn’t. It’s strange not to hear the babylon of international travelers along the waterfall walkways. But with half the traffic and congestion, maybe this is the way the wilderness area should always be. Animals are always bold in Yellowstone, but it feels like we see more than ever this visit: mountain goats, elk, buffalo, pronghorns, many of them quite young.
I’ve been coming to Yellowstone since I was a child, traveling with my family, pulling a camper trailer across America. I have a deep soft spot for this place and its myriad of natural wonders: lakes, rivers, waterfalls, geysers, plains, mountains, bright-blue geothermal pools, and of course, so many animals. We at least drive through here every year on our way to or from Michigan. This year, at the time of our visit, cabins with bathrrooms and campgrounds are the only overnight facilities open. We rent a cabin near Lake Lodge. We are traveling as self-sufficiently as possible so we cook our own dinner and breakfast on the little briefcase barbecue my son got his dad for Christmas. Our stovetop espresso maker, a few sausages, and bagels fit perfectly on its top. We do break down for a couple rounds of to-go drinks from the Lake Lodge bar. There are limits to our social-distancing restrictions.
Yellowstone is actually the first place on our trip where we see people really taking the virus seriously. Hardly anyone patronizes the gift shop; people wear masks inside and outside (somewhat), and generally hikers step off the paths to let each other pass.
I realize we all have our own risk-taking calculus governing our response to the virus. Age, health, preconditions, economic class, race, ethnicity, and geographic location are all contributing factors. I am more adventurous than my friend with thyroid problems, more anxious than my 17-year-old son. Some readers might think I’m crazy to have ventured to Yellowstone at all; some park visitors might have wandered why I stood so far from them as they attempted conversation. Of course it has become clear how political ideologies are also fueling responses that should be based on reason and science, necessity and caution. I can’t say we had to make this trip but the need seemed to outweigh the risk, and we are being extremely careful; masks on every time we enter any building or are around people, gobs of hand sanitizer every time we climb back in the truck. I try not to judge how other people handle their own calculus, but as the surge in cases that has paralleled our journey makes clear, I just don’t understand how governments can be so concerned about contaminated watercraft when they don’t even mandate masks.
But as we drive through the magnificent scenery, I’m reminded how our national park system is one of our country’s greatest achievements — that we are a nation that does value the earth it is built on, even if we have lost our way.