My first professional gathering in this Brave New World—you know, the kind with more than pajama bottoms required—was at the Mountain Words Literary Festival last month. As with everything, it had been rescheduled and hybridized, and I arrived unsure if I’d speak with a mask, without a mask, outside, inside, half on Zoom, none on Zoom, and, like everyone these days, had the phrase “flexibility reigns” as my one-and-only mantra.
On the day I arrived, the town of Crested Butte had lifted its mask mandate, which meant that for the first time in about a year and a half, I was inside speaking to people without a mask, and all those people were inside speaking to people without a mask for the first time, and all of us looked as startled and suspicious as deer caught in the headlights. And yet, we approached one another bravely with a “If you’re vaccinated, are you hugging?” and arms out and a smile.
The first thing we asked, predictably, was how each other was handling this First Big Event. A few participants confessed to true anxiety—one had to call a sister who talked her down from canceling, another said she sat in her car and cried for about an hour before embarking on the trip. I felt nothing but sisterhood here and was grateful for the frank honesty—I myself had taken an entire two foggy and confused days to pack: Where had I put all non-hiking shoes? Did I own dress shoes anymore? Why exactly had I put them under the bed a year ago? Where were my travel-sized shampoos and toothpaste? Had I even done an oil change in the last year? Could I drive across the state and over those airy mountain passes or would I crash (metaphorically or literally) for some surreal and unpredictable reason?
Obviously, we all had our challenges. But the great surprise for me was how back-on-bike it all was. A little wobbly to start, sure, but then we were all pedaling smoothly and with glee.
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My guess is that our entire lifetimes of socializing will win out here. We will not be so altered or neurotic as we thought. Indeed, as I saw people picking up finger food at the buffet—something I once wondered if I’d ever see again—I knew that we were more unchanged than changed. Fundamentally, humans are creatures of habit, and old habits die hard. Although we might be better hand washers forevermore, I suspect we will quickly fall back to our pre-COVID ways of being in the world.
And I have to say: Being back on the bike was great.
Although not a fancy word, “great” is what kept entering my mind. “This is great,” I kept murmuring to myself. Great because my brain was flooded with new ideas—new ideas are what humans thrive on—from Colorado authors like Leath Tonino, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Steven Dunn, Arvin Ramgoloolam, Nate Marshall, Nick Arvin, and the infamous and much-loved Art Goodtimes. I got to sneak off and have a whiskey with Montana writer Chris La Tray and learn about how tribes there were doing during COVID; we got to talk serious stuff and we got to laugh. It was great to see old friends. It was great to meet new writers. It was great to talk about nature and books—my two loves. It was great to be with my peeps, simple as that.
On my last night, I did feel a bit overwhelmed—from zero to all this community had me feeling half-exhausted, half-nervy. I wandered into an empty auditorium to catch my breath, and there I found Leath Tonino facing away from me, playing piano, a soft melodic piece that went into a crescendo that reminded me of the mountains he loves and so often writes about.
I sat in a huge empty room and closed my eyes and absorbed the result of his hands moving over keys, and simply felt the random joy of the happenstance of coming across something unexpected. I found out later he was playing one of his own compositions, but one he hadn’t played in some time since he didn’t have a piano at home, and I realized that he, too, had a random joy of finding this new-found, accessible piano at the Crested Butte Center for the Arts, only because he had also chosen to re-engage.
Getting out of the house was the hardest part of all, by far. Finding both the shoes and the mental organization took more training-wheels effort than the next five days combined. The rest came naturally and with a lot of laughter—because riding the bike of life, after all, is what we’ve been trained to do.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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