Malcolm McMichael

Ordinarily, I write this column under the weight of last-minute deadline urgency. However, this month, for the first time in my career as a columnist, I prepared my column well in advance. I was so proud of myself; the piece was about a notorious local issue; well-crafted and just a little sarcastic.

The column was also, as it turns out, banal and unsuitable in light of current events. It’s my experience that the moment you think you’ve got the cowhands lined out, you’d better duck and roll, because you are about to get knocked off your pony.

So here I am, back at the drawing board, and back up against a deadline. This time around, I am facing the added challenge of trying to write a letter to the future – in the middle of a current-events hurricane. I am writing a column on Sunday that won’t go into print until Thursday, and if the previous week is any indication, whatever I say will be out of date within minutes of submitting the piece. So, with that in mind... hello Thursday; it’s me, last Sunday. How’s it goin’?

Last week was a doozy. After several weeks of watching and waiting around for the arrival of The Virus, the bug took the town by storm. Way back on Sunday evening (the 8th), back through the haze to our national innocence, I was trying to decide if it was responsible to go through with a planned visit to my parents in Illinois, because they are elderly and dad is in a nursing home. But by Friday, after the virus has laid waste to an unprecedented range of plans and preconceptions, I was effectively homebound, trying to digest one of the most remarkable intentional crash landings in the nation’s history. Back on Sunday, I was concerned about getting trapped in Chicago for a fortnight on the wrong side of a national freak-out. By Friday, I was freaking out about being trapped in my own home.

The bug announced its arrival in the form of Typhoon Aussie, apparently wielding a 75%-plus infection rate among a score of unwitting revelers, it burst the infamous Valley bubble with an aplomb that belied the down-under geniality of its carriers. Somewhere, Crocodile Dundee could be heard boasting: “now that’s a virus.”

Let’s review the week. On Sunday, local officials announced the detection of the first infection. On Monday, we were informed that a group of companions were in isolation awaiting their own test results. Officials then retreated to “no comment” for the rest of the week. On Wednesday, the wheels came off.

On Wednesday, the county announced that some of those companions were presumed to have acquired the illness too, making official what most people already suspected. Also, on Wednesday, the NBA slam-dunked the nation by being one of the first and most visible major crowd-based operations to pull the plug on its own season. Many colleges around the state shut their classrooms, an announcement that was surely met by students as an excuse to gather in groups and discuss it over beers.

On Thursday, MLB and the NCAA joined the NBA and announced the End of Spring as We Know It. Thursday was also an immensely heartbreaking day for local youth. Athletics, performances, clubs, trips and programs, all suspended in a sad and relentless string of announcements throughout the day. One by one, the entire spring schedule for our kids and the kids of everyone I know was wiped clean. Just. Like. That. It was a bandwagon of despair. In my bubble of parenting and youth coaching, Thursday was an apocalypse of disappointments. The stream of headlines coming across my news feed and text alerts and emails was surreal, and I found myself Googling some to make sure they were legit. That night, local officials broke their silence and dropped the public health hammer, big time – prohibiting all gatherings larger than 50 people.

The dominoes fell one after another. By Friday, there wasn’t much left to cancel except schools, which did so at the end of the day. Also on Friday, local officials acknowledged that the horse had officially left the barn – the infection had escaped containment into the community. Thereby acknowledging a reality that was already apparent to anyone paying attention since Sunday. Local ski areas tried to leverage their uncrowdedness by design into a shot at staying open, until Governor Polis delivered the coup de grace, declaring a suspension of lift-served skiing.

Last week was unlike anything I have ever experienced, certainly since 9/11. The week was perhaps akin to the Kennedy and King assassinations. On Monday, the Valley was preparing itself for the onslaught of spring tourists; by Friday, it was a ghost town. The economic ramifications are staggering. The heartbreak for youth programs is tremendous. I’m heartbroken for those whose livelihood are bearing the brunt of it, or trying to hold down jobs in this chaos and hold it together while dealing with the indefinite home detention of their children.

From a public health perspective, this national power-down is extraordinary, to say the least. Although it is too soon to debate the public policy implications, it’s fair to say that we are experiencing a legal and constitutional event that is mind-boggling; certainly, in its scope, although not without precedent in the wake of previous regional natural disasters.

In a hint that local conditions may be worse than advertised, the state has thrown the resort region under the bus. First advising anyone over 60 to avoid it, then announcing that everyone with contact to the region should assume they’ve been exposed.

In response to the walls of quarantine closing in, many people headed straight for the grocery store. The paper goods aisle looked like Cindy-Lou Who’s house on Christmas Eve after the Grinch came through.

People are beginning to re-tool their lives to the changes. Some have hunkered down hard; others are trying to continue a degree of normalcy. Some are trying to create enrichment opportunities for their children; others are trying to figure out child care or how to get some damn toilet paper. Also quite a personal shock, was being told that since I am within sight of age 60, I am officially elderly, and should restrict my activities accordingly. Boom, I just got punched in the face by the CDC.

In moments like these, basic universal advice can still be counted on, pull in the reins when the riding gets rough, connect with your loved ones when you can, treat your body well, and wash your damn hands. Beyond that, things get weird quickly. No one knows what is going to happen next, and those who have an idea aren’t talking much, and those who have no idea are talking way too much.

It’s too soon to know when they’ll signal All Clear. Now that things are significantly shut down, the question becomes how long will they remain shut down. There are indications that a few weeks might turn into a couple months. And while there is no doubt that we put a major bend in the infection curve, it’s anybody’s guess as to what that means for the future. I am afraid we may have some rough sledding ahead.

Although it’s far too soon to write the definitive retrospective, there are lessons available already. About the illusion of control. About fear and anxiety. About both the importance and the limits of media and government. About the amplifying nature of social media. And about the perennial applicability of the universal rules for daily living.

Someday, I told my kids, this is going to be an epic story we will share as a family and community. A remarkable, unforgettable spring. 

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. He is doing his best to turn this change in fortunes and future plans into an opportunity, but he is really going to miss toilet paper.