To look at us, you’d have thought we were winter camping somewhere up in the backcountry along the Canadian border. The scene was shrouded in darkness — an early November evening in Duluth. An east wind was sweeping across the greatest lake with an attitude. In the glow of our fire, we hunkered in multiple layers of insulated clothing.

Just a rare dinner with friends in the COVID-19 era.

Six of us — three couples — had assembled outside our friends’ home for a chili supper, just to be together, just to celebrate the end of the day. We sat in well-spaced matrimonial units — two here, two there, two more over there, each couple well over 6 feet from the next. We were sheltered from the wind’s bite by the house, a high fence, a few cords of oak and a well-rigged tarp.

With the temperature in the low 40s, I was wearing most of the same clothes I’d wear to go ice fishing. Expedition-weight long johns. Multiple layers of wool, fleece and down. Insulated boots. Stocking cap. We all looked a little like frumpy toadstools, but we were warm.

The fire was dancing in our friends’ new acquisition, a wood-burning portable campfire unit. It looked like half a metal garbage can with some ventilation holes near its base. The flames licked into the night. They looked good and felt even better.

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Nobody was peeling layers off as the evening unfolded, and you wanted to eat your chili before it reached room temperature, so to speak.

We sat there for an hour or so telling stories, our laughter swirling up into the darkness with the heat from the fire. Would we have rather been inside, away from the elements? Sure. But this is what it has come to in the time of the coronavirus.

Gathering this way required more than just layers of wool and synthetic microfibers. It required some forethought in how the food would be dished up — self-service, one person at a time. It required restraint — no passing of plates, no huddling of bodies over the food table.

But it required more than that. It demanded a reasonable trust that all of us were being smart elsewhere in our lives, limiting our interactions, wearing masks when appropriate, avoiding all indoor gatherings. While none of us would want to admit it, each of us around the fire that night was part of a demographic for which a COVID-19-infection recovery comes with lower odds.

Granted, this is getting old, coping with the pandemic. It is no fun, or at least a lot less fun than life used to be. And yet, our little group was among the fortunate ones — nobody working, few obligations, plenty of time for Zoom meet-ups.

The pandemic is surely harder for families with young kids, trying to keep the fun-meter high while also being safe. It’s hard for all of us who want to see our kids or grandkids but cannot. It’s hard for those with loved ones in assisted living. It’s hard for business owners and employees and teachers and students.

And, especially in these recent days, it must be a kind of hell for health-care professionals who are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients and at greater risk of contracting the virus themselves.

We were mindful of all that as we silently watched the flames dancing into the sky. It was good to be together, even for this scaled-down slice of socialization.

When the evening’s chill began to find its way through our layers, we called it a night. No handshakes. No hugs. Just the firelit faces of friends smiling through the darkness of the pandemic.

Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at