It was a Friday back in March. The governor’s emergency order came through late in the afternoon just as I was stepping out of the work week and into the weekend. The order shut down non-essential business operations and halted in-state travel.
I remember looking at the distressing news on my phone and feeling the gravity of it start to sink in, and then looking up and out my window to see clean, bright snow.
It’s strange to endure a global pandemic in Alaska, because the outdoors carries on as always. The contrast between the continuous pummel of dire news versus the casual magnificence of my surroundings remains surreal to me.
That night, I shoveled a skinny path from our driveway to the fire pit so we could have friends over, outside and distantly.
At the time, very little about the virus or the in-state mandate was clear. This was partially because the information was simply difficult to absorb. We weren’t allowed to travel in-state? So if I wanted to drive from Palmer to Fairbanks, I wasn’t allowed?
The magnitude felt stunning. If the governor’s office was taking the situation this seriously, it underscored the measures I had already been taking — an unnerving affirmation.
Back in March, what I was starting to let myself understand intellectually had not yet sunk in emotionally: that enduring this virus would be a marathon, not a sprint.
Social distancing and the general upheaval of many parts of my life were not going away anytime soon. I grieved the ability to see family back east. I grieved the opportunity to fully embody my career change the way I wanted to — there would be no in-person meetings for a long time. The race I signed up for would likely be canceled. No more cozy indoor dinners with friends.
I looked at all of these losses sideways, not head-on, like I was avoiding making eye contact with a room full of people who wanted to confront me but I wasn’t ready to speak with yet. There was just too much to absorb.
And that was just me, in my little bubble world.
The stark inequity of the impacts of the virus added a layer of horror to the whole thing. Here I was gazing at the clean, white snow and beautiful mountains, while some in Alaska found themselves trapped in hunker-down mode with an abuser. As the virus exposed existing problems across the country, I started sending money to various nonprofit groups.
Meanwhile, we were low on toilet paper.
But back to that first night. We had a bonfire with friends who have essentially been our corona-buddies since the get-go. Six feet apart with a fire blazing between us, we started to pick up the pieces and absorb the news.
We saw an ermine dart across the snow in the backyard. It stayed light later. It still felt like winter, but life was moving on despite all of the uncertainty.
As fall clearly descends on Alaska, so does a general feeling of anxiety about the socially distanced winter to come. Many Alaskans, myself included, have found ways throughout the summer to stay connected, safely, with others — by limiting contacts, staying outdoors, “double-bubbling” and having frank conversations about distancing.
What happens when the cold sets in? How will we continue to see each other? Alaskans being resourceful as usual, apparently there’s been a mad dash to purchase heat lamps.
I find myself oddly less anxious about the coming season. I know the winter-weirds will set in at some point, as they inevitably do. (That’s my shorthand for seasonal affective disorder, by the way — something I can put a name to when I’m mysteriously crying over a frayed shoelace in January.)
But when I remember those early pandemic times back in March, I also remember how quickly we adapted. We met up with friends to go sledding and sat around — distantly — on our tailgates afterward until we got cold. We went cross-country skiing and fat biking. And I shoveled a path through the yard, piled wood in a hole and lit a big fire to sit around.
We’re Alaskans. We’re resilient by nature, and resilient with nature. Like any other winter, the trick will be maintaining motivation and a pattern of getting outside. No matter the duration or the activity, just getting the routine fix of fresh air and outdoors will help sustain us for the long haul.
it will be a cold, daily slap in the face of a reality that coincides with but is distinct from the news, the statistics, the heartbreaking personal stories of the pandemic.
And when March rolls around, with snow still on the ground but the days lengthening, we’ll light up a big fire in the backyard and gather with friends — probably distantly — to take note of the light rolling back in.
We will get through this. It’s one season at a time, and I’m getting myself ready to hunker down for this next one and find those moments to simply be and appreciate what we have in Alaska, moment by moment.
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