High Desert Hoofbeats, March 20, 2020

Sena Taylor Hauer

A glance at Main Street on Monday, or at the entrance to Arches National Park, is evidence that our visitors don’t want to believe there is a pandemic that could sicken themselves and kill others. Moab has always been a place for escape. That’s why many people choose to live here, and it’s what attracts so many others to leave the maddening crowds of their own homes in Denver, Salt Lake, Aspen, Paris and Tokyo, even if it’s just for vacation.

Most of us are bracing ourselves for something we’ve never seen. We are experiencing panic, inconvenience, fear, irritation, economic loss and a longing for things to return to the normalcy that we probably didn’t appreciate before COVID-19 became a household word.

Born from a wet market in China where live and dead animals were intermingled and sold in disease-prone conditions that gave no nod to the hygienic standards to which we are governed, a virus was launched around the world in a manner that hasn’t ever happened in a century. It’s terribly hard to believe.

My husband and I like to go to the movies on Sunday evenings. We enjoy the popcorn probably more so than the show. When I called Sunday morning to find out what flicks were playing here, I was dismayed. One we had already seen, one was a Disney cartoon, and the other was described as a sci-fi horror show. Who needs sci-fi horror, I asked myself, when we have a horror show of science fact unfolding in reality?

I know some people think that there is overreaction to COVID-19. But I’ve got to think that the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is the best practice. I appreciate all the extremely tough decisions that have been made on the local level, long before state and federal governments adopted more protective measures. Yes, the economic losses are huge and painful. But this disease is an equal-opportunity damage machine. If you’re a big guy with a big portfolio, too bad. The stock market is in the tank. If you’re a restaurant owner, you have to stop serving in a dining area. If you’re a school kid, you might enjoy the break but your education may take a hit. If you own a ski resort, your season is done. The list is endless. It’s scary times for sure.

When the coronavirus started to make bigger headlines in late February, my husband and I were driving from Arizona to Moab, having spent several weeks down south to escape the inversion and admire the saguaro cacti. We alternated listening to the news on the radio, while digesting the audio book “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Written by the great western author Wallace Stegner, I describe his book as a “Grapes of Wrath” of sorts. A small family chases the American dream, but their story is peppered by domestic violence, poverty and despair.

The book is lengthy. It’s a long slog that starts with hope and goes downhill from there. It’s a story of the human condition, ugly, heartfelt, bitter and painful. While driving, we happened to be listening to Stegner’s words that described a flu outbreak in the 1930s. We would interrupt the tape every now and then to get our own top-of-the-hour news headlines. The parallels were surreal.

As we listened to the book, its lead character Bo has made a run to Canada for liquor that he hopes to sell to folks in the lower 48 who are suffering from the flu. He drives to Saskatchewan and sees a white flutter of paper on a saloon door. “Closed while the flu is on. City ordernance,” it read in colloquial spelling. He sees a lone man on the street and asks what the problem is. “We got the flu. The place is quarantined,” the fellow retorted.

Stegner wrote, (and this reminds me of all the folks who have been vacationing in Moab this week) “Bo had been too busy to pay attention to the flu, but listening to the farmers who hung around the pool hall he heard the fear in their talk.” But still, he was bent on buying liquor to re-sell and capitalize on the moment when sick people were at their weakest.

The almighty dollar and the fear of bankruptcy drives us. Moab businesses and employees have just come off of a long winter and their bank accounts are low. Our hopes have been pinned on spring break, but we are now faced with an unprecedented month-long shutdown, by current estimates.

These harsh measures are in our best interests. Our hospital, grocery stores and other vital entities can barely sustain residents during this frantic time. We don’t need to be caring for hordes of tourists who could fall ill and be quarantined here, making Moab one big cruise ship stuck offshore.

We are a Petri dish of human consumption and habit. Our seemingly boundless deserts may provide fresh air and well more than six feet of separation per human, but our markets and health facilities do not. That is the rub. Hold tight Moab. We are in uncharted territory.