Meg, Devon, Ciara, and Page

My friend Meg and I were sitting at Kitty Cohen’s, a popular patio bar in East Austin, in early March when she decided she should book a flight to visit me again in April. Meg was visiting from Portland, Oregon, and we were ending a long weekend in Austin with maybe a few too many drinks. By dinner, she had booked her tickets. They were cheap, and though at that point we were diligently washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, we didn’t consider that the coronavirus could keep her from coming back. But, of course, it did.

In the days after she flew home, our friend group, separated by distance in the decade-or-so since we met around college, weighed which of our travel plans to keep. Meg had a half marathon coming up in Los Angeles. Page, who lives in Durango, Colorado, was supposed to fly to Europe for her honeymoon. Whether to board those flights, amid the uncertainty of what was soon to be named a pandemic, still felt like a choice. Cities and states had not yet directed people to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The four of us are fortunate to be able to work from home when so many others can’t. We’re lucky to still have jobs as unemployment surges. But we’ve also wondered when, exactly, we might see each other again. Living in separate cities, we’ve deepened our friendships through travel. In some combination, we’ve visited Vietnam, the Oregon Coast, and Zion National Park. One of the last times we were all together was over the summer at Page’s wedding in Abiquiu, New Mexico.

“Well,” she texted the group on March 19. “Should we run to the desert and shelter in place?”

Meg, who was stockpiling supplies under her bed, quickly responded: “I have enough food for all of us to do that.”

“I just learned how to bake bread,” added Devon, who also lives in Portland.

We started texting more, about local bookstores that were struggling, what shows we’re watching, and if push came to shove whether we’d rather eat a grackle or a squirrel (“Googled and appears there’s very little meat [in a grackle],” Page wrote). Often our messages are banked by links to news stories and worries about what will come next.

But with Meg’s encouragement (“We can all explore even though we can’t travel,” sent March 20), our conversations started to move outside. She proposed we take and share photos from our daily walks to help each other explore new places.

She texted a photo of the Portland skyline and a blooming Magnolia tree.

“I’m starting a new thing on this thread that is photos from my outdoor time today,” she wrote. “Reciprocate?”

Page sent scenes from the mountains, and a video of her dog, Moki, tunneling through thick layers of snow with her snout.

“A small dog still enjoying winter,” she wrote.

Devon sent a pic of a dumpster with the words “Help Ralph” scrawled on the side.

She captioned it, “Someone please help Ralph.”

Our text thread took on the texture of our cities. Down jackets, animal bones, and to-go margaritas from Colorado; fleece, breweries, and hot-pink camellias in Oregon. We were taking time to talk about things that wouldn’t have merited a mention in the past. What was the backstory of that half-empty gallon of milk Meg saw on the sidewalk? Who is Ralph?

“This makes me more present,” Meg texted one day. “I’m looking for things you guys will like.”

From Austin, I sent the bright green canopies of live oaks, fire hydrants peeking out from thickets of prickly pear, and big, brooding skies before a storm.

I discovered new trails near my house and started to pay attention to the kinds of things that might, under other circumstances, escape my attention—the typography of a school sign, tiny fabric ghosts hanging from a porch’s rafters, a smile spray painted on a garbage can. I get an unreasonable amount of gratification when one of my friends “hearts” it.

Retracing the same routes day after day often feels monotonous and melancholy. But looking for tableaus to text to my friends helps me reframe my neighborhood, and Austin, the place that I am and will be for the foreseeable future. I’m buoyed by these photographic dispatches that remind me of my friends and physically being with them. For now, they’re just bait until I can again.

The March 2024 cover of Texas Highways Magazine

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