“When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” Remember that? “When Harry met Sally.” It makes a lot of sense.
Lisa and I were becoming inseparable, bouncing backwards and forwards between Brittany and California, taking care of our various responsibilities on each side of the Atlantic, when the pandemic arrived. It started gently, almost imperceptibly, and then March 12 happened.
That morning, we arrived at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport to fly to San Francisco. The night before, while we slept, Trump had announced that no-one from the European Union would be allowed into the US. People working at the airport did not know which way was up. Because we are American, we would have been allowed on our flight, but Air France warned us that it was their last flight out to San Francisco and that they would not be flying to or from the US again for a while.
“Not for a while,” I thought, “not until the dust settles.” Then I realized that we had no idea when that would be. Many were falling ill in Europe, some very ill, and the numbers of intensive care admissions and deaths in Italy and Spain were increasing at an alarming rate. There was hysteria at the airport, people leaving with glum expressions of their faces, others running around and besieging ticket offices in tears, looking for an earlier flight, a refund or some other ill-defined escape. You can’t escape from a pandemic.
I decided not to check in for the flight. My home was in Brittany, and if the world was going to go crazy, that was where I wanted to be. Lisa was trying to figure out whether she should check in, and in a flash I saw that she was part of the home that I couldn’t leave. “Maybe we should get married,” I suggested, surprising myself almost as much as Lisa.
The worried look on Lisa’s face vanished. “I guess I won’t check in then,” she said, with a broad beaming smile. We retired to the airport bar, ordered poached eggs on toast and champagne, and caught the next train back from the airport to Brittany. France went into lockdown about five days later. At some point I remember asking her, “you did say yes, right?”
There we stayed for almost five months, living our little lives in our little part of the French countryside, an idyllic quarantine, until Lisa’s visa ran out. We intended to marry when the pandemic eased, with any luck during the summer of 2021, but the expiring visa pushed that forward. She flew back to California on the day that the visa expired and started planning our wedding.
We were married on September 8 on a mountainside overlooking Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe. Weddings don’t come better than that! I’m not a fan of orchestrated weddings, with their deliberate lack of spontaneity, their excessive focus on keeping up with the Joneses. In our case, Lisa had about three weeks to put it all together, all in compliance with the various changing pandemic requirements. That made the whole thing spontaneous and fluid and the Joneses be damned! I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The pictures tell much of the story, but there’s more. Lisa ordered the wedding dress in the US, and it arrived in France a few days after she left! When I showed up with the dress a little before the wedding, it of course needed altering! Cue Dolly, her maid of honor, who pulled out a complete sewing kit and altered the dress during the afternoon of the ceremony!
At one point that afternoon, I visited the bride, Dolly and Dorene, Dolly’s best friend, in Dolly and Dorene’s hotel room where they had retired to do bridal stuff like drink champagne together. I was looking for advice on how to handle the white shirt that I had carefully ordered in France for the ceremony but which somehow did not make it into my suitcase. To make my interrupting them more palatable for the ladies, I brought along a fresh bottle of champagne (they had only had two so far). Of course, it was French champagne!
For some reason, the Lake Tahoe Diamond Resort features tiny entryways to pairs of rooms, with good solid doors on both the inner door (to the room) and the outer (to the hallway). Because they were near elevators, Dolly was one of the few guests who closed the hallway door as well as her room door. I tapped on the outside hallway door.
Of course, nothing happened. There was music inside, the ladies were busy and already a little happy, and I wasn’t expected just then. After tapping a few more times, as hard as I could with my knuckles by the last time, I tried to call Lisa. No cell service in that corridor!
I started using the champagne bottle to knock on the door, not angrily, but rhythmically, so that the ladies had at least the possibility of hearing. Inside the room, the loud sounds from the corridor outside quickly raised concerns. My champagne bottle sounded like gunfire!
Dorene had owned a daycare centre for many years, and recently her staff and infants had been required to do regular active shooter drills. And if that isn’t a telling comment on the state of US society at the moment, I don’t know what is! My pounding caused Dorene to promptly threw herself down on the floor. Dolly called hotel security to alert them to the gunfire, but not before yelling at a befuddled Lisa, “get down, get down!” All three were now cowering on the floor. Unaware of the drama unfolding in the room, my pounding continued.
Still getting no response, I kept knocking, same rhythm, a little more forcefully, mixing it up a bit, anything to attract their attention, and when nothing seemed to work finally texted Lisa on the off-chance that the text would get through even though the phone call did not. Inside the room, they thought that the gunfire was getting closer, and Dolly reported that fact from her place on the floor to hotel security.
“Open the fucking door!” Lisa read my text to her friends, pulled herself upright, and giggled.
They all reacted fast. Dolly told security that everything was fine and hung up the phone, and Dorene and Dolly picked themselves up off the floor, giggling uncontrollably.
Still outside, I could tell that something had changed and stopped knocking, but it took a couple of minutes for Lisa to pull herself together enough to open the outside door. I was welcomed with as much relief as joy, and sent out to buy a replacement white shirt (I should have known!) The new champagne bottle was quickly demolished!
The ceremony took place on a rocky overlook above Emerald Bay, as Lisa had arranged. Such a beautiful spot! The pandemic rules allowed us a total of ten guests, which were of course allocated equitably.
Denise and Gregg, two of Lisa’s eight guests, almost couldn’t make it because they had been evacuated from their home in the Santa Cruz mountains. Firestorms on top of the pandemic: we do have to work on our timing! The fires that prompted their evacuation burned parts of their property, including Gregg’s much appreciated tree house, but the house itself was saved, giving them a massive cleanup job, with no water for weeks. They made it to Tahoe anyway! Thank you so much, guys, for coming!
We had been talking about doing a road trip in the western US even before the pandemic reared its ugly head. Oddly enough, COVID-19 helped our honeymoon as much as hindered it. It too was not so much planned as thrown together at the last minute.
We were reserving desirable hotels much too late, as we figured out where we wanted to go next, but did not have any trouble with getting a room, at a very reasonable price at times. Not everyone was back in the saddle. Our room with a view over the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel on the Las Vegas strip was $75 per night, with free parking thrown in!
Our first visit after leaving Tahoe was to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. We elected to take two days for the 10-hour drive there, and spent the first night in Tonopah, Nevada. Leaving the town, the highway sign warned us that there was no gas for 165 miles. We had that covered. Then, about a hundred miles later, Waze had us make a turn, and the highway sign now said something like no gas for 140 miles.
On we drove, making a couple of more changes of direction, and then the old car’s gas gauge dropped alarmingly. We were not far from the famous Area 51, and Waze told us that we were 39 miles from the next junction. I doubted that we would find a gas station before then. We likely could not make it that far, according to the flashing gas gauge, and rather than risk running out of gas on a narrower and more winding stretch of road, I pulled over into a turnout on a straight. We were safely off the highway, with hours of daylight left, and I started trying in a very reserved and English way to flag down help. To be honest, I felt pretty silly doing it.
Lisa thought that I should be putting more effort into the waving, describing my friendly gestures as a “royal wave.” Couldn’t argue with that, but did point out that we were waiting for a pickup that looked like it might have a full gas can. Before this could develop into an actual squabble, a couple stopped for us in their small, old SUV. Nice people, trying to help, but unfortunately they had no gas can. In the middle of the Nevada desert, we had no cell service (which is why we hadn’t called AAA), and they had no cell service.
They offered to take one or both of us on into the next town with them, but neither we nor they had a gas can, and we didn’t fancy leaving the car for hours out there, or leaving Lisa alone for hours out there. Instead, we gave them all the information from my AAA card, and asked them to call in for us. Off they drove. We figured that we had at least two hours to wait, and then remembered that we had Tangueray in the trunk, and tonic, limes and ice in the cooler on the back seat!
Lisa poured us two delightful gin and tonics, which we started sipping casually leaning against the car and absorbing the desert scenery. The hills and prairies were all in burnt browns and yellows. When you’re in a bit of a hole, it’s best to simply trust the people who offer to help and wait. And when you have good gin, waiting gets easier.
We weren’t paying too much attention to the occasional car driving by, no more waving or anything like that, when another car pulled over unasked, this one a nice new SUV. Two young men politely asked us if we needed gas! They had seen us when they drove past earlier, taking a can of gas to another bad planner whom they had already refuelled. But because they had figured out our problem when they passed us earlier, they had held on to maybe a gallon and a half of the five gallons that they had. Which they promptly poured into our tank!
They refused payment, even for the gallon and a half, and then even had no interest in a gin and tonic. But when I offered them my favorite single malt scotch, Oban, always in a retro suitcase in the US, they jumped at the chance. Such a pleasure to run across young people with good taste! One final thing: they asked for a photo of Lisa with them and their scotches, to text to their dad in Las Vegas! She was happy to oblige!
Two days later, we drove into Bryce Canyon National Park and parked in a lot close to a major Bryce Canyon trailhead and walked up to an overlook. The view was spectacular, stunning, and we’d never seen it before. We walked toward the canyon, staring at it in awe as it slowly spread out in front of us. I ducked under a horizontal branch, still staring, and practically knocked myself on a smaller but sharp vertical branch that I had not seen. Down I went, ending up on my knees under the branches, feeling the blood trickling out of my scalp.
Not a great start to our planned eight plus mile hike! I pulled out my hanky, and pushed it down on the cut. There was a lot of blood initially, and I was thinking that maybe this hike was off, especially when I suggested that we look for first aid, just to check that I was okay to hike. In reply, Lisa pointed out the sign, not 20 yards from us: “First aid facilities limited due to Covid-19.”
We stood there, for once almost immobile, with Lisa trying to see how much damage had been done, and both of us trying to figure out which way to jump, forward or back, when a young passer by asked if she could help. And wouldn’t you know it: she was an ER nurse from Phoenix! Very businesslike, she examined my eyes and asked me questions to check for concussion, and pulled a first aid kit out of her hiking backpack. Of course she had Neosporin (a topical antiseptic popular in the US), which she lathered on the cut, by now barely bleeding. After a careful exam, she determined that I would not need stitches. Hike on!
Needless to say, it was a magnificent eight plus miles. To top off her earlier intervention, we ran into our ER nurse about half way along the trail, and she checked again that the cut was okay. Talk about lucky!
We first talked about a road trip last winter, before the pandemic hit. At the time there were some surprisingly good deals on motorhome rentals, and we thought that would be a great way to see the land. Of course, by the time we got to plan our honeymoon, the pandemic was in what felt like full swing, and RV rental prices had gone through the roof. Everyone had figured out the safest way to travel was in your own bubble.
We switched to Lisa’s old car, a 2009 Toyota Yaris now owned by her parents, who gladly loaned it to us for the trip. Thanks guys! The valet at the Ahwahnee looked down his nose at the car, which I of course was parking myself, and so I asked him when he had last seen a 2009 Yaris. He briefly scanned the Range Rovers, BMW SUVs and other luxury cars in his lot, looked back at me and guessed, “maybe 2009!” Aren’t snobs wonderful?
The pandemic did have an impact on the trip, of course, just as it had on the wedding. We bought a new cooler, and lots of food and drinks in supermarkets, to keep costs down but also because eat-in restaurants weren’t open everywhere and had different rules when they were open. We were delighted when a steakhouse right outside Grand Canyon National Park was not only open but also gave each table inside about sixteen square yards of space! We’re not normally the type of people who are averse to proximity, but we also enjoy life and have a strong preference for it to continue!
Private enterprise did a fabulous job on our trip at taking to heart the medical guidance on protecting customers. Ultimately that makes commercial sense, but a short-term perspective could have easily resulted in trying to squeeze in too many diners, for example. The large elevators at the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas were carefully marked to allow only four passengers, although we generally waited until we were alone.
One of my silly moments of excessive anxiety was during the night after a drunk guy hopped into my elevator there on the third floor, where the swimming pool was located (open with careful spacing), and started yelling about how the swimming pool bar showed as open online but was in fact closed, and wasn’t that a disgrace? No sir, you are the disgrace, with your mask below your nose! Fortunately, he and I were only in the same space for about 30 seconds, down to the ground floor.
Much more than is generally realized, the American west is a desert. Lake Tahoe itself is a haven for ski resorts, which does not sound very dry, but the lake itself drains east, not into the Pacific but into the Great Basin. The “Great Basin is a 209,162-square-mile . . . area that drains internally.” Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America, and . . . . trails only the five Great Lakes as the largest by volume in the United States.” Only one third of the water that leaves Lake Tahoe drains down the Truckee River, the only outlet, where it eventually evaporates from Pyramid Lake in Nevada. The other two thirds evaporates. That’s where the water goes in the Great Basin, one way or another: it evaporates.
Please forgive the geography lesson! But in a time of global warming, the entire Southwest is vulnerable, in particular to drought and fire. And of course this year’s wildfire season in California was the worst on record, with over 4,000,000 acres burned. That’s over 6,250 square miles, a rectangle of 300 miles long and over 20 wide! The fires too had their effects on us, as well as on Denise and Gregg, our wedding guests whose yard burned in the Santa Cruz mountains and who are still (two months later) waiting for fresh water and a replacement fridge.
Mostly, it was the smoke, which snaked and crawled around the western States for weeks. You may have noticed that the view in our wedding photos was clouded by smoke. The day before was clear, the day after was clearer, but the view on our day was limited. Yosemite closed for a week because of the smoke (no wildfires in the Park this year), which cancelled our first night at the Ahwahnee. So we stayed in a nice hotel outside the Park’s south gate which had just reopened. When we walked into the room, Lisa said that there had been a smoker staying there. But no, it was smoke from a fire further south which had not yet aired out.
The final effect of natural disasters on our little marriage was the logistic problems with the journey home. Lisa could only accompany me if she and I were married, and could prove it with a marriage certificate and an approved translation into French. That took weeks! And we could only fly back if we carried with us negative results from a Covid PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before the flight departure. That too took a while, because no-one respectable would guarantee results in that timeframe. Stanford Health guaranteed the results within 96 hours, but assured us verbally that we should have them in under 72. The results came back, negative thank you very much, in under 24 hours!
I feel almost guilty reviewing all this: we are so lucky!
How many people have weddings as happy as this, or honeymoons as rich as this?
Thanks to everyone involved, from our guests who came all the way to the ceremony overlooking Lake Tahoe, to the boys who saved some gas for us in the Nevada desert, to the ER nurse with a first aid kit in her backpack in Bryce Canyon, to the businesses which stayed open to serve us, often running at a loss, to the innumerable people who respected the simple rules that kept us healthy. May you all live long and prosper!