Monday, Nov. 15, 2021:

Vaccinations provide powerful, but invisible, protection, but masks have become the outward and visible sign of how we feel about the pandemic, individually and collectively. Sometimes wearing one is a question of legality, sometimes an assessment of the risks, and sometimes we depend on an incipient, but fuzzy, mask etiquette. In the city, where regulations are usually clear and enforced, we see more uniformity. In rural areas, it’s more casual.

Some people walk into the roadside coffee shop wearing masks and some don’t. In the old high desert mining towns, it’s the Wild West. When I walked into a coffee shop in the historic gold-mining town of Placerville last June, a man on his way out smiled, held the door open, and said, “You don’t have to wear a mask around here.” But inside, it was a mix. All of the staff and about half of the unseated customers wore masks.

We spent the Veteran’s Day weekend with friends in Calico. Once a silver-mining boom town, now a touristy ghost town, Calico is maintained and run by the state of California which provides a popular camping location for people who want to spend the weekend riding dune buggies, motorcycles, and all-terrain vehicles, better known as ATV’s. Canyons, trails, and a dry lake bed give a variety of terrains for all-day recreation, until the early winter sunset draws people back to their campfires for wine and cheese, followed by hot dogs, chili, and s’mores for the kids.

It’s been almost thirty years since our family first came here with some of our closest friends and made it an annual event. We’ve missed a few years recently, though. My husband Chuck and his friend, who spearheaded the event together, are gone now. Our children who played around the campfire now have children of their own. And then there was the Pandemic. This year, we thought we’d try it again, for old times sake.

Of course, it’s not the same. As we stopped for lunch in Barstow, an old railroad town and important rest stop on the old Route 66, we saw restaurants and motels boarded up. Denny’s was open and busy, though. The staff wore masks and there were the usual stickers on the floor telling people to stand 6 feet apart, but no one paid any attention to them. On Sunday morning, with everyone crowding in for breakfast, we sat at the counter. The staff were amazing. Even when someone called in sick, the manager kept her cool. “Do you have symptoms?” she asked. “Then you need to get tested and stay home for two weeks.” There was clearly a protocol in place.

Our first-night dinner had always been at The Idle Spur, but this restaurant was now closed. Ironically, this western-style steakhouse closed in January, 2020, for family reasons, two months before the Pandemic was announced. Often in the old days when our families came in for dinner, part of the restaurant was cordoned off for a community group meeting, a presentation, or a prom dinner. What a loss to the community its closing must have been.

About 12 miles east of Barstow stands Peggy Sue’s Diner, once our second-night dinner spot. Built in 1954, Peggy Sue’s is still popular as a fifties-style diner from the days of Route 66. I’m happy to report that it’s still going strong with movie-star photos and memorabilia still intact. We practically had it to ourselves on Friday night, but on Sunday morning the breakfast crowd lined up out the door, probably people like us going home from the Calico campground. Like Denny’s, probably less than half the customers wore masks.

The population of the Calico campground had changed since we used to meet our friends in our motorhomes years ago. (My motorhome days are long gone. I prefer the nearby railroad motel in Daggett, population 200). The family motorhomes, trailers, and tents have been replaced by huge shiny Toy Haulers surrounded by motorcycles, ATV’s, and dune buggies. With a small motorhome hauling a trailer-load of vintage ATV’s, we were the smallest outfit in the neighborhood. As for masks, you would never know there was a pandemic in that campground. But then we were outside and reasonably spaced apart, so our two family groups weren’t masked either, and when the third family group joined us in masks, I thought about which way to go and decided to remain unmasked.

The ghost town itself showed casual signs of a pandemic passing through. There were signs on the stores and some people wore masks inside, always including the storekeepers. Few masks in the crowded saloon, and no attention to the spacing stickers on the floor. One “help wanted” sign gave evidence that the Great Resignation has hit here too.

I’m not much for nostalgia, so I may not be going back. But with the holidays coming up, I’m ready to escape to something entirely different. Last February we reserved a place on a river cruise on the Rhine for December 11-23. It seemed safe at the time. Now, however, all we hear is that there is a surge of cases in Europe, especially in Amsterdam, our first stop, and Germany, where most of the other stops are. Austria is locking down everyone who is unvaccinated! Now, I am fully vaccinated plus booster and flu shot, and I’m willing to go even if I sit masked (or not) on the deck of the river boat (all on board are vaxed and the numbers are reduced) and watch the Christmas lights go by.

But what if they have to cancel it? Last year we went to the Ahwahnee at Yosemite. This time my backup plan is a few days on Catalina Island. We can count on nothing these days, but it means a lot to have something to look forward to.

Today’s Notable Headlines

“This Thanksgiving, the Masks Are Off, the Dinner’s Inside and the Relatives Are Back,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 14, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/this-thanksgiving-the-masks-are-off-the-dinners-inside-and-the-relatives-are-back-11636885802

“Stanislaus County revokes mask mandate for fully vaccinated people indoors,” KCRA, Nov. 15, 2021. https://www.kcra.com/article/stanislaus-county-revokes-mask-mandate-indoors/38259155#

“Oregon has no timeline, no metrics for ending mask mandate,” KGW8, Nov. 12, 2021. https://www.kgw.com/article/news/local/the-story/oregon-timeline-metrics-end-mask-mandate/283-70a6f505-66a7-4030-b44c-6a3404466ada

“Route 66 is turning 95. Here are the best things to do along the Mother Road in Arizona,” AZ Central, Oct. 28, 2021. https://www.azcentral.com/story/travel/arizona/road-trips/2021/10/28/route-66-arizona-road-trip-cities/8556649002/

Why am I doing this?

The coronavirus pandemic will be indelibly written on our memories just as the Great Depression or the Battle of Britain left their mark on past generations. I intend to journal the pandemic experience from three perspectives: as a retired medical technologist, as a historian (Ph.D., 2014), and an ordinary person living through an extraordinary world crisis.

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