What are you howling for? Steamboat residents join a global movement in response to COVID-19 pandemic
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — For the past few nights, as the bright colors of the sunset begin to drain from the sky, a peculiar ritual has taken place in Steamboat Springs.
It begins with a few lone yelps just before 8 p.m. rattling an otherwise desolate twilight, with people cooped in their homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in the minutes following, a cacophony of howls bursts through neighborhoods and over rooftops. The cries come not from well-timed wolves but from people who have used the primal call as a source of liberation and community in a time of confinement and isolation.
The daily occurrence has its roots in a Facebook group called simply “Go Outside and Howl at 8pm.” A Denver couple, Brice Maiurro and Shelsea Ochoa, formed the group in the wake of the state’s stay-at-home order. They got the idea from past experiences, such as a trip Ochoa took to Brazil where many people cheer at sunset.
Within days, the Facebook page amassed thousands of members. It now boasts a following of more than a half-million people from across the world, from Mexico to Switzerland to Saudi Arabia.
Even Gov. Jared Polis has encouraged Coloradans to participate in the nightly ritual.
Reasons for howling
People howl for a variety of reasons. Some see it as one of the few ways to connect with others amid strict social distancing orders. Others use it to celebrate milestones in addiction recovery. Still others have howled to commemorate loved ones they have lost, due to COVID-19 or other causes.
Together, they form a rallying cry, a release of guttural freedom in an ever-confined world.
Steamboat resident Eva Vaitkus has been a member of the Facebook howling group since its infancy, back when it only had about 100 members. She said the daily ritual has become a good distraction to all the mayhem that has upended nearly every aspect of her life.
Howling also holds a special place in her memory, something she, her husband and 12-year-old daughter often do during camping trips.
“Howling at the moon has always been our weird camping tradition,” Vaitkus said.
A volunteer for Routt County Search and Rescue, Vaitkus has dedicated some nights to howling for first responders who put their lives at risk to help others. When she heard about the recent death of Sgt. Jeff Wilson of the Steamboat Spring Police Department, she howled for him and his family.
It also has been interesting for Vaitkus to be a part of the international Facebook group. She enjoys seeing where different people are from and hearing the stories — some funny, others deeply poignant — they share about their lives.
Particularly for people who may be facing this crisis alone in their homes, Vaitkus believes the online group provides a source of comforting intimacy.
“It helps them to know there are other people out there going through the same thing,” she said.
Social and psychological benefits
That communal aspect of the howling group is evidence of a biological need for human connection, according to Marchele McCarthy, a licensed psychotherapist in Steamboat. It helps to explain why FaceTiming with loved ones or reaching out to old friends from college and high school can be so cathartic, a way to stave off anxiety and loneliness.
It also explains why so many people on the Facebook group publicly share their reasons for howling, which sometimes become deeply personal recollections of past addictions, lost love and death.
“So much of how we heal and grieve and support each other is through community and connection,” McCarthy said.
Unity in the face of hardship helps people share the pain and sadness they feel, she added, which can lift some of the emotional burden.
“When we feel connected to each other, it doesn’t feel so personal,” McCarthy said.
The act of howling, such a rudimentary noise that predates any form of language, can have healing effects of its own, according to Cristen Malia, a psychotherapist with the Steamboat-based psychiatric center, Minds in Motion.
Basic forms of vocal expression, from chanting to singing to yelling, can offer a wide range of benefits, Malia said, who believes such sounds are a rejuvenating way to release pent-up energy.
Power of the human voice
From the depths of the public health crisis have emerged several unifying ceremonies centered on the human voice. Countries like Italy and Spain have made international headlines with stories of communities singing together from their balconies.
Steamboat has adopted similar ceremonies to shed some light on these dark times. An hour before the howling, at 7 p.m., many residents participate in neighborhood sing-alongs.
McCarthy, the local psychotherapist, and her family have been participating in the nightly singing outside their home in Old Town. Many songs carry themes of hope and unity, classics like “Lean on Me” and “I Will Survive.” Someone inevitably begins a line dance that the rest follow.
“I didn’t even know there were this many line dances out there,” McCarthy said.
While not part of her typical routine when the world isn’t in crisis, she has grown fond of the singing and how close it has brought her to her neighbors.
Not everyone is so enamored with the nightly ritual of howling. Some yowls are met with sharp demands for howlers to “Act your age!” or “Shut up!”
Malia acknowledged that for some people, howling could do more harm than good. People with hyper-vigilant nervous systems due to the pandemic could feel agitated or scared by the racket. Some pets, particularly dogs, have been spooked in a similar reaction to firework shows.
As Malia explained, there is no right or wrong way to feel about the current crisis, including the peculiar ways in which people are coping with it.
For Kim Keith, a prominent local artist, howling has long been a way to release pent-up emotions, as Malia suggested, and to honor her relationship with the moon. The fondness for the moon is something she traces to a very young age when she and her friends would climb trees just to get a little closer to the object of her cosmic fascination.
The director of Steamboat Creates, Keith used to do a photo series called “Moondancing,” which featured silhouettes of people in various poses against a full moon to depict scenes and emotions.
Now a member of the Facebook group of 8 p.m. howlers, Keith has a community with whom to share her personal ritual. Her reasons for howling constantly change, sometimes in the same night, depending on what emotions or memories she is howling about.
“Sometimes my howl turns into a scream and sobbing. Sometimes it turns into laughter and silliness,” Keith said.
No matter the reason, it serves as a daily reminder that no matter how far apart she may feel from friends and family, they are all living and howling under the same glowing moon.
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — wear a mask in indoor, public spaces in Routt County.