The rolling hills of Appalachia are not your refuge from the coronavirus

Cindy tells me, the rich girls are weeping
Cindy tells me, they’ve given up sleeping alone
And now they’re so confused by their new freedoms
And she tells me they’re selling up their maisonettes
Left the Hotpoints to rust in the kitchenettes
And they’re saving their labour for insane reading

This is a story about a woman, a puppy, and a pandemic. It is not my story, but author Meghan Daum’s, who recently fled New York City to “quarantine in Appalachia” at a vacation rental and wrote a whole-ass essay about it. Where in Appalachia? Oh we don’t need to know specifics, only that it’s a location about ten hours away from Manhattan where the hills roll,  the cows moo, and the local hospital won’t be overtaxed by sickness according to noted rural healthcare expert and epidemiologist Meghan Daum.

In Daum’s version of her narrative, placeness is relative. What matters is that she won’t be in New York City, where an older neighbor bothers her to walk his dog, where elevator rides are fraught with danger, where the outdoor air seems infected, and where her new puppy can’t possibly thrive and so, by extension, neither can she. The idea of fleeing New York City for greener pastures “didn’t feel great, but it didn’t feel wrong,” she writes. Having hatched her escape plan with a neighbor she feels it necessary to assure us is only a platonic friend, Daum sets out to find “the kind of place you should be with a new puppy,” which I’d be willing to bet money turns out to be North Carolina, where some localities have appealed to tourists from places like New York, Seattle, and California to re-think their travel plans.

“I chose our destination after an evening of Airbnb research,” Daum explains, “deciding on a place in Appalachia because it was in the middle of nowhere yet within an hour of a hospital that wasn’t yet pegged to be overrun.” That hospitals that serve rural communities are always overrun, every day, all the time isn’t material to Daum or a factor in her decision to get the fuck out of dodge. I happened to read her essay the day I learned that the hospital in my partner’s hometown, Clifton Forge, Virginia, is closing its intensive care unit. This closure isn’t strictly COVID-19 related but rather a business decision made by hospital administrators who are tired of losing money to and wasting resources on low-income people with shitty insurance or no insurance at all. Send them to the hospital in the next county over, then the next county over, then the next county over until delivering a baby or treating an abscessed tooth requires just as much frantic travel as fleeing a major city during a pandemic.   

But Daum isn’t thinking about scenarios like that, or what the realities of community health in her nameless haven actually are. On the contrary, the part of her mind that is still anchored in her past life soothes itself by remembering “the potential hospital bed I freed up in New York City.” Oh. Oh. Do you see how this works? Let me explain. Instead of potentially intensifying the rationing of critical healthcare resources, Daum is in fact bringing cosmic balance to the act of living and dying. The person on a ventilator in New York City might not die as quickly or at all because Daum has selflessly removed herself from the equation. 

In exchange for this act and a willingness to eat groceries that come from Walmart, Daum has awarded herself endless days of dewy grass, puppy romps, clear night skies and unfenced freedom “while the rest of the world withers under the weight of existential horror.” The contours of this existential horror are left vague and unsaid, but elsewhere Daum highlights the angst of forcing herself to watch pundits on cable news, the “doomscroll” of Twitter, and inboxes stuffed with updates about projects that no longer matter. 

All that matters now is that Daum’s puppy can shit freely in the wilderness like god intended animals to do and their loving masters to admire. Is there guilt about leaving, or about potentially bringing illness with her? Perhaps, but after a reasonable attempt to self-isolate and now confident that she is healthy, it only stings like a papercut compared to the guilt of “having to eventually take the puppy away from all this grass.” Will the future Daum think fondly of Appalachia every time her dog drops a hot pile on a New York City street and she remembers the simplicity of those bagless days and grass-impaled shits? What an honor for us.


Cindy tell me, what will they do with their lives?
Living quietly like labourer’s wives
Perhaps they’ll reacquire those things they’ve all disposed of

Of course, Daum isn’t the only person fleeing heavily-impacted places for more remote settings. The Guardian recently ran an item about public backlash to Paris-based authors decamping to their second homes in the French countryside, where some had resorted to switching cars to avoid detection. Closer to home, American reality star Kristin Cavallari’s insistence that she and her entourage were trapped in paradise during a vacation to the Bahamas, prevented from returning home due to travel restrictions, was mercilessly debunked by TV writer Claire Downs on Twitter. 

Less tabloid-y stories about the dangers of travel to isolated and under-resourced communities are also plentiful. For Buzzfeed, writer Anne Helen Petersen provided an impressively-thorough account of how COVID-19 spread to rural communities near Idaho’s Sun Valley resorts, likely from people traveling in from places like Seattle. In the case of Sun Valley’s early outbreak, travel restrictions came too late and so the community’s fate became a cautionary tale.

During the early weeks of March I got my news about what America could become in the era of COVID-19 from an unusual source: a livestream generated by a camera placed on a tower in downtown Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Gatlinburg is a popular hub for Smoky Mountain vacationers, and I was desperate to see their numbers growing smaller. Online, I could perform keyword searches on social media and find out-of-state families and couples planning quarantine getaways, hoping to take advantage of low-priced vacation rentals and let the pandemic pass them by while they floated in over-sized hot tubs. I could also see locals pleading with their elected leaders to do something about this, scared for the public health implications but also furious to watch cars with out-of-state plates crammed full of panic-bought groceries heading back to the tourist districts. There was nothing I could do about any of this, of course, but I wanted to know what was happening because my family and many of my friends live in the largest nearby city with a hospital network. Alison Stein reported on this phenomenon at the end of March, with an emphasis on D.C. residents attempting to seek refuge across the border in West Virginia’s wilderness.

On Twitter, Daum made a partial defense of her essay and decision to seek shelter in “the rolling hills of Appalachia” by repeating her belief that she “freed up a ventilator in NYC” and “thought long and hard about this before I decided to leave.” Some writers revel in controversy, enjoying the buzz that comes from floating about the outrage. Not so Daum, who seems genuinely puzzled that anyone could be upset about what she did or wrote. Since that is unclear, let me explain.

You have made an unwise travel decision based on your need for self-care and a desire to give your pet a more comfortable place to shit. You did not travel because circumstances forced your hand, because you were made homeless or because a relative needed your assistance. In a moment where many people are struggling to afford one place to shelter, you are subsidizing the second home of someone who should also know better. You made critical judgments about the resource capacity of a community based on an evening’s worth of research driven by where available rental property could be most easily located. You are not a person with a history of advocacy for the region where you are sheltering or the people who live there. You did not even throw passing discouragement into your essay, to advise others to not attempt a similar scheme. On the contrary, you took pains to make your actions seem logical, healing, and benevolent, something that you might even recommend to others who are frazzled and inconvenienced by urban pandemic realities.  

Do I want to tell Meghan Daum to suck it up and go the fuck home? Yes, absolutely, but more urgently than that, I want to tell people who are thinking of writing essays about homesteading in vacation rentals during a global crisis to just keep it to themselves. And if that request is too unbearable, at least next time just let the dog write the essay.

“Cindy Tells Me” by Brian Eno, from Here Come the Warm Jets, 1973.