by Kathleen Stocking, 06/18/2020, Traverse City, MI
RIDING OUT THE PANDEMIC
March is a dead month in Northern Michigan. In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, the snow fell like little gray feathers for days.
I live in housing for senior citizens in Traverse City, a tiny apartment two blocks from Grand Traverse Bay. Older people with underlying health conditions, we were all told, were most at-risk. We were told to stay inside, see no one, and have food and medicine delivered.
At first, I busied myself with walking around downtown, but the boarded-up stores were depressing. I had a stack of library books to read. I read them. Then the library closed. I made potholders. I gave away potholders. I made more potholders. The days ran into each other. I felt jet-lagged without having gone anywhere.
One morning I saw a man from my building crossing the parking lot in his walker and yelled over the wind, half-joking, “Let’s get out of here.”
He said, “When?”
I said, “Now.”
He said, “Sure.”
Okay. I tell him my name. He tells me his. I tell him I have a Honda Civic that gets good mileage. He says he has money for gas. I tell him I’ll pack a lunch and bring water — two mason jars, one with his name, one with mine — and meet him outside in the parking lot in 30 minutes. I reassure him I’m a clean freak: my counters are always cleaned with bleach. I’ll wear a mask and gloves to prepare the food.
In my car, we grin at each other. We have no idea where to go.
“It’s like skipping school,” he says. We didn’t know it then, but would learn that each of us had skipped school, more than once.
We drive north, vaguely thinking we’ll go to the Straits of Mackinac. We don’t talk much at first. Along the empty roads we see many turkey vultures. We surmise they’re migrating.
We listen to country music for a while, interspersed with news about the pandemic: unsanitary meat processing, the lack of protective gear for health workers, the number of dead. The news cycle endlessly repeats until the dead pile up in our imaginations and we turn the radio off. In bits and pieces, he tells me the story of his life and I tell him the story of mine. He grew up in a big, Catholic family in Detroit; his father, Chippewa from Mackinaw City, met his mother in New Zealand while serving in the United States Marines. I’d grown up in Leelanau County, four sisters, and came from a long line of Protestant riff-raff. We talk about our grandchildren; he has five, I have six. We see a bald eagle, a young one in a dead tree, feathers fluffed out against the cold.
Mackinaw City is a ghost town. The sun comes out while we eat our lunch, then it starts snowing. We know there are no open public bathrooms. Finally, we see a cemetery and, driving far back on the little two-track to where the gravestones end, he gets out with his walker; I find a large tombstone to hide me from view. Would I feel better about dying if I knew there would be a big tombstone for me? No, I decide, ashes are good, like the almost invisible snowflakes falling around me.
We drive to the west side of the Straits near the old fort.
“Look!” he says.
I’m not sure where to look.
“They’re kettling,” he says. He points to a column of birds swirling up in the air, like chaff from wheat. He explains that kettling is a term for what raptors do before they migrate across water: they rise and fall, as a group, seemingly gathering courage to cross. I can understand their trepidation in crossing the blustery Straits. I wouldn’t want to do it alone either.
The whitecaps west of the Straits are wild and beautiful. Heading back, we see no cars except for several blue Michigan State trooper car and sometimes a black sheriff’s car. They don’t seem interested in us. Maybe they’re out in force to discourage burglars from robbing summer cottages.
In preschool teachers tell children to “buddy-up” and hold hands when walking to the playground. We decide that’s what we’re doing. He’s my pandemic partner and I’m his. Is it a risk? Yes.
It’s dusk when we arrive home. The miles on the road and the rare sight of the kettling raptors have revived us. We would hit the road again in a few days; although we didn’t know it then, we would do this for weeks. As winter became spring and spring became summer, we outdistanced the pandemic.
On a hot June day out in Benzie County, we see a giant, hoary, winsomely ugly, magnificently indifferent to us, dinosaur-like snapping turtle cross the road near Norconk’s asparagus farm. We watch the turtle lay eggs in a sunny sandbank. Life does not get better than raptors kettling and ancient snapping turtles laying eggs, things we never saw before and may never see again.