The last time I tried to wait out the pandemic, I drove south. My dog and I traveled nine hours from San Francisco to the Anza-Borrego Desert, which sprawls over more than half a million acres near the Mexican border. Most of that territory is untouched wilderness, rocky washes home to deer, pumas, and golden eagles.
The place felt solitary. That’s why I chose it. I work as a doctor in an emergency room, a hospital, and an HIV clinic. I also take powerful immunosuppressants for autoimmune disease, one of which rendered the coronavirus vaccines far less effective in my body. My co-workers had tried to see all of the COVID patients to protect me, but as Omicron exploded in January, that became impossible. The woman who’d broken her ankle tested positive. The grandfather who’d lacerated his scalp did too, just like the middle-aged man who wanted to detox. Treatments for COVID were in short supply, and I wanted to get through the surge alive. So for several weeks, I canceled work, a privilege most can’t afford. Forced into isolation, I decided to spend a week where solitude felt deliberate.
Back then I would have described my trip to the desert, and pandemic life broadly, as an intermission. The moment caseloads tumbled and hospitals stocked treatments, I would go hiking in Japan. I would brave the dating scene after a two-year hiatus. I would deploy with Doctors Without Borders. Meanwhile, I reassured myself that I just had to hold out a few months longer, even though the deadline kept retreating. Mine was an outlook equally comforting and wrong.
Kurt Vonnegut famously taught about six archetypes that underpin stories. In a video of one of his lectures, he draws on a chalkboard an x-axis for time and a y-axis for degree of good fortune, then traces a sine wave that plummets before rising again. “We call this story ‘Man in Hole,’ but it needn’t be about a man, and it needn’t be about somebody getting into a hole,” Vonnegut says. It’s a tale—of fall and salvation, of mettle forged through trials, of ultimate catharsis and victory—that humans tell naturally. And it needn’t be about a man and a hole. It could be about a world and a virus