On a cold and snowy March morning, I left the town of Missoula, Montana, for Fruita, Colorado. It was spring break at the University of Montana, and mountain biking had been on my mind for weeks.
Driving south on I-15 was familiar to me. The peaks of the many different mountain ranges were still blanketed in snow as my friend Christian and I sought refuge in the high desert. It was a peaceful scene amidst the unease filling the entire world. I thought I could escape what was happening.
The previous day, President Trump declared a national emergency. There was a chance even he was infected with COVID-19. This was much too surreal, and still a bit of a joke for me to cancel my spring break plans months in the making. I was going mountain biking in Fruita and Moab. Nothing was going to change my mind about this trip.
Except, reality has a way of imposing its will on even the most stubborn.
The situation deteriorated as we drove south. Friends were posting that their places of work were being shut down for weeks. Every gas station along the way was out of hand sanitizer, self-serve coffee stations had signs warning of the new coronavirus, and everyone was gossiping about the same topic. News alerts were popping onto my phone’s screen at a rapid rate. The direction in which things were heading was clear.
On to Fruita!
Under the strangest of circumstances, this was my first time in Colorado as I drove across the state border with Utah. I hadn’t been on a mountain bike in months and I was ecstatic for the coming days. My prized horse and I would finally be together again. We enjoy sharing the struggle of the uphill trudge with fiery lungs and creaks of aluminum I can’t quite identify. Then we experience breathlessness in unison as legs become weightless and knobs of tires stick to dirt at high speeds. It’s my favorite thing in the world.
We drove straight to the BLM campsites near the trailhead once we got into town. It felt like we could avoid the pandemic if we just stayed out there. We couldn’t.
Signs of the pandemic were impossible to miss in the small town. Most shops closed down the day after we arrived. The grocery store was packed with people while empty shelves lined each aisle. The deterioration of societal norms became more evident by the half-day.
About two days after arriving, we went to the gas station. It was my turn to fill up. Almost immediately, a vehicle approached me.
“Buddy, can you help me out please?”
I’m a sucker for helping strangers. My father used to take me to feed the homeless of Los Angeles when we lived there. I learned that everyone is still a human, and decency goes a long way. I approached his window.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“Buddy, I have just landed from Dubai. I lost my wallet and I am driving to California. I just need some cash for groceries and gas. My kids need to eat. Please help me,” he begged.
His children were in the vehicle. The one in the front seat had braces and a haircut that reminded me of myself at his age. The younger child in the back seemed restless. I questioned him a bit, but I felt like an asshole for doing so.
“Here, I’ll even give you this gold ring. I just need some cash. I’ll give you a good deal,” he proclaimed.
At this point he pretty much shattered his reputation in my eyes. I knew I was being scammed. However, in the midst of a global pandemic, I saw my two youngest sisters in the eyes of his children. Innocent. Curious. Kind. What if he really did need cash to get somewhere? What if they really hadn’t eaten? I felt like I had to help.
“I don’t need the ring, man. Here, just take $40,” I said.
He insisted I take the gold ring allegedly valued at $800. He offered me more jewelry for more cash. I declined his offer and wished him luck. He didn’t say thank you and drove off. I smiled.
After a quick Google search I learned that this scam was common. It didn’t really bother me. What was bothering me more was a cough I was actively trying to hide from myself and those around me.
I had a cough the entire time of my trip, which turned out to be a resurgence of asthma. Perfect timing. Difficulty breathing and a dry cough are also symptoms of COVID-19. I wasn’t 100% sure at the time it was asthma, but I had good inclination.
I had the cough for months now, but I was now guilt stricken. What if I was infected? What if I got the kid with braces sick? What if I got my friend sick? What if I was getting people sick the entire trip? It became unbearable after a few days, and I decided it was time to go home. Mountain biking under these circumstances wasn’t fun.
Fruita’s trails were some of the most enjoyable riding of my life, but then again, each moment of a good ride feels like the best moment. My time in Fruita was cut short by Mother Nature. COVID-19 can provide a valuable lesson for humans in the time of climate change. The reminder that this world isn’t ours to exploit or underestimate without repercussion is more evident today than ever. I only hope we heed the warning.
The gold ring resting on my bookshelf will always remind me of humanity’s need to take care of each other. Even if we think it’s a scam or if it means ending your mountain bike trip early.
Till next time, Fruita.
Victor Yvellez is a journalism student at the University of Montana in Missoula.