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Quagmire Days

Settling in for the “Covid Spring” in small-town Wyoming

There were nine of us at the start, nine artists of various stripes. We had gathered for the artist residency program of the Ucross Foundation in Ucross, Wyoming, on March 2. We were actors, composers, painters, writers. For a time—a week, say—we shared meals, played poker, took walks, made art. Then the world began to fall apart.

There’s something Pinteresque about artist residencies to begin with. The director of another residency (also in Wyoming, as it happens) told me that she thought of it as the three-week rule: after three weeks, fissures begin to form in artist residencies’ miniature civilizations. Personalities fray. There may be feuds, scandals. In our case, it was not our little world that crumbled—it was everywhere else.

As the outbreak began, stateside, in Washington, word arrived that other artist residencies were shutting down. Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. MacDowell in Peterborough. Many others. After two weeks, two of us at Ucross returned home, amid a bit of uncertainty about travel. Then there were seven, we joked.

The art stopped, but the walks continued. Soon, every day seemed like a month, even as a week passed in an instant. After some initial hesitance, a decision was made to shut Ucross down, as well. We needed to leave.

To be clear, the staff of Ucross are some of the best people in the world. Every accommodation was afforded us as we changed plans. As with medical personnel and first responders, the staff delayed their own journeys home, and likely incurred a degree of personal risk, to ensure that we embarked safely, outfitted with masks and gloves, wherever we were going. For me, there was just one problem: I didn’t have anywhere to go.

Just at the moment when the world needs to think globally, to recognize that the welfare of others, even strangers far away, is in our own best interest, we discover that it is our instinct to think locally instead.

More than two years ago, I gave up my apartment in New York—dragging all my furniture to the curb, putting my library in storage—to embark on an ambitious book project. I haven’t had a fixed address since then. Hence, a problem for the modern world: What does an itinerant writer, or a digital nomad, do when the order arrives to shelter in place?

This might be the heart of what we’re confronting: just at the moment when the world needs to think globally, to recognize that the welfare of others, even strangers far away, is in our own best interest, we discover that it is our instinct to think locally instead, to build walls, to stockpile drugs and supplies, to go home, to return to our country, our state, our town, our house, our room—if we’re fortunate enough to have one.

I got lucky. Again, with thanks to the Ucross staff, I rented a tiny home twenty miles away, at the end of a dead-end street in Buffalo, Wyoming, population five thousand. I had never before been to Buffalo. A sign just across from my mailbox reads: End of the Road.

The most prominent feature of Buffalo’s one-street downtown is the Occidental, a classic Western hotel doing business since 1880. The Occidental has hosted the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There’s a saloon featuring a zoo of taxidermized heads on the walls, a long-running Thursday night jam session for local musicians and a café called the Busy Bee. The Occidental’s owners are my new landlords, actually. Thankfully, they were willing to take in one more traveling stranger at a time when strange travellers might be vectors.

I arrived in town a day before the governor of Wyoming closed bars and restaurants for two weeks, until April 3. On that first night, March 20, I hopped from the Occidental saloon to the local dive bar, The Century Club, where social distancing was still a bit of a joke. Business was good. I met a couple graybeards, the type of men who are suspicious of book learning, but who have a particular genius for engines and an encyclopedia of knowledge locked away in their heads. It was here that I first encountered what would prove to be a widespread and persistent belief. That whole pandemic thing? Overblown, exaggerated. In the dim light of the bar, I could barely read the faded lettering across the brim of one of the graybeard’s camouflage baseball caps: “Trump.”

It was the first day that more than a thousand people died worldwide of Covid-19.

On the last day that bars and restaurants were open in Buffalo, I ate breakfast at Main Street Diner. I watched the cook, also the owner, slap my rye toast barehanded down on top of my corned beef special. A short time later, I heard him announce that the only things that could close his diner were an absence of customers, or a man with a badge. The latter obliged him the following morning. The sign he put in his window—“Forced to Close, Not our Choice”—made the front page of the local weekly, the Buffalo Bulletin.

There’s Wyoming precedent for suspicion about pandemics. At the mid-point of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a group of men gather around a table to brainstorm a way to clear a wide swath of land around Devil’s Tower, about 120 miles from where I sit. They settle on a fake epidemic, and from this the film cuts directly to product placement. False Piggly Wiggly, Coca-Cola, and Baskin Robbins trucks—you know, the deep state—sneak government personnel and supplies into Wyoming to scare away locals. Then aliens swoop in to swap Amelia Earhart for Richard Dreyfuss.

The best day for toilet paper at Dollar General is Monday, when the supply truck arrives. A distillery in Casper is retrofitting to make hand-sanitizer.

Buffalo has other literary analogues. The city motto, “A creek runs through it”—printed on a downtown mural—is a coy reference to Norman Maclean’s paean to Montana, A River Runs Through It. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain is said to be set not far away, where sheep graze in the Bighorn mountains. And the hit television series Longmire is based on Buffalo, Wyoming. Since 2011, thousands have descended on the city every July for a long weekend to celebrate Longmire Days. The population of Buffalo triples overnight, upsetting the town’s calm idle. The graybeards at The Century Club told me locals call it Quagmire Days.

Small American towns often feature that sort of coy wordplay. In Buffalo, there is Pie Zanos, the Italian eatery. Un-Wine’d, the wine bar. Floor’d, the carpet and tile place. The city is middle class, but lists downward. Local architecture is either prefab or ad hoc. When I first rolled into town, I smirked at a schlocky statue of an eight-point buck in someone’s front yard, a crass lawn ornament. Then it moved.

My little house—a cozy studio with a roof—stands along Clear Creek, near where old Fischer’s Brewer used to make wine and beer, and where George Bech’s mill produced award-winning flour for more than twenty years.

I take daily walks. One Saturday, I stopped by all the local churches to see what notices had been posted about morning services. John the Baptist advised staying home—“We’re going to get through this.” First United Methodist would have no meetings until March 31 (later it changed to May 1). Others curtly noted that activities were suspended only because of the ban on public gatherings. The evangelicals had it covered: services would be livestreamed tomorrow at 9:30 a.m.

I passed a smiling woman outside one of the local liquor stores. Business was good, she said. People were buying in bulk. It’s a weird sort of apocalypse that compels you to do a lot more of what you were shamefully doing too much of already: staying home, avoiding people, binging Netflix, obsessing about things online, and day drinking.

Every day, I get a cup of coffee at the Busy Bee. Restaurants still do take-out, and for a time you could still walk inside. Now all delivery is curbside. Buffalo’s neighbourhoods were always quiet—small American towns often have a lonely, deadened quality that feels eerie even in normal times—but occasionally I see kids wandering on bikes and skateboards, and once I heard a circular saw in the distance. The “Covid Spring” is the season of wondering whether there will be any more seasons, but for some, workaday life rolls along as always.

Occasional chats, conducted at a distance—preceded by an up-and-down scan that would be appropriate at a singles’ mixer, but is actually a quick visual diagnostic—reveal peculiar fragments of news. The best day for toilet paper at Dollar General is Monday, when the supply truck arrives. A distillery in Casper is retrofitting to make hand-sanitizer. Gun and ammo sales in Billings have surged past even the days following the Sandy Hook massacre, when everyone thought they’d be forced to turn in their guns. In this part of the world, self-reliance is practically a Commandment, and I heard rumors of civil disobedience if Buffalo didn’t open up again on April 3. A short time later, the statewide order banning gatherings of more than ten people had been extended to April 30. The streets of Buffalo remained quiet, apart from some bikers who cruised the town one Sunday, blasting the horns on their hogs.

Parks across Wyoming remain closed. Yellowstone, Teton—and, yes, Devil’s Tower.

Inside of a week, animals began to figure it out. A small flock of turkeys wiggled right past my front door. I heard owls downtown. And the neighbourhood deer have stopped being afraid. A buck once paused in his tracks and gave me a good long look, as though deliberating whether to charge. It’s as though, all along, animals have been waiting for the whole civilization thing to implode.

There’s a small mobile home park not far from me called New Dawn, because of course it is. For several days running, I walked past a single-wide with a tattered American flag outside on a post, and a sign that said “REPENT” in a window. One day, I saw a woman out front and asked her about the sign. She found it at a rummage sale in Cody, she said. Her name was Jan Weigel, and she lived here in Buffalo with Alan, her husband of ten years. She was of two minds about Covid-19. The fleshly part of her knows it’s all a scam, she said, a trick to keep Republicans from voting in November. But she was Christian, too, so she knows that people must be prayed for, and that she must listen to the president, so long as the president is a godly man, like Trump.

I’m curious as to why Jan does not recognize the irony. A man who fashioned his entire career—to the extent hucksters have careers—on a dastardly and dubious use of hyperbole, concluded, for months, that the fears of experts were all wildly exaggerated. Just at the moment when a little hyperbole might have saved lives, Trump flailingly strained to cast himself as a voice of common sense and careful measure.

I realize that when I say that the world began to fall apart mid-March, I’m guilty of thinking only of the American experience. China had already happened. Italy had already happened. But here’s the thing: Buffalo, Wyoming, hasn’t yet happened. Or, rather, it’s just starting to happen. Wyoming recorded its first official Covid-19 death just the other day, on April 13, more or less exactly in line with the state-by-state projections of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. The death came at the Johnson County Health Center (JCHC), about a mile from me.

I stay at home. I drink boxed wine. I watch shows, and I surf YouTube.

Two weeks ago, the press releases from JCHC concluded sweetly: “We are so fortunate to live in this community, and we feel blessed to serve you during this unsettled time.” Now, they simply advise citizens to go on wearing face masks and washing their hands.

Yesterday, I walked to the Dollar General and asked the cashier why she wasn’t wearing a mask. A different employee stopped in his tracks, and he explained that management had instructed them not to wear masks, as it would create panic. At Reese and Ray’s IGA, a grocery, another cashier told me that wearing a mask “felt weird.”

My life now is exactly like an artist residency—except for the loneliness. I haven’t seen anyone in three days. Easter came with a blizzard, and left behind six inches of snow. I stay at home. I drink boxed wine. I watch shows, and I surf YouTube, where Buffalo poet David Romtvedt is recording a new poem for each day of the quarantine. Romtvedt’s “Things to Do in Buffalo, Wyoming, While Waiting out the Corona Virus” meditates on a plant he found growing in a garbage bin: “But it turns out / this poem’s about compost, that is to say / about transformation, how we change / moving through the days, and the days, / how they change moving through us.”