I wonder if it’s a blessing that the pandemic hit now. When the snow is too thin to ski and arctic winds can still coax us back inside.
I used to joke that I was under quarantine. Now it’s just true.
Four months ago, my family packed everything we owned into a Penske truck and drove 2,300 miles from the high desert of Utah to a 135-acre parcel off a dead-end dirt road in the heart of Vermont. We went from a town of 50,000 people to one a tenth the size. It was our experiment in rural living after spending most of our lives in cities.
On the darkest of winter mornings, I strapped a headlamp to my forehead, stretched a web of metal wires across the bottom of my sneakers, and ran the frozen network of roads near our house to get a few miles to myself before daybreak. Often the only vehicle I saw was a plow or a sander. I exchanged mittened waves with drivers I could not see.
I work from home. Under normal circumstances, my one-year-old supervises while his brother is off at preschool three days a week. The other two days I work as a full-time employee and a full-time stay-at-home mom—a new arrangement that requires patience I do not always have.
Back in Utah, I worked in a more traditional office setting where I tapped on a keyboard while listening to coworkers an open door away discuss their personal lives. I often took ten minutes to walk to the nearest coffee shop and inventory the clouds settled over the mountains.
These days I rarely go to the supermarket. Or the library. Or the bakery. Navigating icy sidewalks with two small children is often just as unappealing as not going. Instead I text photos of the grocery list to my husband as I pop another tray of chocolate chip cookies into the oven. I conduct conference calls wearing pajama bottoms while my youngest son stands on tiptoe, trying to snatch the computer mouse off my desk.
The pandemic arrived during maple sugar season.
The maple trees along our dirt road are tapped and dripping clear sap into recycled vinegar jugs strapped to their sides. Some operations look more surgical in nature with clear plastic tubes emptying into bins by roadside gullies. The air smells of wood smoke as people watch sap burn inside barns. I run and think of waffles.
I wonder if it’s a blessing that the pandemic hit now. When the snow is too thin to ski and arctic winds can still coax us back inside. Smoke wafts from our neighbor’s property across the creek. He is boiling. Ordinarily, I would walk across the short bridge separating our woods from his and say hello. Instead I watch him haul wood stacked near his house and disappear into the shed.
Inside I read how the COVID-19 coronavirus is multiplying the already vulnerable cracks in our healthcare system. I don’t bother checking my 401(k). I am not sure if the ill feeling I have is because I know that the numbers are stark: there will not be enough hospital beds for the sick. Or respirators for those gasping to breathe.
I cook to control something. The weepiness of a soft-boiled egg. The tartness of an apple and pear galette. I ink three weeks of meal plans on a notepad stashed on the cookbooks by my oven. I have never been this organized. And yet I cried while frying eggplant for a lasagna I won’t eat for weeks.
My husband is our family’s last physical contact with the world. He did the final grocery shopping trip and kept our only bottle of hand sanitizer in the center console of the car. “People will get funny,” my sister, a social worker at a hospital, warned. She is right. My husband returns with a report that a woman tried to steal $300 worth of groceries earlier. My heart hurt for her and the financial burden of a stocked pantry.
My husband tells me that the cashiers are wary of people bringing reusable bags to the store. For the first time in my life I am grateful for plastic.
In the afternoons, I take my three-year-old son Gabe for walks on the path behind our house. The woods are alive with birdsong. Squirrels absent all winter scamper across a rock fence marking a grazing boundary we no longer abide. We make up silly songs that I serenade local wildlife with as a warning to any bears emerging from hibernation. He leads me to the site of the old farm landfill. We marvel at the abandoned car shedding rust into the stream.
“Poor car,” he says.
I look at the heap of corroded metal and can’t muster the same compassion so I say nothing. A minute later I nudge him back onto the trail. Patches where the snow has melted reveal bright green ferns flattened against the forest floor. I pick a slender stem and show my son the spores dotting the underside of its fronds.
“What are those?” Gabe asks.
“That’s how they make more ferns,” I say.
I realize then that I don’t know exactly how ferns reproduce. The questions of a small child have revealed how uncertain I am about the world.
I’m relieved when he doesn’t probe further. He is satisfied with my offering from the woods and carries it in one hand. He finds my arm to steady him across a crusty sheet of snow and onto the next exhibit. We use our walking sticks to tap the mud-crusted roots of a fallen tree.
“What happened to it?” Gabe asks.
“Maybe it got old,” I said. “Or maybe it got sick.”
Over the last few months Gabe has become curious about death. The questions seem plucked out of the ether. When are we going to die? On the potty. Why do we die? Eating lunch. Is my little brother going to die? In the car. When am I going to die?
Sometimes, when I’m scrubbing the dishes, he will stand at my side and announce I have a lot more life left than you. There is no question afterwards. The sentence just lands at my feet as I reach for another soiled cup.
I know that my son asks about death because he doesn’t understand it. Perhaps he senses that I do not either. I cannot fully explain to him why water bears can survive being boiled, frozen, dehydrated, and exposed to the vacuum of space and we humans, saddled with fear and the ability to describe it to each other, can so easily succumb to a virus we cannot see.
I brace for a question that never comes.
Instead, Gabe finishes his tapping and says it’s time for lunch. We head back toward the house singing of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.
Gabe sheds his jacket and rubber boots by the door and insists we put the fern in a glass of water. Within a day, the fronds have started to dry and curl. I toss it the next day once he goes to sleep.
Every evening of quarantine, pings from town arrive in my inbox. A digital community forum connects neighbors selling old sewing tables, sharing personal poetry, or simply saying hello, I’m new here. Most towns in Vermont have them.
I scan the headlines. Sign up for local farm shares! Someone is offering free face hospital masks found in a cabinet. A man sends links to camera feeds at the National Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. A final post catches my eye. A woman is looking for one or two buckets to make maple syrup.
I smile knowing that someone will dig out a few dusty buckets from their garage. And as we wait for the tidal wave of death to arrive at our shores, she and her family will be watching sap boil. Near the end, it smells like butter.
Kristen Munson is an editor for Utah State Magazine and freelance reporter. Her work has appeared on Utah Public Radio and in High Country News.