Social distance and the miles ahead (and behind) us

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I needed more social in my social distancing.

In about a week, I’d barely left my house—fewer than a handful of times. Even on those occasions, it was mostly to run on a treadmill or hit a bag to momentarily escape and fight bad news my own way.

I needed reasons to believe that I wasn’t alone. I needed a reason to hope. And I needed fresh air. Denver and Colorado can be very small if you don’t see much beyond the same four walls for a week.

We hit the road at 11:37 a.m. on an unseasonably warm and blemish-free day without a cloud in the sky. The forecast wasn’t the same for tomorrow. 

When we set off, John Coltrane’s “Theme for Ernie” played on the stereo; a melancholy eulogy by the saxophone master that I remembered as a B-side gem back when I self-quarantined with jazz records in high school.

My girlfriend and I were searching for therapy, without a roadmap.

“Just drive. Let the mood decide,” a colleague advised before we left.

What direction is hope?

2020 Chevrolet Blazer

For me, it began northeast through the suburban streets of Denver and back to the neighborhoods where I grew up.

Much of Aurora, Colorado, has changed in the 37 years I’ve been alive. When I grew up there in the 1980s and early 1990s, it was the stepchild to Denver; mostly a blue-collar mélange of immigrants and Air Force families like ours.

Now, Aurora is a schizophrenic city full of immigrants and working-class families, bookended by McMansions and hospitals to the north and south.

My old neighborhood’s draw for me was purely instinctual; it’s fewer than 10 miles from where I live now but worlds away from me mentally. I never grew out of Aurora, I just needed distance from it.

We drove in a 2020 Chevy Blazer, which was almost too perfect for the occasion.

We briefly had a K5 Blazer when I was growing up, a hulking, tan two-door SUV that matched the size and color of my dad’s cowboy hat and his ego at that time. Our high school mascot was the Blazer, too.

The new Blazer we drove is dressed up, fancified from the workaday K5 I remember. It’s the best design from Chevy I’ve seen in a decade.

On the road, it looks great—if there were anyone to see it. The sidewalks were mostly clear, the elementary school I went to only had a few people passing out free lunches in the parking lot, and Utah Park’s mile-long pathway that I circled on my bike on warm spring days was depressingly bare.

All around the streets of my childhood was an unspoken tension that I could hear clearly: something changed, and healing hadn’t yet started.

2020 Chevrolet Blazer

2020 Chevrolet Blazer

Out of Aurora and into downtown Denver—my refuge during my teenage years on 16th Street—the mood was equally somber.

Only hints of traffic, which typically snarls the bustling metro area, could be found. Around downtown, boarded windows were replacing temporary signs. The plywood was a makeshift sign that the semi-permanence of a new, sobering reality was setting in. In the window of a storefront was a masking tape message: “We (heart) you Denver,” and a couple eating lunch on a park bench outside Coors Field were the only signs of hope we found. Passersby with their heads down skulked outside as a handful of people perched on balconies looking at an empty downtown Denver.

The social institutions of my adolescence were largely empty or gone. No Marlowe’s, no Paramount. No 16th Street anything, and Denver’s dingiest jazz bastion, El Chapultepec, was dead.

We turned the Blazer west and headed for the hills. Beyond the metro area and into the canyons. We weren’t alone.

Bikers, hikers, and runners stacked up in Deer Canyon, looking for respite just outside the city’s southwestern suburbs.

We climbed through the winding roads that followed the streams of winter runoff, through the small fire stations and mountain mansions built to escape the metro area’s constant boomtown feel. Up higher, on Sampson Mountain, a relative pile of rocks next to the 14,000-foot peaks around it—we found our distance in the Blazer.

The miles behind the Blazer that day pale to the miles ahead of it. I know the feeling.

2020 Chevrolet Blazer

2020 Chevrolet Blazer

Seeking social interaction, we found distance instead. That’s OK for now.

In the faces of others we found on the road that day—many more than I imagined—there were a handful of similar feelings. People looking for sanctuary in the roads and parks could find it. People looking for camaraderie during relative hardship could find it in other faces. Drivers nodded and grinned. Small waves.

As we stopped to take pictures of the mountains and the world we couldn’t see from within our four walls, a woman pulled over to ask why we were taking pictures—my most social interaction with a stranger in days.

“Sorry, I wasn’t taking a picture of your car, just the mountains and the other blue car behind you,” I said.

“That’s OK. I would too,” she said. “Stay healthy.”

Same.

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