SALT LAKE CITY — Just above the University of Utah in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, Monica coos Bo out of the back seat, his harness attached to a chain-link leash. I kneel in my tan, zookeeper-looking getup and press two fingers against the dull asphalt; it’s only 82 degrees, but this is Bo’s first hike, and I don’t want his feet to burn before we reach the trailhead.
Today we’re hiking to the Living Room, 2.3 miles out and back to a vista over the entire Salt Lake Valley. It’s a little more than the vet advised, but he’s a working dog, a border collie with little brown eyebrows and a speck of white on the back of his otherwise-black head, so we figure he can handle it. And as the pandemic persists, we need the break.
Bo’s ears were still floppy and his snout short and plump when we brought him home in April, two days before I started writing this series with the story of a Utah nurse who went to New York to fight COVID-19. Now I’m 45 stories deep, closing in on the goal of 50. And Bo, his ears now perky and his nose longer and more slender, has involved himself in each one.
During my interview with Minneapolis protester Angelo Pinto, I covertly walked away to stop Bo from making an obnoxious springy noise by batting at the door stopper. I had to pause my conversation with Bishop Chris Stokes to let Bo outside to pee. He lunged at my breakfast while I chatted with Larry the Cable Guy. On and on and on, through stories about collapsing businesses or a writer grappling with his young friend’s death or a wedding gone wrong then right, there was Bo, sometimes annoying, usually unwelcome, always playful, always alive.
Now, as we make our way up the narrow, stream-scarred path, over patches of dusty, jagged rock and still, beige dirt, Bo slows down, his tongue hanging, his tail still. We lean against the steep side of the trail while I pull out some water. Bo claws at that edge, searching for shade, but slides back down.
Between my work and Monica’s Twitter doomscrolling — and the health hazards, civil unrest, political discord and general chaos that define our current existence — it’s hard to feel alive like Bo, rolling in the dirt, sniffing wildflowers, anticipating dinnertime, embracing new faces, cherishing familiar ones, napping, nipping, digging and howling. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve felt more like Bo looks in this moment: Sluggish. Tired. Defeated.
A few minutes of rest, though, and he’s ready. So up we go, past a melange of weekend adventurers, all looking for the same thing we are. Two water breaks later, we reach a hillside scattered with sandstone slabs-turned-furniture and park ourselves on the edge of the mountain. Bo nestles between us to avoid the sun. For a moment, as we gaze out at the valley, the real world, its problems, its grief and uncertainty feel far away, as we immerse ourselves in the present. Bo’s tuckered now, but I imagine this is how he feels all the time.
We wondered when we got him whether it was a foolish decision. We don’t have much money. We’re both impulsive, impatient and busy. But we wanted a source of joy to brighten the dark days ahead. If we couldn’t go out, we would at least enjoy staying in.
But the outside came to us. On social media, in the news, via the dozens of interviews I did for this series. We couldn’t insulate ourselves. And we didn’t want to. We didn’t want to ignore the suffering COVID has caused. We just wanted to preserve some sense of bliss. And even though he still pees on the carpet and bites me while I’m working and harasses his cat sister, Bo has provided that. Along with something I didn’t expect: Jealousy.
As we descend into the real world, our escape evaporates. Back home, I pull up Twitter. COVID-19 rates are rising. Protests rage on. Inequality deepens. And Bo plops down on the carpet, his legs pointed back like his tail, and falls asleep. Once more, I’d rather be him.