Tips from someone with 50 years of social distancing experience

Billy Barr lives in Gothic, Colo., a silver mining town that was abandoned more than 100 years ago.
Billy Barr lives in Gothic, Colo., a silver mining town that was abandoned more than 100 years ago.
Courtesy of Billy Barr

"The snow's going sideways, it's swirling," said Billy Barr, from the abandoned silver mine he lives in at nearly 10,000 feet in altitude in the Rocky Mountains.

We're all social distancing these days, and it's unclear when exactly that will end. But Barr has been doing this for almost 50 years. He's the only full-time resident of Gothic, Colo.

"I'm the mayor and chief of police," he said. "I hold elections every year but I don't tell anybody when they are, so it works out really well."

Barr has tips on social distancing, but he's the first to say they may well be entirely useless.

"When I first got here, it was a relief for me to be on my own, but that's not necessarily what a healthy person does — isolate themself," he said. "I mean, I'm good at it and I do it because I like it, but what works for me it works for me. It quite conceivably wouldn't work for anybody else."

While Barr's been called a hermit, he doesn't consider himself one. He occasionally interacts with skiers who pass through, he talks to his sister on the phone, and he works for the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory nearby, which gets flooded with scientists in the summer.

But the man has been living alone in a cabin in the mountains for many years and in the winter months he can go many days without seeing a soul. So staying home during the COVID-19 outbreak?

"Yeah, I mean this is no change for me," he said. "I come into winter with almost all my food already in."

So, without further ado, here are five recommendations for the Billy Barr method of social distancing.

1) Keep track of something

Each day, Barr tracks the weather for a number of groups including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. He started measuring snow levels in the 1970s, mostly because he was bored.

"Everything depends on the weather," said Barr, who has skied through snow "going sideways" and "swirling" to talk on the phone from the laboratory. "It controlled what I did and so I would write it all down."

He'd also write down when he saw an animal.

"With the birds, especially the ones that arrive in the spring, it was exciting," he said. "It was like, 'Oh my goodness, it's sunrise and I can hear robins.'"

Turns out, monitoring things that were important to his daily life had real value. As The Atlantic has written and the documentary “The Snow Guardian” has shown, his records have informed dozens of studies on climate change.

In the era of COVID-19, he suggests tracking what you can — or can't — find at the grocery store. Or, better yet, participating in some citizen science, like a project called CoCoRaHS that tracks rainfall across the country.

"I would definitely recommend people doing that," he said. "You get a little rain gauge, put it outside and you're part of a network where there's thousands of other people doing the same thing as you, the same time of the day as you're doing it. It's very interesting."

2) Keep a routine

Barr starts early. He wakes up around 3:30 a.m. or 4 a.m., and stays in bed until about 5 a.m.

"Up until a week or two ago, I would listen to the news every morning so that I could start every day either totally depressed or furious. That's always a good way to start the day," he said. "Now with the whole COVID and with politics and stuff," he said he just can't anymore. So, he listens to old-time radio instead.

Then it's time to clear the snow off his solar panels and file weather reports to a bunch of different agencies. The rest of the day involves work and chores interspersed with skiing.

"I kind of follow a set time schedule," said Barr. "Sometimes I forget what day it is, but I know what time it is."

Most importantly, he said, is leaving a reward for the end of the day. He'll read, knit something, watch a movie, and then watch a game of cricket.

"It's pretty much the same day after day. Most of it I enjoy," he said.

Notably absent from his daily routine: keeping a personal journal. He said he used to, for about a decade or so, but then he went back and read it. "And it was so boring. It's like, 'OK enough already. Let me go watch some paint dry.'"

3) Celebrate the stuff that matters, rather than the stuff you're supposed to celebrate

Barr has mostly ditched holidays and birthdays, but he does celebrate Jan. 17, when sunrise goes back to what it was on the solstice.

"To me that's a big deal because I get up so early in the morning that the lighter it gets, earlier, makes my day a lot easier," he said.

He also celebrates when he gets back from skiing 8 miles each way into the town of Crested Butte for supplies.

"Town can be kind of stressful," he said. "So I save my favorite movies and I save my favorite meals and I save things to do so when I ski back from town and I'm home, it's like, 'Woohoo!' Big party time."

4) Embrace the grumpiness

Sometimes, Barr said, it's kind of satisfying to be grumpy about something.

"I do get sick and tired of snow but I like kidding about it. I live in an area where people live for snow, but I'm not that carried away with it, so I like being grumpy about it," Barr said. "You get older and you start saying 'OK, I'm not going to necessarily be pleasant when I don't feel pleasant.'"

These days, Barr is feeling especially unpleasant.

"Ironically I have been in contact with one person in the last nine days. That was eight days ago," he said.

And then the guy got sick.

"I don't know what he has, but for the last week, I've been sitting around wondering If I'm going to get it," Barr said. (Another week has passed since this interview.)

Which brings us to his final tip...

5) Use movies as a mood adjuster

"If I'm really stressed I might watch an animated movie, something cute and funny that takes my mind off it. If I'm depressed, I can reverse that," he said.

"My tastes are reasonably fluff-oriented," he said. Movies like “Pandemic” or “The Shining?” Hard pass. "‘The Princess Bride’ is my pretty much favorite movie. I like Hugh Grant stuff, like ‘Love Actually,’ ‘Notting Hill.’ "

He also recommends Bollywood movies like “Om Shanti Om,” “Bride and Prejudice” and “English Vinglish.”

"They're colorful. They're pretty, there's good music and stuff," he said. "I have a list of favorites that I'll only watch under certain circumstances. I save them for that."

Here are the 357 movies at the top of his list.

About 20 years ago, Barr added a movie room onto his cabin. It has a projector, carpeted walls and three chairs.

"I have a nice chair for me and I have two other chairs with the idea that I'd invite people up," he said. "And I never do."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2020 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.