A few miles north of Cheyenne, I turn off of I-25 and head east toward Nebraska; the second morning of a two-day drive from home in Santa Fe to the Badlands of South Dakota.
“No services for 78 miles.” The sign is battered as if in testament that I am entering a land not as forgiving as the suburbs and Starbucks along the interstate. It is meant as a caution, I know. Get gas! Stop for a drink! Find a bathroom! But the underlying message is more pointed; “Don’t come this way unless you are prepared to make it on your own.”
This trip is two days of the things I love the most — solitary drives and the Great Plains. As traffic thins, and the lanes drop from four to two, drivers wave as I meet them — a hand raised quickly on the steering wheel. I wave in return. It is acknowledgement of the emptiness in which we encounter one another, acknowledgement of the excitement, and risk, and weariness of travel. But in that emptiness, my spirit grows past the edges of the body, loosening the constricted heart of everyday life. My breath settles and my body finds the quiet as if it is a long unrecognized hunger. As the miles go by, a kind of peace flows up around me from the earth.
It should be an untroubled time. I am in no hurry. The car is new and fun to drive. But I am traveling in the time of COVID. It is impossible to forget the sickness, physical and spiritual, that hangs over this beautiful land I am traveling through. The small towns I pass seem calm and normal and whole, although unexpectedly quiet and the streets emptier than usual. I turn the radio to classic rock to escape, at least for a time, the numbers — how many infected, how many dead.
Somewhere in the Nebraska panhandle, I pull into a truck stop for gas. At the long line of pumps, half the people filling their cars wear masks, while three-quarters who enter the coffee shop, or the fast-food place, or the auto parts store nearby pull something over their face — a tattered paper mask, a bandana, or a homemade cloth covering. I fill the car and then park near the station that doubles as a convenience store, meaning to run in quickly to get something to drink.
The store is empty when I reach the door except for the woman behind the counter, nearly hidden among the green tins of Skoal and red and white packages of Marlboros, the bags of M&M’s, and KitKat bars. She appears to be counting her cash drawer, her mask pulled down around her neck. She doesn’t look up immediately as I open the door and the bell on it rings. When she finishes counting the stack of 20s, she looks my way. She is years younger than me — 35 maybe — and pretty, with lively brown eyes.
It takes her a moment to realize that she isn’t wearing her mask. I stop several feet away and she raises a finger as if to say, “Give me a moment,” and pulls her mask back up. But before she does, she catches my eye. And smiles. Her smile is beautiful; made more so by the miles I had traveled, the uncertainty of how to be in a world plagued by the virus, and the fact that, because we have all been masked, I have seen no one except my wife smile at me for weeks. It is a delicious moment, the other side of long, solitary hours on the road. We are strangers, and yet, in the time of COVID, we are not.
Cloe Axelson — columnist at Boston’s WBUR — recently wrote a reflection on the cost of the pandemic; not the economic cost, but the emotional and spiritual cost. One phrase in that piece has haunted me. Because we must numb ourselves to stay afloat in these days of fear, death counts, and loneliness, Alexson contends that we are at risk of “losing the thread of what we have lost.” It strikes me as so true. I can hardly recall what life was like “before” — whenever before was. I remember the facts, the events, but I am losing the feel of it; the feel of not being on guard all the time, not steeling myself against the latest crisis, not battling the helpless sorrow of watching the country I love being torn apart. When I try to dream of what I would like my life to get back to — possible or not — I no longer know. I feel dangerously close to losing the thread of what I have lost.
I take an iced tea from among the single cans of beer in the drink cooler and manage to find a somewhat healthy looking chocolate chip cookie in the racks and racks of snacks. The cashier and I are still alone in the store when I go to pay. She has gone back to counting her cash.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I say, when I get to the counter. I want to say, “You have a beautiful smile,” but don’t quite know how. The woman laughs now behind her mask.
“It is.” She sets aside a stack of 10s to ring up the sale.
“You take care,” she calls to me as I leave. “Be safe.” She is likely not a Buddhist here on the plains of western Nebraska but her words remind me of the phrases I chanted time and again in meditation practice, hoping to cultivate a wellspring of compassion.
“May we live at ease. May we live at ease.”
A sense of ease is surely one thing we have lost in the time of COVID, and there are so many other things we are at risk of losing, of forgetting, and of never getting back. But this one thing, found again beside a blue highway on the Great Plains, stays with me as I leave. One small hint of joy.
The smile of a stranger.