EAU CLAIRE — When Leo Thiner left the Hawaiian Islands to visit relatives in the Midwest, it was supposed to be a short holiday visit followed by a return to his home in the tropical paradise of Maui.
Little did he know that he would be stranded in Eau Claire for the nastiest subzero stretch of a Wisconsin winter.
Thiner, 62, who grew up in southwestern Minnesota and lived in Eau Claire throughout the 1990s, is no stranger to harsh northern winters, but he thought he’d left them behind for good when he moved to Hawaii in 1999.
“I haven’t even been in a cold climate since 2013, so it’s been kind of a culture shock,” he said in a recent telephone interview.
Thiner’s plan had been to visit family in Minnesota and a sister in Fitchburg and then fly home on Jan. 6.
But as his return date approached, Thiner said friends back in Hawaii all advised him to avoid traveling because of spiraling COVID-19 death rates and the emergence of new, even more highly contagious variants of the coronavirus. Reluctantly, he agreed and elected to hunker down in Eau Claire.
“I just decided I’d be better off to isolate myself and stay put,” Thiner said. “I was content for about six weeks, but then that cold spell set in.”
Thiner, an artist, has spent the time laying low, painting and bouncing among hotels, a shelter and the homes of friends from his previous stint in Eau Claire. He gets around town on foot or by taxi.
Unfortunately, he said, it appears that more people in Eau Claire than in Hawaii are not taking the pandemic seriously and refusing to wear masks in public.
He noted that Maui turned into somewhat of a ghost island early on in the pandemic when tourism almost completely dried up, although that crucial industry to the Hawaiian economy is slowly bouncing back with plenty of safeguards in place.
On the bright side, the cost of living in the Chippewa Valley is much lower than in Hawaii, so the unexpectedly long layover isn’t forcing him to go broke.
His revised plan is to fly back to Hawaii on March 3 — assuming he is able to satisfy a prerequisite for visiting his adopted home state by providing proof of an approved negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before landing in the islands.
Even though temperatures are expected to return to the 30s in Eau Claire this week, Thiner is eager to say aloha to palm trees, sunny skies and highs around 80 and to shed the winter coat and replace it with the board shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops that he was wearing when he arrived in Rochester, Minnesota.
“It just becomes part of your being,” Thiner said. “I miss the ocean, I miss the environment, I miss being on the beach painting and I miss my friends at sunset on the beach having a glass of wine.”