A group of rafters who spent the last 25 days camping on the Grand Canyon's Colorado River, didn't realize how serious the coronavirus pandemic was until they returned.
The group of more than a dozen rafters left on February 19, when Wuhan, China, was on lockdown, and a Level 1 travel advisory had been issued for parts of Asia.
When they returned on March 14, they learned that people across the US were practicing social distancing to avoid the spread of COVID-19, and that thousands had been infected.
One told Insider being away from civilization on their trip prepared him for social distancing.
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A group of rafters who spent the last 25 days camping on the Grand Canyon's Colorado River emerged to a confusing world completely enveloped by the coronavirus when they finished their trip on Sunday.
The group of more than a dozen rafters, who initially told their story to the New York Times, set out on the trip on February 19. Their phones were off as the novel coronavirus spread across the United States, causing a new normal in which people hoarded toilet paper and were told to stay indoors indefinitely.
Since the virus first started spreading, COVID-19 has infected more than 235,00 people worldwide, and at least 9,700 people have died. In the US, 165 people have died from the disease.
Mason Thomas, a 29-year-old from Rancho Cordova, California, who was on the trip, told Insider that he was paying attention to the virus before he left because his mother and brother both have health problems.
The novel coronavirus became a pandemic while the group was on the river
When the crew left, on February 19, Wuhan, China, had been put under quarantine, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a "Level 1" travel advisory to parts of Asia, meaning travelers should "practice usual precaution."
But when Thomas and his friends finished the trip, they were met by a rafting company employee in Flagstaff, Arizona, who gave them an update on the world: the novel coronavirus was now a pandemic, Italy was on lockdown, supermarket shelves were empty, sports leagues had been suspended, the stock market had plummeted, and people were advised to stay indoors.
The adventure group turned on their phones, and there was immediate confusion.
"Why would a respiratory virus cause people to buy all the toilet paper? How did this get out of control like this?" Thomas recalled thinking. "It's disorienting. So much to process."
Isolation on the Colorado River prepared the rafters for social distancing.
Thomas said that being on the Colorado River away from most of society, "prepared us to continue in that fashion," when arriving back home and practicing social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"But it has been very difficult not being able to see the people I've missed, and if I do, not being able to hug them or anything," he said.
Zach Edler, one of Thomas' fellow rafters, told The New York Times, that he had no regrets about taking the trip.
"Some people wouldn't like this but I loved that blissful ignorance. It allows you to enjoy the beauty of life." For him, the last week was the rarest form of adventure — precious stolen days to postpone a dire reality," Edler told The Times. "We had so much fun. We lived in the moment. We were some of the only people in the world who had no idea. I liked it better then."
Thomas said since getting back, he's been trying to reconnect with friends as best he can, listen to podcasts, and read the news.