On Monday, two days after the declaration of the COVID-19 emergency, my wife and I planned to climb Enchanted Rock. It was her 66th birthday, and what she wanted was to drive out to the Hill Country to clear our heads and climb the rock. Who knew when we’d have another opportunity? Especially since we’d arranged to move my 91-year-old mother into our guest room on Tuesday.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned. Self-isolated in her senior living community apartment, and fixated on the TV news, my mom became increasingly anxious, and on Sunday asked us to come get her right away. It’s lucky she did. Two hours later the facility went on lockdown.
That night, after a family meal and a TV comedy, her anxiety eased, but mine spiked as the moral gravity of our decision dawned. Facing the specter of the virus alone, for unknown weeks or months, would have been brutal, perhaps unbearable, for my mom. That’s why we urged her to come to us. But my wife and I—healthy, working people who (perhaps foolishly) felt only minimally endangered—did not intend to quarantine ourselves with her. Might we be putting her life in greater jeopardy, then, simply by living ours?
The next morning, Monday, my mother insisted that my wife and I go on our outing. She was fine in the house, she said, and my sister, a winter Texan, would be stopping by. We set off down MoPac and out 290 West in a dense fog. “It’s going to lift just when we get there,” I predicted, with determined birthday cheer, but otherwise the ride was quiet. I’d read that Enchanted Rock had also been called Crying Rock, and that our Tonkawa predecessors had called it Spirit Song Rock and considered it a portal to other worlds. Both ancient alternative names seemed newly relevant.
The fog lifted as we turned north at Fredericksburg, and, though traffic had been sparse on the journey, when we pulled into the Enchanted Rock parking lot it was nearly full. Like us, others had driven from Austin and San Antonio for a different and more cohesive kind of social distancing. Bird song greeted us as we stepped from the car, and as I took one of those deep breaths that you’re supposed to take to check for lung congestion, I thought that for the birds this was an ordinary day, not a time of emergency. A stupid thought, I instantly realized. They are living their environmental crisis, as we are ours, and, like us, are doing the best they can.
As we started up the Summit Trail, I was greeted by one of my own species, coming down the trail, a guy in his fifties, who said good morning as he approached. When I responded, “How ya doin’?,” he looked at me and pronounced, as if it were a matter of principle, “I’m doing great.” It was easy on the largest pink granite monadnock in the country for family groups and individual visitors to keep six feet apart, yet there was an intimacy among the people strewn across that ever-changing 1 billion-year-old rock formation, strewn alike with vibrant, adaptive vegetation, persisting through extreme weather.
Persisting—the people, the rocks, the plants—in unusual, heterogeneous, and mutually supportive clusters. One human cluster I observed featured forty-something Anglo parents, a blonde teenage daughter, and two tall South Asian boys, older than the girl. At a steep stretch in the ascent, one of the boys was seized with acrophobia. The girl backtracked, took the frightened boy’s hand, and helped him climb until he steadied. “Onward and upward,” she encouraged. A young black man, with the build of a professional athlete, climbed slowly with two white seniors. “We’re working the cardio-vascular system–that’s what it attacks,” he assured them. “Strengthen that and it can’t do a thing to you.”
And then there was the Latina schoolgirl, climbing with her brother, who came over a rise onto a plateau. looked up, and discovered they had only gone halfway. “Oh my God,” she shouted, “we’re still not there.”
But there was wonder in her voice, and pleasure in the moment, and—though we’re still not there—cheerful resolve for the journey’s remainder.
Carton lives in Austin and is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas.