My wife and I are on vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The fall colors have been fantastic. We are staying at a cozy AirBNB and we brought along our bicycles. We are here for two weeks or so and in most ways it has been your typical vacation, arguing over where to eat, driving interminably from here to there, and disagreeing over what would be fun today.
But this year is different. For one thing I am not accustomed to having this much time off all at once. This was an inevitable result of the fact that it was impossible to get away from my work as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Alpena before now. Because everything was different at church, I felt I was needed to keep the congregation together in the face of all the separation and change that we had to go through in dealing with the virus from day to day. Thus, once we got into a routine I ended up taking a longer vacation than usual.
So, that is the first thing that is different about vacationing for me this year. But I knew that was going to happen as this time approached. Added to this, the experience since we have been on vacation has been a bit surreal. We came to the Upper Peninsula for two reasons. First, my son lives in Houghton and, second, there are a tremendous number of state and county parks in the region. My wife and I enjoy hiking and biking. What has been strange about our visit is that we have pretty much had the parks to ourselves. We have wide open spaces, waterfalls, historic sites, and endless trails surrounding us wherever we go, and mainly it has just been us two experiencing them.
This certainly has its advantages, and there is something about possessing this space, having it all to yourself, for even a short time, that is exhilarating and fulfilling. But that only goes so far. Sometimes you just want to share the majesty of God’s wonderous work in the world with some stranger, the look on whose face tells you that they are seeing the same site with the same appreciation that you have. There is something about the lack of human contact that subtracts from the experience. The solitude becomes so abundant that you don’t appreciate it. It’s like eating a piece of cake. Yes, it is good and tasty especially with a cup of coffee, but if you have the whole cake in front of you all the time, it can lose some of its charm.
There was only one time that we were part of crowd, and that was about a week ago, at Kitchitikipi Springs. But even there, because of the social distancing, there was a certain amount of isolation. I am accustomed to talking to random strangers, and there wasn’t any of that at the springs. People seemed to distance themselves from others not simply by shear physical space, but also in mental and emotional connection with those they did not know. Those in the largest groups seemed the happiest.
In restaurants the distancing was having the same effect on people. We always sat across the room from others. Not even a nod of recognition of the humanity of another person crossed the room. Rather, there was intense concentration on menus and plates.
Yes, it seems that the virus has invaded our vacation. It has made things awkward, enforcing new rules of etiquette. It makes life more difficult when we cannot read the expressions on the face of another, expressions forcibly hidden behind a mask. But there are positive signs out there. People seem to want to bust out from behind the restrictions. There are furtive gestures, perhaps even an occasional wave, or a kindly voice from a park ranger who directs you to the best features of the park.
I wonder, as I contemplate this time whether this social isolation, if it proves to be temporary, will be good for us, in that maybe it will help us to appreciate human company just a little bit more when we can again engage each other as human beings were meant to be engaged, face to face, arm in arm, enjoying together the joys of this existence.