Confessions of a Long Hauler: Strike Two

Strike Two

My husband Ron and I had been on the road two days and were driving parallel to the White Sands Missile Range outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. Ron scanned the landscape to catch a glimpse of an oryx– a large African antelope introduced to the area in the late 1960s.

Eighteen oryx (gemsbok) were first brought from the Kalahari region of South Africa to the Albuquerque Zoo by archeologist, Dr. Frank Hibben in 1962 for big-game hunting. Their offspring were introduced to the White Sands Missile Range in 1969. Today, between 3,000 and 4,000 animals roam the desert. They are part of the Chihuahuan Desert landscape and are foreign to it. They are also deemed prized trophy animals as well as pests.

How traumatic it must have been for those first oryx and their offspring. Being poked and prodded by two-legged animals who shouted incoherent babble demanding the animals’ surrender. Scanning this new terrain for predators and forging for food caused stress and changes in their behavior. Did they long for Africa? I long for so much of my previous life; mainly public spaces where I can witness the array of human expression. Like those first imported oryx, I am mindful of my life before the pandemic.

Ron slowed and pointed out the window. “I think that’s an oryx!”

“Pull over,” I said.

“We can’t. This is a restricted area.”

“I don’t care. Pull over!”

We came to an abrupt stop. I grabbed Ron’s phone, stepped out of the car, and headed for the fence. The sun was waning and the oryx was 200 yards away, but I could still make out it’s huge form in the desert brush. The animal faced me and didn’t move. Oryx are approximately 46 inches at the shoulder, stretch 6 feet in length, and can weigh up to 500 pounds. Their straight, black horns tilt slightly toward their backs and are thirty to forty inches long. Their tan-colored hide acts as camouflage against the desert brush, but there is no hiding the distinct black and white patches on their faces. They resemble giant goats. It didn’t move as I snapped a dozen photos.

I got back in the car and my phone rang. I host an open mic night at a local coffee house once a month. It was the owner. She called asking what time I planned to arrive. The event was in an hour, and I was three hundred miles away. Earlier in the week, I had reached out to the members of our writing community and canceled the event. I stammered for a moment, embarrassed, and confused. Did I really forget to call her, the owner of the venue? I apologized and agreed to find someone to replace me. I was on the verge of tears as I wrestled with spotty phone service, exhaustion, and brain fog trying to find a replacement. Graciously, an amazing local poet offered to host the event.

My back was sore, and I had developed a persistent hacking cough. I rested my head against the window and scanned the desert scrub hoping to spot another oryx before the sun set.

A week earlier Ron and I had sat at our kitchen table weighing the pros and cons of flying back to Wisconsin for my nephew’s wedding. The country was under a deep freeze and the airlines were canceling thousands of flights a day because of weather and staff shortages due to the omicron variant. We had missed out on so much since the pandemic invaded our lives. I wasn’t going to miss this wedding and an opportunity to spend a weekend with my daughter, her husband, and my extended family.

“If we leave now,” I told Ron, “we can still make the rehearsal dinner.”

We dropped everything and packed the car. An hour later we were headed north.

The wedding was at Hotel Northland, a gorgeous historical landmark in downtown Green Bay. We cried tears of joy, ate well, danced, laughed, and shared stories. No one mentioned the omicron variant sweeping the nation. Instead, we welcomed the rituals of our old lives inside the walls of that magnificent hotel.

We stayed in Green Bay for several days after the wedding with my sister Kelli and her husband Carl. On day three, I woke with a throbbing headache, brain fog, and body aches. I didn’t need a COVID test to tell me what I already knew. The semester had started so I answered student emails and worked on class calendars between naps. I also reminded myself to call the coffee house to cancel open mic and forgot to make the call. Ron and I shared one last lovely dinner with Kelli and Carl before leaving. I dreaded the trip home, knowing I was too exhausted to do my share of the driving.

We had crossed over the Mississippi River into Dubuque, Iowa when Kelli called. Her son, Robert, the groom had tested positive for the virus. He and his bride, Morgan, were on their honeymoon in Florida. I tried to get a rapid or home test in Iowa, Missouri, and Kansas. None were available. Kelli called during the day with updates. Several people who had attended the wedding were testing positive. No one was surprised.

We made it home late after a fifteen-hour day on the road. The next day Ron and I tested negative on a rapid test. Later in the week the results of a PCR test confirmed what I already knew. I had the virus. Strike two, I thought when I read the results.

Nearly a year ago I tested positive for COVID-19. I’ve struggled with a host of health problems over the years brought on by malaria and Lyme disease. Testing positive seemed a death sentence. My husband and I had lost loved ones while the media bombarded all of us with reports and photos of hospitals pushed to the brink and the sick vying for ventilators. A month after getting sick, I was faced with new concerns. It was clear I had long covid. I suffered from chronic fatigue, brain fog, loss of taste and smell, muscle pain, and weight loss. The list goes on. Finally, in September 2021, I went to see a cardiologist. I had tachycardia and a dangerously low heart rate. I was scheduled for a pacemaker. The fatigue disappeared after surgery. Suddenly, I was able to clean the house, grocery shop, fix meals, venture out with friends, and plan trips. It was a miracle. I had spent seven months doing what I could around the house before 11 am at which point I would hit a wall and go to bed. Ron joked he wanted a dial installed on the pacemaker so he could turn it down.

My energy was back, but I noticed I still had trouble concentrating. I would read a passage in a book or a student paper and have no idea what it meant. The simple act of sitting in my office put me on edge. I needed to keep moving. At some point I recognized my intellect had been compromised. I could cook a seven-course dinner even though I have yet to regain my sense of taste and smell, but I hadn’t started a new book in months. I stopped writing altogether, which left me untethered, drifting into dark places inside my head. I didn’t share my despair with anyone. The BIG thoughts and questions in which I always prided myself in exploring had disappeared. Vanished. I was getting so much done, but the part of me that made me was gone. Then, two months ago glimmers of my old self slowly began to rise from the ashes. My mom gave me a book titled 1493 Uncovering The New World Columbus Created by Charles Mann. The prologue begins, “Like other books, this one began in a garden.” I was hooked. BIG thoughts start in gardens, and in the shower, or while driving to the grocery store. I read on. Mann discusses the transcontinental history of tomatoes, which led him to a book called Ecological Imperialism by Alfred W. Crosby, a geographer and historian. Mann quotes the first sentence in the book: “European emigrants and their descendants are all over the place, which requires explanation.” Why are Europeans all over the place? Mann wondered. This was the BIG question he set out to answer, and intellectually I was up to the task to follow him wherever his discoveries led.

My sense of self intact, I started reading and writing again. I had questions about the social, medical, political, and educational implications brought on by the pandemic. I had science questions about the virus. I also had questions about human history and biology. I couldn’t read or research quick enough to satiate my curiosity. It was as though my brain had awakened from hibernation and was starving for information.

Then it was gone. Just like that. I got sick again with omicron and the neurons in my brain stopped firing, or so it seemed. This time though, I noticed the swift and remarkable change. My covid brain was the reason I had forgotten to call the coffee house and cancel open mic. It was the reason Ron had to drive home from Green Bay. I didn’t trust myself. Fatigue took over and for six days I managed to shower and walk the dogs before I lay on the couch watching countless hours of Netflix. My energy and my brain were on hiatus and no pleading would change that. I could handle the exhaustion, coughing, runny nose, and muscle aches. What I couldn’t reconcile was the loss of self. Briefly, I had experienced the full range of my intellect and in an instant, I was robbed of it again.

An oryx visited me in a dream while I napped on the couch. It stood in a grassy field very different from the desert. I stepped out from a stand of trees. When the animal saw me, it paused for a moment before kicking up dirt and disappearing over a hill. I didn’t have the energy or inclination to chase it. The oryx has not only adapted to its new home in the Chihuahuan Desert but has flourished. Lions, cheetahs, and hyenas are the oryx natural predators in Africa. Aside from hunters, they have no natural predators in New Mexico. Without management, they would overpopulate, becoming susceptible to disease. We’ve learned our lessons about introducing imported plants and animals mainly for food or to eradicate pests, or, in the case of the unfortunate oryx, big-game hunting. The unintended consequences are often devastating. I wonder about our handling of the pandemic. What mistakes have we made and what lessons will we take from this after the dust settles? Those of us suffering from long covid are the pandemic’s canaries in the mine. Our day to day lives have been greatly impacted and our futures uncertain. Many of us have quit our jobs, have struggled at home, and have disappeared into the shadows of our former lives. We are seeking help, and yet so little is known about our symptoms. Pioneers of sorts, we did not sign up for the journey ahead of us. 

Every morning my husband asks how I am feeling and throughout the day, my sister, and my mom check in. Some days are great, some are good, and some are exhausting. I am grateful for the people in my life who reach out. If you are suffering from long covid or know of someone who is, here are a few resources I have found that keep me connected and give me hope. In the meantime, take a shower or walk the dog or have a margarita. Do something that keeps you afloat.

Long Covid Help:

Long Covid Support Group

Facebook Support Group

Survivor Corps

More On The Oryx:

High Country News

White Sands National Park New Mexico

Carlsbad Current Argus