On Feb. 19, 13 rafters set out on a 25-day trip on the Colorado River, cutting through the Grand Canyon with no connection to the outside world, a world that was about to change forever.
One of those rafters was Jessica Pace, a former Home Page reporter from 2012-2015 who now works as researcher at a conservation nonprofit in Durango, Colorado.
This was Pace’s first trip down the river, one that she was sure to never forget. Though, now her story is not just about the experience at one of the world’s most impressive geological and anthropological sites, it’s about the world that she and her fellow rafters returned to on March 14, a world in the midst of a global pandemic.
Pace said she was aware of the presence and impact of COVID-19’s origins in China when the group set out but that she and the rest of the group didn’t know what was happening outside of the canyon until their outfitter met them on the banks of the river at the end of the trip.
“The first thing he said is, ‘So have you guys gotten any word from the outside world?’ and it felt like, 'Oh, Jesus, what now?' It was just very surreal," Pace sad in a phone call.
"I wasn’t really following coronavirus that closely prior to leaving and hardly expected it to unfold into the global health crisis that it has.”
Pace said that they joked about coming back to a different world, but that the changes that have taken place were slow to come to their understanding as she and others started to comb through a months worth of news.
“I think all of us immediately started thinking, well, how bad is this? We still were not in a service area yet — this was way off the grid — so this was going to take until we got to Flagstaff [Arizona] that we could really see what was up,” Pace said. “I think we immediately started thinking about older friends and family, are they still healthy, and importantly in this politicized day and age, are they even taking this seriously?”
Pace said that the surreal experience shared by many during the ongoing pandemic was especially surreal as she adjusted to the culture shock of a month of camaraderie and consequence to a different set of consequences and overall living conditions.
“A river trip, especially one that is this long, challenging, dangerous and physical as this one, it requires total dependency on each other to make sure that it’s a successful one. It’s kind of a level of connectivity and taking care of each other that’s not really present in day-to-day life,” Pace said. “And to come from a month of that to a world where people are hoarding and isolating, it’s depressing to say the least.”
Pace, a Tennessee native, said that the she has been self-isolating and working from home with her “quarantine-mate,” as the state of Colorado works to combat the outbreak.
“I’m happy that friends and family of mine are currently healthy and taking the measures that they need to be taking,” Pace said.
“I am concerned that state leaders in Tennessee where I have a lot of friends and family aren’t taking this as seriously as they should and the measures they are taking are a bit late to say the least. I think like all of us we don’t know where this is going or when this is going to end.”
Pace said that in her opinion her local officials were working hard to combat the public health crisis, taking necessary measures and a serious approach to the pandemic.
“Everyday is a fresh hell for the leaders who are doing everything they can for their communities,” Pace said.
On March 24, the National Parks Service suspended all Grand Canyon river rafting trips until May 21, making the experience even more meaningful for Pace and her fellow rafters.
“We were one of the last trips to get through so I feel pretty lucky for the experience,” Pace said.