By Paul Rogers
“We’re ordered to stay home,” announced the text message, surprising me in the mostly black-spot wilderness of Indian Canyon.
I strode on a few more steps; down to the seasonal stream that was the turnaround point of my hike. Recent rain propelled it across the otherwise dusty fire road with incongruous, picturesque purpose.
“Okay,” I responded flatly, as not to inflame panic. “Will be home by dark.” A futile orange circle spun next to my words – they probably wouldn’t reach my wife before I did.
It was sundown on March 19. California’s statewide ‘stay at home’ order had just been announced amid the coronavirus outbreak. I was a couple of miles into the San Gabriel Mountains, near my Canyon Country home. Taking my wife’s text overly literally, I mulled its implications while scrambling up to my return route on the meandering Pacific Crest Trail, which clings to the scrubby slopes above Soledad Canyon like a slipping belt.
Anticipating being ‘grounded’ by the pandemic, I’d been squeezing in hikes at the end of my work days while I still could. Living where we do, facing the San Gabriels, allows for such brief, yet truly solitary, adventures. The week before, I jokily captioned about self-isolation alongside an Instagram photo inside an old gold mine, and the following day from the lonesome depths of a nearby ravine.
Reaching a point overlooking the trailhead on that first lockdown night, I saw my silver SUV sitting alone far below. My sole companion on the trail – a middle-aged lady who, with her dog, had jogged past me in both directions at an astonishing pace – was long gone. I lingered over the vast vista towards Vasquez Rocks before me; the High Desert to my right; and the even higher, cartoonishly snow-capped peaks at my back. How long before I would be able to do this again?
Unsighted again by one last rocky spur, I walked the last mile in contemplation, savoring the breeze and solitude as I concocted a plan. Mistakenly assuming that I was already breaking a strict curfew by being caught out in the mountains, I decided to risk making the short drive into the sprawling, western-themed town of Acton to grab last-minute supplies for our family.
Rounding a final switchback revealed the serpentine road below deserted. A sense of urgency quickened my step, as did the trail’s steepening descent. It struck me that just five months prior we were forced out of our home – evacuated as October’s rampant Tick Fire reduced neighbors’ homes to skeletons –, and now we were being forced into it.
My mind raced: We’d need dog food and coffee while hunkered down; and the already notoriously scarce toilet rolls; plus wine – lots of wine! And I wanted to find flowers for one of my four stepdaughters, upset over the closure of her college due to the pandemic. Pathetically, I felt a little heroic – maybe like a ‘real’ dad, unemasculated by stepparenting’s numbing role-ambiguity.
In retrospect, it was mere coincidence that for the first few miles of my drive I didn’t see a single vehicle. This stretch of Soledad Canyon Road can be unsettling at the best of times, its countless blind curves punctuated by makeshift memorials amidst trees twisted and blackened by wildfire. At dusk and alone, it taunted my imagination. Maybe because the area has provided locations for so many thrillers and crime dramas, with movie ranches left and right, I half expected to be halted by a National Guard roadblock or an Apache helicopter swooping into my path.
It occurred to me that such dystopian visions were mostly fueled by fiction, as there’d been nothing like COVID-19 in my lifetime. Comparable historical episodes – the Black Plague, even the 1918 flu pandemic – seemed too distant to be relatable. I’m sure my wife and I weren’t alone in re-watching post-apocalyptic movies like 28 Days Later and Omega Man over the preceding days. We’d even thrown in a little conspiracy theory with the comically cheesy yet increasingly prescient They Live. These fanned my paranoia as I guided my old Montero towards Acton’s modest ‘downtown’ straddling Interstate 14.
My thoughts evolved as darkness veiled visual distractions. I considered contemporary, real-world situations where entire cities have endured what amounted to prison-like lockdowns of appalling privation (albeit due to conflict rather than pandemic). In Chechnya and the Balkans in the 1990s, and more recently in Syria and Iraq, the besieged have had to survive like rats in bombed-out cellars, while dogs feasted on the fallen. It dawned on me that even the very darkest of my hypothetical apocalypse scenarios had, in places, already come to pass.
I arrived at an obscure discount store, tucked behind a 76 station, which we’d been told still had the elusive TP. Pulling up outside the beige rectangle of a building, I finally saw fellow humans. Like me, they seemed to be hurriedly gathering essentials. Inside, I was reminded of shops I’d visited in 1980s communist Yugoslavia: shelves either yawning empty or piled with off-brands of doubtful vintage. I emerged with an obscenely large bottle of red wine; a dust-coated jar of coffee; two rolls of ‘1-ply gold’; and a rather forlorn bouquet for our suddenly studying-from-home college senior.
Heading back down to Canyon Country on the 14, traffic seemed normal and the evening’s otherworldly aura began to evaporate. Stumbling into our entryway with my eclectic bounty, my wife gently explained that the lockdown didn’t take effect until midnight and, besides, we’d still be allowed to go shopping.
For a moment, I felt foolish and melodramatic. But ultimately I’m grateful for that surreal couple of hours of confusion, however laughable. Because it prompted mental reminders that millions of people just like us have suffered ‘lockdown’ conditions incalculably worse than even the most rigid of COVID-19 restrictions. And so I entered this curious chapter not with a sense of resentment, but rather with one of (relative) appreciation.