I was alone.
Alone, in a group of 13 strangers, running a river through the largest swath of roadless land in the lower 48, with no cell service.
And no news feed.
On the bus to the tiny airstrip, everyone was wearing masks and social distancing.
Bush planes dropped us at a remote post, and the masks disappeared.
The river carried us to a small beach for lunch, and the social distancing relaxed.
We stopped at a grassy bank for the evening, and the stories began.
Two sets of brothers. One pair younger Navy veterans, the other pair reconnecting somewhere past the halfway mark.
Two sets of plan-changed couples, on the Middle Fork instead of in the Middle East.
A group of old friends, bound together by years, here now to help both a patriarch and a doctor navigate their troubled waters.
The tangle of noise and fear unraveled as we cut through the Impassable Canyon, which proved quite passable, with turbulent rapids masterfully managed by our guides. The river was constantly changing as the water level dropped, but the journey had a leader who confidently and clearly communicated the plan for the day, and for the next.
And in the vacuum left by a vanished media assault, we became a family.
Before I pulled out my guitar on the last night, the doctor spoke to the group sitting around the fire. He broke down after a few sentences, the silence of his tears echoing what we were all feeling. He was honored to have become closer to all of us, but, most of all, grateful that he’d been able to see his friend, the patriarch, smile again.
By the next morning, the hesitant hello fist bumps had evolved into hugs goodbye.
And I was not alone.