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A Road Trip Across the Southwest in the Time of Coronavirus

[It is frustrating when you are someplace this beautiful and it is overcast. I think I would have camped out waiting for that western blue sky.]

June 13, 2020

A relevant article by Mark Childress published in today's WSJ.

On a Tuesday in mid-May, after New Orleans relaxed its pandemic rules enough to let dentists resume practice, I went in for my checkup. When the masked-and-gowned technician brushed against my arm I realized she was the first human being to touch me in eight weeks. For some reason, this gave me a terrible urge to get out of town.

I needed a road trip. Couldn’t talk anyone into riding shotgun, but who cares? Alone on the road is no lonelier than alone at home, and the scenery is better. Coming from a city that was an early hot spot, I’d been totally isolating myself, so I was pretty sure I wasn’t a spreader. The mayor lifted her stay-at-home order just in time to keep me from going pure crazy.

It’s an odd fact of pandemic life that you find yourself longing for human contact while wishing for a place where you can be miles from anybody.

I flew to San Francisco on an airplane full of people with masks trying not to breathe. We staggered out of the plane wondering what happened to the idea of leaving the middle seats empty. The only guy who didn’t wear a mask stepped onto the rental-car bus just as the doors closed behind him. He sneezed without covering his mouth. I sat in my mask watching his droplets fill the bus. I held my breath for seven minutes, a world record. I squirted hand sanitizer onto every exposed part of my body.

I rented a car and started driving. I wanted to go to the parts of the country where nobody is. First, you have to get through California. The south shore of Lake Tahoe on a sunny Saturday was crowded with people who, I’m guessing, just had to get out of the house, even if only in the car. Like me.

I stopped at a Safeway to buy survival snacks in case I was stranded in the Nevada desert. Everybody in the store was wearing a mask. California has many kinds of jerky.

The road took me out of California to the busy areas around Carson City, Nev., like the town of Fallon where “Top Gun” pilots fly up and down long desert valleys. I felt the pandemic lifting up as the civilization thinned out. Where there are no people there is no infection. It’s an odd fact of pandemic life that you find yourself longing for human contact while wishing for a place where you can be miles from anybody.

Shortly past Fallon, a sign said “Next Gas 80 Miles” and brother, they weren’t kidding. Not only no gas but no tree, no blade of grass, no shack, no fence, no nothing. Just open land and space and air. I stopped the car in the middle of the road. You can see 10 miles in each direction and I saw that I was alone. The silent emptiness was glorious. I turned off the car and stood there taking in deep breaths of unpopulated air.

I detoured half a mile to see the ancient petroglyphs, and 10 miles to see the earthquake faults. I chewed jerky and listened to Rachmaninoff and Bessie Smith. I did not wear a mask in the car. I spewed my own droplets, but only upon myself.

For the next three days I suffered every symptom of Covid-19 in my head. Thanks, maskless sneezer on the bus! Scratchy throat. Pounding headache. Is that shortness of breath? (Yes, it is—look at the sign—I’m at an altitude of 9,000 feet.) Is that twinge in my side a result of too much jerky, or the first sign of the virus that will take me down in some godforsaken saloon of a hospital where no one will care when I die?

The first night in Ely, Nev., capital of the middle of nowhere, the motel desk lady wore her mask as she told me where to find takeout Mexican food, in the back of the casino. The dowdy little casino was silent but the takeout business was thriving.

[I've tried this shot out of the passenger window. Hit or miss.]

The next day was Utah. Utah is blessed with more scenery than anywhere else. Almost every part of Utah looks like a national park. There were no people anywhere until I got near Zion National Park, near Springdale, in southwestern Utah. Unbeknownst to me, Zion was one of the first national parks to reopen. Suddenly it was a busy summer weekend; carloads of people stopped at every turnout, snapping pics.

I rolled on through. I stopped once in a while for gas or a stretch. Utah just keeps giving up the scenery. I spent that night in a Holiday Inn in Grand Junction, Colo. On this trip, I avoided any place with the slightest charm, and stuck to the chain motels that followed CDC protocols for sanitation. Every place I stayed was wildly oversanitized, with nice, careful employees, and the rooms almost completely empty. Also, I brought my own pillow. I wish you could open motel windows for fresh air, but I felt safe and didn’t get sick. (Knock wood.)

I stuck to two-lanes. Got off the interstate in California and stayed off until Texas. In the small towns along U.S. 50, only the gas stations were open, and a little supermarket now and then.

The silent emptiness was glorious. I turned off the car and stood there taking in deep breaths of unpopulated air.

The next day, snowcapped mountains again: Colorado. I had planned my route to include the excitement of driving the Million Dollar Highway. I like driving mountain roads. I have driven terrifying roads in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Peru and Italy. Let me tell you, the Million Dollar Highway is a winner. Going south, you’re on the outside of the curves. I had to stop in the middle of the road just to calm myself and breathe. I would not let myself look over the several-thousand-foot drop-off with no guardrails. Boom boom boom—well, at least my heart is still working. No Covid-19 in this heart, no siree!

I clutched the wheel so tightly that part of my knuckles are still in Colorado. After a couple of hours of pulse pounding, the miles to Durango and on to Santa Fe were relaxing. For these days I just drove and drove. I took the long way around. I made unnecessary detours to avoid larger towns. I stopped once to look at a sparkly thing in the road. It turned out not to be gold.

I kept thinking I would find somewhere to eat, but the few places that were open looked too crowded. I knew when I set out I wouldn’t be making this trip for the fine dining. I did have a perfectly delicious sausage biscuit from McDonalds because there was nothing else within 30 miles. I ate convenience-store snacks. Mostly jerky, the pioneer treat.

At night, I tried to find a nice dinner, but the places that were supposed to be open were closed. Three nights in a row I wound up with the same indistinguishable Mexican food in an aluminum takeout container, eaten in the motel room with my cheerful dining companion, Anderson Cooper.

Everybody in California wore masks. In Nevada, a few people did. In Utah, nobody. In Colorado, everybody. In New Mexico, about half. In Texas, nobody nowhere. Other than that, I can report that things were the same all over: quiet.

From Santa Fe, the rest of New Mexico rolled out attractively, mesa and range, looking like its postcards, right up to the state line when suddenly it becomes Texas, and all interest ceases. The land flattens out and loses geological appeal. From the Texas border to New Orleans was a 14-hour marathon interstate run with no place to stop. Finally it was Louisiana at last and it was green, with big trees, a swamp, more swamp. New Orleans. Good to be home. I went into my house, took off my mask. I flipped on the TV. The pandemic’s still going, and people are mad at each other. But I don’t feel so trapped any more. America is a big place. Big enough for all of us, even on days when it sure doesn’t feel like that.

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