Chris Bateman

Friday, April 10

I made a rare trip to the doctor’s office this week, but it wasn’t for me. 

In fact, over the past few days I’ve canceled appointments with my dentist and with my GP, figuring non-essential checkups can wait. But when it comes to my dog, I’m not going to mess around. 

A few hours after our Tuesday walk, I noticed Lil’s left eye was swollen shut, and made an appointment at Twain Harte Vet for the next day. 

The eye problem was not a total surprise:  My Australian shepherd-cross is off-lead for 90 percent of our walks here on Yankee Hill. This is her quality time. She goes ripping through thick brush in pursuit of real and imagined quarry, and probably puts in twice my mileage on our walks. 

Want to see wild turkeys take flight?  Or squirrels race desperately up pines? Take a walk with Lil. 

Only problem: She comes back carrying a lot of the forest on her. 

I didn’t know what to expect at the vet’s office. But what I found Wednesday was a totally reconfigured, Corona-proofed operation. The security at the Twain Harte Drive office would do the Korean demilitarized zone proud. 

The front door is locked and red signs warn customers not to enter. Instead you call the front desk from the parking lot. A receptionist then confirms your appointment and asks you to put your dog in the kennel. 

That kennel is a good-sized chain-link cage with one gate facing the parking lot and the other leading into the office. So I walk Lil into it, lock her up, then tell her everything will be just fine. She eyes me skeptically. 

Once I am safely inside my truck, an attendant takes Lil inside. Twenty minutes later, my phone rings. It’s Dr. Tanya Jackson, my vet and a neighbor of mine on nearby Big Hill Road. 

“I removed a cedar leaf from her eye,” she tells me, prescribing some antibiotic ointment I am to put on her eye three times a day. 

I thank her, and a few minutes later my phone rings again. I give the receptionist a credit card number, and my account is drawn duly down. Later, an attendant puts Lil back in the kennel, along with her medicine and a receipt. I pick her up, and we drive back to Yankee Hill. 

Full treatment, high security, no human contact. This is veterinary medicine, COVID-style, circa 2020. Clean, efficient and safe. But lacking that face-to-face, doctor-patient-owner warmth. 

“We miss our people, we miss them all,” agrees Dr. Jackson, a 27-year veterinarian who has been working in Twain Harte since 2016.  “It just isn’t the same.” 

It isn’t: I wasn’t there to comfort Lil during her exam. Although – depending on how clinical it was – I could have been far more edgy than my dog. And talking with your vet in person, of course, is better than doing so over the phone. 

Dr. Jackson confirms that more than a few pet owners look forward to in-person visits to Twain Harte Vet. Indeed, amid our Corona lockdown, such a visit can be a social highlight. 

One lady, for whom the above is likely true, actually dressed up before bringing her cat in for a recent appointment. And she was clearly disappointed she couldn’t enter the office. 

“Don’t worry,” Dr. Jackson told her. “I’ll come out and have a look at you.”  Fully masked and protected, she went out to the parking lot and did just that.  

On the flip side, I was just as happy nobody at the vet’s office came out to see me in my well-worn, perhaps slightly fragrant jeans-and-sweatshirt shut-in’s uniform. 

Another disadvantage for clients is that some of their pets required procedures can take a while. Significant others are advised to bring a good book along with them for upcoming visits. 

And perhaps an empty bladder. 

One dog owner, Dr. Jackson reports, ran out of more than patience while her pet was being treated. “I can’t wait any longer,” she told a receptionist from the parking lot. “I have to drive somewhere to pee.” 

She answered the call, then returned.  

But that is hardly the most challenging problem of this very trying era. 

I looked up from my book midway between my visit and saw a technician carrying a dog through an office side door. It looked dead. 

It was dead. 

When I went to the kennel moments later to retrieve Lil, I greeted a woman standing nearby. “I just lost my Aussie,” she told me, her voice breaking. 

“I’ve lost a few dogs over the years,” I told her. “It never gets easier.” 

But during this Corona lockdown, when our dogs and cats become so central to our lives and so essential to our ability to weather the crisis? 

Losing such a companion now? 

It just does not get harder than that. 

So our thanks should go out to Twain Harte Vet and to other veterinary offices in our area for taking care of our pets when they are most important to us. 

And to these same doctors and staff members, for offering comfort and sympathy when we lose them. 

Even in these tough times, these professionals understand. They know how to be close while keeping a distance. 

 

Saturday, April 11

 

I’ve ridden my bike in driving rain, searing heat, wilting humidity and bone-chilling cold. I’ve mounted up with sniffles, a sore throat, headaches and even a mild fever – all under the bogus notion that aerobic exercise cures all. 

For a while, I’d let nothing get in the way of my obsession, pedaling even at night and amid fearsome storms. 

Those days are long gone. I’ve gained some sanity in my old age. Plus, I am nowhere near as energetic. 

But this week I did go riding in a pandemic. Even at 74, there are firsts in my life. And a second first may have been pedaling through a “toxic slipstream.”  More on that later. 

This adventure came near Knights Ferry, and with all recommended Corona precautions taken (at least the ones I knew of at the time): Driving down in separate cars, I met riding companions Marv and Kelley just outside of town. We parked a good distance away from each other as we got ready to ride. 

Knights Ferry is about an hour’s drive from my fortress of solitude on Yankee Hill. 

But, thanks to a nasty and tenacious cold, it had been more than five weeks since I had last been on a bike. So I figured easing in on the gentler, low-foothill grades would be a good idea. 

The wild card with riding out of Knights Ferry (elevation 210) is the wind. There’s very little to hold it back on the ranch roads that spider out from the former Stanislaus County seat (yep, 1862-1871). 

And on Thursday, that spring breeze was ripping.  Kelley is our wind expert, always knowing the expected direction and speed of gusts and breezes we would face. 

But this time I forgot to ask him for precise velocity. As soon as we began riding south on Willms Road, however, I knew the answer: damned high. 

Today I called up the “Beaufort Wind Scale” on my laptop, and would rank Thursday’s south wind at somewhere between a “fresh breeze” (10-24 mph) and a “strong breeze” (25-31).  

I’d love to brag that we had ridden against a gale. (Gales begin at 32 mph and go up to 63). But this was not the case.

As it was, the headwind slowed us way down. It took us an hour and 20 minutes to reach the 15-mile turnaround point, and a brisk, wind-aided 53 minutes to return. 

Also, the wind’s incessant howl made it hard to hear each other – particularly as we were keeping a safe distance. 

When the winds are that high, I figured, infectious Corona droplets would simply blow behind us in an instant. Really, there’s no way COVID can spread in a wind tunnel. 

Well, I later found, maybe it can. 

A day after our Knights Ferry ride was in the books, an apparently  sadistic friend texted me news on a new Dutch study. It warns that hikers, joggers and cyclists best stay outside of each other’s “slipstreams” to avoid snagging the virus. 

Just when you think you’ve got this Corona thing figured out, another medical monkey wrench comes flying your way.  This one says that the accepted 6-to-10-foot social distancing norm just isn’t enough if you’re one the move. 

“When someone during a run or ride breathes, sneezes or coughs, those  particles stay behind in the air,” reads a study summary. “The person behind you in the so-called slipstream, goes through a cloud of droplets.”  

Wonderful. 

So here are the study’s recommendations for cyclists: 

Slow biking (no mph given, but probably about our speed on the “out” leg of our 30-mile, out-and-back course): Stay at least 10 meters behind the cyclist ahead of you. 

And when you add a 20-25 mph headwind, like the one we were fighting Thursday?  I can only imagine. Maybe stay 30 or 40 meters back?   

Fast biking (like ours with the wind at our backs on the return leg Thursday): Stay 20 meters back. 

OK, but then you have a vigorous tailwind blowing your droplets forward. So the lead rider must sprint to keep ahead of a fast-moving,  toxic, and invisible cloud in hot pursuit. 

Sounds like something out of a particularly bad sci-fi movie

And to think I felt so darn virtuous and self-satisfied after my first ride in more than a month. 

Now, informed of the latest threat, even the hint of a scratchy throat or dry cough might throw me into a panic. 

And that 14-day isolation period that proves you are Corona-free?  

I just might have to reset that clock to zero – for about the 14th time. 

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