I talked with friends who live on a ranch near Westcliffe, that little town at the foot of the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains, a range extending from Salida in Colorado down to Santa Fe. The Spanish Franciscan friars in New Mexico, well-versed in the stigmata, the wounds of Christ inflicted on St. Francis, named them Blood of Christ. Bloody or not, the Sangres are a geologically young mountain range, not old enough to have weathered down to gentler slopes. They are jagged fourteeners whose peaks like so many snow-covered saw teeth evoke the Spanish description, “sierra,” which means “saw.”
Westcliffe, the adjacent town of Silver Cliff, and the ranches that dot the Wet Mountain Valley in Custer County are isolated places with definitely a Western pioneer feel about them. With COVID-19 they have taken on an even greater isolation.
There is no hospital in Custer County and minimal out-patient care. While there is a Custer County Public Health Agency, everything of a serious medical nature has to go to Cañon City or Pueblo.
I am a frequent visitor to this beautiful area, which remains relatively unknown in comparison to other mountain destinations. Looking for a getaway now that we are on lockdown in Colorado Springs, my inclination is to flee the city with its deadly risks to this old guy’s health. I think that I will run and hide in Custer County.
I will run away from home, even if my particular “bête noir,” the infamous downtown parking meters, which have faced condemnation in numerous indignant letters-to-the editor since the fees increased in January, are on lockdown. No more plugging the meters, at least until April 30. Maybe the city will see the light and give us a permanent reprieve. It would be good for downtown.
Right now my hangouts are in dire straits, curbside service notwithstanding. Downtown is a ghost town, the streets deserted, my favorite restaurants and watering holes, refuges from the hurly-burly of the world, abandoned. So, run away to the pure air in the refuge of Custer County? But the rumor, undoubtedly exaggerated, is that Custer County will soon blockade itself, prohibiting entry from the rest of our contaminated state. If it’s true, which I don’t think it is, can you blame them?
The idea of a bastion against a pandemic is not unheard of. Our beloved American writer, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a famous short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which he imagined a safe haven created by Prince Prospero, a ruler who surrounded himself inside a fortified castle with a thousand friends where they spent time in riotous revelry.
Prospero sought to forget the deadly disease ravishing his domain, the “Red Death,” and thought he could keep it at bay with his mighty walls and iron gates. But to no avail. Poe, whose wife and mother died of tuberculosis, might have been ignorant of the germ-theory of disease. But in “The Masque of the Red Death” he demonstrates that he had a clue about the cause of lethal illnesses. In Poe’s Gothic tale, the mysterious Red Death which appears as a wraith marked with all the terrible signs of the disease during an extravagant masquerade ball in Prospero’s castle, cannot be stopped by walls of stone. Prospero and all his courtiers die in the midst of their celebration.
Similarly, COVID-19, the invisible enemy, has leaped the oceans and struck with bewildering speed and fury. It’s safe to say that most of us thought we were immune to the sickness on the scale seen in China and Italy. Three or four weeks ago who could have foreseen the devastating consequences to this country?
Running from the coronavirus is not the answer. Where would you run? Even our beautiful Colorado mountains are no refuge. As in Poe’s fantasy, there is no safe place to hide. We can take precautions — stay home, shelter in place, maintain social distance, take special care of our elders. It’s a good bet that doing this will “flatten the curve,” as they say. But nothing is guaranteed in this world of tough lessons in which we live. That’s what this pandemic is, a tough lesson. I hope that we can learn from it.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He teaches Military History, American literature and Southwest History.