I am crying in a Tahoe motel room, a meltdown precipitated by the sound of someone coughing in the hallway and the buzz of a group chat update: with days to go before our scheduled departure from Durango, only half of us have COVID test results.
The delay presents a problem somewhere between moral calculus and an LSAT question. Are the negatives willing to travel with unknowns, if a positive result delivered en route would disqualify the whole car? What if someone’s still waiting on results by the time we’re supposed to head into the backcountry? Would a result even mean anything if it was—at that point—a week old?
This is my first attempt at going anywhere since These Challenging Times began. I’d pictured long weekends training at altitude all spring; instead I’ve hardly been more than riding distance from my one-room apartment in four months. I’m overwhelmed by the sidewalks crowded with tourists, bristle at the man who stands too close to me at check-in.
“If we go and someone gets sick it’ll be my fault because it was my idea,” I protest.
“You’re giving yourself way too much credit,” Ryan says. “Everyone’s an adult. Everyone’s here because they chose to be here.”
“I know,” I croak, “but still.”
COVID conditions were still excruciatingly uncertain at the point we’d had to decide whether to keep our reservation—muddled questions about transmission, ongoing shortages of PPE. In the Bay Area it was all grim headlines and hand sanitizer recipes, NextDoor pile-ons and neighbors berating each other for mask lapses on the street. But when I called the tour company in Colorado they had answered breezily that they were operating more or less as as normal. The dissonance rattled my skull.
The group met to discuss it it—over Zoom. We are all Good Citizens, or at least very much want to be, and so it was and remains difficult to separate actual fear of getting or spreading the virus from fear of appearing not to care. Two of the party are married to nurses. The rest know enough.
Was the situation so unclear that clearly we shouldn’t go, or clearly so unclear that we should? On the one hand the news cycle seemed to birth some fresh hell daily. On the other hand, next year things might be even worse. “Personally I am oscillating between fuck-no and YOLO roughly every three hours,” I write to the boys. “This is friggin’ crazy,” one replies.
Now we pass through one-street towns in Nevada, shambling storefronts with angry Sharpie bans on entry to anyone with a mask on. I still don’t have a COVID result. Online, commentators wonder why we don’t batch test like the Rwandans. From the back seat I try to work out how you’d determine the optimal number of samples per batch, given a certain infection rate. The engineer in the car is initially amused by this, less amused when my remedial math questions make us miss the turn to Provo.
When we finally arrive there we stop for lunch at a city park. The other tables are occupied by big families of unmasked Mormons. I’m not sure if they believe in COVID, but I know they believe in heaven and so I stay as far away as I can. Hours later it’s orderly, distanced queues for groceries in Grand Junction, then onward to signed threats on the “fashist” governor’s life just a few miles down the road.
One nation, individuals.
In Silverton at last we’re sorting gear in the motel room when there’s a loud crash and a panicked wail from the parking lot below. I turn to the window and see a big touring motorcycle down, the rider convulsing on the pavement. At first it seems he’s been hit, but his passenger, frantic, screams to onlookers that he’s having a seizure. A flurry of activity. Her hands to her face.
He is alright now, it seems, but my heart is pounding. I don’t want to make a habit of crying in front of my friends in motel rooms, but for a moment I think I might again. Empathy for the stranger condenses quickly into judgement as I gather myself. I think of the winding, shoulder-less mountain road up from Ouray, the sheer rock and long fall to the river below. It’s one thing to choose yourself to ride yourself, with such a dangerous condition, but to take someone else with you? How irresponsi—and the word comes screeching to a halt on my tongue.
The countdown to departure is all tradeoffs and squabbles. Garmin has been hacked, hilariously, and I can’t determine if my SOS device will still work. The weather is deteriorating and we’ve bought up all the gardening gloves from the hardware store. I’m shedding pack weight in ridiculous, desperate ways (do I need both spare socks?) at the same time that Ryan’s trying to convince me to bring canned oxygen and Jacob is distributing hand-carved spoons. Meanwhile Sean’s in the parking lot offloading mangos and yogurt to a party of four-wheelers in an attempt to clean out his car. “Hey, thanks, man,” they say.
I bark and nag and fret until we have all six of us assembled on time (!) at the shuttle pickup spot. The driver steps out of the van with temperature gun drawn. Six moments of truth.
When we unload the bikes at the trailhead the actual clouds are gathering into grim gray fists—but the metaphorical ones have parted into sunshine. I know the week ahead is likely to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do. We have 200 miles to cover—today’s opener all above 11,000 feet, with weather incoming, on a bike I’ve never even ridden fully loaded. But I feel, for a moment, weightless. “Here we go!” someone says, but “We made it!” is all I can think.