MAY 2018

“The desert doesn’t care.” Of all the words on nondescript Bureau of Land Management signs in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, these are the four that I remember.

We park the car by two others in a dusty gravel lot at the Boulder Mail Trailhead, just outside of Escalante, Utah. The afternoon sun heat has already shut down my cell phone, which I had placed carelessly on the dashboard. It’s my first long trip to the Colorado Plateau, that high-desert red-rock country. I am a desert novice, a backpacking beginner, and I have a lot to learn.

My companion and I sign the carbonless pad registry. I take the pink slip for myself, and we begin a gradual descent down into what back home we’d call a dry creek bed. The trees mark the location of the subterranean current and our path toward Escalante River. We wind our way through the Pine Creek bottomlands, as binoculars and Chacos and bright blue Crazy Creek chairs bounce around the exteriors of our overloaded packs. We cross the river and walk the border between cultivated and wild land. And then we start up. I’ve never hiked anything like this—surface rock exposed, trail switchbacks marked by cairns that help hikers find the path.

We ascend into the wind. My prairie-raised skin is used to gales, my Midwestern body grown to brace and flow naturally, without thought. But I’ve never faced wind while wearing a thirty-five-pound pack. I stagger and sometimes stumble, wondering how far a tumble would send me down the rock face. What would the damage be? Who would come along to care for me?

We are only two miles in when we reach an outcropping. I sit to relieve the weight of my now-heavy pack. I huddle in a small circle of shade, absorbed in my struggle against the desert. The wind rushes at my ears. So this is backpacking.

JUNE 2020

Two years later, my backpacking companion is now my partner, and we find ourselves accidentally confined together in my—now our—two-bedroom bungalow. We are four months into the pandemic, and we are beginning to realize that this is only the beginning.

“One percent of the population infected; fifty-nine percent to go,” my partner jokes, referring to the threshold at which some experts project we may achieve herd immunity. As I come to understand it, herd immunity is when if enough people are immune, either through vaccination or the development of natural antibodies after being infected, the spread of a disease slows to the point that almost all people are protected indirectly. I read that for most infectious diseases, 90 percent immunity is needed.

In the Missouri county where we live, the first case is reported on March 17, 2020. It takes us fifty-five days to reach one hundred cases. The community is shut down, businesses are closed, stay-at-home orders are enacted. It takes twenty-six days until we hit the next one hundred cases. We begin to reopen; schools and the university make fall plans; traffic picks up. It only takes fourteen days to reach one hundred additional cases. The next one hundred, numbers 301 to 400, takes eight days. Then four days. Then in one single day we have fifty-one new positive cases.

All this time I am still going to work. I’m a solo pastor, and I serve a congregation of people, but when it comes to physical space, I often work alone in the quiet study of an empty church building. I decide it’s within the spirit, if not the letter, of our county’s stay-at-home orders if I continue to work from the church. Someone should be in that sanctuary space even though worship and all other activities are now online; someone should keep filling it with prayers.

I form new rituals without realizing I am forming new rituals. I can easily drive past both of our city’s COVID testing sites on my way from church to home, and I do so regularly these first months. At first, when the trees are still bare, I take the detour out of curiosity, but by the time the redbuds are blooming, I am sending blessings to the cars waiting in the drive-through line. That is at the time when the unknowns of the pandemic are at their peak, and we fear the worst outcome from every infection.

Fear eases as the death rate drops, and then I drive past the dark green brush tree tangle of Missouri summer doing my best impression of an epidemiologist. I count the cars in line, and I report back to my health data journalist partner. Twelve today. Twenty-five. Back down to six. Then it becomes hard to count. The line wraps around the corner. I can’t drive and count without running up on the curb, so I come up with a new technique: one-two-three-four (white car), look at the road; five-six-seven (red truck), back to the road. Then the testing site rearranges itself: there are two lines of cars. Then it rearranges again: bright orange traffic cones funnel cars into rows.

I remember when we used to fly, and the security line wound back and forth, adding additional rows at peak hours. It’s like that now, and I cannot count without stopping to invade the privacy of the ill, so I drive by out of habit now, habit being one ritual form of prayer.

MAY 2018

We shoulder our packs and step out of the wind break. We start to climb again. There’s no way to go on except to go on. When I look backward and down, I am assured that we are closer to whatever is next than we used to be. Finally, we reach the crest, arriving at a sage brush mesa. It is flat. I rejoice but only briefly. Soon I understand how difficult it is to walk in sand. My athletic, 150-pound frame, now weighted, sinks with each step. The ground shifts beneath me, and my toes grow weary of bending; my ankles tire of making microadjustments to balance every single footfall. I want to stop, to rest, but my companion is in the lead and seems to be doing fine, so I try to fix my attention on something besides how hard backpacking is.

Beside the trail, two signs of human habitation catch my attention: a fence and a thick wire, both downed in sand and brush. I suspect it is telephone wire, a fact confirmed when I notice the craggy wooden poles near the trail. I later learn a bit of its story, like that in 1902 a man named James Schow followed the old Indigenous trail between the remote town of Boulder and Escalante, carrying mail and medicine with the help of up to ten mules. He delivered mail twice a week on a $200 a year US Postal Service contract. Then, in 1910, the US Forest Service installed the telephone line, which connected Boulder to a switchboard in Escalante and the wider world beyond. By 1924, the US Postal Service was delivering parcels—things like sewing machines and cans of cream traveled the trail until the 1930s, when Highway 12 was built to transport all manner of people and things, and the trail became obsolete.

Now, more humans live in the desert West than ever before, and it’s a hiking trail traveled by people like me who perhaps think we can escape civilization in the wilderness, leaving no trace. But no matter how light-footed we are, we humans leave traces everywhere. Entering into wilderness always spins a thread of connection. One tender footstep, even when placed on Navajo sandstone, is still one more human imprint than there used to be, and so we tangle ourselves into nature. “Leave no trace” is a misnomer. The greatest reverence, the lightest step, will still make a mark.

JUNE 2020

I do some elementary research and discover that basic immunology often focuses on the body’s defensive frontiers: the chemical, biological, and physical ways an organism protects itself from invasion. I learn that the Latin word immunis means exempt.

It makes sense to me. When we go out to buy food and antibacterial soap and toilet paper, I am newly aware of the people around us, newly suspicious. We set the alarm and go early in the morning when it’s less crowded. I use the cart as a buffer between me and the others in the store. I try to breathe less often and less deeply—there’s no telling what particles are escaping around the edges of every mask. When we get home, I sing the Doxology, while I wash my hands to make sure I lather for the recommended twenty seconds. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

I develop a mental checklist of ways I can protect myself from this virus, ways I can defend my body from infiltration, ways I can exempt myself from the now fearsome connection to others. But even my self is becoming murky to me. I turn to the dictionary again and learn that our English word self is related to the Latin suus, which means one’s own. But how do I know what is my own and what is not? Is my breath part of me? What about the footsteps I leave behind at the grocery store? How do I know where I begin and end? Pandemic time leaves me unsure.

I leave traces of my self everywhere and pick up traces of other selves too. For a time, the public library was quarantining books—after you turned a book in, it sat for three days before someone else touched it just to make sure our selves don’t mix. But the grocery store doesn’t have such luxuries. I leave myself everywhere: on the door handle that opens coolers full of ice cream, on the apple I pick up and put back, and especially in the invisible clouds of breath I emit that are now breathed in by every person I encounter. Never have I been so aware of the traces I leave, of what I touch and what I leave behind.

We cannot escape one another’s selves, which in pandemic time means we cannot escape this virus. 

I know this because I’ve done some more research and learned that some scientists question whether viruses are actually living things. Viruses cannot live on their own. They cannot reproduce alone or with one another. They are parasitic, which means their replication process depends on another life form, a host. Maybe that host is the man ahead of me in the checkout line with a cart full of cheap ramen. Maybe it’s the last person to check out the book I just read, a dystopian novel about the end of the world. Viruses use the materials of the host to copy themselves such that an infected host actually nourishes the virus and helps it reproduce. In this way, a virus has no self of its own. And in this way, our selves are not our own either. At the microbial level, our bodies are responsible for growing disease and giving it to others.

I keep hearing talk of the virus as the enemy, but that makes less sense as the days go by.

MAY 2018 + JUNE 2020

Meanwhile, in another world, which is also the same world, I recall a sign not far off of Utah’s Highway 12. The desert is neither friend nor foe. The desert harbors neither animus nor benevolence. The good and ill that it seems to produce are perhaps an illusion that emerges when we forget that we are not actually our own.

The desert doesn’t care. It’s not a declaration of animosity or ill will. It’s not a shortcoming. It’s an invitation: loosen your sense about what it means to be alive. Rework the old understanding that to be human means to have an easily defined self. The desert doesn’t care. These four words put the desert in its place, and they put me in my place. In a strange way, they put the virus in its place too.

Desert. Self. Virus. Finally, I realize these places are not distinct places at all. I try to get beyond my moral judgments and emotional preferences. Boundaries are not what they used to seem—they become fuzzy, and then they dissolve. My air is your air is desert air is virus air. The desert hosts humans who host viruses. Viruses populate humans who populate deserts.

I try to become like the desert, neither worried nor troubled by the flow of life and death. I think I can get there for one brief sideways glance or the rare moment when I am truly at prayer.

On this earth, there is a layer of existence beyond the things we might usually consider. That layer is woven together by oft-unperceived threads—footsteps on slick rock, fingerprints on an apple, the air in a grocery store. Those threads can’t be contained. They can’t be separated. My self is not mine. It never was.  It never will be.

This is my great pandemic lesson. But it’s a lesson that’s always been everywhere for those who have hearts to perceive.

MAY 2018

On every backpacking trip, at least for me, there’s a moment when the body merges with the struggle and the place. The body comes to its own varied edges: sore and swollen feet, shoulder aches, and unsteady knees are transformed by whatever nameless thing lies just past the usual limits imposed by self. On the Boulder Mail Trail, it was after the windy climb, after the shifting sand, later, as dusk came over the Antone Flats. The white-gray rock seemed almost soft beneath me, my boots stuck their landings each step, and the dry desert air was so close to skin, mouth, and lungs, that air was breath and breath was air. It was a spiritual moment, the kind sought by Christian contemplatives at prayer or those of us who don’t quite know what it is for which we long. It was a moment in which self is subsumed but not consumed, and the invisible layers of creation are now perceived. Interconnection is the way of things. This is not an illusion; this is what is real. We are not our own, and we never really were.