NEWPORT COAST, Calif. -- Imagine rafting down the Colorado River for 25 days, with no contact from the outside world -- only to return and discover that a deadly pandemic has swept the planet while you were off the grid.
"The first message I get is from my mom and she says, you need to call me now," Mason Thomas told Eyewitness News.
Mason and his girlfriend Kate Condino, of Newport Coast, were among a group of more than a dozen friends who left civilization in mid-February to raft 280 miles through the Grand Canyon. No cellphone service, no outside contact.
"Everything is magical, beautiful down there," said Mason. "Every turn, every corner shows you something new. It's just absolute paradise."
"Like a big playground, nature's playground," said Kate. "It feels like you've gone back in time, surreal."
On March 21, their great adventure came to an end with a dose of harsh reality. They paddled to shore for the last time and faced this question from the first other human being they'd encountered in nearly one month.
"He goes, OK ,have you had any contact with the outside world?" said Mason. "And we all just kind of shrugged and said no, not really. And he goes, 'OK' and kind of rolls his eyes and sighs. 'The world is going crazy, you've got a lot to hear. The stock market crashed, toilet paper is out everywhere, Italy closed its borders, the NBA isn't doing games anymore.' And it was like, whoa!"
At first the group of friends thought the man might be pulling their leg, but soon reality set in.
"I remember just being so shocked to hear one of our friends say, 'Oh, my girlfriend says we need to pick up toilet paper, beans and rice before we get back to Durango,'" said Kate. "And it just felt like a completely unreal situation, like something from a movie. We expected the world to be normal when we returned."
Nothing is normal for now. Kate, a senior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has no regrets about their 25 days off the grid.
"It feels like stolen time, essentially," she said, "like you stole this extra moment from the world and so that, I think, is pretty cool."
Coronavirus: California woman, boyfriend learned of pandemic after returning from 25-day river-rafting trip in Grand Canyon