SALT LAKE CITY — Early last March, I was leaving an interview in Draper with Steve Neeleman, the founder of HealthEquity and a man who is passionate about, among a whole lot of things, Zion National Park. We’d spent an hour discussing a new electric shuttle bus system he felt would greatly improve the flow of traffic through the park.
What to do about too many visitors to Zion was what passed for a crisis on March 8, 2020.
I had my column topic for the coming Monday. Life was good.
As I drove away I reflected on the last thing Steve and I had talked about in passing: a virus from China that people were saying could be a problem.
How bad could it be? I thought, my finely-honed journalistic skepticism showing.
Uh, a lot worse.
By the time the Zion shuttle column came out the following Monday, the national park was already turning into a ghost town, and the state, too.
With rare exceptions, I would write about nothing else the rest of the year than the virus from China and the blindside it delivered to life as we knew it.
There isn’t anything I could ever say that’s good about the virus, so I hesitate to write this next part. But for a newspaper columnist, it was the gift that kept on giving. The virus, and the pandemic it engendered, provided an unending parade of fresh, compelling topics and stories.
In the year of social distancing, the virus kept introducing me to people I would have otherwise never met, never talked to, never been entertained and educated by, never taken inspiration from.
Like Chris Hope, the long-haul truck driver who moved over and let me inside the cab of his rig so he could tell me what it was like being part of the trucking cavalry that became sudden celebrities as they rushed toilet paper and hand sanitizer (and a whole lot else) to the nation’s supermarket shelves … and then sat down and played me some blues on the electric guitar he kept stored behind his seat.
Like the TV star Ty Burrell, who owns some bars in restaurants in Salt Lake City and Park City, who was happy to talk at length about the Tip Your Waiter program he and his wife Holly started when bars and restaurants – theirs included – had to shut down. Not only was it a generous and compassionate thing to do, but the stories he told me about him being a waiter when he was just starting out in New York and needed work between parts could have been its own standup act.
Like Kamaal Ahmad. Kamaal is a former Division 1 college football player, amateur boxer, football coach, educator, Muslim, proud Black man, and one of the most impressive peacemakers I’ve had the privilege of sitting down and eating a burger with. I met Kamaal in the wake of the George Floyd protests that spilled into the streets of Salt Lake City, after he emerged as a voice of reason that helped bridge a gap between the politicians, the police and the protesters. Someone give that man a peace prize.
Like Brandis Touhuni, the Magna woman who got her dog grooming business on Main Street up and running in three days after an earthquake and during a pandemic.
Like Jazz announcer Craig Bolerjack, who sat down with me and provided a play-by-play of what it was like to sit in an empty Vivint Arena and announce Jazz games being played 3,000 miles away in Florida. Boler could do play-by-play of leaf-blowing and make it interesting.
Like Logan Mitchell, the University of Utah professor who identified a literal silver lining as the pandemic drastically cut back traffic and cleaned up the air. The professor took advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime event (let’s hope) to conduct research and document scientifically what is possible if humankind cuts down on fossil fuels.
Like Jim Evans, executive director of America’s Freedom Festival in Provo, who, when all else had to be canceled, dipped into the organization’s rainy day fund to provide the mother of all 4th of July fireworks shows for the people of Utah County.
Like Heather Tanana, the University of Utah law professor and Navajo lawyer who marshaled help from the legal community and others to send aid to the beleaguered Navajo Nation.
Like Ron Gibson and Matt Hargreaves of the Utah Farm Bureau, who met me at Gibson’s farm west of Ogden and spelled out details of Farmers Feeding Utah, their ingenious program of raising funds from the public to purchase food grown by hard-hit farmers that would otherwise rot or go to waste and distribute it to the even harder-hit ranks of the unemployed and disenfranchised. If you’re scoring that at home, it’s a win-win-win.
Curse the pandemic all you want, it deserves it, but it did bring out the best in a lot of humans.
As 2020 turns the corner into 2021, with vaccine on the doorstep and hope on the horizon, hopefully we’ll soon get back to where we once were. Which means, for one thing, getting back to Steve Neeleman’s lobbying for the electric shuttle bus system at Zion National Park. As it turned out, it didn’t get all that much attention the first time we brought it up.