Wednesday, May 20, 2020



The current COVID-19 pandemic is the first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. What is a coronavirus?

(Two earlier posts may be helpful for background. Past Pandemics is about earlier pandemics caused by influenza viruses and bacteria. Viruses and Bacteria is about the differences between viruses and bacteria.)

There are many, many different types of viruses. Coronaviruses and influenza viruses are two of these many types.

There are many different coronaviruses and many different influenza viruses. Both coronaviruses and influenza viruses are known to infect birds and mammals. Only a small percentage of viruses infect humans. Seven coronaviruses are known to infect humans.

Viruses consist of genetic material (DNA or RNA) surrounded by proteins. They come in many shapes. Coronaviruses are so named because they are roughly spherical with protruding proteins that resemble the solar corona. See the electron micrograph at the top of this post. (source) "Corona" is Latin (and Spanish and Italian) for crown.

Four human coronaviruses are known to cause the common cold. Several different types of viruses cause the common cold: rhinoviruses (30-80%), coronaviruses (about 15%), influenza viruses (10-15%), and other types. (source)

Viruses that cause the common cold are not a big public health concern. The common cold is contagious and annoying, but rarely fatal. Since the turn of the century, however, scientists have identified three new human coronaviruses that cause death in a significant number of cases. The diseases caused by these three new human coronaviruses have been named:
  • SARS
  • MERS
  • COVID-19
SARS and MERS did not rise to the level of pandemics, but what scientists learned from those earlier diseases may help us understand the current COVID-19 pandemic.

SARS (link)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2002 in China. No cases have been reported since 2004. Fewer than 1,000 deaths were reported, mostly in China and southeast Asia, none in the United States.

While SARS was not particularly contagious, it was lethal. The percentage of people diagnosed with the disease who died was 11% – an alarming number. (This is called the case fatality rate.)

The coronavirus that causes SARS is called SARS-CoV or SARS-CoV-1. See the image below:

SARS-CoV. Credit: F.A. Murphy and S. Whitfield, CDC

MERS (link)

Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Like SARS, fewer than 1,000 deaths have been reported, mostly in the Arabian Peninsula, none in the United States.

Fewer people were diagnosed with MERS than with SARS, but the case fatality rate was even more alarming – around 35%. This is a deadly disease.

The coronavirus that causes MERS is called MERS-CoV. See the image below:


COVID-19 (link)

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was first reported in China in 2019. It is not as lethal as SARS or MERS, but it is much more contagious. As I write this, nearly 5 million cases have been reported worldwide, and more than 324,000 deaths. (source) (We don't yet know the case fatality rate, however. By definition the case fatality rate cannot be computed until the pandemic is over.)

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is similar to the coronavirus that caused SARS, and is called SARS-CoV-2. See the image at the top of this post.

Aside: The image at the top of this post (source) is the same as the image in the post We are in a war (source) except that it is colored differently. Both images are colorized for artistic effect. The viral particles don't actually have the different colors shown. The coloring in this post shows the coronas more clearly. Both images were captured and colorized by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at their Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana, in February 2020.

The common cold, SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all infectious diseases caused by coronaviruses that attack the respiratory system. What makes SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 more deadly than the common cold is that the common cold generally attacks only the upper respiratory system (nose and throat), while SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 also attack the lower respiratory system (lungs). In some cases they also attack other organs.

SARS, MERS, and COVID-19 are all new in this century. And they are all thought to have this interesting aspect in common: that they all originated in bats, and were transmitted to humans either directly or through another species.

For MERS the intermediary species was the dromedary camel. (MERS is also known as camel flu.) SARS and COVID-19 are thought to have originated in horseshoe bats. The palm civet is considered a possible intermediary species for SARS, and the pangolin may have been an intermediary species for COVID-19. The diseases may also have passed directly from bats to humans.

Cute animal photos at the end of this post!

I'll stop here and leave you with a few references if you are interested in further research:

For information about the seven known human coronaviruses, see webpages by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) here and here.

For information about the three recent human coronavirus diseases, see the CDC's webpages for: SARS, MERS, COVID-19.

For a discussion about the role of bats, see this article in the Wall Street Journal on 4/09/2020: The Bats Behind the Pandemic. (Very interesting, but probably behind a paywall, sorry.)

For an excellent discussion about SARS, MERS, COVID-19, and coronaviruses in general, listen to this podcast at "This Podcast Will Kill You" posted 2/04/2020:

Episode 43 M-m-m-my Coronaviruses

Transcript here. See Podcast Recommendation on my other blog, The Switchel Philosopher, for background about "This Podcast Will Kill You." This episode was my initial introduction to coronaviruses. Recommended.

COVID-19 Statistics Update

There have been more than 324,000 deaths worldwide (source); approximately 90,000 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 54 deaths in Vermont (source). Comparable statistics for earlier dates: March 26, April 4, April 25.

Cute animal photos follow!

Dromedary camel (source):

Dromedary camel. Credit: Florian Prischl / CC BY-SA

Horseshoe bat (source):

Horseshoe bat. Credit: Aditya Joshi / CC BY-SA

Palm civet (source):

Palm civet. Credit: Praveenp / CC BY-SA

Pangolin (source):

Pangolin. Credit: Piekfrosch / CC BY-SA

Friday, May 15, 2020

Viruses and Bacteria

SARS-CoV-2 virus. Credit: Alissa Eckert, Dan Higgins

In Past Pandemics I noted that COVID-19 and influenza are caused by viruses, while the Black Death was caused by bacteria. What are the differences between viruses and bacteria? Let's review some basic biology.

Two types of large, complex molecules are found in both viruses and bacteria:
  • genetic material
  • proteins
Proteins are the building blocks of life, and there are many, many different proteins. Genetic material contains the code (the instructions) for making proteins – and for making more genetic material. DNA and RNA are two types of genetic material.

A bacterium is a wonderfully complex thing. It contains not only genetic material and proteins, but also: the molecular machinery for making more genetic material and proteins; the raw materials for making more genetic material and proteins; and other stuff that is outside the scope of this post.

The molecular machinery is itself made of proteins and genetic material, which as noted above are large, complex molecules. The raw materials are smaller, simpler molecules that can be assembled by the molecular machinery into more complex molecules.

A bacterium is a cell. Cells consist of cytoplasm enclosed in a membrane. The genetic material, the proteins, the raw materials, and the molecular machinery all float around in the cytoplasm.

A virus is less than a cell, and therefore smaller and simpler than a bacterium. A virus consists of genetic material surrounded by proteins. That's it. There is no molecular machinery for making more genetic material or proteins. There are no raw materials for making more genetic material or proteins. There is nothing floating around in cytoplasm because there is no cytoplasm.

The parts of a bacterium are dynamic. Things move around. The machinery works. A bacterium is abuzz with activity at the molecular level much of the time. In contrast, a viral particle by itself is static, inert.

A bacterium is sufficiently complex that it can reproduce itself through a process called cell division. A virus cannot reproduce itself. Viruses replicate by invading a cell and hijacking the molecular machinery and raw materials of that cell to create new viral particles. Viral diseases are caused by this invasion of host cells and the release of hordes of new viral particles that then invade more cells.

Are viruses alive? That depends on who you ask and their definition of life. Viruses are not as fully alive as bacteria because they cannot (on their own) manufacture proteins or genetic material, and they cannot self-reproduce.

Both viruses and bacteria come in many shapes and sizes, but viruses are generally much smaller than bacteria. The image at the top of this post is a computer-generated illustration of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. (source) (See The Spiky Blob Seen Around the World for an interesting New York Times article about this illustration.)

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is roughly spherical with a typical diameter of 100 nanometers. In comparison, E. coli is a common bacteria that is rod-shaped with a typical length of 2,000 nanometers and a typical diameter of 500 nanometers. See the scanning electron micrograph below (2 micrometers = 2,000 nanometers):

E. coli bacteria. Credit: NIAID

Not all bacteria are harmful. Many kinds of bacteria are beneficial. For example, a complex ecosystem of gut bacteria in humans (including some types of E. coli) is essential for processing food. On the other hand, all viruses are considered pathogens (disease-causing agents) although only a small percentage of viruses infect humans. Viruses can infect many living organisms, including bacteria. Viruses that infect bacteria are called bacteriophages or simply phages.

Our bodies have many natural defenses against the viruses and bacteria that are human pathogens. We get sick when those defenses fail. (We can also get sick if those defenses overreact, but that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) What does modern medicine have to offer when our natural defenses against pathogens fail?

Because bacteria are more complicated than viruses, there are more ways to attack them. There are many antibacterial drugs, called antibiotics. Penicillin is an antibiotic that kills bacterial cells by attacking the cell wall – a structure present in most bacteria cells, but not in animal cells.

Viruses are simpler than bacteria, and aren't as fully alive, so they are more difficult to "kill." It is not possible, for example, to inactivate a virus by attacking the cell wall, because there is no cell wall. A small number of antiviral drugs exist for a limited number of viruses, but none yet for SARS-CoV-2. Multiple groups of scientists are working on such drugs.

Some viral diseases (and some bacterial diseases) can be prevented (not cured) with vaccines. That subject is outside the scope of this post except to note that no vaccine currently exists for COVID-19. As with antiviral drugs, multiple groups of scientists are working to develop a vaccine.

The common cold is typical of human experience with viral diseases. Humans all over the world would dearly love to find a cure or vaccine for the common cold, which is caused by viruses. But no cures or successful vaccines have been developed. The best we can do is take medicines that alleviate some of the symptoms while the body slowly cures itself if it can.

There is much more to viruses and bacteria, of course. If you are interested in learning more, follow the links in the previous sentence to get started.

A few things to remember from this basic introduction:
  • A bacterium is a cell. A virus is less than a cell.
  • Viruses replicate by invading a host cell and hijacking its machinery to make more viral particles.
  • Antibiotics only work on bacteria. Antibiotics do not work on viruses.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Smugglers Notch - 2 days later

We walked on the road in Smugglers Notch today, same as two days ago – see Mother's Day in Smugglers Notch (our daughters joined us on that walk). The road is still closed. Compare the two photos below. They look very similar.

Two days ago

BUT – big surprise! – the road is clear all the way through!! Two days ago most of the road above the gate was snow-covered. Today the entire road is bare. The photo below was taken at the height of land today.

Compare the two photos below, looking down from the height of land toward Stowe. They look very different!

Two days ago

What happened?? Clearly all the snow did not melt, as there is still snow on the side of the road. In fact, the weather has not been particularly warm since Mother's Day. We actually had MORE snow last night – 1" of new snow at home and likely more in the Notch.

No, it wasn't Mother Nature that cleared the road. It was this VTrans critter, at least in part, currently resting in the parking lot near the height of land:

Perhaps VT-108 through Smugglers Notch will open soon! Last year the road opened on May 15, the year before on May 10. (link)

The waterfalls were even more beautiful, and active, today than on Mother's Day:

Update 5/14: The road opened today! See the Facebook post by VTrans here and WCAX article here.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Mother's Day in Smugglers Notch

Pre-coronavirus I entered a contest to guess when the road through Smugglers Notch would re-open this spring. That was during the local WinterFest celebration the weekend of January 25-26. Seems like a long time ago.

My entry was noon on May 10. At the time I did not realize that it was a Sunday (an unlikely day of the week for the Vermont Agency of Transportation to re-open the road) or that it was Mother's Day. In any event, how did I do?


The photo above was taken at noon today. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

The entire northeast was hit with a snowstorm the night before last. Some areas received several inches. (link) It is not unprecedented to have snowstorms here in May, but it is unusual. In recent decades, significant May snowstorms have occurred in 1977, 1996, and 2002. That might not be an exhaustive list.

We had 2" of snow on the ground at home (elevation 680') yesterday morning, but it was all gone by last night. The photo above was taken where VT-108 through Smugglers Notch is closed on the Cambridge side. At that elevation (1700') there was still snow in the woods today, but not on the road. We did not have to walk far up the road, however, before it was covered with snow. See photo below:

At the height of land on VT-108 (elevation 2175') there were three or four inches of snow on the road. We celebrated with hot chocolate flavored with Vermont Ice Maple Crème. A tasty beverage for honoring Mother's Day this year! (Ambient temperature 36°F.) And the mother among us said she liked a laughing man:

The photos below from the top of Smugglers Notch show the views looking down on the Stowe side (16% grade) and the Cambridge side (14% grade).

(It is ironic that the signs show a tractor-trailer. Tractor-trailers are prohibited from Smugglers Notch because the road is steep and there are narrow hairpin turns around and between boulders. See this news article from last May about tractor-trailers getting stuck every year: Stuck trucks botch Notch despite VTrans bans, fines and signs.)

The waterfall on the Cambridge side was beautiful. The photo below shows ice on the trees and rocks near the waterfall.

This video shows the waterfall:

It is interesting to compare this post to the photos and video in my post on April 24, 2017: Smugglers Notch.

So when will VT-108 through Smugglers Notch re-open? My new guess is the Friday before Memorial Day. That is 12 days away.

Update 5/14: The road opened today! See my follow-up post on 5/12 (Smugglers Notch - 2 days later) and the Update at the end of that post.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Past Pandemics

Credit: National Museum of Health and Medicine, public domain, source.

How does the current COVID-19 pandemic compare to past pandemics? Let's take a look.

The Black Death (14th century)

The Black Death was the worst pandemic in recorded history, resulting in 75-200 million deaths worldwide. Europe was particularly hard hit, losing 30-60% of its population. The pandemic peaked in Europe from 1347 to 1351. (Wikipedia) For this post I am using 100 million deaths and a world population of 400 million, for a death rate of 25%.

The disease of the Black Death pandemic was the plague. It is caused by a bacterium carried by fleas living on rats. Transmission is mainly by flea bites or handling infected animals, and secondarily through the air from the coughing of infected individuals.

Influenza Pandemic of 1918

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide (National Archives). Other estimates of the death toll range from 17 to 100 million people worldwide and 500,000 to 850,000 in the U.S. (Wikipedia). For this post I am using 50 million deaths worldwide and 675,000 in the U.S.

The pandemic occurred in waves. The first wave was in early 1918 and was relatively mild. The second, deadly, wave occurred in the fall of 1918 as World War I was ending. Lesser outbreaks continued into 1920.

While plague is caused by a bacterium, influenza (aka "the flu") is caused by a virus. There are many different influenza viruses. The 1918 flu pandemic was caused by the H1N1 influenza virus. Transmission of the flu is mainly through the air.

The photo above shows patients in an emergency hospital at Camp Funston, part of Fort Riley, Kansas, in the midst of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The photo is part of the Otis Historical Archives at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 is sometimes called the Spanish flu, but this is a misnomer as explained here.

Influenza Pandemics Since 1918

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists three smaller influenza pandemics since 1918 (source):
  • 1957 influenza pandemic, also called the Asian flu (H2N2 virus) – estimated deaths 1.1 million worldwide; 116,000 in the U.S.
  • 1968 influenza pandemic, also called the Hong Kong flu (H3N2 virus) – estimated deaths 1 million worldwide; 100,000 in the U.S.
  • 2009 influenza pandemic, also called swine flu (H1N1 virus, but a different strain from the 1918 flu pandemic) – estimated deaths 150,000-575,000 worldwide; 12,500 in the U.S. For this post I am using a figure of 400,000 deaths worldwide.
Comparison to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The current pandemic is caused by a coronavirus, which is a different group of viruses from influenza viruses. Like the flu, however, COVID-19 is spread primarily through the air.

As I write this, there have been approximately 200,000 deaths worldwide (source); approximately 50,000 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 44 deaths in Vermont (source). Comparable statistics for earlier dates: March 26 and April 4.

Here is a comparison of the worldwide deaths (click on any image to enlarge):

The pandemics of the last 65 years look insignificant compared to the Black Death and the 1918 flu pandemic. The disparity is even greater when considered as a percentage of world population, as shown in the following table:

[World population numbers from here (historical) and here (current). I did some rounding.]

Now let's look at just the pandemics of the last 65 years (i.e., excluding the Black Death and the 1918 flu pandemic) and include the U.S. numbers. The following graph shows total deaths, not as a percentage of population:

On a worldwide basis, total deaths to date from the current coronavirus pandemic are approximately half of the 2009 pandemic and do not yet approach the pandemics of 1957 and 1968. In the United States, however, COVID-19 deaths to date are four times the deaths from the 2009 flu and approximately half of the deaths from the 1957 and 1968 flus.

As we think about the future we should keep in mind that, like the influenza pandemic of 1918, there may be more than one wave of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

We are in a war

When I am stressed, I sometimes remind myself that at least I'm not in a war, that no one is shooting real bullets at me. I've never been in a real shooting war, but we are all in a war now. A war against a novel (new) coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. This is the enemy:

In unprecedented times such as these, we reach for analogies to help us understand the new reality around us. In this post I recommend two videos that offer analogies that I find helpful.

In the first video, the speaker says "this is a Dunkirk moment for our country." That's an analogy I can understand. While I have not watched the 2017 movie Dunkirk, I know the basic story of this pivotal moment in World War II.

(3/24/2020, 14 minutes, alternate link)

This video is an interview with Anthony Monaco, the president of Tufts University. Dr. Monaco, a geneticist, describes the transformation of parts of the Tufts University campus into a military-style hospital to fight the war against coronavirus. The Dunkirk analogy is in the answer to the question asked by the interviewer at 9:40.

[Local readers may be interested in how I learned about this video. I reached out to Jessica Daniels to see how she was doing during this pandemic. Jessica lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she is engaged in a quest to visit and blog about other Cambridges in the United States. She visited Cambridge, Vermont, last September. Click here for what she wrote about our town. It's interesting and insightful. Anyway, Jessica works at Tufts University and she told me about the video.]

The second video I recommend is about safely buying groceries and take-out food.

(3/24/2020, 14 minutes, alternate link)

This video is by Dr. Jeffrey VanWingen, an MD in Michigan. I've linked to this video before, but it's worth highlighting again. As I write this, it has been watched nearly 25 million times.

Dr. VanWingen offers another useful analogy: glitter. Think of the virus as glitter, except that it is invisible. It sticks to everything and it may be anywhere. Your job is to keep it out of your house, off your person, and especially out of your respiratory system.

Other differences between real glitter and the coronavirus:
  • Coronavirus is destroyed by soap. Wash your hands!
  • Coronavirus decays over time.
  • Coronavirus floats in the air and is stable in air for up to 3 hours (longer on surfaces). (link)
The last item is a problem, because infected people exhale the virus. (link) Person-to-person transmission through the air is thought to be the most common way the disease spreads. This is a BIG problem because an infected person may not show any symptoms. They may not know they are infected. That is why social distancing and six feet of separation are important.

Stay at home as much as possible. Hunker down. When you must go out in public, assume that everyone you meet is infected even if they are not showing symptoms, and assume that you are infected even if not showing symptoms.

Wear a cloth face mask in public. (Not an N95 mask. Those are scarce and need to be reserved for professionals.) A cloth face mask provides a small amount of protection for the wearer. More importantly it protects the people around us in case we are an asymptomatic carrier. (The State of Vermont recommends cloth face masks) (Making cloth face masks in Vermont)

It is hard to fight a war against something we can't see, but perhaps the analogies of Dunkirk and glitter will help us understand the new reality facing us.

War Casualties

As I write this, there have been more than 60,000 deaths worldwide (source); more than 5,000 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 17 deaths in Vermont (source). See this earlier post for comparable statistics as of March 26. Sadly the first COVID-19 death of a Cambridge resident has occurred (source).

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Slow the Spread

On Saturday, March 28, there was a postcard in our mailbox: "Slow the Spread, President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines for America." See above. I'm guessing that everyone in the country received this postcard.

I live in Vermont. This is Bernie Country, not Trump Country. Among my family and friends, the almost universal response to this postcard was to promptly send it to the recycling bin. But I'm a curious fellow, so I read it. My take? I thought it was well done.

I am now searching for new family and friends, but in the meantime let's take a closer look at the postcard. It was a joint effort of the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). So far so good. Furthermore, there is a website that I didn't know about: Take a look. It's a good resource. The website is well done, too.

If it were me, I would have put "Slow the Spread" in a larger font. That is the main message. My previous two blog posts support this message:
What jumps out on the front of the postcard is "President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines for America." That is off-putting to the half of the country that does not support President Trump. But for the other half of the country, what better way to get their attention?

I don't recall ever receiving a postcard like this from any previous president. That in itself is noteworthy and drives home the point that these are not normal times. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld (link), we go to war against the coronavirus with the president we have, not the president we might wish to have.

My main quibble with the postcard is about the date: March 16, 2020. That was a Monday, one business day after President Trump declared a national emergency on Friday the 13th. That was quick work, but the postcard did not arrive until March 28. What took so long?

Perhaps I am too critical. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont mailed similar guidelines to our house and they did not arrive until March 30.

Let's take a look at the back of the postcard (click on the image to enlarge):
There is a lot of good information here, presented clearly and succinctly. It is an appropriate amount of information for a postcard, and it hits the major points that people need to know to "Slow the Spread."

I especially like the first point:

Listen and follow the directions of your STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES.

With tongue-in-cheek, I pointed out to my family at the dinner table that I was a local authority (elected selectboard member), and that they needed to listen to and follow my directions. They ignored me. They are busy searching for a new husband/father.

Joking aside, I am pleased with both the substance and the tone of the point about state and local authorities. I am also pleased that it is the first point on the back of the postcard. It shows that the federal government recognizes the importance of state and local governments. An excessively authoritarian president would not be making this point at all, let alone as his or her first point. Whatever his faults, and they are many, we need not fear that President Trump is a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao.

The main burden of responding to the current pandemic lies with the governors, and there is a lot of good work being done across the country. Vermont Governor Phil Scott is widely praised for his actions (see his executive orders), as are the governors on either side of us – Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York and Governor Chris Sununu in New Hampshire.

We are all in this together. The virus knows no state boundaries or political parties.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Hunkering Down

"We are hunkering down."

That's how I ended my previous post: The Switchel Traveler: Not Traveling. What does that look like in our household?

First I should talk about what "we" means. Not even all our friends know that currently "we" means four people not two.

The Mrs. and I live in Vermont, in the only house we've ever owned, where we raised three children and sent them out into the world. We've been empty-nesters for years. But due to unexpected circumstances, two of our adult children are living with us at present.

One daughter has been living with us since early February. She transitioned from a job in Massachusetts to a job in Vermont, and she moved in with us while looking for a house to buy. She has a house under contract, with a closing scheduled for mid-April. Our other daughter transitioned from graduate school in Connecticut to a postdoc position at a university in Massachusetts. She started on March 16, but the university shut down on March 14. She reported to work on her first day remotely, from our house. Our son is a tech worker in Colorado, and he is doing OK working out of his apartment.

Our family is fortunate, and it is wonderful having our two daughters with us during this time. I should mention that our university daughter is a microbiologist. Everyone should have a microbiologist in the house during a pandemic! She helps us evaluate the news, and she helps us stay safe.

"Hunkering down" for us means staying at home, with frequent walks in our neighborhood. We seldom venture out in the car. Both daughters work for their respective employers, as best they can, over the internet from our house. It's not perfect, but we've been doing this for two weeks now, since before the governor's "Stay Home" executive order, and it's working OK.

The Mrs. and I are thankful to be retired. Our hearts go out to the people now doing the jobs that we used to do. They have many unprecedented challenges during this pandemic.

In retirement the Mrs. and I acquired new part-time jobs, and those jobs are not without their own trials. The Mrs. joined the board of directors at a local bank. While it is painful to watch the stress on customers, staff, and management, the positive attitudes and daily stories of individual commitment are heartwarming. My main goal in retirement was to blog more, but I also ran for and was elected to the selectboard in my town. That supposedly part-time position has been more demanding than I expected, especially now. We town officials are figuring out how to do our jobs using Zoom.

Yesterday the Mrs. and I made a rare trip in the car – to the grocery store. Some days ago we stopped making quick trips to the market for an item or two. Our last big grocery shopping trip was on March 18. Our daughters helped us plan grocery shopping to last for three weeks. The idea is to keep trips out of the house to a minimum, to zero for as long as possible.

Everyone needs to eat, but few of us have enough food in the house to last for more than a few days. How does one safely shop for groceries? This video is outstanding, and I recommend it to everyone. Our microbiologist daughter says the glitter analogy is an excellent way to think about the coronavirus. See the image above for some "glitter" and remember that soap dissolves this kind of "glitter." Wash your hands frequently, and keep your hands away from your face!

Are we overreacting? I don't think so. This pandemic is serious. In the last few days I have learned several things that hit close to home. The first death from COVID-19 in our town occurred this week. (I don't know the person, even though this is a small town.) A friend is sick from COVID-19 and is hospitalized and on a ventilator. Among our close group of friends, several have family members (in various states) who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms and are self-isolating at home.

To sum up, we are hunkering down here and we are grateful for our fortunate circumstances. I have plenty of ingredients for making switchel! Including spirits to add as needed.

[The image above is from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Original image, uploaded on February 13, 2020. Description at the link: "This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (yellow)—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells (blue/pink) cultured in the lab."]

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Switchel Traveler: Not Traveling

The COVID-19 pandemic is turning our world upside down.

The theme of this blog is adventures in the physical world; basically it's a travel blog. We are not traveling now. On Tuesday, March 24, Vermont Governor Phil Scott issued a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order, similar to many other states. Nothing like this pandemic has happened in our lifetimes. These are unprecedented times.

The source of this extraordinary situation is the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes the COVID-19 disease. Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 is so small that it cannot be seen even with the most powerful optical microscopes. Yet this tiny virus is very much a part of our physical world.

The image above, showing the virus, is from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The director of the NIAID is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is much in the news currently. Original image, uploaded on February 19, 2020. Description at the link: "This scanning electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2 (round gold objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19. The virus shown was isolated from a patient in the U.S."

The World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (link) That evening President Trump banned most travelers from Europe. On Friday, March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency.

Earlier in the year President Trump had banned most travelers from China, where the virus was first reported in late 2019. That announcement was made on January 31, effective February 2. (link) Also on January 31, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a mandatory quarantine order for Americans returning from Wuhan, China – the first such quarantine in more than 50 years. (link) At the time, no deaths from COVID-19 had been reported outside China.

COVID-19 deaths in Europe have now surpassed deaths in China. As I write this, there have been more than 22,000 deaths worldwide, a third in Italy alone (source); 994 deaths in the U.S. (source); and 9 deaths in Vermont (source).

There is no cure for COVID-19 (although most people recover, albeit sometimes with organ damage). There is no vaccine for COVID-19. The most important action to take is to limit contact between people in order to slow the spread of the disease. Hence the travel bans and the "Stay Home" executive order.

We are hunkering down.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Hiking in the Adirondacks

Last century we hiked a fair amount in New York, but this century most of our hikes to date have been in New England. Nancy and I returned to New York this week with two days of day hiking out of Keene. The town of Keene is home to many of the Adirondack High Peaks including Mount Marcy (5344'), the highest mountain in New York.

On Thursday, August 29, we hiked Table Top Mountain (4427') and Phelps Mountain (4161'). Both mountains are a short ways off the Van Hoevenberg Trail which is the most popular route to Mount Marcy. We parked at the High Peaks Information Center adjacent to Adirondak Loj (not far from Lake Placid).

The photo below shows a spider's web that we saw early in our hike.

Table Top Mountain is a so-called "trailless peak." There is no official or maintained trail from the Van Hoevenberg Trail to the summit of Table Top, but there is a well-used "herd path." We had no difficulty navigating, and we were on Table Top before noon. The photo below shows Mount Marcy from the summit of Table Top:

Phelps Mountain is a mile from the Van Hoevenberg Trail via the Phelps Trail. The photo below is from the summit of Phelps and shows Mount Marcy (the highest peak to the right) and Table Top (the rounded mountain in front of and to the left of Marcy) where we had been earlier in the day:

The photo at the top of this post was taken as we left the summit of Phelps. The mountain on the horizon in the center of that photo is Mount Colden.

Thursday's hike: 12.5 miles, elevation gain 3570'.

On Friday, August 30, we hiked Lower Wolf Jaw Mountain (4175') via the W. A. White Trail. This trail begins in the Adirondack Mountain Reserve owned by the private Ausable Club. We parked in the hiker parking lot at the intersection of NY-73 and Ausable Road in St. Huberts, a hamlet in the town of Keene.

It had rained earlier, but the rain stopped by the time we were on the trail. Like the day before, it was a pleasant day, mostly sunny, with temps in the 60s. The photo below is from the summit of Lower Wolf Jaw and shows Mount Marcy to the left and Algonquin Peak, the second highest mountain in New York, in the distance to the right:

Friday's hike: 10.2 miles, elevation gain 2825'.

Nancy has now hiked 21 of the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. Will she become an Adirondack 46er? Stay tuned. My 46er number is 3056W.

Trailhead parking can be a problem in the Adirondacks. See this article dated 8/26/19 in the Burlington Free Press about overuse in general, and this article dated 7/17/19 in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise about parking in particular. Nevertheless, we did not see overcrowding. We had no trouble parking. While we met numerous people on the Van Hoevenberg Trail, it was not overly busy, and we met few people on any other trail. The summits we visited had from zero to two other people on them while we were there. Hiking on a weekend would undoubtedly be different.

We stayed two nights at Dartbrook Lodge in Keene, and enjoyed two dinners at the Forty Six restaurant next door. We recommend both. The most overcrowding we saw during our trip to New York was at the restaurant. It was deservedly popular, and reservations were needed even on a weeknight unless you wanted to eat very early or very late.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Rokeby Museum

Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, was the home of the Robinson family from 1793 to 1961. Four generations of Robinsons lived at Rokeby, so named after the poem Rokeby by Sir Walter Scott.

The museum includes the main house, pictured above, various outbuildings, trails, and a visitor center constructed in 2012. Foundations are visible of three other major buildings that were once part of the complex: a sheep barn, a dairy barn, and a school called the Brick Academy.

Nancy and I visited Rokeby today. This museum is well worth a visit. I encourage you to include a house tour in your visit. Reservations for the house tour are recommended. Check the website for times.

Following are brief comments about a few of the Robinsons in each of the four generations.

First generation

Thomas Robinson (1761-1851) and Jemima Fish Robinson (1761-1846) were Quakers from Newport, Rhode Island. They moved their young family to what is now called Rokeby in 1793. In 1810 Thomas purchased some of the first Merino sheep that were imported from Spain, and eventually the farm had more than 1500 sheep. (Sheep in Vermont peaked in 1840 at 1.6 million. See The Spanish Sheep Craze That Forever Changed Vermont.)

Second generation

Rowland Thomas Robinson (1796-1879) was born at Rokeby. He married Rachel Gilpin (1799-1862). Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson were abolitionists who made Rokeby a stop on the Underground Railroad and sheltered dozens of fugitives from slavery.

Third generation

George Gilpin Robinson (1825-1894) and Rowland Evans Robinson (1833-1900) were sons of Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson. They transitioned the farm from sheep to dairy.

George never married. Rowland E. Robinson married Ann Stevens (1841-1920). He was an artist, but turned to writing when he began to experience problems with his vision. Although blind in his later years, he continued to write with Ann's help.

Fourth generation

Rowland Thomas Robinson (1882-1951) ("Rowlie") was the son of Rowland E. and Ann Robinson. He married Elizabeth Donoway (1882-1961). They continued the dairy farm operation, and also took in tourists when travel by automobile became popular in the 1920s. (One of the outbuildings is the Tourist Cabin.) Rowlie and Elizabeth had no children and when Elizabeth died in 1961, she left the site, buildings, and contents to be operated as a museum.

Other children, relatives, friends, and employees also lived at Rokeby at various times.

Elizabeth Robinson believed that the most important legacy of Rokeby, to be preserved as a museum, was the work of her father-in-law, Rowland Evans Robinson, probably the most popular Vermont author of his day. (For more information about Rowland E. Robinson see Wikipedia or this recent column by historian Mark Bushnell. Books by Rowland E. Robinson can be purchased in the gift shop at the visitor center.)

But today much of the interest in Rokeby concerns the second generation and the abolitionist work of Rowland T. and Rachel Robinson. The visitor center includes the permanent exhibit Free & Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont which features the stories of Simon and Jesse, two fugitives from slavery who were sheltered at Rokeby in the 1830s.

Rowland T. Robinson was a leader in the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society. In 1843 anti-slavery societies across the northern United States held 100 conventions "to examine the question of American Slavery." Below is the announcement for the convention in Ferrisburgh, organized by Rowland T. Robinson, which included Frederick Douglass as a speaker:

Rokeby was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1997. (Only 3% of the places in the National Register of Historic Places are designated as National Historic Landmarks.) Both nomination forms contain interesting information: the 1974 nomination form includes information about Rowland E. Robinson (the author in the third generation); the 1997 nomination form includes considerable information about Rowland T. Robinson (the abolitionist in the second generation).

The Robinsons apparently never threw anything away. The house is much the same as when they lived there, and its rooms are crammed with housewares, furniture, art work, books, and other "stuff." (The guided house tour is recommended.) New discoveries are still being made. In 2017 a small, wooden boat in rough shape but with the legible name of "Lucy" was discovered in one of the outbuildings. The 150 year old boat was restored and "Lucy" is now on display in the house. See Rokeby's tiny boat poses historic puzzle.

In addition to the site, buildings, and artifacts at the museum in Ferrisburgh, more than 15,000 Robinson family letters from Rokeby are kept in the Middlebury College Special Collections.

Sunday, August 11, 2019


Our backyard is becoming a veritable wildlife refuge. On Monday it was two bears, today it is two bucks! We often have deer in our backyard, but it is not common to see a buck, and this is the first time I have seen two bucks together.

Photo taken from inside our house at 7:04 AM today. They took off as soon as I opened a door.