Every five years or so I try to return to land’s end, the continent’s western edge, where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean – the final heave of the River of the West. I prefer to go during winter solstice, the long night of the soul in the Northern Hemisphere.
This year, the mouth of the Columbia serves up a metaphor for these awful times.
The best metaphor is the story of the existential crisis that bedeviled Lewis and Clark’s ragged crew, just after they got their first glimpse of the Pacific in November 1805. They were facing an endless and desperate winter in a place they knew nothing about.
But first, they took a vote on where to build their winter camp. In their crew, York, a slave, and Sacagawea, a Native American woman and former slave, were both given a voice on this occasion. The decision was made to cross the Columbia and hunker down near what is now Astoria, Oregon.
As a lesson in our coming catastrophe – a season that could be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation” as Robert Redfield, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said earlier this month – the winter of 1805 to 1806 is instructive.
The task of that mildewed crew was to stay alive and alert until the spring, when they planned to return. You can imagine the descent toward misery. The explorers recorded only a dozen days without rain.
As Clark wrote, “O! How disagreeable is our Situation dureing this dreadful weather.”
For his part, Meriwether Lewis appears to have suffered from bouts of severe depression throughout his life. Three years after completing the expedition he died at the age of 35, of gunshot wounds – what most historians agree was likely a suicide. “I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him,” Clark wrote after hearing the news.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the number of adults exhibiting symptoms of depression has tripled and alcohol consumption has risen. We are prisoners of our homes and our minds, Zoom-fatigued, desperate for social contact. As a nation, we are diminished and exhausted, and millions remain out of work.
The Corps of Discovery made it back without losing a person (one man died during the westward half of the expedition). They fared well once they emerged from their long winter.
We, on the other hand, face a brutal early spring. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that more than 500,000 Americans likely will have died from COVID-19 by the end of March.
Still, we look to the spring, as did they. We rely on our ingenuity, as did they. Even as we mourn the dead, we cheer the first people to get a shot in the arm. “I feel like healing is coming,” said Sandra Lindsay, the Long Island nurse who had the distinction of becoming the first to be vaccinated on our shores.
We cling to the coming spring because it’s far better than thinking about tomorrow’s dreary sameness. But before that, we need to be psychologically ready for three months of pure hell. How to get through it? Hibernation, taking a cue from our fellow warm-blooded mammals. Looking inward, discovering the nuance and overlooked dimensions of things long neglected.
And a sliver of advice from words attributed to Irish writer Edna O’Brien – that winter is the real spring.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.Timothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times.