COVID and Conflagrations
by Tracy E. Hill, Ph.D.
This month, I decided to see how the United States was faring with interstate travel during the current pandemic as well as witness firsthand the devastating wildfires out west. My 90-year-old engineer-trained father-in-law spends countless hours in assisted living isolation (due to COVID) trying to figure out a way to harness the ocean’s waters to douse the countless wildfires across the country. It seemed appropriate to mix the two for an article. It was an eye-opening experience.
Booking the flight through United Airlines was simple, except for the fact that the airlines changed my flight several times without bothering to notify me. Had I not checked my reservations just a couple of weeks prior to departure, I literally would have been sitting at the airport for more than eight hours waiting for my flight and most likely crying in my misery. When I called United to discuss the situation, I was told that flights are rapidly changing and that they did not have the “support structure” to notify passengers of each alteration. My suggestion that a simple e-mail notification would have been easy and sufficient fell on deaf ears.
I flew out of Philadelphia International Airport and was well prepared, bringing my own snack foods and face masks (several, in case one got dirty, dropped, or lost). One of my dear friends insisted I purchase protective eyewear for the flight, which I reluctanty did. Several containers of hand sanitizer and Lysol wipes accompanied me as well. The airport was bustling with travelers but most if not all of the retail and restaurant shops were closed. Warnings abounded, cautioning travelers to stay six feet apart. United Airlines smartly boarded passengers whose seats were at the back of the aircraft first. Yet they did this without giving them enough time to find their seats and store their luggage before calling the next several rows, thus creating a backed-up, cattle chute of people waiting to get to their ticketed seat. So much for staying six feet apart.
On the flight, I was seriously distressed to realize that United had not left the middle seats empty, so the flight was packed with passengers sitting shoulder to shoulder. The flight attendants handed each traveler an individually wrapped hand sanitizer no bigger than a cotton ball swab. It seemed that each person was expected to sanitize their own seating area, including seat back trays, arm rests, and button controls. Had the cleaning flight crew not disinfected as United Airlines promised https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/united-cleanplus.html?
I dared not use the in-flight restroom.
Unlike Philadelphia, Denver International Airport (like Newark, where I flew to on my return flight) did have a few establishments open for purchasing food, in-flight entertainment as well as beverages for those who needed a boost to get through the ordeal of traveling in such cramped quarters.
On both flights the flight crew did not reprimand passengers who refused to wear their masks for the duration of the flight. Nor did they notice the traveler who actually sneezed on my exposed ankle through his mask while sitting across the aisle from me. And then there was the oxymoron of flight attendants handing out snacks and beverages on board while requiring travelers to have masks on at all times.
When I travel to Denver, I typically love the view of Pikes Peak in the distance as you drive out of the city into the suburbs and toward the Rocky Mountains. Yet, as my Uber driver wound his way northwest towards Breckenridge, the mountain range was not visible. A haze of clouds had settled over it as far as I could see. “Those aren’t clouds,” my Uber driver informed me as I expressed my disappointment. What I had thought were clouds was in fact smoke drifting eastward from the wildfires in California and from several conflagrations throughout the mountains of Colorado.
I eventually reached my destination, Silverthorne, Colorado. Silverthorne is a beautiful town nestled between Buffalo Mountain and Red Peak, with a lovely vista of the Gore Range. High above the plains at over 9,000 feet, my retreat backed up against the White River National Forest. Each morning, I ventured across a near-by meadow, now strewn with burnt trees and limbs, and hiked deep into the forest, paying close attention to stick to the trail. I was wearing an orange vest and hat and armed with bear spray, but an old high-school friend had also warned me, “If you come across a herd of elk, they don’t see so well. Don’t outrun them. Just hide behind a tree.” This advice indeed came in handy. One afternoon, a small, majestic herd of wapiti and I happened upon each other. Startled, I dashed behind the nearest and largest tree I could find as thousands of pounds of muscle, devastating antlers, and angry breath rushed past me.
I struggled to reconcile the beauty and regrowth that wildfires can stimulate in a forest with the great devastation they have created in recent years. So many thousands of acres have burned, animals and people have been displaced, creatures large and small have perished, and human lives have been lost to the countless conflagrations out west. I marveled at the burnt timber and the destruction. Words cannot adequately describe being in the depths of the woods where everything is blackened. Yet, when I hiked with my two travel hounds to the top of Tenderfoot Mountain, which overlooks Silverthorne, I saw no smoke or hint of any active fires near or far.
So, I took a drive into the towns of Idaho Springs, Superior, and Westminster to visit with locals and hear their tales. On one day, the winds were howling so fiercely that people advised me to return to my retreat and stay hunkered down. With the winds came the fetid odor of smoke and one of the eeriest experiences of my life. As I walked about town speaking with shop owners, homeowners, and travelers alike, I suddenly noticed whitish-grey specks flying all about me. I realized it was ash, swirling and blowing everywhere. It was as if I had happened upon the movie set of the Twilight Zone. The intense winds had whipped up the fires burning on the mountain tops and caused ash to rain down everywhere below. I could only wonder at the devastation that more winds and more fires could inflict on the beautiful mountains and people of Colorado, California, Washington, and Oregon.
I hope my father-in-law discovers a solution soon.
Photos by Tracy E. Hill