By Rob Samuelsen
Exploring the hidden treasures of the Grand Staircase National Monument/Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is granted only to those willing to go off road and off grid. With no access to internet, phones, or newspapers, it’s a place for escape, solace, and reflection. It’s also a place of isolation, now commonly known as self-quarantine and social distancing. Those who once were ostracized as hermits, are now called socially responsible geniuses. Such was it was for me a few weeks ago.
In the stomping grounds of the Ancestral Puebloans (or Anasazi), there are ruins and petroglyphs of lonely sojourners wandering through the remote canyons of the desert southwest. Excavations reveal a common cause of death to be abscessed tooth decay probably exacerbated by sandstone grit in their flour. The beans and grains were ground in sandstone mortars causing abrasives to be mixed with the grains. As they chewed, the sand would erode their teeth causing decay, abscessed infection, and painful death. Later European settlers brought the plague, pox, influenza, measles, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and whooping cough. While Europe had already suffered through many pandemics spread by the vast trade routes, the native Americans had not suffered contagion and did not have a robust immune system to combat these new maladies. Whatever virus an Anasazi clan might have had, it did not spread because of the isolation. Only when European explorers, trappers, missionaries, and pioneers started to arrive did disease spread. Researchers believe European diseases wiped out an incredible 80-90% of the native population of the Americas. Only the All-American syphilis disease appears to have traveled eastward back to Europe.
Imagine an Anasazi father leaving the cliff dwelling to hunt, only to come back a few weeks later to find the entire clan sick or dead from some unknown disease simply because the family traded goods with a roving infected merchant. In a short period of time, this man’s life completely changed.
When I left civilization to explore our northern plateaus and canyons, COVID-19 was in the news but the world was mostly normal. The virus was in China and just spreading to Italy. A week later when I remerged, restaurants were closed, gas stations out of toilet paper, traffic was light, airlines were empty, seventeen million Americans were out of work, and the stock market had collapsed. In one week, the world had changed.
As I was cleaning up and putting away my gear, I got a note from my Human Resources Director asking me for the exact location of my vacation, under threat of quarantine. When you’re off grid, you’re not at a “location” such as an address you can look up on Mapquest. Instead, I was at the confluence of a latitude, longitude, and altitude in the middle of nowhere. Explaining my “middle of nowhere” platitude to my colleague required an aptitude for exactitude to spurn her threats to self-quarantine again. Where would I go? – to the middle of nowhere!