Monday, May 25, 2020

Musings on return to ‘normal’: Cheeseburgers, haircuts and fresh air

This week it began. We have initiated the economic “phase-in” period of our return to normalcy, a studied collection of charts, graphs and data which, if all goes well, will allow us by mid-June to sit down in public and eat a cheeseburger.

“Easy, easy … caaareful … OK, now do you want fries with that?” By that time we will have worn masks so long that, forgetting they are there, we will smush a tuna sub right into the business end of our N95.

Then, on June 1, the North Country is expected to get back to the serious business of cutting hair. Stylists are going to be like humanitarian relief workers in Haiti after a Category IV hurricane — working around the clock to the point of exhaustion, until the average Adirondacker no longer resembles Dee Snider of Twisted Sister.

Hannaford shopper wearing a mask. Mike Lynch/Adirondack Explorer photo

And maybe by July we will no longer wake up from a nightmare of being trapped in One Way Grocery Store Hell where all the arrows are pointing back to you, and there is no way out. This actually happened to me in Plattsburgh, where one casual floor-taping error had me cornered in the dairy section for longer than I care to admit.

There are other logistical supermarket questions as well. If the product you want is just 10 feet down a wrong-way aisle, is it OK to scurry in and grab it and scurry back, like a cockroach running into the light to grab a crumb of rye toast?

I don’t know. I also don’t know when I’ll get over this stupid habit of holding my breath every time I walk past someone on the street, as if humans are billowing germs the way clouds of dust would follow Pig Pen in the comic strip Peanuts.

The last thing that stood in the North Country’s way of opening by degrees was a lack of testing. It wasn’t that we didn’t have the tests available, it was just that no one was sick, so no one wanted to submit to an admittedly unpleasant process. It seems weird we can spit into a tube and science can tell us what exact cave our club-carrying ancestors grew up in, but to know if we have COVID-19 they need to run an eight-inch Q-tip up our nostrils, as if the cooties were able to play hide and seek. 

The coronavirus has changed the Adirondacks, and then again it hasn’t. Streets today are now deserted, whereas just two short months ago they were — deserted. On the other hand, groups that you would have never dreamed would be conversant in Zoom meetings have more or less mastered the technology. Like quilting clubs. “You’re on mute, Edna! Edna, turn off your mute!”

As Americans always do, they have already taken video conferencing too far, to the point that the productivity dividend of staying home is sapped by excess screen time. You really shouldn’t need a Zoom meeting to decide whether the peanut butter should be chunky or smooth.

And if you’re one of these groups looking to limit hiking in the Adirondacks, I don’t know what you do. Anyone who thought that a deadly virus would put any kind of a damper on hiking season had to be disappointed by the month of April. In a month that’s typically so muddy and blah the mountains are all yours, trails instead were overwhelmed. And that’s with the Canadian border being closed.

In one of the weirdest displays of civil disobedience I can think of, hikers broke down the barricades at a closed trailhead in Willsboro and hiked anyway. So there you go. Give me Patagonia or give me death.

But perhaps our communal instinct to get outside when we sense disease is not entirely wrong. Like the president himself, I do not dismiss the power of sunlight. Recent science, according to The New York Times, has determined that even a slight stirring of the air can send the virus flying like bowling pins to the point that they do no harm. One or two viruses won’t hurt; it’s groups of them that you have to watch out for. Sort of like teenagers.

Of course The New York Times is not telling us anything that Edward Trudeau didn’t already suspect. The entire village of Saranac Lake was built on fresh air, and the idea that city folk could be cured of tuberculosis with a regimen of healthy outdoor living.

Sickness does its worst in areas where people are warehoused — prisons, nursing homes, cruise ships, meat-packing plants. Nature is trying to tell us something. So while I respect the Hike Local movement, I do not dismiss the instinctual draw of the out-of-doors. And even though crammed parking lots are a bad look, the risk of 40 people spread over a five mile trail seems minimal to me.

Hiking is better for you than not hiking. So long as you don’t go to prison afterward, which is where some people seem to want to throw you.


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Tim Rowland

Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.

4 Responses

  1. Todd says:

    Nice read Tim. What you do if you have to go down a grocery aisle the wrong way is leave your cart at the end, provided you don’t have any hard to find essentials in it and walk backwards down the aisle. This is acceptable for items less than half way down. If more then half way you have to take a lap dowam aisle you didn’t want yo go down first

  2. Big Burly says:

    Thx for candor and tongue in cheek — another smile on this gorgeous day in the DAKs

  3. Harv Sibley says:

    Great piece Tim, thanks…. The other day I was in Hannafords, looked down at the opposing arrow on the floor, and the empty aisle in front of me… then I thought, what would Michael Jackson do? Moonwalk back down the aisle to grab the organic super chunky? What if there are CC cams… would they chuckle? Other good natured shoppers smile behind masks and offer friendly hellos. Life is good, people are kind…Thank God

  4. Nancy Gould says:

    Thanks Tim, I truly enjoy your style of writing. Please keep writing! Especially during this turmoil.
    Put a smile on my face!

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