I opened the cargo van passenger door and jumped down onto the sidewalk. My boots hit the concrete with a deafening thud. I paused to enjoy a deep, luxurious inhale of the crisp mountainous air.
Mother Nature finally decided to turn off the “snow” light switch and the skies were sweet and clear. A stubborn sunset kept hanging on—as if Montana was making a point for me to witness its undeniable glory.
After driving for hours across the country—through a late-March mixture of rainstorms and whiteouts—feeling my feet on the ground was life-affirming.
As I walked toward the restaurant for a food pick-up, my footsteps echoed through the empty streets of downtown Bozeman. The footstep rhythm changed, growing louder. I suddenly realized I wasn’t alone.
I turned onto Main Street and faced another woman, maybe a handful of years younger than me. Wearing a red flannel, light jeans, and hiking boots beneath her chic sporty winter coat, she embodied an effortlessly rugged beauty.
We arrived at the restaurant door, perfectly in sync. I wondered what she would do, with us accidentally violating the 6-feet distance rule that had become the COVID-era norm.
I shuddered as I remembered my final human interaction in Portland, Oregon on the departure day of our cross-country move. It wasn’t a hug from a friend or a friendly wave from our neighborhood barista—it was a grocery store show-down with a stranger in a green bandana face mask.
Mr. H waited in the van as I braved the grocery store for a few provisions that would last us until our first overnight stop. Dark chocolate was enough of an incentive for me to face the dystopian environment I used to call “the store.”
I was willing to wait in line outside, then give an awkward nod to the lanky 20-something associate calling all the shots at the entrance, like a rooky club bouncer: “You can come in now. You need to wait.” And, so on.
I was willing to smile back at the pale blonde-ponytailed cashier across the plexiglass barriers that
separated protected us. And, I obeyed her not-so-subtle reminder to pump out the hand sanitizer after I completed my dirty credit card transaction.
What I didn’t anticipate on my dark chocolate quest was the show-down with another grocery store customer in the candy aisle. She had a green bandana over her face and I did not. She wore mittens and I did not.
I waited for her to make her decision, standing a safe legal distance away. Meanwhile, Mr. H, my two traumatized cats, and all of our packed-up shit waited in the rented cargo van in the parking lot. This was merely the opening scene of an excruciating four-day road trip as we moved back to Milwaukee, Wisconsin during the Coronavirus pandemic.
I didn’t have infinite time to make chocolate purchasing decisions—I wanted the salted dark chocolate bars…easy-peasy. The green bandana woman moved to the side. I made a bold move to grab my chocolate in the strangest way possible. I lunged forward quickly to grab the chocolate bars, keeping one foot back so I could easily make an exit.
The woman leaped off to the side as if I had burned her with a cigarette. Her eyes were wide and her skin was flushed beneath her green bandana. I felt victorious and ashamed as I gripped my chocolate bars. She slowly backed away from me, shaking her head until she rounded the end-cap and disappeared.
I paid for my groceries in a daze, trying to shake off my childish bullying memories of “cooties.” As the COVID-19 frenzy escalated each day, the feeling of having cooties and being shunned by the other children, has oddly surfaced again in my life.
Just like when I was a child, I thought of all of the things I should have said or should have done. But, I was too shell-shocked to do much of anything…except feel like an outsider.
As I stood in front of the restaurant door in downtown Bozeman, I anticipated another uncomfortable show-down with the beautifully rugged woman in the red flannel. She smiled at me and went in, then hold the door for me. She didn’t have a mask or gloves on and neither did I. I smiled at her and thanked her in a small, shy voice I didn’t recognize as my own.
We both waited in front of the host stand. Next to the host stand were two tables, one table for paying with your credit card and another for signing your receipt. The signing table had two pen buckets, one marked “clean” and one marked “dirty.”
The smell of bison burgers and cleaning products filled the air. Three men slaved away in the back kitchen, two cooks and one host. The host came running over to help us and I was glad the other woman was ahead of me for the food pick-up.
It gave me a chance to pull myself together.
I had been to this same burger joint, Backcountry Burger Bar, in the summer of 2018. Mr. H and I had joined up with my family from Texas and embarked on an epic summer road trip—Bozeman, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole.
This COVID-19 experience was the antithesis of those bright, carefree summer days…culminating in this deserted restaurant with the cheap sanitized pens.
That summer, Mr. H and I sat at the bar, shoulder-to-shoulder with other laughing people. It was the beginning of our road trip. The next morning we were meeting up with my family for breakfast before moving onto Yellowstone.
Business was great. My family was great. The restaurant was great. Everyone everywhere was great.
Seeing the restaurant now was like a slap in the face. All of the chairs and tables in the middle had vanished. The booths and the bar were dark, shiny, and empty. The front of the restaurant was roped off and blocked by tables. It was quiet, except for the soft sounds coming from the kitchen—no music, no cutlery…just the hum of electricity.
Through it all, these three men left running the deserted burger joint were doing their damndest to cook delicious food and bring some much-needed comfort and sustenance to people like me and this local.
The host miraculously made us both feel welcome. The woman in the red flannel gave the host encouraging words and gratitude to pass onto the cooks and the restaurant owner. I overtipped and clutched my warm doggy bag. Me, the host, and the woman paused…savoring the last few seconds of face-to-face human interaction before we went our separate ways.
I held the door for her this time and she thanked me. “Have a good night,” I said.
We turned in opposite directions and walked down Main Street. The sunset sky had turned a rich navy and stars sprung out in the sky. Our footsteps moved in unison, growing softer and softer as we separated.
The cargo van door screeched in the quiet night as I hopped in.
Mr. H said: “How was it?”
“It was surreal. Surreal, but good.”