Plague Diary, Part 5: “Are You Ready?”

August & September 2020

The three of us—Patrick, me, and our friend Jake—piled into my car for an Ohio road trip. It was early August. I sat in the backseat, the guys in the front. Patrick drove while Jake and I took turns playing music.

“God, it just feels good to be going somewhere,” Jake said.

“Yeah, I just need like… any change of scene,” I agreed.

The scene changed to highway bordered on both sides by thick summer woods and gaping spreads of farmland. We were heading south, on our way to Cincinnati to stay with another friend for the weekend. But even the cornfields and silos, the open sky over the highway broken by the broad, dark silhouettes of soaring buzzards—the familiar sights of any long car ride in Ohio—felt refreshing. Jake put on “Thunder Road”. The scenery slid around and past us. Suddenly I felt the way road trip movies and music videos look—the open road, et cetera.

“I think I finally like Bruce Springsteen unironically,” I said.

Jake twisted around in his seat. Patrick made disgruntled eye contact with me through the rearview mirror.

“You didn’t before?” Patrick asked.

“Why?” Jake demanded.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just like… dad music, you know?”

“But dad music is good.”

“What’s wrong with dad music?”

I was clearly outnumbered. “Uh, nothing, I guess,” I said. “Like, that’s what I’m saying, I actually like it now. Now I’m actually feeling it.”

“Yeah, just let yourself enjoy it,” Patrick said.

Jake turned up the volume. “Man, I feel bad for you. You were missing out.”

We drove on. We were far from cities and sprawl now, cruising alongside semi-trucks and the occasional camper or horse trailer.

“Man,” Jake said, “I can’t wait until we see the Hell is Real sign.”

There is an infamous billboard somewhere in these Ohio cornfields along the highway, which reads in large, bold letters: HELL IS REAL.

“Hell is real,” we’d joke later, “and you’re driving right through it!”

But before we reached that one, I spotted other signs out the window: “Trump 2020” signs scaffolded tall at the border of farm properties and highway verge, often flanked by matching Trump flags. A billboard that read: Disillusioned? Jesus Offers Hope. A gleaming metal silo outfitted with a huge, metal cross that glinted sharply in the still-bright evening sun. On one semi-truck, a sticker: Boobies Make Me Smile. On another, written in the grime on the trailer by some anonymous finger: Mask of the BEAST.

We passed a long farm field with a series of small, homemade wooden billboards that read in succession:

            He Will Return

            To Earth One Day

            Are You Ready?

There was one more sign in the series, but vines had overtaken it. The wild grape leaves lifted and fell in the breeze of passing cars. Gentle apocalypse.

. . .

When I was in kindergarten, there was a school assembly in the gym. I remember it in fragments, images: folding tables set up around the room, piled with various school-supply items with the same shiny, oil-slick rainbow pattern. I picked up a pencil and rolled it between my fingers. I saw the writing on the side: MILLENNIUM: Are You Ready?

I remember wondering what a Millennium was, and then worrying a bit because obviously I was not ready. How would one get ready for a Millennium, whatever it was?

Now that I’m an adult, of course, I know about Y2K and the turn of the new millennium. I even know some relatives in both my and Patrick’s families who stored water and generators and other survival stuff. My parents didn’t prepare; apparently they were confident that they’d be okay one way or another.

It reminds me of the way some people hoarded toilet paper in the beginning of the pandemic. It also reminds me of the commercials I’d overhear at my friends’ house when I was a teenager. Their mom would always be listening to conservative talk radio, which advertised vacuum-sealed food that could last for a decade stored in your basement or, presumably, a bunker. There were also ads for gold bars, which supposedly would be the only useful currency following… Well, some kind of disastrous event.

Get off the grid. Become self-sufficient, except for these products. Bury your gold, your food, your guns, and—of course—yourself and your family in a secret bunker. Then you’ll be ready.

. . .

I have, admittedly, nursed some back-to-the-land fantasies during this pandemic. As I’ve mentioned before, I walk a lot in my local woods, and I garden as much as I can in my yard. So the idea of a lifestyle that requires me to constantly be doing something outside is very appealing. Besides that, a factor that so far had been one of my reasons for not moving out to BFE had now become my norm regardless: isolation.

And any time I consumed news, my mind lurched toward grim conclusions the way a hung-over churchgoer lurches into a pew. Pastoral daydreams morphed and swirled into a dystopian phantasmagoria. Maybe the stream of fucked-up 2020 events would never end.

I vented to my brother, Poncho, about it over Discord one day. In the way that only my brothers can, he commiserated with me while making me laugh. We talked in a mix of history memes, serious statements, medieval covers of modern music, and wistful ideas about moving to the woods and becoming cryptids.

He calls the apocalyptic thinking of this time “the end-times hype train.”

“All aboard!” we joked.

. . .

A week later, on the highway again; this time, Patrick and I were going camping in Michigan. We’d be staying on a farm, our tent a half-mile from our host’s house, surrounded by woods and fields of alfalfa and wildflowers.

I got my taste of woodland living that week—phone never fully charged and often far from a signal, coffee percolated over the fire and poured into tin cups, no shower for five days (we rinsed off with a hose once; when I finally took a real shower, it was practically a religious experience). We spent time in field and forest, bared our skin to wind and sun on the shore of Lake Michigan, napped in the hammock, followed a creekbed slick with pure clay mud, read in the shade. I wrote freely in a notebook and even added doodles of my favorite creatures, including a group of sandhill cranes that glided overhead, honking, to land in a field by our tent in the mornings and evenings. I stood in the alfalfa field and watched a hawk circle an overgrown orchard, which I also got lost in, and ate an apple off the ground like it was the garden of Eden.

. . .

I found a little plot of land in the garden of Eden / it was dirt and dirt is all the same,” sings Joanna Newsom in the song “’81”. I can’t help but sing it to myself as I stand in a bed of hip-deep in wildflowers just outside my door, gathering some of their seeds. Next year we are going to tear up more of the lawn, just as we have each year we’ve lived here, and I’ll spread these seeds over the ground. “I tilled it with my two hands and I called it my very own.” At the corners of the garden, I’ve planted mint, notoriously impossible to get rid of once it starts to spread. I’m hoping that if/when I do leave here one day—maybe to move to a farm, who knows—the mint will finish my work and overtake the grass. The wildflowers will re-seed themselves wherever there’s bare dirt and sun. Gentle apocalypse. Are you ready?

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