There is a town between San Antonio and my childhood hometown on U.S. 87 that demands notice, either because it thinks so well of itself that drivers passing through should stop and spend some time and money there, or because it long ago recognized the lucrative revenue source that heavy highway traffic coming through the Eagle Ford Shale country offered. Either way, the result is an unusually long, but very effective speed trap of sorts, one that runs from one end of town out to the other. (And yes, I’ve been stopped there more than once.)
The drive works like this: you come barreling south, radio blaring, at 70-75 mph (if not a bit faster) up to the river bridge over the Guadalupe and then, suddenly, you realize out of the corner of your eye that you have just passed a reduced speed sign reading, you think, 60 mph; while you are still processing and pumping your brakes, there is another sign, now at 55; a few feet later, the speed is down to 50, then to 45, then to 35, and then as you finally crawl into downtown, stop at the traffic light, and make the right turn where the highway continues southward, the speed is down to 30 — unless the lights are blinking in the school zone you’re entering, and then the limit is 20. No matter how often I make this trip, the experience is always one of being in slow-motion suspension, something I can only describe as “driving through Jell-O ™.”
These days, life under the increasingly tightening conditions of COVID-19 has begun to feel just like that, not driving but living in Jello. Sheltered as we are in the home, not the car, we have entered a span of suspended- animation that we think will never end — because this stretch of the pandemic highway is totally unfamiliar. A nurse on TV recently compared the pending hospital crisis to watching a slow rollover of a mass highway accident while being helpless to stop it. The metaphor is incredibly apt. Unfortunately, over my many trips on U.S. 87 South, I have witnessed right in front of me, and called in to report from the road, more than one fatal rollover or serious accident. The memories of those many Jello-town trips and the anxiety of witnessing those disasters still roll over in my dreams at night; no doubt they now contribute, in a sort of muscle-memory way, to my slowly growing anxieties over the yet uncertain COVID disasters to come.
San Antonio officially shut down at midnight on March 24, but unofficially we have been “sheltering in place” and “social distancing” (under the advice of an especially astute Mayor) for a while now, especially since community contact with the coronavirus was made very real by the relocation of exposed and infected cruise ship evacuees to a local Air Force Base in early March. While many places across the country, even some communities in Texas, continue to insist that preventative measures are an over-reaction to “this flu,” residents of Texas’s largest cities (Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio) have already seen their “normal” lives upended by closed schools, bare supermarket shelves, and new work-from-home imperatives. Of course, you don’t need to be ordered to work from home and practice social distancing when you live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere.
To date, stay-at-home orders are in place in only 18 states; Texas is not one of them. Gov. Abbott rightfully claims that there are over 250 counties in Texas, mostly rural, and that only about 50 of them (more densely populated) have reported cases of COVID 19. Thus, he is reluctant to shut down the entire state in all those Jello-towns across a land mass that is 600 miles wide from east to west and 800 miles deep from north to south. I understand, really, I do. But of course, the gritty little detail in this otherwise logical reasoning is that Texas is woefully under-tested, so that who really knows who is infected and who isn’t, even in the cities, much less in more remote areas. The numbers are hardly finite and the future is far from certain.
So, here we all are, Texans and Americans everywhere, living in a gelatinous existence of uncertainty, inconsistency and confusion. Time is fluid, one hour, one day, one week spilling into the next without clear demarkations. Situations change so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track, and reliable information is hard to come by when you don’t know whom to trust.
But I feel fortunate. As retirees without jobs, children, or other obligations, it’s easy for my husband and me to simply stay at home and take care of ourselves. While we’re at it, we can tackle all of those spring chores that were on the to-do list (for when we returned from Australia), read all those books we’ve been meaning to read, write those Eastertime cards and notes, plant all those herbs and vegetables, prepare those flower beds, ready the pool, work on this website, continue the genealogy research, and — let’s not forget — work on that art quilt to be entered in May for a juried exhibition later this year!
We are both people who are comfortable with our own company, never at a loss for things to do, and never bored by being alone; nevertheless, when your days are endless and seamless, it’s hard to focus. I find myself floating around, flitting from one thing to another, and not getting much of anything done — unless you count as an accomplishment watching a Carolina Wren for an hour take care of her newly-hatched babies nested in a flower pot on the patio. There may be an urgency on the national front, but it’s hard to muster an urgency in daily life when you are moving through Jello. Which, of course, is exactly the problem.
Once headed out of Jello-town past the Walmart on U.S. 87, the pace picks up gradually to 45, then to 55, then to —wham! —right on to a 75 mph divided highway all the way to the Gulf Coast. I hope that’s how we progress out the other side of this pandemic crisis. “The virus cannot infect you if it cannot find you,” said Dr. Craig Spencer of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Maybe, if we all drive fast enough, we can outrun it.