Dispatches from Isolation, Vol. 1

blue ridge mountains in springtime

Abandon your plans, nearly all of them: Abandon your concept of family vacation, your plans for staying in hotels, visiting museums, dining in restaurants, or dropping in on friends along the way. Abandon most of your plans, except for the quiet house in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a promise of isolation that you desired before it was mandated. Hold that rolling skyline at the front of your mind as you load your car with luggage and food and children. Abandon apprehension. Adjust expectations. Kiss your wife passenger-side. Just drive.

Keep your hands at ten and two. Watch the ridge of your knuckles on the wheel, the dry valleys between the knuckles where dry skin flakes off from days of washing them incessantly. Look out beyond your own white knuckles, through the windshield. Look how those Tennessee hills rise slowly eastward and become the knuckles of soft mountains, drive through those valleys, watch the rivers roll through. Loosen your grip as night falls. Watch the mountains and valleys grow darker.

A virus will transmit, a car will transport, and the other week your priest said that the sacraments will transform. These past few weeks, a pandemic has spread quickly around the country and world, and due to the risk, you can no longer take the sacrament of communion.

So, you drive. You drive east toward nightfall, over state borders, through mountain passes, through fog and rain. You take sunflower seeds, a handful at a time, and place them on your own unblessed tongue. Nothing to utter now, only the sound, the crack of each shell between teeth, the chew and swallow of seed, the spit of the spent shells into a cup. This mantra of the mouth, this rumination, this ritual, you learned it from your father during many late night drives to keep him alert, awake, to keep God with him. And also with you.

You recall a news report you read years ago. A herd of elephants lived in a remote region of the desert, and during a few years of drought they were forced to travel greater and greater distances in search of water. Herds that have elders can survive years of drought because the elders hold the memory of droughts past, the memory of maps and paths toward more rivers and seas. But the elders of this particular herd had already died. The memory died with them. Not one of the living remembered the way.

Right now the question on everyone’s mind seems to be, When will this pandemic end? But the more important question seems to be, How will we find our way through it?

It’s late now. A few miles off the highway you find a campsite in a national forest, entirely abandoned except for the ranger still at her post. You pitch the tent at the shore of a quiet lake reflecting a thin cloud cover. Your sons build a fire. You eat hot dogs and s’mores, tell ghost stories, watch the firelight flicker across these young faces who suspect very little of what might happen in the coming days, weeks, months—as if you know much more. You seize this image of their innocent smiles, the crackling sound of their songs and stories, you cling to it, hoping it might inoculate all of you with a peace that can outlast your worst fears, all the things you worry about, whether or not they will actually come to pass.

You don’t get much sleep. You can’t stop thinking about the miles ahead, but in the morning you step out of the tent and find the sun rising, the fog lifting above the lake. You breathe deep, tasting the salt still on your tongue. You inhale, you exhale. You wake the children. You kiss your wife passenger-side. All of these simple gestures risk transforming everything, and daily. Peace of the Lord, have mercy.

Andrew Johnson is the author of the essay collection On Earth As It Is. His work has appeared in Guernica Daily, Crazyhorse, MAKE, Sonora Review, Killing the Buddha, the Kansas City Star, and elsewhere. He was a writer-in-residence at Vermont Studio Center in 2018, where he received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.