John Maley’s 28,000-acre ranch sits on the eastern edge of Steens Mountain Wilderness, a sprawling high desert in a remote corner of southeastern Oregon that’s thick in season with sagebrush, juniper and mountain mahogany.
Here, “social distancing” isn’t lifesaving advice during a pandemic. It’s a way of life.
“You don’t drive to town to get yourself a coffee,” said Mr. Maley, who lives on the ranch with his wife, Alexa, and sons Oscar and Eli. The closest house is 10 miles away and the nearest town of any size, Burns, is almost 100. They often don’t visit for three months at a stretch, so loading up two or three shopping carts during a single visit to the supermarket is the norm, not a sign of panic hoarding.
In coming to America, the coronavirus first settled in cities like Seattle and New York — far from the lonesome road in Harney County that connects to Mr. Maley’s cattle ranch.
Many rural areas in Oregon and across the country remain relatively untouched by the pandemic’s most insidious effects. But it’s spreading. At least one case has been reported in almost 60 percent of the country’s rural counties, threatening what tend to be poorer and more vulnerable areas.
Even where it remains scarce, though, awareness of its impact — outside of the satellite-delivered news reports — has crept in to daily life.
Mr. Maley’s 37-year-old son, J.D., lives in Southern California, and had a friend who died from the virus. “That was kind of an eye-opener here,” Mr. Maley said.
He understands that many people are “hopping mad” at restrictions on businesses and gatherings. “But absolutely nobody knows what it would have been like if we had done nothing,” he said. “I think it’s probably better the way things are going to lean heavily on the precaution side.”
Some 200 miles north of the Maley ranch, Greg Hennes runs a 12-room hotel in Joseph, near Eagle Cap Wilderness and Hells Canyon. He has already started to feel the economic pinch. Spring is a slow season, but he has had 35 cancellations so far.
“I’m going to apply for the relief money that’s coming available, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” Mr. Hennes, 40, said. He has deferred as many payments as possible — mortgage, credit cards — but a long shutdown would be disastrous. “Our season is three months long,” picking up in mid-June, he said, “and if we miss the season, then we’re kaput.”
In Joseph, most businesses, except the hardware store and takeout restaurants, are closed. “It does feel kind of like a ghost town,” he said.
In the meantime, he’s been spending his days taking hikes. “Unlike in a lot of places near urban areas, I’m not worried about the trailhead being overrun,” he said. “It’s very easy to keep six feet, if not three miles, between me and the next person.”
In Madras, five and a half hours’ drive southwest of the Jennings Hotel, Chris Casad and Cate Havstad Casad have practiced a solitary existence. “For several weeks, I won’t really go to town to see people, and that’s normal,” said Ms. Havstad Casad, 29. Over the last couple of years, she and her husband have scaled up their organic farming operation, expanding from selling directly to local consumers and at farmers’ markets to supplying restaurants.
Their biggest customer, Deschutes Brewery in Bend, closed two weeks ago and laid off more than 300 workers. The Casads, fortunately, have so far been shielded from the worst economic effects. They produced about 50 tons of Kennebec potatoes last year — perfect for french fries — and sold out of them in February, before the epidemic hit.
“We’re doubling down this year” on the amount they’re planting, Ms. Havstad Casad said. They’ve just begun to seed and plant squash, and won’t be harvesting Kennebecs until the fall.
“There’s no work stoppage for us,” said Mr. Casad, 32.
Still, there have been small shifts. Mr. Casad stands six feet away from the other customers at the feed store. Ms. Havstad Casad misses hosting barbecues and going out to listen to music. And they are thinking about redirecting some of their sales to local grocery stores and organic distributors in case restaurants are slow to recover.
They don’t know anyone personally who has been infected, but the threat still seems to have inched closer. “Are we all safe? I’d say as of this week, the tune has really changed,” Ms. Havstad Casad said, referring to the news that individuals without symptoms can be infectious. Her father, who lives in Northern California, is battling cancer and she wants to be able to see him, so she has been quarantining herself.
For Steve Dewey Coleman, 32, life hasn’t changed much. He lives alone in Canyon City, population 703, and spends most of his days at home, hand-stitching custom leather wallets, motorcycle bags and belts.
“I’m already pretty well-conditioned to spend a lot of time in isolation,” Mr. Coleman said.
The post office has rearranged its lobby and marked off distances with tape, he said, but otherwise, “if you hadn’t heard about the sweeping pandemic, you wouldn’t think these people knew about it.”
Mr. Coleman said he is mindful that when he goes to town, but he doesn’t necessarily trust all the alarming news reports he hears. “I’m dubious of what the mainstream media outlets are saying,” he said.
Forrest VanTuyl lives in Enterprise — part of a county with “7,000 people and 30,000 cows” — but had planned to spend most of the winter and spring touring with his wife, Margo Cilker, and their two bands. “The coronavirus was happening in China when we started the tour,” said Mr. VanTuyl, whose first stop had been the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev., the last week in January.
By the time they reached the San Francisco Bay Area, where Ms. Cilker’s parents also live, the pandemic’s foothold in the United States was clearer. “Things changed really fast in those three days,” he said, referring to the week of March 9. Some of the bigger festivals canceled, and there was talk of states closing borders. They decided they should get home as soon as possible.
Fortunately, they had already completed their two best-paying gigs.
Since they returned, they’ve been self-quarantining and working with their horses. As he wrote in one of his poems that also quotes Tennyson:
Work becomes a form of prayer,
and God is the country,
and I have been there.
“and therein grew great tracts of Wilderness,
wherein the beast was more & more
but man was less & less.”
Businesses in Enterprise, including the one bar in town, are closed, while the restaurants have switched to carryout service. “We feel a lot different from other people in the community,” he said, “because we saw the beginning of it in the Bay Area.”
Being in a hot spot in California, Mr. VanTuyl said, “felt like a really big risk, but once we got home, it’s kind of just like a normal world out there.”