March 16, 2020
I write to you from Colfax in Northern California on the site of the ancestral land of the Nisenan. Once upon a time, this place was called Illinoistown and was founded mostly as a distribution hub for supplies needed during and after the gold rush. Later still the transcontinental railroad went through here, and the local cliff bulge known as Cape Horn is famous for the Chinese laborers who dangled in baskets to place dynamite for the rails.
I’m here because I was one of the five thousand or so idiots who attended AWP in San Antonio. The MFA program I direct in Ohio was a sponsor, and there were just too many moving parts (and money) involved—or at least that was the logic by which I made my decision at the time. I knew when I went that I’d need to stay away from home for at least two weeks afterwards to protect my family. Last time I self-quarantined, I put myself in a local hotel for a week. When my mom found out, she got mad at me for not taking advantage of their hospitality, so this time I am, as ill-advised as that now sounds. Both my folks are in their mid-seventies, so obviously if I brought back COVID-19 from San Antonio this will all be a spectacular error in judgment. But for now it’s been useful in that I’ve been able to get their groceries stocked up and do various small errands that have kept them in the house.
As some may know, my wife and I are raising a big family—seven kids in all—and my youngest child and only daughter Vivian (also known to the Twitterverse as The Best of All Babies) is medically fragile and absolutely cannot get sick. Every winter it seems we end up in the hospital with her, and it’s always terrifying: baby admitted, my wife by her bedside, while the rest of us make do in a hotel or, if they have space, at the Ronald McDonald House. Between baby Vivian and my immune-compromised wife, I knew I’d have to keep away from home.
In any case there have been some advantages. I’m still doing the household shopping, and I’ve developed a whole protocol for that involving lots of Lysol (both aerosol and wet wipes), disposable gloves, and so on. I’ve not gowned-up yet, but I think that’s next. My eldest son is a paramedic firefighter and he’s gone into serious crisis mode, calling us to make sure we’re stocked and so on, which gives me some comfort in that I know he’s looking out for us but also makes me super nervous that he’s out there in the thick of it.
Meanwhile, I talk to my younger kids through the closed window at home sometimes when I drop off the groceries, the bag handles wet from disinfectant. They all understand what’s going on and are, at least at present, seemingly pretty stoked by the laxity of Mom’s house rules. “I really want to open the door to hug you,” little Solomon said to me through the window yesterday. We talked for a while, and I smiled and then went out to the car and wept because what else can one do?
Right now, of course, I have no real idea when I’ll be able to come home. If COVID-19 comes on as strongly as they say it will, it may not be safe for me to reenter our home, at least for a while. We’ll still need supplies, after all, and someone (me) will have to go get them. Can I walk into the house after wandering through the local grocery store? I don’t know but I suspect the answer is no. And can I return to my parents’ home in Colfax? Again, probably not. So it could be that at some point I end up in a local hotel or camping out of my car or something. We’ll see. We’re in the midst of going bankrupt right now (mostly from travel expenses due to Vivian’s hospitalizations) so that adds to the chaos.
What I do is walk when I can. Colfax is in the lower Sierra Nevada, and there’s a road not far from my folks’ front door that runs downhill to the Bear River. A few days ago, before the current beating of spring corn snow, I put on my headphones and boots and walked on down to the river while listening to Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive. Nary another traveler upon the road. On the way back I came upon an enormous pile of black bear poop, seeming fresh, although I am by no means a bear poop expert. Headphones off and some speed walking home after that encounter. We are but one species in the world and not even a very powerful one at that.
Much love to you, my friend, and everyone reading, and all the ships at sea. Watch out for bears.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Kiefer’s contribution will be directed to Point Reyes Books.