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‘Strap Yourself to a Tree with Roots…’

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August Vitzthum with his e-bike on Elm Street, Montpelier, VT.

Six Stories of Refuge and Reawakening in the Time of COVID

Something there is about a pandemic: It sharpens the focus, forcing people to consider which, of the many things that matter, matter most. It crystallizes our interconnectedness; human interaction is the very means of the virus’s spread, while compassion is the means of its containment when we embrace the common goal of protecting each other.

And on a more pedestrian level, a pandemic can bring the most ordinary, quotidian routines of our lives to a sudden standstill. That’ll get your attention.

That’s the circumstance Curtis Fox and his wife, Taylor, with their six-month-old son, Theo, found themselves in last April, when they were living and working in Boston. The trouble had started in mid-March, when their employers ordered them to begin working from home. Then Theo’s daycare closed. 

Curtis, who is 36, grew up in Waterbury, Vermont, and his parents are still there, so he and his family came north for a respite from the dreary ravages of COVID-19 upon their lives in the city. They stayed a few weeks, gladly accepting childcare help from Curtis’s mother while they worked online. When they returned to Boston they found a still and shuttered neighborhood.

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Curtis Fox at his home in Waterbury Center. Photo by John Lazenby.

“Everything was closing around us,” Curtis recalls. “Half the small businesses near us had closed by the end of April.” He, in fact, had lost his job with a Boston adventure-travel agency on April 1. “No one was traveling, you know?”

There were other signs of trouble.

“We started to seriously take a look at the information we had. Trump and his coronavirus taskforce were doing these daily briefings, and we started getting more and more aware that we couldn’t trust any of this information and no one had a handle on anything. Meanwhile, there were 100 people dying a day in Boston.”

The couple had discussed, noncommittally, the possibility of moving to Vermont when Theo reached school age. Now, they decided to rush the timetable. They took an apartment in Waterbury, found an open daycare in Stowe, and even had the audacity to look for — and in midsummer to purchase — a home, despite the fact that Curtis was on unemployment. Taylor’s remote position with an insurance company is secure until at least next summer, and after months of searching, Curtis signed a permanent-remote-work agreement with a Montana-based world-touring agency.

Their gamble had paid off. 

“It was an exercise in enacting some authority over our lives,” he says. “We’re not going to listen to talking heads on TV saying [the virus] will be gone by Easter, gone by summertime. We’re going to take control and make a decision on our own. We’re going to prioritize family, friends, and fresh air. We’re moving to Vermont.”

Birthday Story

Eliza Fitzhugh and her husband, Andres Gutierrez, were living in Brooklyn a year ago, and entertaining thoughts similar to the Foxes. They were gainfully employed, they had a baby on the way, and although they were comfortable in New York, they were considering moving to Vermont — Eliza’s home state — sometime in the future. It was largely because they were outdoors enthusiasts, Eliza explains. “You could do stuff outdoors in New York, but it took at least an hour to get to where you wanted to start your activity.” Eliza, 38, had grown up in Montpelier and valued the recreational opportunities Vermont provided. Although Andres — an architect and native of Colombia — was “a city guy,” she says, he was on board with the plan.

“My family is still here,” says Eliza, “and we wanted to reprioritize our lives around a community, nature, and our child.”

Their baby was scheduled to be born by cesarean section on April 9.

But in March the coronavirus set in, and life changed. “The anxiety was extreme,” Eliza says. “Everybody was avoiding everybody. You didn’t even know if you could take your dog for a walk. 

“Then we learned that Andres wouldn’t be allowed to come to the hospital for the birth. That was the last straw!”

And it triggered a quick, and wholesale, readjustment. On Sunday, March 22, they learned of the hospital’s policy change. On Monday they began calling doctors in Vermont to ask if the procedure could be performed here, with Andres present. On Tuesday, assured that it could be, they loaded up their car and drove north. They stayed at Eliza’s father’s house, in Northfield. (He was away.) Their son was born on April 8, and Andres was there to see it.

Andres Gutierrez and Eliza Fitzhugh with their son and dog. Courtesy photo. 

The question then became, what next? Andres received paternity leave, but afterward the economic stresses of the pandemic led to his job being terminated. Eliza, however, who holds a master’s degree in graphic design, and works in management consulting, could work remotely. New York was seeming less appealing; particularly troubling were reports they started hearing of peculiar effects the virus has on some children. 

By comparison, Vermont was doing well in response to COVID-19. So the couple scrapped plans to return to the city. Instead, they bought a house in South Burlington. Eliza’s mother helps with childcare.

“We keep pinching ourselves, that we were able to get a house, that we’re in the neighborhood we are, and that [Vermont] is so beautiful, so safe,” says Eliza.

Of course, the pandemic hasn’t run its course, and Vermont right now is less safe than it was when Eliza and her family gave up their Brooklyn apartment and made this state their home. Eliza also points to other issues.

“We’re glad to be here,” she says, “but we don’t know for sure how to make it work. Vermont is not known for its strong work possibilities, with good salaries.

“But Vermont can take advantage of this if we do things right. The future will be in trying to get Vermont on a path of more job opportunities, more young people moving here, and a more vibrant workforce.”

The Vermont Way

Exhibit A of that description could be August Vitzthum, a 23-year-old Montpelier native who has returned to his hometown and hopes to stay. His skillset (August holds a bachelor of science degree in computer science from St. Lawrence University) and his values (an intrinsic disposition for living in a progressive, mutually supportive community, with nature close by) seemingly work in his favor.

When the coronavirus set in, August was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after traveling in Europe and earning his degree. In June 2019, he had found a job with a company that creates virtual reality (VR) experiences for seniors, particularly those living in senior-residential facilities. The experiences are coordinated by a staff person, who brings the residents together in one room, where they each receive headsets equipped with the same program; they might play a game, or virtually tour a museum, and talk about it as it’s happening.

“The idea is to combat social isolation,” he explains.

In March 2020, isolation became a way of life for August as the virus swept the urban Northeast. He could work remotely, but he shared a small studio apartment with his girlfriend, who was also working from home.

“She needed to make calls on the phone, and I needed to concentrate,” he says. 

By late March he had decided to return to Montpelier and stay temporarily with his mother. In June he found an apartment on Elm Street, where he could work on his own schedule and without interruption.

The virus, and its impact on his work, were not the only reasons he came home.

“I’m not a huge fan of cities,” he admits. “I was feeling like I needed more outdoor space, more of nature. I love Hubbard Park. The stressors of the city, especially with the pandemic, made me realize I didn’t want to be there anymore.”

He and his brother are now looking for some land, “perhaps five to 20 acres,” which could serve as a quiet retreat, or maybe a home sometime in the future.

“I’m really proud of Vermont,” says August. “It brings me great joy to see this community come together and combat the pandemic in a way that seems productive. I really feel like the people around here share my values and are interested in my health. And I’m interested in theirs. I wish that were the case for everyone, everywhere.”

Sanctuary

In the rural town of Washington, in Orange County, Christiana Athena is also resolved to stay, and for similar reasons: peace, wellbeing, family, nature. But her path could be harder. Christiana is a Ph.D. candidate at Pennsylvania State University, studying a discipline — music education, with a particular slant toward ethno-musicology (the subject of her master’s thesis) — that could have limited application in Vermont. Yet she’s determined to find a role for herself somewhere in the region.

It was coming home last May (Penn State had shut down its campus after spring break) that made clear to Christiana how important Vermont, and her modest family homestead, were to her. Her family moved to Vermont when she was five years old (she’s now 38), and lived in Starksboro and Montpelier before finding the cabin — 900 square feet, with an open floor plan and a loft — on 10 acres of land in Washington some 24 years ago. It became home to Christiana and her mother. It was, and is, off-grid, like the other homes around it. “I grew up chopping wood,” she says.

Christiana Athena. Courtesy photo.

Over the years, as Christiana has traveled, worked, volunteered, and studied, her mother, who now lives elsewhere, frequently rented the place out. But it was available in May, and Christiana settled right in. Her retreat was even more poignant because she is convinced that she had the virus when she was in Pennsylvania. 

“It started in March and lasted a couple months,” she says. “I never got the shortness of breath, but it was really intense: chills, fever, coughing. And it kept coming back. I knew that as soon as I was feeling better I would come home.”

The cabin has been all she hoped it would be, offering a lifestyle of tranquility and sustainability in nature. She’s been composing music, working on her dissertation, and simultaneously writing a book. In August, she learned that she would not have to return to Penn State to resume her studies and teaching responsibilities, but would have the option of working remotely. Her mother had been planning to sell the property, but this changed everything. 

“We had to make a quick decision,” she recalls. First, they decided to keep the property, and then Christiana and her mother worked out a financing plan by which she is now in the process of buying the place. She recently installed solar panels to make her remote communication more feasible.

“I had the opportunity to move home, which I seized because I feel a lot safer here,” she says. “It was also a time that brought up what’s important to me. Right now, being near family is important. Being home is important.”

Identity Reimagined

However, not everyone who returns remains. Micaela Zahner, 35, came back to Vermont, at her parents’ urging, in March. She had been living in New York City since 2006.

“I was open to [coming back], but I also wanted to shelter in place in my own place in Brooklyn,” she says. “I decided to come home, thinking the latest I’ll stay will be June, because everything will definitely be over by then.” 

June became July, and July became August. She finally returned to Brooklyn in September. But her six months here were memorable. After quarantining as best she could within her parents’ home in Marshfield, she “got into a groove.”

“I had dinner with my parents more than 100 nights in a row,” she says. “We cooked stuff from the garden and from local farm shares. I set up a desk in my bedroom and had my Zoom meetings there. I did workouts on Zoom with my New York City gym. My dad and I went swimming at Number Ten Pond. There were beautiful sunsets.”

And there were animals. 

“Every few days we saw a bear. I was obsessed with the salamanders and frogs. There was a baby snake, and skunks and chipmunks. I kept having these magical encounters with a new animal.” She had grown up in the house, but living daily with such surprises as an adult was a new and inspiring experience for her. 

Micaela Zahner at Spruce Mountain in 2020. Courtesy photo.

Yet she loved New York, and knew she would return. She had moved there to study textile and surface design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, earning her bachelor’s degree in 2010. After working for corporations for several years, she started her own company, Micaela Zahner Design, in 2015. Since she worked mostly from her apartment, designing her creations on her laptop and communicating with clients and associates online, COVID’s restrictions altered little for her.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about her half-year hideaway in Vermont, Micaela says, was the rethinking it stirred about her identity. She eventually resolved the conundrum in a way that pleases her: she carries both Vermont and New York within her; neither excludes the other. “I can take with me any habits and routines to any location and be myself.”

There’s also something about the “quarantine lifestyle” — hunkering down, valuing relationships — that she finds refreshing.

“It feels like the part of life that’s a show is not happening,” she says, “and the part of life that’s just raw and intentional is what’s happening. Quarantine changes the tone of life.” 

For her, in a good way.

A Distant World

Ariel Singer, a 2002 graduate of Montpelier High School, has found a new locus for her passion, too. But it’s not New York City. It’s Egypt.

More specifically, it’s Luxor, a city on the Nile River some 300 miles south of Cairo. Ariel is an Egyptologist, holding a master’s degree from the American University in Cairo and working toward a doctorate at the University of Chicago. Luxor, in ancient times, was Thebes, and is the site of a temple complex honoring Ramesses III, whose legendary 31-year reign began in approximately 1190 BCE. 

Ariel Singer in Egypt. Photo by Dominique Navarro.

Ariel has returned to Luxor for the “winter field session,” from October to April, each year recently to work for the University’s Epigraphic Survey. Her team studies, photographs, and creates facsimile drawings of temple and tomb inscriptions, partly for conservation, as these ancient etchings continue to age, and partly for research.

She was actually in Egypt last March when the coronavirus struck.

“I got back to the states” — meaning Chicago — “and was hoping this was not going to be such a long-term thing,” she says. But with the future uncertain she moved her possessions back to Vermont, rented a storage unit, and settled in with her father, Mason Singer (a member of The Bridge’s board) in Calais.

“Essentially, I came back to see what was going to happen,” she says. “I’m still waiting to see.” As are we all.

Ariel’s intentions, though, are to return to Egypt in January.

“Egypt is doing relatively well,” she says, in terms of COVID-19. “And I’m going to do the same thing there as I do here, spending all day on my computer doing my dissertation.” 

She’ll stay in Cairo, because the field work in Luxor has been suspended during the pandemic.

“The upside of being in Cairo,” she continues, “is having friends there that I can have a pod with” — a circle of fellow Egyptologists who commit to safe practices so they can socialize with less worry about contracting the virus. 

But despite her longing for exotic Egypt, Ariel’s interlude in Vermont has had its blessings. (She would have been in Chicago!) 

“Having outdoor space without a lot of people around makes a huge difference. And people really seem to be taking this situation seriously, which helps take the stress out of things when you realize you’re living through a global pandemic.

“If I can’t be in Egypt through all of this,” she summarizes, “this is where I’d like to be. I hadn’t seen a Vermont autumn for a long time.”