In the Butte, Montana archives, in 2015, I ran across an article about the 1918 influenza pandemic in Butte. The article stated that in three months’ time over 1000 Butte people died of the flu. The 1918 influenza was little known or talked about in 2015.

It seemed the tragic deaths of that flu had been all but forgotten. I decided, right then, to write a novel about it. After Copper Sky came out in 2017, I had several requests for a sequel. Beautiful Ghost, a fictional account of the 1918 flu in Butte, is that sequel.

It made sense. Copper Sky ended in the summer of 1917 and Beautiful Ghost started in the fall of 1918. When reports of the coronavirus came out of China, I was well into the writing of Beautiful Ghost. I knew we were in trouble. I told my friends and family to buy masks and stock up on food and be careful.

I did an illogical thing

When covid hit the US, I did an illogical thing and took a job as a Behavioral Health Consultant in Oregon. Loading up the husky, the lab-retriever, and the cat, I packed my 24-foot motorhome with masks and disposable gloves and drove through four shelter-in-place states to work at a community health center.

The trip from Montana to Oregon was eerie. The highways were empty, except for me and dozens of 18-wheelers. I thought I’d camp along the way, but all state and federal parks were closed. The big trucks understood the situation long before I did.

They grabbed up all rest area parking spots early in the day. I ended up camping between the big trucks at the truck stops. Although not ideal, they made good windbreaks. And I knew what to expect. The truckers, like me, were trying to get somewhere to provide a service.

I found a spot in an RV park in Bandon, Oregon that would allow my older motorhome and my animals. The manager welcomed me, told me to unhook the car anywhere, and directed me to my new home: a small, paved slab with a bit of grass for the picnic table.

Arriving at the Community Health Center

I arrived at the Community Health Center in North Bend the next day, tired, but clean and ready to work. The HR supervisor showed me to my shared office space. I’d be sitting at the computer station right next to my co-worker. Right next to my co-worker in a small office, not at all in line with distancing recommendations.

No one wore masks.

“This is not six feet,” I said.

“Yes, well, real estate is slim,” the HR Director said.

“I take a risk every time I drive,” my coworker said.

“You follow the rules when you drive. You wear a seat belt and stop at stop signs,” I said. “No one is following the rules here.”

I had read dozens of books about the 1918 influenza pandemic by then. I was more nervous than most. Doing what I could to distance myself, I found my way to the center’s smaller clinic and my own office.

The governor eventually required masks in healthcare settings. We set up screening huts at both clinics. A few positives slipped by and entered the clinics, but mostly, the clinics were safe.

I met face-to-face with patients, as a Behavioral Health Consultant, off and on, for most of two years. I finished that job and took a remote counseling job. With a sense of security, I drove back to Montana, thinking I had made it home safely.

Testing Positive

Montana is known for its wide-open spaces, with plenty of room for distancing. Parks and campgrounds had reopened, and I felt good about my health. I pulled the little motorhome to my brother’s driveway, ready to help take care of my sister-in-law. She had just had knee surgery.

It was late, so I said a quick hello and told them I’d see them in the morning. Back out in the motorhome, I settled in for the night. By morning, I had a fever. I called to say I couldn’t come inside. My brother put a covid test outside on the bench for me. I tested positive. He said to go to Urgent Care and get Paxlovid, which I did. For the next week, my brother put food out on the bench for me.

My husky passed away while we were in Oregon. Only the lab retriever and the cat returned with me. The lab retriever needed to be walked several times a day for bathroom breaks. He was fluffy and furry and any germs that were on me were sure to be on him, so putting him in the yard with the other dogs, where he could carry germs inside, was out of the question.

Paxlovid Rebound

It took five days before I tested negative. I felt weak but better. I wore a mask inside and prepared to help. However, covid was not done with me. The next morning, I felt like hell again.

My brother put another covid test out on the bench. I tested positive again. I had gotten the Paxlovid rebound. The second round messed with my vision. I was having trouble seeing. I was exhausted. It was all I could do to sit up long enough to meet with my remote clients.

I didn’t test negative again for a long time. The community health department and the doctor eventually convinced me that it was ok for me to be around others, and that I was no longer contagious. They said I could test positive for 30 days after having been sick. It took me two weeks to feel well enough to move around, which, other than walking the dog, I’d done very little of.

I think the dog also got covid. He slept a lot and didn’t want to walk. He threw up and got a nasty cough. He seemed to have the same vision problem I had. Rather than running around exploring the land when off leash, he stayed right next to me. My friend waved and yelled at him, and he couldn’t seem to locate her.

Going Backpacking

I’d been semi-athletic most of my adult life, but since covid, exercise exhausts me. About a month after my illness, I went backpacking. It was the hardest trip I’d ever done. Walking, let alone walking uphill with a 40-pound pack on my back, was hard.

Feeling weak and unstable, I fell. I didn’t just fall; I fell face-first into a sharp rock. Blood poured down my face. I’d cut my forehead open and foreheads bleed. Really bleed.

Luckily, my hiking partner was a nurse. She got my pack off me and wrapped a scarf around my head to stop the bleeding. When we got to camp, she cleaned the cut and put a butterfly bandaid on it. We watched for signs of a concussion.

We were in the beautiful Crazy Mountains and camped at the lower Twin Lakes. Under normal circumstances, my hiking partner would sleep in, and I’d get up early, make coffee, and enjoy the lake. After that fall, I didn’t want to get up.

I laid in bed and read. I took a selfie that morning, one of the few selfies I’ve ever taken, and I looked so sad in the photo. Covid plagued me. I wasn’t sick or contagious, but it still had me in its grip.

Getting My Energy Back

It took nine long months for me to get my energy and strength back. I’m still not back to where I was before covid. I’m wondering if I ever will be. And I’m lucky. Others have respiratory symptoms, heart weakness, neurological symptoms, and fatigue. It’s a strange illness that shows up everywhere in different ways.

I wasn’t fully vaccinated when I got ill. Was it that? I don’t know. Was it that two years later, after working safely in a community health center, I let my guard down? Probably. I’d been careful for a long time. But covid didn’t care about that. It cared that I’d left the door open a bit, and it rushed right in.

My dog has recovered. Although, it took him a while, too. He runs and jumps and chases things. He seems to tire more quickly than he used to. But, in fairness to us, we are both nearly a year older. Seven years older for him.

Do I ever want covid again? I do not. I want to regain my strength, hike up mountains with a pack, and feel strong. I want to go for a morning walk without thinking about who I’ll call to come and get me if I falter and can’t walk further.

It’s strange, feeling feeble. It must be how people feel near the end of their lives. I’m not there yet. But I have compassion for those who are.


I first published this story on Medium. You can read it and my other stories there at My Pandemic Story: Montana to Oregon and Back Again.

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