As the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, daily life for people around the world has become almost unrecognizable. Major league sports are canceled. Travel has ground to a halt. People across the country are working from home and only venturing out for food and necessities. When they do leave, they confront eerily empty streets and vacant grocery store shelves. There are now over 7,000 confirmed cases of the virus within the U.S. alone, and the worldwide total continues to skyrocket. But one group of Americans got to skip all that, at least for awhile: a crew of river rafters who set out on a trip through the Grand Canyon in February. For 25 days, they had no contact with the outside world, and no knowledge of how bad COVID-19 was becoming.
Journalist Charlie Warzel tracked down the group for a recent story published in The New York Times. In the piece, Warzel documents the rafters’ surreal experience of climbing out of the water and into a world totally changed by a pandemic. River guide Zach Edler recalled that returning to a different world after a rafting trip is something he’d talked about before—but only to make his buddies laugh.
“Somebody would always joke and say, ‘What if we come back to a world where nothing is the same?’ ” he told the Times. “Of course, it never happens. Except for this time. This time it did.”
Edler and over a dozen other paddlers began their journey on Feb. 19, when COVID-19 hadn’t yet begun to threaten the entire globe. Along the way, they sent a few progress updates to family members using a satellite phone, but they weren’t able to get any news from outside the canyon’s walls until March 14, when they pulled ashore at the end of their journey. That’s when a man on the riverbank introduced them to a bizarre new reality.
“He gave us a look, sighed, and then launched into it,” Edler said. “Half of us thought he was joking.”
But Sarah Knaack, another member of the group, could tell the man was deadly serious.
“He said it in this real ominous way, but then he just walked away.”
Mason Thomas had been somewhat concerned about the virus before heading out on the trip. In the weeks leading up to their adventure in the Grand Canyon, he had kept tabs on the news of COVID-19’s spread from China to other countries.
“The last thing I thought before I got into the canyon was: ‘Well, I can’t do anything about it. Maybe it won’t be there when I get back,’” he said. “I figured if it was bad maybe we’d just all be washing our hands even more or something more serious. But not this.”
That moment on the riverbank was shocking, but things only got more alarming as the group drove back toward civilization. Once they picked up a cell signal, messages from concerned relatives starting pouring in, and the full effect of the pandemic became clearer: cleared-out grocery stores, shelter-in-place orders, toilet paper shortages.
“It was this feeling of disbelief,” Knaack said. “It’s like, ‘How’d we go from paradise to hoarding rice and beans?’ ”
“We’re sitting here trying to piece the world together,” said Thomas. “What does a toilet paper shortage mean? Why are they out of toilet paper?”
While waiting in line at In-N-Out, Edler had his first experience with the now daily anxiety brought on by social distancing.
“You’re overwhelmed being in public for the first time and then you have this virus to think about,” he said. “I’m standing in line for a burger and looking around thinking, ‘So, is it here right now?’ ”
Since returning home, the rafters have had to grapple with the constant onslaught of ominous news about the virus’s spread—and the increasingly austere measures being ordered to fight it. For most people, the pandemic has been a slowly rising tide of anxiety-inducing updates. For Thomas and his companions, it fell on them all at once.
“I’ve tried to stay away from the full fire hose of news,” he said. “This has been a total mind-bender. I’d really love to be back in that canyon right now.”
Meanwhile, Knaack, who works as a nurse, is getting ready to take her place on the front lines of the pandemic.
“I suppose it’s good that I got a vacation in,” she said.
Other members of the group share the sentiment. Even though they stepped out of their rafts and into a completely changed world on Saturday, the trip bought them some time away from the 24-7 news cycle and virus’s chaotic effects on daily life. Those are nearly as bad as the virus itself.
“It would be worse to have been sitting and stewing in it,” Thomas said.