Steamboat rafters return to a different world after 3-week raft trip

Steamboat Springs resident Patrick Keogh and his girlfriend Michelle Johnson recently returned from an 18-day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. The world they returned to was not the same one they had left nearly three weeks earlier.
Patrick Keogh/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Steamboat Springs residents Patrick Keogh and Michelle Johnson concluded an 18-day rafting trip in the Grand Canyon, they emerged to discover an unfamiliar world. 

“That’s always a joke on the Grand Canyon. I did a trip in November 2018. There was some conflict in the world, talking about nuclear weapons across the world,” Keogh said. “You always joke, what if things are different? What if we come out, and there’s a nuclear war going on? This time it was actually true.”

The world wasn’t flattened or poisoned from nuclear warfare, but it still had a post-apocalyptic feel to it. As the couple traveled, they drove by lighted signs that said “Stay Safe,” “Stay Healthy” and “Wash Your Hands,” which Keogh said reminded him of zombie movies. The scene resembled a movie, like something out of “2012” or “The Day After Tomorrow.” 

Roads were empty, gas station bathrooms were closed, toilet paper shelves were bare and there were new words and phrases circulating on social media. Keogh and Johnson had to look up the terms “social distancing” and “flatten the curve.” 

Since their return to the real world on March 22, Keogh and Johnson have been bombarded with serious life changes. Only one had a job to return to, and so they now live in different states. 

For those keeping tabs on the situation surrounding coronavirus, things have been happening fast, but for Keogh and Johnson, it all happened in an instant. 

‘You don’t know what you’re coming back to’

The group of 15 rafters took off on nine separate boats March 5. At the time, there were 164 cases of the coronavirus in the United States, mostly in Washington and California. When the group came out of the canyon March 22, there were 33,404 cases. 

Steamboat Springs resident Michelle Johnson and her boyfriend Patrick Keogh recently spent 18 days on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. When they returned, the world looked very different due to the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Michelle Johnson/Courtes

During the trip, they had a few small indicators that the situation outside the canyon was getting worse. Via satellite phone and through a few travelers who had wifi hot spots, the group received text messages that some schools and universities were shutting down, but Keogh said that didn’t really set off any alarms for the group. 

About two days before the trip ended, a group member who left early and hiked out of the canyon texted the group saying they may have a problem with their original takeout plan since the Hualapai Indian Reservation was closed to visitors.

Professional River Outfitters, PRO, was supposed to pick them up at Diamond Creek Beach on the Hualapai Indian Reservation. After reaching the outfitter, the group was reassured PRO still had access to the beach, and the group could proceed as planned.

Like they did when they heard about the schools, the rafters brushed off the reservation closure. 

Upon arrival, the PRO workers were wearing gloves and explained to the group that coronavirus was spreading rapidly and anyone of them could be carriers without showing symptoms.

“They said, ‘We’ve been asked to not handle any of your gear, so you guys are going to have to load the truck yourself,’” Keogh recalled. “We kind of laughed. One guy said, ‘Very funny, get to work.’ Then they said, ‘No seriously, we can’t touch any of your stuff.’”

After a little more explanation from the outfitter, it finally started to hit the group just how serious things had gotten while they were gone.

“Basically, they said, ‘You don’t know what you’re coming back to,’” Johnson said.

Steamboat Springs resident Patrick Keogh and his girlfriend Michelle Johnson met on a Grand Canyon trip in November 2018. They recently returned from an 18-day rafting trip in the canyon and found a world that was not the same one they left.
Patrick Keogh/courtesy

The new normal

The group started learning about the new world right away. When they offered PRO leftover toilet paper, the workers suggested each rafter take home a roll or two since there was a shortage of toilet paper. 

“That’s always a concern, on the Grand Canyon, running out of toilet paper. We’re kind of prepared for something like that,” Keogh said. “That was a really weird coincidence.”

Once Johnson and Keogh got cell service, they learned they had been evicted from their rental and that Johnson no longer had a job. Quickly, they changed course. Rather than drive back to Steamboat together, Johnson and Keogh went the other direction, toward California.

Only bringing what she had packed for the rafting trip, Johnson settled back into her hometown with her parents in California. She doesn’t even have the comfort of staying in a familiar space, like her childhood bedroom, since her parents moved recently.

“Some of the reasons I would even want to come here is to see people besides my family,” she said. “I get to see my family all the time now. I don’t really get to see any of my friends that are here.”

Meanwhile, Keogh returned to Steamboat in Johnson’s van and to his job as executive sous chef at Mambo. Without an apartment, he lives in the van with his dog Taco, who spends his days with a rotating list of Keogh’s friends. Keogh said it was overwhelming to return to work, trying to catch up with everyone else who had over a week to get used to the to-go-only format that Mambo has adjusted to. 

“The chefs I work with had gotten used to it. They’d been doing it a week and a half before I got there,” he said. “I didn’t know how much prosciutto to cut, how much pasta to cook.”

Steamboat resident Patrick Keogh recently spent 18 days on a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon with his girlfriend Michelle Johnson. When they returned, the world looked very different due to the the rapid spread of COVID-19.
Michelle Johnson/Courtes

Solitude vs. isolation

Ironically, the beauty of the Grand Canyon lies in its isolation. 

There is no cell service, and for much of the day, a rafter’s world is confined to two canyon walls looming on either side and an endless stretch of water in front of them. 

“It feels pretty big,” Johnson said. “You’re exploring things not everyone gets to see. Side canyons, they just go on forever it seems. There’s a big space to see.”

Johnson and Keogh met on a Grand Canyon rafting trip in November 2018. Johnson was a newbie rafter, while Keogh had years of experience, but had never been in the Grand Canyon. 

The pair both said they enjoy being off grid and seeing a part of the world that few get to experience. 

“It’s magical down there. There’s a certain order to it,” Keogh said. “You get down, set up camp, you do your daily chores. You kind of become one with the canyon.”

While both take solace in the solitude and isolation of the Grand Canyon, it’s a different feeling being so isolated upon returning to the real world.

“I was very close to the other 14 people on the trip, obviously I spent 18 days with them in close proximity,” Keogh said. “We hugged every day, saw each other every day, cooked dinner every day. Coming back and not being able to be within 6 feet of another human being is really challenging.”

To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.

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