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Photos courtesy of Getty Images (Denver Capitol, hands, topo map, virus); Ivan Vdovin/Alamy Stock Photo (owl); Antiqua Print Gallery/Alamy Stock Photo (mountains). Photo illustration by Sean Parsons

4 Reflections About Colorado Life in the Time of COVID-19

Just weeks into our forced hibernation and several days before Governor Jared Polis would declare April our "lost month," we asked writers from around the state how the novel coronavirus had changed their respective worlds. Here are their stories about life in the early days of the global pandemic.

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Comic Relief

A comedy club that barely was delivers food, hope, and redemption to Denver’s masses. By Sarah Scoles

In mid-march, a new handwritten sign appeared in my apartment building’s mailroom. It hung in sharp contrast to the one that had been there for a month, in which an aggrieved resident warned about package thievery. This new sign, instead, was about giving packages away.

“Hello neighbors,” it began. “Right now is a scary time.”

So true, I thought. Instead of traveling to publicize my new book, I was filling my days by worrying about my mom, who was sick with what we were calling “maybe The Thing”; imagining tiny death particles on every surface; wondering if my work as a freelance writer would continue to exist; and generally considering the collapse of normal society. Almost anything, including this note, could make me cry.

The letter writers, though, were offering to reduce fear by giving free meal kits—like those you’d get from a subscription service—to those who had lost jobs or income or who simply needed meals. By that point in the pandemic, that was already a lot of people: It was a few days after Denver’s bars and restaurants closed to inside customers and a few days before most of us were ordered to stay at home. “Our friends and family have donated 100 of these meals to those in need every day,” the letter continued. “If you are scared about food, groceries, and in need, please reach out and we will bring some home and leave them at your door.”

The people who’d penned this note, I later discovered, were comedians and bar owners Meghan DePonceau and Jeremy Pysher. They were also people with whom I’d exchanged polite hellos for a year. I’d seen them countless times when we both happened to take trash out at 6:30 p.m. or when one of them was pulling their dog back inside the apartment building as I stepped outside with mine—an interaction that would now feel uncomfortably proximal.

I texted the number on the note—not for a meal kit but rather to hear their story. We’d spent a year living in the same building, and yet I never knew who they really were until we weren’t allowed to stand within six feet of each other.

Deponceau and Pysher, I learned when we spoke by phone from our respective fortresses of solitude, both hail from Buffalo, New York. When they moved here, they noticed a dearth of dive-y, affordable comedy venues. So when they got the opportunity to purchase a Ballpark bar called Rock Steady late this past year, they jumped. They shut Rock Steady down in early March to transform the space into a watering hole with authentic wings, entertainment every night, and an underdog ethos. They would call it Wide Right, the proper noun bestowed upon the field goal Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed (widely, to the right), thereby losing the 1991 Super Bowl. “It’s about the greatest loser of all time,” DePonceau says. “It goes with the bar’s whole mentality.” The plan was for Wide Right to open on March 14.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Undeterred, Pysher and DePonceau hunted down cleaning products, bought wipes to sanitize the mic between acts, and moved barstools farther apart. Pysher posted on his Facebook page: “Here are the cocktails we are making right now for our first night as Wide Right. Hand Sanitizer: 98% Isopropyl Alcohol, Hydrogen Peroxide, Distilled Water. Should be delicious.”

They got just two shows in before Denver Mayor Michael Hancock closed bars and restaurants, effective March 17. “My entire business is entertainment, comedy, and creating a place that people can be at,” DePonceau says. Now, no one was really supposed to be at anywhere besides home.

DePonceau and Pysher began pondering what would come next. With access to bulk food but questions about how to prepare it, they hit upon the idea of meal kits. On their first day of packaging healthy ingredients into recipe-ready portions, the pair started getting offers from others who wanted to contribute to the effort. Soon, taking donations and delivering free meals became Wide Right’s whole operation. They weren’t making much of a profit, but they thought if they were going to go down, they might as well go down doing something useful. “We kind of realized that takeout wasn’t going to save our business,” DePonceau says. “So we focused on trying to help others.”

The number of “others” grew quickly, virally even, as more people lost work and facilities like daycares, shelters, and health care centers took Wide Right up on its offer. Whereas DePonceau had at first taken requests through individual Facebook messages, she soon created an ordering system using Google Forms for anyone in need. Every night, she drove around the Denver metropolitan area, her car filled with as many as 150 individually wrapped representations of the words “It’s OK.” At the time, it was all anyone wanted to hear, even if it wasn’t entirely true.

Anyone also included the people in Pysher and DePonceau’s own apartment building—my apartment building. After all, DePonceau figured, if she was driving all over the city, why not also help at home? She didn’t really know who any of us were. That’s how apartment buildings often work: Each cube, crowded next to other cubes, is a my-space sanctuary, a place to which residents retreat, not one from which to reach outward.

She thought of us, in our separate rooms, the noise from our heavy footsteps and aggressive Lysol-ing seeping through the wood floors and plaster walls, leaking across the gap between the front doors and the hallways. The note was not just about delivering food: It was also a demonstration that someone was looking out for us. A small gesture like that can make the difference between feeling alone and feeling alone together. “Even if it’s just a note, even if it’s just a phone number, even if it’s just in case of absolute emergency,” she says, “it’s just nice to have.”

She was right. When I called that number, DePonceau taught me not just about my own neighbors but also about sports—two topics about which, it turns out, I am generally ignorant. Wide Right, she explained, became a proper noun not because of Norwood’s bad day but because of his redemption. When the losing team returned home to Buffalo, a crowd of more than 20,000 people had gathered to cheer for them. They cheered, specifically, for the biggest loser. “We want Scott!” they chanted.

Cajoled up to the mic, his words echoed what a lot of people, the planet over, have felt as they watch COVID-19 tear through their communities. “We’re struggling with this right now,” Norwood told his neighbors. But, he continued, it wasn’t all bad. “I know I’ve never felt more loved than right now. We all realize the sun’s going to come up tomorrow, and we’re going to start preparing this football team right away. I know I’m going to be back. You can count on it.”

Sarah Scoles is a Denver-based freelance writer. Her new book, They Are Already Here: UFO Culture And Why We See Saucers, was published in March. Email her at letters@5280.com.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images (ski patrol, village, virus). Photo Illustration by Sean Parsons

Viral Overload

Getting outside is central to being a Coloradan. But sometimes—such as during a pandemic—you have to set aside what you love to protect the people you love. By Ted Katauskas

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Just after 10 a.m. on Monday, April 6, I was seated in the command center at Vail Mountain Rescue Group, Eagle County’s all-volunteer search and rescue (SAR) team, careful to maintain my social distance from the other responders. Earlier that morning, a local contractor had called 911 to report that one of his employees hadn’t shown up for work. The overdue subject, a male in his fifties, had texted his boss on Saturday evening, saying he was exhausted after skinning up Meadow Mountain, a returned-to-wilderness ski area between the resorts in Vail and Beaver Creek, and was going to hunker down in a snow cave for the night. More than 30 hours later, he hadn’t been heard from, and his truck was still parked at the trailhead.

Our plan was to split into three teams. One would take snowmobiles to check three cabins; a drone crew would look for clues from above; and a dog team would hunt for the subject’s scent. As a canine handler, my job would be to collect scent from the subject’s vehicle and then put my dog, Halo, to work near his last known position roughly five miles up the mountain. For a SAR team, this was business as usual, with one big caveat: the specter of COVID-19. Our subject was believed to be negative. But who really knew? Outside of Telluride (where two part-time residents provided all of San Miguel County with tests), only those who fit the risk profile and exhibited symptoms were being tested in Colorado.

Just as we were preparing to leave, the incident commander’s cell phone rang. An off-duty police officer skinning up the trail had located the subject making his way down to the parking lot, utterly spent but otherwise fine. I was relieved he had been found, sure, but also that I had potentially dodged a microdroplet-size bullet.

So much had changed since I left the Vail Valley on March 11 to tend to a family emergency in my northwest Indiana hometown. When I flew out of our two-runway regional airport, Eagle County (population: 55,127) had just confirmed its first cases of COVID-19, which likely had been in circulation for weeks. Our international ski destination had yet to prove it was as virulent a petri dish as the subways and sidewalks of New York City, though, so the new coronavirus at that time was more of an abstract concern than a full-blown threat.

Still, out of caution, like many of the travelers on that sold-out flight to Chicago, I judiciously scrubbed my seat’s armrests, belt buckle, and tray table with Clorox wipes purchased on a whim. Later, I sat through the night at the side of a hospital bed, watching my dad’s vitals deteriorate as he struggled to breathe, his lungs overwhelmed with pneumonia (much like a patient with COVID-19, though his test was negative), until the middle of the next day, when he left this world at the age of 92. It was a world utterly unlike the one he’d been born into.

Like many transplants, I moved to the Centennial State in part for the express purpose of getting after it outside. Embracing the outdoors is what defines being a Coloradan for many of us, but when doing so threatens the very communities we’ve joined, we must take a break from the mountains. I promise the backcountry will still be there when this is over—just as soul-restoring as ever, if not more so. Many mountain locals, though, might not be.

By March 23, Eagle County had the state’s highest concentration of COVID-19 cases: 168 per 100,000 people, almost eight times Denver’s. To put that into perspective, on the same day, in Queens, home to New York City’s apocalyptic Elmhurst Hospital, the case rate was nearly identical. Given how easily the virus spreads, rescuers who could be exposed to COVID-19 during a mission, when social distancing is all but impossible, might need to self-quarantine for 14 days, sidelining valuable resources—and not just for SAR missions. Some members of my team with advanced medical training have been re-tasked to bolster the ranks of the county’s ambulance service. Others, myself included, are on standby to augment the nursing staff at our county’s sole 56-bed hospital, should it be overwhelmed by COVID-19. Getting benched by a quarantine means the removal of those important health care assets, too.

One afternoon, while on a work conference call, my cell phone pinged: Rescuers needed for Vail Mountain…. It was our second mission in two days. In a pique of cabin fever, defying an uphill travel ban at the resort (which the governor had ordered closed weeks earlier), a local couple went ski touring with their dog and had an accident at the top of Born Free. After calling ski patrol (no answer), the husband dialed 911 to report that his wife had broken her leg. As my meeting progressed, I kept one eye on a computer screen scrolling the dispatcher’s notes as the mission unfolded and the cavalry arrived: a half-dozen Vail Mountain Rescue Group volunteers, including a furloughed Beaver Creek patroller, a paramedic from the county ambulance squad, and the pastor of Vail’s Lutheran church.

That night, as I was settling into bed in the loft I’ve sealed off from the rest of my home with a polyethylene curtain that has a zip door (in case I have to quarantine), my phone rang again. It was a teammate calling to talk about the mission and the new calculus at play with COVID-19. “You’ve got a wife, two kids, and a dog,” he said. “Me, I don’t have anybody. I just want you to know, I’ve got your back”—that is, should I decide to sit out the pandemic.

No way. Just as Coloradans are hardwired to head for wilderness, as a volunteer SAR responder, I’m compelled to answer your call for help. This viral war has changed things, though. I might be working in the COVID-19 ward when you lose your way on the trail; my fellow volunteers might be in quarantine when your cell phone dies and darkness falls. Others may choose not to respond to protect themselves and/or their families from the virus. With fewer of us out there, we might not find you in time. Or at all.

Come summer, when hopefully the worst of this crisis has passed, Halo and I will come looking, though. At whatever trailhead you left from, I’ll harness my dog and he’ll lift his nose to the wind. Then I’ll give the command: “Find bones!”

Ted Katauskas joined Vail Mountain Rescue Group in 2012. He is also the editor of Vail-Beaver Creek magazine. Email him at letters@5280.com.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images (ski lift); Larry Pierce/Courtesy of Steamboat Ski Resort (sledders); Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAMS/Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (virus). Photo illustration by Sean Parsons

Unmade Memories

Losing the end of our ski season is about so much more than the powder that went untracked. By Kelly Bastone

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About a month before the Steamboat ski area was scheduled to close for the season, resort officials announced they were ceasing operations, effective the next morning. The March 15 shutdown wasn’t a surprise: Social distancing efforts had been underway for a day or two, and in fact, I had gone backcountry skiing that morning because I was leery about sharing the gondola with potential COVID-19 carriers. Shuttering the resort struck me as the right thing to do, but the news also filled me with longing.

Normally, the ski season ends with the ritual of Closing Day, a mashup of silly stunts, beer salutes, and live bands playing to sun-hungry snow riders who bare too much skin and wear too little sunscreen. Pond-skimming is de rigueur. Laughably impractical vehicles, like snowblades and monoboards, get dragged out for clownish effect. And if you’re not in costume, you are a buzzkill. My Closing Day standby is a fuchsia and yellow striped trench coat and an electric pink wig, but I’ve also been known to wear fake black hair with an off-shoulder shirt of red sequins. The Best One Piece Award goes—in perpetuity—to my friend Steve, who always sports an ’80s masterpiece of neon colorblocking.

“None of that would happen on any day but Closing Day,” Steve said recently. He’s right: Closing Day suspends everyday expectations. It’s when we let our alter egos out of their cages, dress them in garish colors, and free them to do things we’d never approve of on any other Sunday. That makes it the ski-town version of Mardi Gras. Like New Orleans’ signature street bash, Closing Day is about boozing and regalia and gorging on pleasures before the fast; after all, our Lent is the snowless summer. But it’s about even more than that.

Across the Centennial State, at more than a dozen ski resorts big and small, Closing Day is when we pay collective tribute to the season’s greatest moments. My friend, Jacqueline, likes to cruise around the mountain savoring last runs: her last line down North St. Pats, her last plunge down the Chutes. I like to stand on Sunshine Peak and gaze out at the whitewashed vastness that surrounds Steamboat. I revisit the hallowed places where powder cascaded over my head and I felt kissed by God.

And I bid farewell to the resort’s quirky wintertime community. Some years, I join in the long-standing tradition of hiking up to the radio tower on Mt. Werner to pass a bottle with familiar faces. A few are people I know well enough to text on a powder morning: “You headed up?” Others I just recognize by their ski clothes, though after months of seeing these resort regulars on the runs, they feel like friends. There’s Bearded Dude, who tucks his dreadlocks into a crazy top hat. Cheery Guy, always in his green Marmot jacket. And Unsmiling Skier with the graying mullet, whom I often notice as he’s bombing down Surprise. I don’t know how they identify me, but we are nonetheless members of the same tribe—and Closing Day lets me high-five those characters before we all go gloveless for the summer.

Closing Day can even be a time to say more final goodbyes. Two years ago, friends of mine mourned the loss of Chris “Johnsie” Johns, a ripping skier, cycle-shop owner, and golden-hearted guy who gifted bikes to underprivileged kids and adults through a charity he’d founded. The 51-year-old had died unexpectedly from epilepsy in early March 2018, and his buddies scattered his ashes from the tower on Closing Day before skiing down by headlamp after dark.

Personally, I prefer to log my final run at dusk, on one of the west-facing pistes where I can free-fall into a pink and orange sky. But this year’s sundowner didn’t feel the same. A few days after the resort closed but before stay-at-home orders would’ve made me think better of it, I skinned up to the summit and found it silent, as it always is after the lifts quit spinning. Yet something was missing.

“There was no closure to it,” Jacqueline says, describing her own abridged ski season. Over the following week, some locals staged their own Closing Day celebrations on the ski area, hiking grills up onto the runs and cracking cold ones. The parties clearly contradicted the spirit of the closure (beer-fueled close-talking hardly qualifies as social distancing), but I guess while ski bums might not require fancy furniture or cars or homes, they did feel they needed a proper season finale.

It might seem frivolous to insist on such moments, particularly when Coloradans are losing their lives and livelihoods to the new coronavirus. “What did I miss? A hangover?” Jacqueline jokes about being denied our Closing Day. But we also missed the rite of passage that helps us close the door on one season and venture into the next.

This need to honor occasions—to timestamp our lives—is not reserved for Colorado’s skiers, of course. There’s a broader assortment of mileposts that mark life’s chapters, and COVID-19 hijacked those, too. Children observed birthdays without playmates to help blow out candles. New restrictions at hospitals prevented us from bearing witness at our families’ births and deaths. High schoolers grieved over the prom photos that were never taken. College grads lost their opportunities to launch flocks of mortarboards into the air. Some of these events may seem expendable—after all, those co-eds still graduated—but as moments of collective caring, they matter. Without them, we feel walled off from our communities, regardless of whether we find our kinship among ski bums or classmates. We mourn the memories that we never got to make.

Here in Colorado, Closing Day is just one such memory. Fortunately, winter will return, and I suspect that this season’s cliffhanger ending will only spike our anticipation for the beginning of the next one. Opening Day 2020 will offer much more than the opportunity to skid down sheer ice. It’ll give us the chance to gather. And if we didn’t fully appreciate what it meant to be able to convene with friends—even those whose real names we don’t know—we certainly do now.

Kelly Bastone is a freelance writer. She lives in Steamboat Springs with her husband and daughter. Email her at letters@5280.com.

Photos courtesy of Ivan Vdovin/Alamy Stock Photo (owl); Getty Images (sky, virus). Photo illustration by Sean Parsons

Free Birds

Two friends, a mountain pass, and an end times journey to seduce an owl. By Martin J. Smith

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On the day the president finally realized you can’t bullshit a virus and the Dow dropped nearly 3,000 points, I got a call from Mark Obmascik, a friend who lives in Denver. Mark has been through some pretty grim days during his long career as a journalist, including his work helping to cover the Columbine shooting for the Denver Post.

Mark’s a dedicated birder. We’ve been friends since 2012, when I read The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, his terrific book about the American Birding Association’s annual species-spotting competition, and I published a book of my own called The Wild Duck Chase: Inside the Strange and Wonderful World of the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, about the world of competitive duck painting. Long story. Anyway, my affable pal has a house in Tabernash, not far from where I live in Granby, and he had retreated to the mountains with his family to self-isolate. He didn’t mention the ongoing end times unpleasantness when he called, but instead offered a proposition: “Wanna go out tonight and seduce some owls?”

I laughed. It felt wrong, off-key, but in all the right ways. So, I assessed the situation. Our house-of-cards health care system was about to be gusted by a global pandemic. The world economy was in full-blown meltdown, and my retirement account was vaporizing. We still had the same president.

“What time?” I said.

Later that night we set out, just a couple of refugees from a foundering world. We met at 8:30 at Windy Gap Reservoir in Grand County in what seemed like the only cars on the road. The parking lot was closed and gated, so we pulled into a nearby turnout.

“I’ll drive from here,” I offered.

Mark shook his head. “Separate cars.”

Right. The virus. “OK,” I said. “You lead, I’ll follow.”

Our destination was the almost 10,000-foot summit of Willow Creek Pass, which crosses the Continental Divide in the Rabbit Ears Range between Grand and Jackson counties, about 20 rising miles from the U.S. 40 turnoff. CO 125 was mostly deserted, the night black as coal. Even with the brights on, our headlights showed nothing but road and trees and an occasional flash of spring runoff as it tumbled down the creek. Every few miles Mark would pull over at what he considered likely owl habitat, strap on his headlamp, and climb out into the evening chill.

At our first stop, he set a small speaker on the hood of his truck and fiddled with his smartphone. He turned off his headlamp and tapped the screen. The speaker came alive with the amplified call of a boreal owl. That’s what we were after, he explained: a rare, hard-to-spot critter a bit bigger than a beer can. He’d seen a social media post from an excited University of Colorado Boulder student the night before who’d done exactly what we were doing, somewhere over on Cameron Pass. The student claimed he actually got swooped by a horny owl, its wing nearly touching his speaker. There was unmistakable excitement in Mark’s voice as he recounted the story—bird people are like that—but it was a refreshing shift in tone after days of sobering infection projections and televised gloom.

I watched him fiddle for a bit. “Is that some special speaker system for birding?”

He shook his head. “You could play Public Enemy through it if you wanted.”

He sounded the avian version of “You up?” a few times while we listened for a response. It occurred to me that much of our lives soon could be channeled through the same kind of electronica, since Skype, Zoom, Webex, and Google Hangouts were becoming the most acceptable forms of congregation. But at that moment, the owls were on mute.

We packed up and drove a few miles more, to a small bridge across Willow Creek that led back into the woods. We drove about 100 yards and stopped near a camping turnout, where a big-ass pickup and a fifth-wheel trailer were parked in a small pool of light. We opened our doors to a barrage of raging death metal music.

Mark shook his head: “This won’t work.”

After one other luckless stop, we reached the summit of the pass at about 9:30. Mark set up his equipment again. At one point we heard something other than an owl apparently responding to the call. But then, just silence.

We could have declared the evening a failure and packed up to leave. Instead we stood for a few more minutes, shuffling our feet, trying to stay warm in the cold night air. We both looked up.

The sky was clear and freckled with stars. The Milky Way arced above us in a wash of white, and we talked beneath that glorious canopy about many things: the retreat of boreal owls to “sky islands” such as the one where we stood, the faint smudge of the Pleiades star cluster, the death of my father two weeks earlier. I hadn’t really talked much about it with anyone outside my family until—in that strange circumstance, during this strange time—Mark’s condolences triggered a thought.

Dad was born in 1918, the year of the Spanish flu. Pneumonia took him from the nursing home room he shared with my 98-year-old mother, just a week shy of his 102nd birthday. That was shortly before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, before we all began tossing around terms like “self-isolation” and “N95.” I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d succumbed to one of the pandemics that bookended his life, and I suppose I’ll carry that question forever.

Our conversation stopped, and we listened in silence, still hoping. Eventually Mark and I bumped elbows, said goodbye, and followed one another down the same dark road, back to the uncertain world we’d left behind.

I’ve been thinking ever since about those owls, waiting alone in the cold and dark, hoping to connect with others who speak their language, others who appreciate communion and appear from out of nowhere with a simple promise: to spend some time together, even for just a little while. They’re very much like many of us. I rely on friends the way others rely on their lungs, and social distancing feels, to me, a little like gasping for air. Technology offers us creative new ways to connect, but unscripted moments of actual human contact are my oxygen.

I sent Mark a text the next day: “Really enjoyed getting out last night. Just what I needed after a rough few months. So thanks.”

He responded: “This virus may teach us there are more places than a bar to shoot the shit.”

Friendship, I think, is how many of us will survive.

Martin J. Smith is the author of five novels and five nonfiction books, including Post-Op, which Denver’s Bower House Books will publish in 2021. Email him at letters@5280.com.

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