It was a brisk and beautiful morning, the sky cloudless, the sunlight sharp. It was the kind of day that under different circumstances would have you looking forward to the coming seasons of warmth and splendor and carefree fun. We began packing the car. I’ll never forget the looks on some of my neighbors’ faces as I took the bags of groceries—canned goods, pasta, rice and yes, even some toilet paper—to the car. Those faces betrayed thoughts. Wait, should I be doing the same thing? Fear may be the only thing more contagious than this virus.
Fear may be the only thing more contagious than this virus.
We left Brooklyn, home. We headed for Vermont. The emotions were mixed, uncomfortably.
There was relief. We would have more space, inside and out, in Vermont. We would be in a rural area, less friendly to contagion. Eighty-percent of the intensive care unit beds in Brooklyn were already filled. I had listened in fear as my city doctor friend had relayed the horror-show in his hospital’s ER the night before.
There was profound sadness: We were leaving our home, our city. When would we see it again? In two weeks? In two months? In a year or longer? And what would we find when we returned? Surely, it would never be the same.
There was a stabbing sense of guilt: We were lucky enough to have somewhere else to go, a refuge, or at least something that approximated one. Those left behind would suffer. I felt like a chicken shit. I wouldn’t be there to help if someone needed it. My neighbors. My city.
We were being told as a nation to pull together by staying apart.
The news got grimmer as we traveled north. Testing still lagged, disastrously. The city, it had become apparent, was a hotspot. A complete lockdown was said to be coming, and there were rumors that the National Guard would be deployed soon. We were being told as a nation to pull together by staying apart.
At the last minute as my wife and I packed, just before I zipped up my duffel bag, I’d thrown in a 4-weight fly rod, a reel and a box of flies. It was, at the time, merely a symbolic gesture. It was March. The fishing in the medium-sized river in Vermont would be poor if happening at all. The gear was a rather senseless thing to bring along, seeing as we required every inch we could get in the car. But I needed one totem of normalcy, a normalcy that I now realized I had taken for granted all of my life.
A week into the self-quarantine, we had some sort of routine in place. Our three little girls were doing their classes online, under our supervision. We went for long, aimless walks, picking up sticks, talking about the dog we were going to get someday. We sat by the fire as a family in the evenings. We were together, which was its own sweet blessing.
I spent the days in quarantine as a teacher, a chef, the Minister of Fun and head of an impromptu, all-girl soccer academy. I worked in the margins, preparing for a book that was supposedly coming out in the fall, a piece of pre-plague writing that now felt quite naïve. The days were immersive enough to take my mind off of some of what was going on. But never all of it.
On a late afternoon of that first week, with temperatures in the 50s, I took a break from the routine and rigged up my fly rod. I walked the mile down to the river. The licking, burbling water coursing through the valley seemed to enhance, rather than engulf, all of the other sounds around it, of the breeze in the creaking tree limbs, of the birdsong. As I walked the bank of the river, I passed many likely holding spots, but did not make a cast. It felt reassuring to watch the water, to be reminded of its timelessness, to think of the girls making casts down here with me as the weather warmed. A swarm of midges hovered by the head of one slow pool. Little green shoots had begun to struggle their way up from the wet, squishy banks. The trees had gnarled bulbs on their branches, signs of the budding to come. “Spring is the earth forgiving itself,” Allen Gurganus once wrote.
As I walked home, the sun began to ease itself behind the mountain in the distance and the breeze became more insistent. It was abundantly clear that we were in for difficult times, perhaps more difficult than we can even fathom, a cruel winter that will seem endless. I am trying to prepare myself for the worst. But, I decided as I neared the house, I would also start living for the spring—whether it’s actual or metaphorical—and for all of those things I once took for granted. It may be months before we’re there. It may take a year or longer. But it will come.
Monte Burke is, normally, a Brooklyn-based writer.
MONTE BURKE is the author of Saban: The Making of a Coach, and Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass. He's currently working on a tarpon book.