The Quarantine Diaries — Chapter 5, “The New Normal”

Time marches on, and the Corona lockdown continues.  Some businesses are reopening, with restrictions, and “take-out” is the only way to get food you don’t cook at home.  Travel restrictions are still in force, but traffic is building.  The natives are restless.  The sometimes warmer weather brings people out into the streets and yards.  As the pandemic sweeps across the world, scammers are out in force: identity theft is rampant, especially in the unemployment assistance pipeline, with millions out of work.  It seems easier to get someone else’s unemployment entitlement than your own, in the confusion and enormous overload of the system.  Fraud abounds in fake relief agencies and charities.  We recently were contacted by a couple in Minnesota, who apparently thought they were giving a memorial in the name of a COVID-19 victim to a charity, which turned out to be a credit-card scam that used one of our email addresses as the support contact, in order to have a valid return address for a website that has surely disappeared by now.  Beware.

Early this month, we were contacted by another couple, bicycle tourists, who have been trapped in the U.S., staying with one of the other Warm Showers hosts in Shelton since early March, when the borders closed and the travel ban went into effect.  He’s from Spain, she’s from Argentina: they can’t travel to either country, because of “citizen only” entry rules in effect.  They were looking for another place to stay until travel restrictions are eased, hopefully in July.  Reluctantly, we had to turn them down, since we are in the “vulnerable” age group.  Even though we could take in a couple to become part of our “family” for a month or so, increasing the number of people in the household going out shopping increases the network of possible contacts, and we do break protocol every two weeks or so for grandkid visits.  The ‘Rona is turning us into people we don’t like very much.

Keeping with the spirit, if not the letter, of the “Stay at Home (but OK to go for walks in your neighborhood, with distancing)” orders,  we’ve been walking outside yet, exploring farther and farther from home.  It’s been a revelation, as we marvel over all the blooming things in peoples’ yards, and continue to trace out the many trails on the edge of town.  Having explored most of the off-road trails more than once, sometimes in both directions, and walked all of the streets in our 100-year-old Angleside subdivision and newer extensions, we’ve branched out into the Hilltop neighborhood to the southeast.  We also made some excursions into the downtown, following the now disused logging railroad from the entrance to the mill, along Goldsborough Creek, and to the crossing at Railroad Avenue, the main street of Shelton.

This week, we hiked up the newly-reconfigured Old Olympic Highway on the north canyon wall, looking for a trail shown on our map. We had seen the lower entrance last fall on one of our bicycle excursions at the base of the hill, on Franklin Ave., and were looking for the upper end, purportedly behind St. Edwards church.  Ignoring the prominent No Trespassing signs around the spacious church campus (whatever happened to the idea that churches were a place of refuge, open to all, in time of need?), we skirted the property boundary, looking for the trail.  Alas, it was blocked off with slash piles and overgrown, so we traversed across the top of the ridge on animal trails (the entrance to which was marked with a warning sign, faced outwards, as if deer could read), emerging back onto the upper street  a few hundred meters farther, through a vacant lot, heavily signed on the street side with dire warnings against criminal trespass.  Once again, we had managed to wander out of forbidden areas we had stumbled upon from the unguarded wilderness side.  At least this time, unlike one of our bicycle adventures on a dead-end trail along Semiahmoo Bay near the Canadian border several years ago, we didn’t have to climb over any fences to get out.  On return, rather than retrace our steps down the sidewalk, we took an old trail down the steep bank, ending up in a closed city park sports field, locked at all street entrances, which we had to escape through the city maintenance yard, through a gate marked “Authorized Personnel Only” on the other side.  Oops.  At least we had our COVID masks to shield us from face recognition on the surveillance cameras.

The weather turned cold and rainy for a while in the first half of the month, as it does here often, so we spent a few days puttering around the house, doing much of nothing.  I went on a baking splurge, turning out naan, pita, and banana bread in addition to our dutch oven artisan loaves.  We ordered a 25-lb bag of wheat through the farm stand, plus two different kinds of lentils.  The wheat arrived, but the lentils didn’t, which we might have expected, as the farms and distributors in eastern Washington and Montana were caught off-guard by the sudden demand for their products as meat-packing plants shut down across the country.

When we got the wheat home, it was in a bag, so I went rummaging in the basement storage room for a food bucket I knew we had.    When I went to pick it up, it was really heavy.  It was a full bucket of wheat we brought from Montana and never opened.  I found another bucket in the pantry: it was a quarter full of wheat.  So, I emptied that bucket into glass jars and put the new bag, unopened, into that bucket.  We have at least a year’s supply of wheat, possibly much more, with enough wheat for at least 150 loaves of half-whole-wheat mix, should the supply of white flour hold out.

Meanwhile, our daughter in New Mexico, responding to our lament about the scarcity of yeast and lentils, found a supply on-line and, when ordering for herself, also sent us 2 pounds of yeast, enough to leaven all our wheat supply with our usual recipe,  and four pounds each of chick peas and brown lentils.  I think we’re stocked for the rest of 2020, but reordered one of the lentil packages from the farm store anyway.

In addition to my weekly trip to Safeway for dairy and some staples, we’ve had a steady procession of UPS boxes of various sizes arriving every few days from Costco.  After having run out of a few items early in the Plague Years, we have learned to order early.  But, the New Normal is starting to catch up.  Items listed as available in the on-line catalogs are starting to arrive promptly, so we are suddenly flush with some long-term items.  Not hoarding, by any means, but the pantry is full.  Except for toilet paper, which is still in short supply and not available at all from Costco, our usual source.  We’re running out of the cheap, smaller rolls available occasionally at Safeway.  Disinfecting wipes, always a staple in our bathrooms, are also prominently featured among the missing items on the grocery shelves.

Fortunately, a 7:00 am run to the grocery this morning scored both items, along with clearance sales on a few other items we don’t need yet, but probably won’t be restocked.  Supply and demand is in rapid flux during this complete shift in The Way We’ve Always Done Things, not to mention that most people are running out of money and simply aren’t buying many things.  Our grocery budget has been huge, but should stabilize soon, as we shift from retirement to survival mode. Our April grocery bill was double the customary, but our dining-out bill went to zero, and it’s usually half of our food budget, so everything is balancing out, and may actually go down now that we’ve refilled the pantry with a two-month supply of most staple items.

We’ve worn a rut in the usual route in the remote county roads we visit on our bicycle, and on which we possibly come to the attention of those who disapprove of non-motorized vehicular transport and are easily offended by the sight of such vehicles manned by people arrayed in costumery seemingly ripped from the pages of Marvel Comics.  Accordingly, Spandex Man and Fluorescent Woman (who otherwise lead quiet lives as septuagenarian grandparents) have taken to hiding the White Knight–stealth transport for the Green Machine that inspires so many to road rage on sight–in the secluded restricted-use county park, and expanding our range.  As noted before, bicycling isn’t expressly forbidden in Washington State, but the trails and most parks remain closed.

So, instead of the usual group rides and club rides and clusters of riders on the trails, enthusiasts keep track of each other through various Facebook groups covering the exploits of older riders, tandem riders, tourists and bikepackers, folks who just like bicycles, and slowpokes.  One of our friends, a younger woman who lives a day’s bike ride west of us, with whom we’ve shared Warm Showers guests on successive nights over the last few years, saw one of our posts and planned to ride our route.  It happened to be on a day we were also planning a ride, so we made a date and met at the park, only the second time we’ve met in person.  We wore our masks while getting the bikes ready, and kept safe spacing on the road, but close enough to converse.  We took her on our usual 25-km figure-8 loop around the roads that follow Peterson, Dry Bed, and Rabbit Creeks around the southern foothills of the Olympic Mountains, after which she continued on to ride the longer 40-km loop down the Middle Fork Satsop River we took the week before.  Thus ended our first social outing since February.

Our weaving guilds have limited member contact to email and sharing photos of projects we’re working on.  We haven’t been weaving, and Judy has finished her last batch of art journals.  The journals sold instantly, but the outlet priced them so low that the proceeds barely covered the shipping cost and cost of printer ink, so she’s rethinking marketing strategy before embarking on another batch.  We actually don’t think the weaving guilds will be able to resume normal activities anytime soon, since the group meetings usually far exceed the new rules for occupancy limits for the final phase of lockdown, which will go into effect near the end of the year, if ever.  Judy is still going forward with planning for fall workshops, since those have limited attendance, but even those are in peril.  No one stepped up to volunteer to take over the chairmanship for workshops next fall, so she is saddled with the job for yet another year.  Her enthusiasm has waned beyond even wanting to continue participating.  We’ve enjoyed learning the skills and studying the lore and history of fiber, but end up spending more time in organizational management than practicing the arts.

The other organization to which we belong, Hypatia-In-The-Woods, which operates a retreat cottage for women in the arts, continues to be active, with board meetings via Zoom and email.  The retreat schedules have been canceled into mid-summer, but the cottage is being loaned out to a military family for their quarantine period on return from overseas assignment.  When the travel bans are partially lifted, the retreat schedule may have to be heavily modified.  In the Old Order, retreats of one to three weeks ran Sunday to Saturday, with Hypatia volunteers handling laundry, cleaning, and repairs on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.  Under the New Rules, the cottage would remain empty for a week between residents, with cleaning and repairs in mid-week.  Since the retreat schedules are usually a year in advance, this upsets the entire schedule.

In addition, the primary benefit to us, the members, is to have the residents present a public workshop or lecture on their work, usually at the library or county museum, and a potluck dinner and social evening with the membership during their stay.  With the libraries and museums closed and intimate social gatherings of unrelated people restricted, especially since most of us in Hypatia are over 60, some in their 80s, the whole house of cards collapses, though the primary goal of providing a residential retreat space for women in the arts remains.  The cottage shares a long driveway with another property, so we are in process of choreographing a socially-distanced work party to take care of our part of road maintenance in the next few weeks.

Goldsborough Creek, accessible here via a trail from our neighborhood, down through the woods. off Bayview Ave. between 13th and 14th Streets. that climbs steeply from here to 16th and Turner Ave.

Such is the strange new world, where social gatherings consist of shouting at each other across a road or moat, and purchasing transactions require a neutral space, where merchandise and money are exchanged in a carefully-choreographed dance, en masque.   What will the future bring?  One can envision the return of arranged marriages, where families negotiate the dowry by email and the newlyweds first meet on their wedding night, after saying goodbyes to their respective families at a ceremony conducted on Zoom.  We expect a revival of apprenticeships, where work-from-home jobs are passed from parent to child, and company towns: live-in factories, where the workers live in dormitories or company housing on the factory grounds and vacations include quarantine time on return.

This Memorial Day weekend, the population is being turned loose, with caution, and our county is scheduled to be one of the first to transition to Phase 2, limited retail and restaurant openings, soon. The tribal casinos have reopened, with limited facilities, to those addicted to gambling with their money and, now, their lives.  As for us, we’re into crowd avoidance for the long haul, waiting for the second wave, and perhaps the one after that.